Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Avengers: The Secrets Broker

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

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Reflections on Children's TV Inspired by The Feathered Serpent

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

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Steptoe and Son: Porn Yesterday

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