Sunday, 29 January 2017

My TV Shopping Basket

The title of this post may seem rather strange, and is certainly a departure from the way I usually write about TV here, but given that I see I repeatedly post about a fear that the supply of old TV will dry up, it is interesting that there are a few things in my Amazon basket at the moment, taht I may obtain and write about. That said, I won't necessarily buy them from Amazon, or at least from Amazon themselves: I shop around between Amazon, Cex and eBay, and more rarely will buy something off the shelf in HMV, but use my Amazon basket as a way to remind myself of things I possibly want to see. Regular readers will know that I usually only write about shows here that I rate: this post is an opportunity to write about shows I haven't seen at all, so can't really judge, but to comment that I would like to see them.
First up is Flower of Gloster, which it seems has taken a long time for Network DVD actually to release. I am very pleased that a review for it has already appeared on Amazon, commenting on what quality TV it is, and particularly how dated it looks in terms of young boys wandering off on their own, talking to strange men on canal boats, and the fact that the boys 'do their own stunts' on the show. You can see such a scene on the video that I am using to illustrate this post. Then, as now, canal locks are very dangerous things, contained areas of water with possibly unseen things underneath, the likelihood of catching Weil's disease from the water... as a modern health and safety exercise, this show would just go on and on and shows how the world has changed. The video I have used here also shows the point I make periodically, that a man's bare chest wasn't a sexual thing once upon a time. As a Brummie, I also want to see this show because it shows the city and its canals (in case you didn't know Birmingham famously has more canals than Venice) as they were in the 1960s.
Spike Milligan's show Q has been released in two box sets, and they are definitely on my list of things to watch. Considering I could never tolerate the Goons very well (I would have to admit that Harry Secombe merely irritated me) I love Spike Milligan's humour a lot. I have one of those BBC Classic Comedy single-disc anthologies, which claims to capture the highlights of Q and his other series There's A Lot of It About. It is perhaps more associated with Peter Sellers (who plays his own ghost), but Milligan also features in a film in my shopping basket, Ghost in the Midday Sun. I have never seen it so really cannot comment at all, but given that the online reviews tend to comment on its surrealism I suspect that it is my kind of thing.
I notice that recently I have been venturing back in time from the sixties fantasy Avengerland in which I feel most comfortable. Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular crime writers of the earlier years of the twentieth century, and I am finally planing on trying one of the anthology DVDs of his Mysteries series. I was looking at them when I popped into HMV today and thinking that since I do like an old film, they ought to be bang up my street. I have never read any of his myseries so cannot comment on what they are actually like.
Returning to comedy, I have to admit that Dick Emery never fails to make me laugh, although his humour is so old-fashioned nowadays. I lent Ooh You Are Awful to a friend once who watched the beginning and returned it silently to me as if she didn't want it in the house, but he makes me roar. I have another of those BBC Classic Comedy discs, but the one I have in my basket is the disc containing the recordings Emery did for ITV in a rare departure from the BBC. The blurb and the reviews on the internet don't suggest that they differ in any great way from his normal output, so I am looking forward to more of the same.
I am more ambivalent about the Armchair Theatre series, believing anthology series to be rather patchy by nature. That said, it seems to me that the several box sets of the various series are retaining their value on the resale market, which often suggests that a TV series is quality and thus those who buy it on release don't sell the discs on. Otherwise, it is of course one of the all-time great names in TV shows, with what can only be described as a glittering cast of writers and actors. Of course you all know my reservations about great name actors in TV shows - and even before they became famous, watching those shows afterwards can often still bring the actor's later success intrusively into the viewer's mind.
Other shows I would like to see? Well the parody Laughing Prisoner would be high up on there. It has been on Amazon as awaiting release for some years, but never actually comes out. I remember seeing it in the 80s when there was a fad for shows like The Prisoner and The Avengers, which were being shown on the then-new Channel 4.
Perhaps I will make a point of writing an occasional post on what has caught my eye in the world of classic TV without the obligation to watch the show and thus make some judgement on it first, I have found it quite refreshing. Just please bear in mind that I am making no recommendation of any of these shows, so watch them at your own risk!

The Avengers: The Master Minds

Another of the great and very popular Avengers episodes, this one. In fact it's a bit difficult to know what to say about it because of the sheer volume of stuff on the internet, even to the extent of a detailed analysis of the crib notes on Steed's cuff.
From the very start this Avengers is so very, well, Avengers. There is literally not one image in this episode which doesn't scream Avengers. The outmoded uniform of the guard, juxtaposed with the instruction to 'Kill him,' which is surely more shocking than it would normally be in the circumstances. As always in The Avengers the guard is killed without blood, and with the apparently incongruent juxtaposition of the episode's title. The scene then cuts straight to the image of Steed driving through what can only be Avengerland.
The Avengerland depicted in this episode is actually an interesting mixture of the great institutions of State (the Tower), the classical columns Steed drives through to get to Sir Clive's house, and the fact that Sir Clive's house is relentlessly modern in architecture and fixtures. Incidentally I love the open fire in the centre of the sitting room, and am wondering whether the people in the flats above me would mind having a chimney put through their living rooms. The additional fact that the ransack organisation is using the traditional surroundings of the school, places this Avengers firmly in the category of an infiltration of the Establishment by Diabolical Masterminds.
Something which I feel hasn't been commented on much about this Avengers, is the recurring theme of the body and embodiment. Physical fitness is contrastes with mental fitness - although of course in this case physical fitness wins out in the end. Physical medicine is seen as relatively helpless in comparison to psychological medicine, and the theme of the body, the use of the body recurs frequently.
Nor is this episode short on the sexiness, not all of it coming from Mrs Peel as it happens, although the fact of her being asleep in Steed's car and the fact she wears a nurse's uniform must have set more than a few pulses racing at the time! Additionally when she and Steed arrive at Sir Clive's house the camera lingers on the rather glitzy catsuit she is wearing: Mrs Peel is clearly the principle sex interest in this one. Sex raises its lovely head in various other places in this episode as well: the struggle Steed has with Sir Clive's daughter who is only wearing a fur coat over a bathing suit, in which she has flown home, and I do like the scene of Steed with the male pin-ups, and the way he flexes his biceps, clearly putting him in the "body" side of the divide here, in one of the girls' bedrooms in the school. Mrs Peel's reaction to them, when she comes across them in the midst of her uncharacteristically subservient role of helping Steed unpack, places her firmly in the "mind" camp.
There is a more serious element to this Avengers, though, and it picks up on the oft-recurring theme of technology and particularly the misuse of technology, in this case for mind control, using the cover of an apparently innocuous organisation. The contemporary interest in psychiatry also raises its head and in one wonderful scene we see Steed beating the service psychiatrist at his own game. The diabolical masterminds who run Ransack attempt to control the members' bodies by the use of psychological means indicates that Ransack isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The fact that Steed can get in by pure cheating shows for sure that they are not that clever. And of course as usual Mrs Peel is shown up to be the brains of the outfit, as well as the sexy piece.
I particularly love the scene in the gym, where the opposition between mind and body is complicated somewhat by the fact that the brainy members of Ransack do get their exercise in. Steed poses as the non-physical person - he doesn't even have gym shoes - and I like the way that he and Mrs Peel remain clothed when everyone else is in gym kit, which naturally makes them stand out like sore thumbs. Mrs Peel is also posing, of course, since she is the very embodiment of physicality as well as having brains, but is not joining in the exercise. While Steed and Mrs Peel appear to be united, they are set against each other by the enemy, when Steed has to tell Mrs Peel that she doesn't remember a single thing that happened to her the night before.
As is often the case with TV shows that I love, I am finding it very difficult to find something to criticise in The Master Minds. You could say that the whole plot is frankly incredible, but of course that is the whole point of The Avengers. I find the voice over the tannoy telling the members of Ransack what to do, rather annoying, and think it would have been better and pushed more buttons in the psyche if a more commanding or military-sounding voice had been used. There are some criticisms of the factual stuff in this - the things on Steed's cuff and the conversation about the word yogurt - but since the whole point of this episode is that the brainy people are wrong, these criticisms are not incongruent at all, to my mind. There are also criticisms on the internet that this one takes a long time to get into its stride: I certainly think it improves as it goes on, and certainly once the opening scene is over, the visuals improve once the action in the school starts.
In the final analysis of this Avengers, the body wins out over the mind, and of course that was always going to be the point. The opposition between the two was set up from the start, and much of the point of this episode is that Mrs Peel is on the brains side of the equation and gets taken in completely. Steed doesn't have the brains, but has the sense to unplug the speaker in his room and is thus immune. Here, brawn saves the Great Institutions of Britain when they are threatened by the brains of The Enemy.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Public Eye: Don't Forget You're Mine

This second-series episode of Public Eye is an odd one which has survived from the series, which may be found among the extras on the 1971 series box series, along with a canalside interview with Alfred Burke during filming of the series. For the second series of 1966, Public Eye relocated here to Birmingham: Burke gives as the reason that Birmingham hadn't really been exploited on television up until then. Of course it was also to have use of the state-of-the-art facilities at the recently-demolished ATV studios on Broad Street.
The scene is set with a wonderful view of the old Bull Ring market complex - with the moving sign on the side of St Martin's house set to give the title of the programme. Perhaps I'd better get the local colour out of the way now, since I realise that the majority of my readers live very far away from here. It is interesting that the scenes of Birmingham used in the show are actually of the very modern, futuristic Birmingham of the 1960s, which was created by the council getting a lot of compulsory purchase order and demolishing everything in sight. It is also interesting that virtually all of the street scenes shown in this show are now gone. Fifty years later, the only thing that remains is one wall Marker walks along. My point here is that the heady futuristic dream of the sixties has largely bitten the dust.
One of the things which made me think about this episode is that I have been watching the second series of Peaky Blinders. I was wildly critical of the first series, but had heard that the second was better. Accent-wise, it is certainly better (you would think the first series was set in Liverpool), but I would have to say that coming to this from Peaky Blinders, I'm feeling bad at having even the slightest criticism of the accents. The episode begins marvellously with Marker trying to find an office to rent from Souter, an estate agent. His accent is ever so slightly overdone, but nonetheless is about as spot on as you're going to get on television, and serves to set the scene that Marker has definitely arrived in Birmingham. The best accent is actually the school teacher later on in the episode.
Local colour over, this situation is exactly the kind of outsider situation which Marker is so used to. He manages to get a run-down office and is essentially in business. Of course it only takes one phone call for him to get his first case and off he goes to see Mrs Jessup, around whom this case revolves. QUite literally revolves, because the whole point of this case it that it is something of a wild goose chase and Mrs Jessup is not quite what she seems to be. In fact she really isn't what she seems to be, because - look away if you don't want the story spoiled - it is really unexpected when she is seen with her toy boy later in the episode. The fact that Marker asks the young man is he is above the age of consent, moves Mrs Jessup into a category which is genuinely unexpected. The real nature of her search is very well hidden from the viewer until almost the end, making this episode a real surprise.
This episode shows the leg work of the private eye very well. Marker quite literally gets through shoe leather finding Mr Jessup, and many of the locations which are mentioned are real places, giving an extra sense of veracity to the viewer.
There is, however, one thing wrong with this episode, which must be ignored if you want to enjoy it. When she tells him that her husband has disappeared, this is merely stated as a statement of fact, and that is what is wrong with this one. People don't just vanish, without argument, without warning. If they do, their nearest and dearest have a habit of ringing the police. Marker's suspicions as to Mrs Jessup should have been aroused at the first interview, and he would have asked her what had happened to make him just vanish. I also have a feeling that Marker would have not hesitated to point out that usually if a man doesn't contact his wife the reason is an obvious one.
The oft-repeated situation of Marker having the wool pulled over his eyes and used, is opposed to the strong educational background to this episode, with its concurrent background of art and culture. The contrast is between the instilling of learning and the deceit of Marker. In fact the whole point of this episode is one of deceit: when Marker does track down Mr Jessup (I'll call him that for the sake of tidiness), it turns out that the wool has also been pulled over our eyes about his relationship.
A further contrast is between the go-ahead modernism of sixties Brum, which doesn't sit at all well with some of the squalor shown in the suburbs, and Jessup's landlady's old-fashioned shock at having an unmarried couple living in her house. Visually, this show is marvellous. The interior scenes are wonderful, and I love Donald Jessup's bohemian flat. Both visually and plot-wise, this Private Eye maintains interest to the very end.
I like Pauline Delaney in this one a lot. Far from the stable support character to Marker who she plays in later series, she is a far more louche character. I love the dramatic character she plays here: she overdoes it marvellously. And of course she is set up in the plot to be the person you end up disliking most. Marker winds up with his usual role of being the person who does what is right - in this case by not cashing Mrs Jessup's cheque so that he can prove what she is up to.
And that is the reason this Public Eye works so well - it is a plot calculated to work well with Marker's character. I would recommend it to any viewer.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Avengers: Get-A-Way!

It's lucky I have never attempted to write an actual book about cult TV - I would never have been able to stick to the train of thought for long enough, and the periodic medium of blogging seems to suit my way of ruminating much better. You will see that I started posting about Series 1 episodes of The Avengers last year - I will return to that, I am sure. I wrote then about the feeling I have of being almost frightened to blog about my favourite TV shows, in case I reach a point where I have blogged about them all and there are no more. Well, I have actually found myself returning to a programme I have already blogged about and found it wasn't the end of the world, but I have found myself somewhat held back by the fear I spoke of. This has prevented me writing so much about my favourite shows, so that is what I am going to do. I chose this Avengers episode to write about by literally shuffling the discs in their boxes and landing my finger down on the index, secure in the knowledge that I would be unable to find anything in The Avengers that I didn't want to write about.
The first thing to say about Get-A-Way! is that it immediately presents an anachronistic mixture of apparently mediaeval monastery (or the non-Catholic's idea of what a monastery would be like), contrasted with the then up-to-date technology used by the service which guards the men held there. This is not the first time The Avengers has a creative 'prison' - the rest home in Noon Doomsday is as much a defensive prison as the one in this show - with the problems of entry and exit reversed.
The scene of Rostoff's escape is again juxtaposed with the scene of drinks in Steed's apartment - the evening dress suggests solidity and reliability in the visual language of the show, and the fact that Miss King is the only woman makes it clear that this is a professional gathering rather than one of friends. The threat is similar to the one in Noon Doomsday, in that it is aimed clear at Steed personally, or rather he is the obvious ultimate target after the others have been knocked off one by one.
The science-as-great-white-hope-yet-open-to-misuse theme, which occurs so often in the TV of this era is amply shown in the fact that the opposition have developed a chemical to make people invisible. The names of the criminals and the fact of the chemical being (rather unconvincingly) hidden in a secret compartment in a vodka bottle, indicates that the enemy is somebody on the other side of the Ironfrequently Curtain, placing this show very much in its own time.
We know who the enemy is, but this show really makes me wonder about the nature of the organisation Steed and Tara work for. The fact that fruits are used as the password for the prisoners' cells, is very much in line with flowers being used as the names of agents in Who's Who. This is one of the things I like best about The Avengers - it is touches like that which stop it being merely a standard spy show, and inject a sense of the ridiculous. I love that the prison is set up in a pseudo-monastery, that the agents wear pseudo-habits, and that the prisoners' cells are, well, monastic cells! It is a wonderful example of the unreality of The Avengers, because none of this would happen out here in the real world! Incidentally I see that the external shots of the monastery use Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, which did actually start out life as an Augustinian monastery in the thirteenth century. Unfortunately I think the unreality is carried a step too far, as I will show below, because once it is apparent that Steed is going to be targetted he is left on the case and refuses further protection. One would think that Mother would have stepped in at that point to do something.
I was surprised to find at least one negative, in fact dismissive, review of this episode on the internet, saying that the episode is only saved by Peter Bowles's performance; I have read another review saying that the beginning of the episode is too weak (both of these are on the website. I personally disagree: I find Peter Bowles an unconvincing Russian and an unconvincing baddie. I also disagree about the beginning of the show, which I think draws people in excellently. Rather I think there are things wrong with this episode, but I would put them elsewhere: by the twenty minutes point of this show it is obvious that Steed is going to be targeted by an 'invisible' assassin. This creates the dual weaknesses that the organisation don't force him off the case into hiding, and that the story becomes a straighforward hunt for the solution to the invisibility conundrum. Unfortunately the solution to that is very obvious by the 25 minutes point, making the rest of the plot a rather thin one. We know that Steed will be hunted down, but we know that The Avengers will find the solution to the problem and stop him being killed. We know what causes the invisibility and the rest is filling. Even given that The Avengers is typically much more about atmosphere and characterisation than plotting, this is a major weakness. Obviously I do feel there are flaws in this episode, but just don't agree on where they are!
Otherwise I have a feeling that this one isn't a favourite of the fans. It scores consistently high on the internet sites where you can score TV shows, but I have found a lack of actual written reviews online, which I think is interesting. It suggests to me that if it was more popular somebody like me would have leapt online and written about it! Another weakness, which is completely personal and one I am not sure would have applied at the time, is that Peter Bowles is far too familiar in other roles to me, to be convincing in this one. Now I come to look, I see that he was warned on leaving RADA that he would never play an Englishman because of his swarthy looks, and I see that his early TV work consisted entirely of playing 'foreign villains', so perhaps he was more convincing to others that he is to me!
My main question about this one though is, would Steed really have been in any fit state to give anyone a lift after a night of drinking champagne? And what does it say about his attitude to safety that he offers George Neville a lift home? Even granted that this was a long time ago, the offer of a lift does genuinely surprise me!
My conclusion on this Avengers episode is that it is one of the weaker ones of a superlative series, and so still far from being rubbish. It is another case where a show intended to be seen once with no opportunity to pause or rewind it, may not stand up to the sort of examination I am subjecting it to. It is an example of the more lightweight Avengers episodes which can still be wonderfully entertaining. I do particularly like the closing scene where it appears that Steed is invisible.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Reflections on Quality Television inspired by Spyder's Web

Last night (although it was probably more like the afternoon where he is) Grant Goggans kindly left a comment on one of the posts I wrote when I originally went through Spyder's Web episode by episode. To find that series of posts you can click on the Spyder's Web tag on the web version of this blog.
Grant's comments set me off thinking again about Spyder's Web and of course today I have had to crack the set open and have a watch. I have particularly been asking myself the question I asked in my last post, about what I think differentiates quality television from mere television, which is still to ignore the duds completely. I would personally put Spyder's Web in the Quality Television bracket, and I have been thinking about what makes it that. Given that the category of Quality Television would include shows such as The Avengers, The Prisoner, Danger Man, among the better known ones, and among the ones less talked about, I would include Department S, The Champions, Spyder's Web, The Man from UNCLE, and Special Branch.
I think probably there are two defining characteristics here: one is a certain eccentricity, and the other is a reliably offbeat characterisation. For me the kiss of death on an Amazon review is when a show is described as a popular sitcom. What is it about the sitcom format that makes it so popular? I personally can't think of anything less interesting than watching the boring day to day activities of people I will never meet and who have never existed. My own daily life is rather pedestrian and I think I would have to watch TV as an escape from normal life. To drag this blog past back towards the subject I have given it: the life of the characters in Spyder's Web, and in fact all of the shows I mention above, can hardly be described as ordinary. Even film-making, the cover-story of Arachnid Films, is relatively speaking, a rather interesting and sophisticated world to the outsider.
Perhaps the parallel for this requirement that quality television should not depict ordinary life as such is the popularity of murder mysteries in all media. No doubt we have all known people who we would dearly wish were no longer around, but the reality of actually killing somebody is a different matter entirely. I'm also not taken with anything in the line of courtroom dramas, police procedurals, and so on: give me the magical realism of the Avengers any day, where there are no qualms about Steed and Peel suddenly just knowing that something is happening somewhere.
And then there is characterisation: the characterisation of Spyder's Web is incredibly strong, while somehow managing to be rather unreal. What I mean by that is that while we see a little more of Hawksworth's home life and interest in cars, we see nothing that I can remember of Lottie Dean's home life outside of Arachnid Films. Perhaps there isn't a home life, but in reality this makes her character rather one-dimensional. I don't intend it as a criticism if I say that she is almost a caricature of a secret agent: no family life, no home life, nothing that can break in to the secret. As far as this applies to the characterisation I like in Quality Television, I suppose there is a sense of unreality about all my favourite TV characters. Steed is unfortunately so unreal that to give him as an example feels like going straight for the low-hanging fruit. John Drake would be another example. He has a home, he has friends, apparently, but it is all rather unreal. I think what I am really getting at here is the fact that I like my characters to be unreal and going about their unreal business: apparently real people going about ordinary life are not really my cup of tea. Some of the more realistic shows fail in this to my mind, by trying to make what are obviously fictional characters only too real. Cockney cheeky chappies are all very well, but only exist in the imagination of the middle classes.
So: unreality and characterisation are my two main definers for really good television and Spyder's Web manages to tick both boxes. I see when I first wrote about this series I commented that the episodes varied in quality, which I suppose it the result of having different writers. Grant commented that the episodes on disc four are his favourites and of course we disagree about Things That Go Bang in the NIght! Of course An Almost Modern Man has the great advantage of guest starring Mike Pratt, and also of starting with a 'voodoo' ceremony. Magic, conflict and a willingness to discuss the more conflicted aspects of life - well frankly, these sound like a recipe for a post on this blog! Incidentally the magic scene looks exactly like stills from presumably an outtake from The Avengers episode Warlock included in the Optimum DVD set - the idea of what a magic ceremony looks like is strikingly similar, and I suppose the bare chests equate to perhaps a wildness, unconcventionality, or being in touch with the physical, or else possibly it was as close as they could get to the actual ritual nudity of Gerald Gardner's Wicca. Presumably the decision was taken to have Alban Blakelock with a top on for the take that was actually used. There is also nothing not to love about the other episodes on disc four, since they also ramp up the weird and wonderful. I see that these episodes were broadcast amongst the last, and perhaps there was a certain confidence about the show and its format by then.
The aspects of 1960s culture brought to the fore by these episodes are also of great interest to me. The conflict between the ancient and modern, and the fact that the world was simply a place where conflict on the world stage marked everything, are so 1960s. And what is very Avengers was that we see these great dangers being fought by two individuals employed in a rather shady way by Whitehall, and operating under a decidedly flimsy cover story. If only the world was still so simple now!
There is still a lot to like on the other three discs of the boxed set. In my humble opinion some of the episodes reach Avengers standards of quality and weirdness! In fact I think there is another parallel to draw with The Avengers. I am just watching Nobody's Strawberry Fool and Hawksworth has just commented that he hasn't yet finished reading Scouting for Boys. I am reminded of the occasions in The Avengers where Steed is seen to be reading Tintin - in French, of course. Hawksworth is something of a Steed character, in terms of breeding and being a Jolly Good Sort. The fact that his home setting is shown is telling, because in the visual language of television it gives us an insight into what he is about, and his solidly, safely furnished flat is provided with books aplenty, indicating a solidity to him. Where the Avengers thing is rather inverted, is that Lottie is and will always be, the boss in the relationship. That said, of course the relationship between Steed and the 'girl' of the time changed as time went on, and while I love series 6 dearly, I know a lot of the fans see the Tara King character as a mistake. Nor is an 'adult' dynamic ruled out between Lottie and Hawksworth: it feels much more of a relationship between a man and a woman where sex just lurks out of sight, and while it is fairly obvious that nothing is Going On, there is the implication that it could have done if things had been different.
The purpose of this post was just to log some thoughts on the quality status of Spyder's Web. Perhaps I will write a post or several posts actually comparing the various episodes to similar episodes of The Avengers. If you haven't seen this one yet - and let's face it, if you're reading this blog you certainly should have done - I would strongly recommend Spyder's Web as Our Sort of Television and one to be purchased as soon as possible.
Illustrations: screen shots from the galleries on the DVDs of Spyder's Web: An Almost Modern Man and The Avengers: Warlock.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Turtle's Progress Compared to Minder

A belated happy new year to all my readers. I wasn't drunk all this time; I managed to pick up a bug which has literally laid me low for a week, hence the lack of posts here.
Today I want to write about a series I bought on spec and comment on the way it is often compared to the slightly later series Minder. Turtle's Progress is what we would now call a spin-off from the 1975 show Hanged Man. I have owned Hanged Man on DVD, have watched it all the way through, and am not going to beat about the buch in declaring frankly that I didn't take to it. I bought it thinking that I would like its main premise, of a company boss who 'dies' in order to investigate who has it in for him. I still do like that premise, I just found that it lacked oomph and failed to hold my attention, a completely personal response to it, and of course you are welcome to disagree with me vehemently.
Turtle's Progress features one character from Hanged Man, but the setting is very different. It is the sort of East London gangland with forays into the respectable world TV series, which the word 'gritty' could have been coined to describe. Turtle (John Landry) and his sidekick Razor Eddie (Michael Attwell, who I eventually managed to place as playing one of the burglars in the Are You Being Served episode where it is stock taking and burglars break into Grace Brothers) are petty thieves who mistakenly steal a van which just happens to contain a consignment of safe deposit boxes. Naturally the contents of the boxes is much more valuable than the van itself, and the whole series is based on the implications of opening the boxes one by one.
I actually like that plot very much. It allows for a basic set of characters who interact with a different set of characters each episode, and the underbelly of such enterprises as racing and antiques can be visited, depending on who has an interest in the contents of the box opened in that episode. The constant background is the seedy setting and criminal family background of the protagonists.
The internet reviews I have been able to find for Turtle's Progress are few and far between yet almost relentlessly positive. It is evident that this show gained a strong cult following at the time it was first broadcast, and those people have cottoned on to its release on DVD with glee. I therefore feel obliged to make some criticism of the show, and I think it would have to be that considering this show dates from 1979-80 it is remarkably studio-based and doesn't compare well with the action-based series of the time, such as The Sweeney. This is purely a production criticism, but I think that is a major drawback for this show. A further production criticism is one which is simply because this show is caught in an unfortunate time frame: nowadays British ears are more accustomed to hearing real American accents than we were in the 1970s. Unfortunately this means that the actors speaking in 'American' accents are in no way convincing. Perhaps this is best seen as a historical record of how British TV portrayed Americans in the 1970s.
Turtle's production values also show when it is compared to Minder. You will read everywhere that Turtle's Progress had an influence on Minder, in fact it is mentioned on the box. To my mind the way in which it compares best is the depiction of the London demimondaine criminal fraternity, populated entirely by cockney chappies. Nonetheless Turtle's Progress feels much more 'worthy': it feels much more like a series of plays, and while the theme is clearly criminal it feels to me as if the treatment is much less adult. I am almost all the way through Turtle so far and I'm yet to meet a single reference to sex, to a crooked copper, or to the kind of desperation routinely referenced in Minder. Yes, Malone is clearly Turtle's minder, but to my mind the comparison really begins and ends with that fact and the London setting.
A question is raised in my mind by these shows, as to who their intended audience could be. I have written before about the north-south divide in Britain - by this was an ATV show so it couldn't possibly have been to entertain northerners. I also wonder, since the characters are to a man working-class, loveable cockneys, whether this was intended for the entertainment of the middle class? I just wonder that, rather than stating it as a fact. Turtle's aunt Ethel is the sort of loveable cockney character who makes mistakes in terms of simple general knowledge: I love the way she thinks that tea from the Co-Op in Fulham is not foreign, but nonetheless... There is of course a further historical element to this show in that I don't think for an instant the original working class population can afford to live in Fulham these days, unless housed in social housing, inherited a place, or sharing. Turtle is set at a time which has forever vanished in the wake of Thatcher, and the irony is that Turtle bizarrely emulates the private industry advocated by Thatcher.
On a completely personal level, both Turtle and Minder raise questions for me as to what differentiates these shows from what I would consider 'real' cult TV shows, such as The Avengers, The Prisoner, and so on. I think the difference is that those shows have a real streak of unreality. The problem for me with so much 'real' TV is that of course it isn't real at all!
Nonetheless I don't feel the need not to comment on Turtle's Progress as being a complete dud. I don't think the comparison with Minder holds up, and I think they are best approached looking for slightly different things. If you like cheeky Cockney chappies who are down on their luck, well Turtle's Progress might be just your thing.