Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Taxi! The Villain

I write today about the only remaining episode of a show I didn't even know existed until yesterday. The show was called Taxi! The remaining episode is called The Villain. I came across it because it was largely a vehicle for Sid James, one of my favourite actors. You can see this episode on youtube should you so wish.
It seems (according to wikipedia) the show was built on the propensity of London taxi drivers to tell tall stories. James features as Sid Stone, who owns the taxi company and shares a house with some of the other drivers. This remaining episode is from the first series, which was broadcast over the summer and had poor ratings; the completely-missing second series introduced more characters and therefore variety.
Taxi! raises a question for me personally: where does it stand in 1960s TV terms? I find it very difficult to place in comparison to the rather exotic offerings I routinely watch. It is from 1963 and is therefore pre-Emma Peel Avengers-era, and show none of the sexiness and adventure even of the early Avengers. One thing I would definitely say is that Taxi! shows itself for the BBC show it is: the majority of shows I blog about here are ITV shows. Taxi! feels much more like a stage play converted to the screen, which is a salutary reminder for the modern viewer that that is actually how TV was seen by the people who made the shows.
On another level, Taxi! is like many another drama (or possible sit-com) set in a particular work place. Hospitals and police stations are always good for human drama. Taxi! manages to spell out the central dilemma (through the mouth of James) very well: at what point do we put our foot down with other people, even if it means they have to take the consequences of their actions? The particular dilemma here is that Sid reports another driver - a man notorious for bullying other people and just pleasing himself - to the police with the result that he loses his license. This is naturally criticised by the other drivers, who have a (perhaps misguided, depending on how oyu look at it) loyalty to the profession above everything else. This action is despite the fact we see Sid cheating a tourist out of a return fare to the airport - the charge comes to £2 and how I wish that would get you further than the nearest lamp post these days!
There are all sorts of other ways in which this show is redolent of its age. Sid tells one of his drivers that he simply must get a radio in the cab if he wants to get ahead. Sid goes to the police station and the desk sergeant (a vanished species) knows immediately the particular case he is talking about and says he will see what he can do about getting the charges dropped. The sets look like the interiors of houses in Avengers of this period. The telephone numbers and exchanges are the old ones which not even I remember. The taxi drivers all have actual shirts on - no t-shirts or tracksuit bottoms in evidence!
This show is also an interesting mixture in terms of production: while much of the action very obviously takes place in sets, the external shots are of very good quality. In terms of production values, as I say you should expect a much more...I suppose the word is 'worthy', production than many of the shows I write about here. My one real criticism is that the story is rather confused by the introduction of a woman - the plot gets back into its track OK, but the introduction of a romantic interest isn't enough for those who want to watch romance, and detracts from the main thrust of the plot. The self-serving driver gets his comeuppance when one of his women meets his wife and he faces a far worse worse fate than the law can ever throw at him.
I have no idea how the one episode has remained - who kept it, how it was saved, and so on. I can say with certainty that it is incredibly well-preserved for an odd episode of a nearly-forgotten series. Would I want to watch the rest of the series if it existed? Probably. I don't think it would be a keeper, because of the relative simplicity of the plot. I would watch it for the 1960s milieu and background, and hope my readers do too.
Image: Sid James in Carry on Cabby

Monday, 27 March 2017

Lily Savage Parodies Classic TV

The parodies are coming thick and fast at the moment. I didn't really need to ask myself the significance of cult TV when I realise the impact it can have on popular culture. This post is about comedian Lily Savage and her parodies both of The Avengers and Doctor Who. Well, I say 'about' - it more showcases them, so click play, sit back and enjoy.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Laughing Prisoner

I was very pleased to find today that the Laughing Prisoner is back on YouTube in its entirety. It vanished for quite a time because a DVD release was mooted, which it seems has never transpired, so some kind soul has uploaded it again. As I am writing this I am watching it for probably the first time in thirty-five years and marvelling on the effect this spoof has had on me. Picture it. The 1980s. In Britain we had four television channels for the first time ever and there was some difficulty filling them with material. Channel four quickly became known for its arty and risque content, amongst which was the show which created The Laughing Prisoner, The Tube. I remember not liking The Tube very much, but obviously there was something in the zeitgiest which created the best parody of The Prisoner ever. The fact that the then young crowd felt they could parody a TV show from twenty years before was that at the time much of the television of the 1960s was being mined to fill the schedules of the TV channels - I think there may also have been a showing of The Prisoner to mark its twentieth anniversary. The two things came together, and this was the result.
I don't know who had the brilliant idea of casting Stanley Unwin as Number 3, but the choice is so successful that it creates a marvellously ridiculous atmosphere. I love particularly that footage from The original Prisoner is interwoven to give the illusion that Number 6 is still imprisoned there since the 1960s. As Stephen Fry says, nobody has ever got a thing out of him, and frankly The Laughing Prisoner gives an impression that all the inhabitants of The Village are rather deranged. Number 6 is shown fighting with Rover, who elsewhere has become a good pet, who Stephen Fry takes for walks.
There are other things changed from the original series. The bleakness of the scenery and the difficulties that must have been experienced maintaining Portmeirion are much more apparent here: gone is the happy sun-filled Village of the original series, and it is replaced by a much bleaker world. This, of course, makes The Village much less frightening than the manufactured spontaneity and happiness of the original. The gloom is lifted by the musical interludes - I imagine they are there because The Tube was primarily a musical show.
When I watched this show last, I had not had the experience I had at the end of last year of resigning. My employers didn't need to ask me why, my 2,000 word letter of resignation told them in great detail all my dissatisfactions going back for sixteen years. I don't therefore need to fear that I will be taken away to a Village and pressed to reveal why I have resigned, but I am nonetheless myself in the position of Number 6 (or Number 7 here). My point is that the act of resignation puts you outside of The Establishment, who can then feel free to punish you. Of course in The Laughing Prisoner it is apparent that there are only three resignees and two of the three are doubtfully sane. The Laughing Prisoner also shows the temperamental and petty nature of The Establishment's hatred against those who abandon it, something which is left ambiguous in the original series. In my own case, fortunately my industry in this city is largely split into two organisations and I have moved from one to the competition, and a surprising number of my former colleagues are texting me asking to be kept posted on vacancies...
The Laughing Prisoner moves faster than the original series because (in my humble opinion) it isn't mainly setting out to create an enigma but rather a set of pastiches of aspects of The Village. What it does show up very clearly - despite the already archive quality of the 1980s show - how bad the original footage was at that time, in comparison to the fully-restored look we are so used to today. It looks awful. It's crackly, the colours are bad, in fact it looks like I remember The Avengers looking in the 1980s. Lucky us, with technology moving on as it has. And (this really is going to sound ridiculous) I had forgotten how big hair was in the 1980s, on both men and women. That is so embarrassing to say! But it again highlights the bleak, austerity-driven world we live in now. Perhaps it was my age, but I remember the 1980s as a time when things felt possible, when it felt as if the prosperity dream would never end, it felt as if you could do pretty much anything you wanted... The reality reminds us of the injustices and pain of the time, but also prevents the freedom we felt at the time.
This all-pervading unreality is the theme of The Laughing Prisoner and what I love absolutely best about it is the way the board of Channel 4 are all cardboard cut-outs.
I so badly want a Prisoner chair now.

George and the Dragon: First Impressions

I am stuck at home sick, having managed to scratch the surface of my eye. It is getting better slowly but be prepared for this post to be even more eccentric than usual, at least in spelling and punctuation. It has given me time to indulge in this new-to-me series, which I bought largely on spec on the basis that I tend to like things with Sid James in.
I am ashamed to say that while I was obviously aware of Peggy Mount's existence, I don't think I have seen much with her in, except for some episodes of The Larkins (which I downloaded and are waiting to be posted about here). I am interested to find that she is a very interesting person, whose life was marred by a wildly unhappy upbringing – she got into acting largely to get away from this upbringing, because her mother told her she would never amount to anything in comparison to her sister. She did that thing which is probably one of the most difficult human actions – she cut off all contact with her birth family in the 1940s, later surrounding herself with an adoptive 'family' of more positive relationships. It must have been extraordinary for her birth family to see her on the telly, but of course if you don't want to risk your child cutting you off, you don't treat the child that badly.
The underlying sadness to Mount's life of course is in opposition to the fire-breathing characters she tends to play. It is evident that this was not character casting, and in fact the Dragon character here is not half such a dragon as she's made out to be, rather she is kind and has a heart of gold. You can meet much worse dragons any day off the week (I recently overheard one of my current colleagues saying that she had told her son's girlfriend that if push came to shove he would choose his mother over his partner and the mother of his child. Asking for trouble, that is).
The fundamental relationship in this show is that between, well, George, and Gabrielle Dragon. I was astonished to read that this show was broadcast as laste as 1968, because the success of the show is dependent on the fact that nothing is ever going to happen between those two. There is clearly a romantic and sexual chemistry between them, and much of the action is based on the to-ing and fro-ing between them. The subject of sex comes up repeatedly and yet, and yet…in comparison to The Avengers this show seems so old-fashioned. Admittedly comparing this show to The Avengers is hardly fair, because nothing will ever compare to it, but I think there are other 1960s series which make George and the dragon look like a 1950s relic.
There are other ways it seems like an older TV series than it is (this is not a criticism, merely a statement of my perception). The Colonel's household is so old-fashioned just in terms of staffing. Sure there are people who can still afford to employ a housekeeper, gardener, and chauffeur, but I feel that sort of household better represents an age of fuller employment and lower wages.
The show's production values also represent an earlier age in television than 1968. It is completely studio-based, with no external footage at all. I like the sets a lot – I like the looks of the 1960s interiors which are aiming for traditional rather than modern. I like the way smoking is mentioned casually, as just something people did rather than the self-conscious smoking you would find in Mad Men. Despite my conviction that this show represents a slightly earlier era in TV than some of the up-to-date shows of 1968, I have afeeling that it probably better encapsulates the way of living of most ordinary people in the 1960s. Were long players available in the 1960s? I'm fairly sure they were, but Gabrielle is passionately attached to mer mother's old 78s which get broken in one episode.
I have a feeling that normally this is a show I wouldn't take to – that is you think of it as a situation comedy. But George and the Dragon manages to hold my interest largely because of the chemistry between the characters and the relatively fast pace of the stories.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Flower of Gloster

Regular readers will remember how I walked out of my last job in September and walked straight into a better one. I am delighted to announce that only three months later an even better opportunity for promotion has come along and my notice is in. As my congratulatory present to myself I bought several of the things in my Amazon basket, Spike Milligan's Q, which I don't doubt I will be writing about here soonish, and Flower of Gloster, about which I just have to rush into print at once.
On reflection I find that I have written about several children's programmes here, or rather programmes intended for children, which may or may not have a grown up following as well, but relatively few of these stay in my permanent collection. Tintin is there in French - he used to irritate me in English, and then I actually went to France and saw kids sitting on the floor in the hypermarkets reading the books, and got hooked. I also keep the 1970s version of the Famous Five, just because. I have a feeling that Flower of Gloster will be a keeper.
You see, Flower of Gloster is a dream. It is so sweet. It is the sort of show you can put on after a nightmare day at work, and be taken elsewhere. Notwithstanding that moving a canal boat down the length of the country is very hard work indeed, so you do see some real labour going on.
A major constituent of the different world depicted in Flower of Gloster is the sheer difference that the intervening fifty-odd years have wrought on the world we live in. For a start, there is a complete absence of the sort of safety-mindednes subsenquently enshrined in law by the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. On several occasions, you see the actors in the 'cut', actually in the canal water and while canal swimming may have been a commonplace in the nineteenth century, I don't really think it was ever a good idea. Children are seen running around completely without parental supervision, and one of the wonders of this show is that is shows a world for children which is free of the then-prevalent fear of stranger danger. Ironically this show depicts almost exactly the world I write about her so often - the 1960s world where the old order was passing, and a brave new world being built. I suspect that at the time people thought the canals were dead, although I have no idea whether they are actually used commercially any more in the age of high-speed communication. Another aspect of the difference in communication is the regional accents you hear - I genuinely think that probably you couldn't hear such strong British regional accents nowadays, and in places, even as a native speaker I have difficulty understanding what the characters are saying!
Then at the start of disc 2, the show suddenly comes home, which is announced by the words, 'We've got to get to Wolverhampton by tonight'. Living in the Venice of the UK as I do (no, seriously...) there is no way my home city of Brum could not appear in this show. If nothing else it shows how bad the state of the canals was in the 1960s before the restoration movement took off, and Flower shows the post-industrial landscape of the Midlands before the warehouses were turned into flats and what have you. I love the 1960s view of the city centre - and I particularly love that the instant they tie up in Gas Street basin they get out and get shopping! But what I love most is the contrast between the 'old' canal and the thrusting new world being built about it - which exemplifies that contrast that features in so much of the TV I like. I love that they go shopping in the Bull Ring and you get to hear the market traders shouting - which really hasn't changed in the years since, although they don't tend to wear ties nowadays! I love the way the man selling rolls of cloth works out the maths in his head *in old money* - I mean actual shillings - which is something which always defeated me although my mother still thinks in old money. I love that then as now and always, Birmingham is one big building site with cranes everywhere - in fact this is a Birmingham thing and there is a 19th century folk song about a sailor who came back home and didn't recognise it as Brummagen!
Production values of this show are interesting: I believe it to be a filming of a book, although I'm not sure whether it is a true story, but I know for a fact the show is made in a way which is far divorced from story-telling. Much of the lore of the canals is explained at great length, so there is a kind of educational undercurrent, but it is presented very much as the tale of a real journey. In fact it looks and feels much more like a documentary than a scripted show, and the extras who tow the boat in Wolverhampton are very obviously locals judging by the accent! Purists probably wouldn't be that keen on aspects of the restoration - the sound is clean and crisp, but the picture shows more dots and marks than some people would probably like. The theme is orchestral but I love the way the incidental music is jazz numbers, which is one of the things that prevents this show from becoming unadulterated pastoral idyll.
I have no hesitation in not only telling the rest of the cult TV blogosphere to go out and buy this series right now, but I am also giving it my rare Stonking Good Television award, for its escapism and unusual production.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Computer Wore Menace Shoes

I have come incredibly late to the cult of The Simpsons - for some strange reason I took an instant dislike to them in the nineties, but now they make me roar with laughter. I make no apologies for blogging about an episode here, since I think The Simpsons are now venerable enough to be considered Cult, and they're also not the newest show I've written about here. This episode in particular fits in to this blog because it is the famous one which parodies The Prisoner and has a guest appearance by Patrick McGoohan, so is definitely suitable a cult TV blog.
The first thing to say about this show is that I think you should ignore many of the reviews for the season twelve boxed set, which say that the packaging is impossible, and you inevitably damage the discs removing them. To get that out of the way, the way to get one disc out is to squeeze the flaps containing the discs you don't want and turn it upside down until the disc you want starts to slide out and grab it. There, simple, and controversy out of the way.
There is an irony about this Simpsons - a deliberate one, no doubt - that it comments on our modern world of internet surveillance and invasion of privacy. In fact, if this isn't exactly the sort of world the original Prisoner series warned us about, I don't know what is. The themes of anonymity and the use of knowledge run through this Simpsons at every step. This is seen through the microscope, and the tiny world being viewed is what could happen in any town if a single person started using the 'information' he had, and of course the trouble is that *everyone* has secrets and they don't want them revealed! Like all good television, The Simpsons hold up a mirror to our world, and the uncomfortable truth is that so many people will believe any old rubbish, and the point of the prisoners' knowledge is that it is really a load of old rubbish which is clearly very threatening to the powers that be. It is so clever that the particular bit of nonsense which Homer has stumbled upon is the hysteria around flu jabs, thereby drawing on a true ridiculous theory.
I love the sequence where Homer wakes up in The Island, which deliberately apes the awakening in The Village scene of The Prisoner. The Simpsons version of The Prisoner effectively hold up a mirror to the real series as well by pointing out that Rover is actually only a balloon when it comes to it, while maintaining the fear that the agents of control of The Island are actually in our own homes. My only criticism of the episode is that it reverses the priorities of The Prisoner by spending the majority of the episode showing what Homer has done to deserve incarceration, rather than spending the majority of the episode on The Island only slowly showing what he has done.
Nonetheless this is a Simpsons episode of special interest to cult TV fans.