Sunday, 20 October 2019

Gideon's Way: The Nightlifers

In my last post about this show I neglected to mention the soundtrack of this show, and this episode personifies perfection. It depicts demimondaine - I'm not sure of the word to use to describe them, possibly respectable people at the time would have called them beatniks - denizens of Soho and the sound track is thus jazzy and cool for cats. I have recently also been watching some episodes of Peter Gunn, which has a similarly groovy soundtrack.
In point of fact The Nightlifers places us squarely in the most sophisticated worlds of post-War Britain, just before the Beatles met the Maharishi and everyone started meditating. It has all the hallmarks - for a start being set in Soho, Gideon's wife tries to get him to get some Chinese delicacies from a shop in Soho, and there are parties and drugs galore. This episode exactly depicts the world in which The Avengers is set, including depicting a world of privilege.
This show is not the simplistic contrast of youthful exuberance with middle-aged and -class shock, although I love the shock when the mother discovers a 'marijuana cigarette' - nowadays parents are quite glad if that's all their offspring are smoking, although clued-up parents would be more worried that it may be laced with g*d knows what. Nor is this show merely a depiction of bored rich kids who have gone off the rails. Rather the tone is set when one of the rozzers says that the joy taken in the attacks is 'sadistic' - or rather it could be called psychopathic. There is a kinky undertone here, of pleasure being taken in pain. Even down to Sloane always addressing Cole as 'little man', there's definitely a kinky power thing going on here, which to my mind makes this show incredibly adventurous for the time.
The cast list is like a list of the great and the good of the theatre - Annette Andre for example will be familiar to readers of this blog - but that doesn't bother me in the way it sometimes does, because they are all greats and don't let their off screen personas dominate.
Chief among these is Anton Rodgers in the uncharacteristic role of the sadistic party thrower, in which he gives a convincing portrayal of enjoying other people's suffering. Actually perhaps it may not have been that unusual for him in his wide-ranging theatrical career:
He had been on the London stage for five years before he landed his first "legitimate" role - or rather, two roles - in a sexually sensational double bill by John Osborne, Plays for England (Royal Court).
In the first piece, a frivolous flop called The Blood of the Bambergs, he made little mark. But in the second, Under Plain Cover, which depicted a couple of devoted sado-masochists inventing new sex games with corsets and commodes, Rodgers was more prominent as a knicker-fetishist who turned out to be his female partner's brother. Source
The only thing I don't really take to about this episode is the rather moralistic way in which the son-gone-off-the-rails gets beaten up by Sloane who then ends up on a murder charge when he dies. It's all a bit too convenient for the baddies to get such immediate retribution. I'm also (I'm not a lawyer so stand to be corrected) am not convinced that Sloane would have been charged with murder - at no point is he apparently intending to kill so may have been charged with manslaughter.
And if you want to know the reason for the burning Modigliani, that is my way of wetting appetites to make you watch it!

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Gideon's Way: The Firebug

Image credit
I have somehow managed to get to this stage without watching more than the odd episode of Gideon's Way, so when I saw it for sale I had to try it. I have spent the past couple of evenings beginning to watch the episodes in order that they come on the DVDs and was thinking of them as standard ITC offerings, until this one really hit me between the eyes.
I have no idea whether the episodes are in original broadcast order, but there is the slight drawback that this one about a deranged fire setter follows straight on from one about a man traumatised by being in a concentration camp who also has a plan, just for an explosion, with the same motivation of drawing attention to his issue.
You all know how I don't like the same actors appearing in different shows? In this one George Cole is cast as the fire starter. It is an unusual role for him, and he plays it superbly - he really does come across as absolutely deranged and it is even worse that the death of his wife and child in a fire has driven him to this state. The character is all the more chilling because he discusses his arson with his deceased daughter's only surviving doll and almost thinks it is divinely ordained.
I didn't realise that the whole of this series is based on novels written by John Creasey - he is said to have written over 600 novels using a number of different pseudonyms. He often addressed the ongoing effects of the second world war in these novels, and was also very politically active. The concentration camp background of the previous episode is self explanatory but the issue addressed here is the terrible living conditions of people, which often continued up to the 1970s. The background to many of these shows is the drive to improve this situation. The story has been slightly simplified from the novel, and you can find a summary and appreciation here.
This is another show which benefits from repeated viewing: I usually watch an episode at least twice when I write a post, and can testify that this is even more horrifying on the second viewing!
What I don't like about this episode, and which I haven't felt in the others I have seen, is that at points it feels a bit overly moral. I can't think of an example off the top of my head but it feels like the show is making conscious moral points at times. Surely we all know that arson ruins lives? My main criticism is a plot point though, that he gets hold of four sticks of dynamite because they are stored in an unlocked building. I haven't been able to find the legal situation of the time as regards storage, because a lot of legislation was tidied up into the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), and had he lived our arsonist would have been charged under the Explosive Substances Act (1883), but surely in the 1960s it was illegal to leave dynamite just lying about? I would expect the police at least to comment that it's not been locked up.
I love the shots of the London of the time in this show - it is definitely Avengerland, but it is the one of the earlier series. Of course you can't go wrong visually with a conflagration can you.
So apart from the dynamite left around to be taken, this is a superb show 

Monday, 14 October 2019

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil

I am feeling a little trepidation at the thought of reviewing a Who which is a definite favourite of the fans - I realise that my usual tendency is to pick a show or episode which routinely gets savaged on the Internet, and have a go at rehabilitating it. My thoughts about this one are relatively few.
The names of Doctor Who adventures are rather confusing. We have The Mind of Evil, The Faceless Ones, The Face of Evil, and so on. Personally I tend to think of them as 'the one where...'. In the case of this adventure I am not sure that actually helps because I think of it as 'the one where everyone would be better leaving well alone,' and that is also my title for several others!
In fact I think it would be better called by one of the titles mooted before the final was settled on, and which unfortunately was rejected on the grounds it was pretentious: The Day God Went Mad.
A major thread of the story is commentary on humans' religious instincts and behaviour, specifically what it is which could be described as God, different understandings by people at different levels of development and the role we ourselves have in creating a divine cosmology. The fact that the Doctor appears in the cosmology here because of a previous mistake he made repairing the computer, is an interesting parallel to the religious imperative to know yourself, and specifically to an awareness of your own frailty.
That said, the religious instinct is here limited to the level of a disturbed subconscious or a tribe of 'primitives'. The depiction of the primitives is one thing which repeats the theme of colonialism about which I blogged in my last post. I note that the primitives are depicted with a relatively dark skin tone, and of course I don't know whether this was perceived as a result of tanning or to increase the colonial overtones by making a racial point, of course I don't know. It is clear that the male savages always go bare chested, and obviously a man who would be seen without a shirt can only be a rude primitive!
That said the male costume doesn't come across as sexual, but it is very apparent that Leela's costume is very sexy indeed, and includes such kinkiness as getting tied up at one point. I rather inconsequently found myself wondering how, when she is supposed to be a primitive, she can manage to shave her armpits! The men also have trimmed hair and beards and I have decided to take this as one of those details which show a TV show isn't really real.
There are several very sweet details in this adventure. Chief is the one where the Doctor threatens someone with a jelly baby rather than the knife he was supposed to use. The Mount Rushmore-like carved face of the Doctor may or may not be a comment, I will leave it to my US readers to decide. I also love the way that in the publicity photos included Leela is holding Who's Who!
I started off by saying that people should leave well alone, and in this case the savages come out on top.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Doctor Who: Kinda

To Gloucester and Cheltenham today, where I bought the BBC boxed set featuring A for Andromeda, which I have never seen. The supply must dry up at some time, but until now, whenevr I have thought that the supply of cult TV has dried up,I have always discovered another new series. Gloucester is also famous to TV aficionados for one of the settings of Petunia Winegum's fall from fame - the other one was here in Birmingham.
I was reading an article on the train coming back about how the phrase 'white heat of technology' or something similar was first used in A for Andromeda, before the then Prime Minister used it in a speech in 1963, both of which events brought the preoccupation with science of so much 1960s TV to the fore. I have commented that it is usually an ambivalent preoccupation, because science is the hope for the future but also dangerous. Science fiction , as in Doctor Who, has an opportunity to nbuild on this ambivalence by introducing fictional elements into the fear or the hope. Kinda is perhaps best described as being influenced (at some years distant) by many of the buzz issues of the 1960s onwards, including the conflict between 'science' and 'nature'. Kinda makes this so much more fearful by putting it in the context of a colonisation by Earth of another planet (which is only made possible by technology) and contrasting this with the 'natural' lives of 'savages' and the great fear of the organic form of the Mara.
Kinda also uses other themes important on late-twentieth century Earth - colonialism, psychology, power, spirituality, development, sharing, authority - and I have to say that I think one of the reasons this adventure's reviews weren't very good when it was broadcast is that it has bitten off far more than it can chew. Looking online, I see that it has risen in popularity with the fans since originally broadcast and I have read several views, with which I agree, that that is probably because this adventure benefits from repeat viewing to get the multiple layers of understanding. As a single broadcast it is either a nightmare of complexity or else you would only focus on one layer of meaning.
A layer which particularly interests me is the one about communication. When you think about it the only effect of the male Kinda not being able to speak is that this keeps their thoughts within the Kinda who can read them. To races which would have to hear them speaking, they appear silent. Interesting that this is reserved to the men! In another sense their culture must have been a nightmare - imagine a world where anyone could read your thoughts!
The second layer I am particularly interested in is the effect of being on another planet on the colonists. Predictably they go off their head one way or another and either 'go native' or develop plans to destroy everything around them!
There are several mythological references which interest me, Garden of Eden, snakes and apples, all very biblical, but there is of course also the reference to Pandora's box. Knowledge, naivety, innocence and cunning. Placed next to this is the role of Adric, which I would initially have said was one of the few sensible people in this one, however he also does some very silly things in this adventure, so perhaps his role is more that of the Fool, as we see him in the tarot card, stepping off a precipice. I know I am apparently ignoring the fact that the Kinda have a Fool of their own, but I see the two as parallels. As a general rulewhen anyone is particularly insistent that you should open a box or eat an apple, you shouldn't.
Visually this adventure is superb. I will grant you that the forest is very obviously a set in a studio, but in the unreal world of Doctor Who that's OK by me. I love the perspex chimes, which I expect would have looked very futuristic in the 1980s. I also particularly like the inside of the Dome, particularly the gadgetry which is so much of its time it's wonderful. The colours of the dials, the giant spools of tape which at the time indicated computers, I love it. The other very good thing about this adventure is that it is the right length - I know I am contradicting myself by saying it is stuffed too full of layers and it is the right length, but what I mean is that it keeps the attention.
So, a multi-faceted gem of Peter Davies Who which does however require much attention and perhaps repeat viewing. Oh and I love Mary Morris in it.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Nigel Kneale's Beasts: Baby

I am probably going to sound fairly critical of this episode, which isn't my intention at all - regular readers will be aware that my policy is only to post about what I consider to be good television.
And it may be intentional, part of the depiction of a pregnant wife's breakdown, but there are a few things which chime wrong notes.
The absolutely first thing is that the vet's wife brings the family cat to their new home in a basket, opens the basket in a room which isn't sealed tight  and is then surprised that the cat runs away. This is of course a rookie error, and would be excusable if she'd never seen a cat before, but it is her cat and she claims to have grown up in the country. She is also a vet's wife and I doubt that he would never have brought a sick cat home to keep an eye on it overnight.
I see from the excellent Celluloid Wickerman post that this story lends itself to a Freudian interpretation, which is of course completely valid but I hadn't thought of it because I was thinking of a different reading:
During a final breakdown, Jo goes downstairs in the house to find some horrific monster suckling the dead creature from the jar.  It works as a stunningly effective metaphor over the fears of pregnancy, especially in Jo’s world where her husband seems to care very little of anything but his work.  But the moment is more than symbolic or metaphorical ; it is the final stage that Freud described in what has been a gradual build-up of a case of hysteria.  It isn’t a simple case by any means and the theory as a general train of thought is rightly open to interpretations of sexism.  Kneale does not, however, simply adhere to Freud’s admitted bias and concerns the psychic phenomenon to the relations with all of the people that surround Jo’s character; the hysteria isn’t inherent in just her but built up through everyone else’s relation to the building and, eventually, the jar.
It is hinted earlier in the play that Jo has already lost one baby during childbirth.  The potential for increase in paranoia is clearly there for the character as stories are related of how farmers simply couldn’t use the adjacent fields any longer for grazing as it meant the cattle went infertile.  The hysterical state of Jo builds from when this story is related, not because of the simple connection made between the story and the reality of danger but because it clearly awakens these memories of the loss of her first child.  Freud said that “The attack then comes spontaneously just as memories are wont to come, but just like memories it can also be provoked by the laws of association.  The provocation of an attack results either through stimulating a hysterogenic zone or through a new experience which by similarity recalls the pathogenic experience.” (1895).  From this description, the application of the idea to Kneale’s narrative is relatively simple, albeit that both potential forms of trigger happen in Baby‘s story. Source
This Freudian reading is valid, and the cat incident could be interpreted that way. In fact much of Jo's behaviour could best be explained by her 'condition'. But I was thinking of this episode more in terms of folklore and relationships.
The relationships are wrong in every way. In fact I am firmly of the opinion that Jo would be best getting rid of her husband pronto. He talks to her like dirt, clearly puts his own wishes before the welfare of his wife and unborn child, is completely unsympathetic to her distress. He and his boss both speak in derogatory terms of what pregnant women are like. At one point his boss sets up Peter for a hard time at work. My reading of this situation is that in a series themed around bestial horror, here we are being given a message that humans can be far more beastly than animals.
Ironically the vets' science is placed against the 'superstition' of the builders. In removing the 'thing' from the wall, ironically they remove a common folkloric way of making a building safe. This is very common in British folklore, although it is turned round here to be the source of the horror in the house. Therefore in a strange way the beasts remove the beast which protects the house from beastliness. The unkind treatment she gets from her husband is contrasted with the kindness the superstitious builders show her.
All that said, the story can also be read as a straightforward horror. In this reading the wife would be seen to be right - the horror is situated clearly in the house and in some probably ancient magic.
Do I even need to say that one of the hallmarks of quality TV is that it can be read in several different ways?