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.