Monday, 26 July 2021

If You Like The Avengers You'll Like These Films

This is a post I've been thinking about for ages, because we all wish there was more of The Avengers (particularly in its later incarnations) but there couldn't really be any more. The New Avengers doesn't quite catch the feel of the later series of the original show - perhaps you had to be stoned out of your head to write them. With this in mind, here are three films from the sixties which I think also capture the ethos of the original Avengers.

Just to be totally clear, I mean the Peel/King series with high levels of unreality, lots of magical omniscience, and set in a very swinging London. This was of course a London where you didn't have to have an income of £300,000 a week to live there. The world of parties, lots of experimentation, and a time which will never be repeated. It was a world in which the entire resources of the world weren't aggregated in the hands of half a dozen corporations.

First up we have The Sorcerers (1967) in which Boris Karloff plays an ageing medical hypnotist who with his wife uses technology to take over the mind of a young man played by Ian Ogilvy. I wasn't really thinking of this sort of magical omniscience! They use their control of the young man to experience things they haven't for years, or now can't because of their age. However it soon goes wrong and the wife turns into the sort of megalomaniac we are used to from The Avengers, beginning with getting the man to steal her a fur coat.

There is a sense in which the plot of this one isn't the Avengers feature - it doesn't end well for the couple but there isn't really anyone saving the world in style. The Avengers flavour comes from the swinging London setting. We see clubs, pubs and bars of the time. We see the life lived by these youngsters in bed-sitters - exactly the sort of free life which would have been Tara King's cover story, given that she was a secret agent. I also love the scenes of 1960s London, which is so different from today's uniform cities. I must be getting old.

In Blow-up (1966) a photographer in Swinging London is living a proper sixties life-style however then takes a picture of a murder. This film, like all good TV, can be read in many ways, including what moral you take from it and the way it can even be seen to be about photography. It is set in the swinging London milieu we are familiar with, and of course photographers appear a couple of times in The Avengers as staple characters of the time.

There is something very reminiscent of Steed at his most suave about this film. I think the jazz score may contribute to that. I think what makes it feel so Avengers is that it captures the unreality thing to perfection and of course there is a crime involved. At times I find myself wondering whether the protagonist is a secret agent. But the thing I absolutely love best though is the totally dismissive contemporary review in the Guardian which described the pot party scene as grotesquely unconvincing. In reality it was filmed on location and the actors were genuinely stoned out of their minds so yah boo sucks to the Grauniad.

The Sandwich Man
(1966) is purely about a day in the life of a man whose job is to walk around the city in a morning suit wearing an advertising sandwich board, and the things he sees and people he meets. His real interest in life is pigeon racing. This is probably the least arty or niche film of the three because it is intended to be a comedy, and the eccentric characters he meets are played by some of the biggest names in film and comedy of the day.

Of course it is the eccentric characters which makes this so Avengers and many of them would even give the murderous knitter with the nephews a run for money in eccentricity. The only problem with this one is some very dodgy portrayals of race, and yet the ethnic characters thus depicted are portrayed to be thoroughly integrated into British society.

If you want to see how close to reality the film gets there is a documentary called The London Nobody Knows (1969).

Pssst don't tell anyone I told you but the last time I looked everything mentioned here was available to see for free in various places on the internet.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Manhunt: Fare Forward Voyagers

I had better start off by clarifying two things. The first is that this post is about the series broadcast in 1970. The second is that I am very much out of my comfort zone because as a rule I don't like period films or TV, by which I mean ones set in a previous time to the time it is made. Don't get me wrong, I love old TV but there is in my opinion a lack of authenticity in period shows - they can't really get into the mindset. I have touched on that here before when talking about Peaky Blinders - while undoubtedly a good show it is too squeaky clean to represent the authentic Second City of the past. Another example which I haven't written about here before is Mad Men - what put me off that as an ex-smoker myself was (I do realise how potty this will sound) that the smoking seemed a bit self-conscious. Those of us who remember the seventies remember that everyone smoked and it was no big deal. it is difficult for an actor to portray something which is no longer routine, as a normal thing. It is strange for these youngsters to be smoking indoors, let alone in the workplace, and thus the authenticity is broken.

This is one of my little dislikes, like not liking recognising actors and having to think who they are. You would think that this drama, which is not only set in a different time but a different country wouldn't be my sort of thing. And you would be right, but I bought it on the offchance because its internet reviews are uniformly exceptional. Just to get this out of my head, I have also recently been watching some episodes of Allo Allo for the first time in years with great amusement. That show was current while I was at school and we used to ask our French teacher if she had seen it (she was an actual French woman) to her great displeasure. I actually found myself wondering whether Manhunt was an influence on Allo Allo at least in the visuals, however have found no confirmation of that online.

You see, Manhunt manages to get the period drama thing exactly right. The show is clearly set in wartime occupied France, clearly filmed in what looks very much like France, but is without the slightest element of caricature. The characters speak English without French or German accents, which to me is just perfect. The accents would make it too much of a caricature. What keeps hitting me is that it looks like Allo Allo (which is obviously studio-based) but is a serious drama.

It is genuinely a serious drama, but also with an incredibly light touch. Much of the drama made here set in the second world war has an element of motivation to it. This includes the films which were made well after the Second World War - the motivation of course was to get people together to get on with it and get the war done. Manhunt has no such agenda, and you will keep seeing online how it was striking at the time for depicting the Germans as ordinary people rather than monsters. I think it goes much further and depicts a lot of the normal motivations and feelings of real people in an extraordinary situation. It depicts them dispassionately and therefore gives you real twinges of sympathy and conflict as it goes on.

It drew me in and kept my attention, which isn't easy with my grasshopper mind.

This first episode sets the premise for what follows, and it will be some indication of how good I think this show is that I have leapt on here to write about it and actually don't know how the situation is resolved, because I have never seen this show before. In this episode a British airman, Jimmy Porter, crashes in occupied France and comes into the hands of a resistance cell. They are naturally suspicious of him but take him at face value when reassured by London. I'm not going to fib here, but I personally thought it would be much more realistic for them to do what they initially thought, which was to disbelieve his story and shoot him. But hey, really good TV can surprise us with our own reactions.

Just one criticism, which won't be surprising - lots of big names in the cast. However they cast Alfred Lynch as Jimmy, and I literally have no criticism for him as an actor. He was one of those really good actors who make you forget they are there. I have also recently seen him with Sean Connery in the wartime film On the Fiddle (1961), where he seemed a very different, cheeky chappy Cockney character. Incidentally that film is worth watching for its gay coding alone - Lynch and Connery talk and act like a couple and when you know that Lynch was gay you can see that he clearly wanted Connery to ravage him.

So no major criticism and I'm not promising that this will become a series of posts on this show because whenever I do that they fizzle out very quickly.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Dr Who: The God Complex

High time we had some more Who and this one is a cracker. It will give you some idea of how highly I rate it if I tell you that this Who is comparable to an original Sapphire and Steel, and uses many of the writing techniques used by The Avengers. There are also some Harry Potter resonances.

The magical omniscience of The Avengers mean that the doctor and his companions just arrive in the hotel with no explanation. The closed world of a hotel where something distinctly peculiar is going on, is exactly the sort of set up that Sapphire and Steel use - in fact this feels very much like the adventure in the railway station.

My absolutely favourite thing about this is the beginning and especially the bit where the doctor decides a character's pathological urge to be conquered means he must be from Tivolia, a planet whose inhabitants have been willingly conquered so often that their anthem includes a blank for the name of the current invading force!

The adventure also includes a number of literary references, including the Minotaur of Greek mythology and has been compared to The Shining and 1984. There is a more psychological understanding of these things, though, because the show is really most about beliefs, fears, and how those can be used against us. This of course makes it very topical a decade after being made!

I do like Matt Smith as the doctor. I love his rapid speech, and here his rapid investigation of a nightmare situation. His humour is very Steed - for example when he says that being tied up wasn't in the hotel brochure.

Unusually for a show of this recent age it is mainly studio-bound with just a little CGI. If it isn't your bag you could probably find the fact the whole thing happens in the hotel, quite constricting. Apart from showing that you can do good TV without loads of CGI, the show rather directs attention inwards to ones fears and beliefs. There is endless discussion on t'internet about what was the fear in the doctor's room, but that's not something I'm going to go into. I comment on it to make the point that like all good TV, this can be encountered in a number of different ways.

I honestly don't have anything bad to say about this at all and so it gets my rare accolade of Stonking Good Television.

Friday, 2 July 2021

The Avengers: Invasion of the Earthmen

Oh dear, this Avengers doesn't half get a hammering on the internet. For example Grant Goggins says,

'This story is a complete turkey.'

Simon Wood says,

'It’s an interesting episode to watch and quite absorbing just as a curiosity, if you watch it with suitable detachment. But it doesn’t fit, production values are very low, and it’s certainly not a return to ‘realism’.'

And for the most damning, David K Smith says,

'Doubtless one of the worst classic Avengers episodes of all time.'

Given the total train wreck everyone else considers this adventure, it will surely come as no surprise that it is one of my favourites. Don't get me wrong, it has incredible shortcomings so let's get them out of the way first.

The temporary change of director means that there are elements more reminiscent of other shows here. Star Trek for example. I do see that. There are also elements of incredibly bad sci-fi movies. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if parodying them was in mind at the time. 

There is a further weakness, which is that it was made soon after Mrs Peel left, and virtually every review comments that the relationship between Miss King and Steed isn't really solidified. I suspect that that may be one of the reasons people find this one unpleasant - there are many remnants left of the sexual tension between Steed and Mrs Peel, and also hints of the mentor and student relationship which it would settle into as the series went on. This combination is incredibly uncomfortable in itself. It is very clear that they weren't quite sure where to take it. The hints of sex are not outside the bounds of possibility - it isn't that unusual for a couple to have such an age gap.

And yet... I have always resisted the idea that Steed and Mrs Peel were actually at it. I have always seen their sexual tension as something acknowledged by each but never acted on. Mrs Peel was of course a talented amateur, and a sexual tension with Miss King would make Steed unprofessional as well as possibly a dirty old man, depending on how you look at it.

So far so pedestrian, but where the show excels is in overdoing the kitsch. In terms of the unreality the Avengers specialised in, this pushes unreality to the extreme and a bit further. The school and tunnel are obviously not intended to be real, and yet are cleverly juxtaposed with realistic shots of the hotel and others.

The sheer amount of unreality suggests that that is the element which is foremost and that is what makes me wonder whether this was at least in part a conscious parody of the sci-fi of the previous couple of decades. I haven't come across this explicitly stated in any interviews so we will never know for sure. Even if not intended I think sci-fi parody may still be the best lens through which to view it.

The spaceman alone. Seriously, it is funny and not scary! The best comparison I can think of is The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965). This film is notable for making it on to IMDB's list of worst films of all time, and the titular monster (pictured right) has a similar effect of being funny rather than scary. Exactly the same effect.

I particularly love the design of the school and of the tunnel. That green and purple colour scheme should be a crime against good taste - imagine coming back to that with a hangover! And the tunnel is so wonderful - I love the fibreglass rocks. I love the effort one actor puts into picking one up! The uniforms for the school are usually interpreted as being inspired by Star Trek. I wonder whether British fascists of an earlier decade were also an inspiration, although of course their pullovers were black.

In the visual language of the Avengers this is one of those episodes where the great and the good become diabolical masterminds. The internal modernism of the secret parts of the school is contrasted with the external appearance of the school and also with the hotel. What could be more British establishment than a private school - they produced generations of Our Sort of Person, or rather Steed's sort of person.

My only real disappointment is to find that the actors playing the pupils of Alpha Academy don't seem to have been identified. I had a feeling that some of them would have gone on to great things!

So to summarize - you may well find this episode is total dross but I think it repays sympathetic viewing.