Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Noah's Castle

Another Christmas has been and gone and I have once more resisted writing about Too Many Christmas Trees. I am sure I will write about it at some point, I'm just rather wary of not doing it justice - although I suppose I can always return to it in the future. Instead I'm going to write about Noah's Castle, although I'm not sure I can do that justice either.
Noah's Castle features an actor who appears in many of the TV series of the era I write about - Simon Gipps-Kent. There are a couple of reasons he hasn't appeared here yet: the first is that he was type-cast in the role of upper class youth in the sort of time-travelling period drama which has never really appealed to me. The other is that up until recently I had only come across him in The Tomorrow People. I haven't yet managed to sum up what I would want to say about that show in a blog post, because I'm rather ambivalent about it, both about the show itself and I'm not really sure what I think about it.
Then recently I say Gipps-Kent in the much-maligned Dr Who adventures The Horns of Nimon, which I will definitely be posting about here at some point because I think it's a good thing despite the strong criticism it gets on the internet. That caused me to google Gipps-Kent and read some of the more bizarre things written about him on the internet. The actualy provable facts of his death in the 1980s seem to be that he died of an overdose of the morphine he was prescribed for back pain and also was having difficulty finding work because by this time he was a grown man and had rather become typecast as a young actor. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by the overdose rather than suicide - this would be usual here as coroners don't usually rule suicide unless somebody leaves a note. None of this explains some of the more fantastic things about Gipps-Kent on the internet. Such as that he had been groomed for abuse by the large number of paedophiles working in TV in the 1970s. This could of course happened. There are even rumours that he was murdered and these things have all been 'investigated' including psychically. The more fanciful notions aside, Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is apparent from early in his career and it is such a pity he died as young as he did.
Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is shown by the fact that despite being typecast he could still appear in wildly different shows and give a convincing performance. Noah's Castle is the sort of difficult, complex TV set in a difficult setting and with complex moral issues which is the exact opposite of the sort of comforting escapist TV I tend to go for.
In fact Noah's Castle is so far from comforting escapist TV that I feel at the time the original book was released, 1975 (the show broadcasted in 1980) it would probably have been seen as yet another stark warning of what was on the horizon. I have written here over and again about the fear of society's imminent collapse which was so prevalent in the 1970s. My own mother (admittedly an extreme example) hoarded tinned food and had an escape plan actually written out. This may be seen as an over-reaction but the scenario embodied in Noah's Castle was the natural outcome of the 1960s optimistic dream turning sour. In Noah's Castle people respond in the ways you would expect them to. My own wonder is at the level of altruism shown. Some people want everyone to be fed and for food to be shared out fairly. Some other people just want to look after number one. My own opinion is that the more common human reaction would be to look after oneself.
And Gipps-Kent's character Barry (the elder son of the family at the heart of the show) is at the heart of the moral dilemna in Noah's Castle. The problem is that his father is what can only be described as an odious character. Odious. Awful. Horrible. At a time of national emergency he looks out solely for number one, including illegally hoarding food when people are starving, and Gipps-Kent's character is firmly on the opposite side from his father. In fact much of the point of this show is the fact that the family at the centre of the show is at war with itself. The conflict within the family mirrors the greater societal conflict and the ethical issues involved, and allows the issues to be depicted in as it were a microcosm. Do we side with the father's duty-driven tunnel vision of looking after his own family regardless or the son's more compassion-driven understanding that we need to consider the whole picture? Ironic that the son has the more nuanced vision here and the father's own position is what ultimately gets him into trouble.
This show has also revived the discussion I had with myself recently on here about the two sorts of literature meant for children. Noah's Castle was intended as a young adult novel but to my mind is so incredibly worthy that I certainly wouldn't have wanted to read it myself. I have also commented on here before that in my opinion I don't understand the more harrowing TV shows, which can hardly be described as entertaining. Documentaries are one thing but the more harrowing drama as a rule is something I don't understand.
Yet perhaps I do, as a result of watching Noah's Castle. I have realised that I have been considering these shows anachronistically, without considering the eyes of the time. Surely reading Noah's Castle in the 1970s would have resulted in further activism and - surely - a relief that even though the world was in a mess it still wasn't as bad as it is shown in Noah's Castle. I suppose Noah's Castle therefore really comes out of the same stable as the 1970s series Survivors - they are both chronicles of what could happen, both alerting current fears and also providing a reassurance that we are not there yet.
I'm a bit sorry actually that I've thought to complare Noah's Castle with Survivors because frankly it doesn't look that good in comparison. I feel in Survivors the likely consequences of a disaster have been accurately thought through to their natural conclusions. When you watch Survivors it has the painfulness of so much TV at the time but there is also a real feeling of adventure and hope about it. Survivors is harrowing because there is no escape from the situation, but there is a message of the triumph of the human spirit.
The comparison with Survivors has made me put my finger on what I think is wrong with Noah's Castle. The show is supposed to be set at a time of national emergency. But I'm frankly not seeing anyone starving. I know that sounds terrible, but there is a sense of unreality about what I'm seeing in Noah's Castle. We all know that through necessity often, many people live very close to the edge of their resources, and so people can end up literally homeless after just missing a couple of paydays. In reality the sort of inflation and conflict seen in Noah's Castle would result very quickly in riots (we see them), homelessness, poverty. These things are almost referred to rather than depicted. I don't see anyone looking hungry. I don't see the kind of desperation you see in people who really have no resources. Why do people still have petrol to run cars? Why are people wearing the latest 1980s fashions? In my humble opinion the show just looks way too prosperous for the situation it is depicting. Once you see it like that Noah's Castle loses all credibility.
On the other hand the show is wonderful atmospheric viewing for people of a certain age. The cars are of their age. There is a scene in which the police turn up at a riot in a Rover 3500. The joke would have been that that car alone was responsible for many a failed arrest because the police unwisely invested in a car which was notoriously unreliable. Right at the start of the first episode we see a mark 3 Ford Cortina and my dad had one of them.
In the manner of the time Noah's Castle alternates between location and rather-obviously location-bound filming. Pacing is of the time. Some actors are familiar faces from other shows - I know that nobody else seems to share my dislike of this and of course I'm being my usual contradictory self by starting this blog post about a familiar face. The show is well known for its haunting theme tune and incidental music.
On balance, perhaps Noah's Castle is best not seen as the record of a national emergency. In fact watching it in the wake of brexit in the UK is frankly rather frightening because it could well be that that is what happens next, as those of us who voted remain suspected would happen. The context for the show's telling of the story is one boy's adolescent conflict of identity and idealogy with his father. Perhaps this show is best seen as that so that the cracks in its surface don't show up so much.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Professionals: The Rack

I ventured over the sea to the US in my last post (and thank you to Mitchell Hadley for commenting on this and bringing it to the attention of the TV blogosphere) so of course I've come scurrying back to Blighty this time. The Professionals is a show which I have tended not to write about here, despite it being one of my favourites. For a start I remember watching it with my dad, which is enough reason for it to be favourite, and it is also redolent of the clothes, cars and life of my childhood. It seems like it does have a cult following on the internet - the following just doesn't seem to have passed over into the cult TV blogosphere.
I have a theory about its (relative) lack of popularity. Much 1970s TV suffers from being made in the 1970s. The times were awful. The fashions were laughable. The social mores of the time were ridiculous (many a time Bodie and Doyle begin a conversation with a woman with the words 'Look, love...'). As just one example, the four CI5 cars which take the personnel to their sting are all Fords. The only decent one is a Mark 1 Capri. My godmother's husband had one of those - it was a sexy car when it was going but tended to spend more time off the road than it did on it. If you look closely at the trousers in this one, everyone seems to be wearing ones which, if not actual flares, are rather flared.
Most important of all, another aspect of this show which places it firmly in the 1970s - allegations of police brutality - are a hallmark of 1970s detective/police shows. Do I even need to mention The Sweeney? The sense of discomfort that 1970s policing brings to any British person at this length of time is exactly the sense of discomfort this show instils in the viewer. The arrests at the beginning of this episode are based on one single tip-off, and it is interesting that Cowley says, 'We haven't found anything yet, but we will.' He just knows that these men are guilty already. This kind of thing is in my opinion the reason these shows get less attention - it's too close to the bone. We all know that in the 1970s our police had a habit of randomly arresting people they didn't like. If anyone's unaware of the history, a google search will show a real life example in the imprisonment of the Birmingham Six. The kind of questioning associated with the police of the age is very much what is alleged to have happened in this case.
And yet, in TV terms, The Professionals attracted some really big names. The subject who illustrates this post is actually none other than the actor Michael Billington who played in a Bond film once and screen tested as Bond numerous times. He will also be familiar to readers from the Gerry Anderson show UFO and several other films and TV shows. In the manner of the time, the chest hair as it is here, was frequently on show - and frankly how much hair can one man carry? Here he does a wonderful performance as the frankly deranged Coogan.
There is a painful question at the heart of this episode. How far is it OK to go when we 'know' we are right? It is made even more uncomfortable by the fact that both sides are not exactly playing according to the rules. Coogan Junior dies after being hit by Doyle - the fact that it was severely provoked is much of the point. The Coogans' solicitor is obviously corrupt. What is actually coming under the spotlight here - as if made clear when CI5 is described as part of the government - is the establishment and the fact it makes up its own rules. As do the baddies it patrols. This is not a recipe which inclines to easy viewing. Watching The Rack is hard work, and both sides are actually on the rack at various times in the show.
The uncomfortable premise of this episode is unfortunately also the cause of its shortcomings. Once there is a death it is very apparent how the episode is going to proceeed. With both sides operating 'outside the law' we are obviously in for an uncomfortable view, and given that this is episode three of series two we only have to look in next week's Radio Times to know that CI5 will come out OK. We just know that the Coogans are the baddies and there is a sense in which most of this episode is just stretching out the premise to the obvious end. The rather slick ending is another common criticism.
Visually this episode is superb. Settings and acting are all wonderful, and I literally cannot criticise it production-wise at all, and that isn't something I often say about a show. The dialogue sparkles, it is wonderful. My favourite line is when Cowley says to Miss Mather that if she wants a seat she could sit on her knee.
To summarise - this is a show which encapsulates the uncomfortable world of the 1970s which can make it uncomfortable viewing. It is superbly produced despite being let down by a frankly rather obvious ending, which Bodie just happens to guess during a car journey. Nonetheless superb viewing and a very good example of The Professionals.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Get Smart: Casablanca

weeks ago I posted here about a first-series episode of Get Smart, and the post seemed very popular, at least to judge by the comments. The way I discovered that the series was available was this: I saw the whole boxed set in the HMV shop round the corner from me and it stirred a memory of the show. I simply had to have seen it because it seemed so familiar, but I had little recollection of it, so I only bought the series 1 set online as a taster to see if I woud like it again. I did and as my Christmas present to myself have duly bought the whole series as a boxed set (in region 2 format, obviously). I also managed to get it on ebay for £20 less than the normal retail price which is around the £50 mark. The set includes all 138 episodes on 25 discs, with 8 hours of bonus footage and features. I see from the box that the run time is 3964 minutes, which is 66 hours of Get Smart. I've started early but I don't think I will have exhausted it by Christmas day!
Some of the online reviews of the whole series of Get Smart imply that the quality went downhill as the series progressed. I can't speak for that yet, but my own impression in series 2 is that the show feels much more reassured, as if it has found its feet. I am particularly delighted that some of the series 2 episodes parody films and other media.
This parody of other media is something repeatedly found in cult TV. The obvious example is the way The Avengers parodies famous films - while as it were Avengerifying them. The other obvious example, since this post is about Get Smart, is that Get Smart is itself a parody of The Man from UNCLE, which is itself a parody of the espionage/Bond genre of films and TV so popular in the 1960s. The parodying has come full circle with the ongoing series Archer parodying many of the set phrases of Get Smart...and loving it.
Of course this Get Smart episode isn't really a parody of Casablanca, at least as far as plot goes. Rather it contains the things that we all remember (or think we do) about Casablanca, thus giving material for the real film buffs to criticise it. But I think that's the point... In fact if you carry the fact that this episode of Get Smart is an imperfect parody of a famous film, you get the real point of it. Get Smart has Get Smartified Casablanca, by getting its parody subtly wrong. Let's face it, if it was spot on, it wouldn't be an episode of Get Smart, would it?
In fact the point of this one is rather the fact that Smart is hopeless and that hopelessness extends to everything he does. The mere fact that his boss is desperate to send him on holiday to Canada indicates that everyone can see he is hopeless. This mystery kicks off with a man he is supposed to be guarding getting murdered in front of his very eyes, and his hopelessness continues throughout the episode. The wonder is that he and 99 between them actually manage to work out who the Choker is. The wonder is that Smart manages not to recognise 99 in her blond incarnation...
Which brings me nicely to the high point of this episode, which is the way 99 is turned into a blond nightclub singer and wows the club with her singing. The next highest point is Smart talking like Bogart, making this episode more of a character impersonation than a parody. I love that while 99 suspects that the man who looks like Smart is actually Smart, Smart has no suspicion of who 99 really is at all.
One weak point is that I think the episode ends rather quickly with the easy plot trick that Smart had a neck protector thing on and pretended to be dead so that he could shoot the Choker while he is trying to choke 99. But then I don't think it's reasonable to expect Get Smart to work too well as a straight espionage show...as a Get Smartified parody of some half-remembered high points from a famous film, though, I love it.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Avengers: The Positive-Negative Man

How have I managed to get this far without writing about this Avengers episode? Perhaps I had better start by disclosing that I have a ridiculous bias and this Avengers is one of my favourites. In fact I think it may even encapsulate best the Avengers thing for me.
The whole episode is set firmly in Avengerland for a start. This of course was necessary because some of the more pantomimic elements of the plot would be incredible if seen against the real world of the 1960s. I say pantomimic because while there are times when the subject matter of this programme is treated very seriously, and would even be very distressing if the events of this episode happened in reality, they are treated in a way which can hardly be taken seriously. For example the opening shots of the man who hits the wall so hard it leaves his imprint in the plaster. The scene is as if a comic strip has come to life: the man dies and yet we see it. It is like the scenes in a Tom and Jerry cartoon where Tom gets hit on the head with a frying pan or something: it is a deadly thing to happen but is entertaining because of the way it is treated.
I love the way Avengerland is seen in this episode as rather different from how it normally looks. The contrast from the usual tidy caricature of Britain is provided by the untidy and derelict Risely Dale research station. The location used for this was the British Rail centre in Watford, which by this time managed to look so bad because it had been used as a railway centre in the Second World War. Risely Dale manages not to intrude the real world of dereliction and the post-industrial lanscape so common at this time, by still conforming to the premises of Avengerland. It isn't quite real, it isn't really populated, and of course there is a red telephone box just outside the fence which still functions and allows Mankin to call Steed.
I equally love Cynthia,  the Ministry private secretary, whose ultimate ambition is to be a Button Lip - exactly the sort of character who populates Avengerland and of course she provides a sex interest for Steed when she reveals she has lots of keys hidden in her garter. Although I'm not a great one for intruding real sex into the world of the Avengers - regular readers will know that I prefer to think that it is more implied in the later series - I do like to think that Steed would have, er, got to know her better. If only because she was so impresed when he produced his red card. I even love the holes punched in the red card, indicating that it was a part of the red hot security technology of the time and would have had to be fed into a Computer. In true flippant Steed style, he wonderfully spoils the good impression his red card has made on her, when she tells him that all the confidential war records are kept where they are, by asking her if there have been many confidential wars!
There is more of The Avengers's usual understated sexiness in Mrs Peel's corny jokes with Hayworth and the sexual language he uses when he goes to her apartment to trap her. And of course we have a scene of Mrs Peel tied up and yet still rebutting the power the men have over her. There is a very real way in which this encapsulates the sexual dynamic of The Avengers. Steed as the dirty old man, and Mrs Peel as the apparent sex object who is still in charge really.
You will no doubt notice that I'm not really commenting on the plot here at all. Another of the things I like best about this episode is the utterly improbable plot. It reflects very badly on The Ministry that they have stopped research on something which we can see happening in front of our own eyes on the telly. I think the reason I'm not talking so much about the plot is simply that what I like best about this episode is the Avengerland atmosphere of it. Without this being an episode of The Avengers, I suppose the plot would be a rather creaky sci-fi film. Add in a few diabolical masterminds and it becomes an eccentric confection of weirdness and escapism. The plot is in fact one of the weaknesses of this episode, and in fact is a major area of criticism in other people's reviews of this episode.
With great difficulty I have found something to criticise in this show. There is a scene about half way through where Steed is being chased by the blue Morris Minor van of death. Unfortunately there is a bit where they pass some builders by the side of the road, and one of them turns round to stare at a vintage Bentley speeding past them. It is unfortunate that this is the only occasion (that I am aware of) where we see the reaction of the modern world of the 1960s to the world of The Avengers when they come face to face with it. Of course the reaction implies that the man was seeing something very unusual - exactly the reason the Avengers usually avoided any real world situations. Incidentall I wonder if Mrs Peel would have approved of his pectorals, since she judged Hayworth's far from perfect and certainly wouldn't have anything good to say about mine.
Overall I am quite surprised that this episode doesn't get rave reviews from the fans. My own opinion is that while it has a rather weak plot, that doesn't matter because the point of this one is the Avemgers-ness of it.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Ghost Squad: The Green Shoes

Before The Avengers. The Avengers. After The Avengers. That is largely my own description of the landscape of 1960s British TV. Regular readers will of course know that I see The Avengers as a high point, and everything else is rather an anticlimax, or under the show's influence, or imitating it. It is for this reason that I tend not to venture into the world before The Avengers very often (except in film terms - most of the films I watch are pre-Avengers). Ghost Squad is thus a rare departure for me - although still bang up my street because it is still an ITC show, which studio produced the majority of the rest of my favourite viewing.
Ghost Squad was never really going to appear here, until I came across the box set in a charity shop in Stratford upon Avon this week and took that as the universe's message to me. I'd read about it, of course and it tends to come up in my recommendations on Amazon, but I'd never really taken a fancy to it. I'm trying to put my finger on why, because actually I don't think think it is that different in scope to most other ITC shows - adventure, espionage, the classic formula.
What decided me that I had to write about this particular episode here was the scene in the nuclear reactor. Of course here we are revisiting the theme so common to Atomic Age TV, that technology is wonderful and dangerous at the same time. I can even more specifically describe what decided me to write about this episode - it was the safety costumes worn by the workers and visitors in the nuclear reactor. They look like inflated plastic bags, cut to the workers' size. I wondered how the actors breathed through these suits, although they are clearly inflated so there is obviously air in them. I also wondered how they stopped the suits steaming up from the actors' breath - such are the peripheral things I tend to think about when I watch TV. As usual I also wondered what wearing one of those suits would feel like, and came to the conclusion that it wouldn't be much fun.
Otherwise the nuclear reactor's security is the key to that part of the show, and this episode is very much a classic tale of east-west espionage in the Cold War. The Other Side are after our nuclear secrets and the Ghost Squad is responsible for recapturing the vanished radioactive material. Again this is a plot which is familiar from other shows of this age - I'm sure either Department S or possibly The Champions have an episode with a very similar plot. It is the fear of technology being misused by diabolical masterminds, which we find in a an 'unreal' sense in The Avengers, here writ large and very much in the real world.
Except it isn't the real world as we know it in 2017. This is very obviously a different world. The up to date technology looks marvellous outdated. All the men wear suits. The cars are wonderful. There is a maker of ballet shoes who makes them by hand and all his customers have their own lasts. Does that happen nowadays? I have absolutely no idea, naturally. The ballet slippers are the rather obvious clue as to what has happened to the purloined radioactive material. Well before the Polish Pope, Chernobyl, and Perestroika, this show really does depict a different Europe, one divided down the middle. It is easy to forget how the other side of the iron curtain was seen before things opened up, and this show rather brings it back. I had forgotten how the arts - here ballet - were one of few things which passed over the iron curtain, for example. And no doubt at the time, this show would have seemed bang up to date, with such things as a message being received on an airoplane. The sophisticated setting is further enhanced by the high class worlds of science and ballet in which this episode takes place.
The predictability of the conclusion is of course a plot weakness in this show. Once the Ghost Squad visit the ballet shoe maker's shop it is fairly obvious what will happen. While this is portrayed as a dangerous and risky mission - it is very obvious what will happen. It is a personal opinion but of course I'm not keen on the familiar actors who appear in a number of shows, who make an appearance here. The point is to watch the show, not to think about where you have seen the actors before. As I say, this is a personal dislike and other people won't dislike it.
Otherwise Ghost Squad is very much of its era, production-wise. I particularly like the way the studio shots of the ballet taking place on the 'stage' cut to stock shots of a huge audience. We notice the difference in film quality starkly now: I still can't work out whether people would even have noticed at the time, or just accepted it as the technology of the time. I like the restoration that's been done on this show enormously - the picture is crisp throughtout and the sound perfect. I have a suspicion that the available episodes in the Network box set may not be the whole of the original run, but the're still a good taste of what this show would have been like.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Avengers: Quick-Quick Slow Death

Let me get two things out of the way before I start on this actual show. The first is that I have been watching Honor Blackman play a probation officer in the show of the same name. The only reason the show won't get a post here is that it isn't really my sort of thing - but if you like shows with legal-type settings which are note police procedurals or court room dramas as such, you may very well like it.
The second thing is that I prepared for this blog post by *listening* to the episode rather than watching it, and what I listened to was the version produced by Springbok Radio in South Africa in the 1970s. I have all the remaining episodes of that show which I downloaded from the website about it and they are jealously backed up on two laptops, my google drive and a CD-Rom: they're not getting away from me anytime soon. I have previously commented here that the website devoted to the South African radio Avengers series no longer seems to allow the shows to be downloaded. I am pleased to announce that the shows (I'm not sure whether by the agency of somebody else) now seem to be on youtube, and the first episode of the Saffer version of this one can be found here.
Back to the show. I love this one. It's one of my favourites. It's absolutely bonkers and if transported to the real world would be completely unconvincing. I love the music played in the opening scene of the man with a pram. It really completely disarms the viewer. At this length of time it is also completely of its age - the pram is huge and old-fashioned, the street of shops is far from the collection of chain stores the street would probably be now, I love the touch of a hole being dug in the street, and of course the red phone box makes the setting perfect. I love the comedic pacing of the man chasing the pram, and the scene is made perfect by the discovery that the pram contains (impossibly) the dead body of a grown man and the emphasis is on his tattoo.
Last night I was talking to a friend about the Avengers, and commented on Lily Savage's parody of the show, in which she comments that Steed is 'bevied' and she's too pissed to fight because they're always drinking champagne. I only mention this a propos of the number of empty beer cans Steed has to hand to shoot at in the next scene. As well as a full one for his lunch time refreshment. Certainly the amount of booze The Avengers get through is staggering by today's standards. Would a secret agent really have a can of beer (and mild at that) at lunch nowadays? WOuld they then? Probably - it seems the whole department was permanently sozzled.
I love the room in which Willie Fayre is being guarded or looked after. I think I recognise the fireplace from other Avengers episodes, but I love the implication that Willie is being kept in a grand old house where a room with such a grand fireplace can be turned into a bathroom. The room is truly *huge* and if that is the bathroom, you can get some small idea of what the other rooms must be like!
Of course if such a grand house is being used by the organisation it has fallen on hard times. And one of the themes of this episode is that very few things are what they seem, at least as far as standing goes. We have the dancing school, one of the traditional ways in which people would try to give themselves some polish. We have the suit hire firm, the way in which people who don't automatically have evening dress to hand in the wardrobe can look as if they are made to it. And finally we have the world of tattoos, which at this time would have been the province of sailors and the underclass generally. These settings provide the episode with an underlying theme of people (who are probably criminals) pretending or aspiring to higher standards than they were born to - witness Piedi's false accent. This is actually quite different to the true high society who usually populate the world of The Avengers.
What stops this being a social commentary is the strong streak of Avengers unrealism that runs through it. Piedi, for example. While many a man would probably have loved to play with Mrs Peel's feet in the 1960s, Piedi is so unreal that he is one of the type of characters we find in The Avengers, who if placed in the real world, would stand out like a sore thumb. In the world of The Avengers, he is just another eccentric with a passion for shoes. Mackidockie Street is another example. I googled its name just now and discovered that it actually comes up on Google as a suggestion, so many a viewer must have wondered whether it's real. Of course it isn't. And Mackidockie doesn't sound right to my mind anyway - it's a vaguely Scottish name invented for a location in Avengerland (it's reused in Escape in Time, of course). Incidentally, I don't often spot bloopers but there's something very wrong with the sequence in Mackidockie Street, which is that if you look closely as Steed enters the building, to the right of the wall the sign is fixed to is a window which reveals a row of men standing there. Presumably the real office workers in the building who wanted to see the TV show being made? Once again it is incredibly improbable that a modern office building would just have an open door on the ninth floor leading to nothing, but hey, the unreality is the point.
But the height of unreality is attained in the dancing school. I love the music which accompanies the scenes here. I love that the band consists of cardboard cut outs and an alcoholic. I love the absolutely hopeless people it takes on. I love Lucille and have suddenly conceived an ambition to learn ballroom dancing.
I have just a couple of criticisms of this episode. One is inherent in the plot, which is that when you give several characters the same wonderful name of Mr Peever, it's bound to get confusing. Another is that the extreme improbability of the plot frankly makes it rather implausible as a story. In fact it isn't so much plotted, as a series of characteristic Avengers situations loosely thrown together and tied together with a tattooist, a dancing school, a garlic sausage and a pram. You have to like the Avengers thing to like this episode, I think - at one point Mrs Peel is teaching dance steps completely different to the ones Lucille as told her to teach. Realism  - or indeed any narrative coherence or plausibility - have been sacrificed here with a vengeance. Of course this isn't really a criticism, more a statement of fact.
Because as a series 4 episode of The Avengers, this one is superb. Pacing is superb, and attention is maintained. The scenes in the dancing school are perhaps rather drawn out, but the heaps of Avengers touches maintain interest. It has the whole Avengerland atmosphere in buckets. Just don't expect it to stand up to too much scrutiny as a spy story about a dance school as a cover for infiltrating foreign spies into the country. Definitely Stonking Good Television.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Bottom: Gas

A few posts ago I said that I would try to concentrate more on blogging about single episodes of quality shows. And thus we come to Bottom, which I don't think I've written about here before, although it is one of my favourite shows ever. Coming out of the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s, it isn't really comparable to the Goodies, and yet I do think there is a slight comparison in the theme of down-at-heel 'friends' who end up stuck together for better or worse. The difference is in the tone of course - the friends in Bottom are really mortal enemies who have a bizarre codependency going on, while the friends in the Goodies are really friends who club together to do anything in a time of need. I feel it is significant that one is pre- and the other is post-Thatcher's Britain.
My favourite scene in this Bottom episode is the card game with which it opens. It is obvious that this kind of card game has frequently been replayed in this house, and also that the cheating has been the same every game. I love that the deck has been reduced to twelse cards and that Eddie knows all of Richard's little cheats. He still trumps them by winning with five kings of course - and Richard fails to notice that Eddie is therefore also cheating!
Cheating is a sort of theme running through this episode and in fact through all three series of Bottom. We see how the gas appliances in the flat are all going at full whack and how Richard and Eddie have rigged the meter to show no use of gas at all. The plan looks as if it might be going wrong when the gas man comes to the door to read the meter. I love his reaction to Richard's hysterical shouting of 'Gas man! Gas man! Gas man!' - 'Do you have someone who looks after you?'!
Bottom is another of those shows which depend on a lot of visual gags for their effectiveness. There is a very real sense in which the acting is way overdone for comic effect. Take for example, Eddie creeping up on the gas man with a cricket bat and going to hit him, until he looks round. Like everything else in Bottom, the violence for which the series is well known is also overdone for effect, and that is why it is funny. This places Bottom in a great comedy tradition, of which pantomime and cartoons such as Tom and Jerry are also part, where terrible things happen to people, but because they are not real they are hilarious. It also draws on the tradition of Tony Hancock's eternally put-upon and failing through no fault of his own hero: Richard's explanation to the gas man of how they heat up the water for tea without using gas, is worthy of Hancock at his best.
The inventiveness is also worthy of Hancock, just with a surreal element the lad himself would never have thought of. They first think of getting rid of the dead gasman's body by eating it, then offering it to kebab shop, then throwing it out of the window onto the roof of a bus! Similarly the plan to break into Mr Rottweiler's house via a very creaky pipe is so clearly doomed it is bound to be hilarious. The next plan, of making a little hole in the wall and replacing the bricks so that he won't notice, is even more ridiculous. In true Hancock style, their plan is derailed by the distraction of a real woman naked, and the contents of a fridge that they won't have to pay for, in addition to the obvious disaster of a huge gas flame which can't be put out.
The boys are of course stealing their gas off Mr Rottweiler, the man next door, ably played by former wrestler Brian Glover. He is the embodiment of adult sexuality who is the counterpoint to Eddie and Richard's rather adolescent fantasising about sex. Who else would even consider finding out what snogging is really like by giving the kiss of life to a dead gas man? In this Bottom steals another comedy convention, of the protagonist's jealousy of another person's life and experience. The point is of course that we have all been there, but we can laugh at this because if we are still at the stage of wondering what sex is like we can pretend we are not, and if we know what sex is like we recognise Richard and Eddie's state in our outgrown youth and can laugh at how ridiculous we were. We can also be very happy that we don't have to resort to quite such ridiculous plans - in a cruel twist of fate, as Eddie and Richard try to escape Mr Rottweiler's house they walk straight into the gas man they have already killed once, who is ringing the door bell.
Bottom is a great show which draws on many of the classic comedy conventions and gives them a 1990s spin. It is probably also guaranteed to offend your maiden aunt, which can only be good.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Goodies and the Beanstalk

Forward in time for today's post, to Cricklewood, 1973, and the Goodies are broke. This leads to them falling into a pantomime world of beanstalks, giants, and geese which lay golden eggs.
I think this has to be one of my favourite Goodies episodes, simply because it is so visually effective, and literally everything is turned into a visual pun, even before it gets to the more pantomimic aspects in the latter half. For example the policeman feeding coins into a parking meter, which then works as a fruit machine and he gets a payout. The old ladies at the bus stop who get their own instruments out and start playing in repsonse to Bill busking. The policeman's sneeze literally blows off Tim's gypsy disguise, to the delight of a man in a suit at the bus stop. A lady presents Graeme with a false leg when he stands on one leg with a sign saying 'give generously', and when he throws the gifted leg away she produces a false arm and punches him with it. The policeman moves Bill on for dancing at the bus stop and then dances himself. The visual gags just go on and one!
In fact this Goodies episode is so visually effective that I have found myself making a large number of screen shots as potential illustrations to this post and am having great difficulty choosing between them, so think I will use them all, and this will just have to be an unusally heavily-illustrated post. The beanstalk theme is given a twist by the fact that what Bill gets for the bike at the market is a *tin* of beans rather than the single bean of the tale, which the other Goodies tip over him in annoyance. They plant one single baked bean which is the source of the beanstalk. On a side note, I've never been involved in one of those charity messy thingies, but wonder what the beans would feel like!
My favourite scene of all is the market, which is another fantasy world. I particularly love that the Archers theme is used as the music for it, parodying home counties type living. Of course the markey is no more real than anything else. I really love that in the ring bicycles are being sold as if they are cattle!
I was very relieved at the end, when they rub the empty bean tin to find that John Cleese was the geni of the beans tin, because I was thinking that this was the Goodies episode which reminds me most of Monty Python. It has the same feeling of young and intelligent humour, which is totally non-offensive and yet rather risque. I have a feeling that Benny Hill may be among the other comedy influences here, at least as far as the number of chases go.
If I have a criticism of this it is that it fails to keep up the pace it sets in the first ten minutes or so. Ideas further on are stretched out for longer - I wonder whether they required more props, especially the giant scene, and so were more expensive - which gives an unevenness of pace to this show. It sticks fairly faithfully to the pantomime formula, except that they end up poor again at the end.
I see this episode was originally broadcast on 24th December 1973, and I hope my post on this Goodies episode will count as a contribution to the Christmas viewing people will be writing about as the weeks go on, because when everyone else is writing about Christmas I know for a fact I won't feel like it!

Danger Man: Dangerous Secret

Back to one of the classic themes for TV in the 1960s for this episode of Danger Man - namely the danger inherent in our modern technology if it is not handled correctly. In fact I love the way this show starts: the sequence showing the children trespassing in the virus research establishment is very effective and suggests right at the start that the doubtless deadly viri being researched in the establishment are not being looked after properly. Of course in this case there are potentially deadly consequences.
It is strange but I have repeatedly watched all of the episodes of Danger Man (although not recently) and had no recollection of the amount of what we might call spy technology used in the show. Once again the ambivalent 1960s attitude to technology where it can both be our saviour and destroyer if it gets into the wrong hands. In this episode the spy technology used by Drake is a bug which he fires from an umbrella and which attaches itself to the lintel of a room opposite. This coupled with a typewriter as the other end of the communications device means equipment truly worthy of Get Smart!
Ultimately the theme of this episode is the individual human as the arbiter of what knowledge and technology are used for. Just one scientist is the holder of the secret which gives the episode its title and which could be used as a weapon, if it fell into the wrong hands...or even if he was subjected to enough pressure. Would it be right to control this individual human, and so prevent him popping across the channel and risk his secret falling into foreign hands? Or is it better that he retain his liberty and 'we' (obviously in television 'we' are always the goodies) run the risk that one scientist's knowledge could be used as a weapon, possibly against 'us'? The ethical question hidden behind this one is whether it would be better to restrict research into viri because the research could be used to make weapons, or better to facilitate the research because of its potential benefits. The solution to the quandary this show presents is the very 1960s TV one that there are a lot of very evil people in the world and while we must allow good people their freedom, including freedom to make mistakes, there must be secret agents to protect vulnerable scientists from preying foreigners. It's all very Avengers.
The episode is filmed in a way which is effective and carries the heavyweight ethical issues underlying it in a way which stops it being turgid. It is effective that so much of the episode takes place in a French holiday town, and there is a repeated scene of men playing cards in the lobby of the hotel. Of course this could be an image of the heavy layers of decision and chance which are playing out in the plot - if you want to get all symbolic about it, but it puts the viewer in a relaxed mindset, providing an effective background to Drake's problem. It is also an episode which doesn't put a foot wrong. Every scene is effective, every conversation contains tantalising hints of what is going on, you wouldn't doubt that it was actually filmed in France, so sure-footed is it. I particularly love the old Citroen DS cars.
Criticism...criticism... I'm afraid I don't seem to be able to think of any cogent criticisms of this episode! It's not often I can say that about a TV show, but I will here, and I think that is what puts this one in my coveted category of Stonking Good Television.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Danger Man: Judgement Day

There are two subjects I keep returning to in my witterings here. One is the way in which these 1960s TV shows encapsulate the interests and concerns of their time. The other is the way in which their production is dictated by the technology of the time.
Both are points which have great impact on this episode of Danger Man. Let's face it, if Judgement Day were to be remade nowadays it would look radically different, and the fact it is as convincing as it is, is a great testimony to the TV makers of the time. The opening scenes of the making of the bomb are completely studio-bound, and then stock footage is used for the externals of the airport, before returning to the studio for Drake's encounter with an 'official' who changes his travel plans abruptly. At the time this was the ordinary technology used in so many of these shows and in the restored boxed set I have, the seam between studio and stock footage is seamless.
Similarly the subject is very much of the time. I have a feeling that no TV espionage show would set something in the Middle East nowadays, without mentioning the endlessly sensitive subject of Islamisation. Rather there is a terrorist group here, but its interests are based on events in the regios of 70 years ago now. That isn't to say that the Arab world depicted here isn't a European stereotype of what Arabs are like - the country is carefully depicted as a nest of intrigue, instability and corruption! While Garriga is afterwards revealed to be Spanish, he must be a British subject or at least British sympathiser to be rushed out of the country because of being at such risk. Here it isn't apparent what the scientist is doing in Bir Azhad, but I love the touch that he is not in the room when the bomb explodes and even the cat escapes. (Phew!) There is a remarkable economy in this story - it just happens and there is no need felt to explain the reason for what is happening.
Further contemporary limits of communication are seen in the show. Drake has his phone line to London cut off by the weather - of course bad weather may still take down the internet or whatever, but nowadays he would go through several failing communication methods before being obliged to give up. It is so redolent of the 1960s espionage craze that of course his call is in code and he subsequently has to translate it using a key - I wonder whether they still do that? Once he and Garriga arrive at the hotel he wants a telegram sent and is quite happy to wait for the boy to come back to send it. Nowadays of course he would log onto the hotel's wifi and even in the back of beyond would probably find an internet cafe he could queue at. Naturally the telegram never actually goes.
There is another theme running through this Danger Man episode, which is the desert and life in the desert. The nature of this life is depicted in the isolation of the people, both from 'civilisation' by reason of the collapse of travel methods, and from each other by reason of cultural and linguistic barriers. The first thing Jessica Shore comments on is that after weeks in the desert she wants to hear English spoken again. The things that the desert does to people aren't really explicitly mentioned but the theme is always there - that the people are surrounded by something which isolates them and makes them vulnerable, while they are always surrounded by other people well used to the world of the desert. Even the mysterious Dr Garriga is emblematic of the mystery of the desert - he is alone, as it were an oasis of modern scientific learning in the middle of the desert.
I love the super-cool Drake depicted in this episode. He is positively Steed-like in his confrontation of the ridiculous difficulties put in his way. My absolutely favourite bit is where he demands to see the regulations which tell him he must take Jessica Shore in his flight, only to discover that they are in Arabic! He does, however, lack Steed's charm in his attempts to stop her flying with them - Drake makes it very apparent he doesn't want her but I think Steed would have been much more subtle. Steed may even have flirted with her until she didn't want to travel with the dirty old man! I also love the way that when it looks as if all is lost Drake still manages to look moody and smokes a small cigar while he enlists the pilot's aid.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this episode is that I have always lost my interest in the show at the same point, which I think marks a distinct turning point in the plot. It is the point at which the plane is forced to land, and as I write this I've just paused the show at 28 minutes and nine seconds in - just over halfway into the episode, and the point at which I have always tended to lose interest. The reason I've always lost interest is that I think this plot device introduces something new at such a late stage in the story that it is obvious what is happening. It is obvious that the pilot has been bribed, and it is obvious that Shore is a wrong 'un. The forced landing turns the plot into a sort of 'locked room' mystery and it becomes obvious that the protagonists are going to get out of this rather than end up dead. Drake does, after all, have the rest of the series to film and a Village to investigate later in the decade - this creation of expectations is perhaps the reason I have always lost interest in this episode here. It is unfortunate to my mind, that the time up until about the 46 minute mark is filled by what amounts to a moral discussion of Nazi research into bacteriology. That's most of the approximately 18 minutes from when the plane landed, and I sense a filler. The ending is an anticlimax.
My conclusion on this episode is that it starts off with a promising plot which is weakened by an abrupt change of direction in the middle. I feel that this is an episode which could have made a decent half hour episode, but has been over-stretched to the fifty minute slot. Obviously I don't think it's a complete dud because it appears on this blog, but in an otherwise quality series it's a weak offering which fails to maintain its interest.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Avengers: The Secrets Broker

The way I have blogged here has changed slightly over the past couple of years. I have moved towards general posts about series or what I am watching, and away from the more analytical posts I used to write about specific episodes of series. I would like to return to a more episode-specific form of blogging, although it will probably mean I am unable to post as frequently as I have been, because I will need to put more effort into each post. I also want to concentrate more on what I would consider 'good' television, since my mission here has always been to appreciate quality television better and luckily it seems as if others in the blogosphere like this too. I selected this episode by picking an Avengers series at random and jabbing my finger on the box to select an episode, and am delighted to see that I have selected this episode since it is one of my favourites.
The first thing I have to say about The Secrets Broker is that despute being black and white it is *so* visually effective. I suppose there may be a similarity to black and white photography which is always more 'artistic' than boring old colour. In the case of this episode the visuals are also very effectively chosen. The opening scene of the pretend seance in the cellar literally can't put a foot wrong, since it ticks every horror film box ever. The next scene, in Mrs Gale's flat, also can't go wrong, since it is very apparent that Mrs Gale's flat was designed for visual effect rather than comfort. One of the things I love best about Avengers of this era is Mrs Gale's wardrobe, also very visually effective.
I like the subject matter of this series 3 episode. At base it is a classic detective story about blackmail, and as a classic detective story it rather swims against the flow of many of the preoccupations of 1960s people as seen in their TV programmes. We see them so often here - the preoccupation with the future, with progress, with technology, with science and the knowledge and power which goes with it. Usually there is an ambivalence about the future or the technology, and a fear of weak humans' ability to use these things safely. The blackmail in this episode is based on scuppering part of the dream future because it is gaining knowledge about the activities of a research establishment. And yet the fear is not the future, what is being protected is the research, rather the blackmailers are using people's vulnerability in the very 19th century guise of the seance, as the cover for their activities. And their activities are also covered by a wine merchant's business - surely an elite operation, and yet one in which Steed is obviously completely at home. The Secrets Broker therefore uses the paraphernalia of the past as the cover of an attempt to scupper the future, which is normally seen as the scary thing in TV of this era.
Steed and Gale are both in their absolute elements in this one. Mrs Gale as the envoy into the research station and Steed as the spy into the wine merchant's. So far so good. My criticisms begin when an affair is mixed in to this. I genuinely can't think what the writer was thinking of - unless it was either to interest those who like that sort of thing or as a red herring. Anyway, in my humble opinion it could have been handled much better by not giving the love affair the relative prominence it gets, and just mentioning it as one of the causes of the blackmail. I was going to criticise this episode as rather difficult to follow but I think that if you take the sequences about the affair out of the picture, the plot hangs together much better. There are some further plot weaknesses in that by the halfway point it is very obvious exactly what is happening and who is responsible, and also how it will end, this being a TV show. In my opinion this show's endearing qualities, wonderful atmosphere, and witty dialogue make up for any plot deficiencies.
Obviously I mix in the wrong circles but I have never been to a wine tasting in my life, and have what Steed calls the 'depraved taste' of preferring spirits to wine. I must be Not Our Sort of Person. Nonetheless one of the things which strikes me about this is that it is touching on some very high (or at least wealthy) life indeed. The box of wines with which Steed walks out of the wine merchant's must have cost a small fortune.
The absolute high point of this one is where Steed 'falls' into a vat at the wine tasting, revealing the dark room hidden within. This is such an Avengers moment. In fact I htink in many ways this episode is one of the ones which shows the way the Avengers was feeling its way towards its future at this point. So many of the elements which make The Avengers The avengers are there in bucketloads - diabolical masterminds, elements of British tradition which are subverted, elements of the modernistic future which is here at risk. One element of The Avengers' later series which rarely appears this early is the magical omniscience with which the show just begings on its mission with next to no explanation. The explanations are actually there, but they are such a minor element that they are easily missed, which gives this show a feeling of some of the later series.
My conclusion on The Secrets Broker is that it remains one of my favourites atmospherically, but it has some plot weaknesses when seen under the microscope. It has however clarified one thing for me. Tomorrow I'm going to Selfridge's. I'm in search of orange bitters for cocktails and have so far completely failed to track down a bottle of Creme de Violettes. What I need is a wine merchant, obviously.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Reflections on Children's TV Inspired by The Feathered Serpent

As I write this I am watching a programme called The Feathered Serpent, which is a show I bought completely on spec. Although I was alive when it was broadcast I have no recollection of it and will presume to quote from the blurb on the box:
'Starring Diane Keen and Patrick Troughton, The Feathered Serpent is a story of murder, intrigue and political manoeuvring set amid the splendour and turmoil of ancient Mexico. This release comprises every episode of the children's drama series from Thames Television, memorable for its spectacular sets and lavish costumes, originally transmitted between 1976 and 1978.'
Watching this show has caused me to reflect rather waspishly on vintage children's TV, and particularly the few children's shows that I have written about here. These shows are so few because I have found that TV shows I remember from my actual childhood rarely stand up to the rosy memories I have of them: mym memories of shows from my adolescence onwards are much more accurate and so are less likely to be disappointing.
I find, though, that I am now wary of giving children's TV shows a viewing, because so many of them have been greatly disappointing. These shows have the dual challenges of being entertaining something like forty years after they were made, and being intended to be entertaining to children or young people at the time they were made, despite being made by adults. It is no wonder that that children's TV can be so disappointing at this length of time. In fact, Freewheelers (and now The Feathered Serpent) are the only TV shows made for children which I do not remember from my childhood and yet have written about here.
I have a feeling that the problem with children's TV is that it isn't really intended to entertain children, as such, but can have several other agendas. Surely every reader of this blog will remember how Doctor Who started off as an educational show? And that, for me is the problem with children's television. I think middle class parents still do this, but I can remember children of my generation being given boxy, cheaply-produced sets of classic books to read. Well, some children may have read them but I didn't. The classics of world literature which are or were given to children cannot have been intended to entertain, but as improving exercises.
And in contrast to Freewheelers, which I remember thinking was very cleverly geared to appeal to adolescents at a certain stage of yearning for adulthood, and thus was largely about fantasy and entertaining, despite a certain moral agenda, Feathered Serpent reminds me of those sets of classic books. The Flockton Flyer would be another example of a show not aiming to improve, since every boy's dream of having a whole steam train to play with is never really a worthy sort of thing to think about. Feathered Serpent is not about an escape into a fantasy world, I have a feeling it is about improvement. And it is only as I write this that I realise that this is almost exactly the unreal/real divide I perceive so often in adult TV cast in the terms of improving.frivolous. The mere fact that the show is set in ancient Mexico suggests that it has a didactic aim rather than a frivolous one.
And there's a very simple reason I know this. I have been forced to quote the blurb off the box because the show launches with no explanation whatsoever. Nowadays, of course, if the viewer wants the background, he will consult the internet, but in the 1970s no such resources existed and I think the curious child would have had to take some such course of action as this - first the Radio Times or the TV times would have been consulted, which would have given about the same amount of information as the blurb I quote above. Without the benefit of the Radio Times the viewer would have had to ask parents for advice or ask around at school the next day. The only way to discover the historical background to this show would have been in books. Many children's homes would not contain an encyclopedia and they would have resided in the sort of homes which also contained sets of standard novels to read. So the library would have been the way to find out what this show was about. When you watch a show which is intended purely to entertain, it will not usually raise questions in your mind or require background reading, therefore this show is either deliberately intended to be educational or else very worthy television, with a rather unfortunate assumption that the children of the age would just know the historical background.
And yet... I wouldn't like you to think that I am just making out that this is a worthy, educational show, because it's interesting that some of its themes plug in well to the times. As we know the 1970s were a time of fear of nuclear holocaust, of exploration of magical powers and natural mysteries, and of all things considered Pagan. In many ways the 1970s were most people's 1960s, and there is a very real touch of Paganism involved in this show. We see divnities really consulted and decisions and asked for signs, which of course they never fail to produce. We see the primacy of religion (and yet a religion so different from our own Church of England) at the heart of a society, and also the clash between an old religion and a new religion.
And so, some criticisms. The obvious one is that The Fathered Serpent is not a light view. You have to concentrate and it moves at a slower pace than, say, The Avengers, so watching it while ironing would not be a good idea. My own main criticism is that I really don't think the years have been kind to it. In comparison to the effects produced now, the sets and costumes tend to look a bit home-made and not really lavish or spectacular. Production values are of the period, and it is completely studio-bound. The colour palette is of the time, although I wonder why everyone's skin is the shade of brown it is. What I really love about the sets is the wall paintings, which must have taken much labour and are clearly inspired by the art of the time and place. As I commented above, to me a major problem is a lack of explanation of who is who or what is happening with the result that several episodes in I'm frankly rather confused, but again this may be something that may be solved by an attentive viewing paying attention to every word.
Another thing that Feathered Serpent makes me think of is that I want to write a piece on our regional TV stations in the 1960s onwards. I have a feeling that the reason I have no recollection of this show (in the days when we only had three stations) was that it may not have been broadcast in the Midlands, being a Thames production. Ths post I have planned on our various regional stations and the reasons for their existence, is sadly one which has defeated me every time it has landed on the drawing board so far.
In summary, you will like The Feathered Serpent if you have an interest in ancient Mexico. You will also like it if you were the sort of child who actually read the improving books given to you for birthdays, you will watch it if given to you, but I'm afraid I wasn't that sort of child. If you want the classic children's TV of the age, I would seriously suggest getting some Tiswas or Grange Hill and watching that.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Steptoe and Son: Porn Yesterday

This may seem like I'm going completely off-topic but one of my other interests is architecture and I have been watching a film called Utopia London  about the idealistic planning involved in reconstructing London before and after the Second World War. In Utopia London's vision, egalitarianism featured highly and everyone was to have the same opportunities. In my humble opinion, the egalitarian bright future dreamed of in the 1940s was a red herring. On the whole people don't want to share and even if you were to share out the world's resources completely equally, some people would still manage to be penniless after the first week.
As a result of these elements of human nature we find the kind of alternative economies we see in Steptoe and Son (you see, I was going somewhere with that introduction). This is also not something which is different anywhere in the world: where I used to live in Bearwood, if you wanted rid of something you just had to put it out in the street. Metal is taken by dealers, anything else is reused, recycled or burned, and about the only thing you couldn't get rid of was old mattresses. If something had been out a couple of days you just had to put a sign on it saying it was for sale and it would still vanish, even if it was absolute rubbish.
This alternative economy as lived by the underbelly of society is the subject of Steptoe and Son. One of my aims in wittering away on this blog is to understand the TV I watch better, and it is only through writing this post that I have realised one of the reasons I have always found this show uncomfortable to watch- it is the subject matter of hand to mouth living in poverty. I always thought it was the dysfunctional relationship between father and son which made it so uncomfortable. In fact Steptoe Senior goes into the level of desperation which led to his debut in porn, and the wonder is that Steptoe manages to make this kind of desperation the subject of comedy. The nature of this comedy in a sense places Steptoe and Son firmly in the category of realism TV rather than the unreal TV I normally prefer to escape with.
In this episode Steptoe senior's desperation-fuelled film debut is turned into humour by the simple device of Harold ridiculously over-reacting to the What The Butler Saw film. Made in the 1920s for the sort of machine you would find on a seaside pier, it was very unlikely to terribly pornographic by the standards of the 1970s when this was made! Even the Vicar comments that much worse was being broadcast on the TV than you could see in one of those machines. Harold's disgust is strongly contrasted to Albert's wish for sympathy for his plight and wish to keep just one picture from the reel as a souvenir.
Into the middle of this comes, bang on queue, the Vicar. Despite Harold's moral disgust at Albert's appearance in film the Vicar wants to see the reel and even wants to sell it to help finance new bells. The vicar is played by the wonderful Anthony Sharp, who I don't think I've seen elsewhere as a clergyman but was surely made to play one!
Another class division is made very clear when the scene changes to the fete. In contrast to Albert and Harold's bare-chested working man appearance (they share my approach to clothing on a hoot day) the people at the fete are all very smart indeed. Visually this makes it very clear that they are hobnobbing with a different class of punter here. A class of punter who are queueing up to see a What The Butler Saw film rescued by scouts from an old photographer's shop (the alternative economy again). I love that some of the women recognise Albert and want his autograph! The Vicar gets in on this by charging for his autograph. This episode therefore is ironically about desperate poverty but it is ultimately overturned into a success...which is capitalised on by the Establishment in the shape of the Vicar's bell fund.
And just in case anyone's wondering...you don't get to see the 'porn'!
Image credit: http://www.albertandharold.co.uk/porn_yesterday.html

Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Avengers: Propellant 23

A blog about TV suggests the blogger is blogging about what he is watching. I have always aimed to make this blog more about what I think is good TV, and since I last wrote I have been watching some more Archer and a few other things. The other things won't be named because they won't be blogged about here and I have thus made a point of returning to quality TV, and hence this post. This is a series 2 Avengers episode which I've never really got on with, and so this blog post is my way of making myself think more about it, and hopefully come to understand it.
In the visual language of 1960s television, the episode begins by telling us that the action will take place among the privileged, or possibly powerful. This is done by the simple device of setting the opening scene on a passenger plane. I feel that in the early 1960s flight would have been less available to most people than it was with tha later advent of cheap package holidays, and thus already sets the expectations. Additionally the plane is flying to Marseille - nowadays this flight would be nothing from, say, Heathrow, and of course Tripoli remains a truly far-away place, but at the time 'the Continong' was inconceivably exotic to many in Britain.
The next scene may begin to explain why I have always found this episode hard to understand - not least because of my habit of not paying attention. The scene is of Mrs Gale and Steed. Leaving aside the question of why he recruits an anthropologist to help with a matter of national security, and she allows him to wake her up in the middle of the night to ask her, the scene is full of the sort of magical omniscience the later series of The Avengers are better known for. Steed and Mrs Gale are at Marseille. There is no explanation why they both just happen to be at the scene of the action - they just are. I like the visuals of this scene - we see them sitting in the car but the background is completely black and they could actually be anywhere. Visually this is so effective, and the whole effect of the scene is rather disorientating, rather the way one feels while 'in transit'.
'Terrible bore hanging about in airports, isn't it,' says Steed to a man in the airport, thereby indicating that this mode of travel is old hat to him. In comparison to the visual effect of the last scene in the car, I love the way the sirport set gives a much more amateurish effect. It is very obviously a set indeed and this effect remains throughout the episode.
I love that Steed is his old shady self in this one. He enveigles Mrs Gale into helping and then when the airport gendarme asks him what he is doing in France he gives a very dodgy, almost blustering, answer, which would normally be guaranteed to make a policeman of any nationality prick up his ears. Steed turns the tables on the gendarme and starts asking him questions! He then asks another gendarme if he can take the murdered man's briefcase back to London - another of the sort of questions you just don't ask in a context of international travel! Steed gets even more shifty by returning to search the police's office at the airport after the've all gone home. Once again the airport gives an impression of not quite being real. I don't doubt there are tiny airports whic effectively close down at night, but I'm still sure they were patrolled by security if not police, even in the 1960s! While I have interpreted these characters as belonging to the gendarmerie, I see that they are actually security, yet are dressed as steretypical old-fashioned French policemen.
In common with being shady Steed, Steed in this one also puts Mrs Gale in a ridiculously dangerous position, with I have noticed he tended to do with Venus Smith as well. The wonder is that Mrs Gale just happily goes along with it! I like the way Steed's hair is very shiny and slicked back in Propellant 23, using, presumably, brylcreem. A further style thing I like very much in this one is to see Honor Blackman smoking a cigarette in a holder. And of course Steed just has to put in an order with the baker as he is looking for the bottle.
It is so Avengers to have the next scene set in the lingerie department of a shop! - Preceded by a fight in the airport that we don't see, but in another act of magical omniscience during the interval Steed has got the briefcase, Mrs Gale has examined it and they have arranged to meet. We see that Steed is answerable to somebody, and we also see that this episode is about a rocket propellant, which of course Mrs Gale knows about already, which places this episode firmly in the rocket age. Steed is outrageously flirtatious with the sales assistant, telling her that he will take her when she asks what he wants - these early Avengers really are incredibly flirty. This scene gives rise to my favourite exchange in this episode:
Mrs Gale: 'Do you always arrange to take your calls in a lingerie department?'
Steed: 'If humanly possible.'
Mrs Gale's garter gun which we see at the end is unthinkably kinky!
Subsequently we see more of the lives of the characters as they relate to Propellant 23. The mystery of who the young Geoffrey Palmer's character ('bit of a cock up in the catering department') is remains - but I think this is deliberate, naturally. However then we see that he is in cahoots with the man we see trying to stab Mrs Gale.
Something the episode does very well is to resist having the French characters speaking in 'French' accents. This adds a further layer to the unrealism, because while the effect of being in France is given loud and clear, these people are clearly not French. I can only repeat that I rather like the economy of the sets - few, simple sets are used to give the impression of this jet-setting world, and in monochrome they are very effective.
My one criticism of this episode is that unless you are really paying attention it can be quite difficult to follow. I suppose this reflects the sort of attention TV writers expected fifty years ago, but the difficulty is increased by the way the episode tends to jump from scene to scene in a rather impressionistic way with little explanation of what has happened. This isn't a criticism as such, but the small cast makes the scale of this Avengers seem much smaller that its international setting would suggest, more like a stage play. I mean that everybody knows who the man touting for a hotel is, suggesting the cast is smaller and more intimate than it would be in this sort of setting in reality. It is also rather evident before the denouement who is on what side and so by the time we find ourselves in the bakery there is only one way this can end.
So my conclusion about this Avengers is that it is quality television which requires close attention to keep track of what is happening. The scripting is rather impressionistic and the visuals are very effective. This is one of the more arty episodes of The Avengers, which is therefore harder work for the viewer.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Archer: First Impressions

All things espionage. That has recently been the subject of this blog, because that was the fashion in the 1960s, when so much of the TV I like was made. The spy thing, of course, is paradied in so many of these TV shows: I might mention Man from UNCLE in addition to Get Smart, which I have recently rediscovered.
But none of those parodies parodies the world of espionage as effectively as Archer, which I have only just discovered. My only regret at having discovered it so late is a rage at a cruel world that I have somehow managed not to hear about the show up until now. How could that have happened? I can only conclude that the universe produces another TV show for me to watch when I conclude there isn't enything left.
Archer parodies the inner world of the spy. The real world of the spy. The world of the spy where you actually work in an organisation with HR and all the other paraphernalia of the modern workplace. Add the twist that his boss is his own mother and you have the makings of a farce. It is a sign of the quality of this show that it manages to parody clueless secret agents working for a chaotic organisation, without losing interest and while remaining intelligent. At the time of writing I am half way through the first series so obviously can't speak for whether the show keeps up this level of interest in future series, but merely avoiding becoming repetitive for the episodes I have watched so far, is a considerable achievement.
Archer himself is hopeless. There is a wonderful scene where we see a secret agent's cover blown because Archer has rung him on his mobile asking him to confirm that they work for Isis, for some girls in a bar. The point is that all the ethnically diverse agents of Isis have been lost, and we are privileged to see that Archer has done the same thing over and again. This premise of a secret agent who is hopeless is not normally one that would appeal to me but Archer pulls it off with aplomb and style.
That said, the sense of humour is probably a bit adult for a lot of people. Nonetheless Archer's anarchic, sexy humour appeals to me personally, and here in the UK the show only has a 15 certificate which indicates that the British Board of Film Classification doesn't consider it *that* shocking. Of course the point is that the whole show is a parody of the sexiness of the secret agent, perhaps best personified by Mr Bond.
I particularly like the mother. I love the way she has swapped over all the medicines in the medicine cabinet to confuse the servants. And I really love the way she rings a bell for the caterers to bring in the soup at a dinner party. It is the same bell she kept on her bedside table to wake the nanny when Archer wet the bed as a child; a fact she doesn't hesitate to tell the guests.
Archer is a show which has made me laugh out loud. And if you like to see the spy genre parodied, I would highly recommend it to you.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Department S: The Soup of the Day

My recent watching of Get Smart and the comments on the contemporary craze for all things to do with spies has caused my mind to turn towards Department S. This is an over-generalisation, of course, but it may be significant that as the sixties wore on and in the US the spy-craze turned more towards parody, in the UK it just turned bizarre. I'm thinking of all the ITC shows, distantly related to spycraft and espionage, whose characters became more and more flamboyant, peaking in Jason King. In the midst of the Cold War the actual espionage remained a serious matter and those who did it became the subject of the TV shows. I'm quite prepared for this little thought of mine to be blown out of the water, of course.
This Department S episode is one which is a very good example of why I dislike familiar actors reappearing in all sorts of shows. Right at the beginning we see Patrick Mower appearing as a baddy. A few years later he was appearing as a goodie in Special Branch. Of course they wouldn't have been seen together but I'm finding it a little difficult to think of a TV show of the time in which Patrick Mower didn't appear and was always obviously himself. Naturally the two shows are not quite contemporary, and I'm also not keen on actors being typecast, but when you're living on a diet of the TV that remains form the sixties and seventies it can be a bit confusing.
One of the things I like most about this one is that it starts off by showing the reality of multicultural background of Britain of the time, with its scene in Chinatown. None of the pretend Britain of The Avengers - Department S is set in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan world of the 1960s, and so must have been as aspirational as any other TV show could be. Sir Curtis is of course not only black but is also a knight and has the sort of accent which can only indicate an Oxbridge education, so the show really does show the sort of sophisticated mixing that was frequently a few decades in coming in the real world. So Soup of the Day has an element of unreality, which reflects that despite the show's cosmopolitan aspirations, this episode is very much set against the unreal background of Swinging London, demonstrated best in the kind of interiors we see (pictured), and even more in the sudden change of scene to the Portobello Road stresses that this episode is set in Swinging London. When the empty crate of fish soup is found, the music changes further to stress the Swinging nature of the set-up, before moving to the cosmopolitan setting of Lisbon. There is just a suggestion here, so common in the TV of the time, that the age was going wrong, and the latest trends were actually the instruments of Our Enemies.
As a mystery this one is unfortunately handicapped by a huge error of plotting. It is very obvious very early in the show that the soup is only a red herring and the point of the heist is the radios. The fact that we know that means we just watch Department S being mystified. Since the soup was dumped and there was nothing unusual about it, it was always going to be obvious that the soup was not the point. This episode gives the game away far too early. It is also apparent that the baddies are not at the top of their field because they've managed to draw attention to themselves. A further weakness is that the plot can be very difficult to follow.
That said this episode has many high points. I love the curio shop run by the two girls to whom Jeremy seels a radio. As a purveyor of the sort of kit you would want if you were furnishing your home as an outpost of Avengersland it is a delight. In fact it could serve as a textbook for how to furnish your home in the style of Swinging London. Another high point is Jason King's abortive attempt to chat up the secretary at the soup exporter's - which is ruined by her insistence on bringing her mother along as a chaperone, so that King is forced to say that he would also bring his own mother as a chaperone. King falls at the first hurdle, for a change, but the secretary overcomes this difficulty! The boutique selling military clothes is another high point. In fact this show is something of a compendium of the suppliers to the in crowd in Swinging London.
Despite being largely studio-bound this show doesn't stint on the props. One of the smaller ones is the transistor radio, which in its leather case reminds me of a cassette player my mother had in the seventies, and I remember it being fascinating that it had its own leather case. Her explanation for that was that it was 'portable'. The other prop I love is the huge American car used by the baddies in Lisbon. There is a scene where you see the door open and the thickness of the wall of that car is quite something.
So in conclusion, despite the plotting defects of this one, it is a wonderfully atmospheric view for the fans of 1960s TV or of the 1960s in any way.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Cold

I was very chuffed at the way my last-but-one post kicked off a conversation mainly about British comedians and the difficulty we have exporting them elsewhere. Dominic Bird made the pertinent comment that the only humour anything like ours is Russia's and that it must rain a lot there. Which brings me nicely to the subject of this blog post - Hancock has a cold. In addition to the weather, colds are a British preoccupation. The rumours are true that there used to be a place which researched treatments for the cold, and people would go there on holiday to be given a cold and experimented on.
It is only a nation which could support that kind of official centre which could also produce the sort of humour we have in this episode. When you say it, it sounds strange: the object of humour here is a man's illness. Oh dear, how can I live with myself?
The joke is, of course, in Hancock's approach to his cold. The rest of us may go to bed for a couple of days if it's bad enough, but he's invested in every quack remedy going, including even Mrs Cravat's witchcraft! Hancock is taking exactly the same brave-hero-who-is-really-being-rather-hopeless approach he does to everything else, including dating in the last episode I wrote about. We all know that nothing he does is going to help at all. On the other hand we all know that in private we have all fallen for these quack remedies ourselves, although naturlaly we wouldn't tell anyone. Hancock, however, gives us the opportunity to laugh and feel superior about somebody's irrational faith in quack remedies, secure in the knowledge that ours will never be in the public domain. And needless to say Hancock's little peroration on how wonderful he is, is to say how superior his nose is to Sid's.
The ridiculousness is shared by Sid James. I love the way he wears a face mask and sprays an aerosol every time Hancock coughs. And Sid's ridiculousness is counterpointed by Hancock developing full-blown flu, and then taken to extremes by Mrs Cravat. The point is that Hancock is behaving like we all do with a cold, as if we're going to die, and nobody believes in any of the mumbo-jumbo he's invoking to sort it.
There is an episode of Hancock's radio show where he also resorts to magical practices as a result of being required to perform on Friday the 13th - only in that case Sid screws him for all he's got with a fraudulent druid order. Again, it is extraordinary the way Hancock's humour relies on situations where humans actually have no power and have to resort to superstition - in this case he goes to see a proper doctor who has a cold himself and naturally has no treatment for it.
I suppose the underlying characteristic of this humour is that it takes the things we all do but are ashamed of, laughs at them, and puts them on the TV for all of us to laugh at. The marvel, the wonder, the raw talent, is to get a whole half hour out of this and to remain funny, a funniness which remains after repeated viewings. Galton and Simpson were comedy genii.