Saturday, 23 March 2019

The Sweeney: Queen's Pawn

As I am writing this, I am waiting in for a plumber, who is going to install a new hot water cylinder. Hence the illustration: I am looking forward to a long hot soak like Tony Selby but don't worry, I won't inflict pictures on you. Long term readers are already traumatised by the sight of my man boobs anyway.
Obviously I have been watching The Sweeney, prompted by the episodes I have seen recently of its BBC competition, Target. Of the two, frankly I think The Sweeney is the superior: Target tried to improve on the recipe of The Sweeney and wound up overdoing the violence, with the result that the characters tended to become one dimensional. Target also feels much more claustrophobic than The Sweeney, which in comparison depicts a greater richness of human interests, relationships and interactions.
The result of The Sweeney's cult status was that the stars of stage and screen queued up to be beaten up and screamed at by Regan. I had forgotten about the guest stars and in this episode in addition to Tony Selby we have the ubiquitous Julian Glover as his solicitor.
The other way in which The Sweeney is superior is in its depiction of the time. I was alive when this was broadcast but way too young to have seen it, so can't comment on how the show would have looked to viewers of the time. To the twenty first century me there are two sides to the way the show now looks: the one which is more frequently commented on is how bleak the London of the time looks - areas which have long since been gentrified are still suffering from bomb damage of the second world war and around the vanished buildings is a violent world of people scraping a hand to mouth living.
The other 1970s depicted by The Sweeney is the up to date world of luxury and aspiration. Just look at that bath! You certainly couldn't get one in that size and colour now! There are other dead seventies interiors in this episode, including a flowery wallpaper which I remember from the hallway of some family friends. Additionally The Sweeney (in common with Target) uses the luxury cars of the time, mostly Fords. I have only recently realised that many of the cars of the time were also aspirationally named, after the European resorts which had fairly recently been opened up by package holidays and which represented foreign travel and sophistication. In Ford's case there are the Cortina and the Capri, and the Triumph Toledo and Dolomite are named in the same pattern.
The premise of this episode is the relatively simple one that three crooks have managed to get away with their crime and left court to celebrate in the most ostentatious way possible, leaving the police looking rather silly. There is nobody else available to prove they are crooks so the case is given to Regan to deal with, using all the subtlety (shut it) and sophistication (I am not a gentleman) at his disposal. Avoiding spoiling the plot, the way he does it is very naughty indeed, to the extent that at the end his bosses are forced to pretend they didn't know what he's been doing. I commented that this show has a depth of human life absent from Target and what makes this episode superior is that there is a moral question at the heart of it. Regan knows that the crooks are crooks so doesn't shy from using some fairly dirty tricks to prove it, to the despair of his bosses. The question is whether that is acceptable in the circumstances. Regan obviously thinks it is, and the depths to which he will stoop make this show fairly horrifying even now.
Unusually for me, I genuinely have nothing negative to say about this show, not even the many familiar faces. I think The Sweeney is a show you would either like or hate but that's what makes it cult TV.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Doomwatch: The Human Time Bomb

Recently I went to Sheffield, largely to see Europe's biggest listed building, which is the postwar development of Park Hill flats. I won't go into the tale of hope, disillusionment, deterioration and redevelopment using private money in any great detail. But Park Hill is the sort of development which was in it's hay day while Our Sort of Television was being broadcast. This episode of Doomwatch is (rather postmodernly) about another development of that type, and with the show's knack of predicting coming events, foretold the Doom of high rise living.
Well, I say foretold, but high rise blocks of prefabricated construction were already doomed in this country after the partial collapse of one called Ronan Point (pictured) in 1968, three years before this was broadcast. Doomwatch rather tells the tale of human suffering in the blocks. It paints a picture of the ability of a tower block to cause isolation and mysteriously turn people into violent monsters.
Apart from the violence you wouldn't believe the emotional pitch at which people live in Ambleforth. Even Dr Chantry, sent from Doomwatch to research the effect of the development on people, is reduced to a quivering wreck in short order. This is portrayed as being the effect of poor, cramped, conditions and cost-cutting, even such things as not providing enough lifts.
The extras are absolutely superb in this episode. I particularly like the creepy maintenance man, who has a creepy master key to all the flats, and then has Dr Chantry turn on him after he creepily comments on her making things worth while for him.
There is just one thing wrong with this, which is that it depicts Ambleforth as tatty and run down. That is anachronistic for the virtually new building depicted in the titles. It is perhaps a case of the show making its own polemic point visually: high rise living leads to disrespect for everything and ultimately complete breakdown. The reality even into the 1970s was that many people in these flats still saw them as luxurious after the slums they were moved from. And Doomwatch has perforce to show the community in the flats, although of course it centres on Fay Chantry.
My favourite bit is where one of the residents comments that the flats are so self sufficient if you were to lay in a month's supply of food you wouldn't have to set eyes on another living soul. What a dream.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Jason King: As Easy as ABC

Reality vs unreality, that is one of the continual themes in the TV of this age, that I write about here. I err on the side of unreality myself, and would identify the intrusion of brutal reality into the television world, as the seventies wore on.
One of the doyennes of unreal television is the character of Jason King, and somebody leaving a comment (you can see it here) about a forthcoming biography of Peter Wynegarde has caused me to watch the eponymous series today.
The opening scene makes the location of this episode clear: the manor house used to set the scene is used in many ATV series as well as The Avengers, so the episode is firmly set in Avengerland, thereby making its setting in unreality clear. The premise is even more unreal: the plots of Jason King's crime novels start to happen in reality and naturally he is suspected of the crimes.
I love this Jason King, particularly that pretty well everyone is a caricature, in fact I think that generalisation can be extended to the whole series.
I am interested in the biography of Wynegarde because it seems that the unreality spread to his own life as well as his TV character's:
Interviewed by Ray Connolly in 1973, he said: “As a child it was difficult to differentiate sometimes between fact and fantasy.” He insisted that he had been born Peter Paul Wyngarde in 1933. However, JG Ballard, who had endured the Japanese internment camp Lunghua with him, stated in his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life that “Cyril Goldbert, the future Peter Wyngarde, … was four years older than me”; Ballard had been born in 1930.
Ballard recalled him writing on a wall “what he said would be his stage name… Laurence Templeton. A name wonderfully of its time, and far grander than Peter Wyngarde.” But the name that determined Wyngarde’s career was Jason King. And, in the journalist Andrew Billen’s words, “Jason King went from national idol to national joke the day the first narrow lapel was sold in Carnaby Street in 1977.”
 Wyngarde claimed he had been born in Marseille – though despite evidence pointing to Singapore – and that his French mother, who appears to have been called Marcheritta (nee Ahin), was a racing driver.
 His father, who may have been Henry Goldbert, though Peter claimed he was a British diplomat named Wyngarde, divorced her and took custody of him; he was staying with friends in China when the Japanese invaded in 1941. Ballard remembered that he was “very popular with the ladies, distributing the most gallant flattery”.
After liberation, Wyngarde claimed to have read law at Oxford, but there is no record of him having studied there in the postwar years. His first acting credit was as a policeman at the Buxton Playhouse in May 1946, making nonsense of the 1933 birth date he claimed.
He supported Alec Guinness’s Hamlet at the New theatre in London in 1951, then played the soldier Dunois to Siobhán McKenna’s Saint Joan at the Arts in 1954. He appeared opposite Vivien Leigh in Duel of Angels at the Apollo in 1958, and said that the highlight of his career, at the Bristol Old Vic in 1959, had been playing Cyrano de Bergerac.
His burgeoning TV career brought him lead roles as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1957), Long John Silver in The Adventures of Ben Gunn (1958) and the title role in Rupert of Hentzau (1964). His appearance in The Avengers(1966), inducting Diana Rigg into the Hellfire Club, is well remembered.
In The Innocents (1961), he did not have a single word of dialogue; his only film lead was as a psychology professor in a horror film, Night of the Eagle (1962).
Connolly felt there was “an element of mystery about the marriage [to the actor Dorinda Stevens] he says took place when he was 22”; Wyngarde claimed it ended in divorce. In 2007, Donald Spoto’s biography of Alan Bates, Otherwise Engaged, noted that Bates and Wyngarde had been partners for a decade from 1956.
After Wyngarde had filmed Flash Gordon (1980) behind the gold mask of the chief of the secret police, Klytus, his agent, Dennis Selinger, admitted the actor was out of work. “It would be very easy for me to cry in my Campari and say the court case was the reason that TV work has not been flooding in but I don’t think it is true,” Wyngarde reasoned in 1980. To Billen, he averred, “It was the lack of imagination of producers. And if you’re a perfectionist ... producers don’t like it, because they are so mediocre.” In 1982, a bankruptcy hearing found that he was living on social security.
Wyngarde had spoken dismissively to Connolly of “all that naturalistic stuff”. His performance in an episode of the gritty thriller series Bulman (1985) confirmed that the “naturalistic stuff” had rendered his style archaic.
He had no known surviving family. Source
To be frank, playing fast and loose with ones history doesn't concern me very much. It isn't unusual to take a few years off ones age, and this may be particularly useful in the theatre.
Rather Wynegarde made the mistake of believing his own propaganda, and also the difficult to avoid one of getting stuck in a certain role and finding himself left high and dry as the tide of fashion changed. Jason King didn't make that mistake, but other people over associated him with his books and he had to prove in this episode that he didn't commit the crimes.
I love the sophisticated (for the time) setting of Jason King's adventures. I love the society setting and preposterous fashions.
Just don't start hankering after the life!

Stop press: Big Finish have just released a third volume of audio Avengers episodes based on the 1960s cartoons in Diana! You can get them here.