Saturday, 25 September 2021

The Avengers: Look - (Stop Me if You've Heard This One) but There Were These Two Fellers...

I really don't think this Avengers is a favourite with the fans and I'm not going to beat about the bush, I can see why. It lurches too far into the realm of slapstick for most people, has a plot which can only be described as labyrinthine, and includes enough gimmicks for three normal episodes. I'm not going to try to redeem it but as is my wont, have a few opinions to pass.

Right at the beginning when the secretary drives off the grey car she drives off in is a significant part of British motoring history. It is badged as a Morris 1100 with a 1965 registration and is part of the ADO16 range produced by the British Motor Corporation and later British Leyland. These were the best selling cars in Britain for most of the 1960s and in the Fawlty Towers episode where Basil gives the car a damn good thrashing, it's an ADO16 he does it to. Bizarrely they were designed by Sir Alec Issigonis who came up with this clunky design despite also designing the permanently curvaceous and sexy Mini. He was very quotable, notably saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! You won't find an ADO16 on the road nowadays because they were total rust buckets. Instead they live on in what makes them historic - their silhouette was used in the redesign of our road signs in the 1960s and these designs are still used today. You can see an example in the sign warning you not to drive into the harbour.

Perhaps I should have a go at saying something about the actual show.

There is a point at which Steed begins a limerick which has given the internet some difficulty in finding an ending. Of course it is entirely possible that no ending was specifically intended, however I have found a limerick about a young lady from Gloucester, although its published version requires a slight adjustment to Steed's beginning, which would make it 'There was a young lady from Gloucester, who met a young fellow who tossed her, she wasn't much hurt, but he dirtied her skirt, so think of the anguish it cost her'.

I like the basic premise of this episode enormously - a fraternity of decayed vaudeville artists using underhanded methods to try to start up their act again. How Avengers is that? It's got the perfect Avengers background of eccentrics and arguments. These theatricals, you know. The CUPID project is similar to other projects in The Avengers however it tends to get lost.

The episode is even studded with Great Names, John Cleese and Bernard Cribbins being the most obvious. I honestly love both John Cleese with his eggs and Bernard Cribbins with his papers. 

What always strikes me as being most uncomfortable with this episode is that there is a vein of great sadness underlying the story. The vaudevillians are out of work because vaudeville isn't a thing, put out of business by the cinema and later by TV. These are men in the saddest position of all, that the thing to which they have given their life has come to an end. Bradley Mahler touches on their inability to adapt. And the discomfort for us is that we are watching the show on the exact thing which brought their world to an end.

It would be reasonable to be bitter in the circumstances and it's entertainment for us. Gulp.

Oh well, let's end appropriately.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

1930s TV: The Crooked Circle

In case you haven't come across this film, pause to put on your evening dress and ring for some cocktails, because this is some real TV history. The Crooked Circle was the first film ever broadcast on commercial TV, in 1933.

The Station was the Don Lee Broadcasting System in Los Angeles on their channel called W6XAO. It was broadcast from the aeriel on Mount Lee (named after Don Lee) behind the Hollywood(land) sign. Incidentally I have just learned the mount is haunted by the ghost of an actress called Peg Entwistle, who killed herself in 1932 by jumping from the H of the sign. Apparently a woman in out of date clothing has been frequently seen wandering, distressed, around there, accompanied by a smell of gardenias.

In an attempt to get myself to stick to the subject I always begin by writing the title, and as today, still tend to wander off into related side tracks. However I must just allow myself another diversion onto one of my preoccupations, because I have just realised that this is the only broadcast I have written about here which would have been released on the unstable cellulose nitrate film. Since I learned that it is estimated that as much as 70% or more of film before the late forties has been lost because of use of this medium, I am always struck by how the surviving films only survive because of being selected for transfer to safety film.

With the best will in the world, you may wonder why this film was selected for preservation:

Chances are the reason The Crooked Circle became the first film to be broadcast on television was because Don Lee could get it for cheap, and possibly because its stagey presentation wouldn’t tax the tiny screen of a circa 1933 television set. On March 10, 1933, the half dozen or so owners of a television set in Los Angeles could tune in to watch The Crooked Circle‘s hour of old dark house hijinks which include a violin playing ghost, a mysterious Hindu, hooded criminals, hidden doors, secret passages, skeletons, and Zasu Pitts meekly whining “Something always happens to somebody” while James Gleason tries to out New York the most New York cop who ever New Yorked. All in all, despite the film’s low status, they could have done worse. If you have an affinity for the trappings of old, dark house movies — both their strengths and their weaknesses — then The Crooked Circle is an entertaining hour. Source

You could almost say that there are too many clich├ęs in this film, but their use makes it feel like a formula for all the film types mentioned above, which is strangely comforting.  We're not talking a Hitchcock here, and since we are talking about a film which explicitly set out to be a comedy parody, it is rather naughty to expect this film to be an epic.

Another historical thing here is that Zasu Pitts's hand wringing and wailing was largely forged in a long career in silent films. She was the model for Olive Oyl in Popeye, and I think the fact Olive Oyl was based on a real actress is fairly mind-blowing in itself.

If you want to watch The Crooked Circle it is all over the internet for free.

Monday, 6 September 2021

L for Lester: Episode 1

Gosh, I must be becoming flexible in my old age. Recently I've written about a couple of period dramas ayin a change to my usual playbook here I am writing about a sitcom. Gratifyingly I have only just discovered this show - I like it when that happens because it suggests the well of old TV shows hasn't completely dried up. 

L for Lester was a short-lived show and its only six episodes are readily available on the internet. The only problem seeming to be that episode 5 isn't complete. I don't think for an instant this will ever have a commercial release - it doesn't seem to have a cult following despite retaining happy memories, and I suspect it would be difficult to get your money back from restoring six episodes of such a show.

According to the internet the show was devised as a vehicle for the popular actor Brian Murphy (readers will know him from George and Mildred, Man About the House and possibly Last of the Summer Wine as well as numerous appearances as a jobbing actor including in The Avengers), after his George and Mildred co-star, Yootha Joyce died. This mere fact instantly catapults us back to a time before the nineties, when a TV show could be devised for an actor who was popular with the punters. I mean as opposed to being an Instagram influencer, celebrity and probably model and sex symbol. In fact the whole cast look like real people. I just don't think that would happen now, and demonstrates the gulf in attitudes between forty years ago and now.

Compared to most of the seventies/eighties shows that I like, this puts Murphy's vehicles in a different league. In fact I have just realised that the other shows of that era I like are not set in most people's reality. Most people will never be an agent for CI5 for example. Whereas Lester Small (Murphy) is a driving instructor and that's much more relatable.

He's a distinctly disaster prone driving instructor though (in this episode a pupil drives the car down a railway), and I wonder whether this was in the seventies zeitgeist. I have been watching a Candid Camera over the weekend, in which they did their stunt of getting a member of the public to watch a parking attendant wreck several cars then watching the reaction when the attendant offers to park their car. Perhaps car ownership was widespread enough in the seventies for this to be identifiable, or perhaps poor driving has always been amusing and I've just missed it!

There's an extra twist in this one (Lester's pupils' driving naturally causes him endless conflict with his insurers and the constabulary) in that he takes on a stolen car. It's quite a classic plot of the clown getting into a situation which is progressively complicated. The good visuals of the car driven down the railway line are later complicated by his arrest in an old quarry.

In another episode the car used is a red Vauxhall Chevette, which brings back the true awfulness of 1970s UK cars. The mother of a school friend had one and we would talk her into giving us a lift if we missed the bus to school, which then created the problem of trying to get it to start! In this episode the cars are classic Minis with the speedo in the centre.

In the manner of sitcoms this one builds up the complexity but ends at the pinnacle of complexity although it's obvious what's coming next. This could be a criticism if you like everything nicely resolved, but these shows are a pleasant way to spend half an hour.