Friday, 16 February 2018

The Avengers: Q Planes

The tag I have put on this post may seem to be a mistake, but if you thought that this was another of my occasional posts about films which are obviously not TV shows but which I think will be of interest to my audience, you would be mistaken. In fact I have been meaning to write about this film here for ages, because one character is credited with being an (or possibly the) inspiration for the John Steed character in The Avengers, so this show is, as it were, one of the things which come under my heading of What Came Before the Avengers. Perhaps I should say that in the US it was released as Clouds Over Europe.
A mere two and a half minutes in we get to see the Major Hammond character for the first time - and frankly, it's Steed. The hat isn't right, but the suit, umbrella and silly ass presence are all Steed there in person.
And Major Hammond not only looks like Steed, he acts like Steed. It would be such a Steed thing after getting knocked out on a job and arrested by the police, to get them to take him to his department to be interrogated by...himself.
The film even utilises the magical omniscience technique which The Avengers uses so often and to such good effect. No explanation is given for how Major Hammond is where he is at the opening of the film. It is evidence that he is a big man in intelligence but no time is wasted giving the background to the intelligence problem which is the reason for the film.
To make the identification complete the setting of the film even feels like The Avengers. The settings of the scenes are the solid, reassuring traditional interiors which in the visual language of The Avengers refer to the Establishment and reassuring solidity. A reassuring solidity which is occasionally prone to infiltration by The Enemy, and of course occasionally one of our old families goes wrong and inbreeding results in the production of a Diabolical Mastermind.
It is evident, though, that the inspiration for The Avengers came from a certain element and one character of the film alone - the intelligence/Steed character part. I was going to comment that in many ways the rest of the film feels very much like any wartime film. However I don't think that is actually true - I think the background of the aircraft factory is exactly the sort of RAF-ish setting in which Steed would have fitted in perfectly - despite having been in the army. On reflection I suppose what I'm thinking is that the aircraft factory represents the sort of social milieu (apart from not being upper crust enough) which would have created Steed.
The aircraft factory also serves as a reminder of a past age which has definitely gone. Did works canteens in the 1930s seriously have cut flowers on all the tables? Would works canteens which weren't set in a posh world have had them?  - somehow I doubt it. The factory is also interesting for not having a single person with a regional accent, not even the sort of generic northern or Cockney regional accents which the cinema of this age used to indicate a working class person. So this film is actually set in a dead snobby social setting. That said, on another level it may even represent the sort of unreal British social strata depicted in...well, The Avengers, that's where.
In addition to its depiction of posh social strata the film is acted the cream of the acting profession at the time, which makes me surprised that it has apparently been allowed to go out of copyright rather than being released on limited boxed sets. The copies downloadable on the internet are even fairly good quality as far as I can see. I genuinely can't understand why this film is not seemingly in amongst the greats of (actually just before) wartime films.
I do have a few criticisms personally. The plot is confusing for a start. I had to reread the synopsis on wikipedia several times as I was watching it to catch up on what was happening. I would also identify a generic difficulty in films where people are of similar status or wearing similar clothes that the characters become confused - but this may just be me and others may not find this. Obviously the Steed character always stands out from everyone else. In fact this film may be the nearest we will ever get to seeing what Steed would look like in something approaching the real world - taking as read that the world depicted here is still not really ordinary but doesn't have the conscious weirdness of the world depicted in The Avengers. The result is the obvious one - that he tends to stand out, and that is perhaps the real weakness of this film, that Major Hammond doesn't come across as a convincing intelligence man, the stock of whose trade would naturally be that he should fade into the background.
Nonetheless this film provides a fascinating insight into a possible source for the ideas contained in The Avengers, and indicates that the Steed character wasn't hatched without outside influences, but built on the ideas of a film released 20 years before The Avengers started.

Man from Atlantis: Scavenger Hunt

My last post about Doctor Who was perhaps an indication of how I have been thinking about Atlantis and other mythologies as treated in the cult TV world. Of course Doctor Who has been able to make remarkably free with any mythology of earth or created for another planet, but here w have a show also drawing on the mythology of Atlantis, just about the supposed last man from Atlantis. In fact Atlantis as far as I can see doesn't really occur in it at all, except as a pretext for a man being remarkably aquatically able. I had somehow managed to get to this great age without actually seeing an episode of The Man From Atlantis, a lack which has been remedied by the purchase of a boxed set from amazon.de. The title translates as Der Mann aus dem Meer in German, btw, and if you have region 2 equipment and are in Europe, the German edition is much the cheapest way to buy this series. The boxed set - with alternative language tracks in German and English - comes in at under £17 when paid for in sterling, and the same set costs more than £30 on amazon.co.uk. Region 1 releases are also more expensive on amazon.co.uk.
I haven't watched it all the way through yet, but I have watched a few episodes, which are enough to give me an impression - and of course an opinion. And I have placed Man from Atlantis in a completely new category of television, which I have just coined in my own head, that of supermen. I'm afraid it is largely supermen, although of course there was Wonder Woman as well.
My tentative genre of TV entitled supermen is the fulfilment of the sort of dreams of progress we often see in the TV of the era I write about here. While the warnings of the dangers from human perfidy or just weakness came thick and fast, there was also a sense that the future would be bright...if we would be careful how we approached it. The impetus was completely on humans to take responsibility for how we create our future. Is it therefore any wonder that come the 1970s there were a whole series of TV programmes featuring people who were (at least mostly) apparently human or else looked human in a dark room, who were gifted with literally superhuman abilities? It is as if the warnings of dangers found in technology in the sixties have morphed into having examples of superhuman strength or virtue held above us. I wanted to mention the Incredible Hulk but his gifts are rather ambivalently for the good (although what boy has dreamt of turning green and growing big muscles when he becomes slightly cross?). I mean rather shows such as the Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman... I'm sure lots of other shows will come to my mind when I actually publish this post!
In The Man from Atlantis the idea of an apparently human person (whose gifts in this case are completely aquatic along with being a generally kind person and all round nice chap) meet the totally 1970s obsession with lost cultures in that he just happens to have been the only survivor of Atlantis. Merging super men with lost civilisations - could that have happened in any other era? This show is actually the one which for me brings home the real nature of these super men shows - the super abilities are things which I can never aspire to. The reason is I hate swimming! In theory I can swim, but it's only ever a leisurely doggy paddle, and I'm never comfortable going out of my depth. I'm also never likely to get better at it since somebody told me about an eye infection he contracted in a swimming pool. That has made the possibility of getting good at swimming unlikely in the extreme. For me this is one of the strange things about TV - we watch other people's lives, captivated by them whether they are much better or worse off than ourselves. It can't simply be that we like to be comforted, since I'm watching this show and the super powers shown will never be mine. They don't cause pity or envy in me... he is just a super man who I will never be, and thus this tentative genre of cult TV's main function is to make its viewers feel inadequate.
If not downright jealous. There is another thing in which Mark Harris will always be ahead of us. You may say it's rich coming from me with my approach to clothes, but Harris gets a pass to walk around in yellow swimming trunks quite a lot of the time. This is whether indoors or outdoors, and I imagine it's just purely because he's odd. The rest of us don't get that, and it once again places him in a rather enviable position. Come to think of it, I'm not doing that good a job of making this TV show sound entertaining to watch, am I, since I'm making it out as designed to create envy in the viewer. I actually wasn't going to write about this show at all, because I didn't want Harris's pecs to show my own nonexistent ones, but I bit the bullet and realised that that jealousy was part of the thing of the show. That's the point, that we don't look like him and unless we commit hours in the gym or swimming, we never will.
The episode I have chosen to write about is Scavenger Hunt, and my reason is simply that it features Ted Cassidy, the actor who played Lurch in The Addams Family. A brief search on the interent has indicated that he had a far broader career in film and TV than I was aware of, and in fact guested in many TV shows of this age. His great stature makes him the natural leader of a Polynesian nation.
And that's where this episode of Man From Atlantis begins to go wrong...well, frankly the titles haven't even finished when it goes wrong. I will confess that I have been very influenced by the hilarious (yet fond) review of this episode at the Retrospeculative TV blog, which was what made me realise why the natives on the Polynesian island look all wrong. They're not even one ethnicity. It's a random collection on Hispanics and Asians and other non-white people. I have a feeling that that would have been done differently nowadays - but I also have a feeling that it would have been more acceptable and less noticeable in the culture of the time.
The other wonderful thing about this show is that if you wanted to, in addition to the above bloop, you can pick absolute holes in it. The plot has more holes than my grandmother's lace tablecloths. The contents of the cylinders is never noticeably explained. The pearls are rather obviously not pearls. The monster is very obviously a man in a costume.
I love the dodgy spiv character of Muldoon. You can tell he's a con man because he wears clothes. I know that's being rather simplistic because so do the people who work for the United Nations, but part of the point of this show is the good guys don't need the facade given by clothes, whereas Muldoon so obviously does. He also rather obviously fibs - isn't it obvious that the Man from Atlantis can breathe under water?
If you haven't seen this show, the production values are very much of the time. It moves at about the pace of a Columbo.
The fact that this show is so open to criticism does not explain the reason it is still available forty years on. I think the key to that can be found in escapism, and the sort of super-hero dynamics I talked about above. Some of us liked our TV to be unreal even in the 1970s, and Man From Atlantis is about as unreal as it gets.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Doctor Who: The Time Machine

I actually wasn't going to post about this Doctor Who adventure at all. I got out the Myths and Legends box set because I had only watched one out of the three adventures and felt like some Who. It's a funny thing about this set - it reminds me of how Dr Who started off life as an improving educational show in the more worthy BBC mould than the more entertaining ITV mould of much of the TV I write about here. All three of the adventures in the bexed set draw on ancient mythologies - The Horns of Nimon draws on the mythology of Theseus and the Minotaur, Underworld references Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Time Monster is all about Atlantis.
I knew that there was a great fad for all things Atlantean around this time, but didn't know until I looked it up for the purposes of this post how ancient the myth of Atlantis is. It is found in Plato's works Timaeus and Critias, where it is the antithesis of Athens, Platos' perfect state, and ultimately sinks into the sea as a result of losing the favour of the gods. There is a sense in which Atlantis is natural fodder for a Doctor Who adventure, since it is the concept of a highly developed, but vanished, civilisation which has grabbed people's imaginations for centuries. It is of course natural that such a civilisation should appear in these adventures. In fact it appears several times in different adventures, with different details. My own humble opinion is both that there is no point trying to find the location of Atlantis (because it never existed outside of Plato's imagination) and that there is no point trying to make the Whovian mythology of Atlantis hang together, because it never will. One of the popular works on Atlantis around this time was written by Charles Berlitz (of the famous family of language teachers), who published The Mystery of Atlantis in 1969 (before going on to write about the Bermuda Triangle and the Philadelphia invisibility experiment - he really was one of the pivotal figures of the alternative thinking of the time. His writings have been heavily criticised for ignoring real science and preferring mythology.
One thing he was dead right about, though, was the canard that Chronos/Kronos was the last king of Atlantis. In fact he was the Greek personification of Time in pre-socratic philosophy. Chronos is a suitable character to feature in Dr Who as he governs linear time. The other word for time in Greek, kairos, indicates a definite time at which something occurs.
Another element of the various Atlantis myths which this show draws on is the idea that Atlantis was Minoan. Visually the decorations etc are vert reminiscent of anciet Minoan patterns.
This adventure is not a favourite with the fans in any shape or form. The reviews on the internet are downright awful, and I think in many ways I would have to concede they are right. Nonetheless this show is appearing on this blog, which is an indicator that I don't think it is a complete dud and can be watched, with a few provisos.
The key thing which is wrong with it is the obvious one that it is too long. The plot could have been better done in four episodes maximum. Possibly even three. Master, Doctor, conflict, TARDISES, they end up inAtlantis and some cod Greek mythology is mixed in... how is it even possible to spin this out for six episodes. It means that by the time you get to the end you can easily have forgotten what the point of it is. By the final episode you can easily have forgotten that the adventure started off in Cambridge, and could think it is about one hell of a row in yet another fictional world.
On another level the plot works very well. I like all of these Whos which have the Master in, because he provides an interesting counterpoint to the doctor's personality. In this as in all the adventures he appears in, he uses other people and uses other people's weaknesses and preoccupations to try to get what he wants. His presence makes (it is an unfortunate phrase, but I don't have another) an interesting human story. Well, not exactly human, but you know what I mean. He adds whole levels of characterisation and personality to a story which the doctor just can't do alone, and the rest of the cast never can because they are always too much in awe of the Doctor. This is also the Who which has first made me wonder why nobody ever asks why the Doctor is intruding into their time from elsewhere. Well, I don't doubt they ask it frequently, but this is the one which has made me notice that he is himself an anachronism, and somehow intrudes into different ages without bothering to fit in. Not a mistake that Sapphire and Steel ever make!
I'm afraid I'm going to lower the tone with this next criticism but surely it was unfortunate to use the phrase Tom Tit for the time machine. Surely as native speakers (although possibly having spent their lives in more refained circles than what I have) the writers, production staff and cast would know that tom tit is Cockney rhyming slang for something rather unfortunate!
While Tom Baker is 'my' doctor, being the first I remember, Jon Pertwee is my favourite of the TV doctors, simply because I love the personality he gives to the doctor. He is what makes the good side of this adventure for me. I have been wanting to see Pertwee a film called Death at the Windmill for yonks, but have never managed to find a copy of it which was PAL compatible. Perhaps saying this is the most damning thing I could ever say about this show, that the doctor himself is the best thing about it! That said I find the first few episodes are the best for the Whovian atmosphere of the time, and it is once they go to Atlantis it all rather starts to go to pieces. Perhaps I had better note that as so often happens I'm going out on a limb here, and a lot of reviews put that the other way around, actually preferring the scenes set in Atlantis. Oh - I think my absolutely favourite plot device in this one is the way both the Master and the Doctor have an identical TARDIS each.
How could it have been better done? I feel personally there are two different adventures here, one with the Master intruding at a Cambridge college (possibly with the contact with an extraterrestrial power is you must) and the other of a conflict in Atlantis. Possibly Atlantis could have been kept in the story by referring to the events there as something happening outside of the actual plot of this one.
So to summarise, this adventure isn't a complete dud in my own opinion. I have a feeling that most people will either prefer the Cambridge segment or prefer the Atlantis segment. The plot won't stand up to mch in the way of examination, and I have a feeling that it is probably best avoided by people who may be overly critical of the quality of the TV they watch.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Avengers: Tunnel of Fear available for pre-order

Do I even need to say I'm frantically excited? All my doom-laden prophecies that it would never happen paid off last year when the universe contradicted my predictions and another series 1 episode of The Avengers was discovered. I'm very gratified that it's Tunnel of Fear,which I have always thought looked interesting. I'm even more gratified that it's available for pre-order on Amazon UK and simply cannot wait to watch it!
Also in Avengersy news, Steed's Jaguar from the New Avengers is undergoing restoration and you can read about it here.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Seventies TV: Man About the House

I'm watching Man About the House and it's making me feel rather bad about all the dreadful things I've said about 1970s TV. I have rather tended to characterise it as gritty, dreadful, a product of the very difficult time which gave it birth. Even the shows which aren't consciously 'gritty', I have portrayed as superficial, silly, racist, you name it. And it isn't even that I haven't seen much seventies TV - I've watched loads of these shows. And my unfortunate tendency repeats itself - that I tend to think of it as the age of the sit com. And I don't like sit coms. I particularly don't like George and Mildred. I've tried, but it just doesn't do it for me. I don't really have a sensible reason for it, I just don't like it. And as we all know, George and Mildred is a spin-off of Man About the House. I don't like spin-offs. At this point you could begin to think that I'm an old curmudgeon who doesn't like anything.
Hence it was such as surprise this week when I found an odd series of Robin's Nest for sale and thought I'd give it a go. It's a spin-off, and it's a sit com, and I didn't mind it at all. I won't personally go out of my mind for it, but it was caused me to give Man About the House a go and I'm surprised to find that I rather like it.
Man About the House draws on another thread of seventies culture which I have rather tended to ignore, namely its sexiness. Nowadays that mixed-sex house-shares are no big deal, I was surprised to find that it was considered very risque in its day because it shows a man flat sharing with two women. There isn't any grittiness here, what is depicted is a happy life of young people sharing a flat. My only criticism of the life portrayed is that the flat they live in is decorated in the latest style for the 1970s, and is too prosperous for three adults who are on low incomes or students.
And it's incredibly sexy. Perhaps that is the element of 1970s TV that I haven't picked up on enough in the past. A recurring image in the titles and on the DVD releases is of a pair of Y-fronts hanging between two pairs of knickers, indicating a certain, shall we say, familiarity between the three. There is a certain easiness and flirtiness between the three of them. In fact all of the characters in the shows are obsessed with sex and a lot of the show is about getting it, not getting it, and thinking about it. In the way of the 1970s such themes as porn are not taboo.
I had simplistically accepted the view on the internet that the youngsters are the ones having the sex (or talking or thinking about it) and George and Mildred are the ones not doing it. Mildred is reputed on the internet not to be interested at all, however their relationship is far more nuanced and there are occasions where Mildred plainly wants sex but it's George that isn't interested. It seems that George is definitely interested by just not in Mildred, because of the frequent occasions when his stashes of porn are revealed. So far the approach to sex and sexuality is so conventional and boring.
Not forgetting that this was in the years following the second wave of feminism, when great criticism was levelled at the male gaze towards women, and particularly around porn and rape culture. The sexuality criticised by the second wave of feminism is represented in the figure of George Roper.
Then Man About the House turns it completely on its head by making Robin a rather unusual sex object for the gaze of the girls. Richard O'Sullivan even became a rather unlikely sex symbol as a result of starring in this show. The girls are dfefinitely liberated - I love the way Chrissie keeps a little black book of men she's been out with! And yet, and yet... His character is even more complex than that. As a cookery student he takes on the traditionally female role of doing all the cooking, while the girls go out to work. At the beginning of the show they tell Mr Roper Robin is gay to overcome any objections to mixed-gender flat sharing, and he very frequently acts like a gay man. Perhaps this is what attracted the controversy at the time, that these complicated gender and sexuality roles couldn't easily be explained in simplistic terms, and thus brought on people's fears that literally anything could happen.
Otherwise the show is a real seventies blast. I particularly love the way the woodwork in the pub is painted purple! The Ropers' sofa is upholstered in vinyl (torn on both arms) which looks like it would be hideously slippery and sweaty to sit on. Their furniture is a mixture of different times as most people's furniture is. The youngsters' flat upstairs is as I said furnished much more contemporarily, which is rather nice. And of course everything is of its period and looks right and not overdone. The smoking in the pub is quite something - you can see literal clouds of smoke. I don't remember actually seeing clouds of smoke in the days when more people smoked, but perhaps it did happen. As an ex-smoker myself I'm also tending to notice that some of the actors have what I can only describe as smoker's teeth - something you don't see in The Avengers, where they were presumably ruthlessly cleaned for a TV appearance.
Production values are of the time, and apart fom an occasional external shot, mainly in the titles, the show is almost completely studio-bound.
My conclusion is that I have overlooked a gem of seventies TV which isn't in the mainstream of the gritty TV of the time. If you don't like rude jokes you won't like it, I would have to say, but if you can cope with any of the sex comedies of the time, you will surely like Man About the House.