Friday, 27 April 2018

Why I've Been Quiet and What I've Been Watching

I'm hoping that this post (which will be less verbose than most of mine for reasons which will become apparent) will explain both of those things. For some time I have been troubled by exhaustion, as well as stiffness and swelling in my hands, both of which explain reduced posting here. I put it down to a heavy workload and probably a bit of RSI but I have now been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I am off sick from work at the moment and full of steroids, but fortunately I can now see the bones in my right wrist for the first time in ages.
I have not ceased to watch cult TV although I have predominantly been watching a lot of old films. I have posted about Old Mother Riley here before, but I'm not sure if I have posted about the Thin Man films, about Will Hay or about Arthur Askey. I feel I was probably born too late. I have a boxed set of James Bond films I intend to watch through at some point. I also like a nice murder and have watched the Agatha Christie films I have - while I don't take to Poirot I do have several versions of And Then There Were None and various Marple films played by various actresses, although I do like Margaret Rutherford myself.
TV-wise I started a blog post about The Return of The Saint, which I have very much enjoyed watching. I'm using this enforced rest to go through my collection and watch things I haven't seen for ages to decide if they should have a permanent home. While I have a line of Dr Who DVDS I find I rarely watch them so I am going through them with a view to a selective cull. My taste is strange in that I prefer the ones set on earth.
Old TV can of course be a great comfort at times of illness so I am finding I am also watching some old favourites. Sapphire and Steel, for example, and Golden Girls (which I haven't posted about here because I'm never sure whether it's too low-brow, and before you ask I'm most like the old one). Department S is also getting a watch through, and it's struck me again how very odd Jason King is when plonked down in anything like the real world.
I'm awaiting an appointment to start chemotherapy and am not wasting my time on any quack remedies so am confident that something approaching normal service will be resumed in the near future. In the meantime if someone wants to give me a get well soon present a pirated disc of the not-commercially-available series of Freewheelers would be very welcome indeed. Well, no harm in being cheeky is there?

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Avengers: Tunnel of Fear

What's not to love? A ghost train where people disappear and an escaped convict bursting into Dr Keel's surgery - what could be more Avengers than this episode. The famous rediscovered first series Avengers episode arrived and I've leapt straight onto it. This post will therefore be some rather rushed first impressions and a more leisured analysis of the episode may follow at a later date.
Completely first impression is that I am horrified that the ghost train in the show is almost *exactly* like one that I remember going on at Dudley Zoo as a child and which my mother probably rightly criticised as ropey. I suppose it must have been very run down if virtually idential ones were running fifteen years earlier!
Second impression: Keel is who we expect him to be - the doctor whose life is continually being turned upside down by incursions from The Underworld. But then I suppose real doctors should be used to dealing with all sorts of strange things happening at all hours of the day and night.
My third impression is a delightful one. Steed is the Steed we all know and love from the later series. He doesn't come across as the shady character I have come to expect in the first series at all. He bursts into the surgery preceded by his dog, who proceeds to get friendly with the escaped prisoner. He comments that she is a very good judge of character and then makes the very Steed-like comment to the effect that there is hardly anyone she likes at Westminster! I also love that when he later goes off the funfair the dog is left with his boss to look after, and particularly in the hypnotism scene where he is so obviously poking fun at his questioners.
In fact Steed is so very Steed that in a truly Avengers-magical-omniscience- Steedly way he next turns up in an 'Eastern' costume announcing the dancing girls at the fun fayre. I love the zeal with which he does this, and the evident enjoyment he takes in this. I also love that the dancing girls act is raided by the police. This is just so Avengers it isn't true! I commented in my last post on The Frighteners, that there are a number of scenes in the episode which speak very loudly of the world of The Avengers, and that is also true of Tunnel of Fear, so I feel that this is perhaps a hallmark of the first series (of course I can't claim to have watched the whole of the series so please treat this impression for what it is - an impression). Far from the stodginess of a lot of the TV of this age, to me this means that The Avengers already made a feature of effective visuals, eccentric people and effective or demimondaine settings.
One of those settings would definitely be the funfair itself, which is something which fascinates me. For a start there is a point where a night's takings are mentioned and they seem to me a fantastic amount of money for the early 1960s. The world of the fair has always been one which is seen as rather dodgy (it's a world to which you run away, for example, and traditional prejudice has always been against people who travel for whatever reason). Add to that the elements of chance and sleight of hand, and the funfair perfectly provides the eccentric characters and dodgy setting required by an early Avengers episode. In fact it's beyond dodgy - I personally can't remember ever being to a funfair which had dancing girls! It may seem tame by today's standards, but I think the fact the act is raided by the police and patronised only by men indicates that this is a very adult funfair act indeed!
I do have some criticisms, I'm afraid. While I'm naturally very deferential of the show and relieved it has resurfaced after so long, I will bravely state them. After about the halfway point I found myself losing interest in this episode. I found it very talky and it was as if it lost the momentum and visual interest of the first half - an alternative view may be that it is more like a standard detective show of the time. This will either be to your taste or it won't, but personally I prefer the weirder end of The Avengers. The momentum picks up again towards the end.
I have read people on the blogosphere say that this is a bit pricey for a single Avengers episode - I don't think it is, and I'm notoriously difficult to part from the contents of my wallet. The restoration is superb (I think it looks rather better than most of the series 1, 2, and 3 episodes I have seen) and more particularly there are a number of significant extras. The booklet in the box is one which I have actually found myself reading, and I'm particularly glad that there is a cartoon story included. On the actual disc there are a number of interviews and series one episode reconstructions.
Tunnel of Fear was always an episode which I wanted to see, because it sounded as if the plot would be interesting and the visuals stood to be effective, which is why I'm so very glad that I have managed to see it in its entirety finally - the screenshots I have previously seen didn't suggest the exotic nature of Steed's role, for example. I am truly very glad to have now seen it - and I'm interested that it isn't quite what I expected it to be. It exceeded my expectations despite a slow patch in the middle. I am incredibly grateful to all involved in its rediscovery and production, particularly the private collector who owned it. If any other private collectors have an odd episode available I would dearly love to see it. I suppose it is now unlikely that that will happen, but that's what I've been saying for years and (fingers crossed) it worked in producing this episode, didn't it?

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Avengers Series 1: The Frighteners

I meant to have several posts up this week, about some shows I have never written about here, but I have been ill so it hasn't happened. This post isn't any of them, but it is a post about something which I have already managed to think about - the series posts about series 1 Avengers episodes I started some time ago. Lucky I use labels, isn't it - I so rarely complete an actual series of posts when I conceive them.
I am of course at least partly thinking about the forthcoming release of Tunnel of Fear and am prompted to think about others in the series, including The Frighteners, which of course still exists. It was actually the only episode known still to exist until Girl on the Trapeze and the first part of Hot Snow (both of which I have written about here before) were discovered. The Frighteners was always seen a the quality piece of work it is. In fact I have read that the received wisdom was that while The Frighteners was obviously quality, it was the odd one out among a bad lot and the rest were rightly scrapped - a view which was of course contradicted by the ones which were discovered anew.
If there is a shortcoming to the commentary on these series 1 episodes, it is that it tends to be too deferential - understandably so, with the feeling we all have that we are dealing with the remaining delicate baby numbers of our favourite show and can't really be rude about them. Additionally these shows are now 57 years old, and they have a venerable air which makes it difficult to criticise. It is like being rude about a very elderly lady telling us about the stick and hoop she played with as a child. Nonetheless I will have some criticisms, which I will whisper before putting myself to bed with no supper for a week.
Actually watching this show for this post, and reading some other people's comments on the internet has made me like it even more than I did to start off with! I am indebted to the dissolute website for making me notice how much Macnee and Hendry visibly enjoy playing these roles - they actually laugh at the dialogue in places. I do like a show which can bring out this sort of youngster's enjoyment in the artistes.
There are two things in which this episode excels in my opinion. The first is the evocation of the network of corruption and criminality under the surface of the city. The second is the splendid visuals.
I wonder whether this episode would have been considered shocking by many people in 1961? I particularly wonder whether they would have been more shocked by the revelation of corruption among 'respectable businessmen' or the network of completely unbridled criminality among the 'lower orders'. I do think it particularly interesting the way the criminal world is so organised, and even more interesting that in the earlier part of the show the criminality has a feeling of being run by Italians (of Napoli) - of course this is a common psychological defence mechanism to separate things we don't like from ourselves. The episode also manages to make the criminal world incredibly complicated involving organised crime, small-time crooks, corrupt businessmen and a confidence trickster. Given that the original premise of the show was the doctor who turns avenger against the underworld after the murder of his fiancee this is all to the purpose of series 1.
The visuals have rightly been described as feeling very much like a Cathy Gale-era episode. The huge majority of the episode of filmed in studio, but there is one part where stock footage is cleverly used to set the scene of the London streets. None of this sounds special, but the way in which I mean the visuals are superb, is that what is chosen to show is very effective. Take the flower lady with Steed - it's a picture if ever there was one. As is the sight of Keel tickling a cat. What is shown is carefully selected to stop this show looking boring. My favourite scene of all is the one with Steed with the flower seller, because again he visibly enjoys it. I love the way she says 'I bet you get orff before you get home with one of these in your buttonhole'. I also love that she is plainly one of  his network of informers, and her old-fashioned clothes give her the air of a character out of later Avengers series. 
I'm not planning on commenting much on the nature of Steed's character shown here. It is the first remaining episode we have where Steed appears and he is very much the Steed we expect from the nature of other series 1 episodes. I have discussed him at length in other posts on this series. He is an habitue of the underworld and it shows. What more surprises me is the character of Keel, who far into series 1 still doesn't seem to understand the danger of what he has taken on, and takes the most incredible risk in this episode. Steed is quite rightly not impressed with the risk he has taken, which seems rather different to the impression Venus Smith always gave, that he was an annoyance who would happily risk anyone else's life. In fact I seem to recall this is the impression I got in the posts I wrote about her shows some time ago. Interestingly Keel plays a cunning but very obvious trick on de Willoughby about the scar on his back which is recognised by his 'mother'. De Willoughby doesn't twig that he is obviously the source of the strange woman's knowledge about his body.
My favourite character of all has to be Doris Courtney who is obviously a theatrical to her fingertips, witnessed by the way she comments that we can't leave all this lovely gin.
Now to the criticisms.
My personal opinion is that the plot is overly complicated and hence rather confusing. Even allowing for the convention of the age that TV shows were treated much more like plays to be watched with attention and considered, this is no simplistic good vs bad plot. In fact it seems like everyone is basically bad in this one, and even the baddies are agin each other. I have watched this episode numerous times, read summaries of the plot and remain confused as to what is going on in places and the exact relationship between the various criminals. I wonder whether it would have been possible to tease this out at all on a single viewing with no possibility of repeats in 1961.
It is also very apparent that it was considered ephemeral. There are lines gone wrong here and there and there is one instance where the camera visibly crashes into something. What this spells is that this was a show which was cranked out at speed with minimal repetition and not intended to be seen again, so may not really be a valid criticism. Nonetheless it's strange that some obvious mistakes were allowed to remain in something which was otherwise so carefully put together. Oh - another one is that 'witchazel' is the incorrect spelling on Dr Keel's bottle of witch hazel.
The ending where de Willoughby is confronted by his 'mother' is a masterpiece of dramatic effect.
In conclusion this is a first series Avengers episode which contradicts the former received wisdom that the first series was rubbish. It is an excellent episode, with particularly good visuals, marred only by some mistakes in production and a plot which isn't completely to my personal taste but others may disagree.