Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas with Steed and Mrs Peel - Too Many Christmas Trees

I suppose one should make an effort to get into the seasonal spirit, and sharing Christmas with Steed and Mrs Peel seemed like a pretty good way to do just that. In other words I have just revisited one of the most-loved of all episodes of The Avengers, Too Many Christmas Trees, which first went to air in Britain exactly 50 years ago.

This was one of Tony Williamson’s earliest scripts for the series and it’s a corker. Steed is having recurring nightmares, Christmas nightmares complete with a sinister Santa, a forest of Christmas trees and a corpse. The corpse of a fellow agent, suspected of treason, who has just died as a result of a complete mental collapse.

Mrs Peel has been invited to spend Christmas at the country house of Dickens fanatic Brandon Storey. Storey owns a priceless collection of Dickens memorabilia and his whole house is Dickens-themed - there’s even a Hall of Great Expectations complete with cobwebs. Mrs Peel decides to invite Steed to accompany her, hoping to keep his mind off the nightmares. But the nightmares just get worse.

I’m not going to reveal any plot details other than to say that this is an episode that veers strongly in the direction of the macabre, the uncanny and the paranormal.

One of the delights of this episode is that everything meshes and interconnects perfectly. Apart from his love of Christmas Charles Dickens also had a love for ghost stories and mysteries so a Christmas episode involving Dickens and the uncanny is wonderfully appropriate. Mervyn Johns who plays Brandon Storey had been one of the stars in the classic 1951 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which also featured a young Patrick Macnee. Mervyn Johns had also starred in the superb 1945 anthology film Dead of Night which had an eerie atmosphere of nightmare and reality becoming hopelessly confused -exactly the atmosphere this episode is aiming for.

There are Avengers-related in-jokes as well, with Steed getting a Christmas card from Cathy Gale - from Fort Knox! Williamson’s script provides witty dialogue in abundance and Macnee and Rigg are in sparkling form. Rigg was always great at handling the comic side of things but in this story she also gets a couple of opportunities to show her serious acting chops. The Steed-Mrs Peel relationship is also thrown into sharper focus as Mrs Peel shows her genuine affection for Steed when she thinks he’s in real trouble.

Roy Baker directed this episode and he succeeds beautifully in getting the tone just right. The sets and costumes are top-notch. The dream sequences are spooky and surreal and genuinely dream-like. 

All this would be enough to make Too Many Christmas Trees a great episode but we get even more - Diana Rigg looking as cute as a button dressed as Oliver Twist, an excellent and imaginative climactic fight scene, a nicely romantic tag scene and Steed and Mrs Peel singing together. If Christmas is a time for indulging oneself then this episode is a glorious indulgence indeed. It’s like a magnificent Christmas dinner with all the trimmings accompanied by the finest wines and followed by the finest port and cigars. 

A truly superb episode.

And by the way, Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Dead of Night (1972)

Dead of Night was a short-lived BBC horror anthology series which ran for seven episodes in 1972. Only three episodes survive and have been released on DVD by the BFI. Having now watched the series I feel that it’s perhaps a pity that any episodes survived.

The first episode, Don Taylor’s The Exorcism, opens with a dinner party in a country cottage. The owners of the cottage have spent a great deal of money on renovations to make the cottage a snug comfortable country home. They have invited another couple over for dinner. 

Strange things start to happen. The electricity supply fails; the telephone goes dead. The food and wine have a strange taste. What can the explanation be?

Sadly the explanation is an excuse for some of the crudest and most manipulative television you’re ever going to be unlucky enough to be subjected to. It’s delivered in a smarmy self-satisfied and extraordinarily insulting manner. Most of all this episode is an opportunity for some very ugly wallowing in misplaced adolescent guilt. The DVD liner notes describe it as a Marxist ghost story and if you think that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea you’d be right.

Episode two, Return Flight, is much better. It helps that it had a competent writer in the person of Robert Holmes. A middle-aged airline pilot, Captain Rolph (Peter Barkworth) has a near miss shortly after departure from Hamburg. The only problem is that no-one else, not even his co-pilot, saw the offending aircraft. It also didn’t show up on ground radar. The German authorities are sceptical of Rolph’s story. Eventually it is decided that a DC-8 on a training flight may have wandered off course. Both the German authorities and the British investigators are happy with this explanation.

Captain Rolph is relieved that his reputation has been vindicated but then some rather disturbing things start to happen. He hears voices that appear to be the crew of an unknown aircraft in distress. He catches fleeting glimpses of the same aircraft he saw before - a four-engined propeller-driven aircraft. Perhaps it’s just a reaction to the recent death of his wife. Then he strikes trouble on another flight from Hamburg. Is he haunted by the past - or more to the point is he haunted by someone else’s past? Or is he imagining things?

It’s quite a good story with just enough ambiguity to keep things interesting. It also has the advantage that it’s a straightforward story without any axes to grind. It benefits from an exceptionally fine and subtle performance by Peter Barkworth.

The third of the surviving episodes (and the seventh to be transmitted) is A Woman Sobbing by John Bowen. A middle-aged middle-class couple have moved to the country for the sake of the children. The wife, Jane, hears the sound of a crying woman but nobody else hears anything and she slowly cracks up. The plot could have been disposed of in ten minutes (and even then it would be an uninteresting story). It’s padded out to 50 minutes with talking. Lots and lots of talking. Followed by more talking. It’s not even interesting talking. It’s deadly dull talking. It’s an object lesson in how not to make a television program.

This being the 70s a lot of the talking is about sex. It manages to make this into a very tedious subject. 

The story seems to have conceived as an exercise in social commentary and it illustrates all the reasons why social commentary makes for boring television. Jane is unhappy. Considering that she and her husband are wealthy and live in a lovely home and that her husband, Frank, is a pretty nice guy it’s easy to see why she’s unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? Being wealthy and living in a large comfortable picturesque house in the country must be Hell. They talk about their problems. Endlessly. Nothing happens until the entirely predictable ending (which happens to be very clumsily foreshadowed early on thus ensuring that there is no suspense at all).

The BFI have released the three surviving episodes on a single DVD. Picture quality varies from mediocre to poor. There are a few extras - there stills galleries from the lost episodes and fairly informative liner notes.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ghost Squad, season 2 (1962-63)

Ghost Squad was a very successful ITC series that ran on British television from 1961 to 1964 (with the title changed to G.S.5 for the third season). The Ghost Squad is part of Scotland Yard and specialises in undercover operations and was inspired by a real-life squad that operated as part of the Metropolitan Police.

I reviewed the first season in an earlier post.

There is some debate about when the second season actually started. The first season was a co-production with the Rank Organisation and was shot on 35mm film. It was to comprise thirteen episodes. Due to a strike production of the last three season one episodes (The Green Shoes, Princess and Death from a Distance) was delayed and they eventually went to air as part of season two.

Rank dropped out of the picture after the first season and seasons two and three were produced entirely by ITC, and were shot on videotape.

The first two seasons survive in their entirety while the whole of season three has been lost.

ITC always favoured the idea of using imported American actors in their action adventure series so it’s no surprise that the star is an American, Michael Quinn, who plays undercover agent Nick Craig. 

For some reason it was decided during season two to introduce a second lead character. Tony Miller, played by English actor Neil Hallett, is another Ghost Squad agent. The series then alternates between Nick Craig cases and Tony Miller cases. There’s nothing at all wrong with Neil Hallett’s acting but he does not quite have Michael Quinn’s easy-going charm and charisma.

The first season featured Donald Wolfit as the head of the Ghost Squad, Sir Andrew Wilson. He disappears in the second season to be replaced by Anthony Marlowe as Geoffrey Stock as the squad chief, although Gordon Jackson takes over as chief in one episode. The second season also introduces Claire Nielson as Stock’s Scottish secretary Jean Carter.

The Green Shoes, which was either the eleventh episode of season one or the first episode of season two depending on your point of view, is a competent spy thriller story. Scientists at a British nuclear research facility have discovered a new element. The discovery is not just of great scientific importance, it also has enormous military significance. It will make the development of a neutron bomb a real possibility. Security at the facility is so tight that there is no danger of the new element being stolen, but of course it is stolen and the Ghost Squad have to recover it. The matter is urgent, the element being extremely radioactive. The episode was photographed by the great Nic Roeg.

Doubles were something of an obsession with writers of television spy series during the 60s. Interrupted Requiem uses the double idea quite effectively. A scientist working on a British missile project has been persuaded to refuse to do any further work on the project when his daughter’s life is threatened by agents from the eastern European nation of Ordania. But his daughter is already dead - she died in an air crash two years earlier. So what is going on? It’s up to Nick Craig to find out and that means going to Ordania. His cover story is that he is a salesman for a toy manufacturer.

Interrupted Requiem plays like an episode of Danger Man but Nick’s toy salesman cover and a comic supporting performance by Derek Nimmo as a British Embassy official in Ordania adds just a hint of the flavour of The Avengers. It’s a fine episode with a good script by Bill Craig.

The Big Time is a very impressive episode. Nick Craig has to find a very small-time bag snatcher who got more than he expected when he stole a handbag containing £70,000 worth of uncut diamonds. He is now in the big time - but the big time can be very dangerous for a small time sneak thief. The script by Leon Griffiths offers a nice combination of suspense, humour and pathos with some surprisingly subtle characterisation. This episode was directed by the very talented Peter Sasdy who went on to have a good carer in films. Network’s DVD set includes an audio commentary by Sasdy for this episode. Sasdy always does good audio commentaries and this one is typical. He was a director whose approach to television was quite ambitious and he was clearly trying (with some success) with The Big Time to do something a bit more than just a run-of-the-mill crime story. The Big Time is an example of how good ITC’s action adventure series could be on those occasions when they were lucky enough to have a good director working from a good script. It’s also a demonstration of how effective the early 60s shot-on-videotape style of television could be when it was done right.

Sentences of Death is another excellent Peter Sasdy-directed episode, with Craig drugged and forced to reveal vital information.

East of Mandalay is very much in the Danger Man mould with Tony Miller investigating gun-running in a small South-East Asian country. A British mining company appears to be involved in supplying arms to anti-government rebels. The highlight is Denis Shaw’s scenery-chewing performance as rebel leader Ah Tok.

The Golden Silence is a crime rather than an espionage story, dealing with gold smuggling. It’s another Tony Miller story, with Tony posing as a courier for the smugglers. It’s a reasonably tale enlivened by good supporting performances by David Garth as a crooked Treasury official and David Lodge as the cheerful but vicious Max, who provides the muscle for the smugglers.

In The Man with the Delicate Hands a man is killed in a car accident. Although the body is burnt more or less beyond recognition there seems to be no doubt of his identity but his sister insists that the corpse is not her brother. Her brother had thin delicate hands while the corpse has coarse stubby hands. The Ghost Squad gets involved because the man has access to financial secrets worth millions and it is vital to know if he is really dead or not.

In Escape Route Nick Craig learns just how dangerous and unpleasant being an undercover cop can be. A derelict has been killed by a car in Australia. The odd thing is that he was an embezzler who had escaped from justice in the UK with a very large amount of money. So how did he become a penniless derelict? Nick’s boss suspects that someone helped the man escape from the British police but clearly something went wrong. Nick goes undercover posing as another embezzler keen to depart for foreign climes and he learns that escaping is not such an easy thing.

The Missing People is a particularly fine episode. Tony Miller goes undercover as a pilot to infiltrate a gang smuggling people out from behind the Iron Curtain. Not that the British government is overly concerned about the idea that people are escaping from the communist bloc, but the trouble is that once they escape they are never seen again.

Ghost Squad has a surprisingly dark tone with some stories being really quite hard-edged (although there are lighter moments). On the whole the series doesn’t suffer quite so badly as most early 60s British series from the characteristic studio-bound feel of that era. Obviously the exotic locales are faked with stock footage and with a minimal amount of location shooting but visually it’s not too bad and the strong writing (stronger than most of its ITC stablemates) is enough to keep the viewer interested enough to overlook the studio shooting.

This is a rather ambitious series with a more serious tone than other contemporary ITC series like The Saint. It was one of the first ITC series to adopt the hour-long episode format and it makes good use of the format to tell fairly complex stories. On the whole it’s an enjoyable well-written well-crafted series with a mix of crime and spy stories. Highly recommended.

Network's excellent Region 2 DVD boxed set includes the whole of the first two seasons.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Fantasy Island, season one (1977)

If you’re of a certain age the words “De plane! De Plane!” will bring a rush of nostalgia. Yes, we’re talking about Fantasy Island.

Fantasy Island premiered in 1977 and ran for seven seasons on the American ABC network. It was one of legendary producer Aaron Spelling’s many television hits.

It can be considered as a variant of the anthology series concept. Each week a number of guest stars arrive on the private island owned by Mr Roarke (Ricardo Montalban). Each has paid $50,000 to live out a cherished fantasy. Mr Roarke provides the setting and the people they need to live their fantasy. You have to exercise a certain amount of suspension of disbelief here - some of the fantasies require Mr Roarke to reproduce luxury homes or in one case an entire London pub as the setting and even in 1977 that would obviously cost a lot more than $50,000. On the other hand it is implied that Mr Roarke is very rich indeed and that money is no object for him. It is also implied that he has no real interest in making a profit and some guests do not pay anything at all or only a token price.  Mr Roarke just likes acting in a God-like capacity.

In fact it probably helps to regard Mr Roarke is a bit of a Mephistopheles-like figure, or perhaps a kind of wizard able to grant any wish, or even perhaps an angel or minor deity of some variety. The hints that he may have some supernatural powers are very subtle but they are there and there’s no question that he seems to know more about his guests than he possibly could know. The island also seems remarkably huge and has a seemingly impossible variety of terrain types - in the second TV-movie it appears to have a large chunk of the Wild West in it. This also strengthens the likelihood that Mr Roarke is more than he appears to be. Of course he could just be unbelievable rich and have a network of private detectives working for him to supply him with so much information on his guests.

He is a benevolent sort of wizard. Well, mostly benevolent.

Hervé Villechaize plays Mr Roarke’s pint-sized assistant Tattoo. The interplay between Mr Roarke and Tattoo was one of the highlights of this series.

The guests always get the fantasy they asked for although more often than not it turns out in a way they didn’t expect. They don’t always really understand exactly what it is they are looking for from their fantasy, but Mr Roarke always knows.

Fantasy Island began with two tele-movies and they are subtly different from the series proper - there is a slightly darker and definitely less sentimental tone. The original concept as expressed in these two tele-movies really was extremely clever and both are very well executed.

Most episodes comprise two separate stories but the two movies give us three stories. In the pilot we have an American ex-serviceman wanting to relive a wartime romance in London during the Blitz, a woman who wants to attend her own funeral so that she can discover what her family really thinks of her and a big game hunter who wants to find out how it feels to be the hunted rather than the hunter (obviously inspired by the countless film adaptations of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game). All three stories have a dark edge to them and have some neat and unexpected twists.

The second TV-movie, Return to Fantasy Island, again comprises three separate stories intercut. There’s a couple who hope to be reunited with the daughter they surrendered for adoption twelve year earlier and a man who wants to spend the weekend with his female boss only she doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the idea. The third story is the most interesting, a psychological thriller tale about a young woman who lost her memory during her honeymoon four years earlier.

The series proper unfortunately doesn’t have quite the same edge to it. On the other hand as it progresses it becomes more and more apparent that Mr Roarke must have some supernatural or science fictional powers - one small island could not possibly accommodate so many incredibly elaborate fantasies involving entire quite sizeable communities.

The idea of having two completely separate stories per episode is a good one. Some stories (such as The Funny Girl) do edge dangerously close to out-and-out schmalz but pairing a story like that with an adventure yarn like Butch and Sundance makes it tolerable. The Prince/The Sheriff is another episode that combines a slightly sentimental love story with a more action-oriented tale. Family Reunion is even more schmaltzy but it’s paired with an excellent and much darker story, Voodoo. Pairing very lightweight or romantic stories with adventure-type stories seemed to become a definite template. Sometimes it fails miserably, as with Superstar/Salem which combines a dull story about a man who dreams of being a baseball star with a heavy-handed and clumsy tale of the witch trials in Salem. At other times the template works reasonably well, as in Trouble, My Lovely/The Common Man with a mildly amusing tale of an insignificant dweeb wanting to be a hardboiled private eye and a story of a downtrodden husband and father who just wants a little respect.

I have seen criticism of this series as being too much like soap opera but that seems to me to be perhaps somewhat unfair. That might apply to some of the stories but others are quite dark and twisted. In fact some stories remind me just a little of the blending of black comedy and twisted psychology of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents series (this is true at least of the two tele-movies). Unfortunately in the series itself this element tends to disappear. The big problem is that too many scripts are under-developed and the desire to give every story a happy ending leads to excessive predictability. The basic idea behind the series was extremely good and the two TV-movies lived up to the promise but the series gradually becomes just a little too bland.

Ricardo Montalban as Mr Roarke and Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo really are the series’ biggest assets. They are so good they tend to overshadow the guest stars.

The first season is available on DVD everywhere.

Fantasy Island is interesting for its nostalgia value, its unusual format and for the Mr Roarke-Tattoo interplay. Probably worth a rental but not a purchase.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Charlie's Angels, season one (1976)

I’ve been watching the first season of Charlie's Angels (originally screened in 1976), a show that I had surprisingly enough never watched before. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it! Yes I know it’s very very silly, but if you approach it as high camp it starts to work. And frankly I don’t think there’s any other way to approach this series. In fact I don’t think there ever was any other way to treat it.

Years ago I would never have watched a series such as this. I just took life so very very seriously in those days.

Charles Townsend (John Forsythe) runs a high-class private detective agency. He recruits three female cops who are fed up with directing traffic and similar mundane assignments. He offers them a life of glamour and excitement, and that’s certainly what Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson) get.

All three female leads are fun but it’s Farrah Fawcett-Majors who really pushed the show into delightful ultra-kitsch overload.

We never actually see Charlie, and Kelly, Jill and Sabrina never see him either. They get their instructions by telephone, and through Charlie’s right-hand man, John Bosley (David Doyle). Charlie is clearly a devotee of feminine pulchritude and the sexual innuendo-laced interludes involving Charlie and his indefatigable pursuit of the fair sex provide extra campy fun.

There are certainly some fairly weak episodes. To Kill an Angel is unfortunately corny and sentimental and generally very dull, involving an autistic boy Kelly has been mentoring, a boy who may be a witness to a murder. The Seance deals with the ever-popular theme of fake psychics but fails to generate much excitement. Angel Trap tries to add some emotional depth with Jill feeling sorry for the hitman she has to entrap but it isn’t very convincing. In Bullseye Kelly and Jill find themselves in the army, investigating the murder of a female recruit while Sabrina masquerades as an army nurse. There’s something crooked going on   at the base’s medical centre and the Angels also have to deal with a training sergeant with a very bad attitude and a very short fuse. It’s not a good episode and it is very predictable. Angels on a String is a terrible episode with an uninteresting plot involving that hoariest of thriller clichés, the double, and leaden pacing.

Luckily though most of season one is quite entertaining. Angels in Chains proves that being female private detectives isn’t all glamour as the Angels have to go undercover at a women’s prison. It’s not just a tough prison. Inmates have been known to disappear without a trace, and it’s the disappearance of one such inmate that prompts this particular investigation. Seeing Farrah Fawcett-Majors doing the tough girl thing is a definite high camp highlight of season one. Target: Angels puts the girls in real danger - someone is trying to kill all three of them. They have to hide out in Charlie’s house. Of course Charlie isn’t there at the time but they figure this might give them the chance to find some clue as to what he actually looks like.

Lady Killer sees the series move into mildly risque territory. Two centrefold models for Feline magazine have been murdered. The Angels go undercover at the Feline Club (where the girls wear cat outfits, a variation on the clubs run by a certain real-life magazine publisher). Part of the undercover operation involves Jill being the magazine’s next centrefold, providing some mild titillation for the audience although I doubt that anyone actually thought they were going to see Farrah Fawcett-Majors getting her gear off.

Consenting Adults deals with a shady dating service. It’s a fine episode and the skateboard chase at the end is inspired and is one of the highlights of the whole season.

Angels on Wheels is equally interesting, with the Angels investigating the murder of a roller derby queen (women’s roller derby was insanely popular back in the 70s). This episode gets bonus points for Jill not just going undercover as a roller derby skater but also beating the living daylights out of the team’s bad girl. The Big Tap-Out involves a gambling sting and it’s very entertaining. The Vegas Connection is another episode with a gambling theme (plus blackmailing). It’s a good script with some nice twists and the Angels are in fine form.

The major weakness of the series is that the plots do at times tend to be a bit thin and a bit predictable. Fortunately the plots aren’t really the reason anyone would be watching this show. The attraction is the glamour and the exuberant high camp atmosphere. Even in 1976 Charlie’s Angels must have seemed extraordinarily camp. It’s also obvious that no-one involved in the show was taking it seriously or expected the audience to take it seriously. It does not however make the mistake of aiming for pure comedy. The three Angels play things fairly straight although with a kind of slightly exaggerated breathless excitement that suggests they were definitely in on the joke. The fact that they’re not trying to be crazy or zany makes things much more amusing.  

All three lead actresses are very impressive. I’m not suggesting that their acting in this series was truly great acting but their performances are perfect for the kind of show this is - they’re slightly cartoonish and hyper-energetic. They obviously understood the nature of the show and tailored their performances accordingly. Most importantly the three actresses work together extremely well. 

It’s common these days to accuse movies and TV series of the 70s of being outrageously sexist. The idea of this series might well lead one to expect that sort of thing. When you actually watch the series you can see that such accusations tend to miss the point. Many episodes do deal with sexual themes but they do so in a surprisingly nuanced manner, and more often than not in a gently humorous way. Sabrina might suggest to one middle-aged client that he’d be better off confining his woman-chasing to women over the age of twenty but she does so in an amused and good-humoured way. Sabrina is smart enough to know that this is a much more effective approach than getting angry or nasty. The series works on the assumption that men generally like women and women generally like men and that it’s possible for men and women to get along surprisingly well as long as there’s a bit of give and take on both sides. Watching this series today that outlook seems refreshingly civilised.

The Angels are portrayed as (mostly) very competent private detectives who can handle themselves pretty well but they’re not super-women and they’re not the unrealistic kickass action heroines of so many modern movies and TV series. They’re in a dangerous business and as women if they tried to rely on brawn they wouldn’t survive very long, so they rely on brains, good judgment and teamwork and try not to take stupid risks. They also make use of their physical attractiveness because they’re professionals and they realise that it’s a tactic that works. They don’t agonise over whether it’s politically correct or not - they’re too busy trying to get the job done to waste time on stuff like that. 

There is of course no question that the show’s big drawcard was having three hot babes as private detectives and that aspect is played up as much as possible. Almost every shot of Farrah Fawcett-Majors seems to focus on her nipples. Titillation was certainly a considerable factor in the extraordinary success of season one.

There is a definite sleaze factor in many episodes, such as Dirty Business, Lady Killer and Consenting Adults. It’s a bit disturbing and it’s not really necessary. It’s certainly not as bad as modern American television in this respect but it was an ominous portent.

It’s a series that was unashamedly lighthearted and rather silly and to get away with that you need scripts with wit and style. That’s the big problem here. There are too many dull scripts that end up falling flat. Fawcett-Majors, Jackson and Smith always do their best but with stronger scripts they’d have been even better.

Despite the uneven writing Charlie’s Angels is fun. Not one of the great television series of its era but still enjoyable. Recommended.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Saint - The Ex-King of Diamonds (1969)

The Ex-King of Diamonds was the fourth-to-last episode of the final season of The Saint. Broadcast in January 1969, this episode is of more than usual interest to cult TV fans since it served as a sort of unofficial pilot for The Persuaders!

The idea was to give Simon Templar a partner. The partner would be someone who would provide a complete contrast to the smooth cultured English Templar. He would be a brash American, Rod Huston. Not just an American, but a Texan. A Texan oil millionaire. Despite their differences in style there would be some similarities between them - like Simon Templar Rod Huston is a rich playboy type, rich enough that money is no longer a motivation for him. And like Templar he would have an innate sense of fair play - the sort of man who would amuse himself by righting wrongs.

Stuart Damon (better known as one of the stars of The Champions) was cast as Rod Huston. And he really goes to town with the part. He throws every possible rich Texan oil millionaire cliché into his performance but it works. This is after all an ITC action adventure series - nobody is supposed to take it seriously.

The episode has plenty of things going for it. The story is a good one. A deposed king (King Boris, played by Willoughby Goddard) is financing a revolution by cheating at cards. Cheating on the grand scale - he intends to win several million dollars at the casino at Monte Carlo. And with the ingenious method of cheating that he has devised it appears that nothing will be able to stop him. The only possible problem is brilliant French mathematician Henri Flambeau (Ronald Radd) who knows all the odds when it comes to games of chance.

The Saint and Rod Huston clash violently at first, in fact they spend most of the first half of the episode trying to beat one another senseless (this adversarial relationship would be repeated in the opening episode of The Persuaders!) but of course eventually they learn to work together.

The Simon Templar-Rod Huston partnership worked successfully enough to convince Lew Grade that it would be a winning formula for a series. A few modifications would be made - Roger Moore would become Lord Brett Sinclair and Tony Curtis would play a brash self-made millionaire from the Bronx rather than a Texas oilman - but the basic formula was obviously sound. The Persuaders! was a great series and there’s no question that Tony Curtis proved to be the perfect foil for Roger Moore although it is a bit sad that Stuart Damon (who hoped to reprise his role as Rod Houston in that series) missed out.

The Ex-King of Diamonds is not just interesting as the forerunner to The Persuaders! - it’s a superb and very very enjoyable episode of The Saint in its own right. Very much worth a look.

This episode is of course to be found in various boxed sets of The Saint but it's also included as an extra  in Network's The Persuaders! DVD boxed set.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Samurai, season 3 - Iga Ninjas (1963)

Onmitsu kenshi (Spy Swordsman) was a Japanese TV series made between 1962 and 1965. The English-dubbed version was retitled The Samurai. It was very successful in Japan and also did quite well in New Zealand and the Philippines. It attracted very little attention elsewhere in the world. Except for one place - Australia. In Australia it became more than just a cult sensation. It was the Nine Network’s highest-rating series. It was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. It was the first TV series screened on Australian television to spawn a marketing frenzy. Soon Australian youngsters were running about all over the country dressed in ninja suits.

When star Koichi Ose toured Australia he was greeted at Sydney Airport by crowds larger than those that had turned out the previous year to greet The Beatles. The Samurai was not just a smash hit among boys - Koichi Ose apparently had a fairly significant and devoted female fan base as well. He was an unlikely sex symbol, but perhaps both the character and the actor were simply so different from anything that an Australian female was likely to encounter in the opposite sex at that time. The character he played, the samurai Shintaro Akikusa, was certainly not lacking in the manly virtues. He was brave and noble. He was good-looking. He was also kind and gentle and there was a touch of humour. Koichi Ose in person came across as a somewhat shy and very charming man, and when he was interviewed on Australian television more than forty years later the charm and the humour were still very much in evidence, along with some very fond memories of the series.

The series contained, for its time, much more violence than was usual in children’s TV. The violence was however so stylised that nobody really seemed to notice. It also provided Australians with their first taste of martial arts and Japanese swordplay. 

There were plenty of British and American action adventure series around at the time but The Samurai made them all look rather dull and unimaginative. Not only did the Japanese series have more action, the action was much more stylish. The storylines (the complete series ran to ten story arcs and a total of 128 episodes) were more ambitious. The series was made on a relatively small budget but the locations were well chosen, the period detail was good (it set in the 18th century during the Tokugawa Shogunate), the costumes looked great and in general the production values were more than adequate. Most of all it had (in the 1960s) a wonderfully exotic feel to it.

It also had a coolness rating that was right off the scale. Not just lots of sword-fighting but the ninja make frequent use of star knives (or shuriken), small star-shaped throwing knives, which were even cooler. The ninja also had the exciting ability to leap directly upwards to great heights and there were various other exotic types of weaponry in evidence (such as a rocket launcher). Ninja were even adept at underwater warfare!

Japanese movies of the postwar period mostly adopt a rather sceptical (if not outright hostile) attitude towards Japan’s feudal past and towards the code of honour of the samurai. Interestingly though this series takes a different approach. It takes the hierarchical nature of feudalism for granted. It does not occur to Shintaro to question the social privileges of rank that he enjoys, or to question the deference which his social inferiors display towards him. On the other hand he is very much aware that rank brings responsibilities as well as privileges. Although Shintaro appears to be a wandering ronin we soon discover that this is not the case. He is a very high-ranking member of the nobility - a close relative of the shogun. Shintaro could live a life of luxury and leisure. Instead he risks his life in the service of the government, because his sense of duty and honour compels him to do so. He takes the code of bushido quite seriously, although he tempers the stricter aspects of this code with his innate sense of mercy.

Shintaro does not merely serve the government. If he encounters a person in trouble he will unhesitatingly risk death in order to help them, even if the person in trouble is a humble peasant. A samurai must live his life honourably and be prepared to die honourably. Not that Shintaro wants to die - he is by nature a man who loves life. But he knows where his duty lies. This rather positive attitude towards both feudalism and the warrior code of the samurai is rather refreshing.

The overall tone of the series is much darker than anything you will find in British or American children’s television at this time. Violence has consequences. Being an agent for the shogun’s government is genuinely dangerous. It involves a very real risk of death, and it requires Shintaro to be wiling to kill. In fact the tone is rather grown-up, to an extent that makes me question whether it was ever actually intended as a children’s series at all. There’s enough complexity to make it the kind of series that adults should have no difficulty in enjoying. Despite the sometimes dark and tragic themes there is however no trace of the fashionable cynicism and moral nihilism that has come to plague modern popular culture in the west. The Samurai makes no bones about the existence of evil and makes it clear that the fight against evil is a difficult one. It is however a fight worth fighting. Evil can be beaten, even though the costs are often high. Courage and honour are not futile. And even though there is no guarantee of success in every case it is better to die with courage and honour than to accept the triumph of evil.

Iga Ninjas was the third story arc, first airing in Japan in 1963. The lord Matsudaira Sadanobu has set out on a secret mission to Kyoto, hoping to foil a plot by the lord Owari to gain control of the government. Owari has employed the services of the sinister Momochi Genkurō (Toshiyuki Katsuki) and his ten renegade Koga ninja to assassinate Sadanobu. Shintaro is reluctantly persuaded to act as Sadanobu’s bodyguard (Shintaro has grown tired of killing and would prefer to live in quiet retirement. This story arc introduces one the most popular characters in the series, the Iga Ninja Tombei the Mist (Fuyukichi Maki). Tombei and his Iga ninja will provide valuable help to Shintaro.

Tombei is more than just a sidekick for the hero. He is a brave and skilled ninja and a clever tactician who saves Shintaro’s life on more than one occasion. Tombei is definitely not the sort of sidekick who needs to be constantly rescued from danger by the hero.

Momochi Genkurō makes an absolutely splendid and delightfully sinister villain, a truly worthy adversary for Shintaro.

It’s not that easy to maintain a consistent level of excitement and suspense over the course of a thirteen-episode story arc but writer Masaru Igami manages to do just that while also ensuring that each half-hour episode has its own distinctive features. It’s an achievement that most modern television writers would struggle to emulate.

The level of inventiveness displayed by this series is impressive. There are countless fight scenes but there is always some new variation to keep things interesting. Ninja have plenty of tricks up their sleeves and it’s fun anticipating what each new trick will be. While the basic storyline for this arc is simple - it’s basically the kind of story familiar in westerns, where a wagon train has to fight its way to its destination while being menaced by murderous bandits. Masaru Igami however manages to embroider this simple basic tale with numerous sub-plots involving treachery and Genkurō’s seemingly endless supply of fiendish and outlandishly ingenious schemes to kill Lord Sadanobu. Genkurō employs rocket launchers, gas attacks, a glamorous but deadly lady ninja, a ninja who can steal people’s faces, explosives and all manner of ninja magic. 

It’s never explicitly stated but it’s implied that ninja magic is mainly a combination of illusionism, trickery, chemical agents and perhaps hypnosis rather than anything supernatural.

The Samurai offers excitement, intrigue, adventure and imaginative fight scenes all done with style and also with surprising intelligence and subtlety. It has its dark moments, even tragic moments. It achieved massive popularity in Australia as a kids’ series but in fact it compares very favourably with most action adventure series aimed at adults. Very highly recommended.

The Samurai has been released on DVD in Region 4 (Australia), either in season sets or as a complete series boxed set. The Region 4 season sets are available from both amazon and amazon UK. They're all-region DVDs. It's actually cheaper to buy the complete series boxed set from an Australian supplier like EzyDVD.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Corridor People (1966)

The Corridor People, made by Granada in 1966, may be the strangest British television series of the 1960s. In fact it may well be the strangest television series ever made anywhere. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all surrounding this series is why Granada ever thought it was going to work. Only four episodes were made and it’s surprising it lasted that long. It was much too weird to have any chance at all of commercial success. Despite this it certainly has a bizarre fascination. 

A brief synopsis of the plot of the first episode, Victim as Birdwatcher, might leader an innocent viewer to think that it sounds a bit like an episode of The Avengers. That would be an entirely false impression. The Corridor People is closer in feel to The Prisoner, or even Twin Peaks. It also bears a certain resemblance to the bleak surreal existentialist nihilism of early Roman Polanski (especially movies like Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac) with a strong touch of Theatre of the Absurd. There’s also a dash of the kind of inspired madness that Spike Milligan was capable of, although oddly enough The Corridor People is entirely lacking in humour. While it tries to be outrageous it takes itself very seriously.

It has the familiar shot-on-videotape look of early 60s British television but it was clearly produced on a minuscule budget. It’s extremely stagey and is often crude and amateurish in execution although some of that may have been an ill-advised attempt to be self-consciously arty.

To add yet another layer of complexity there are also attempts at social satire. It’s the kind of clumsy and inept social satire you’d expect from an irritatingly pompous undergraduate.

The series was created by Edward Boyd who also wrote all four episodes.

While the resemblance to The Avengers is superficial there is a tenuous connection. The star of The Corridor People is Elizabeth Shepherd, who was the original Mrs Peel in The Avengers. One and a half episodes were filmed with her in the role. They were never screened and are now lost. After this she was somewhat unceremoniously dumped and hurriedly replaced by Diana Rigg. 

Victim as Birdwatcher plunges us straight into the weirdness. A birdwatcher is kidnapped by Syrie Van Epp (Elizabeth Shepherd). Syrie Van Epp is a beautiful, mysterious but sinister Persian woman who has ambitions to become a diabolical criminal mastermind. Her plan is to gain control of a British cosmetics firm which has accidentally developed a scent that has the potential to become a super-weapon. The top-secret British intelligence agency Department K, led by the apparently amiable but actually rather ruthless Kronk (John Sharp), intends to stop her. He has an agent in her organisation and he also has the services of two bumbling detectives, Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound. There’s also his prim middle-aged secretary, Miss Dunner, who happens to be Department K’s top assassin.

Syrie Van Epp is prepared to use extreme measures in order to carry out her plan but Kronk is even more ruthless and perfectly willing to resort to torture and murder if he deems it necessary.

Complicating things is hard-boiled private eye Phil Scrotty (Gary Cockrell) who appears to be playing a double game.

Things get even more outré in Victim as Whitebait. This time Syrie Van Epp has found a mad scientist who can raise people from the dead. These dead people who won’t stay dead are causing Kronk some concern. Kronk has other problems - he needs to find a certain genius accountant in order to nail a businessman who has defrauded the Treasury of several million pounds. The trouble us that the accountant is a recluse and the only person who knows his identity is dead, but of course the dead do not necessarily stay dead so that may not be quite such a problem. This episode also features a midget assassin and a Swedish film director researching the dark recesses of the human psyche.

Victim as Red has more of a straightforward spy thriller plot, but done in an extreme surreal style. A middle-aged colonel had disappeared seven years earlier. He may have defected or he may be dead. Kronk is inclined to believe he defected. The puzzling thing is his possible connection with a two million pound train robbery. At this juncture I should point out that in this series the plots are really of very secondary importance, being little more than an excuse for a succession of increasingly surreal set-pieces. In this episode the vaguely coherent plot is if anything a disadvantage.

Victim as Black marks a serious downturn in quality. The plot is rather uninteresting, the deliberate artificiality seems strained and the social commentary is exceptionally clumsy.

Elizabeth Shepherd’s performance is effective enough in an offbeat sort of way while Gary Cockrell is lively as the amoral Scrotty. The acting overall is deliberately artificial and extremely stagey, something that viewers will find interesting or irritating depending on taste (I have to confess that mostly I found it irritating). The actors often break the fourth wall to address the audience directly. This can be effective in certain circumstances but in this series it just seems to be part of a general tendency to try to be terribly clever and daring and avant-garde. Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound may well be intended to be frightfully amusing but the joke wears thin very quickly.

The character of Syrie Van Epp changes subtly over the course of the four episodes, from being a would-be diabolical criminal mastermind to being just an amoral schemer out to enrich herself. She’s slightly less interesting in the final two episodes. In fact the final two episodes are considerably weaker than the first two which despite their flaws did have moments of inspired weirdness.

The sets are crude but I assume this was another deliberate choice, to give the impression  of a stage production. The sets are actually one of the more effective elements. Mention must be made of Syrie Van Epp’s bizarre wardrobe. This also works quite well and is certainly in keeping with the overall mood.

While there’s no question that this series is insanely bold and brilliantly imaginative and breathtakingly innovative and it does have some genuinely inspired moments it has several weaknesses which contribute to its ultimate failure. It is entirely lacking in wit, it is full of cheap adolescent cynicism and despair, its attempts at artiness veer perilously close to pretentiousness, the satire is cringe-inducingly inept and heavy-handed, and overall it’s just too nihilistic and bleak to be truly entertaining. The first two episodes do have their moments.

Of course it has to be noted that there is a question of taste involved. I’m personally not too fond of postmodern attempts to subvert the genre and all that sort of stuff. If that type of thing does appeal to you then you’ll probably get more enjoyment out of this series than I did. Only recommended if your tastes run in that direction although it has curiosity value.

The Corridor People is available on DVD in Region 2, from Network DVD.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Avengers - Death Dispatch (1962)

Death Dispatch was originally screened in Britain in December 1962. It’s notable as being the first episode of The Avengers to feature Honor Blackman as Mrs Cathy Gale. At least it was the first Cathy Gale episode to be shot, although not the first to go to air.

As you might expect at this early stage the character of Cathy Gale has not yet been fully established - she is almost but not yet the familiar and iconic Cathy Gale.

The plot is decent enough, if nothing startling. One of the British Secret Service’s couriers has been killed. To find the killer Steed must pose as the new courier. The story takes Steed and Cathy to several exotic locations (this is of course achieved through the magic of stock footage and adding a few potted palms to sets to give the impression we’re in the Caribbean and later in South America). A powerful politician seems to be behind the killing but his motives are, initially at least, unclear.

It’s the kind of story one associates with Danger Man rather than The Avengers but it’s well executed and well-paced. The introductory scene, the murder of the courier in a Jamaica hotel room, is particularly well done.

While it’s a good solid episode its main interest is that it gives us our first chance to see Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman together. There’s plenty of chemistry between them right from the start.

In the first season Steed had been a much harder-edged and more cynical personality than the Steed of the more familiar and better-known later seasons. Over the course of the second season his character would be slowly transformed into the charming, witty, debonair character we would come to love. That process is already apparent in Death Dispatch, with Macnee taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach to his performance.

This very early version of Cathy Gale is much more conventionally and overtly feminine. She wears smart frocks and her general demeanour is softer than it would be later on, although she is still a very competent agent and quite prepared to carry a gun and to use it. She is also more obviously a professional spy. In many later episodes one gets the impression that she has been recruited by Steed on his own initiative and that her status with the unnamed agency for which Steed works is perhaps semi-official. In Death Dispatch though she is unequivocally a full-time professional agent.

The witty banter between Steed and Mrs Gale would become one of the great strengths of The Avengers and that wittiness is already in evidence here.

I’ve seen a lot of the Cathy Gale episodes and I’m quite a fan of this period in the show’s history. I had however never seen this one before and it really is interesting to see that the potential of the Steed-Mrs Gale partnership was there from the beginning but it’s just as interesting to see that it was a partnership that was destined to evolve over time as the production team gradually figured out the best way to make use of Honor Blackman’s abilities.

An episode that every serious fan of The Avengers needs to see, and a fine and highly episode in its own right as well.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Banacek (season one, 1972)

Banacek had an interesting history. In the early 70s NBC was experimenting with “wheel series” - the idea being that instead of making a single series for a particular timeslot they’d make three different series which would screen in alternate weeks in the same timeslot. Their first attempt had the umbrella title The NBC Mystery Movie. The three series were Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife. It was hugely successful and inspired the network to do the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie with Banacek, Cool Million and Madigan screening on a three-week rotation. 

Cool Million and Madigan sank without trace after a single season but Banacek did well. It ran for two seasons and was renewed for a third season but that third season did not materialise because star George Peppard quit for reasons that say quite a bit about his idiosyncratic approach to his own career. He was going through an acrimonious divorce and he feared that most of his earnings from a third season would have gone straight to his ex-wife. So he walked away from it. Peppard was a fine actor who had a successful career that should have been even more successful.

The big advantage of the wheel series concept was that it allowed for much longer shooting schedules than were usual in television. That permitted plenty of location shooting and high (by television standards) production values. Each episode was in effect a feature-length made-for-TV movie but with the same recurring characters.

Banacek had one thing in common with Columbo - both series employed a kind of ongoing gimmick that gave thjem a distinctive flavour. Each episode of Columbo was an inverted detective story in which the identity of the murderer is revealed at the beginning rather than the end. Each episode of Banacek is an impossible crime story.

Thomas Banacek is a freelance insurance investigator. When a robbery or suspicious arson or similar crime is committed the insurance companies naturally carry out their own investigation. If after sixty days the crime has not been solved it is thrown open to anyone who cares to try to recover the money or goods. If they succeed they get ten percent of the insured value. A freelance insurance investigator who is good at his job can make a great deal of money. Banacek is very good. He is as a result very wealthy. Which is just as well. After a deprived childhood Banacek has developed a taste for the good things in life. He collects antiques, he lives expensively, he drives a very cool 1942 Packard 180 roadster. And oh yes, he has expensive tastes in women.

The pilot, Detour To Nowhere, aired in March 1972. This is a classic impossible crime story. An armoured car disappears near the border between Texas and Oklahoma. Literally disappears. Without a trace. With $1,600,000 worth of gold on board. That’s a big payout for the National-Meridian Insurance Company. Their chief investigator, McKinney (Charles Robinson), has made no progress at all on the case. The one thing that bothers McKinney more than not solving the case is that after 60 days it can be taken up by anybody. Including Banacek. And McKinney just cannot stand the idea that Banacek might recover the money. McKinney would do anything to prevent this.

Not that this worries Banacek. In fact it amuses him - it adds a bit more zest to the case.

This story establishes the character of Banacek - wealthy, highly cultured, a connoisseur of  beauty, slightly arrogant, devilishly handsome, charming and brilliant. We also find out that beneath the charming and cultivated exterior Banacek is a man who can handle himself in a street brawl, and once he takes up a case he is unlikely to be deflected by any setbacks or any dangers he might encounter.

The casting of George Peppard as the Polish-American Banacek proved to be inspired. Peppard has plenty of boyish charm but he’s also convincing as a guy who is tougher than he seems to be, and he can handle the odd moments of low-key humour with ease. He’s a slightly prickly character but he’s likeable as well. The other two regular cast members are Ralph Manza as Banacek’s wise-cracking driver Jay Drury and Australian-born Murray Matheson as slightly eccentric rare book dealer Felix Mulholland who just happens to be a mine of information on all manner of esoteric subjects.

The first episode of the series proper, Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend, offers us an impressive enough impossible crime. A pro football star vanishes. Not such a big deal, except that at the moment he vanished he was playing in a game in a stadium in front of tends of thousands of people. In spite of the fact that his vanishing act was also caught on camera by a TV network there is still no explanation. One moment he was there - the next he was gone. 

In Project Phoenix Banacek has to find a stolen car. Not just any stolen car, but a super-secret super-high tech experimental car insured for a cool five million dollars. The excellent No Sign of the Cross sees Banacek trying to recover a fabulously valuable medieval cross. This episode is interesting in that we get to see a slightly different side of Banacek. Although he’d be the last one to admit it he does have a softer warmer side. In A Million the Hard Way Banacek investigates the disappearance of a million dollars from a casino in Las Vegas. Casinos tend to be rather obsessive about security. Anyone wanting to steal money from them would have to come up with a pretty clever plan and this one is a peach. This is an impossible crime story that stretches credibility a little but then all impossible crime stories have to be a bit outlandish. This one is very outlandish but it’s certainly fun.

Banacek has the same kind of feel as the other successful NBC Mystery Movie series - the  crimes take place among the rich and famous, or the rich and powerful, there’s an emphasis on the detective’s use of brainpower rather than muscle in solving the cases and there’s a studious avoidance of the sleazy and sordid. This all serves to make Banacek classy, stylish, civilised and very very entertaining. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Shadows of Fear (1970-73)


Anthology television series enjoyed a considerable vogue in the 1960s and on until the early 70s, on both British and American television. One of the least-remembered examples is Thames Television’s Shadows of Fear, broadcast intermittently from 1970 to 1973.

This series had a rather odd production history. The first episode went to air in mid-1970. It was followed by a season of nine one-hour episodes in early 1971. A two-year hiatus ensued after this and then one final half-hour episode was broadcast in early 1973. This series was apparently broadcast once and never repeated and I have been able to find virtually no background information on it.

Thames assembled some fairly formidable talent for Shadows of Fear. Four episodes were written by Roger Marshall, one of the best TV writers in the business who contributed episodes to The Avengers, Special Branch, The Sweeney and Target amongst many others as well as creating and writing the superb Public Eye series. Two episodes were penned by John Kershaw, another fine writer whose credits include stories for Special Branch, Public Eye and Callan.

Seven episodes were directed by Kim Mills who had worked on series such as The Avengers, The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The acting talent includes Sheila Hancock, Ronald Hines, George Sewell, George Cole and Edward Fox. With people of that calibre involved it’s rather odd that this series fell into complete oblivion.

This series focuses on psychological horror and suspense rather than the supernatural. It’s the same sort of territory that Brian Clemens would mine in his 1973-76 Thriller series.

Did You Lock Up? was the debut episode, with a script by Roger Marshall. A successful writer, Peter Astle (Michael Craig), and his wife Moira (Gwen Watford) are burgled. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. It’s irritating but you get over it. Only Peter doesn’t get over it. He wants to see those burglars behind bars. The police admit they have little chance of catching them. Peter decides to have a go at catching them himself. But what will happen when he does capture them? It’s an entertaining story, fairly low-key but with a sting in the tail.

Sugar and Spice is even better. Anne Brand (Sheila Hancock) is surprised on arriving home to find that her son Michael has not returned from school. Her daughter Judy (Suzanne Togni) obviously knows where he is but has an odd tale of having promised her father not to say anything. Judy is clearly a slightly strange child. When Anne’s husband Vic (Ronald Hines) finally arrives home, very late and rather drunk, the plot begins to thicken. He had been having an affair but had told Anne is was all over and done with. Things are obviously very tense between Anne and Vic. And Michael is still not home. Anne is more and more suspicious but she’s not entirely sure what she is suspicious about. The tension builds more and more intensely. It’s not that hard to guess what has happened but it’s the unbearably tense atmosphere and the powerful performances from all three leads that make this a fine exercise in twisted suspense and psychological horror.

In At Occupier’s Risk a young woman arrives at a roadside inn in England. The proprietors, Mr and Mrs Darben, seem strangely disturbed at the prospect of a paying customer. Mr and Mrs Darben are obviously harbouring some kind of secret. There’s certainly something  hidden away in that locked room behind the kitchen but it’s not quite the secret we expect. A nicely moody episode.

The Death Watcher is quite superb. Emmy Erikson (Judy Parfitt) is a psychologist with an interest in the unusual, and even the paranormal. She is invited for the weekend to the home of Dr Pickering (John Neville), ostensibly to take part in an experiment. The problem is that Mrs Erikson is really a sceptic while Dr Pickering is very much a true believer. Mrs Erikson dismisses Pickering’s crackpot theories with scorn but discovers that participation in his experiment is not voluntary. And his theories are even more bizarre than she’d imagined. John Neville is excellent as the plausible but tragically unhinged Pickering while Victor Maddern gives a lovely underplayed performance as his assistant Dawson, a psychiatric nurse. This episode is genuinely creepy and scary with a nice touch of pathos.

There has to be at least one dud episode and in this series it’s Repent at Leisure, by the usually reliable Roger Marshall. A wealthy middle-aged woman on a round-the-world cruise has an affair with the cabin steward. Not unusual, except that she later marries him. She’s wealthy and upper-class and he’s poor and working-class so things don’t work out. The problem is that she (being upper-class) is naturally neurotic, vicious and stupid while he (being working-class) is naturally noble, generous, perceptive and an all-round great guy. This is not only tedious, it also undercuts the drama of the ensuing tragic situation.

Jeremy Paul’s Return of Favours is much better. Mr Marsh (George Cole) is alarmed to find that his wife’s awful friend Judith and her even more awful married boyfriend Roger have been using his flat as their little love nest while he’s out. This turns out to be rather to Mr Marsh’s advantage as it fits in with a little plan of his own. It’s not difficult to guess what’s going to happen but some fine acting (especially from George Cole) makes this a nicely creepy little tale.

Unfortunately John Kershaw’s The Lesser of the Two is another dud, a dreary story of a man recently released after serving a prison sentence for a terrible crime of which he claims to be innocent. He finds he’s now unwelcome in his own home and in his own neighbourhood.

Things get back on track with Hugh Leonard’s White Walls and Olive-Green Carpets, a delightfully twisted story of revenge, infidelity and madness.

In Roger Marshall’s Sour Grapes two English tourists in Spain are menaced by a mysterious but clearly very dangerous German criminal. Staying alive in such a situation is one thing; remaining sane and human is quite another. This episode benefits from its enigmatic quality - there is no possibility of communication with the criminal and his motives remain obscure.

Come Into My Parlour is a story with potential but the motivations of the characters stretch credibility a little too much and are somewhat contradictory.

The final episode, The Party’s Over, is notable as being the only episode to have a period rather than a contemporary setting, being set in the 1920s. It’s an  OK episode although the plot is not terribly difficult to predict. Its main asset is an enjoyably villainous performance by Edward Fox as an utter cad who plans to murder his wife.

When this series concentrates on moody psychological thrillers with a healthy dose of horror it’s very good indeed. Unfortunately when it drifts into Socially Aware Drama territory it becomes very very tedious. Luckily it mostly stays in psychological horror territory and the hits outnumber the misses. And the episodes that do hit the target are very good indeed.

Network have released the complete series on DVD in Region 2. 

Shadows of Fear is, like most anthology series, very uneven. In fact it’s more uneven than most, but in the final analysis there are more good episodes than bad and some are extremely good. Worth a look.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Out of the Unknown, season 2 (1966)

All anthology television series tend to be rather uneven in quality and tone - it’s very much in the nature of such programs. The BBC’s science fiction anthology TV series Out of the Unknown (which ran from 1965 to 1971) was more uneven than most, with the episodes ranging from brilliant to absolutely atrocious.

Sadly only four of the episodes from the second season survive and three of them will be discussed here. I've discussed the fourth surviving episode, the superb The Machine Stops, in detail previously and I've also written about season one elsewhere.

Season 2, episode 8, Tunnel Under the World

Tunnel Under the World manages to both brilliant and atrocious at the same time (although fortunately the brilliance outeighs the atrocious elements). It was adapted from a Frederick Pohl short story and went to air in 1966.

June 15th seems to be a perfectly ordinary morning for Guy Birkett (Ronald Hines), apart from the fact that he woke from a bad nightmare about an explosion. Oddly enough his wife Mary (Petra Davies) had a very similar nightmare. There are the usual little annoyances. The newspaper is full of advertisements. The radio broadcasts advertising non-stop. There are even loudspeaker vans outside their door irritating them with advertising. A man named Swanson keeps wanting to make an appointment with Guy but Guy is too busy to see him. Guy works for a chemical company but for some reason he tries to avoid going anywhere near the factory - it’s entirely automated and staffed by robots. The robots have had human brain patterns implanted in them, which Guy finds rather disturbing.

The next morning, June 15th, Guy once again awakes from a nightmare. The advertising is still all-pervasive. Swanson is still trying to see him. Guy is still busy. The morning after this, June 15th, is fairly irritating as well. Guy has not yet realised that every morning is June 15th but he is starting to realise that something odd is going on.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the answer to the puzzle has something to do with advertising - the script has already bludgeoned us over the head with that idea. The solution also turns out to have something to do with evil cigar-smoking capitalists who look like they’ve just stepped out of a 1930s Soviet propaganda poster. 

Despite the extraordinarily crude political message of the story the episode does contain some very very good genuine science fictional ideas. It’s a pity that the cardboard villains weaken the impact of these ideas.

Production designer William McCrow did a great job with the sets which reinforce the paranoid atmosphere very cleverly (and much more subtly than the script). 

Tunnel Under the World deals with many of the themes that obsessed science fiction writers in the mid-20th century - paranoia, social atomisation, the fine line between reality and illusion, the crushing of the individual spirit. It’s a bit of a mixed bag but it’s still very much worth a watch the final sequence is chilling and quite brilliant.

Season 2, episode 4, Level 7

Level 7 is an object lesson in how not to do television science fiction. It’s preachy, didactic, obvious and dull. It’s yet another nuclear war scare story, which must surely be the most tedious of all science fiction sub-genres. Level 7 was adapted by J. B. Priestley from Mordecai Roshwald’s novel.

Level 7 is the lowest and most secure level of a nuclear bunker from which nuclear war can be conducted by push button. The personnel are carefully selected from people with no emotional attachments. They live in a secure sterile environment where they become totally dehumanised. The story makes use of every possible cliché of this cliché-ridden sub-genre. The commanding officer (played by Anthony Bate) is a stereotypical evil military type. The personnel are given numbers rather than names. Life is regimented and surveillance is constant. There is of course the over-sensitive guy who cracks up under the strain, which doesn’t work because he’s already clearly so neurotic that he would never have been selected in the first place. The hero suddenly switches from gung-ho enthusiasm to agonising doubts for no reason whatsoever. 

Apart from being incredibly preachy the biggest problem is the total absence of dramatic tension. What should be the key dramatic moment is handled with extraordinary dullness. The sets are flat and uninteresting. The lighting is flat. Everything is flat and lifeless. OK, it’s supposed to be a dehumanising environment but in television terms it’s boring. And it looks cheap, the way only a BBC production can look cheap.

This is message television but the message falls flat because nothing interesting happens, the acting is wooden, the direction is insipid, the dialogue is lame, the pacing is leaden. The greatest challenge to the viewer will be staying awake. Avoid.

Season 2, episode 3, Lambda 1

Lambda 1 is a mess. Luckily it’s an incredibly entertaining mess!

In the future air and rocket travel has been replaced by something much more revolutionary - tau travel. To get from New York to London you travel through atomic space right through the Earth! The difficulty is that you have to travel through different modes - Gamma Mode, Delta Mode, Epsilon Mode, etc. And the tau ships sometimes slip unexpectedly from one mode to another which has disturbing and frightening effects. The most frightening thing though is the mysterious Omega Mode. Some people claim it doesn’t exist. Others are sure it does exist but don’t want to talk about it. In fact the very idea of Omega Mode has turned tau ship commander Dantor (Charles Tingwell) into an alcoholic.

Now the passengers on the tau ship Elektron have discovered that Omega Mode is all too real. They are trapped there and they are going slowly mad. The only hope is for tau controller Paul Porter to pilot the original tau ship, Lambda I, into Omega Mode to rescue them. To do this he will need the assistance of psychologist Eric Benedict (Ronald Lewis), because Omega Mode is not just a phenomenon of tau physics but a state of mind.

If none of that makes any sense to you don’t panic. It made no sense to me either but it didn’t stop me from throughly enjoying this delightfully outrageous and goofy tale. There’s lots of delicious technobabble and as a bonus there’s lots of psychobabble as well. There’s some delirious overacting with Charles Tingwell in particularly going totally over-the-top. There are psychedelic special effects. There are hints of eastern mysticism. There are sets that would have been rejected as too cheap for Doctor Who. And lots of breathless excitement!

You just have to put your brain on hold and enjoy the ride. Highly recommended!

It is of course unfair to judge the second season by the four surviving episodes but they are all we have and overall the impression is of a series that sometimes set its sights too high but somehow succeeded brilliantly against the odds (The Machine Stops), sometimes set its sights high and failed, and at other times was all over the place covering the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. It's still an interesting series that took risks and it's worth having a look at.