Sunday, 17 March 2019

two Thrillers - Good Salary Prospects Free Coffin, The Next Voice You See

Two more episodes from the excellent British ITC anthology series Thriller, both from season five and originally aired in 1975.

Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin
Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin (retitled as Mirror of Deception in the U.S.) starts with a hole being dug, a hole that looks not unlike a grave. The scene then switches to a London flat shared by three girls, Wendy, Babs and Helen. The delivery of the newspaper has raised some excitement, It contains a job advert that sounds very tempting. It’s a well-paid live-in job in the country for a young woman with no ties and a sense of adventure.

Wendy lands the job and Babs and Helen never hear from her again. Of course that’s not all that unusual - they had only shared a flat for six months or so, and Wendy did not the other two all that well. A few months later the same job advert appears again. This time Babs gets the job. And Helen never hears from her again. This is a little surprising since Babs and Helen were reasonably close.

Another few months go by. Helen gets married to her long-time boyfriend Charley (Keith Barron). Helen is an American and so she has to go to the American Embassy to get her passport updated with her new marital status. She has quite a shock when the Embassy official dealing with passports turns out to be Babs Bryant, an amazing coincidence since Bryant was the surname of Helen’s friend Babs. And this Babs is from York too, just like the other Babs. But it’s not Babs.

The other curious incident concerned the scarf. Bans had borrowed Helen’s scarf and left it behind at the office where she was interviewed for the mystery job. When Helen turned up at the office the following day to retrieve her scarf the office was deserted, and she was informed that it had been deserted for months. A very curious employment agency.

In fact Helen has no idea just how curious this employment agency is.

It doesn’t take too long to get a fairly good idea as to what’s going on. That’s not a weakness in Brian Clemens’ script - he wants us to know exactly what it is that is happening. He wants us to be very afraid indeed for the heroine when she decides to play amateur detective. He wants us to know just how much danger she is putting herself in.

And he has some twists still held in reserve.

Julian Glover is deliciously sinister as the sadistic Gifford. James Maxwell is extremely good as Carter and there’s a nice edge to the relationship between the two bad guys.

The weak link is Kim Darby as Helen. This was an ITC series which meant that it was pretty much compulsory to have at least one American star per episode (ITC boss Sir Lew Grade being totally obsessed with the wrong-headed notion that this was the secret to cracking the U.S. market). Thriller’s American imports are all very much second-string stars but mostly they do a decent job. Kim Darby however is just a bit too bland. The chemistry between Darby and Keith Barron just isn’t there also and it’s difficult to imagine why two such people would want to get married.

On the whole Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin delivers the necessary suspense and thrills. A fine episode.

The Next Voice You See
The Next Voice You See (retitled as Look Back in Happiness in the U.S.) concerns a man who is an eyewitness to a crime. Or, more correctly, he is an earwitness.

It opens with a prologue in 1964. Visiting American jazz pianist Stan Kay (Bradford Dillman) is caught in the middle of a bank raid in London. His wife is killed and he is blinded permanently by a shotgun blast.

A decade later Stan Kay is back in London, as part of a successful European tour. At a party he hears a voice. A voice he has not heard for ten years. It is the voice of the man who killed his wife and blinded him. It is the voice of the armed robber from 1964.

That sounds like a lucky break for Stan, a chance he will finally get justice. The difficulty is that it was a voice heard at a very crowded party and in such circumstances it is just about impossible for a blind man to tell which of a hundred or so guests was the man with the voice.

He does have an ally. Julie (Catherine Schell) works for Stan’s agent and she is acting as a kind of personal assistant/companion to him during the British leg of his tour. She likes Stan and she believes his story. It’s still an awesomely difficult task to identify the killer. Stan knows the voice and Julie doesn’t, but Julie has eyes and Stan doesn’t. Maybe between the two of them they can do it.

The danger of course is that their snooping is going to be noticed by the killer, so that while  Stan and Julie are stalking him through the crowded party the killer could be stalking them.

Bradford Dillman is this week’s cheap imported American star and he’s OK. He manages to be convincing as a slightly temperamental musician type and he conveys Stan’s anger and frustration pretty well.

Catherine Schell is also good as Julie. She’s a woman whose job entails being nice to people who are sometimes very difficult but she’s a sympathetic sort of person and although Stan is prickly she copes with him very well. She gets completely drawn into Stan’s obsessive quest to find the murderer.

Thriller was made on tight budgets with very little location shooting. That’s ideal for this kind of story where everything has to take place in just a few rooms and a claustrophobic feel is highly desirable. The nature of the story also means that almost every scene involves at least a dozen people - it is all taking place at a crowded party - so you need a competent and pretty experienced director to keep things under control. Robert Tronson was perfectly qualified for the job and he handles it well. He manages to make a party overflowing with guests seem like a very dangerous place.

This is another Brian Clemens story but the actual screenplay is by Terence Feely. So you’ve got a lot of very experienced and talented TV people involved and the results are more than satisfactory.

Another fairly good episode.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

The First Churchills (1969)

The First Churchills is a lavish 1969 BBC costume drama. These productions are I guess the television equivalent of chick flicks, although in 1969 they were generally well-written well-acted and very handsomely mounted. And they were the one thing that British TV could do that American TV couldn’t.

This one has the advantage of being set in a truly fascinating period of English history which is sadly little known and since Restoration England was also a famously debauched period of history it has the added advantage (from the BBC’s point of view) of providing plenty of titillation with a kind of artsy veneer.

It is the story of John Churchill (who eventually became the 1st Duke of Marlborough and was claimed as an ancestor of by Winston Churchill) and his wife Sarah. John Churchill rose from relative obscurity to the heights of fame as a general and the Churchills also enjoyed immense prestige and influence in the court of Queen Anne. John Churchill’s success was at least partly attributable to what might charitably be called his moral flexibility. He betrayed his king but he was lucky enough to choose the winning side and became, for a time a least, a hero.

The mini-series takes up the story in the latter part of the reign of Charles II. John Churchill is an obscure courtier and junior officer. He is as debauched as the rest of Charles II’s court. He is also quite penniless and he desperately needs a rich wife. He meets Sarah Jennings, maid of honour to the Duchess of York. Sarah is also penniless and desperately needs a rich husband. To the horror of their families they fall madly in love and marry. John Churchill is so much in love he is even prepared to give up his mistresses.

It was an incredibly turbulent period of history with a series of rebellions, both unsuccessful and successful, a series of rather futile wars and endless conspiracies. The Churchills contrived to be in the thick of it all.

John Neville was in my view a very poor choice to play John Churchill. He was always an actor who contrived to combine woodenness with pomposity.

Susan Hampshire was not the first choice to play Sarah and it was apparently made clear to her by other members of the cast that they did not consider her to be good enough to play the rôle. In fact she does very well in a difficult and challenging rôle, giving a characteristically spirited performance. In contrast to John Neville, who seems to be merely declaiming speeches, she brings Sarah to life.

The other acting highlight is the criminally underrated James Villiers’ deliciously overripe performance as Charles II. In fact Villiers is by far the best thing about this series.

This is a mini-series that does definitely assume that you have a basic knowledge of the religious and constitutional crises of late 17th century English history. If you’re not familiar with the period you’d be well advised to read up on it a bit before watching the series.

The series tries to be reasonably even-handed, which isn’t easy. This is a period of English history that still generates a surprising amount of angst and ill feeling. It’s amazing how many people have an axe to grind when it comes to subjects like the Glorious Revolution and Monmouth’s Rebellion.

Charles II comes across very sympathetically, which is fairly natural. He was dealt a very bad hand by fate but played it with immense skill and it’s hard not to feel a certain admiration for him. James II is more controversial and more difficult but the series does at least take his religious motivations seriously and does portray him as a complex man with the wrong personality to be a successful king at that time. John Westbrook’s performance might seem superficially dull but it’s probably accurate - James seems to have been a man who took things very very seriously and lacked the ability to make people like him.The Prince of Orange, later William III, is interestingly enough portrayed as a rather nasty and very untrustworthy little creep.

To be honest the only entirely sympathetic character here is Charles II, and perhaps to a lesser extent Marlborough’s close friend Sidney Godolphin, a politician with at least some principles. The unsympathetic portrayals of the other characters are probably quite realistic. These were people who played the game of power. You don’t win at that game by being a nice guy (or a nice lady). You win by putting ambition first and destroying anyone who gets in your way.

One of the main themes of the series is Sarah Churchill’s friendship with Princess (later Queen) Anne. It was a friendship that gave Sarah Churchill enormous influence over Anne, and whether that was a good thing or a bad thing is a matter for historians to debate. It’s certainly a friendship that makes for good television. It’s hard enough for a friendship to bridge the gap between monarch and subject and Sarah’s legendary foul temper did not always help matters. Anne, played by Margaret Tyzack, comes across as well-meaning but not too bright.

John Churchill himself was always going to be difficult. The series gives us a slightly sanitised version of the man (in the 1960s it’s hardly likely that a British television production would have portrayed one of Winston Churchill’s ancestors unsympathetically). I’m not sure it succeeds - to me Churchill still seems ambitious and self-serving. John Neville’s performance is particularly unfortunate since rather than showing Churchill as a man facing a crisis of conscience he seems to be merely a pompous self-justifying prig.

The year 1969 was an interesting era for British television. These were still the days when British television was shot more or less live on videotape, videotape being horrifically expensive to edit in those days. Shooting on film was becoming slightly more common in big-budget commercial TV productions and within a few years location shooting would become much more common. But The First Churchills, based on the testimony of Susan Hampshire, was apparently shot almost entirely on videotape.

The series was shot in colour. Production values are extremely high. The sets are lavish and the costumes are gorgeous. Given the subject matter you expect a visual extravaganza and by and large that’s what you get. Of course on a television budget it was not going to be possible to do full-scale battle scenes so the challenge was to try to capture the drama and the confusion and the terror whilst using only a handful of extras and spending virtually no money. That’s not easy to do but they succeeded reasonably well.

The First Churchills is like a combination of a superior domestic melodrama and a political thriller, with the emphasis on the melodrama. It’s the personalities that matter, and the personal relationships between them. The characters might not be loveable but they are intensely fascinating. As I said at the beginning it’s clearly a series made primarily with a female audience in mind. If you enjoy these costume dramas this one is more interesting than most and can be recommended.

The First Churchills is readily available on DVD in Regions 1, 2 and 4.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Ironside season one (1967), part one

The enormous success of Perry Mason had made Raymond Burr one of the biggest stars on American television. When Perry Mason ended its nine-year run in 1966 Burr went straight into Ironside, another immensely successful series that enjoyed an eight-season run. At this time Raymond Burr truly could do no wrong.

Ironside began in 1966 as a made-for-TV movie, A Man Called Ironside. It was picked up as a series by NBC and began its run in 1967.

One thing that is obvious from the start is that Raymond Burr did not intend to play Ironside as Perry Mason in a wheelchair. They’re very different characters and Burr, very wisely, was determined to make them as different as possible. Perry Mason has a great deal of charm and affability and this is not just something he fakes in the courtroom. The charm is genuine, and the warmth is genuine as well. There’s nothing charming or warm about Robert T. Ironside. He’s abrasive and he’s rude and he rides roughshod over anyone who gets in his way. He’s not the kind of guy to whom anyone would take an instant liking. He’s the kind of man for whom you would develop a grudging respect which might, in the fullness of time, ripen into affection. Perry Mason is a lawyer. It’s his job to make a jury like him and trust him and empathise with him. Ironside is a cop. He expects people to hate him. He doesn’t care.

Of course the hero of a TV series has to be someone that audiences will empathise with but Burr is confident enough to believe that he can persuade the audience to accept Ironside as an uncompromising curmudgeon and to learn to admire the positives in his personal makeup and overlook his character flaws. In fact he was confident that they’d accept that there was real depth beneath the curmudgeonly exterior. The series was a hit so clearly Burr knew what he was doing.

This was 1967 and this was a time when American television decided it had to focus on “social issues” - almost always with cringe-inducing results. Ironside was not immune from these pressures and in the TV movie there’s plenty to cringe about. 1967 was also a time when American TV wanted to get in touch with youth culture, with results that were always excruciating. There’s a lot of that here as well. It’s not enough to wreck the TV movie but it is embarrassing.

The TV movie is crucially important as it gives us the essential backstory. San Francisco Chief of Detective Robert T. Ironside (Burr) is gunned down while on vacation. He survives but will never walk again. It marks the end of a distinguished police career. Or it would for any normal man. But not for Ironside. He can’t officially work for the department any longer and he can’t earn money without losing his pension but he persuades the Commissioner to take him on as a volunteer consultant. Persuade is perhaps the wrong word. He tells the Commissioner that this is what is going to happen and the Commissioner does what everybody does - he does exactly what Ironside tells him to do.

He also “persuades” the Commissioner to give him a large space in the old headquarters building as a combined living/work space. And to give him an old police paddy wagon which he intends to convert for his own use. And to give him his own staff.

So we pretty much know by now how Ironside operates. The man is unstoppable. When he encounters an immovable object he simply crushes it. Finding himself confined to a wheelchair is no more than a petty annoyance. Ironside is a cop. It’s what he lives for. If he can’t be a cop officially he intends to go on being one unofficially. And being unofficial (or semi-official would be more accurate) will give him a lot more leeway.

Ironside has a team of assistants and they’re pretty predictable. There’s Detective-Sergeant Ed Brown (Don Galloway), a rather dull straight arrow. There’s the obligatory female cop, Officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson), who is not too irritating. And there’s the black street thug Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) who has been reformed by Ironside. The interactions between these four are every bit as cliché-ridden as you’d expect. Raymond Burr is the only regular cast member who can actually act so he has to carry the whole thing himself.

The Episodes

The TV movie follows Ironside’s investigation into his own shooting. There’s some awful 60s arty/hippie stuff to try to distract us. The plot is OK. The art gallery climax is unusual and original. It’s very very silly, but it is unusual and original. It is at least a bold attempt to solve the problem of having an action climax with a hero confined to a wheelchair so they get points for trying. Overall I was at best moderately impressed.

Look out for an appearance by bizarre 60s icon Tiny Tim.

The first actual season one episode is Message from Beyond and it takes Ironside to the racetrack where we learn something new about him - he likes to play the ponies. His gambling fever serves the useful purpose of making him a bit more human. But there are bigger things to worry about, like the $175,000 that has just been stolen from the track. It was a clever theft by a stupid thief which gives Ironside something to ponder.

Once again we see the action climax done quite imaginatively so as to allow Ironside to be involved. A good solid episode with a clever hidden clue involving a car. Everyone knows the clue is there but no-one can find it. This is good stuff.

The Leaf in the Forest pits Ironside against the Bayside Strangler. Six murders, all following an apparently identical pattern. So why is Ironside extremely interested in one of these murders and much less interested in the others? This episode has a reasonably solid plot and works pretty well.

Dead Man's Tale is a gangster story. The number two man in a major organised crime organisation has been trying to contact Ironside, to make a deal. He has a pretty fair idea that there’s a contract out on him. One way or another Ironside intends to use him to get to the number one man, John Trask (Jack Lord). It’s a battle of wits and wills between Ironside and Trask which works very well (and Jack Lord provides Ironside with a convincingly formidable opponent). This episode is a good one.

In Eat, Drink and Be Buried it seems that someone is out to get rich successful advice columnist Francesca Kirby. The problem is, as one of Ironside’s team puts it, almost everybody would like to kill Francesca but none of them can afford to do so. A pretty nifty mystery plot here. Very entertaining.

I’m inordinately fond of mysteries that hinge on the breaking of an unbreakable alibi and The Taker includes a fine example. Ironside investigates the murder of a cop who was one of his protégés. There are two investigations that the dead cop had been involved in that catch Ironside’s attention as providing possible motives. A good old-fashioned puzzle-plot mystery.

In An Inside Job Ironside and Eve are held as hostages by escaped prisoners in Police Headquarters. Ironside has to help the prisoners to escape or they’ll shoot Eve. This one falls a bit flat. This is possibly because the odds are too clearly stacked against the prisoners.

Tagged for Murder is quite a neat little story. A man is accidentally electrocuted but that isn’t possible. He was an electronics specialist in the Army during the war. And his dog tags, which he always wore around his neck, are missing. The main clue is a list of numbers, serial numbers of six American soldiers. Three of whom are now dead, which is odd. Something links these men together and Ironside has to find that link. Look out for Bruce Lee is a guest staring appearance.

Let My Brother Go is an episode that tries to be socially aware and it illustrates all too neatly why such attempts invariably backfire. Ironside wants to get young black gang members off the streets so he gets football hero Bat Masterson to give them some coaching. Meanwhile Bat’s brother Joe is out on parole and getting himself into deep trouble. It’s excruciatingly earnest and it’s heart is in the right place but it ends up being embarrassingly contrived.

The series gets back to proper crime stories and back on track with Light at the End of the Journey. This is the blind witness idea that has been used in various movies and TV shows  over the years. The only witness to a murder is a blind girl and of course being blind she didn’t actually see anything so she isn’t really a witness but the killer doesn’t know that, and Ironside wants to use a bluff to smoke out the gunman. It might not be original but it’s well executed and it works.

The Monster of Comus Towers is a heist story and a pretty good one. A very very valuable medieval religious painting is stolen. It’s more or less an impossible crime story. It’s hard to see how the thief could haver gained entry, and quite impossible to see how he could have left with the painting, considering that it’s not a canvas but a large wooden panel.

The Man Who Believed unfortunately takes us back to Youth Culture. An irritating junkie girl singer-songwriter kills herself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge only Chief Ironside knows it’s not suicide because the singer wrote him a letter after he was shot. He doesn’t think the girl who wrote that letter would have killed herself. Everyone think he’s crazy but Ironside is adamant. He eventually finds what could be definite proof but it turns out to be useless. Or maybe not so useless?  Ironside is after all a cunning old curmudgeon and he can find a way to use even useless evidence. A fairly clever story.

A Very Cool Hot Car deals with a clever car theft scam but again we’re back to Youth Culture and Socially Aware television. An OK episode.

In The Past Is Prologue Ironside has to try to save a friend from a 19-year-old murder rap. He starts digging into the records of the case and what he finds disturbs him. It looked like an open-and-shut case so everybody involved from the police to the defence attorney assumed that was what it was and didn’t exert themselves too much. Ironside is not convinced that the case was quite so clear-cut. He also doesn’t like it when people get lazy and take their jobs casually, especially when it’s a capital case and a man’s life is at take. So now he’s really riled up and he isn’t going to stop until he’s absolutely satisfied that justice has been done. A good episode.

Girl in the Night is quite ambitious. It has a bit of a 1940s hardboiled private eye movie vibe with perhaps just a hint of film noir. Ed Brown goes to Las Vegas to bring back an extradited hoodlum and he meets this girl (played by Susan Saint James, looking as cute as a button). Then he gets knocked on the head by two guys. It sounds like he’s been set up by the girl but he won’t believe this. This girl is different. She’s special. And she’s in trouble. He has no evidence for any of this, but he just knows it. He has in fact stumbled upon something very nasty and eventually Ironside is convinced that he’s right. This is fairly dark stuff with some nasty bad guys and some sadly broken people. A very good episode.

Final Thoughts

The DVD release (in Australia anyway) is a half-season set, a deplorable practice. This first set contains the original TV movie and the first fourteen episodes of season one. There are no extras. Image and sound quality are fine.

Compared to most other series of this vintage Ironside is wildly uneven. The bad episodes are truly terrible. The good episodes are very very good. The good episodes do outnumber the bad ones. Raymond Burr is terrific and the series is worth a look.

Monday, 18 February 2019

The Plane Makers, season two part two (1963-64)

The Plane Makers is a highly acclaimed 1963-1965 British ATV series chronicling the fortune of the Scott-Furlong aircraft company and its brilliant, charismatic, single-minded and ruthless managing director John Wilder (Patrick Wymark).

The initial DVD release from Network, which I reviewed some time ago, included the sole surviving first season episode plus the first half of season two (all of seasons two and three have survived).

John Wilder is still in control at Scott-Furlong, still under siege by his enemies and still displaying his uncanny ability to take insane risks and get away with them.

The Plane Makers is sometimes described as a boardroom drama but that’s a bit misleading. It’s a series that focuses not just on the activities of management but also on the goings on on the shop floor, and the devious activities of bureaucrats, bankers, politicians and union officials. And it’s surprisingly even-handed. The representatives of the working class are short-sighted and selfish, but then so are the representatives of the ruling class. Workers, managers, capitalists, union men and civil servants are all the same. A handful are visionaries. Most are blinkered and stupid. A handful are courageous. Most are timid if not overtly cowardly. A few are genuinely dedicated; most are self-serving. This was Britain in the 60s. Getting anything done was just about impossible. No-one wanted to take any responsibility, no-one wanted to take any risks, no-one wanted to look to the future.

John Wilder is ruthless, devious, unscrupulous, untrustworthy and thoroughly reprehensible but he gets things done. He is selfish but he is a visionary. He doesn’t care if people think he’s a nice guy, as long as they don’t get in his way. He is not however a villain. He is not a stereotyped evil capitalist. He intends to get to the top but he also intends to take the Scott-Furlong Aircraft Company to the top of the aviation industry and that’s going to benefit everybody who works for the company.

Patrick Wymark is able to make Wilder breathtakingly cynical and unscrupulous and still make him a heroic figure. You just can’t help hoping he wins. Although he’s a giant surrounded by pygmies in a perverse sort of way he’s the underdog - there isn’t anyone on whom he can truly depend except himself.

The second half of season two begins with How Do You Vote? and it’s the kind of boardroom battle (or boardroom bloodbath) at which John Wilder excels. Scott-Furlong need to sell forty-two of their new Sovereign short-haul jetliners. They’ve already had quite a few orders but Wilder wants to press ahead and build the whole forty-two right now, even without firm orders. His thinking is that this will give Scott-Furlong a major advantage over their French rivals - Scott-Furlong will be able to offer immediate delivery to future customers. It’s the kind of risky but bold thinking that has made Wilder a legend in the aviation industry but his board of directors is composed of men who are not noted for either boldness or risk-taking.

This episode perfectly illustrates the way Wilder’s mind works. He has risen far but he intends to rise much much further. To maintain his upward momentum it is essential that the Sovereign should be a spectacular success. A modest success or a partial success will not do. Therefore he intends to gamble that the aircraft will be a spectacular success. If his gamble fails he is lost but he doesn’t care. If you can’t reach the very top it’s better to crash and burn in the attempt than to play safe.

In One Out, All Out! John Wilder faces a crisis. His board of directors, and especially the chairman, are determined to cut him down to size and force him to do their bidding. They’re going to sabotage his plan to start immediate construction of twelve new Sovereigns. Scott-Furlong are also facing industrial problems with a major strike seeming like a virtual certainty, and that seems to be a result of another misjudgment by Wilder. John Wilder is on the ropes and is facing not just censure but the very real possibility of being sacked as managing director. Given all this the curious thing is that Wilder seems not only unconcerned, he actually seems to be very pleased with the way things are going.  Is it possible he’s going to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Has he fatally over-reached himself or is he once again a step ahead of his enemies? And what of general manager Arthur Sugden, torn once again between his old union loyalties and his loyalty to Wilder. He seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. And like Wilder he seems to be oddly unconcerned. There are some very devious power plays going on here, which is what this series is all about.

Loved He Not Honours More continues the power struggle between Wilder and Sir Gordon Revidge, the chairman of the board. He has his back to the wall but it’s unwise ever to assume that John Wilder is beaten.

A Bunch of Fives follows the mixed fortunes of a sales tour through southern Europe. Perhaps it should have been obvious that eight men and one woman was a dangerous mixture, especially if the woman is an attractive young widow. Sales manager Don Henderson has enough to worry about trying to sell aeroplanes without having to spend his time preventing the other men from killing each other over the young widow. An amusing little episode.

The Smiler is a young man with a bright future as a Scott-Furlong executive. The only problem is that he is perhaps too efficient and too keen. Too keen to know too much. Another good episode dealing with themes of loyalty, suspicion and professional jealousy.

A book on the history of the Scott-Furlong Aircraft Company puts the cat among the pigeons in the episode In the Book. General Works Manager Arthur Sugden is incensed by the chapter dealing with one of Scott-Furlong’s more successful aircraft of the 1930s. It’s all a matter of who should get the credit for that particular long-ago project. It would be merely an interesting historical argument except for the fact that the brother of one of the major players at that time is now a potential customer. He wants his brother to get all the credit for that 1930s triumph, and if that doesn’t happen then the projected sale of five Sovereigns worth millions of pounds could be in doubt. This is an intriguingly different business drama but there is a serious point to it. Sugden wants to make a stand for the truth. Wilder would prefer to sacrifice the truth in order to sell those five aircraft. It’s an episode that shows the strength of this series - a slightly offbeat story that has a lot to say about the characters of the men involved.

Miss Geraldine owns land that Scott-Furlong needs for their ambitious projects for the future, and in the short term for an accelerated production schedule for the Sovereign. Persuading Miss Geraldine to sell is however quite a challenge. She is extremely wealthy so money is not going to induce her to sell. Various underlings have been assigned the task of persuading her to sell, with a conspicuous lack of success. Finally John Wilder decides to take the matter in  hand himself.

A Condition of Sale is what causes a crisis at the works. An Italian airline is prepared to place a firm order for for Sovereigns but they insist on a demonstration flight with the new Mark VII engines. Unfortunately there’s no way the new engines can be ready in time but somehow Arthur Sugden has to perform a miracle and make sure they are available. In the process Sugden learns the John Wilder method of doing business and loses a few illusions. An excellent character-driven episode.

A Paper Transaction continues the fight-to-the-death struggle between Wilder and chairman of the board Sir Gordon Revidge. Sir Gordon has forced one of his relatives, a certain J. Ashley Pender, upon Wilder as chief accountant, the man’s actually job being of course to spy on Wilder and undermine his position. Wilder comes up with a remarkably ingenious scheme to get rid of Pender but the scheme is more risky than Wilder suspects. While there’s the usual tense struggle for power this is also a very clever and amusing episode.

A Job for the Major causes headaches for Arthur Sugden. Major Crabbe has been brought into the form to do some reorganisation of the works. John Wilder has made it clear that the Major can’t be fired (having an ex-military man in a senior position impresses the Ministry of Defence and could help in lading military contracts). The headache is that is Sugden can’t get rid of him then the Major is going to end up triggering mass resignations of key personnel who cannot tolerate the military discipline on which the Major insists. What makes this episode interesting is that while the Major is his own worst enemy he’s not a fool and in his own way he’s a very decent fellow. His greatest strengths are at the same time his greatest weaknesses. And although the people with whom he clashes do have some reason for resenting him they’re not entirely blameless either.

"A Matter of Priorities” lands Wilder in trouble with women. Lots of women. Including his wife who wants a divorce, which is of course out of the question. His mistress is being unreasonable as well, and then there’s Mrs Rossiter, the wife of a brilliant young Scott-Furlong technician. Wilder has no interest in her, except as a way of preventing her husband from leaving the company, but she still causes him no end of trouble. Oddly enough his mother-in-law is the least trouble of all. But the big problem is his wife and the question is how high a price will he pay to keep her?

In "The Homecoming” Arthur Sugden is giving serious thought to his future and he has to confront some awkward questions of loyalty.

In "Sauce for the Goose” Wilder and his wife Pamela are in Paris. Wilder is busy trying to sell aeroplanes. Pamela is bored and she attracts the attentions of a young American gigolo. It’s her chance to get back at Wilder for his infidelities, but will she take it?

The final episode of the second season is How Can You Win If You Haven't Bought a Ticket? and it involves a power struggle between WIlder and Arthur Sugden. The odds are stacked very heavily against Sugden but he has no intention of going down without a fight. And he has a few surprising allies.

The Plane Makers achieves a perfect balance, focusing enough on the personal lives of the characters to make them three-dimensional but keeping enough emphasis on the professional side to avoid the danger of becoming a soap opera.

John Wilder is a marvellous creation, a man who is equally worthy of both admiration and contempt. This is the tycoon as hero, but as flawed hero. Flawed, sometimes appalling, but sometimes magnificent. Patrick Wymark is superb.

While Arthur Sugden is a very different type of character he’s just as complex and Reginald Marsh’s performance is just as impressive. Barbara Murray as Pamela Wilder and Robert Urquhart as the fussy but hyper-competent chief test pilot Henry Forbes are also exceptionally good.

The Plane Makers is a product of the “everything shot live in the studio” era of British television. At its worst this style can seem clunky and stilted but at its best it can achieve a degree of immediacy and drama that puts to shame the products of later and supposedly more sophisticated eras of television. The Plane Makers is an outstanding example of the style at its best, with everything depending on the writers and the actors.

The Plane Makers is intelligent provocative and rather subtle television. Very highly recommended.

My review of the first half of season two can be found here.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Magnum, P.I. (season one, 1980)

If the signature American private eye series of the 70s was The Rockford Files then the 80s equivalent was Magnum, P.I. and that immediately lets us know just how different these decades were.

Jim Rockford lives in a trailer. Magnum lives in a mansion in Hawaii (even if he doesn’t own it). Rockford drives a bottom-of-the-range Pontiac Firebird, Magnum drives a Ferrari (even if he doesn’t own it). Rockford has been in prison. Magnum was obviously born into wealth and comfort. The 70s was the decade of cynicism. There was glamour but it was a decidedly sleazy glamour. The 80s would be the Decade of Greed. There would be glamour and it would be flashy and trashy.

That's not to say the 80s weren’t cynical. Maybe they were more cynical than the 70s, but it was the decade in which we came to accept cynicism. Cynicism was the New Normal.

Even the fact that Magnum’s wealth isn’t real is significant. The 80s was when we discovered we could live on credit forever.

Magnum, P.I. was created by Donald P. Belisario and Glen A. Larson, two figures who would play major rôles in 80s action/adventure television. Larson created the archetypal 80s action/adventure series, Knight Rider. You don’t expect originality from Larson but you expect high-octane action and a certain amount of style. Belisario would go on to create Airwolf, the best of all the 80s action/adventure series. From Belisario you also expect high-octane action but with a definite dash of intelligence.

Magnum, P.I. premiered in the same year that Hawaii Five-O ended its incredibly twelve-year run. It would have been a crying shame to see the production facilities that had been established for Hawaii Five-O not being used so Magnum, P.I. which had originally been intended to be about a private eye living in a Hollywood mansion became a show about a private eye living in a Honolulu mansion.

One of the fun things about Magnum is that while Hawaii Five-O was a fictional state police agency it is often referred to in Magnum as a real agency. In fact you could argue that Hawaii Five-O and Magnum both take place in the same fictional universe.

Both shows use the Hawaiian settings to maximum advantage. Production values are high.

Tom Selleck has the right mix of relaxed charisma and mischievous charm. He does the action hero stuff well, he handles the light comedy with ease and when he’s called upon to do slightly more serious acting he’s quite adequate. John Hillerman is fun as Magnum’s nemesis Higgins, who is determined to clip Magnum’s wings. Roger E. Mosley and Larry Manetti as Magnum’s old army buddies T.C. and Rick make fine sidekick material.

Magnum, P.I. kicks off with the two-parter Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii. It establishes Thomas Magnum’s character. He had been a Navy officer and he’d left the service under a cloud and with a reputation for indiscipline and insubordination. We know he’s a Loner and a Maverick. We know he doesn’t play well with the other children. He’s a Trouble Maker, but he’s also Brave and Resourceful and he’s also a bit of a Don Quixote. And he has a certain appreciation for the female of the species. In other words he’s a walking cliché. Whether that will work or not depends very much on Tom Selleck and on whether he has the charm to make Magnum likeable and whether he has the charisma to make him interesting. It becomes obvious very early on that the answer to both questions is likely to be in the affirmative.

This episode also introduces the other main characters. Higgins (John Hillerman) is an ex-British Army sergeant-major who runs the Hawaii estate belonging to bestselling thriller writer Robin Masters (we never actually see Robin Masters and he doesn’t seem to spend any time in Hawaii). Higgins of course disapproves of Magnum. Their antagonism follows predictable lines - there’s both conflict and grudging respect - but both actors are good enough to make it amusing. Despite the grudging respect both Higgins and Magnum are too stubborn and too childish to work out their differences. Magnum lives on this estate, he’s supposed to be in charge of security (his duties don’t seem to be particularly onerous), we don’t really know how he got such a comfortable berth but presumably the owner of the estate finds him amusing. Higgins considers Magnum to be basically a freeloader and to an extent he’s right.

Magnum is a private investigator who gives the impression of being very up-market but like so many things in the 80s this may be largely an illusion.

We also meet his buddies from Vietnam. He’d been in some kind of covert operations outfit. Vietnam would cast a huge shadow over quite a few 80s action-adventure TV series, notably The A-Team and Airwolf, as well as Magnum, P.I. In all these series there is a common assumption that neither the government nor the military can be trusted.

Episode two is China Doll. Magnum is rather sweet on a cute Chinese antiques dealer named Mai Ling. She hires him to protect her and a fabulously valuable Chinese vase for two days. It sounds like an easy job but it nearly gets Magnum and his buddies Rick and TC killed. The guy trying to steal the vase is a Chinese martial arts master and he’s a psychopathic Tong assassin as well.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls and Big Ones Too seems like a missing persons case, nothing unusual in that except that his clients are five schoolgirls. Just looking at their innocent childish faces Magnum knows that these are obviously clients who can be trusted implicitly. That’s his first mistake. Then there’s the girls’ pretty blonde teacher. He trusts her too. That’s his second mistake. Of course she doesn’t really thinking that stealing a Gauguin worth several million dollars is a crime. She has a really good explanation as to why it would be silly to get the police involved. This episode has a kind of interesting double plot which works rather well. This is a fun little story, very light-hearted but it has style and it has charm.

In No Need to Know there’s another house guest and he makes things a bit tense, given that he’s a British Army brigadier and the IRA is actively making plans to assassinate him. The American intelligence people are not officially involved but unofficially they’re keeping a close on things (they’re not happy about the idea of foreigners getting assassinated on American soil), and they’re worried enough to call in some unofficial help. In fact they hire Magnum to keep a watch on the brigadier. Being intelligence agency people they naturally don’t bother to tell Magnum what’s really going on. This is a darker episode and it’s pretty good.

Skin Deep is a murder mystery in which Magnum has to do some serious detecting. A famous actress has committed suicide by blowing her head off with a shotgun. Her estranged husband hires Magnum to prove that it was really murder. And given that a beautiful woman who decides to commit suicide does not do so by blowing her head off with a shotgun Magnum thinks it’s murder as well. Magnum has to deal with lots of Vietnam flashbacks in this episode, and has to solve the case without getting killed himself. Quite a good episode.

In Never Again... Never Again Magnum is up against Nazis! The obsession with Nazis that is such a remarkable feature of 60s and 70s TV was obviously still going strong even in 1980. This story does at least manage one original twist on the theme.

The Ugliest Dog in Hawaii belongs to a wealthy socialite. Sir Algernon Farnsworth really is a dog that only an owner could love. Curiously enough an ageing gangster is determined to get his hands on Sir Algernon. This episode is a total romp and it works splendidly. A government quarantine officer who is terrified of dogs, an elderly mobster who thinks it’s still the glory days of Prohibition, his incompetent henchmen who represent the new generation of gangsters except that they are entirely clueless, plus Higgins doing his social climbing thing and Magnum has his hands full. Enormous fun.

Missing in Action is another Vietnam story. A singer has arrived in Honolulu looking for her boyfriend Eric Tobin. He was a Marine and was posted as missing in action in 1972 but she is convinced that he is alive and in Honolulu. Magnum starts digging around. And he finds that a rather sinister character from Delta Section is also taking an interest in Eric Tobin. Delta Section is one of the more shady U.S. intelligence agencies specialising in black ops. If they’re interested in Eric then it’s a fair bet that either he’s alive or they’re trying to cover up the circumstances of his death. A very dark but very good episode.

Lest We Forget presents Magnum with a considerable challenge. A nominee to the Supreme Court hires him to find a woman he once knew in Honolulu. What makes it a challenge is that he hasn’t seen her since December 7, 1941. Magnum is pretty sure the judge is not being entirely truthful with him. In fact nobody is being truthful with him in this story. A number of Magnum episodes deal with the wounds left by the Vietnam War, so it’s interesting that this episode deals wounds left by an earlier war. This is quite a neat little tale.

The King Kamehameha Club, run by Magnum’s old navy buddy Rick, is cursed by a kahuna (a kind of priest/sorcerer) and the curse soon has fatal results for a competitor in a surf ski race. But why would anyone want to curse the club? Magnum thinks he may know but then his neat theory seems to come crashing down. Overall The Curse of the King Kamehameha Club is a good episode.

In Thicker Than Blood T.C. makes the mistake of trying to repay a guy who saved his life in Vietnam. Unfortunately Joey is a junkie and a loser and trying to help a guy like that is just asking for trouble. And T.C. gets lots of trouble. Like the possibility of five years in prison. He doesn’t want Magnum and Rick to help him but they’re going to do so anyway. Helping T.C is going to require Magnum to get some coöperation from some very unwilling allies. A pretty good little story.

All Roads Lead to Floyd seems to be a routine missing persons case. A young woman is looking for her father, the only clue to his whereabouts being a postcard from Oahu. His daughter is not the only one looking for Floyd Lewellyn (Noah Beery Jr). Floyd is a small-time crook and con-man and he owes money all over the place. And some of the people looking for him definitely do not wish him well. Noah Beery Jr is delightful as the loveable old rogue. This is a fairly light-hearted episode and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

The Adelaide in the episode Adelaide is a 32-year-old woman from Iowa who wears sensible shoes and wants to hire Magnum as a bodyguard for Norman. What he doesn’t realise is that Norman is a horse. On the other hand he is a very very valuable horse. Quite an amusing episode.

In Don't Say Goodbye Magnum is called in by an old friend, an elderly blind lady. She’s being blackmailed, or rather she’s being blackmailed on behalf of her grand-daughter. The grand-daughter is an old flame of Magnum’s but there’s something not quite right about her. Magnum’s sensitive side is very much in evidence in this story. It’s an OK episode.

The Black Orchid is the kind of Magnum episode that I enjoy. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s stylish, it has glamour and humour and it’s lightly offbeat. Louise DeBolt is a very rich young woman and she’s bored and she deals with her boredom by living out her fantasies. No, not sexual fantasies. These are more in the nature of romantic adventure fantasies. A bit like acting out scenes from old movies (it’s no coincidence that she had originally wanted to be an actress). She hires people to play various rôles in her fantasies and when her fantasies call for a hardboiled private eye type she naturally hires Magnum. Magnum doesn’t mind. It’s more fun that most of the case that a PI works on and Louise’s games all seem very harmless.

Of course they’re harmless as long as everyone understands they‘re games and as long as reality and fantasy don’t start to collide. But that’s exactly what happens and Magnum starts to suspect that thee’s something sinister going on, but of course the problem is that Louise is so addicted to her games that it’s impossible to be sure if she’s really in danger or if it’s just another level of game-playing. It’s a very well executed and very enjoyable episode.

J. "Digger" Doyle is a female security operative called in when Robin Masters life is threatened. Her presence irritates both Magnum and Higgins. It’s kind of fun to see Magnum and Higgins working as genuine allies. One of the trademarks of the series is that we never see Robin Masters. We almost see him in this episode. We do hear him. And it’s the voice of Orson Welles! A well constructed episode.

In Beauty Knows No Pain a crazy lady hires Magnum to find her boyfriend Roger. Everybody wants to find Roger. And some of them do not wish him well. Magnum also gets conned by T.C. into entering the Ironman triathlon competition which oddly enough provides the key to the case of the missing Roger. A very amusing very witty episode.

The first season of Magnum, P.I. is very stylish sometimes slightly outrageous fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Quincy, M.E., season one (1976-77)

Quincy, M.E. had a slightly confusing early broadcast history. It first went to air in 1976 as part of NBC’s wheel series the Sunday Mystery Movie, alternating with Columbo, McMillan and McCloud. NBC discontinued the Sunday Mystery Movie the following year but by this time Quincy, M.E. had been turned into a regular weekly series with conventional hour-long episodes. There were four feature-length Sunday Mystery Movie episodes followed by an abbreviated thirteen-week season in the hour-long format.

There’s some debate as to whether only those four feature-length episodes constitute the first season or whether the following thirteen hour-long episodes should be included as well. For convenience I’m going to treat the four feature-length episodes as constituting season one.

The title character is a Los Angeles Medical Examiner and we very soon discover that he’s a chronic trouble-maker. Quincy just can’t help himself. He’s never satisfied. If a post-mortem establishes a cause of death with 99% certainty that’s not good enough for Quincy. He’s a natural contrarian. He’s argumentative. He ignores instructions from his superiors. He antagonises the police. He can’t stop himself from playing amateur detective. He’s a complete nightmare, and the worst thing about him is that he’s usually right.

To play a rôle like this you need an actor who can be cheerfully obnoxious and still be likeable and sympathetic and Jack Klugman was the perfect choice. He plays Quincy with manic intensity and single-mindedness but still manages to convey to us that Quincy is basically a good-natured overgrown kid.

This series is often seen as a forerunner of later crime series focused on forensic science.

Quincy’s boss is Dr Robert Asten (played with oily smarminess by John S. Ragin). Asten might be a doctor but he’s a bureaucrat by nature and he and Quincy clash constantly. Quincy despises Asten as a pen-pusher and Asten regards Quincy as a gratuitous trouble-maker.

Quincy’s private life is not surprisingly somewhat chaotic. He and his girlfriend have a very 1970s no-commitments relationship.

Robert Ito provides fine support as Quincy’s Japanese assistant (and partner in trouble-making) Sam Fujiyama.

The guest casts are also very strong.

As with the other Sunday Mystery Movie series production values are consistently high.

The Episode Guide
Go Fight City Hall... to the Death starts with a routine case. A girl has been raped and murdered on a beach and shortly afterwards the killer is gunned down by a cop. It’s an absolutely open and shut case but Quincy is obsessed by a couple of irritating small details. The perpetrator shot and wounded by the cops just doesn’t seem like a guy powerful enough to snap a girl’s neck, plus his hands are kind of small and the marks on the victim’s neck suggest large hands. The police are exasperated. They have a straightforward case and they have the suspect in custody and Quincy is making trouble for them. And then there’s a suicide at City Hall and it’s just as straightforward and Quincy has to go and make trouble about that case as well.

It’s the third death that really gets Quincy wound up.

There’s not really much in the way of actual technical forensic science stuff in this episode. Quincy solves the case mostly by having the sort of suspicious mind that notices things that form a pattern. The plot is solid enough. You might find that the the action climax stretches credibility a bit - Jack Klugman is an unlikely action hero and it seems a bit out of character. On the other hand the producers presumably felt that an action climax was needed and they got one.

In Who's Who in Neverland Quincy’s boss Dr Asten makes a mistake that could be more than embarrassing. It’s a mistake that could be career-ending. He releases a body to the funeral home and the body is immediately cremated. The problem is that the body was not properly identified, all the paperwork was phoney and Quincy had intended to do an autopsy because he was not satisfied about the cause of death. Now it turns out the woman was a celebrity and the whole thing looks less and less like death due to natural causes and all hell is going to break loose unless Quincy can solve the mystery of the woman’s death and solve it quickly.

This is a much better story than the first episode. There’s some genuinely interesting forensic stuff and Quincy uncovers some genuinely intriguing and clever clues.

A Star Is Dead concerns a dead movie star, dead in circumstances that are highly ambiguous. Suicide is entirely possible, but so is murder. And accusations are being levelled at a smooth-talking congressman who happens to be an old buddy of Quincy’s. There are very important people wanting to protect the congressman and very important people wanting to bring him down. And there’s the editor of a scandal sheet who would be happy to bring Quincy down as well.

Quincy gets personally involved in this case, perhaps to a dangerous degree. At times it does appear that his judgment has been clouded by his personal feelings. But that’s Quincy. That’s the way he rolls. It’s a weakness but it’s a strength as well. He relies on gut feelings. On the other hand he is a scientist and he backs up his gut feelings with hard evidence.

This episode is the first to feature a courtroom scene. OK, not quite an actual courtroom, but a formal coroner’s inquest. And Quincy produces the kind of courtroom pyrotechnics that would make Perry Mason proud.

If there’s a weakness to this series it’s the sensationalistic endings, but then this is television and it’s in the business of providing exciting and highly dramatic climaxes and while they might be sensationalistic they are fun. There’s not much scientific stuff in this story but it’s certainly entertaining.

Hot Ice, Cold Hearts sees Quincy and his girlfriend Lee on vacation. And of course the first thing they encounter is a dead body. A young man who was stung by a stonefish. The odd thing is, there are no stonefish within 6,000 miles of California. That’s pretty suspicious but when Quincy wants to do an autopsy he hits a brick wall. The local authorities refuse to coöperate. Needless to say that doesn’t stop Quincy. It does slow him down a bit though. The second corpse manages to get the attention of the local sheriff. It’s all connected with the spectacular jewel robbery which took place in the opening scene.

It’s not just a robbery but an enormous criminal conspiracy. Quincy’s stubbornness is the only thing that might derail the conspiracy, if he can overcome the obstacles that just keep on appearing in his path. This one’s pretty outrageous but it has lots of action and it’s non-stop fun.

Final Thoughts
Quincy, M.E. is very much in the tradition of the terrific mystery series that American television produced in such prodigious quantities in the 70s. And it’s a fine example of the breed. The first season plots can be a little over-the-top but they’re executed with style and energy and they work.

The first of the DVD boxed sets includes the four movie-length episodes and season and the next thirteen one-hour episodes as well.

While this may have been the forerunner of so many later forensic science-based crime series Quincy, M.E. is mercifully free of the gratuitous gruesomeness that later came to define the genre.

A very entertaining series. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Murder, She Wrote, season 1 (1984-5)

Until today I had never actually watched an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I guess I figured it was going to be too folksy and too ingratiatingly cosy for my tastes. On the other hand it is a series with an impressive pedigree. It was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, the men responsible for the two best American mystery series of the 70s, Columbo and Ellery Queen. So maybe Murder, She Wrote might be worth a look after all?

It actually has a very similar feel to Columbo and Ellery Queen. This is murder without the sleaze and without graphic violence. There are no junkies and no hookers in sight. It’s all a million miles from the Mean Streets so beloved of so many film and television producers. This is murder done in an orderly and relatively civilised manner. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily bland or innocuous. Murder is if anything more shocking when it takes place in civilised surroundings (this is something that was known to the writers of the between-wars golden age of detective fiction but it’s been largely forgotten since).

Murder, She Wrote is also, like Columbo and Ellery Queen, very very plot-driven. This is murder as intellectual puzzle. There are going to be clues and they’re not necessarily going to be obvious. You’re going to have to pay attention.

The resemblances between this series and Ellery Queen are very marked. In both cases we have a successful writer of detective fiction who also dabbles in actual crime-solving on an amateur basis. The odd thing is that Ellery Queen (for all its excellence) was a commercial failure and was cancelled after a single season. Murder, She Wrote became one of the biggest hits in television history, running for an incredible twelve seasons. Why one series should fail while another, employing pretty much the same formula, should succeed spectacularly is one of the minor mysteries of pop culture.

The Episodes

The pilot episode was The Murder of Sherlock Holmes. Jessica Fletcher is a busy cheerful widow who lives in a small seaside town in Maine, Cabot Cove. Purely for her own amusement she tried writing a detective novel. Much to her alarm her nephew Grady passed it on to a new York publisher who immediately published it. To her even greater alarm she has fond herself, overnight and completely accidentally a bestselling author. Against her better judgment she is persuaded to undertake a promotional jaunt to New York, in the course of which she attends a costume party, and during this party a man in a Sherlock Holmes costume is murdered. Jessica would never have considered trying to solve the crime herself had the police not insisted on arresting her nephew for the murder.

Deadly Lady involves an accidental drowning at sea, only it might not be a drowning and it might not be accidental and in fact first appearances may be deceptive to an extreme degree. Whatever happened was not what appeared to have happened. What did undeniably happen was that a father went to sea with his four daughters. The four daughters came back; the father didn’t. There are some rather good plot twists in this one. A pretty good episode.

In Birds of a Feather Jessica’s niece has a problem. Her bridegroom-to-be has been doing a drag act in a San Francisco club and now he’s a murder suspect. This is one of those mystery stories in which the victim was hated by everybody and everybody has a motive for the murder. The solution is OK but nothing special. At best a very average episode.

Hooray for Homicide takes Jessica to Hollywood where she’s trying to prevent a movie from being made from one of her books. A low-life producer is trying to turn her mystery story into a sleazy sex saga. Now the producer is dead and since Jessica had a motive for wanting him dead she’s a suspect. But then everybody hated Jerry Lydecker (played by John Saxon in wonderfully extravagant style) and everybody wanted him dead. This is a story in which pretty much all the characters are dismal human beings (this is Hollywood after all) so it’s hard to care very much about their fates. It’s an OK plot and you can have fun spotting the various superannuated second-rank stars in the guest cast.

In It's a Dog's Life Teddy is framed for murder. Teddy is a dog and is extremely wealthy, having just inherited $15 million. There may actually have been two murders and Sawdust was at one time a suspect in the first murder. Sawdust is a horse, although he isn’t wealthy. The Langleys are a rather unpleasant family so it’s easy to believe that any of them could have been capable of murder. Jessica wants to clear her friend Abby who works for the family and had been rather friendly with the now deceased family patriarch. Jessica is convinced Abby is innocent, and she’s convinced Teddy is innocent as well. I’ve probably made this one sound rather silly but it actually boasts quite a clever little plot. In fact it’s the strongest episode so far. Look out for a guest starring performance by former Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie.

Lovers and Other Killers marks a definite change in style. This is the first episode to make use of classic suspense techniques with Jessica being put into dangerous and potentially deadly situations in which she is the killer’s target. It’s also the first episode to descend into tiresome psycho killer clichés. I’m not sure that these are good ideas. In fact I’m pretty sure they’re bad ideas. Murder, She Wrote is really not that kind of series.

This episode has an insanely complicated plot which I must confess pretty much lost me. This one is pretty much a complete mess.

Hit, Run and Homicide is about a slightly unusual murder method - murder by driverless car. This episode is positively overloaded with decrepit former Hollywood stars - June Allyson, Van Johnson, Stuart Whitman. Clearly nostalgia was as very major part of the appeal of this series. Which is fine. When a show runs for twelve seasons it’s fair to say that the producers knew exactly what their audience liked. This one has a fairly adequate plot and it continues the trend of putting Jessica in danger. An OK episode.

We're Off to Kill the Wizard goes totally over-the-top, with very pleasing results. Horatio Baldwin, known as Horrible Horatio, is a larger-than-life character who is a very successful creator and operator of theme parks with gruesome horror themes. He is hated by everyone who works for him, and in fact by by everyone who has ever had any contact with him. He manipulates, bullies and blackmails his employees. He tries the same tricks on Jessica. When he is found dead, with a gunshot wound to the head that seems to be self-inflicted, everyone is delighted. It has to be suicide since it took place in a room locked from the inside. But the gunshot wound didn’t kill him and it wasn’t suicide.

This episode has a decent locked-room mystery as its core. It’s perhaps not entirely original in concept but it has a few neat twists and it works. The horror theme park makes a nice setting which is used quite skilfully and Horrible Horatio is certainly a memorably nasty but undeniably colourful murder victim. The tone is light-hearted and outrageous with a bit of an edge to it and it benefits from the absence of the cloying sentimentality and excessive whimsicality that so often afflicts this series. This episode really is enormous fun.

Death Takes a Curtain Call is a rather dull story about defecting Russian ballet dancers and a murdered junior KGB officer. William Conrad’s performance as a cheerful KGB major is the only real highlight of this episode.

Death Casts a Spell is quite unbelievably silly. A celebrated celebrity hypnotist is murdered. There are six eyewitnesses but none of them can remember anything because of a powerful post-hypnotic suggestion. There’s an intriguing idea here but the stuff about hypnosis really is so totally absurd that it might bother some viewers. It doesn’t bother me particularly since I expect any movie or TV show that deals with hypnosis or psychiatry to be totally ridiculous. In fact the more ridiculous the better as far as I’m concerned so I actually liked this one a lot.

Capitol Offense is an interesting but not entirely successful experiment. Jessica is not only investigating murder in Congress, she actually becomes a temporary Congresswoman. Finding a criminal in Washington is easy enough - it’s full of crooks. Which makes finding one specific criminal rather a challenge. An OK episode at best.

The great thing about theatrical mysteries like Broadway Malady is that you have theatre people trying to kill each other and that’s always fun to watch. In this case there’s a faded Hollywood star making a comeback in a Broadway musical in a show also featuring her son and daughter. There’s a shooting that appears to be a mugging gone wrong but Jessica doesn’t believe that for a moment. There are some interesting financial dramas behind the scene. It’s an amusing glimpse into the glamorous but corrupt sordid and vicious world of show business. Quite a good episode.

Murder to a Jazz Beat takes Jessica to New Orleans where a jazz musician dies suddenly  but Jessica happens to be on hand and thanks to the research she did on one of her novels she recognises the symptoms of death due to an obscure South American poison, but how was the poison administered? To appreciate this episode you probably need to like jazz. I don’t like jazz very much at all and I found it to be at best a middling sort of episode.

My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean takes Jessica to sea, on a cruise with her niece who has been in a mental hospital after her husband’s suicide. It seems that someone definitely means to do harm to her niece. The photographic clue is quite cute.

This is the latest in a whole run of episodes that have taken Jessica away from Cabot Cove and plunged her into very different worlds. I can certainly understand the reasoning behind this. It just wouldn’t be credible for so many murders to take place in one tiny town in Maine. Unfortunately it’s the episodes set in Cabot Cove that work best.

Paint Me a Murder is one of those classic murder mysteries in which the range of suspects is rigidly limited. The murder takes place on the island owned by renowned artist Diego Santana (Cesar Romero) and access to the island is so difficult that the murderer has to be one of the guests at Diego’s birthday party. Now to be honest I’d have been quite happy  if the killer had decided to kill everyone on the island but you can’t have everything. In any case, even if the characters are truly appalling people, this is an enjoyable episode with some old favourite murder mystery tropes (such as exotic murder weapons).

Tough Guys Don't Die is what might have happened had Jessica Fletcher and Sam Spade worked a case together. A private detective named Miles is murdered. Of course Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon was named Miles. This murdered PI was working on three important cases, including one in which his client was Jessica Fletcher (it was research for her next novel). His partner Harry McGrath (Jerry Orbach) knows that the code of the private eye is that when your partner gets murdered you have to do something. That’s the code that is laid down in The Maltese Falcon. Jessica wants to find the killer as well although she’s wanting him to face a court rather than the rough justice laid down by the code of the private eye.

This is an episode that could easily have come to grief but while Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGrath come from different detective story universes and they comprise the most ill-assorted crime-fighting team that could possibly be imagined they somehow manage to work together and the script somehow manages to work and what could have been a trainwreck ends up being very entertaining television.

Sudden Death is a football mystery. As a non-American I find American football to be completely incomprehensible but luckily you don’t really need to know anything about the game to watch this episode. Jessica inherits part-ownership of a football team. There are some nasty power plays going on and everybody wants to buy Jessica’s share even if they have to pay her four times what it’s worth. Of course that just makes her stubbornly determined to hang on to her share. It’s an OK story.

Footnote to Murder is another episode in which the victim and all the suspects are rather unpleasant people. They’re mostly writers, and the murder takes place against the background of a literary awards gathering. There’s murder but there’s also the matter of a vanished manuscript which may or may not be the final masterpiece of a great writer. There’s also an Assistant D.A. whose craving for publicity is matched only by his incompetence. The interest in this story comes from the fact that every single character is a spectacularly awful human being so since it’s impossible to care about any of them you can just concentrate on the plot, and fortunately the plot is pretty good. And it’s a rather amusing episode.

Jessica and Sheriff Amos Tupper are off to Portland where Jessica is to give a speech but the bus trip proves to be more dangerous than usual in Murder Takes the Bus. Naturally there’s a storm, naturally the roads are washed out, and naturally the passengers are stranded in a remote diner. And naturally the phone lines are down so they’re cut off entirely from the outside world. And oh yes, one of the passengers has been murdered. So it’s a collection of clichés but that’s OK because that’s what this episode is supposed to be. It’s a collection of clichés but it’s neatly executed and it’s lots of fun.

Armed Response is a medical murder mystery. While in Texas to testify in a court case Jessica is slightly injured at the airport. She discovers that the local hospital is a seething hotbed of intrigue with the tyrannical Dr Sam ruling with an iron fist while the junior doctors busy themselves with plots. It’s not at all surprising that it ends in murder. Luckily the cop assigned to investigate is smart enough to ask for Jessica’s help. The plot relies on unbreakable alibis and it works pretty neatly.

In Murder at the Oasis a particularly loathsome show business type gets murdered. Security at his house was so tight it had to be someone from within his own household. This story makes use of a particular plot device that I always dislike and that I personally feel never comes off convincingly. And it’s perhaps just a bit of a cheat. This episode is in my view a bit of a dud.

There’s trouble down on the ranch in Funeral at Fifty-Mile. A rancher has just died and his will contains a major surprise. He’s left his daughter with nothing and he’s left everything to a man he despised. There’s plenty of ill feeling and angst and pretty soon there’s murder as well. Sheriff Potts is a nice guy be he’s never investigated a murder before, because in these parts of Wyoming folks just don’t murder each other. If the sheriff could be persuaded to leave everything to Jessica there’d be no problem but he tries to solve the case himself, which of course will leave Jessica ending up having to do it all herself anyway. It’s quite a fun dirty-work-at-the-crossroads kind of story.

Final Thoughts

Some of my fears regarding this series were certainly realised. It does try way too hard for folksiness, Jessica is excessively loveable and charming to the point of becoming slightly irritating at times, there is a tendency to wallow in sentimentality. There’s also a little too much whimsy.

Angela Lansbury on the other hand overacts outrageously but somehow she manages to get away with it.

On the plus side there are some pretty decent mystery plots. And despite the tendency to overdo things this show does have a certain genuine charm. And the good episodes are very good. It’s very lightweight but that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be - harmless entertainment but well-made and at its best quite well-written.

I don’t think it’s an entirely successful series but it did run for twelve years so obviously there were an awful lot of people who disagreed with me.

I’m still happy to give it a recommended rating.