Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Man in Room 17 (1965), season 1

The Man in Room 17 is another offbeat crime/espionage series from the great age of British television. It was made by Granada in 1965 and was obviously very successful since a second season was commissioned and this was followed by a third season with a slight format change and a change of title (to The Fellows) but still featuring the same two lead characters.

This series follows the formula that was exploited so brilliantly in so many British crime series of its era - a secret government department that investigates crimes that are either too difficult or too sensitive for Scotland Yard (or even Special Branch) to handle, and a team (in this case only a two-person team) of unusual and eccentric investigators.

Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) is a slightly pompous very upper-class and wildly idiosyncratic former Oxford don. His partner Dimmock (Michael Aldridge) is the equally brilliant and equally eccentric product of one of the modern red-brick universities. They inhabit Room 17 and are called upon to investigate unusual crimes, or in some cases they pursue cases on their own initiative. They were selected for Room 17 because they were known to possess exceptional but very peculiar and individualistic talents and they are mostly allowed to handle their cases as they see fit. Giving them orders would be an exercise in futility since they’d only ignore them anyway.

Oldenshaw and Dimmock rarely if ever leave Room 17. When field work is necessary they have operatives whose services they can call on and such is their reputation that they are given access to almost unlimited resources. These are not action heroes. Oldenshaw’s idea of hectic activity is getting up from his armchair for brief spells. They rely entirely on their intellectual gifts and leave any action that may be required to underlings.

The scripts are as eccentric and imaginative as the two heroes. Most of the cases involve crimes with political or diplomatic ramifications, or even out-and-out espionage.

The series does have a few faults. It suffers a little from the excessive and fashionable cynicism of its era - the idea that in the Cold War both sides were as bad as each other, that the British government is always either stupid or duplicitous or even downright vicious. There’s a little too much of the “down with the Establishment” attitude and Dimmock in particular can at times display the sort of irritating sense of supercilious superiority so typical of intellectuals.

Richard Vernon is one of my favourite British character actors of this period and his performance as the rather irascible, quite dotty but oddly likeable Oldenshaw is an absolute joy to behold. Michael Aldridge manages to be a good foil for him despite his occasional annoying propensities mentioned earlier.

Despite these faults the series has enough originality and quirkiness to keep it interesting.

British television drama series in 1965 tended to be very studio-bound but the concept behind this series makes this a virtue rather than a vice. The absolutely top-secret nature of Room 17 makes Oldenshaw and Dimmock virtual prisoners - to preserve their secrecy they must conduct their operations entirely from within their little (although admittedly rather comfortable) private sanctum. They pull the strings but it’s up to others to conduct the actual field operations. 

Network DVD have released the first series in a DVD boxed set. Picture quality is very good considering the age of the series. So many great series from this era have been lost so we can consider ourselves very fortunate that this one survives and is in such good condition.

The Man in Room 17 is an enjoyably different kind of crime/spy series with a distinctive flavour of its own. Highly recommended.

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