Saturday, 25 November 2017

Ghost Squad: The Green Shoes

Before The Avengers. The Avengers. After The Avengers. That is largely my own description of the landscape of 1960s British TV. Regular readers will of course know that I see The Avengers as a high point, and everything else is rather an anticlimax, or under the show's influence, or imitating it. It is for this reason that I tend not to venture into the world before The Avengers very often (except in film terms - most of the films I watch are pre-Avengers). Ghost Squad is thus a rare departure for me - although still bang up my street because it is still an ITC show, which studio produced the majority of the rest of my favourite viewing.
Ghost Squad was never really going to appear here, until I came across the box set in a charity shop in Stratford upon Avon this week and took that as the universe's message to me. I'd read about it, of course and it tends to come up in my recommendations on Amazon, but I'd never really taken a fancy to it. I'm trying to put my finger on why, because actually I don't think think it is that different in scope to most other ITC shows - adventure, espionage, the classic formula.
What decided me that I had to write about this particular episode here was the scene in the nuclear reactor. Of course here we are revisiting the theme so common to Atomic Age TV, that technology is wonderful and dangerous at the same time. I can even more specifically describe what decided me to write about this episode - it was the safety costumes worn by the workers and visitors in the nuclear reactor. They look like inflated plastic bags, cut to the workers' size. I wondered how the actors breathed through these suits, although they are clearly inflated so there is obviously air in them. I also wondered how they stopped the suits steaming up from the actors' breath - such are the peripheral things I tend to think about when I watch TV. As usual I also wondered what wearing one of those suits would feel like, and came to the conclusion that it wouldn't be much fun.
Otherwise the nuclear reactor's security is the key to that part of the show, and this episode is very much a classic tale of east-west espionage in the Cold War. The Other Side are after our nuclear secrets and the Ghost Squad is responsible for recapturing the vanished radioactive material. Again this is a plot which is familiar from other shows of this age - I'm sure either Department S or possibly The Champions have an episode with a very similar plot. It is the fear of technology being misused by diabolical masterminds, which we find in a an 'unreal' sense in The Avengers, here writ large and very much in the real world.
Except it isn't the real world as we know it in 2017. This is very obviously a different world. The up to date technology looks marvellous outdated. All the men wear suits. The cars are wonderful. There is a maker of ballet shoes who makes them by hand and all his customers have their own lasts. Does that happen nowadays? I have absolutely no idea, naturally. The ballet slippers are the rather obvious clue as to what has happened to the purloined radioactive material. Well before the Polish Pope, Chernobyl, and Perestroika, this show really does depict a different Europe, one divided down the middle. It is easy to forget how the other side of the iron curtain was seen before things opened up, and this show rather brings it back. I had forgotten how the arts - here ballet - were one of few things which passed over the iron curtain, for example. And no doubt at the time, this show would have seemed bang up to date, with such things as a message being received on an airoplane. The sophisticated setting is further enhanced by the high class worlds of science and ballet in which this episode takes place.
The predictability of the conclusion is of course a plot weakness in this show. Once the Ghost Squad visit the ballet shoe maker's shop it is fairly obvious what will happen. While this is portrayed as a dangerous and risky mission - it is very obvious what will happen. It is a personal opinion but of course I'm not keen on the familiar actors who appear in a number of shows, who make an appearance here. The point is to watch the show, not to think about where you have seen the actors before. As I say, this is a personal dislike and other people won't dislike it.
Otherwise Ghost Squad is very much of its era, production-wise. I particularly like the way the studio shots of the ballet taking place on the 'stage' cut to stock shots of a huge audience. We notice the difference in film quality starkly now: I still can't work out whether people would even have noticed at the time, or just accepted it as the technology of the time. I like the restoration that's been done on this show enormously - the picture is crisp throughtout and the sound perfect. I have a suspicion that the available episodes in the Network box set may not be the whole of the original run, but the're still a good taste of what this show would have been like.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Avengers: Quick-Quick Slow Death

Let me get two things out of the way before I start on this actual show. The first is that I have been watching Honor Blackman play a probation officer in the show of the same name. The only reason the show won't get a post here is that it isn't really my sort of thing - but if you like shows with legal-type settings which are note police procedurals or court room dramas as such, you may very well like it.
The second thing is that I prepared for this blog post by *listening* to the episode rather than watching it, and what I listened to was the version produced by Springbok Radio in South Africa in the 1970s. I have all the remaining episodes of that show which I downloaded from the website about it and they are jealously backed up on two laptops, my google drive and a CD-Rom: they're not getting away from me anytime soon. I have previously commented here that the website devoted to the South African radio Avengers series no longer seems to allow the shows to be downloaded. I am pleased to announce that the shows (I'm not sure whether by the agency of somebody else) now seem to be on youtube, and the first episode of the Saffer version of this one can be found here.
Back to the show. I love this one. It's one of my favourites. It's absolutely bonkers and if transported to the real world would be completely unconvincing. I love the music played in the opening scene of the man with a pram. It really completely disarms the viewer. At this length of time it is also completely of its age - the pram is huge and old-fashioned, the street of shops is far from the collection of chain stores the street would probably be now, I love the touch of a hole being dug in the street, and of course the red phone box makes the setting perfect. I love the comedic pacing of the man chasing the pram, and the scene is made perfect by the discovery that the pram contains (impossibly) the dead body of a grown man and the emphasis is on his tattoo.
Last night I was talking to a friend about the Avengers, and commented on Lily Savage's parody of the show, in which she comments that Steed is 'bevied' and she's too pissed to fight because they're always drinking champagne. I only mention this a propos of the number of empty beer cans Steed has to hand to shoot at in the next scene. As well as a full one for his lunch time refreshment. Certainly the amount of booze The Avengers get through is staggering by today's standards. Would a secret agent really have a can of beer (and mild at that) at lunch nowadays? WOuld they then? Probably - it seems the whole department was permanently sozzled.
I love the room in which Willie Fayre is being guarded or looked after. I think I recognise the fireplace from other Avengers episodes, but I love the implication that Willie is being kept in a grand old house where a room with such a grand fireplace can be turned into a bathroom. The room is truly *huge* and if that is the bathroom, you can get some small idea of what the other rooms must be like!
Of course if such a grand house is being used by the organisation it has fallen on hard times. And one of the themes of this episode is that very few things are what they seem, at least as far as standing goes. We have the dancing school, one of the traditional ways in which people would try to give themselves some polish. We have the suit hire firm, the way in which people who don't automatically have evening dress to hand in the wardrobe can look as if they are made to it. And finally we have the world of tattoos, which at this time would have been the province of sailors and the underclass generally. These settings provide the episode with an underlying theme of people (who are probably criminals) pretending or aspiring to higher standards than they were born to - witness Piedi's false accent. This is actually quite different to the true high society who usually populate the world of The Avengers.
What stops this being a social commentary is the strong streak of Avengers unrealism that runs through it. Piedi, for example. While many a man would probably have loved to play with Mrs Peel's feet in the 1960s, Piedi is so unreal that he is one of the type of characters we find in The Avengers, who if placed in the real world, would stand out like a sore thumb. In the world of The Avengers, he is just another eccentric with a passion for shoes. Mackidockie Street is another example. I googled its name just now and discovered that it actually comes up on Google as a suggestion, so many a viewer must have wondered whether it's real. Of course it isn't. And Mackidockie doesn't sound right to my mind anyway - it's a vaguely Scottish name invented for a location in Avengerland (it's reused in Escape in Time, of course). Incidentally, I don't often spot bloopers but there's something very wrong with the sequence in Mackidockie Street, which is that if you look closely as Steed enters the building, to the right of the wall the sign is fixed to is a window which reveals a row of men standing there. Presumably the real office workers in the building who wanted to see the TV show being made? Once again it is incredibly improbable that a modern office building would just have an open door on the ninth floor leading to nothing, but hey, the unreality is the point.
But the height of unreality is attained in the dancing school. I love the music which accompanies the scenes here. I love that the band consists of cardboard cut outs and an alcoholic. I love the absolutely hopeless people it takes on. I love Lucille and have suddenly conceived an ambition to learn ballroom dancing.
I have just a couple of criticisms of this episode. One is inherent in the plot, which is that when you give several characters the same wonderful name of Mr Peever, it's bound to get confusing. Another is that the extreme improbability of the plot frankly makes it rather implausible as a story. In fact it isn't so much plotted, as a series of characteristic Avengers situations loosely thrown together and tied together with a tattooist, a dancing school, a garlic sausage and a pram. You have to like the Avengers thing to like this episode, I think - at one point Mrs Peel is teaching dance steps completely different to the ones Lucille as told her to teach. Realism  - or indeed any narrative coherence or plausibility - have been sacrificed here with a vengeance. Of course this isn't really a criticism, more a statement of fact.
Because as a series 4 episode of The Avengers, this one is superb. Pacing is superb, and attention is maintained. The scenes in the dancing school are perhaps rather drawn out, but the heaps of Avengers touches maintain interest. It has the whole Avengerland atmosphere in buckets. Just don't expect it to stand up to too much scrutiny as a spy story about a dance school as a cover for infiltrating foreign spies into the country. Definitely Stonking Good Television.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Bottom: Gas

A few posts ago I said that I would try to concentrate more on blogging about single episodes of quality shows. And thus we come to Bottom, which I don't think I've written about here before, although it is one of my favourite shows ever. Coming out of the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s, it isn't really comparable to the Goodies, and yet I do think there is a slight comparison in the theme of down-at-heel 'friends' who end up stuck together for better or worse. The difference is in the tone of course - the friends in Bottom are really mortal enemies who have a bizarre codependency going on, while the friends in the Goodies are really friends who club together to do anything in a time of need. I feel it is significant that one is pre- and the other is post-Thatcher's Britain.
My favourite scene in this Bottom episode is the card game with which it opens. It is obvious that this kind of card game has frequently been replayed in this house, and also that the cheating has been the same every game. I love that the deck has been reduced to twelse cards and that Eddie knows all of Richard's little cheats. He still trumps them by winning with five kings of course - and Richard fails to notice that Eddie is therefore also cheating!
Cheating is a sort of theme running through this episode and in fact through all three series of Bottom. We see how the gas appliances in the flat are all going at full whack and how Richard and Eddie have rigged the meter to show no use of gas at all. The plan looks as if it might be going wrong when the gas man comes to the door to read the meter. I love his reaction to Richard's hysterical shouting of 'Gas man! Gas man! Gas man!' - 'Do you have someone who looks after you?'!
Bottom is another of those shows which depend on a lot of visual gags for their effectiveness. There is a very real sense in which the acting is way overdone for comic effect. Take for example, Eddie creeping up on the gas man with a cricket bat and going to hit him, until he looks round. Like everything else in Bottom, the violence for which the series is well known is also overdone for effect, and that is why it is funny. This places Bottom in a great comedy tradition, of which pantomime and cartoons such as Tom and Jerry are also part, where terrible things happen to people, but because they are not real they are hilarious. It also draws on the tradition of Tony Hancock's eternally put-upon and failing through no fault of his own hero: Richard's explanation to the gas man of how they heat up the water for tea without using gas, is worthy of Hancock at his best.
The inventiveness is also worthy of Hancock, just with a surreal element the lad himself would never have thought of. They first think of getting rid of the dead gasman's body by eating it, then offering it to kebab shop, then throwing it out of the window onto the roof of a bus! Similarly the plan to break into Mr Rottweiler's house via a very creaky pipe is so clearly doomed it is bound to be hilarious. The next plan, of making a little hole in the wall and replacing the bricks so that he won't notice, is even more ridiculous. In true Hancock style, their plan is derailed by the distraction of a real woman naked, and the contents of a fridge that they won't have to pay for, in addition to the obvious disaster of a huge gas flame which can't be put out.
The boys are of course stealing their gas off Mr Rottweiler, the man next door, ably played by former wrestler Brian Glover. He is the embodiment of adult sexuality who is the counterpoint to Eddie and Richard's rather adolescent fantasising about sex. Who else would even consider finding out what snogging is really like by giving the kiss of life to a dead gas man? In this Bottom steals another comedy convention, of the protagonist's jealousy of another person's life and experience. The point is of course that we have all been there, but we can laugh at this because if we are still at the stage of wondering what sex is like we can pretend we are not, and if we know what sex is like we recognise Richard and Eddie's state in our outgrown youth and can laugh at how ridiculous we were. We can also be very happy that we don't have to resort to quite such ridiculous plans - in a cruel twist of fate, as Eddie and Richard try to escape Mr Rottweiler's house they walk straight into the gas man they have already killed once, who is ringing the door bell.
Bottom is a great show which draws on many of the classic comedy conventions and gives them a 1990s spin. It is probably also guaranteed to offend your maiden aunt, which can only be good.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Goodies and the Beanstalk

Forward in time for today's post, to Cricklewood, 1973, and the Goodies are broke. This leads to them falling into a pantomime world of beanstalks, giants, and geese which lay golden eggs.
I think this has to be one of my favourite Goodies episodes, simply because it is so visually effective, and literally everything is turned into a visual pun, even before it gets to the more pantomimic aspects in the latter half. For example the policeman feeding coins into a parking meter, which then works as a fruit machine and he gets a payout. The old ladies at the bus stop who get their own instruments out and start playing in repsonse to Bill busking. The policeman's sneeze literally blows off Tim's gypsy disguise, to the delight of a man in a suit at the bus stop. A lady presents Graeme with a false leg when he stands on one leg with a sign saying 'give generously', and when he throws the gifted leg away she produces a false arm and punches him with it. The policeman moves Bill on for dancing at the bus stop and then dances himself. The visual gags just go on and one!
In fact this Goodies episode is so visually effective that I have found myself making a large number of screen shots as potential illustrations to this post and am having great difficulty choosing between them, so think I will use them all, and this will just have to be an unusally heavily-illustrated post. The beanstalk theme is given a twist by the fact that what Bill gets for the bike at the market is a *tin* of beans rather than the single bean of the tale, which the other Goodies tip over him in annoyance. They plant one single baked bean which is the source of the beanstalk. On a side note, I've never been involved in one of those charity messy thingies, but wonder what the beans would feel like!
My favourite scene of all is the market, which is another fantasy world. I particularly love that the Archers theme is used as the music for it, parodying home counties type living. Of course the markey is no more real than anything else. I really love that in the ring bicycles are being sold as if they are cattle!
I was very relieved at the end, when they rub the empty bean tin to find that John Cleese was the geni of the beans tin, because I was thinking that this was the Goodies episode which reminds me most of Monty Python. It has the same feeling of young and intelligent humour, which is totally non-offensive and yet rather risque. I have a feeling that Benny Hill may be among the other comedy influences here, at least as far as the number of chases go.
If I have a criticism of this it is that it fails to keep up the pace it sets in the first ten minutes or so. Ideas further on are stretched out for longer - I wonder whether they required more props, especially the giant scene, and so were more expensive - which gives an unevenness of pace to this show. It sticks fairly faithfully to the pantomime formula, except that they end up poor again at the end.
I see this episode was originally broadcast on 24th December 1973, and I hope my post on this Goodies episode will count as a contribution to the Christmas viewing people will be writing about as the weeks go on, because when everyone else is writing about Christmas I know for a fact I won't feel like it!

Danger Man: Dangerous Secret

Back to one of the classic themes for TV in the 1960s for this episode of Danger Man - namely the danger inherent in our modern technology if it is not handled correctly. In fact I love the way this show starts: the sequence showing the children trespassing in the virus research establishment is very effective and suggests right at the start that the doubtless deadly viri being researched in the establishment are not being looked after properly. Of course in this case there are potentially deadly consequences.
It is strange but I have repeatedly watched all of the episodes of Danger Man (although not recently) and had no recollection of the amount of what we might call spy technology used in the show. Once again the ambivalent 1960s attitude to technology where it can both be our saviour and destroyer if it gets into the wrong hands. In this episode the spy technology used by Drake is a bug which he fires from an umbrella and which attaches itself to the lintel of a room opposite. This coupled with a typewriter as the other end of the communications device means equipment truly worthy of Get Smart!
Ultimately the theme of this episode is the individual human as the arbiter of what knowledge and technology are used for. Just one scientist is the holder of the secret which gives the episode its title and which could be used as a weapon, if it fell into the wrong hands...or even if he was subjected to enough pressure. Would it be right to control this individual human, and so prevent him popping across the channel and risk his secret falling into foreign hands? Or is it better that he retain his liberty and 'we' (obviously in television 'we' are always the goodies) run the risk that one scientist's knowledge could be used as a weapon, possibly against 'us'? The ethical question hidden behind this one is whether it would be better to restrict research into viri because the research could be used to make weapons, or better to facilitate the research because of its potential benefits. The solution to the quandary this show presents is the very 1960s TV one that there are a lot of very evil people in the world and while we must allow good people their freedom, including freedom to make mistakes, there must be secret agents to protect vulnerable scientists from preying foreigners. It's all very Avengers.
The episode is filmed in a way which is effective and carries the heavyweight ethical issues underlying it in a way which stops it being turgid. It is effective that so much of the episode takes place in a French holiday town, and there is a repeated scene of men playing cards in the lobby of the hotel. Of course this could be an image of the heavy layers of decision and chance which are playing out in the plot - if you want to get all symbolic about it, but it puts the viewer in a relaxed mindset, providing an effective background to Drake's problem. It is also an episode which doesn't put a foot wrong. Every scene is effective, every conversation contains tantalising hints of what is going on, you wouldn't doubt that it was actually filmed in France, so sure-footed is it. I particularly love the old Citroen DS cars.
Criticism...criticism... I'm afraid I don't seem to be able to think of any cogent criticisms of this episode! It's not often I can say that about a TV show, but I will here, and I think that is what puts this one in my coveted category of Stonking Good Television.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Danger Man: Judgement Day

There are two subjects I keep returning to in my witterings here. One is the way in which these 1960s TV shows encapsulate the interests and concerns of their time. The other is the way in which their production is dictated by the technology of the time.
Both are points which have great impact on this episode of Danger Man. Let's face it, if Judgement Day were to be remade nowadays it would look radically different, and the fact it is as convincing as it is, is a great testimony to the TV makers of the time. The opening scenes of the making of the bomb are completely studio-bound, and then stock footage is used for the externals of the airport, before returning to the studio for Drake's encounter with an 'official' who changes his travel plans abruptly. At the time this was the ordinary technology used in so many of these shows and in the restored boxed set I have, the seam between studio and stock footage is seamless.
Similarly the subject is very much of the time. I have a feeling that no TV espionage show would set something in the Middle East nowadays, without mentioning the endlessly sensitive subject of Islamisation. Rather there is a terrorist group here, but its interests are based on events in the regios of 70 years ago now. That isn't to say that the Arab world depicted here isn't a European stereotype of what Arabs are like - the country is carefully depicted as a nest of intrigue, instability and corruption! While Garriga is afterwards revealed to be Spanish, he must be a British subject or at least British sympathiser to be rushed out of the country because of being at such risk. Here it isn't apparent what the scientist is doing in Bir Azhad, but I love the touch that he is not in the room when the bomb explodes and even the cat escapes. (Phew!) There is a remarkable economy in this story - it just happens and there is no need felt to explain the reason for what is happening.
Further contemporary limits of communication are seen in the show. Drake has his phone line to London cut off by the weather - of course bad weather may still take down the internet or whatever, but nowadays he would go through several failing communication methods before being obliged to give up. It is so redolent of the 1960s espionage craze that of course his call is in code and he subsequently has to translate it using a key - I wonder whether they still do that? Once he and Garriga arrive at the hotel he wants a telegram sent and is quite happy to wait for the boy to come back to send it. Nowadays of course he would log onto the hotel's wifi and even in the back of beyond would probably find an internet cafe he could queue at. Naturally the telegram never actually goes.
There is another theme running through this Danger Man episode, which is the desert and life in the desert. The nature of this life is depicted in the isolation of the people, both from 'civilisation' by reason of the collapse of travel methods, and from each other by reason of cultural and linguistic barriers. The first thing Jessica Shore comments on is that after weeks in the desert she wants to hear English spoken again. The things that the desert does to people aren't really explicitly mentioned but the theme is always there - that the people are surrounded by something which isolates them and makes them vulnerable, while they are always surrounded by other people well used to the world of the desert. Even the mysterious Dr Garriga is emblematic of the mystery of the desert - he is alone, as it were an oasis of modern scientific learning in the middle of the desert.
I love the super-cool Drake depicted in this episode. He is positively Steed-like in his confrontation of the ridiculous difficulties put in his way. My absolutely favourite bit is where he demands to see the regulations which tell him he must take Jessica Shore in his flight, only to discover that they are in Arabic! He does, however, lack Steed's charm in his attempts to stop her flying with them - Drake makes it very apparent he doesn't want her but I think Steed would have been much more subtle. Steed may even have flirted with her until she didn't want to travel with the dirty old man! I also love the way that when it looks as if all is lost Drake still manages to look moody and smokes a small cigar while he enlists the pilot's aid.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this episode is that I have always lost my interest in the show at the same point, which I think marks a distinct turning point in the plot. It is the point at which the plane is forced to land, and as I write this I've just paused the show at 28 minutes and nine seconds in - just over halfway into the episode, and the point at which I have always tended to lose interest. The reason I've always lost interest is that I think this plot device introduces something new at such a late stage in the story that it is obvious what is happening. It is obvious that the pilot has been bribed, and it is obvious that Shore is a wrong 'un. The forced landing turns the plot into a sort of 'locked room' mystery and it becomes obvious that the protagonists are going to get out of this rather than end up dead. Drake does, after all, have the rest of the series to film and a Village to investigate later in the decade - this creation of expectations is perhaps the reason I have always lost interest in this episode here. It is unfortunate to my mind, that the time up until about the 46 minute mark is filled by what amounts to a moral discussion of Nazi research into bacteriology. That's most of the approximately 18 minutes from when the plane landed, and I sense a filler. The ending is an anticlimax.
My conclusion on this episode is that it starts off with a promising plot which is weakened by an abrupt change of direction in the middle. I feel that this is an episode which could have made a decent half hour episode, but has been over-stretched to the fifty minute slot. Obviously I don't think it's a complete dud because it appears on this blog, but in an otherwise quality series it's a weak offering which fails to maintain its interest.