Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Noah's Castle

Another Christmas has been and gone and I have once more resisted writing about Too Many Christmas Trees. I am sure I will write about it at some point, I'm just rather wary of not doing it justice - although I suppose I can always return to it in the future. Instead I'm going to write about Noah's Castle, although I'm not sure I can do that justice either.
Noah's Castle features an actor who appears in many of the TV series of the era I write about - Simon Gipps-Kent. There are a couple of reasons he hasn't appeared here yet: the first is that he was type-cast in the role of upper class youth in the sort of time-travelling period drama which has never really appealed to me. The other is that up until recently I had only come across him in The Tomorrow People. I haven't yet managed to sum up what I would want to say about that show in a blog post, because I'm rather ambivalent about it, both about the show itself and I'm not really sure what I think about it.
Then recently I say Gipps-Kent in the much-maligned Dr Who adventures The Horns of Nimon, which I will definitely be posting about here at some point because I think it's a good thing despite the strong criticism it gets on the internet. That caused me to google Gipps-Kent and read some of the more bizarre things written about him on the internet. The actualy provable facts of his death in the 1980s seem to be that he died of an overdose of the morphine he was prescribed for back pain and also was having difficulty finding work because by this time he was a grown man and had rather become typecast as a young actor. The coroner ruled that his death was caused by the overdose rather than suicide - this would be usual here as coroners don't usually rule suicide unless somebody leaves a note. None of this explains some of the more fantastic things about Gipps-Kent on the internet. Such as that he had been groomed for abuse by the large number of paedophiles working in TV in the 1970s. This could of course happened. There are even rumours that he was murdered and these things have all been 'investigated' including psychically. The more fanciful notions aside, Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is apparent from early in his career and it is such a pity he died as young as he did.
Gipps-Kent's quality as an actor is shown by the fact that despite being typecast he could still appear in wildly different shows and give a convincing performance. Noah's Castle is the sort of difficult, complex TV set in a difficult setting and with complex moral issues which is the exact opposite of the sort of comforting escapist TV I tend to go for.
In fact Noah's Castle is so far from comforting escapist TV that I feel at the time the original book was released, 1975 (the show broadcasted in 1980) it would probably have been seen as yet another stark warning of what was on the horizon. I have written here over and again about the fear of society's imminent collapse which was so prevalent in the 1970s. My own mother (admittedly an extreme example) hoarded tinned food and had an escape plan actually written out. This may be seen as an over-reaction but the scenario embodied in Noah's Castle was the natural outcome of the 1960s optimistic dream turning sour. In Noah's Castle people respond in the ways you would expect them to. My own wonder is at the level of altruism shown. Some people want everyone to be fed and for food to be shared out fairly. Some other people just want to look after number one. My own opinion is that the more common human reaction would be to look after oneself.
And Gipps-Kent's character Barry (the elder son of the family at the heart of the show) is at the heart of the moral dilemna in Noah's Castle. The problem is that his father is what can only be described as an odious character. Odious. Awful. Horrible. At a time of national emergency he looks out solely for number one, including illegally hoarding food when people are starving, and Gipps-Kent's character is firmly on the opposite side from his father. In fact much of the point of this show is the fact that the family at the centre of the show is at war with itself. The conflict within the family mirrors the greater societal conflict and the ethical issues involved, and allows the issues to be depicted in as it were a microcosm. Do we side with the father's duty-driven tunnel vision of looking after his own family regardless or the son's more compassion-driven understanding that we need to consider the whole picture? Ironic that the son has the more nuanced vision here and the father's own position is what ultimately gets him into trouble.
This show has also revived the discussion I had with myself recently on here about the two sorts of literature meant for children. Noah's Castle was intended as a young adult novel but to my mind is so incredibly worthy that I certainly wouldn't have wanted to read it myself. I have also commented on here before that in my opinion I don't understand the more harrowing TV shows, which can hardly be described as entertaining. Documentaries are one thing but the more harrowing drama as a rule is something I don't understand.
Yet perhaps I do, as a result of watching Noah's Castle. I have realised that I have been considering these shows anachronistically, without considering the eyes of the time. Surely reading Noah's Castle in the 1970s would have resulted in further activism and - surely - a relief that even though the world was in a mess it still wasn't as bad as it is shown in Noah's Castle. I suppose Noah's Castle therefore really comes out of the same stable as the 1970s series Survivors - they are both chronicles of what could happen, both alerting current fears and also providing a reassurance that we are not there yet.
I'm a bit sorry actually that I've thought to complare Noah's Castle with Survivors because frankly it doesn't look that good in comparison. I feel in Survivors the likely consequences of a disaster have been accurately thought through to their natural conclusions. When you watch Survivors it has the painfulness of so much TV at the time but there is also a real feeling of adventure and hope about it. Survivors is harrowing because there is no escape from the situation, but there is a message of the triumph of the human spirit.
The comparison with Survivors has made me put my finger on what I think is wrong with Noah's Castle. The show is supposed to be set at a time of national emergency. But I'm frankly not seeing anyone starving. I know that sounds terrible, but there is a sense of unreality about what I'm seeing in Noah's Castle. We all know that through necessity often, many people live very close to the edge of their resources, and so people can end up literally homeless after just missing a couple of paydays. In reality the sort of inflation and conflict seen in Noah's Castle would result very quickly in riots (we see them), homelessness, poverty. These things are almost referred to rather than depicted. I don't see anyone looking hungry. I don't see the kind of desperation you see in people who really have no resources. Why do people still have petrol to run cars? Why are people wearing the latest 1980s fashions? In my humble opinion the show just looks way too prosperous for the situation it is depicting. Once you see it like that Noah's Castle loses all credibility.
On the other hand the show is wonderful atmospheric viewing for people of a certain age. The cars are of their age. There is a scene in which the police turn up at a riot in a Rover 3500. The joke would have been that that car alone was responsible for many a failed arrest because the police unwisely invested in a car which was notoriously unreliable. Right at the start of the first episode we see a mark 3 Ford Cortina and my dad had one of them.
In the manner of the time Noah's Castle alternates between location and rather-obviously location-bound filming. Pacing is of the time. Some actors are familiar faces from other shows - I know that nobody else seems to share my dislike of this and of course I'm being my usual contradictory self by starting this blog post about a familiar face. The show is well known for its haunting theme tune and incidental music.
On balance, perhaps Noah's Castle is best not seen as the record of a national emergency. In fact watching it in the wake of brexit in the UK is frankly rather frightening because it could well be that that is what happens next, as those of us who voted remain suspected would happen. The context for the show's telling of the story is one boy's adolescent conflict of identity and idealogy with his father. Perhaps this show is best seen as that so that the cracks in its surface don't show up so much.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Professionals: The Rack

I ventured over the sea to the US in my last post (and thank you to Mitchell Hadley for commenting on this and bringing it to the attention of the TV blogosphere) so of course I've come scurrying back to Blighty this time. The Professionals is a show which I have tended not to write about here, despite it being one of my favourites. For a start I remember watching it with my dad, which is enough reason for it to be favourite, and it is also redolent of the clothes, cars and life of my childhood. It seems like it does have a cult following on the internet - the following just doesn't seem to have passed over into the cult TV blogosphere.
I have a theory about its (relative) lack of popularity. Much 1970s TV suffers from being made in the 1970s. The times were awful. The fashions were laughable. The social mores of the time were ridiculous (many a time Bodie and Doyle begin a conversation with a woman with the words 'Look, love...'). As just one example, the four CI5 cars which take the personnel to their sting are all Fords. The only decent one is a Mark 1 Capri. My godmother's husband had one of those - it was a sexy car when it was going but tended to spend more time off the road than it did on it. If you look closely at the trousers in this one, everyone seems to be wearing ones which, if not actual flares, are rather flared.
Most important of all, another aspect of this show which places it firmly in the 1970s - allegations of police brutality - are a hallmark of 1970s detective/police shows. Do I even need to mention The Sweeney? The sense of discomfort that 1970s policing brings to any British person at this length of time is exactly the sense of discomfort this show instils in the viewer. The arrests at the beginning of this episode are based on one single tip-off, and it is interesting that Cowley says, 'We haven't found anything yet, but we will.' He just knows that these men are guilty already. This kind of thing is in my opinion the reason these shows get less attention - it's too close to the bone. We all know that in the 1970s our police had a habit of randomly arresting people they didn't like. If anyone's unaware of the history, a google search will show a real life example in the imprisonment of the Birmingham Six. The kind of questioning associated with the police of the age is very much what is alleged to have happened in this case.
And yet, in TV terms, The Professionals attracted some really big names. The subject who illustrates this post is actually none other than the actor Michael Billington who played in a Bond film once and screen tested as Bond numerous times. He will also be familiar to readers from the Gerry Anderson show UFO and several other films and TV shows. In the manner of the time, the chest hair as it is here, was frequently on show - and frankly how much hair can one man carry? Here he does a wonderful performance as the frankly deranged Coogan.
There is a painful question at the heart of this episode. How far is it OK to go when we 'know' we are right? It is made even more uncomfortable by the fact that both sides are not exactly playing according to the rules. Coogan Junior dies after being hit by Doyle - the fact that it was severely provoked is much of the point. The Coogans' solicitor is obviously corrupt. What is actually coming under the spotlight here - as if made clear when CI5 is described as part of the government - is the establishment and the fact it makes up its own rules. As do the baddies it patrols. This is not a recipe which inclines to easy viewing. Watching The Rack is hard work, and both sides are actually on the rack at various times in the show.
The uncomfortable premise of this episode is unfortunately also the cause of its shortcomings. Once there is a death it is very apparent how the episode is going to proceeed. With both sides operating 'outside the law' we are obviously in for an uncomfortable view, and given that this is episode three of series two we only have to look in next week's Radio Times to know that CI5 will come out OK. We just know that the Coogans are the baddies and there is a sense in which most of this episode is just stretching out the premise to the obvious end. The rather slick ending is another common criticism.
Visually this episode is superb. Settings and acting are all wonderful, and I literally cannot criticise it production-wise at all, and that isn't something I often say about a show. The dialogue sparkles, it is wonderful. My favourite line is when Cowley says to Miss Mather that if she wants a seat she could sit on her knee.
To summarise - this is a show which encapsulates the uncomfortable world of the 1970s which can make it uncomfortable viewing. It is superbly produced despite being let down by a frankly rather obvious ending, which Bodie just happens to guess during a car journey. Nonetheless superb viewing and a very good example of The Professionals.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Get Smart: Casablanca

weeks ago I posted here about a first-series episode of Get Smart, and the post seemed very popular, at least to judge by the comments. The way I discovered that the series was available was this: I saw the whole boxed set in the HMV shop round the corner from me and it stirred a memory of the show. I simply had to have seen it because it seemed so familiar, but I had little recollection of it, so I only bought the series 1 set online as a taster to see if I woud like it again. I did and as my Christmas present to myself have duly bought the whole series as a boxed set (in region 2 format, obviously). I also managed to get it on ebay for £20 less than the normal retail price which is around the £50 mark. The set includes all 138 episodes on 25 discs, with 8 hours of bonus footage and features. I see from the box that the run time is 3964 minutes, which is 66 hours of Get Smart. I've started early but I don't think I will have exhausted it by Christmas day!
Some of the online reviews of the whole series of Get Smart imply that the quality went downhill as the series progressed. I can't speak for that yet, but my own impression in series 2 is that the show feels much more reassured, as if it has found its feet. I am particularly delighted that some of the series 2 episodes parody films and other media.
This parody of other media is something repeatedly found in cult TV. The obvious example is the way The Avengers parodies famous films - while as it were Avengerifying them. The other obvious example, since this post is about Get Smart, is that Get Smart is itself a parody of The Man from UNCLE, which is itself a parody of the espionage/Bond genre of films and TV so popular in the 1960s. The parodying has come full circle with the ongoing series Archer parodying many of the set phrases of Get Smart...and loving it.
Of course this Get Smart episode isn't really a parody of Casablanca, at least as far as plot goes. Rather it contains the things that we all remember (or think we do) about Casablanca, thus giving material for the real film buffs to criticise it. But I think that's the point... In fact if you carry the fact that this episode of Get Smart is an imperfect parody of a famous film, you get the real point of it. Get Smart has Get Smartified Casablanca, by getting its parody subtly wrong. Let's face it, if it was spot on, it wouldn't be an episode of Get Smart, would it?
In fact the point of this one is rather the fact that Smart is hopeless and that hopelessness extends to everything he does. The mere fact that his boss is desperate to send him on holiday to Canada indicates that everyone can see he is hopeless. This mystery kicks off with a man he is supposed to be guarding getting murdered in front of his very eyes, and his hopelessness continues throughout the episode. The wonder is that he and 99 between them actually manage to work out who the Choker is. The wonder is that Smart manages not to recognise 99 in her blond incarnation...
Which brings me nicely to the high point of this episode, which is the way 99 is turned into a blond nightclub singer and wows the club with her singing. The next highest point is Smart talking like Bogart, making this episode more of a character impersonation than a parody. I love that while 99 suspects that the man who looks like Smart is actually Smart, Smart has no suspicion of who 99 really is at all.
One weak point is that I think the episode ends rather quickly with the easy plot trick that Smart had a neck protector thing on and pretended to be dead so that he could shoot the Choker while he is trying to choke 99. But then I don't think it's reasonable to expect Get Smart to work too well as a straight espionage show...as a Get Smartified parody of some half-remembered high points from a famous film, though, I love it.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Avengers: The Positive-Negative Man

How have I managed to get this far without writing about this Avengers episode? Perhaps I had better start by disclosing that I have a ridiculous bias and this Avengers is one of my favourites. In fact I think it may even encapsulate best the Avengers thing for me.
The whole episode is set firmly in Avengerland for a start. This of course was necessary because some of the more pantomimic elements of the plot would be incredible if seen against the real world of the 1960s. I say pantomimic because while there are times when the subject matter of this programme is treated very seriously, and would even be very distressing if the events of this episode happened in reality, they are treated in a way which can hardly be taken seriously. For example the opening shots of the man who hits the wall so hard it leaves his imprint in the plaster. The scene is as if a comic strip has come to life: the man dies and yet we see it. It is like the scenes in a Tom and Jerry cartoon where Tom gets hit on the head with a frying pan or something: it is a deadly thing to happen but is entertaining because of the way it is treated.
I love the way Avengerland is seen in this episode as rather different from how it normally looks. The contrast from the usual tidy caricature of Britain is provided by the untidy and derelict Risely Dale research station. The location used for this was the British Rail centre in Watford, which by this time managed to look so bad because it had been used as a railway centre in the Second World War. Risely Dale manages not to intrude the real world of dereliction and the post-industrial lanscape so common at this time, by still conforming to the premises of Avengerland. It isn't quite real, it isn't really populated, and of course there is a red telephone box just outside the fence which still functions and allows Mankin to call Steed.
I equally love Cynthia,  the Ministry private secretary, whose ultimate ambition is to be a Button Lip - exactly the sort of character who populates Avengerland and of course she provides a sex interest for Steed when she reveals she has lots of keys hidden in her garter. Although I'm not a great one for intruding real sex into the world of the Avengers - regular readers will know that I prefer to think that it is more implied in the later series - I do like to think that Steed would have, er, got to know her better. If only because she was so impresed when he produced his red card. I even love the holes punched in the red card, indicating that it was a part of the red hot security technology of the time and would have had to be fed into a Computer. In true flippant Steed style, he wonderfully spoils the good impression his red card has made on her, when she tells him that all the confidential war records are kept where they are, by asking her if there have been many confidential wars!
There is more of The Avengers's usual understated sexiness in Mrs Peel's corny jokes with Hayworth and the sexual language he uses when he goes to her apartment to trap her. And of course we have a scene of Mrs Peel tied up and yet still rebutting the power the men have over her. There is a very real way in which this encapsulates the sexual dynamic of The Avengers. Steed as the dirty old man, and Mrs Peel as the apparent sex object who is still in charge really.
You will no doubt notice that I'm not really commenting on the plot here at all. Another of the things I like best about this episode is the utterly improbable plot. It reflects very badly on The Ministry that they have stopped research on something which we can see happening in front of our own eyes on the telly. I think the reason I'm not talking so much about the plot is simply that what I like best about this episode is the Avengerland atmosphere of it. Without this being an episode of The Avengers, I suppose the plot would be a rather creaky sci-fi film. Add in a few diabolical masterminds and it becomes an eccentric confection of weirdness and escapism. The plot is in fact one of the weaknesses of this episode, and in fact is a major area of criticism in other people's reviews of this episode.
With great difficulty I have found something to criticise in this show. There is a scene about half way through where Steed is being chased by the blue Morris Minor van of death. Unfortunately there is a bit where they pass some builders by the side of the road, and one of them turns round to stare at a vintage Bentley speeding past them. It is unfortunate that this is the only occasion (that I am aware of) where we see the reaction of the modern world of the 1960s to the world of The Avengers when they come face to face with it. Of course the reaction implies that the man was seeing something very unusual - exactly the reason the Avengers usually avoided any real world situations. Incidentall I wonder if Mrs Peel would have approved of his pectorals, since she judged Hayworth's far from perfect and certainly wouldn't have anything good to say about mine.
Overall I am quite surprised that this episode doesn't get rave reviews from the fans. My own opinion is that while it has a rather weak plot, that doesn't matter because the point of this one is the Avemgers-ness of it.