Friday, 27 November 2020

The Human Jungle, season one (1963)

The Human Jungle is an intriguing drama series made by Britain’s ABC Television which ran for two seasons in 1963 and 1964. It follows the case histories of psychiatrist Dr Roger Corder (Herbert Lom). Psychiatry was a popular subject for movies from the 40s to the 60s but those movies almost invariably dealt with crazy and/or evil psychiatrists. Making a TV series about a skilful and dedicated psychiatrist was an ambitious idea and rather risky. It could easily have been dull or preachy or excessively contrived.

Herbert Lom is one of my all-time favourite actors and this was a rare opportunity for him to play a serious rôle as an entirely sympathetic character. Most of his serious rôles were as villains, cads, losers or otherwise sinister creepy characters.

The obvious temptations for such a series would have been to focus on stories related in some way to crime (in other words to make it a series about a psychiatrist crime-solver) and to focus on patients with severe and spectacular mental illnesses. Some of the stories do deal with such matters. Some deal with more everyday problems, but in an interesting way.

There are stories that involve the possibility of crime, either a crime that has been committed or might be about to be committed. Because it’s not actually a crime series you can’t be sure that there really is a crime, which makes things more interesting.The slightly unconventional nature of the series make it intriguingly unpredictable.

A series about a psychiatrist could hardly ignore the subject of sex, and in 1963 that meant having to walk on eggshells. The Human Jungle does confront this subject occasionally, and on the whole does so reasonably well.

It was an expensive and rather ambitious series. It was shot on film with hopes of making some inroads into the U.S. market and it was in fact syndicated in America.

Critics mostly disliked it, finding the stories to be somewhat unlikely and contrived. To some extent this is accurate but then the series was intended as entertainment and some melodrama had to be added. Had Dr Corder just stayed in his consulting rooms talking to patients the results would have been deadly dull so it was necessary to have him out and about getting involved in the lives of his patients. This is a bit unrealistic and melodramatic (and may be one of the reasons actual psychiatrists seemed to dislike the series) but it makes for much better television drama.

To some extent the series was always going to have to be somewhat contrived if they were to have some happy endings. The Human Jungle is not afraid to have some downbeat endings but they didn’t want to do this too often. No-one is going to want to watch a TV program about a psychiatrist if all of his patients end up killing themselves, in prison or on Skid Row.

Whatever critics may have thought of it the series gradually built a strong following with the viewing public over the course of its first season. In commercial terms it was a definite success and a second season was commissioned.

The other regular cast members are Michael Johnson as Corder’s young assistant Dr Jimmy Davis and Sally Smith as Corder’s teenaged daughter Jennifer (Dr Corder is a widower). Jennifer is fiery and she and her father squabble at times but on the whole their relationship is affectionate. She’s just a normal teenager.

Mary Yeomans appears in most episodes as Dr Corder’s secretary and Mary Steele appears in half a dozen episodes as therapist Jane Harris but most of the stories revolve around Dr Corder, Dr Davis and Jennifer Corder.

Network have released the complete series (two seasons) on DVD and it looks great.

Episode Guide

In the opening episode, The Vacant Chair, Dr Corder has been hired by a large industrial conglomerate to help them choose a new managing director for one of their key companies. The two candidates for the job represent wildly different approaches to management. Basil Phillips is a hard-driving autocrat with no apparent. Geoffrey Hunter is a conciliator and a team player. Dr Corder interviews the two men’s families and colleagues and finds himself in a hair-raising world of backstabbing, deceit and all-round chicanery. Dr Corder’s daughter goes on a date with Geoffrey Hunter’s son, and gets rude awakening herself. At the same time Dr Corder is trying to deal with a difficult case involving a withdrawn and possibly suicidal young boy. There’s not much plot to speak of. The focus is entirely on personalities and interpersonal dynamics. Those interpersonal dynamics are rather entertaining. And the reasons for Dr Corder’s recommendation is interesting. Not a bad start to the series.

The Flip Side Man is pop singer Danny Pace (played by real-life pop singer Jess Conrad whose performance is actually pretty good) and his problem is that he’s being followed about by his double. This double of course exists only in his mind, but why? Corder is certainly worried by this case. Apart from seeing his double Danny is nervous and irritable. And he does not want to talk to a psychiatrist. There’s some suspense at the end as matters reach a crisis. A good episode.

In Run with the Devil a man wants Dr Corder’s help because he’s worried that it might be possible for a man to do something wrong without knowing it. Which immediately worries the doctor. The man is deeply religious and appears to have lost the use of his right arm although there’s nothing physically wrong with it. It’s the man’s wife that Dr Corder is worried about. It’s obvious that the man is troubled by guilt but also by issues with sex. This being 1963 the series has to tread carefully when it comes to sex but it makes its point clearly enough. It also manages to avoid being too anxious to leap to judgments. A good episode.

Thin Ice involves rising 14-year-old ice skating star Verity Clarke. After a very minor accident in which she sustained no permanent injury she can no longer skate and Roger Corder has to find out why. He has to find the psychological block that has destroyed her confidence. Perhaps she just can’t handle the pressure but that doesn’t quite seem to fit. There are no crimes in this story, or at least not in the usual sense. Quite a decent story.

The Lost Hours is a kind of detective story. There’s no crime but there is a mystery that has to be solved.  Dr Corder has to do some detecting, even going so far as to shadow a patient. It begins when Julia Gray freaks out at a party and accuses her husband Henry of seeing another woman. She then tries to kill herself. It turns out that she is obsessed by this idea. It’s clear the poor woman is suffering from a delusion. Or is she? It all hinges on those lost hours in her husband’s life. Dr Corder is not sure if she should be treating the wife or the husband. A very clever story.

A Friend of the Sergeant Major is over-the-top melodrama. It takes place in a British army base in Germany. Sergeant Major Bennett (a career soldier with a fine record but with an interesting past) is put on a charge for smashing up a bar. He has only six weeks to go before retirement and now faces the prospect of a dishonourable discharge. Dr Corder is brought in as an expert witness as the defence relies on proving that Bennett’s commanding officer is a paranoiac. Corder starts to suspect that he is being used by the army in a cynical public relations exercise. In fact there’s much more to the story which takes some surprising (and outrageous) twists. It’s an interesting case study of two flawed men. There’s a fine performance by Alfred Burke as the Sergeant Major. 

We also get some of Dr Corder’s backstory. He had been a British Army psychiatrist during the Second World War. When it comes to matters of army discipline and the ethics of the psychiatric profession I’m sure it’s all ludicrously unrealistic but it is original and entertaining.

In 14 Ghosts the wife of a High Court judge is arrested for shoplifting. She obviously doesn’t need to steal a scarf worth a few shillings. Dr Davis happens to be friends with the woman’s son-in-law and suggests that Dr Corder could help. Corder finds it’s a complicated family drama and as in The Lost Hours it’s by no means certain which member of the family has the real problem. A good episode.

Fine Feathers deals with a young couple living way beyond their means. The wife, Penny, has not only landed herself hopelessly in debt but in trouble with the police. Dr Corder has to find out why Penny feels compelled to present a front of genteel high living, and why she is so riddled with guilt and shame. A pretty good story of someone who has constructed a false identity for herself.

The Wall presents Dr Corder with six patients for the price of one. Young Jan Zapotski is arrested for throwing bottles at a window but the police can’t do anything - he was on his own property throwing bottles at his ow window. Dr Corder has to find out why. This means he has to find out what is going on with Jan’s wife Rita and with Jan’s parents and with Rita’s parents, all of whom live in the same house. This is a clash of cultures. The Zapotskis are Polish Jews and they want to live the way they did in the old country while Jan and Rita just want to be an ordinary English married couple. They’re all really nice people and they all want what is best for each other but Rita is going slowly crazy and Jan is going noisily crazy. This story features some actual psychiatric stuff - word association, dream interpretation, group therapy sessions, etc. It’s also a rather light-hearted episode, at times almost farcical. It’s a good change of pace and it’s amusing and entertaining.

A Woman with Scars presents Dr Corder with a patient who is every psychiatrist’s nightmare - a woman who makes a false allegation against him. She’s an MP’s wife and she really is out to get him. Dr Corder’s problem is that obviously he wants to defend himself but he is more worried about her mental state. His unwillingness to take the gloves off in a court case could cost him his career. A tricky story to deal with since it involves sex but a good episode that tries to be nuanced.

Time-Check
is wildly far-fetched but it is clever. It involves a burglar who only burgles houses with gables, and is obsessed with clocks. Especially clocks that don’t work. By now we’re discovering that Dr Corder is extraordinarily stubborn when he thinks a matter of professional ethics is involved, even if this means risking trouble with the police. A good episode.

The Two Edged Sword presents us with two different stories. The stories are unconnected but as both stories develop it gradually becomes apparent that there are a couple of very important common themes. There’s a married woman who wants to put her baby up for adoption, and another married woman who is afraid of something but she’s not quite sure what it is. In this episode for the first time we see Dr Corder using hypnosis. A fine episode which deals with differing kinds of anxieties and does so quite sensitively.

Over and Out involves a mystery that has to be solved. An experimental aircraft crashes on a test flight. At this stage there’s no certainty as to whether it was a mechanical failure or pilot error. The pilot survived but is delirious and has no memory of the crash. The aircraft company hires Dr Corder. They very much hope he will prove that the pilot was suffering from some kind of mental problem which caused the accident - If he doesn’t then the company may have to cancel the test program and may lose a huge contract. There’s evidence that might point to the pilot’s having deliberately crashed the aircraft but the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. As Dr Corder discovers new facts the whole affair becomes even murkier. The ending is melodramatic but very tense and the viewer has no idea what the actual solution to the puzzle is going to be. A very goos season finale episode.

Final Thoughts

The Human Jungle sometimes stretches credibility just a little but on the whole it’s fine human drama and very entertaining. It’s melodramatic, but in a good way, and Herbert Lom is terrific. Sally Smith adds a much-needed touch of lightness as his exuberant but devoted daughter Jennifer. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Perry Mason - The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (TV episode, 1959)

I’m pushing ahead with my project of reviewing Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and the comparing them to the television adaptations from the 1957-66 TV series. In this instance it’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop. The novel dates from 1936 while the TV version went to air in 1959 as part of the second season of the Perry Mason series.

The story concerns a rich old man who has been trying to find his grand-daughter. Having found her he’s absolutely delighted and decides to change his will to leave everything to her. The problem is that a certain bishop from Australia has also found his grand-daughter. And they’re two different young women.

The bishop and the grand-daughter he’s found, a certain Carol Delaney, consult Perry Mason. Della Street is somewhat suspicious of the bishop. He stutters, and as she explains to Perry, bishops don’t stutter.

The old man is murdered. Carol Delaney is charged with the murder.

When adapting a novel for a one-hour television episode some changes always have to be made. The plot has to be streamlined in order to be accommodated to a single hour of television. There’s no real way of avoiding this. In this case however the changes really have been sweeping. It might be more accurate to describe this as a teleplay inspired by the novel rather than an actual adaptation.

Vaguely inspired rather than inspired by the novel might be even more accurate. Almost every element in the original story has been altered and the result bears no resemblance whatsoever to Gardner’s novel. As I said, major changes are often unavoidable, but in this case all the most interesting elements of the novel are eliminated and what remains is a pretty routine story. The interesting legal points which are at the heart of the novel are also, sadly, eliminated.

The conclusion I’m slowly coming to is that the episodes that are adaptations of the novels are generally speaking much less satisfactory than the episodes that are original stories. Gardner’s plots are intricate and carefully constructed. Once you start making wholesale changes the chances that the changes will be improvements are very slim. There are a few of the adaptations that work very well, but as a general rule they’re a bit of a disappointment. The problem is that the novels are just so good.

It’s also worth pointing out that in this case they courtroom scenes dominate the episode. In the book they’re very important but they’re just part of the overall structure. Most of the really interesting parts of the novel do not take place in the courtroom. Perhaps in the TV episodes there was just a little bit too much emphasis on the courtroom scenes.

There is one thing to be grateful for. Vaughn Taylor, who plays the bishop, makes no attempt to do an Australian accent. American (and English) actors always make a frightful hash of Australian accents.

On the whole the TV version of The Case of the Stuttering Bishop is reasonably OK but if you watch it immediately after reading the novel you’ll be disappointed.

My review of the source novel can be found at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

The Six Million Dollar Man TV movie pilot (1973)

The Six Million Dollar Man was one of those television series that imprints itself on the minds of an entire generation. It actually began as three TV movies, aired in 1973. There are interesting differences between the three movies and between the movies and the subsequent hugely successful TV series.

The first of the three movies was titled The Six Million Dollar Man (and was later re-edited as a two-part episode of the series under the title The Moon and the Desert). It was based on the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin.

This first movie has a pretty serious science fiction movie tone. It’s also, in its initial stages at least, a bit slow-moving. It does however provide a very detailed backstory for the series (although some of that backstory was in fact changed for the series).

Steve Austin (Lee Majors) is a former astronaut and is now a NASA test pilot. In the book he’s a US Air Force colonel but in this initial movie he’s a civilian. A test flight of a new experimental rocket aircraft goes horribly wrong, the aircraft crashes and Austin sustains horrendous injuries. He loses an eye, an arm and both legs. After suffering such injuries he has no wish to live and tries to commit suicide but is prevented from doing so by devoted nurse Jean Manners (Barbara Anderson). You might think that these two are going to end up falling in love, and of course you’d be right.

Top-level spook Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) has been waiting for something like this to happen. He works for one of those shadowy CIA-type agencies (in this case it’s called the OSO) and he has hatched a brilliant plan - to create a super-agent to carry out covert operations that would be beyond the capabilities of a normal human being. What he needs is the human raw material and the horribly mangled Steve Austin seems ideal. Spencer happens to know that Steve Austin’s friend Dr Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam) has been working on ideas for creating a human-machine hybrid - a cyborg.

Steve Austin is not at all happy about being a cyborg, and he’s even less happy about having to work for the OSO. He’s a guy who seems quite prone to self-pity but he does have a point. He joined NASA as a civilian. He didn’t volunteer to work as a spy for the OSO and he has been manipulated. And the manipulation has only just started. As he finds out when he gets his first OSO assignment, to rescue an Arab kidnapped by terrorists.

If you’ve only seen the TV series you’re going to be a bit surprised by the cynicism of this TV movie, and by its dark and brooding tone. While there are some action scenes at the end for the most part it’s much more interested in the psychological effects of being turned into a cyborg. And the psychological effects of being manipulated by intelligence agencies with dubious ethics. This was 1973, a time when Americans were starting to view their own intelligence agencies with a fair amount of suspicion. Even network TV was starting to become cynical.

Lee Majors unfortunately doesn’t quite have the acting chops to fully explore Steve Austin’s emotional state.

It’s Darren McGavin who is the standout performer here. He plays Spencer as a thoroughly amoral slimeball but you can’t help enjoying every second of his performance.

On the whole, despite its slowness, it’s a fairly intelligent fairly serious science fiction/spy film. Of course what’s really interesting about it is that it indicates that the original concept was very very different from what the TV series ended up being. Had they stuck to this original concept the series might have been more interesting, but would undoubtedly have been a lot less successful.

It’s still worth watching and the very fact that it’s so wildly different from the series makes it intriguing.

Universal included all three TV movies in their DVD release of the first season of the series.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Columbo - Try and Catch Me (1977)

Try and Catch Me was the first episode of the seventh season of Columbo. It went to air on NBC in November 1977. And it’s a great way to kick off the season.

As usual we know the identity of the murderer right from the start. Abigail Mitchell (Ruth Gordon) is a very rich and very successful mystery writer. The only person she ever really cared about was her niece. She’s fairly sure that her niece was murdered by her husband Edmund. There was a boating accident, the body was never found and while the police were perhaps not entirely satisfied it was accepted as a case of accidental death. But Abigail wasn’t satisfied and she intends to get revenge, and she intends to get away with it. Since she’s planned thirty-two very successful fictional murders she’s confident that she can outsmart any police detective.

Her plan is, as you might expect, rather complicated. The complicated bit is setting up her alibi. She also has to bait the trap, which she does by letting Edmund know that she’s going to make him her heir. Give that Abigail is very old that means he stands to inherit a very great deal of money fairly soon. All she has to do is persuade him to walk into her safe (it’s actually a vault rather than a safe).

Another standard part of the Columbo formula is that we get to see the important clues even before Lieutenant Columbo does. Some of the clues are very straightforward. Some are quite fiendish in their obscurity and deviousness. This is a mystery that hinges on a dying clue, and this is a rather extravagant example of that particular trope.

In most episodes Columbo has a pretty fair idea very early on as to the identity of the murderer and how it was done. His problem is to prove it. This one is interesting because he doesn’t figure out the dying clue until the very end. Or perhaps he does - with Columbo you can never be sure. Considering that he apparently has no actual evidence he seems very confident of getting his murderer so perhaps he actually had figured it out and was simply leading her up the garden path, which is the sort of thing he was quite capable of doing.

This series always worked best when Columbo had to engage in a battle of wits with a truly formidable adversary and Abigail Mitchell is pretty formidable. Even more to the point the series was at its absolute best when Peter Falk had a charismatic guest star. Rich Gordon was always a strange actress but she was undeniably fascinating and she and Falk make a sparkling combination.

Abigail is almost a sympathetic murderer (and Columbo did feature somewhat sympathetic killers from time to time) but there are a couple of things that count against that. For one thing, her chosen murder method was exceptionally cruel. For another, we can’t be absolutely certain that Edmund really did kill Abigail’s niece. One of the really clever things about this story is that his guilt is very strongly implied but we are never given cast-iron evidence. Abigail believes he was guilty, Columbo thinks he was probably guilty, but that’s not a sufficient justification for setting yourself up as judge, jury and executioner. This very slight doubt makes things more interesting because it highlights the crucial contrast between Abigail and Columbo - it’s not enough for Columbo to be certain in his own mind of a suspect’s guilt. He has to be able to prove it.

There's also a subplot involving Abigail's secretary Veronica. The subplot doesn't really go anywhere but it adds a bit of spice and uncertainty. In fact the writers are to be commended by not taking it in the obvious and much too cliché direction.

In this story we also get to see Columbo’s dog, who hadn’t put in an appearance for quite a while.

This was director James Frawley's first Columbo. He directed two more season seven episodes plus three episodes of the later revived series.

There’s the very clever dying clue, there’s the wonderful verbal sparring between Columbo and Abigail, there’s an interesting murder method. It all adds up to a superior episode. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Halloween Knight (Knight Rider, 1984)

With Halloween almost upon us I thought I should watch some Halloween-themed cult TV. As it happens all I could come up on the spur of the moment was Halloween Knight, the fifth episode of the third season of Knight Rider. But it is an actual Halloween-themed episode so that’s something.

Halloween Knight, written by Bill Nuss and directed by Winrich Kolbe, originally went to air on 28th October 1984.

With Patricia McPherson returning to the series after being absent during season two it made sense to include at least one episode in the third season centred on her character, computer whizz-kid and genius engineer Bonnie Barstow. And this episode puts her right at the centre of the action.

Bonnie has just moved into a new apartment. It is two days before Halloween and she’s been kept awake by a noisy Halloween party in Apartment 302. From her apartment she can see straight into Apartment 302 across the courtyard and she sees something very disturbing - a woman being strangled by a guy in a gorilla suit. At least that’s what it looked like, but she’s been suffering from a fever so maybe she was hallucinating. Michael takes her story seriously anyway and decides to investigate. Especially when Bonnie sees a dead girl in her bathtub, and then the dead girl vanishes.

Michael gets cursed by a witch (admittedly a very pretty witch) and then someone tries to kill him. And then a gorilla tries to run him down in a car. Maybe Bonnie could have been hallucinating but Michael knows that someone really did try to kill him so he’s convinced that something sinister is going on.

The investigation leads Michael and Bonnie to a creepy old house which looks just like the Bates house from Psycho. Because it is the Bates house from Psycho, which was still there on the Universal backlot in the 80s (and as far as I know is still there today). Since Knight Rider was a Universal Television release and they had access to the Universal backlot it was a pretty obviously cool idea to use the famous house for a Halloween episode.

When you see that house you’re expecting some further Psycho references, and there are a couple. In fact given that one of the chief suspects has some movie industry connections the whole story is a bit of a movie/pop culture in-joke exercise, although it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one.

There are two spectacularly destructive KITT stunts and there’s an action finale in a drive-in theatre.

And the movie being screened is Creature from the Black Lagoon, which just happens to be (by an amazing coincidence) a Universal release. And it's being screened in 3D!

Patricia McPherson gets a rare chance to do at least a little bit of real acting.

This being Knight Rider there are of course glamorous women (not all of them witches).

All in all Halloween Knight is a great deal of fun and turned out to be a pretty good pre-Halloween viewing choice.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. - The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair (TV tie-in novel)

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., a 1966-67 spin-off from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., was not a huge commercial success but it did spawn five TV tie-in novels including The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair by Simon Latter.

Simon Latter was one of the many pseudonyms used by prolific English author Reginald Alec Martin (1908-1971).

The novel has a neat setup. Two hundred years ago a pirate named Manuel Palanga established his lair on a small island which became known as Palaga. It’s now a haven for pirates of a more modern kind. Palaga is a peaceful and prosperous island paradise but its prosperity is based on activities that are not quite legal. The incredibly prolific Palaga family runs the island and does so smoothly and efficiently. And, it has to be said, very much for the benefits of the islanders.

Recently Palaga has attracted the attention of U.N.C.L.E., the international intelligence and law enforcement agency. One of U.N.C.L.E.’s top agents (and one of its most glamorous), April Dancer, has been sent to Palaga. It goes without saying that U.N.C.L.E. agent Mark Slate (who invariably partners April on assignments) is in Palaga as well, posing as a deckhand on a yacht. April is posing as one of the many rich beautiful tourists attracted to Palaga (Palaga strongly discourages non-wealthy tourists).

April’s boss Mr Waverley is particularly curious about the coracles. One of Palaga’s main exports is coracles (tiny boats). Thousands have been exported to the U.S. where they have become something of a craze. Coracle clubs have spring up across the country. What really interests Mr Waverley is that these clubs appear to be run by agents of the sinister international criminal organisation THRUSH.

The tricky part of this assignment is that there are quite a few characters who are very shady indeed but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re THRUSH agents. The Palaga family members are often quite shady (they are the descendants of pirates and piracy is an honoured family tradition) but that doesn’t mean they have the slightest desire to see THRUSH take over their island. That could interfere with their own very benign but technically criminal activities. Of course that doesn’t mean that the Palagas are any more fond of U.N.C.L.E. than they are of THRUSH.

The plot is the sort of thing you’d expect from a typical Girl from U.N.C.L.E. episode, with a sinister conspiracy for world domination and a genius scientist who might be an evil mad scientist or just naïve and easily exploited. There are lots of gadgets and even a mini-submarine.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had started life as a James Bond-style spy thriller series - slightly tongue-in-cheek but not an out-and-out spy spoof and with genuine spy thriller plots. Unfortunately by the time The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. went into production the network had decided that it wanted both series to be turned into Batman-style zany campfests (with disastrous results). The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels are much more serious (and sometimes even quite dark) and much closer in tone to the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and that’s a very good thing. They definitely have a much harder edge than the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. TV series. The good guys triumph but there’s often a price to be paid and people get killed, even people who don’t deserve such a fate.

The plots are just as outlandish but there’s less overt silliness and no campiness.

The original idea for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. came from Ian Fleming. His idea was that the series would follow the adventures of two secret agents, a man (Napoleon Solo) and a woman (April Dancer). Fleming had a knack for coming up with cool character names! After Fleming lost interest in the series it was decided to drop the idea of a male-female pairing of super-spies but the April Dancer character was revived for the second season episode The Moonglow Affair. The character seemed to have potential and the result was the spin-off series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which went to air in 1966.

American television in the 1960s was very strait-laced. Books were less constrained and as a result TV tie-in books at that period often contained a lot more sex and violence than the series on which they were based. That’s true to a very limited extent of this novel. It’s certainly much more obvious in the novel that Mark Slate is not unaware of April’s feminine charms. Particularly her bottom. And there is a bit more violence compared to the TV version (although April still dislikes the idea of having to kill people).

I’ve reviewed two other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels, The Birds of a Feather Affair and The Global Globules Affair.

The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair isn’t quite as good but it’s still a pretty entertaining spy thriller. Recommended, and if you’re a fan of the TV series, highly recommended.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Return of the Saint (1978-79), part two

Return of the Saint was a bold and surprisingly successful attempt by ITC to revive the Saint TV franchise. It was hated by critics and extremely popular with viewers but alas by this time Lew Grade was obsessed with the idea of making movies and he saw this series as an obstacle to that ambition. It was certainly a costly series to make, with quite a bit of location shooting. It was in fact a good example of the strength of the approach that Grade had adopted right from the beginning - if you want to have a chance of cracking the US market you have to make series that are every bit as polished and visually exciting as the best American series and Return of the Saint was very polished indeed.

But Lew Grade wasn’t interested and the series, despite its success (it was sold to 73 countries), was cancelled after a single season. It became the last in a long line of ITC series with great potential (such as Department S and The Champions) to suffer undeserved premature cancellation. It was a victim of Grade’s ill-advised obsession with the idea of becoming a movie mogul. Return of the Saint was an expensive series and Grade by that time resented spending money on a TV series.

It was always obvious that Return of the Saint was going to have to offer more action and more violence than the original Saint series. British television had changed dramatically in the mid-70s, that change being spearheaded by The Sweeney. It was the same challenge that faced Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens when they revived The Avengers - how to up the ante in action and violence without losing the essential flavour of the original series. Surprisingly both The New Avengers and Return of the Saint managed to do this reasonably successfully. 

It is however always obvious that a precarious balancing act was going on and this was complicated by pressure from the US to keep the violence to a minimum. Compared to other contemporary British series Return of the Saint is just a little tame. On the other hand that may have contributed to its popularity - it may have appealed to viewers nostalgic for a slightly more innocent era of British television. When viewed today it comes across as an intriguing mix of 1960s and 1970s sensibilities.

At the time it seemed like a good idea to mix in a few harder-edged topical stories dealing with subjects like terrorism. Personally I think the more old-fashioned episodes in the style of the original series have aged better, but in commercial terms it undoubtedly was a good idea to try to give the series something of an up-to-date flavour.

With Return of the Saint ITC faced one incredibly daunting problem - finding someone capable of playing the rôle. Simon Templar is no ordinary hero, and he cannot under any circumstances be played that way. He has to have charm and wit, he has to have massive quantities of self-confidence, he has to have boyish enthusiasm. He has to be a man of action, but with a subtle and devious mind. He has to have a sense of fun and a sense of humour. He must be irresistible to the female of the species, but with a genuine affection for, and respect for, women. He has to be reckless. He has to be whimsical. Simon Templar is a man of the world, with the soul of an overgrown schoolboy.

Roger Moore qualified on all counts but where on earth were they going to find a younger actor with all those qualities, and with the necessary charisma? Amazingly enough, in Ian Ogilvy, they found that actor. Not quite as overflowing with charisma, but the first time you see him you have the same reaction that Roger Moore provoked - you think yes, that’s Simon Templar.

If you’re going to bring the Saint to the screen (whether it’s the big screen or the small screen) it has to be done with style. Everything Simon Templar does he does with style and a TV adaptation has to reflect this. This series does pretty well on that count. One slight problem is that this version of the Saint goes perilously close to being a 70s fashion victim. Ian Ogilvy felt, quite correctly, that a more conservative classic look would have worked better. Up-to-date fashions tend to date a series very quickly.

Curiously enough the series was originally planned as The Son of the Saint, with Ogilvy playing Simon Templar Jr.

This series differs from its predecessor in one very obvious way - it features a good deal of location shooting in some of the more glamorous parts of Europe.

Overall Return of the Saint is not quite as perfect as its predecessor. Its biggest fault is that it makes Simon Templar much too law-abiding and much too friendly with the police. This was a flaw with the original series but it’s even more evident in Return of the Saint. The essence of the character is that for all the good deeds he performs he is still a rogue and a thief and quite ruthless and he does not like policemen. If you try to make him too virtuous he becomes just another generic hero. The series also makes him just a bit too much of an Establishment figure. Not enough of an outsider. And Simon Templar should be an outsider. He’s not supposed to be a gentleman, even if he can easily pass as one.

On the plus side there are some very good scripts, including no less than eight by John Kruse. Kruse was a great TV writer, he’d written several episodes of the original Saint series (including the wonderful The Ex-King of Diamonds) and even the notoriously hard-to-please Leslie Charteris liked Kruse’s scripts.

Despite some problems Return of the Saint is still a very entertaining series.

Network’s complete series DVD set includes a number of audio commentaries featuring Ian Ogilvy and others associated with the series.

Episode Guide

The Armageddon Alternative is pretty outrageous. Terrorism was a big deal in the 70s so it was inevitable that this series would deal with the subject. A crazed scientist has built his own atom bomb and he’s going to use it to blow London off the map if his demands are not met. And what are his demands? He wants the government to publicly execute a young lady. Not just any young lady, but a beautiful young sculptress. And he doesn’t just want her executed - he wants her to be publicly guillotined! Like I said, it’s pretty outrageous. Simon Templar has been used by the terrorist to convey his demands to the government. Simon of course has no intention of allowing anyone to be executed, and certainly not someone as gorgeous as Lynn Jackson (played by Anouska Hempel). A good tense race-against-time plot although if you’re paying close attention the ending won’t surprise you. Still lots of fun.

The Imprudent Professor starts in interesting fashion. A maverick scientist is announcing a major scientific breakthrough when Simon Templar leaps up claiming to be one of the professor’s students from whom the professor stole his new theory. Simon is obviously up to something but what on earth is it? Simon has to deal with two formidable women, the professor’s daughter (played by Susan Penhaligon) and the glamorous but clearly dangerous Samantha (Catherine Schell), who runs Genius Inc. Lots of location shooting in France, plus a car chase, a boat chase and a helicopter chase and some decent fight scenes. An extremely good action-packed episode with some decent plot twists.

Signal Stop is a much more characteristically Saintly episode, written by John Kruse. Kruse was an excellent writer who also contributed episodes to the original Saint series so he knew what was required. Simon is on a train when a young woman named Janie pulls the emergency stop cord. From the train she has seen a man killed by being hurled through a window of a building. When the police arrive there is no trace of any crime and no broken window. And Janie has a psychiatric history. It’s clear to the police that it’s just a crazy woman seeing things. It’s not so clear to Simon Templar. He knows that crime has a habit of following him around, and besides that Janie doesn’t seem crazy. So he starts poking about and discovers some interesting things. Some very interesting things, which involve motorcycles, a god of lust and a wrecking yard. Of course the police make it clear that they don’t want Simon’s help but when has Simon ever taken any notice of policemen?

A very good episode that takes the established Saint formula and adds a few edgy touches to make it more suitable for the tastes of the late 70s.

The Roman Touch is another episode with an authentically Saintly flavour. In Rome Simon runs into an old friend, a pop singer who’s just had a string of hit records and is on top of the world. At least she should be, but she isn’t. She’s in debt up to her eyeballs and she’s taking way too many pills. She’s stuck in a contract that is bleeding her dry and there’s no escape. But of course the Saint does not accept this. Finding a way to get people (especially pretty girls) out of impossible predicaments is what he does. Some good location shooting in this one and a guest starring turn by Linda Thorson. Yes, Tara King, but this time she’s not Tara King but a ruthless tough as nails manager. One interesting thing about this episode is that we see the Saint doing actual criminal things, for a good cause naturally, but intending to profit personally as well. Which is the sort of thing that the Saint does in Leslie Charteris’s story but the 1960s series was always careful to obscure such disreputable details. A good episode.

Tower Bridge Is Falling Down is an excellent story of conning a con man, which is the sort of thing the Saint loves to do. And it is a deliciously neat if rather outrageous con. An excellent episode.

The Debt Collectors begins when Simon saves a damsel in distress - her horse has  bolted. This draws Simon into a strange family drama involving two sisters and it turns out to be a spy drama. With some very neat twists. This episode is also interesting in that Simon gets mixed up with MI5 and he doesn’t like them at all - it’s a welcome touch of authentic Saintly dislike of authority. A very good episode.

Collision Course is a two-parter (the first part is The Brave Goose and the second is The Sixth Man) written by John Kruse. Simon is participating in a power boat race. One of the other competitors, Oscar West, is killed. Simon knows it was no accident but he has his reasons for wanting to keep that information to himself. Oscar’s widow Annabelle disliked her husband but at least she will get his money. Except that he apparently had none, despite his lavish lifestyle. All she gets is a yacht that she didn’t even know he owned. And she’s now in a lot of trouble with some very unpleasant people who have reasons of their own for not believing that Oscar died penniless. The Saint is very interested in all of this and wants to help her, and perhaps help himself.

Some interesting guest stars in this one - Stratford Johns as a too-friendly French gentleman farmer and a disturbingly stout Derren Nesbitt as a French policeman, both doing outrageous French accents.

There’s murder on the ski slopes in Hot Run. Simon is always interested in the subject of murder and he’s especially interested when the victim has a very cute sister. When he discovers that there’s a heist involved and it’s being organised by another glamorous female his interest is even more intense. Tony Williamson was one of the best TV writers of that era and he provides a fairly clever plot. The heist includes some quite ingenious elements. Peter Sasdy directed and there’s some very good stunt work. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable episode.

Murder Cartel deals, as the title suggests, with an international organisation specialising in assassinations. The CIA needs Simon’s help since they have a massive security leak within the agency so Simon goes undercover as a cold-blooded hitman. Some interesting guest stars in this one - Helmut Berger (a very very big star in Europe at the time) and the rather underrated Britt Ekland. These types of episodes were hampered a little by the American insistence on minimising the violence levels so it doesn’t have quite the impact it should but it’s a pretty good story and the location shooting (in Rome) is a bonus.

In The Obono Affair Simon, very reluctantly, agrees to help an African dictator named Obono. Obono as been the target of many assassination attempts and now his son has been kidnapped. This is one of the episodes shot entirely in Britain. It’s also one of the episodes that might have benefited from being given a slightly harder edge, and would certainly have been improved had Simon been allowed to be less of a Boy Scout. Still, there are some decent plot twists.

Vicious Circle
begins with the murder of Simon’s old friend Roberto Lucci, an ex-racing car driver. Roberto’s widow Renata (Elsa Martinelli) is a rich fashion designer and a possible suspect. This is a classic murder mystery plot with some genuine surprises and some good misdirection plus nice location shooting in Italy and it has a nice atmosphere of glamour with a touch of decadence. A very good episode.

Simon’s bad luck with friends continues in Dragonseed, another instalment filmed in Italy. This time it’s Leo, the son and heir of billionaire industrialist Domenico Cavalcanti. Leo is in a helicopter which gets blown up. There’s some doubt as to whether Domenico or Leo was the intended target. Domenico is a pretty shady businessman so there are plenty of people who might want him dead. The plot of this one isn’t too difficult to figure out but it has plenty of action, it looks great and it’s executed with style.

In Appointment in Florence Simon loses yet another friend. I’m surprised anyone wants to be Simon’s friend - it’s pretty much a death sentence. This is another terrorism story and I have mixed feelings about these episodes. They’re a bit too serious to feel like authentic Saint adventures. This one does however boast a script by Philip Broadley who was a pretty decent writer. Simon is hunting a a Red Brigades splinter group and the trail takes him from a ski resort to Florence. A decent enough episode.

You’ll be amazed to hear that The Diplomat's Daughter begins with Simon meeting a beautiful woman. She’s Marie de la Garde and she’s the daughter of an ambassador. And of course someone is trying to kill her. It seems her irresponsible brother has landed himself in very deep trouble and that could put her in real danger. Michael Pertwee’s well-constructed script makes good use of Simon’s reputation (you’ll find out what I mean when you watch it). A very good episode to close out the series.

Final Thoughts

This was the end of the line for ITC’s action-adventure series (and in fact the end of the line for the classic British action-adventure series. British television had decided that the public no longer wanted such programs. They were probably wrong about this. Return of the Saint did pretty well and there was really no valid reason for cancelling it. At least it allowed that wonderful genre to go out on a fairly high note. This is a lightweight fun series with glamour and class. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but what it does try to do it does very well. Highly recommended.

I covered the earlier episodes in a review a few years ago - here's the link.