Monday, 16 October 2017

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder, season two (1971)

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder was a delightfully quirky British murder mystery series set in the 1920s and based on Edgar Wallace’s J. G. Reeder short stories. Wallace was known more as a thriller writer than a mystery writer but his J. G. Reeder stories are genuine, albeit slightly unconventional, detective stories. The first season went to air in 1969. A second season followed in 1971, this time with original stories.

This series has many things going for it, not the least of them being Hugh Burden’s marvelous performance as Mr Reeder. Mr Reeder is not a policeman as such. He works for the Office of the Public Prosecutor as a special investigator, concentrating on crimes that require his special talents - crimes that need to be handled with discretion, or with particular urgency, or that are for some reason too awkward for conventional police methods to be successful. Mr Reeder is a shy, awkward, self-effacing physically negligible  little man in late middle age. Not the sort of man, you might think, to strike fear into the heart of the average criminal. appearances can be deceptive. In fact Mr Reeder is very much feared by the criminal underworld. Many criminals have made the mistake of underestimating him. Those miscreants are now either serving lengthy sentences in one of His Majesty’s prisons or they have ended their criminal careers on the scaffold.

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder combines a subtly tongue-in-cheek approach with ingenious and original plotting. The 1920s setting is evoked pretty successfully on the whole.

Willoughby Godard contributes an outrageously over-the-top performance as Reeder’s boss, Sir Jason Toovey. Sir Jason is the kind of civil servant who is very good at two things - taking credit for other people’s hard work and shifting the blame for his own failures onto someone else’s shoulders. He is a man of limited intelligence but possessed of a great deal of cunning. Despite his conning, his duplicity and his utter lack of scruples for some curious reason which he is never able to understand he never seems to be able to get the better of the apparently insignificant and harmless Mr Reeder. The exchanges between Reeder and Sir Jason provide a great deal of the considerable wit that characterises this series.

One interesting thing about the second season is that Sir Jason seems to have been made into a slightly more sympathetic, and slightly more intelligent, character. Fortunately he’s still just as amusing.

The dusty, timid and bookish Mr Reeder is not the sort of man one would normally associate with romance. Mr Reeder is however full of surprises and there is indeed romance, or at least potential romance, in his life. Even more surprisingly the object of his passions is a very beautiful young lady, the charming Miss Belman (Gillian Lewis). The only obstacle they face is their mutual shyness. It is clear that Miss Belman very strongly reciprocates Mr Reeder’s feelings. 

Season two kicks off with The Duke. Mr Reeder has to deal with a Chicago mobster and a disputed succession to an English title and the estate that goes with it. There is murder afoot and with Chicago gangster planning to bring in a few of his boys from the States there’s the potential for a great deal of mayhem. And a great deal of fun - this is an excellent episode.

Man with a Strange Tattoo isn’t a wildly original story but I’ve always enjoyed tales dealing with strange Indian gods and forbidden idols. It’s handled quite well, with Mr Reeder showing his usual mixture of sensitivity and social clumsiness.

Death of an Angel takes Mr Reeder into the world of motion pictures, a world that proves to be every bit as immoral as he had feared. An actress has been murdered but there is an evil plot afoot that may claim several more victims if Mr Reeder does not act quickly. Blackmail is involved and there’s an attempt to blackmail Reeder, but it’s an unwise criminal who thinks he can outsmart J.G. Reeder. A very fine episode.

There are of course plenty of people who would like revenge on Mr Reeder and in The Willing Victim one of them is trying to make that wish into a reality. The plan is a particularly clever and twisted one.

In The Fatal Engagement some very important and very distinguished men are in danger of being implicated in the murder of a music hall star. Sir Jason of course is anxious for Reeder to prove that such men could not possibly have been involved in something as sordid as an affair with a music hall performer. This is one of the episodes that succumbs to the temptation to score cheap political points and as a result it’s not as much fun as it could have been.

Find the Lady involves the mysterious disappearances of a number of young ladies. That would be bad enough but these young ladies are the daughters of some of the most distinguished peers of the realm - they are the flower of the aristocracy. Could it be a Bolshevik plot? Or something much worse - perhaps they have been sold into white slavery! Both Mr Reeder and Miss Belman take active, and dangerous, roles in the subsequent investigation. This is another episode where the social satire is a little overdone but on the whole it’s a fun episode. And I love anything to do with stage magic and this story features a sinister Chinese illusionist.

The Treasure House closes the second season on a high note. Larry O’Ryan is a likeable young man who happens to be a reformed safe-cracker. Now he’s in trouble and he’s come to Mr Reeder for help. He’s in love. He doesn’t even know the young lady’s name but he knows she is in danger. And indeed she is, but the question for Mr Reeder is to decide which of the various oddball types surrounding the lady presents the real danger. This episode has a slightly surreal feel and there’s an outrageousness to the plot that is very Edgar Wallace indeed.

In each episode of this season Mr Reeder finds himself with a new young lady as his secretary, each of whom proves to be wildly unsuitable or simply quite mad but they provide considerable amusement.

Although the second season was shot in colour only two episodes survive in colour. We should be grateful that all eight episodes do survive, even if mostly in black-and-white versions.

Network’s boxed set includes both seasons in their entirety.

The second season is perhaps not quite as good as the first but The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is still wonderfully offbeat  television with mostly fairly decent plots (some being very clever indeed) and it’s executed with a great deal of style and wit and charm. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Callan - A Magnum for Schneider (1967)

My Network DVD Callan: The Monochrome Years boxed set arrived yesterday, and tonight I watched the very first episode. The pilot episode in fact, made as a one-off TV play in the popular Armchair Theatre series in early 1967.

A Magnum for Schneider was later remade (not entirely successfully) in colour as the Callan movie, but I’d never seen the original.

There are some interesting differences between this pilot and the series proper. The relationship between Callan and his disreputable and evil-smelling burglar pal Lonely hasn’t yet been fleshed out. The strange affection that Callan has for Lonely is not yet in evidence, and we have no hints of the backstory that explains the unlikely friendship between a government assassin and a burglar.

The other big difference is that Toby Meres is played by Peter Bowles, of all people! Now I’m a big fan of Peter Bowles, but this is unexpected casting indeed. And it doesn’t really work. Partly this is because you can’t help comparing this to Anthony Valentine’s superb and chilling performance in the series proper. The Bowles version of Meres is neither sinister nor frightening, nor does he have the surface charm that hides the viper underneath.

Edward Woodward though has already nailed the character of Callan pretty effectively. And the cynicism and pessimism, and the total lack of glamour, the seediness, all these ingredients are present. The story itself works quite well. The later movie version takes advantage of the opportunity to flesh out the story a little and is more polished.

Callan of course is an agent for the Section, a shadowy department of one of the security services. If someone is considered to be posing a risk to national security the Section’s job is to neutralise that risk. The preferred methods are persuasion, intimidation and blackmail but if they don’t work then more drastic methods are used. The one sure way to remove a security risk is to kill the person involved.

This is a part of the job that Callan doesn’t like but he accepts that sometimes it’s necessary. He does however have a real problem in those cases where he has to get to know the person first. In this case he gets to know the target pretty well, and worse still he grows to like him.

This neatly sets up a theme that will recur repeatedly in this series. Callan is a very efficient assassin, in fact he’s the best in the business, but he has a conscience and he has emotions. Those are luxuries that an assassin cannot afford.

The picture and sound quality are pretty dodgy, but it’s a miracle this very first appearance of Callan has survived at all.

If you’re a fan of the series then A Magnum for Schneider is obviously a must-watch even if it’s not quite up to the standard of the series proper.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Fugitive, season 1 (1963)

Back in the 1960s if a show began with the words “A Quinn Martin Production” you could be fairly sure you were in for some pretty decent television, with the emphasis on entertainment but entertainment with quality. One of the most successful of these productions was The Fugitive which ran on the American ABC network for four seasons starting in 1963.

The Fugitive was unusual in having a series-long story arc (although this was also the case with another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders). In the case of The Fugitive the ongoing story arc concerns a man on the run, hotly pursued by the police.

Dr Richard Kimble (David Janssen) was on his way to Death Row when a freak railroad accident offered him a chance of escape. Kimble had been convicted of the murder of his wife but he was innocent. His problem was that he could not get the police to accept his story that he had seen a one-armed man fleeing from his house moments after the murder. The police certainly looked for the one-armed man, but to no avail. The jury had no doubts about his guilt.

In pursuit of Kimble is Police Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse), the man who had led the initial murder investigation. Gerard is a tough no-nonsense cop,  dedicated and remorseless. He’s honest and he’s not without a sense of fair play but he believes that the law has to be enforced. A man is entitled to a fair trail but if convicted he must pay the penalty. The law might occasionally make mistakes but his job as a cop is to enforce the law to the letter. His boss has a sneaking suspicion that Gerard’s obsession (and it is certainly an obsession) with recapturing Richard Kimble might be an indication that he has some slight doubt about Kimble’s guilt. Perhaps Gerard is trying so hard because he wants to convince himself that on this occasion the law has not made a mistake.

The format of The Fugitive was clever and flexible. Being on the run means that Richard Kimble has to move from town to town, from job to job and from identity to identity. Each episode therefore has a different setting, with different guest characters. The stories are mostly self-contained but the overall story arc is always there, lurking in the background, adding to the tension.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, a man responsible for a number of very successful and highly influential series including Maverick, The Rockford Files and 77 Sunset Strip.

The Fugitive, partly due to its subject matter but also due to its visual style, has at times some some definite  hints of film noir.

Richard Kimble is a man who is desperately trying to blend into the background, to be as bland and colourless as possible. That’s his only hope of survival. The challenge for David Janssen as an actor was to convey this quality without making the character dull. It has to be said that he doesn’t always succeed. Kimble comes across as being just a bit too passive at times.

The opening episode of season one, Fear in a Desert City, takes place six months after Kimble’s escape. He is working as a bartender in Tucson. He is hoping to attract as little attention as possible but he has inadvertently walked into a situation that is likely to attract a good deal of attention to him, as he tries to help a woman who is being stalked by her deranged and insanely jealous husband. The episode immediately establishes one very important thing about Richard Kimble. Even if it means exposing himself to the danger of discovery he will not walk away from someone in trouble.

The Witch is one of those stories in which every rural person is depicted as either a knuckle-dragging inbred redneck or a gossip-mongering hypocrite. There’s also a little girl who dabbles in witchcraft, and a nasty piece of work she is. She has plans to get even with her enemies and that means anybody who has ever thwarted her in any way. Richard Kimble soon gets added to her enemies list. A weird episode and not an entirely successful one.

The Other Side of the Mountain is a much better story. Kimble stumbles into the wrong town and attracts the attentions of the local sheriff. Pretty soon he is being pursued by helicopters, tracker dogs, a whole posse of sheriff’s deputies, not to mention Lieutenant Gerard. His only hope is a sweet but crazy mountain girl who has her own plans for him - she wants to keep him as a pet! Plenty of excitement in this one as the trap closes remorselessly on poor old Kimble.

Never Wave Goodbye is a two-parter in which Gerard’s pursuit of Kimble, now working as a sailmaker in Santa Barbara, becomes particularly intense. Gerard believes he is very very close to catching the unfortunate fugitive at last, and in fact he’s even closer than he thinks. Kimble meanwhile thinks he can see two possible ways to escape the pursuit for good. He also manages to fall in love, not the wisest thing to do when you’re on the run. It’s an excellent story with real tension and excitement plus romance and the seaside setting is exploited to the full.

Decision in the Ring sees Kimble working for a prize fighter, as a cut man (the guy who has to attend to any cuts the boxer receives during a fight). This is apparently a very important job and the boxing background is moire interesting than you might expect. Unfortunately this episode is sunk by some terrible writing and by some incredibly tedious and clumsy lecturing to the audience (a practice that was becoming all too common in American television at this time). It’s like trying to sit through one of those awful Hollywood Social Problem movies of the 50s. The contrived ending doesn’t help. This episode is a complete washout I’m afraid.

Smoke Screen is another not terribly good episode. With Kimble and a group of firefighters trapped by a forest fire it should have been exciting, and probably would have been without the action being slowed down in order to deliver more unsubtle messages.

See Hollywood and Die promises some thrills as Kimble and a young woman are taken hostage by a couple of punks who have robbed a gas station. The problem here is that in 1963 if you were going to ask American actors to play juvenile delinquents you would always get pretty much the same identical performances. One of the punks is really stupid and an obvious liability, the other is a bit smarter and the dumb one is pathetically reliant on the less-dumb one. The one-note performances cease to be interesting after the first couple of minutes. Unfortunately the young woman is pretty much a standard type as well. Brenda Vaccaro’s performance is fine but she’s playing a character without any real depth and there’s not a lot she can do.

The plot is fairly predictable as well. It’s more or less up to David Janssen to try to make this story interesting and he almost succeeds. The way in which he tries to outsmart the punks is hardly original but Janssen puts some real thought into his nicely understated performance. Not a great episode but watchable.

Ticket to Alaska benefits from an interesting setting and a fine script. Richard Kimble is aboard a steamer heading for a lumbering job in Anchorage, Alaska. One of the dozen passengers on board is about to be arrested although they don’t know it. Then a murder occurs. The captain convenes an informal inquiry (which adds a bit of courtroom-style drama). Richard Kimble is going to have to make sure that the killer is identified before the ship reaches Alaska otherwise all the passengers will be handed over to the federal authorities and he’ll be headed back to Death Row. So this is both a murder mystery and a suspense story and these two strands are tied together very skilfully. And there’s a bonus in the form of a couple of quite amusing sub-plots.

A very solid supporting cast headed by Geraldine Brooks also helps. Both the plotting and the characters are equally important and the main focus is on entertainment. A truly excellent episode.

Fatso is not so good. Kimble befriends an amiable overweight drunk who has a secret that explains the mess he’s made of his life. Kimble tries to help him out. I don’t expect every episode in a long-running TV series to be a dazzlingly original story idea but this one is just a bit too predictable.

In Nightmare at Northoak Kimble does something noble and heroic, which could turn out to a fatal mistake. One odd thing about this series is that while Kimble goes to extraordinary lengths to evade pursuit and hide his secret he will suddenly blurt out the whole truth even in situations where it doesn’t seem really necessary. Perhaps this does make some psychological sense. A lonely man on the run always hiding everything about impossible might I suppose feel an urge to tell someone, to try to make an honest human connection. It’s a device that The Fugitive overuses a bit but in this episode it’s put to a relatively interesting use. This is also the first episode in which Lieutenant Gerard is not just a one-note character. Barry Morse is given an opportunity to stretch his acting muscles just a little and he does so with great subtlety but quite effectively. A good episode with a few unexpected twists and it gets bonus points for advancing the overall story arc, adding some depth to the Kimble-Gerard relationship.

Initial impressions after watching the first eleven episodes are that The Fugitive is very uneven. It’s also a series that just can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be an exciting suspense story about a fugitive endeavouring to keep one step ahead of the law, or does it want to be an earnest social drama? It tries to be both, with very mixed success. When the emphasis is one the suspense we get fine episodes like The Other Side of the Mountain and Never Wave Goodbye. When it veers into social drama territory it becomes heavy-handed and dull.

The good episodes are very good indeed. The bad ones are very bad indeed. The Fugitive is so uneven that it’s difficult to give it a recommendation, except perhaps as a rental.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Twilight Zone - two Charles Beaumont episodes

I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone but I do have fond memories of some of the episodes written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. So I thought I’d take a look at some of the Charles Beaumont episodes.

First up is Static, the twentieth episode of the second season. This was one of six episodes shot on videotape as a cost-cutting measure (The Twilight Zone had turned out to be a very expensive series to make and CBS were getting a little anxious about the budgets). As might have been anticipated the results were very poor and these episodes looked cheap and somewhat tawdry compared to those shot on film. Since the cost savings were minimal anyway the experiment was quickly abandoned.

Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger) is a crusty bachelor who lives in a boarding house. Ed doesn’t have much time for the modern world and he hates television which is unfortunate because all the other boarders watch TV incessantly. Ed thinks television is moronic and he thinks that people who watch TV are moronic and he broadcasts these opinions rather freely. Finally Ed snaps and heads off to the basement to look for his old radio - a huge and very impressive 1930s console model. He brings the radio up to his room and he’s pleasantly surprised to find that it still works. And the programs are wonderful. Who wants to watch TV when you can listen to Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra live on the radio?

The other boarders are quick to point out that this isn’t possible - Tommy Dorsey has been dead for years. Ed insists that it really is Tommy Dorsey live and further insists that he will prove it if they come up to his room to listen. When they get there there’s nothing on the radio but static. It seems that no-one but Ed can hear these programs.

It’s not a very promising premise and sadly it plays out in a very predictable fashion. This was no an original Beaumont script - he adapted it from a story by Oceo Ritch, which might explain why it’s well below his usual standard. Fine performances by Dean Jagger, and by Robert Emhardt as Ed’s friend Professor Ackerkman and Carmen Matthews as Ed’s old girlfriend Vinnie, are the main saving graces here.

Static takes place almost entirely in a couple of rooms in the boarding house. This was obviously very convenient for shooting on videotape but it does have the unfortunate effect of making this episode look even cheaper.

As Buzz Kulik, who directed Static, admits in the accompanying interview on the Blu-Ray disc, the trouble is that it just doesn’t feel like a Twilight Zone episode.

Moving on the episode 21 of season two, The Prime Mover, we find ourselves in more authentically Twilight Zone territory. Ace (Dane Clark) and his pal Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) eke out a living in a crummy diner. Ace is one of the world’s most enthusiastic, and most unlucky, gamblers. Ace just never wins. Not ever. Then one day, quite by accident, he discovers that Jimbo has a rather unusual power. He can move things just by thinking about them. He can move any kind of object. It has never occurred to Jimbo that his telekinetic powers might be useful. Ace can see a very good use for them straight away. Jimbo could use his powers to move things like dice. Or roulette wheels. Ace, with a bit of help from Jimbo, can now transform himself from a gambler who never wins into a gambler who never loses. Of course, this being The Twilight Zone, things don’t turn out quite the way Ace hopes.

The Prime Mover was originally written by George Clayton Johnson. Charles Beaumont rewrote the script and sold it to the producers on the understanding that Johnson would get a screen credit but because of an oversight Johnson did not get the credit.

After seeing the first few minutes of this episode you know how the story is going to unfold and there are no surprises. It’s a typical Twilight Zone morality play. It’s much more interesting as a character study. Both Ace and Jimbo are fairly interesting personalities and Ace in particular has a certain amount of real depth. Superb performances by the very underrated Dane Clark and by Buddy Ebsen are The Prime Mover’s greatest strengths. It’s not an especially memorable episode but it’s OK.

So one rather poor episode and one that’s not too bad. Anthology series are of course inherently uneven so you expect a few disappointments. What these two stories do suggest that Beaumont was a better writer when he stuck to entirely original material.

Friday, 15 September 2017

McMillan and Wife season 2 (1972-73)

McMillan and Wife was one of the big successes among the various mystery series that screened under the umbrella of The NBC Mystery Movie. The second season of seven feature-length episodes went to air in late 1972 and early 1973. The season one cast remained intact, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as the two leads and John Schuck as Detective-Sergeant Enright and Nancy Walker as the McMillans’ maid Mildred.

McMillan and Wife was the television equivalent of the “cozy” detective fiction sub-genre, with no graphic violence or sex and done in a slightly playful manner but with an emphasis on good old-fashioned well-constructed mystery plots.

The season opener, Night of the Wizard, starts in typical McMillan and Wife style with Police Commissioner McMillan (Hudson) pursuing a suspect through the streets of San Francisco. The fact that a Police Commissioner would be incredibly unlikely to be doing such a thing is in fact a sort of running gag. In this instance the chase is rather inspired and quite witty.

Night of the Wizard is by McMillan and Wife standards a semi-serious episode. A woman is terrified when her dead husband appears to her at a séance and accuses her of his murder. The accusation is all the more disturbing since the woman, Evie Kendall, had in fact been charged with the murder but was acquitted.

There are lots of fun Old Dark House elements in this one.

In Blues for Sally M. an attempt is made to murder a composer/pianist. But why does he have a signed photograph of Mrs McMillan in his apartment? Unfortunately this episode suffers from a fatal flaw which makes the solution obvious right from the start. Keir Dullea gives a good performance as the obnoxious self-pitying composer.

Cop of the Year marks two big moments in Sergeant Enright’s life - he gets to collect the Cop of the Year award and he shoots his ex-wife. At least he seems to have shot his ex-wife, it seems like an open-and-shut case, but he denies it. And Commissioner MacMillan believes him. All he has to do now is to prove that Enright didn’t do it despite the overwhelming evidence.

Enright’s ex-wife, Monica, isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly the ideal wife. In fact she was selfish, narcissistic and vicious, so Enright had plenty of motive. This is an episode with a classic film noir setup. It’s based on an Edward D. Hoch short story, Hoch being a noted exponent of the impossible crime story. Robert Michael Lewis emphasis the puzzle aspect by shooting the murder scene from directly overhead.

The mystery here is not whodunit (which is pretty obvious from the beginning), but howdunit. And on the whole it’s a very good locked-room mystery.

Terror Times Two makes use of one of the most hackneyed ideas in television history, the idea of the double. A gangster has found a man who is Commissioner McMillan’s exact double. Rock Hudson does a pretty decent job playing the dual roles but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s an unimaginative idea and the script just doesn’t manage to add any interesting or original twists.

No Hearts, No Flowers is another story which involves one of the hoariest ideas in crime fiction, in which the detective’s wife is the potential victim of a psycho. Sally has her purse snatched. This has unexpected consequences as it becomes apparent that Sally has a stalker. The twist ending might perhaps stretch credibility a bit but this is a detective story, not a documentary. It’s supposed to be entertainment, not reality, and it does entertain. There’s also a car chase. There’s no point in setting a cop show in San Francisco if you don’t have some car chases. It’s a city that seems to have been designed specifically as a venue for car chases.

In The Fine Art of Staying Alive Sally McMillan is once again in danger. Commissioner McMillan has to choose between saving Sally or saving a priceless Rembrandt. This one perhaps doesn’t have quite enough plot to sustain the feature-length running time and the crucial clues are just a bit too convoluted and obscure to be believable. It’s still fairly enjoyable.

Two Dollars on Trouble to Win takes McMillan and Sally to the racetrack. Sally’s Uncle Cyrus (well he’s not really an uncle but rather an old friend) has a horse that’s a sure thing to win a big race. Cyrus is a cantankerous old cheapskate but for some reason Sally thinks he’s wonderful. Cyrus has a bad heart and a series of accidents threatens to make that heart problem critical, or even fatal. Could it be a diabolically clever plot to murder the old boy by indirect means?

McMillan and Wife suffers a little from plots that are, with a few exceptions, rather on the conventional side.

The second season is also pretty uneven. Night of the Wizard and Cop of the Year are the standouts and they're very good indeed. Blues for Sally M. is a fine idea let down by one serious flaw. Terror Times Two is the only episode that could be described as a real dud.

The major strength of McMillan and Wife lies in the two leads. Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James make a convincing married couple. They have the right romantic, and sexual, chemistry. They’re extremely likeable and John Schuck is equally likeable as Enright.

This is definitely crime on the cozy side but it’s thoroughly harmless light entertainment. Not as good as its NBC Mystery Movie stablemates Columbo and Banacek but if you don’t take it too seriously it’s enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Escape Into Night (1972)

Escape Into Night is a 1972 children’s fantasy/horror TV mini-series from Britain’s ITV. It has an interesting premise and it’s quite atmospheric, and decidedly spooky.

It was scripted by Ruth Boswell from a novel by Catherine Storr.

Escape Into Night was shot in colour but only a black-and-white version has survived. Since there’s a definite touch of horror to the series that’s perhaps not entirely a disadvantage. The very studio-bound feel also adds to the stifling and menacing atmosphere.

Marianne is a young girl who has a riding accident. She’s not badly hurt but she is confined to bed for several weeks. She amuses herself by drawing a picture of a house. When she goes to sleep she finds herself in the house in her dream. When she wakes up she draws a boy in the window of the house. Next time she sleeps she’s back in the house, and there’s a boy there, in the upstairs room she drew him. He’s ill and can’t walk. 

Her doctor has arranged for a teacher, Miss Chesterfield, to call regularly so Marianne won’t fall behind with her schoolbook. Oddly enough one of Miss Chesterfield’s other pupils is a boy named Mark, who can’t walk. Even more oddly, the boy in the dream who can’t walk is named Mark and he has a teacher called Miss Chesterfield.

When Marianne adds other details to her drawing they appear in the house in her dream. Unfortunately, in a fit of pique, Marianne draws some stones with eyes. They appear in the dream as well, and they don’t seem to be any too friendly. In fact Marianne and Mark, in her dream, start to feel that they should make plans to escape from the house. This won’t be easy, given that Mark cannot walk at all.

Are Marianne and Mark somehow sharing a dream? Is it really just a dream? Are the two children in actual danger? Is something supernatural or paranormal going on? Why is it that the only drawings that seem to affect the dreams are those done on a particular sketch pad using a particular pencil, a pencil belonging to an art set that had belonged to Marianne’s grandmother. And why is it that every time Marianne sleeps she finds herself back in the same dream?

One of the themes of the series seems to be the way children experience guilt about apparently trivial incidents. Marianne’s annoyance with Mark caused her to draw the stones with eyes and now those stones seem to have a malevolent intent towards Mark. Marianne  of course had no intention of hurting Mark. It was just one of those bursts of childish anger but children can easily be persuaded that they have caused harm to those around them and can end up thinking they are responsible for all kinds of harm. Mark becomes very ill so there is also the issue of how children deal with death and with loss.

Marianne’s father is an engineer and he is out of the country most of the time so Marianne is left without a father figure. Perhaps the dream has something to do with that?

Children of course also don’t always differentiate very well between fantasy and reality.

Marianne is still too young to take a romantic interest in boys but she is approaching the age at which boys will start to become rather interesting. Her odd friendship with Mark is completely innocent but it is a step towards learning to deal with that frightening phenomenon known as the opposite sex. Marianne at times seems to have an almost motherly feeling for the helpless Mark. Independence versus dependency, and the natural human need to want someone who needs us, are other issues that are addressed.

The series was presumably aimed mostly at girls but there’s enough subtle horror to appeal to boys as well, or to adults.

In a program like this the casting of the lead actress is crucial, especially in the case of a child actress. Marianne has to be a fairly ordinary sort of girl and like any normal girl approaching puberty she can be exasperating but somehow the actress has to avoid making her irritating to the viewer, or excessively precocious. At the same time she has to be lively enough, likeable enough and clever enough for girlish viewers to identify with. Young Vikki Chambers does a superb job.

These were innocent days, when a girl would have on her bookshelf a book like The Young Girl’s Guide to Housekeeping. These were also the days when kids still learnt Latin at school.

Given the subject matter, dreams, the big worry was that they’d make a mess of the ending but in fact it works quite well.

The special effects are about what you'd expect from a fairly low-budget children's production but the writing, acting and atmosphere and enough to carry it off pretty effectively.

Network’s DVD release is on a single disc. It’s barebones but the transfer is quite good given the not entirely satisfactory nature of the surviving source material.

Escape Into Night is an intriguing mix of childhood drama, fantasy and gothic horror and it makes thoroughly entertaining viewing. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Man About the House, season 1 (1973)

Man About the House was one of the most popular British comedy series of the 70s. It ran for six seasons from 1973 to 1976. It was so successful that a (very inferior) American clone was produced. It’s the sort of comedy that only the British seemed to be able to pull off - risque without being crass and good-natured but with enough bite to avoid blandness.

The premise is simple. Two girls sharing a flat in London are looking for a third girl to share, but instead of a girl they end up with apprentice chef Robin Tripp who is very much a man. In 1973 the idea of men and women sharing a flat together without sharing a bed was still quite daring and it gave the series a very contemporary feel with enormous potential for sexual humour.

The series succeeds because writers Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke resisted the temptation to rely entirely on sexual humour (although there is plenty of that) and concentrated on making it funny. They also very wisely did not push things too far. It’s risque but it’s never grubby.

Richard O’Sullivan was probably the biggest star in British television comedy of the 1970s with no less than three hit series to his credit. He strikes just the right balance. Robin is obviously very much aware of the physical charms of his two female flatmates but in his own way he’s a gentleman. He admires but he doesn’t leer. Well, not in an excessively vulgar way.

Paula Wilcox as Chrissy and Sally Thomsett as Jo are equally good.

Sally Thomsett had the trickiest role. Jo could easily have been just another dumb blonde but Thomsett makes her slightly eccentric rather than dumb. You get the feeling that Jo isn’t a fool but she just doesn’t quite see the world the way the rest of us see it.

The cast is rounded off by Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce as the landlords, the obviously inadequate Mr Roper and the obviously sex-starved Mrs Roper. In comedic terms it’s a dream cast - all five regulars are thorough professionals who know how to make the most of the material.

The fact that the two girls are quite lovely doesn’t hurt. What I like is that they’re pretty but they still look like the sorts of women you could conceivably meet in real life, or even (if you were very lucky) imagine sharing a flat with. They don’t look like models.

The sexual tension is provided by Robin and Chrissy. It’s clear that Robin would very much like to get Chrissy into bed. She’s obviously somewhat attracted to him as well, but she’s not sure if he’s really Mr Right and she doesn’t want to get involved unless and until she is sure. This is always a good formula for a television series, the “will they or won’t they” dynamic. In this case it not only provides laughs but also some genuine emotional interest. We like these two characters so naturally we’d like to see them get together.

In fact we like all three flatmates and the fact that they are three people who are genuinely fond of one another helps to keep the humour good-natured. We laugh with the characters rather than at them.

Comedy relies a good deal on misunderstandings and this series uses these classic comedic techniques to good effect, as in the episode in which Chrissy is alarmed when she is convinced that Robin is going to try to seduce her and then gets mortally offended when he doesn’t.

Man About the House is startlingly and amusingly politically incorrect. Some of the lines in the series would get a writer lynched today. Over-sensitive modern audiences would have apoplexy at some of the jokes.

On the other hand there’s a certain refreshing innocence to the series. There’s an assumption that it’s quite reasonable for people not to jump into bed with every attractive member of the opposite sex. In that respect it was perhaps just a little behind the times but it’s an attitude that adds to the charm of the series.

Man About the House spawned two spin-off series, George and Mildred (which was a gigantic hit) and Robin’s Nest (which was moderately successful) which followed the further fortunes of Robin Tripp as a restaurateur.

This was the kind of sitcom that by the 1990s with the emergence of the so-called “new comedy” would be reviled as hopelessly old-fashioned. In fact it’s a good deal funnier than most of the new-style comedy, and it's also a good deal less mean-spirited.

Network have released the complete series (all six seasons) in a DVD boxed set. The transfers are pretty good.

While sex does provide much of the humour this is not Benny Hill-style grubby schoolboy humour. It’s also a long way from the cringe-inducing sex comedies that the British film industry was cranking out at the time. This is closer to classic old-school farce.  There was still a limit to what you could get away with on television in 1973 and the series is a good example of why it’s an advantage to have to work within limits. The writers have to work much harder and they have to rely on genuine wit. It’s also a product of an age when comedy writers did not have to live in terror of offending somebody.

Man About the House really is very funny. Highly recommended.