Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Avengers: Strange Case of the Green Girl

The Avengers spinoffs are coming to my attention thick and fast at the moment. At the start of this year I hadn't heard of the comic strips. I knew about the Right Guard advertisement, but I didn't know that a decade before Patrick Macnee had appeared in a more-overtly Avengers-inspired fashion shoot. It was a promotion for clothes by Austin Reed in Terylene fabric and took the form of a spy story in the Man's Journal, presented with Woman's Realm in April 1966. You can download a PDF of the whole thing here and my source for the images is here. I like this spin-off enormously because it manages to capture the visual world of The Avengers so perfectly.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Avengers: The Secret Six and a Giveaway

This is of course an adventure from The Avengers' comic book adventures. I bought the second set of adventures published by Big Finish, only to find that there is a printing error on one of the discs of this set in the first edition. The upshot is that through Big Finish being keen to bend over backwards to please their customers I have wound up with two copies of the disc of The Secret Six (both of which are printed with the name of another adventure. Rather than throw away the surplus one, if anyone wants it, just drop me your address in a comment on this post (I won't publish it), and I will put it in the post to the first commenter.
There is a sense in which this is both a return to the early days of The Avengers (literally two against the underworld), and yet also manages to reference virtually every mystery in history, as well as referencing various Avengers adventures, which themselves already reference or parody many adventures! It may sound overly postmodern but this Avengers adventure is a lot of fun! The advantage of this particular disc is that it has an extended feature at the end with interviews with many of the actors and production, which makes an interest commentary on the advientures.
I like the sheer exuberance of this story, and the fact that the plot is frankly completely bonkers. John Dorney (who adapted this story from the comic strips) makes the point that the comic genre allows the story to go far more places than television (at least at the time) ever could have done, and so this story in particular is more far-ranging than the Avengers TV series, with all sorts of effects which are more easily realised audibly thn visually. For a start there are (obviously) six baddies in this one, who are in no way actually secret. Echoes of Intercrime, obviously.
Yet despite these early-Avengers overtones we are firmly in Avengers-land. The host for the party which goes wrong is of course a Lord. Do I need even to comment on the fact that all the criminals are foreign? - Except one, who is actually also a knight, despite speaking cockney.
What I'm about to say isn't a reservation because I love this play. But I do think that if you are inclined that way you may find that it uses too many devices of the genre (electrified chair and descending top of the four poster bed) and you may find it rather 'ham'. As I say this is not a criticism, it is just a comment that this may not appeal to all tastes. Personally I love Murder by Death and can watch it repeatedly without ever getting tired of it, but I think if you look on that film as a bit corny you will see this adventure in the same way.
On the other hand, the possibly-corniness-to-some-eyes is what makes this in the true Avengers tradition. As we know the whole point of The Avengers is that it is not real, and that applies to this play from beginning to end. Steed was never real to start off with. The secret six are completely unreal. The plot is unreal. Lord Tweezle isn't real - none of the landed gentry in The Avengers ever is. And that is the point.
It is a sign of the quality of this series that I really only want to repeat what I said about this series the last time I posted about it. If you love The Avengers and can live without Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as Steed and Mrs Peel, you will love these. The commentaries touch on a wish by Olivia Poulet (Mrs Peel) that more will be made, and frankly, I too hope they will!

Image credit:

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Frighteners: Bed and Breakfast

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the whole genre of scary TV shows. Last year, for example, I bought the boxed set of Thriller, only to find that it didn't really do a great deal for me. And yet this is strangely idiosyncratic, because as a child I loved both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. Yet strangely I have never taken to Hitchcock's films, finding them too biased towards the suspense and away from things actually happening, and the two TV shows I loved so much as a child have failed to hold their interest for me as an adult. Another classic film series of the horror genre to which I was exposed as a child and which I find has lost its interest now is the Hammer House of Horror films. I have a feeling that their interest as a child was contingent on the fact that I was staying up beyond what mother would want, she was asleep upstairs, and the films contained a hint of sex - once again the horror and the sex alike never really came to fruition.
For all these reasons I have been ambivalent about buying the recently-released DVD of the virtually unknown series, The Frighteners. The reason this show is virtually unknown, even in the cult TV world, is that the show was originally cursed by bad scheduling, so that is has never actually been seen in its entirety outside of the London Weekend Television area, its placement in the graveyard slot after midnight, and its being cursed by a strike which meant that some episodes were made in black and white, so that they were doomed to the midnight slot, anyway.
The thing I like about The Frighteners is that the frightening stuff is present right from the start. For example in the episode called The Treat the very fact of the three old men glaring at each other in the car with the orderly putting on a brave face is so atmospheric: you just know that this situation contains the sort of depths of awfulness which drive people to mental illness or just plain denial. Unfortunately this is a shortcoming with the episode I focus on here, that while it feels as if it is a criminals-violating-respectable-peoples-lives plot at first, it soon becomes very obvious that the whole point of the episode is Mr and Mrs Cartwright getting their comeuppance for something they have done themselves. I say this is a weakness, but perhaps I am reading these shows through the lens of the sort of TV I usually watch, where you know that someone (whether it be Steed or the men from UNCLE) is going to arrive and put it 'right', or rather do something to relieve the agony. In The Frighteners, the fact that you can see what is coming, merely intensifies the pain, and in fact there is only pain in this show. This is a different world from the feel-good TV I normally watch, and in fact it makes a pleasant change.
Bed and Breakfast starts wonderfully with no lengthy preamble, just straight into the action - and I think this is what makes The Frighteners really different to many of the suspense series of the time. In fact, this is indeed high praise, but it reminds me very much of two Avengers episodes - Game, with its theme of individual retribution, and, more obviously, Take-Over, although of course there the take-over wasn't itself the point. Bed and Breakfast manages to have the same unsettling combination of respectability and lawlessness - with the twist that of course the apparently-respectable guests who drive up in their Rolls Royce are the ones taking the law into their own hands. The fact that both sides of the plot here are visibly opulant and respectable indicates that The Frighteners has a talent for turning the language of television on its head and really messing with the viewers' heads.
Bed and Breakfast also does an excellent job of creating an emotion in the viewer - not merely the emotion of suspense in which something terrible is going to happen. That would be far too predictable and in fact Bed and Breakfast creates a much more frightening sensation that the viewer really doesn't know what the hell is going on. I'm sure I don't need to tell readers here that Ian Hendry is excellent as the rather deranged-seeming seeker of bed and breakfast - he intones the lines in such a way that it is clear that not anywhere near all is being told, and that is carefully kept for the end. I have watched this episode twice in the preparation of this post, and on watching it again it is wonderful the way the visitors insist that the Cartwrights are running a bed and breakfast. This is a very clever and confusing plot device, because after all, going around persuading people that their home is a guest house, is a rather unusual undertaking!
Full marks for plot from me, so what about everything else? I also love the 1970s clothes and cars in this series. The colour palette is the one that I usually think of as '1970s drab' - I'm sorry but this show keeps its punches for messing with the viewers' thoughts, and there is a limit to how visually exciting this show is ever going to get. I have one other criticism, which is that the picture is perhaps not as clear as it could be, although I'm assuming that some restoration must have taken place to the forty-year-old recordings. I am illustrating this post with a screen shot so that you can see the actual quality of the picture. The sound, on the other hand, is perfect.
Regular readers will know that I tend not to like these actors who appear in everything so that you tend to end up wondering where you've seen them before. In Bed and Breakfast the cast of familiar faces show their quality by being their characters rather than themselves, and in fact all of the episodes of The Frighteners include solid, quality actors of the time, rather than mere celebrities. At this stage of his life Ian Hendry's voice was becoming wonderfully gravelly (I said when I started this blog that I wouldn't mention my own TV crushes because otherwise this blog would become overly about them rather than the shows, but I will make my first exception here to say that Ian Hendry is a permanent crush of mine and my one regret here is that the hairy chest doesn't get a showing). Wendy Gifford is of course talented in all sorts of things as well and being a first class actress, including the RSC and Doctor Who in her credits. John Welsh will of course be familiar to anyone who has watched the TV of the sixties and seventies to any great extent, as indeed will be Gabrielle Daye. While IMDb is trying to tell me that Harry Douglas, who plays an old man, is still alive, which I find rather implausible since he was in films in the 1930s, the length of time is shown by the fact that the only actor I am sure is still alive of the cast is Roye Boye, who plays a chauffeur. You will note the theatrical standing of the cast and see that this is one of the things which puts The Frighteners in a different class from the many disposable shows of the 1970s. This is really quality television - I know I keep saying that, but it keeps hitting me in the face.
Finally, I am very pleased to have discovered The Frighteners, given my frequently-repeated fear that no more old TV will ever be released. My only fear for it is that as a show which hasn't been seen much or at all in its native UK, people won't buy it for its reminiscence value, and it may continue to be little-known, hence this post. It is also in danger of being missed because of tending to belong somewhat in a TV plays genre, rather than in the suspense genre. Nonetheless, I like this show very much, and would recommend it to anyone who likes the sort of TV I write about here.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Coming up...

I wrote a whole post recently about the contents of my Amazon basket. Some of those things have moved from my basket into my possession, so this post will be more about things I actually have in hand.
I have bought the second volume of Big Finish's dramatisations of the Steed and Mrs Peel cartoons from the sixties. You can of course imagine my joy at having another four new Avengers adventures. It was cheapest to buy the CDs from an Amazon marketplace seller and you can imagine my disappointment at finding that my new, sealed set contained two discs the same so that I was missing one adventure. Kudos to Big Finish for sending me a replacement disc without fuss - I really hope it was just mine that was like this, a whole run gone wrong could really be expensive.
The first volume of Spike Milligan's show Q has found a home on my shelves. I love Milligan's humour, although I would say that I suspect the confusing and eccentric numbering of this series (beginning at number 5!) may limit this show's appeal, as well as its single-letter name.

Still on the theme of comedy, as I write this I have the Goodies on. This is the second time I have owned this DVD and really can't think why I didn't like it the first time - I can only think that tastes change.

Finally, I have my first week of annual leave in my new job coming up so I have ordered the recently-released set of The Frighteners TV series which I have never seen. Here's a preview:

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Avengers: Patrick MacNee/John Steed in a Right Guard Advertisement which has caused me to reflect on how sexy old TV is

(Edit: this is my first experiment with the Blogger video player and I find it's not working for me so if you have trouble seeing the video I've also uploaded it here)
The fact that I am devoting a whole post to an advertisement does not mean that I have finally run out of TV to write about - it means that this advertisement has made me want to share some reflections here on the, well, sexiness and world of old TV.
'Sex began in 1963,' was how Larkin phrased the sexual revolution, and of course that was before the TV I write about here, or else more or less coincided with its start. Regular readers will know that I don't shy away from writing about the sexiness of the TV I watch. Yet on the whole it is a rather 'underground' sort of sexuality, which I suspect could be because of broadcasting standards at the time. And here's the thing - look up The Avengers on the internet, and I have to say that you will find some of the shows appearing on what I can only describe as fetish sites. The fight between Mrs Peel and the bare-chested man in You Have Just Been Murdered, for example. That's one which appears on sites for those who like That Sort of Thing. Mrs Peel's get-up for the benefit of the Hellfire Club is a rather obviously sexual image. But on the whole the sex in The Avengers is the incredibly-kinky-but-barely-visible-if-you-re-not-looking-for-it sort I wrote about in my post about Castle De'Ath. As  adults in 2017 I think we can be more frank about sex, but in sixties TV it is something that tends to be there but not commented on.
I think it is for this reason that I don't buy into the idea that Steed and Mrs Peel could ever get into a fling or a relationship. In line with the ethos of sex being there but not obvious, I think it only right that any sexual chemistry between Steed and Mrs Peel should remain just that. Nonetheless I see no reason not to comment on it when it is there, and obviously as is the case with my Castle De'Ath  post, the sexiness of the show dominates my post. I'm aware at this point that I am trying to say that we should make overt something which was intended to be almost subliminal.
Some of the shows I write about here are more overtly sexual. One of the things which prompted me to these reflections is that I have been listening to I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, with its strapline of 'full frontal radio,' which even as a child tickled me. While that also encapsulates the seen-but-not-seen aspects of early sixties nedia, I have a feeling that sexuality became more overt in broadcasting as the sixties went on, and I'm guessing culminated in the sex comedy films of the seventies. Of course I stand to be corrected on this. This greater sexualisation has presented me with some problems, actually. When I wrote a post about Monty Python, I didn't post the topless picture of the shop assistant in the 'Dull Life of a City Stockbroker' sketch, because I was unable to find out whether bare breasts would make Blogger insist on me having an adult content warning so posted it on my Flickr instead. The only breasts to appear on here so far have been these ones !
That said, the pictures on my flickr stream which get most hits are the one with some more overtly sexual element, even one entitled Mrs Peel wearing a catsuit! Obviously sex sells, as always, which brings me nicely to the subject of this post (you see there was a point to all this rigmarole about sex and The Avengers.
This advertisement dates from 1977, New Avengers era. There are two things which strike me about it. The first is that in my humble opinion this sequence of people having their clothes vanish and everyone know they're not wearing Right Guard, is incredibly sexy. While it is often talked about as the stuff of nightmares, the sequence of suddenly being naked in a public place is also one of those things which could very easily cross over into being a fantasy. This mixture of emotions is actually shown perfectly by the passengers on the underground, and there is a nice mixture of horror, embarrassment, and laughter at the clothes of some of the passengers vanishing. I find it interesting that the underwear is probably not the latest designs for the 1970s but is standard boring underwear, indicative of embarrassment and exposure. In the language of television I so often write about, which neatly chimes with the language of dreams here, this spells exposure of all sorts.
New Avengers era, remember. Which brings me nicely to my next point: in the middle of this underground carriage of people in their underwear is Steed. Of course it's Patrick Macnee, but to all intents and purposes it's Steed, since he is dressed as Steed, and of course sounds like Steed. Urbane and refined Steed. Who is completely unruffled by the vanishing clothes, and also doesn't seem out of place, but immediately knows what it means. This is the sexual undercurrent of The Avengers made obvious and also made the subject of the mystery.
Only in the seventies.
My source for the video was here, where I downloaded it, but I notice it is no longer up there, so I decided to upload it here myself.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Special Branch: Intercept

I have honestly no recollection whether I have posted about Special Branch here before: I have a feeling that since it is a show which took a marked change of direction from its 1960s incarnation to its 1970s incarnation, I may have posted about the 1960s incarnation before, and left the 1970s version to be dealt with on a different day. That day has npw arrived, and frankly I am surprised that I haven't got round to posting about how much I love this series here. It has literally everything. It has 1970s nostalgia (my dad had a Ford Cortina like that), it has politics in their broader sense, it has the internal politics of the special branch, it has the personality clash between Craven and Haggerty, and most particularly it has that wonderful 1970s feel.
WHat I like very much about Intercept is the political topic of the South American oil and how this is all related to a parcel bomb which goes off right at the beginning. Energy and violence: what more 1970s subject matter could you require? - this was of course the age when nobody really knew what was going to kick off next. I have written before repeatedly about how I tend to dislike reality coming crashing in on my TV, but in this case I will make an exception. In fact Special Branch is an exception to my rule: here I don't mind the reality creeping in on my escapism, because, well, I don't really have a because. Here it just strikes me differently, and the grittiness is part of the package.
Take the scene where a parcel bomb is delivered by a fake postman to a man in a grotty bedsit. Well, that said the bedsit itself is probably more boho than grotty, but it is very apparent that the *setting* more than anything else, is a bit of a mess. And there is almost something of The Avengers in the way the bomb is delivered as if it is a special delivery, by a man pretending to be a postman, that pillar of British Society.
In common with many 1970s TV programmes, Special Branch is very sexy in a particular way which nowadays seems rather old-fashioned. As usual I'll comment on the totally non-sexual bare chest of the parcel bomb recipient. In this episode a female police sergeant poses as an actress to get in with a bent theatre producer, and I just love the way he literally ogles her when she turns up at his office. He tells her to take her coat off so that he can get a better view, and I love the way he literally licks his lips as he eyes her up. In the next scene she is in his American car and he feels up her leg. You probably couldn't put that on the TV now, merely because it would seem so overdone and corny, as indeed I suppose it is in retrospect. One of the things I like best about this show is that it literally pulls no punches, and the sleazy director character gets his 'comeuppance' by winding up getting shot while on the loo and ending up rolling around in the street in his underpants. The female sergeant, incidentally, winds up with her dress ripped open and also winds up in the road in her bra, in an interesting parallel of the earlier incident. There is nothing of the feel-good amorality of much of 1970s film and TV, in fact there is almost nothing feel-good about this at all! Special Branch is also interesting by virtue of not having a female lead - of the two male leads I suppose Patrick Mower is intended to be the male sex object, but it is ironically George Sewell's character who has had a more established sex life. The relationship here, where they perpetually spark off against each other, is reminiscent of The Professionals, and I suppose the two shows come out of the same stable, as being about a professional job, with anything sexy as a side interest.
I'm finding it hard to find fault with this episode of Special Branch, but I suppose I can drag up some criticism if I try to hard enough. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my distaste with typecasting actors, or even with actors who keep on reappearing. You could say this of both George Sewell and Patrick Mower, of course, but they don't grate on me personally by their presence in this episode. What does grate on me is Paul Eddington cast as the government official. I know that people often comments on an actor's suitability to a particular kind of role, but it is not something I take to. I have watched this episode four or five times, including one time paying much closer attention for the purpose of this post, and it may be just me getting lost in the 1970s milieu, but I find it very difficult to know who is who in this show, or even which side they are on. Of course this may be deliberate.
Otherwise I like it very much indeed. Visually, this episode excels at the contrast between high society and the sleazy demimonde. It is shows like this which show up period shows such as Life on Mars as not quite getting the period touches right. In Special Branch you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and feel the vinyl seats of the cars against your legs. That is without the 1970s smell of fear and the perpetual threat of violence and disaster at any moment.
That, of course, is what Special Branch excels at and which puts it head and shoulders above most of the 1970s shows I have blogged about here. It is also what makes its realism more acceptable to me personally. Some 1970s TV shows try to avoid the unremitting awfulness of that decade and in the process create a show which is as interesting as the instant mashed potato of the age. Special Branch faces the violence and desperation of the age head on, and by not avoiding it, come up with a show which is superlative in its interest and drama.