Sunday, 25 March 2018

Gangsters: Incident One

I honestly can only assume that I have missed this series because I didn't think I would like it. I have certainly seen the boxed set around, but because I somehow hadn't heard of it as a vintage TV series, I suppose I assumed it was a modern series and hence overlooked it.
So let me be honest and admit that I am writing about this show with a HUGE bias. In fact I'm not so much biased as prejudiced. In its favour, that is, for the simple reason that it is not only set in my home city of Birmingham, but it is also filmed in the Birmingham of the 1970s and is wonderfully atmospheric of a certain time in the life of the Second City.
To be frank, I think it quite likely that this series won't have done the city's reputation any favours, simply because it portrays it as as gang- and violence-ridden cesspit. It certainly wasn't that in the 1970s, and certainly isn't now, despite having a ridiculously high crime rate. Yes, if you look up Birmingham and gangs on the internet you will find a long history of gangs (but what urban area doesn't have them?) and there has been a scary recent history of two gangs running parts of the city and terrifying the area between their two manors. But in my humble opinion Birmingham is predominantly scary in its reputation amongst those who have never been here.
I imagine that the show was controversial in its day, and not just for the gang warfare it depicts. To be honest I doubt it would be that controversial - it only has a fifteen certificate. I have read somewhere that the standup comedicans' jokes which form part of the titles of each episode were considered controversial at the time, as being perceived as racist. They are probably not something which would be broadcast on TV nowadays. On the other hand, I think Gangsters gets the ethnic mix and feel of Birmingham exactly right. It also gets the relations between the races here spot on. For the native Brummy it is a tremendously nostalgic trip through the seventies, and in true Birmingham style I was delighted to realise that the street scene which I didn't realise was actually Broad Street and it has changed so much as to be unrecognisable. Onl that happens in Birmingham.
Beyond the nostalgia for the native, I must confess to a dissatisfaction with the main premise of the show - the DVD box terms it as 'the underworld is in confusion after the death of its leader'. Rubbish. Nonsense. The whole point of the underworld is it doesn't have a leader. It has a bunch of competing un-leaders. This failed premise means that the show is rather flawed from the beginning. I also have to confess to a certain dissatisfaction with the figure of John Kline (played by Maurice Colbourne) is also unconvincing as a baddie. To be frank this is largely because Colbourne's presence isn't rough enough - he comes across as too middle class. Sorry, but this is my perception. It is also rather unlikely that the security services would make use of him in the way they are seen to here.
A typically seventies theme which recurs in the show is that of corruption, corruption which rises from the gangs on the streets right to the top of local government. It takes us through a world of violence, prostitutes, drugs, and you name it. In the manner of the time, Gangsters definitely belongs to the gritty category of TV shows. When it is brutal it really is genuinely brutal. I have a feeling that the scenes of drug use and things like strip clubs would probably have been highly controversial in the age of Mary Whitehouse. Perhaps the most brutal thing is the final scene of this episode where Kline and another character are tricked into or tied up in a derelict house which is in the actual process of demolition.
Technically Gangsters is quite interesting (I am benefitting from the commentary on the disc). It did largely use the traditional method of external shots interspersed with studio shooting - although to be honest you wouldn't know it. I had a few double takes in the scene in the gaming arcade, and came to the conslusion (wrongly) that it had actually been set up in a shop on Broad Street. This may be because the technique used in the studio is (unusally) a hand-held camera which gives the impression of location filming. Another filming technique which is very effective and cost the princely sum of £200 per hour was to hire a helecopter to film some external scenes from above - making the point that the show is about the above and the below, becoming gradually more about the below.
Watching this Gangsters episode and thinking about it, I rather regret that I have taken a disbelief to the show's major premise, because I desperately want to like it. I am a bit surprised that it isn't more widely written about in the cult TV blogosphere, because in comparison to the voume of sheer dross released by the TV companies in the seventies and eighties, it shines life a fine jewel. I'm not even dramatising here! The location shooting and realistic interior sets are I think what put it above the run of the mill shows of the time. Gangsters is right up there with The Professionals (which itself has some major flaws) in my estimation because it actually feels like the seventies felt. The Sweeny overdoes it. Minder caricatures it. I'm not even going to say anything about the other shows. It also feels like Birmingham did. One interesting thing they have done which I think is right, is that you won't hear a Birmingham accent, not even a running jump at one. There are Irish and various ethnic accents but apart from one black man who sounds as if he's from Liverpool, you'll hear what we may term generic working class accents. The attempts to do Birmingham accents are so often what ruin TV shows for us locals.
Again in the manner of the time is the pace. It's slower than what you'd get nowadays and being a BBC show this episode runs for the full hour. I was going to say that the delineation and expansion of the basic plot was a bit slow and confusing, but I think that is the result of my tendency to watch those low-brow ITV shows. Gangsters started as a TV play in the Play for Today series, and it does show. The colour palette is rather more colourful than the classic shades-of-porridge palette we see in so many of the shows of the era - I wonder whether this is to indicate the colourful, diverse, multicultural world of the city. In my book it also wins by not having that many familiar faces. There are definitely some actors I recognise from other shows but not in an obtrusive way which makes me spend the shows wondering where I've seen them.
It has been a long time since I gave a favourite line from a show I write about here, but I have one here, and it may encapsulate what the show is about. It is words spoken to a stripper: 'Punters want pussy, love. Show them the fur and hear them purr.'
If you want an antidote to the dreadfulness of so much 1970s TV, my opinion is that you really couldn't do better than Gangsters. Other people may not find the basic premise of the show as incredible as I do, and if you're looking for sheer grit, this is the place to get it. There is also a coolness and sophistication about it which is very appealing. It will of course also appeal to those sentimental for the Birmingham of the 1970s. For grit and style which do their best to compensate for a dodgy premise, you actually can't do better than Gangsters.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Avengers: The Norse Code


This is of course one of the Avengers stories published as cartoons in Diana magazine in the 1960s and dramatised in recent times by Big Finish. I have written about at least one of them here before and commented on how hugely impressed I was. I remain hugely impressed: in fact these adventures give me hope that what I choose to call the 'authentic' Avengers formula can still be recreated. In fact this is an exciting time across the board for Avengers fans, what with a recently-discovered series 1 episode being released next month, and I have even heard a rumour that Big Finish are going to dramatise the novelisation Too Many Targets, which features all the Avengers girls at once and which I like enormously.
You will note that I say the 'authentic' Avengers formula. You will also note that I set myself up as the arbiter of what is authentic and what is not. A lot of the Avengers fan fiction littering the internet is - in my humble opinion - marred by the fantasy that Steed and Mrs Peel (or any other of the Avengers girls) are getting it on in any shape or form. That is not an error made in The Norse Code - Steed and Mrs Peel pose as husband and wife (bizarrely with different surnames) and of course we fans of the show know that that is not for the first time. It is purely in the interests of their avenging, of course.
In fact the reason The Norse Code and other plays of this stable give me such hope for future Avengers adventures is that despite being expnaded from the relatively meagre source of cartoons, they are absolutely faultless. That in itself gives me hope that there are writers around who can accurately reproduce the recipe for a late-series Avengers episode and make it into a full-length adventure.
The recipe seems relatively simple. Stick a load of eccentrics, oddities and secret agents together in the heady environment of the late 1960s and that would seem to be it. That apparently isn't it, though - that would ultimately be a recipe for a caricature of an avengers episode, and what adds the magic is the use of a number of narrative techniques (such as magical omniscience) and the creation of the Avengers atmosphere which I have written about so often here. What The Norse Code gets exactly right is the right balance of these ingredients without overdoing it. It starts off with Mrs Peel bizarrely learning Conversational Old Norse before Steed tells her 'we're needed'. It then moves into the description of how the missing agent is missing - with exactly the right amount of the magical omniscience which makes the series what it is, before introducing a cast of eccentrics. This is *exactly* the right way in, without any wasted expansion, and gives exactly the feel of a series 4 or 5 episode.
The level of eccentricity and unreality - which are ultimately what make The Avengers a safe series to watch rather than a nail-biting one - are also exactly right. The Norse Code does this by placing the threat in an obsession with the Vikings - I know I'm always banging on about the importance of watching these series in the context of their own age, but we must remember that in the 1960s this would have made a refreshing change from the usual Cold War threats found in much of the TV of the time. This device serves to make a very real threat unreal, and therefore less threatening. 'Bring forth the flaming torches' notwithstanding. In fact reflecting on this has made me reaise that this device is one repeatedly used in The Avengers to take the threat out of the situation. If this episode feels like any of the TV episodes, I would think of The Town of No Return or The Living Dead, both characterised by the same device of a very real threat which is divorced from the real threats of the time and by being made unreal, is made to feel safe.
I am honestly trying to think of any valid criticisms of this Avengers episode. I'm not slow to express my own opinion, as regular readers will know, but frankly I really can't think of any. Not one. Other people may have some. For example you won't like this if you don't take to the sheer ridiculousness of the plot. But in that caseyou don't really have any business watching The Avengers at all. Hard-core Avengers fans won't like anyone but Patrick Macnee playing Steed, but I personally don't dislike that.
My verdict on this as on the other Big Finish Avengers adventures adapted from Diana comic is that they are superb, and furthermore give hope to the fans that it is still possible to write an authentic Avengers adventure. Hopefully we will see more of them in the future.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Man From UNCLE: The Never Never Affair

I am writing this post in reaction to somebody else who blogs prolifically about TV series of the era I write about here. It may seem like I'm being difficult but I'm not going to say who she is. My own opinion is that if I'm not going to put my opinion as a comment on her blog, I'm not really disputing with her but only publishing my own views, even if it does seem curmudgeonly not to say who I'm talking about. She has, anyway, commented at length that she will block those whose views she disagrees with, and I'm speaking as someone who left a fairly mild comment (not about gender) some time ago on her blog and received a withering put-down in reply. This is someone who is apparently an academic and I wonder how her students perceive her, despite her once commenting on her tumblr that she's sorry if anyone is offended by her response to their comments, and to let her know. Hmmmm. I suppose therefore I am debating the position because I have found the person impossible to debate with.
I'm making her sound even more curmudgeonly that I am myself. The reason she is blocking other people is that she is tired of the attitude found among many Avengers fans, of treating Mrs Peel as a pin up. She is particularly annoyed by the attitude found among many on the Avengers fan forum - such things as discussions of whether Mrs Peel or Mrs Gale was more sexy in leather annoy her intently. She has recently commented of the Tara King episode where Steed comes home and finds Tara has emptied rubbish all over his living room so that she could search through the bins, taht this could only have been written by men in the 1960s who would have no conception of the clean up operation required. She has, of course, missed the other aspect of the The Avengers that it isn't supposed to be real in any shape or form whatsoever. We all know that in reality the studio staff would have had a huge clean up afterwards, but in the world of Avengers magic, that clean up just wouldn't have happened at all. It is about unreality, not gender roles. In fact this unreality about cleaning up often pervades the world of television. Many a game show which involves the people getting gunged or dirty in some way would have meant a monumental clean up, but that's the point of television - we don't get gunged, but we also don't have to clean up. One of these days I will post about Tiswas.
The blogger I am referring to is particularly vexed by two other things. One is that there are some heavily manipulated pictures of Mrs Peel doing the rounds of the internet. I get it that if you disagree with people using women's images in that way it's always going to be wrong. However I think her monocular feminist vision makes her see things through that filter alone. Just as it made her miss the unreality element of the clean up operation after Tara King's bin search above, it makes her minimise the sexual elements of the show which were (probably) intended by the original writers. She also doesn't notice that there is a scene in a lost series 1 Avengers (sorry, I have forgotten the name of the episode) where Steed is tied up bare chested and tortured - there is many a tumblr where this picture has been animated and commented on how sexy it is. I have managed to stop myself making this a post consisting of nothing but manipulated kinky images of Mrs Peel or a compendium of the more sexy sequences in The Avengers. I'm probably getting myself into hot water here but while I do understand the feminist critique of pornography I don't completely agree with it because, frankly, anything can be pornographic.
I think what I'm saying is that I understand the feminist criticism of the male gaze, but I think it is not a sufficient way of viewing complex media like television, alone. Certainly not when she then blocks anyone who posts the manipulated pictures of Mrs Peel. The whole point of Mrs Peel in a catsuit is she's sexy - refusing to acknowledge that men will push it further into an erotic picture or fantasy is to ignore that sex is largely present on television and in our world because it just plain is.
Personally I try not to avoid the sexiness of the television I write about here. I don't have a problem with talking about it quite frankly. My opinion is that The Avengers didn't shy away from both male and female sexuality - although I think the view that Steed and Mrs Peel were getting it on is a hiding to nothing. Sexuality is more present in a less obvious way. There is a first series episode where Mrs Gale (I think it is The Inside Out Man) goes to a garage and is pictured against some very obviously topless pinups. Similarly in The Master Minds Steed is pictured being amused at a school girl's collection of topless male pinups. The Avengers therefore shows both male and female pinups at different times. That said of course traditionally a bare chested man is not such a sexual image as that of a female (I have no idea where she stands on that) and anyone who reads this regularly will know my profile picture is a bare chested one, which I don't personally consider a sexual thing. In the unlikely event of somebody wanting to use my picture as a pinup - well, frankly I don't care. Anyone who particularly wants full size pictures of me to use as pinups is welcome to drop a comment here and I'll email you some - ROFL!
The other thing which drives this particular blogger spare is The Man From UNCLE - particularly Napoleon Solo's attitude to women, which she contrasts greatly to Steed's attitude to women, which she thinks is more respectful. I think she's just plain wrong. Remember the scene in Split where Steed shuts the nurse in the cupboard but smacks her bottom as he pushes her in? A great respecter of women's bodies and autonomy then. She thinks that Solo's attitude to women is much more patronising - and I honestly can't see it. He has the role of the womaniser in The Man From UNCLE, but I have not noticed his attitude to women being particularly poor, hence my watching some of the show to think about this. My initial opinion is that the TV show with the worst attitude to women is probably The Professionals: whenever Bodie and Doyle come across a woman the conversation begins 'Look, love...' and they make it plain that the woman's intellect is way below what they require.
The Man From UNCLE episode which I have arbitrarily chosen to look at to see Solo's attitude to women is a strangely suitable one, because while it is unspoken the gender roles of UNCLE are remarkably rigid in The Never-Never Affair. A female Portuguese translator in UNCLE headquarters (Mandy, played by Barbara Felden, familiar to us all from Get Smart, of course, which is rather disconcerting) tries, mistakenly, to persuade Solo that she could be an UNCLE agent with the use of a toy gun. Of course this gets her into hot water with the other agents. I will grant that if a second-generation feminist view is your chosen prism, you could get very annoyed at the way she is told to stick to interpreting.
The episode is otherwise strangely atmospheric of The Avengers, at least in its opening scenes. I frankly find the opening scenes rather bizarre, because the Thrush agenst who corner Kuryakin appear out of nowhere. It is all very evocative of Avengers omniscience. The sequence then rather goes wrong because they fail to surround Kuryakin with a wall of fire - the two lines of fire they succeed in creating are ones he could easily just walk around. Perhaps again it is intended to be magical.
This is an episode which I have always rather enjoyed because of the way Solo gives Mandy a 'mission' to fill Mr Waverley's cigar humidor at the tobacconist's. This is obviously to shut her up and is hilariously and very obviously nothing more. Unfortunately the point is that the joke is ultimately on Solo because she ends up involved in some real action. In fact Solo ends up looking frankly ridiculous as a result of this game, and a general call has to go out to UNCLE for everyone to look out for her before Thrush finds her.
Something which strikes me about this one is that while everyone says the campy ridiculousness was loud-pedalled in series 3 of UNCLE, this is an episode towards the end of series 1 and the idea of having the Thrush agents disguised as ice cream vendors already strikes me as about as slapstick as it can get. I particularly love the way they hide guns in ice cream boxes, and one comments to the other that he is giving him to burnt almond flavour. In this sequence the agents are prevented by Kuryakin's adroit use of a rail full of frocks to keep them away. The agents pursue her in the ice cream van playing 'London bridge is falling down' as they drive along.
The unreality continues by means of the action taking place in a darkened cinema, including reflecting the actual action in the film that is showing. The sequence where Solo shoots bullets through the screen and the dead Thrush agents collapses through it is particularly effective. Again this is an element curiously reminiscent of an Avengers episode - of course I am thinking specifically of Epic but there are many other occasions where unreality and reality twist and meet each other in a postmodern melee. The height of ridiculousness is that the UNCLE agents not only know that a certain garage is a Thrush cover but take the car in to get checked over after loosening the distributor cap. So much for Thrush's security. Would UNCLE agents have just walked in thusly? No way.
Personally I'm not noticing Solo being patronising to the woman in the episode. Beyond the fact that there is only one woman in a prominent role, which of course would reflect the working practices of any work place of the time, she actually shows up much better than Solo. Solo shows himself to be a buffoon and a bit of a security disaster by managing to get an UNCLE employee in such trouble with Thrush.
My considered opinion is that this episode (and this may well be extendable to the rest of The Man From UNCLE as well) is primarily about unreality and slapstick. This reinforces my original opinion that reading these TV shows solely with a feminist perspective misses much of the point.
There is just one thing completely wrong with this show. The humidor. It is the size of a tea caddy. As an ex-smoker myself I don't really think a man of quality would have a cigar humidor so small. I also think that Mr Waverley would have got his cigars delivered by his tobacconist, but I may be being a bit Steed about this.
In general terms, apart from the rather discombobulating effect of having Barbara Feldon who is so well known as a secret agent from another show play someone who is mistaken for a secret agent but isn't one (of course this is part of the slapstick itself), this episode is exactly what you would expect from the Man from UNCLE. Pacing is standard for the unreal TV I like from this period. The unreality, while it appears in huge spadefuls, is rarely allowed to get close enough to reality to be shown up for what it is. Interestingly one scene could have been surprising brutal if it actually happened in reality, where Solo douses a mechanic in the garage in petrol and threatens him with a lighter. But the fact that the show is unreal prevents it appearing as brutal as it could have been.
Something which strikes me about this is the sheer size of the cars. The Chrysler Solo takes to the garage to be checked is absolutely mammoth. I really don't think European cars of this age were that huge. I'm also not sure if American cars are still so big or whether the oil crisis of the 1970s impacted on their size.
So in conclusion I can't agree with the other blogger's opinion that the gender attitude shown by Napoleon Solo is half as offensive as she feels it to be. In my opinion she is tending to see the show through a prism of sexism alone, which blinds her to other aspects of the shows milieu, specifically the unreality of so many of these shows and slapstick elements. This is not, however to detract from the simple fact that the gender roles of the show reflect the norms of so many workplaces of the time.