Saturday, 26 April 2014
Leonard Nimoy is a racing car driver named Tom Kovack. He’s leading a race in Pennsylvania when he has a vision and crashes his car. He’s shaken up but unhurt and that night in a TV interview he talks about the vision he saw. Psychic researcher and occult expert Michele Brent (Susan Hampshire) watches the interview and realises immediately that Tom’s vision was the real thing, that he’s a genuine psychic.
She contacts him. He’s sceptical but she is very charming and very beautiful so he hears her out. She fails to overcome his scepticism but when Kovack has another, even more disturbing, vision he realises she was right. He agrees that they should go to Britain, to Wyndham in Devon, the site of his vision. The manor house that he saw in the vision is a stately home whose owner rents out rooms during the tourist season. Michele and Tom book rooms in the house.
They uncover some very strange goings-on. Movie star Andrea Glenn (Vera Miles) and her daughter Jennifer are staying in the house, Andrea hoping for a reconciliation with her estranged husband who lives in the village nearby, Jennifer hoping to finally meet her father. Then Jennifer starts behaving very oddly. It’s as if she’s gone from being twelve years old to being fifteen overnight. Michele has warned Kovack that dark forces are at work and it seems these dark forces are working through Jennifer.
The plot certainly has potential - it boasts an evil child, eternal youth, missing husbands, psychic visions, kidnappings and a general air of extreme weirdness. The basic premise, a reluctant psychic and a psychic expert acting as amateur occult detectives, is excellent and offers plenty of flexibility.
Susan Hampshire is superb. She is a fine actress and she was no stranger to this sort of material, having got her first big break in the excellent science fiction TV series The Andromeda Breakthrough in the early 60s, and having also made an excellent horror fantasy movie in 1971 called Malpertuis (in which she plays no less than seven roles and acts Orson Welles off the screen). She’s perfect for the role. She manages to be obsessive without seeming weird or crazy, she’s likeable without being cloying, she’s sexy in a classy sort of way and she’s pert and lively.
So far it all sounds good. So what went wrong? Sadly the answer to that is Leonard Nimoy. His performance is all over the place. One suspects that he was concentrating too hard on not being Spock rather than just being natural. But worst of all, there is absolutely no chemistry between the two lead characters. The script makes it obvious that there is supposed to be both a sexual and romantic attachment building between the two characters as well as a sense of camaraderie. It just doesn’t happen onscreen. Susan Hampshire tries her best but Michele and Kovack are just too badly mismatched.
The production values are reasonably high and the atmosphere of subtle strangeness is suggested quite effectively.
Had it been given a second chance and bit of a re-think it might have had potential. There was nothing particularly bad about the concept. As it stands, despite Nimoy’s outrageously wrong performance it all ends up being fun in a campy sort of way. Enjoyable enough, and worth a look for its curiosity value if nothing else.
The original TV-movie pilot episode of Baffled! has been released on DVD in Region 2 by Network DVD and it looks pretty good.
Monday, 21 April 2014
Mannix is a show that I thought I’d remembered quite well, but when I started rewatching the first season (which went to air on CBS in 1967) recently it seemed strangely unfamiliar. The fact is that the format was changed radically after the first season, and apparently I had never actually seen any of those early episodes before.
I have to say I think it’s a great pity they changed the format. The first season rather neatly avoids most of the tedious private eye TV series clichés. Joe Mannix isn’t a struggling PI working out of a seedy office, nor is he a glamorous wealthy lone wolf PI. He works for a gigantic corporation. Intertect is the Microsoft of private investigation firms. They employ hundreds of staff, and dozens of operatives. Their headquarters is a skyscraper.
And this is a seriously high-tech detective agency. They have computers. Lots of them. Big ones. The very latest thing in information technology, 1967 style. Punch cards and flashing lights! And they have communications technology as well. Mannix has a car phone that puts him in instant contact with Intertect headquarters, and gives him access to whatever information he needs.
Apart from offering a fresh slant on the private eye genre this set-up has some other major advantages. It makes sense that Mannix doesn’t spend much time doing boring routine investigative work. Inertect has office staff and computer programmers to do that stuff. And it makes sense that Mannix’s cases are glamorous high-profile cases. He’s the top operative with the biggest detective agency in the business, so naturally he gets the glamour cases.
Unfortunately the first season was at best moderately successful and the series looked like being cancelled. The show was a Desilu production and Lucille Ball, who ran the studio, felt that the series had enough potential to warrant persevering for a second season. To persuade CBS to take the second season Desilu had to agree to revamp the series and the decision was made to drop Intertect and the computers and make Joe Mannix a regular private eye. One story is that Lucille Ball thought the computers were boring anyway.
The series went on to run for eight seasons, so maybe in strict commercial terms the decision was correct. To some extent the problem was that no-one had really thought out the kind of enormous potential that computers would have for police and private investigative work and so the writers often failed to integrate the computer side of Intertect into the story lines. It was something of a lost opportunity because the series was well ahead of its time in envisaging that in the future detective work was going to become very high-tech. They just needed to put a bit more thought into that part of the show’s formula and to make the computer side more exciting. The season format has a characteristic late 60s slickness to it, and more emphasis on the technological gadgetry could have resulted in a series that combined the best of the standard private eye format with a hint of the glamorous high-tech world of the James Bond movies.
Mike Connors makes an ideal private eye detective, good-looking in a slightly weather-beaten way the way a television private eye should look. The sometimes strained relationship between Mannix and his boss at Intertect (played by Joseph Campanella) adds additional interest, as does Mannix’s frustration at having to function as part of a team when he’s not really by nature a team player.
The Region 4 DVD release looks good and includes as an extra an interview with stars Mike Connors and Joseph Campanella both of whom remember the series with a great deal of affection.
Wednesday, 16 April 2014
Like many long-running television series The Saint went through a sort of mid-life makeover. The first two series were co-produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman and were based on Leslie Charteris’s own stories. When Berman departed in 1965 Roger Moore and Baker took over as producers, the series switched to colour and there were several minor format changes. The distinctive opening sequence in which Simon Templar breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly was dropped. While some of the later episodes were based on Charteris’s stories others were completely original stories.
Since Network DVD has released this series in two boxed sets, one comprising the black-and-white episodes and the other the colour episodes, it will be convenient to discuss the two phases of the series’ history separately. At this point it is the earlier black-and-white episodes I will be discussing.
Leslie Charteris created the character of Simon Templar in the late 1920s. By the 1950s The Saint stories had made Charteris one of the world’s best-selling authors. Making a television series based on the character was an obviously attractive idea but the problem was that Charteris had been very unhappy with previous big-screen and radio adaptations and was reluctant to sanction a TV series. He had been particularly displeased by the popular RKO Saint movies starring George Sanders, considering Sanders to have been totally wrong for the role. While Sanders had some of the necessary characteristics to play the character (the smoothness and the hint of ruthlessness) on the whole Charteris was correct. Sanders was too languid and lacked the energy and physical presence the character required.
In the early 60s Charteris finally gave ITC the go-ahead. After considering Patrick McGoohan ITC (very wisely) abandoned that idea and cast Roger Moore, who had wanted to play the role for years. Despite initial misgivings Charteris was happy enough with the choice of star, although he increasingly disliked the series itself. Charteris was never able to accept that adapting a short story for television required some changes in order to fill an hour-long episode.
The Saint on the Spanish Main has very much the feel of the TV series.
The best portrayal of the 1930s version of The Saint was Louis Hayward’s performance in The Saint in New York. Hayward captures the manic energy and the schoolboy sense of mischief perfectly. Roger Moore would have been entirely wrong as the Simon Templar of the 30s but he is absolutely perfect for the later version of the character - sophisticated, amused, slightly world-weary and even at times with just a subtle hint of melancholy and even loneliness.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the famous signature tune that signals Simon Templar’s appearance onscreen was composed by Charteris himself, and Charteris was also responsible for the equally famous stick-figure Saint logo. Charteris loved the fact that his creation became a pop culture icon. Many writers eventually become disillusioned by their most famous creations. Agatha Christie disliked Hercule Poirot and Conan Doyle grew so weary of Sherlock Holmes that he tried to kill him off. Charteris by contrast was delighted by Simon Templar’s popularity, even editing the Saint fan magazine himself in the 50s.
When production started in 1962 the series was very much state-of-the-art as far as television action-adventure series were concerned. By the standards of its day it boasted high production values and looked as slick and professional as any contemporary US series. This was very much in keeping with Lew Grade’s long-term strategy for ITC, to make series that could compete in world markets and most importantly have a chance of cracking the US market. And in the case of The Saint that strategy paid off handsomely. After achieving success in syndication the series was picked up by NBC. Apart from The Avengers it became the most internationally successful British television series of the 60s.
Initially the producers had assumed that British car companies would jump at the chance to have one of their cars featured in a TV series, but to the surprise none were interested. Finally in desperation Volvo were approached and the Swedish car company was delighted to help out. It proved to have been a wise move as sales of their P1800 sports car soared once the series went to air. Roger Moore was so pleased with the car that he bought one himself.
While the series became a 1960s pop culture phenomenon it’s notable that Simon Templar himself has more of a 1950s rather than a 1960s sensibility. He regards many of the manifestations of 1960s pop culture with amused contempt. He remains throughout the series a slightly old-fashioned hero. Rather than being a weakness, that turned out to be one of the show’s strengths. Had the series tried to make him a truly 1960s character it would have failed. His old-fashioned view of the world makes him something of an exotic, much as John Steed’s old-world manners and dress sense made him an exotic. In fact many of the most successful characters in 1960s British television share this quality. Patrick McGoohan regarded the 1960s as marking the beginning of the degeneration of western civilisation and insisted on playing his iconic 1960s TV characters as characters who were in revolt against the modern world. Adam Adamant’s Edwardian values in Adam Adamant Lives! equally obviously mark him as a rebel against the world of the 60s.
Simon Templar’s 1950s sensibility makes this series rather politically incorrect by today’s standards, a major factor in its favour.
Network DVD’s boxed set of The Saint black-and-white episodes offers very pleasing transfers plus quite a few extras, including several commentary tracks.
The Saint still holds up remarkably well. The exotic locations that provided the settings for most episodes were achieved in the standard manner for 1960s television, with some stock footage and some imaginative set dressing. While this dates the program it adds to its charm. As producer Robert S. Baker points out in one of the commentary tracks the idea behind the series was not to aim for realism. The show was intended as a tongue-in-cheek fantasy, this being the main reason for having Roger Moore breaking the fourth wall at the start of each story - the viewer is expected to take the stories as stories rather than real life. When you approach the series in this way it still provides an enormous amount of stylish entertainment. Highly recommended.
Saturday, 12 April 2014
Rod Serling’s interest in science fiction and horror pre-dated his work on The Twilight Zone. It can be seen in a very definite form in an episode he wrote for the anthology series Suspense in 1953. The episode in question is Nightmare at Ground Zero, and it’s included as an extra with the season one Blu-Ray release of The Twilight Zone.
The episode is especially interesting in that it features a number of elements that would figure prominently in The Twilight Zone, notable an end-of-the-world scenario and store-window mannequins.
Technically the episode might not include any overt science fictional elements but the entire concept of the story is essentially science fictional. And the horror elements are undeniable.
A mild-mannered man named George Vance makes his living manufacturing life-like mannequins that will be used in atomic bomb tests. The mannequins will be placed inside houses in the test area.
George seems to be more genuinely fond of his mannequins than he is of his wife. That isn’t hard to understand since all his wife does is criticise him, belittle him and generally make his life a misery. As he is placing his mannequins in position for the latest atomic bomb test he suddenly sees a way of escape. A rather drastic way, but he is a desperate man.
The question is, will he actually go through with it?
George Vance is a rather typical Rod Serling protagonist, a meek but sensitive soul oppressed by an uncaring world. And the technique of using a doomsday scenario to bring his characters’ inner conflicts to a crisis is one he would use again.
Nightmare at Ground Zero is in fact very much like a Rod Serling episode of The Twilight Zone.
The picture quality on this episode is very poor. That is not surprising given that the Suspense series went to air live and the only recordings made were kinescope recordings, made by filming the picture from a television monitor. Since the episode is offered to us as an extra it would be unreasonable to complain about the image quality. We’re lucky to have such recordings at all and this one offers us the opportunity to see an early Rod Serling attempt at the kind of television he would later become famous for.
Nightmare at Ground Zero is a very effective piece of television and is most certainly worth watching.
Tuesday, 8 April 2014
I was initially sceptical about the idea of Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer. He was always an entertaining actor but Hammer is a very tough guy and exceptionally ruthless and I feared McGavin would make him too much of a lovable character. In fact he does a surprisingly good job. This is a much tougher Darren McGavin than I’ve ever seen.
Of course the character had to be watered down a little for 1950s network TV but he still comes across as a guy who leads with his fists and is sublimely unconcerned about kicking heads when it seems necessary. In one scene in an early episode, literally putting the boot in! When the guy is already down on the ground. His favoured method of soliciting information involves slapping people around. He also chases anything in a skirt. This is really pretty close to the authentic Mike Hammer.
The Hammer of the books is a tough hombre and has few scruples about bending the rules a little when he feels it’s necessary, but it’s an essential part of the character that he has a very clear personal morality and an obsessive sense of justice. And he has a definite sentimental streak - he’s a tough guy but he’s a sucker for a sob story.
McGavin captures this other side of Hammer pretty well.
As you'd expect there's no shortage of delightfully hard-boiled dialogue.
By the mid-1950s television crime series had largely driven the classic crime B-movie to extinction, but the best of these television series have the same rough-edged vitality and at times a surprising degree of toughness as well.
Half-hour crime dramas in the late 50s were made on very tight shooting schedules (episodes of M Squad for example were shot in two days). Despite the tight schedules Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a well-made series.
Hammer's buddy in the Homicide Squad, Captain Pat Chambers, appears in quite a few episodes. Fans of the books will be disappointed that Hammer's glamorous but tough secretary Velda isn't featured.
The series ran for two seasons, a total of 79 episodes (39 episodes was considered fairly standard for a season in those days).
I’m quite impressed by the episodes I’ve seen so far. I’m a big fan of Mickey Spillane and while the series isn’t quite the real deal it comes a good deal closer than I would have expected. And it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
The complete series has been released on DVD by A&E and it looks pretty good. Definitely a worthwhile purchase.
Friday, 4 April 2014
The idea of taking a successful series and spinning off another series from it has always had a seductive appeal to television networks. It seems like a sure-fire recipe for success and a neat way to avoid the risks always inherent in trying to sell a brand new series to the public. In practice it’s never been quite such a wildly successful idea but networks just keep on trying it.
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is a case in point. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had been launched on NBC in 1964 and had been immensely popular. Surely adding a glamorous female spy (glamorous female spies and crime-fighters were rapidly becoming the flavour of the month at the time) to the formula would be a certain winner. Alas, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. folded after a single season.
There are two ways to do a spin-off. You can take a popular character or characters from the original successful series and give them their own series, utilising a similar but not identical format and relying on the popularity of the character to assure success. The Lone Gunmen spin-off from the hugely successful The X-Files is a classic example of this method, and the spectacular failure of The Lone Gunmen is a classic illustration of the dangers involved. Characters who added spice to a series when served out in small quantities as side-dishes can be overwhelming when served up as the main course week after week.
The other method is to repeat the formula of the original exactly, but with different main characters. That was the approach adopted for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.. Glamorous girl secret agent April Dancer (Stefanie Powers) and her partner Mark Slate (Noel Harrison) took the place of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.
There are two major dangers to this method. The first is that if the original series has already been running for several seasons (and the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was entering its third season by the time The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. debuted in 1966) viewers may be getting just a little tired of the formula. The second potential problem is that the success of the original series may have been due in large measure to the casting, so the same formula might not work twice. It’s like changing the ingredients of a successful recipe - the new flavours might not combine quite so pleasingly.
The failure of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was probably partly due to a combination of both these factors. It's also likely that yet another factor working against it was that the tone of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. changed somewhat after its triumphant first season, becoming more self-consciously camp and more like a spy spoof than an actual spy series. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tended to copy the tone of the less successful later seasons of its parent series.
The problem of course was that the enormous success of the Bond movies convinced the producers of other spy movies and spy TV series that a tongue-in-cheek approach was the way to go for every spy movie or TV series. What was overlooked was that such a tongue-in-cheek approach is immensely difficult to pull off successfully. The balance has to be just right. It has to be done with some subtlety, as it was in the Sean Connery Bond movies. If you overdo it you end up with a pure spoof, a quite different genre with its own dangers. If you go down that road you might as well do the whole thing as pure comedy, as Get Smart did (and did very well).
Having said all that, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is not without its charms. Stefanie Powers is fine, although I can’t help suspecting she might have been better had the series adopted a more serious tone. She doesn’t quite have the assured comic touch of a Diana Rigg. At times also April Dancer seems to get herself into trouble and in need of rescuing a bit too easily. Mind you her partner Mark Slate seems just as accident-prone. Noel Harrison might also have been a little more confident had the series taken itself a little more seriously.
The series does have some very good moments though. The Mother Muffin Affair with Boris Karloff in drag and Robert Vaughn putting in a guest appearance as Napoleon Solo is a great episode, although again the problem is that Napoleon Solo takes the lead and April Dancer is left seeming to be not quite capable enough to handle a mission on her own. Powers herself is somewhat overshadowed in the acting department in this episode, although of course almost anyone is going to have trouble keeping up with Karloff in full flight.
The Horns-of-the-Dilemma Affair tends to suggest that the producers were not quite sure which way to jump. It’s a slightly more serious episode and it works very well. The use of the horns of the bull (you’ll have to watch it to find out what I’m talking about) is a very nice touch.
Unfortunately from there we go straight to The Danish Blue Affair, a truly dire exercise in over-the-top self-parody.
One very odd feature of several episodes is Mr Waverly doing the action hero bit, rather unexpected given that Leo G. Carroll was 80 at the time!
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.’s biggest problem is that inevitably it’s going to be compared to The Avengers, and the comparison is not going to be in its favour. The Avengers trod the fine line between ironic high camp and mere silliness very sure-footedly indeed. Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman both did the glamorous female spy bit with a good deal more assurance than Stefanie Powers. In fact Linda Thorson has the edge on Powers as well. It’s not that Powers isn’t reasonably good, it’s just that in that genre she’s up against some very stiff competition.
If you can put such comparisons aside The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. can be fun although it can hardly be described as a must-watch series.
Warner Home Video have released The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. on DVD in two half-season boxed sets.
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
Department S, which ran for 28 episodes in 1969 and 1970, was another in the successful cycle of action/adventure series made by ITC in Britain in the 60s and 70s. It was the brainchild of Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner who already had an impressive track record in this area. The obvious problem they faced was to stick to a basic formula that had proved successful but to vary the formula enough to make the new series distinctive. In that object they succeeded brilliantly.
As James Chapman points out in his excellent book on the various ITC adventure series, Saints and Avengers, what they did was to invert the formula of their earlier series The Champions. The Champions started off with a bizarre and fantastic premise, three secret agents who have acquired superhuman and paranormal powers, but balanced the fantastic premise with straightforward and realistic storylines. So Department S would start with a thoroughly realistic and conventional premise, a department of Interpol tasked with solving sensitive and difficult cases, but balance the realistic premise with outlandish and fantastic storylines.
Like The Champions the new series would have three main characters, two men and a woman. But in contrast to The Champions the three characters would be wildly contrasting personalities. This idea, coupled with a particularly inspired piece of casting, would prove to be one of the series’ main strengths.
The inspired casting decision was to have the flamboyant Peter Wyngarde as the odd man out. The other two characters, Stewart Sullivan (Joel Fabiani) and Annabelle Hirst (Rosemary Nicols), are the kinds of professionals you would expect to find working for Interpol. Sullivan is an experienced cop who believes in solving cases by using the conventional techniques of the professional detective. He is methodical and dogged. Annabelle Hirst is a computer expert who handles the research side of things.
Dennis Spooner claims that the Jason King character was inspired by Winston Churchill’s characteristically eccentric World War 2 scheme to ask Dennis Wheatley, the immensely successful author of both occult and spy thrillers, to recruit a team of thriller writers to form a kind of literary brains trust to come up with ideas to win the war. Wyngarde on the other hand claims to have essentially created the character himself, inspired by the fact that the fabulously successful author of the James Bond spy thrillers, Ian Fleming, had been a key player in British Naval Intelligence during the war. Fleming had in fact been one of Naval Intelligence’s main ideas men and had come up with a number of incredibly wild intelligence schemes that actually worked. Whether Jason King was actually primarily the creation of Spooner or Wyngarde the fact is that a number of very successful writers of spy fiction had been real-life spies and it’s actually rather surprising that no-one had used such an obviously clever idea before.
Wyngarde’s performance is so over-the-top and so entertaining that he inevitably overshadows his co-stars, so much so that Jason King ended up with his own spin-off series. As a result the performances of Fabiani and Nicols have sometimes been unfairly disparaged. In fact they had to be low-key. To have approached their roles in any other way would have made the series merely ridiculous. The tension between straight arrow action hero Sullivan and eccentric dilettante Jason King was one of the keys to the show’s success, and that tension was nicely balanced by a grudging mutual respect. Annabelle’s slightly straitlaced personality also balances well with King’s disdain for the conventions.
The balance between the three characters was perfect, a fact that becomes rather obvious when you compare Department S to the Jason King spin-off series. Jason King is fun and I’m quite fond of it but he really needed the other two rather conventional characters to play off.
The scripts were mostly provided by writers with plenty of experience in the genre and the best episodes, such as The Man in the Elegant Room and The Pied Piper of Hambledown, achieve a pleasing sense of the surreal. The stories scrupulously avoid any hint of the supernatural or the paranormal. They do occasionally flirt with marginally science fictional elements, although less so than The Avengers. No matter how bizarre the events described they must have a rational explanation so the strangeness has to come from the twisted nature, or the diabolical cunning, of the people responsible. And of course from the imaginativeness of the writing.
The series is also a treat for fans of excessive 1960s fashion with Jason's extraordinary suits and Annabelle's often delightfully odd outfits.
Department S achieved considerable international success, especially in Australia where Peter Wyngarde on a promotional visit received the kind of adulation normally reserved for pop stars. It remains one of the best of the ITC action/adventure series and in fact one of the high points of the golden age of British television. I personally rate it as one of the five best series of its type of that era.
The Region 4 boxed set from Umbrella includes a couple of delightful audio commentary tracks by Peter Wyngarde.