Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents The Desperate People (1963)

The Desperate People is the earliest of the many serials written by Francis Durbridge for the BBC to have survived (although a couple of episodes of one earlier serial, The World of Tim Fraser, also survive. It was made in 1963 and was one of the serials screened under the umbrella title Francis Durbridge Presents.

The Desperate People has a typical Durbridge beginning. A perfectly ordinary chap suddenly encounters an unexpected event that propels him into a world of mystery and murder. In this case the ordinary chap is photographer Larry Martin (Denis Quilley). His brother Phil, serving in the British Army in Germany, arrives to spend his leave in London. Firstly though Phil  has to dash off briefly to Dublin in connection with a car accident that claimed the life of a fellow soldier.

Phil never does go to Ireland. Instead he goes off to a hotel somewhere in England and then sudden death intervenes. It is a clear case of suicide, but Larry refuses to accept the verdict of the coroner’s court. This again is a typical Durbridge device - a man is sure that murder has taken place but he can’t prove it and the police don’t believe him and he ends up doing some investigating on his own.

Larry soon discovers some very curious things. Everything that seemed clear-cut about the case now turns out to have been a series of deceptions. There are photographs that suddenly turn up and just as suddenly vanish, there’s the mystery of a book of poetry read incessantly by a man who has never in his whole life been known to read poetry, there’s a mysterious key that everyone wants, there are accidents that are almost certainly no accidents, and there are more murders. 

Detective Inspector Hyde is investigating the case and he also has his suspicions that there’s more here than meets the eye. Larry co-operates with him, up to a point, although it’s obvious he’d like to solve the case and it’s also obvious that Inspector Hyde has mixed feelings about amateurs trying to play detective. Larry also gets assistance from his faithful secretary Ruth (Renny Lister). 

As the story progresses Larry finds that there are even more things that he didn’t know about his brother.

Durbridge was never much interested in ingenious murder methods. What matters is not the how, but the who and the why. And it is the why that is most important. In The Desperate People there aren’t many suspects to choose from but we can’t guess the murderer’s identity until we figure out exactly what kind of crime (and what kind of criminal) is actually behind it all. The murder (or murders) is incidental to the real crime. 

Denis Quilley is a pretty good hero, full of steely determination if not always showing the soundest judgment. Hugh Cross makes a fine police inspector, businesslike and a man who gives very little away.

Plus you get Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister) as a heavy!

Francis Durbridge was a great television mystery writer whose scripts were enjoyably tangled and yet perfectly plausible.

It’s typical early 60s British television, mostly shot on videotape with a bit of location shooting. Production values are reasonable by BBC standards (in other words they're really rather basic). 

Considering that it dates from 1963 this serial is still in reasonably good condition. Picture quality is variable but generally quite acceptable (no 1963 British television show shot on videotape is going to look spectacular). 

The slightly later A Game of Murder (from 1966) and the much later (1975) The Doll are other Francis Durbridge Presents serials that are well worth catching. 

The Desperate People is one of four Durbridge serials included in Madman’s Australian Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 DVD boxed set. A set well worth getting.

The Desperate People is fine entertainment. HIghly recommended.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Smiley’s People (BBC TV, 1982)

The BBC had a success  with their 1979 television adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. They followed this up with a sequel, Smiley’s People, three years later, with Alec Guinness reprising his role as British master-spy George Smiley.

It should be explained that the novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People form part of le Carré’s celebrated Karla trilogy. The BBC chose not to adapt the second installment, The Honourable Schoolboy. This was understandable. The nature of this novel would have required a very expensive project and was probably beyond the scope of a television production. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Honourable Schoolboy before reading Smiley’s People. On the other hand it is absolutely essential to have read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before Smiley’s People and it’s equally essential to have watched the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before watching Smiley’s People. If you don’t you won’t have any understanding of Smiley’s motivations, or the motivations of any of the other characters for that matter. 

I’ll keep this review a bit vague in plot terms so as to avoid revealing any spoilers either for this series or for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Smiley’s People deals with George Smiley after his final retirement from the Circus (a thinly disguised version of MI6). Smiley might be on the scrap heap but the Circus itself is in even worse shape. Since his retirement ill-advised political interference has pretty much destroyed the Circus’s capabilities as an espionage agency. Morale is at rock bottom. And now the Circus is faced with a problem that could become a scandal sufficient to destroy it. 

An ex-agent is murdered. He had been one of Smiley’s agents and now the Circus needs Smiley to sort out the mess and if possible to cover up the whole incident. Unfortunately they’ve picked the wrong man to organise a cover-up. Smiley intends to find out why his ex-agent was murdered and he intends to follow the trail as far as it goes. It goes a long way and Smiley has a suspicion that ultimately it will lead him to Karla. Karla is his Soviet counterpart, the most feared and most ruthless of all Soviet spy-masters, and the duel between Smiley and Karla goes back more than a quarter of a century.

This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book. This is probably not altogether surprising since le Carré co-wrote the script.

This is a six-part mini-series. It’s not a very long novel but the plotting is intricate enough that the mini-series has no problems holding the viewer’s interest.

George Smiley really should be a fat man but apart from that one tiny quibble it has to be said that Alec Guinness is magnificent in the role. He was nearly 70 at the time but that’s roughly the age that Smiley would have been. Guinness of course was no action hero but Smiley is not supposed to be an action hero. He’s a spy-master not a spy - he’s the man who pulls the strings while his puppets handle any rough stuff that has to be done. In this story Smiley finds himself having to go back into the field, something for which he is too old, but that’s the whole point - only the chance to strike at Karla could have persuaded him to do so and only the depth of his obsession could have driven him on. So Guinness’s age is really no problem at all.

The superb supporting cast includes some real favourites of mine. There’s Michael Gough as the crafty and possibly duplicitous Mikhel, there’s Vladek Sheybal as the sleazy but oddly charismatic Otto Leipzig and as a bonus for cult movie fans there’s Hammer scream queen Ingrid Pitt in a small part as well. Dudley Sutton is an amazingly creepy Karla  henchman. There are also a number of familiar faces from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - notably Patrick Stewart, Anthony Bate and Bernard Hepton (the latter giving an extremely memorable performance).

The one blemish, and it’s a matter of personal taste, is that I thought the scenes in The Blue Diamond were unnecessarily distasteful. Yes I know the night club is actually a brothel but that could be made perfectly clear without rubbing the viewer’s nose in depravity. This was at the time becoming an all too common feature of British television, a wallowing in sleaze in the mistaken belief that this made television more grown-up when in fact it made merely more adolescent. It’s only one scene though so it’s a minor blemish.

Smiley’s People was a co-production with Paramount so the BBC had a fair amount of money to play with. There’s a lot of location shooting and the production captures the jaded, sordid and cynical atmosphere of the novel extremely well.

Smiley’s People is, like its source novel, a rather cerebral spy thriller. There’s virtually no action with the focus instead being on the suspense and on the painstaking methods used by Smiley in both his investigation and his subsequent operation. A treat for fans of gritty realistic spy tales. Highly recommended.

This mini-series seems to be available on DVD just about everywhere and I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release. The only extra on the DVD features John le Carré and others reminiscing about Alec Guinness.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Flashing Blade (Le chevalier Tempête, 1967)

Le chevalier Tempête was a 1967 French historical adventure TV serial. It was dubbed into English by the BBC and screened, with some success, as The Flashing Blade.

It is set in 1630, during the Thirty Years War. The French garrison of Casal has been besieged by a large Spanish army. The garrison is hopelessly outnumbered, food and ammunition are running very short, the surviving soldiers are exhausted and on the verge of demoralisation. Only the steely determination, and the harsh discipline, of the French commanding officer, Thoiras, has allowed the French to hold out this long but the end is certainly approaching.

There is a buzz of excitement when a French officer penetrates the Spanish lines (leaving mayhem behind him) and makes it into the fortress of Casal. Perhaps he is a messenger bringing news that a relieving force is on its way. Alas it turns out that it is merely the young, hot-headed and totally undisciplined Chevalier Recci (Robert Etcheverry) who has decided it would be a fine adventure to join in the heroic defence of Casal. He was is a little taken aback when Thoiras does not seem to be terribly delighted by his grand gesture.

Within hours of his arrival the impetuous young chevalier has taken it into his head to start waging his own one-man war against the Spanish. He leads a daring sortie and returns to Casal with a wagon loaded with food and ammunition. Unfortunately he neglected to ask Thoiras for permission to conduct his raid and instead of being congratulated he faces a court-martial and is condemned to death. There is however one way in which he can escape execution - by undertaking an almost impossible and breathtakingly dangerous secret mission. He must escape from the fortress, slip through the Spanish lines, traverse two hundred miles of Spanish-occupied territory, make contact with a series of French agents and finally reach the commander of the main French army and persuade him to send a force to the relief of Casal. In the unlikely event that Recci succeeds in this bold venture Casal might be saved. 

This serial is therefore not just an historical adventure but a kind of spy thriller as well, with Recci having to hide his identity while carrying out his secret mission deep behind enemy lines, accompanied by his faithful valet.

That mission turns out to be even more difficult than he’d anticipated. There’s a Spanish officer who has discovered Recci’s secret and he’s on his trail, and he has the remorselessness of a hunting dog.

There is of course time for some romance. At one point Recci manages to get himself captured by bandits. The bandits have also captured the Duke of Sospel and the duke’s proud, imperious but extremely courageous daughter Isabelle (Geneviève Casile). The dashing young chevalier and the young noblewoman do not hit it off at first but they slowly come to develop a certain mutual respect, and a certain mutual affection that we have reason to suspect will blossom into romance.

Of course it’s always difficult to judge the acting in a dubbed movie or TV series but the performances are certainly energetic. Robert Etcheverry certainly looks the part as the hero. 

One of the more pleasing surprises to this series is that the BBC really did a fine job with the English dubbing. The voice actors (who sadly don’t get any onscreen credits) are well cast and they approach their task with real zest. 

The Chevalier Recci is a fine storybook hero, headstrong to the point of foolhardiness but outrageously brave and with an old-fashioned sense of honour. He is impetuous without coming across merely as a young idiot. Isabelle de Sospel is, for a 1967 TV series, a delightfully old-fashioned heroine. She is accustomed to being obeyed without question and to being treated with a very high degree of obsequiousness. Her courage and her usefulness in a crisis come from her arrogance. She simply refuses to admit the possibility that anyone would dare to place an obstacle in her way. She’s a far cry from the average action adventure series heroine of that era, but she demands our respect. 

The most entertaining character is Mazarin, at this time an Italian diplomat in the service of the Pope although he would of course go on to gain a cardinal’s hat and be chief minister of France for many years. In this series Mazarin’s ambition, cunning and complete lack of scruples provide a good many moments of light comedy we also sense that despite his foppish and slightly foolish exterior he is a man whom it would be very foolish to underrate.

There's a fine villain in the person of the scheming and perfidious Don Alonzo (Mario Pilar) and he has an even more ruthless henchman, the evil Don Ricardo (Franck Estange). The Spanish are of course very much the villains. Don Alonzo might be unscrupulous but it has to be admitted that he is also a very brave man.

While this was intended as a kids’ adventure series it has a slightly more adult feel when compared to British TV adventure series like The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. It’s very much in the style of the classic French adventure novels of Dumas such as The Three Musketeers.

One odd aspect of the British version is that every time they tried to transmit the final episode they encountered such severe technical problems that the broadcasts had to be abandoned. As a result the final episode on the DVD release is the original French version with English sub-titles. This is interesting because it does give us a better chance to judge the quality of the acting. The final episode is a kind of epilogue - the main story actually concludes at the end of episode eleven.

By the standards of children’s television this is a fairly lavish production with some fine location shooting and some excellent action sequences. The siege scenes are impressive and there’s a pretty impressive full-scale battle scene.

Mention must be made of the rollicking theme song for the English-dubbed version.

Network’s DVD release offers reasonably good transfers without any extras.

If you’re a fan of adventure tales in the spirit of The Three Musketeers then this series will be right up your alley. It really is great action-filled fun with a strong romantic sub-plot and a nice leavening of humour. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Avengers Cybernauts trilogy

The Cybernauts, written by Philip Levene, was a very popular and highly acclaimed episode from the 1965 black-and-white season of The Avengers. The idea obviously had further potential and Levene wrote a sequel for the 1967 colour season, The Return of the Cybernauts. Nine years later Brian Clemens penned a further sequel, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? for The New Avengers. I thought it might be quite fun to take a fresh look at all three of the Cybernaut adventures.

The Cybernauts has a rather complex plot involving attempts to secure some kind of electronics contract but the real story is centred on a scientific genius, Dr Armstrong (Michael Gough), who has a grudge against the government and now plans to make all government obsolete, by means of an incredibly compact super computer and a race cybernetic servants. In the hands of a full-blown mad scientist these cybernetic servants could be used as high tech unstoppable assassins and Dr Armstrong is very definitely well on the way to full-blown mad scientist status.

Michael Gough is always a delight to watch and he’s in fine form. Rather than just chewing the scenery Gough makes him very sincere and very idealistic and really very sympathetic, his evil being the sort of misguided and deluded evil that idealism so often leads to. The guest cast also includes an entertaining turn by Bert Kwouk as a Japanese electronics mogul.

The cybernauts look creepy and menacing even though the costumes are obviously very simple and very cheap. In fact the whole episode is a fine demonstration of the principle that a modest amount of money well spent will always produce better results than a lot of money ill spent.

A major plus is the cybernaut vs cybernaut fight.

This episode seems to be very highly regarded indeed by most aficionados of the series but while I did enjoy it I don’t see it as one of the great episodes. It’s all very well executed but it’s let down by the meandering and rather incoherent script.

The Return of the Cybernauts on the other hand has a rather poor reputation among hardcore fans. I seem to be very much in a minority here but I actually thought it was somewhat better than The Cybernauts.

The plot is a standard revenge story but this time Philip Levene comes up with a taut and very witty script. The urbane Paul Beresford (Peter Cushing) has become very friendly with both Steed and Mrs Peel but what they don’t know is that he is the brother of the inventor of the cybernauts, Dr Armstrong, and he wants revenge. He doesn’t just want to kill Steed and Mrs Peel, he wants them to suffer as much as possible. He could probably come up with a method of doing this himself but he is determined to make his revenge suitably high tech so he kidnaps scientists and forces them to devise the most fiendish torture possible.

A major bonus is that the minor characters all serve a purpose and all have actual personalities. Each one of the four kidnapped scientists has a different response to the difficult situation in which they find themselves, reflecting their own character flaws and their own strengths. Levene really put some effort into this teleplay.

Another clever and amusing touch is that Steed is clearly jealous of Paul’s attentions to Mrs Peel, and she is aware of his jealousy. It makes for some sparkling dialogue moments, and it makes Paul a more interesting villain.

Peter Cushing was a fine actor but he was always especially good playing a mad scientist. In this case Levene’s script gives the character enough depth and Cushing really sinks his teeth into the part.

He is almost overshadowed by Fulton McKay’s deliciously twisted performance as one of the kidnapped scientists who turns out to be just as evil in his own way as the chief villain.

Mention must also be made of Aimi MacDonald as the gloriously ditzy secretary Rosie. This is an episode in which every single character pulls his or her weight.

If there’s a fault to this episode it is perhaps that the cybernauts themselves are not quite as central to the story as one might have wished but this is a minor quibble. I really loved The Return of the Cybernauts

Now we turn to The New Avengers, and to the final installment of the cybernaut saga, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? This time Brian Clemens is the scriptwriter. The New Avengers did have a different feel compared to its predecessor, but then The Avengers had reinvented itself just as radically on several previous occasions. It’s the nature of the transformation that puts some people off. By the mid-70s British television had changed, and not for the better. In order to be commercially viable The New Avengers had to do conform to the new era which meant a lot more action and a lot more violence. The challenge was to incorporate these unfortunate requirements whilst still retaining at least some of the flavour of the original. In my view the first season of The New Avengers manages to do this with reasonable success.

Initially it seems that The Last of the Cybernauts...?? has little connection to its predecessors. A double agent has been uncovered and when Steed, Gambit and Purdey move in to make the arrest the traitor, Kane, dies in a fiery car smash.

Except that Kane didn’t quite die. He lives, but he is less than half a man, confined to a wheelchair and hiding horrible facial injuries behind a mask. All this has nothing to do with cybernauts, except that by various devious means Kane has been able to find the secret storehouse where Dr Armstrong had concealed a small army of cybernauts. Kane has also  found a man, one of Dr Armstrong’s assistants, who knows how to operate the cybernauts. Kane intends to use the cybernauts to take his revenge on Steed, Gambit and Purdey.

While the connections between the various plot elements seems tenuous at first the plot gyrations are necessary. Gambit and Purdey played no part in the previous cybernaut adventures but somehow the villain has to be given a reason for having a grudge against them as well as against Steed and somehow this has to be connected with the cybernauts. Clemens ends up tying these disparate elements together quite successfully.

The Last of the Cybernauts...?? still has some authentic and characteristic Avengers flavour. Kane is a typical Avengers villain, megalomaniacal and insane and inclined to come up with ludicrously but entertainingly complicated means of trying to achieve his objectives. Robert Lang as Kane is masked for the entire episode but he has no trouble persuading us of Kane’s malevolence and very palpable menace. Having multiple masks is a fine idea and makes the performance even more disturbing.

Kane is supplied with a very amusing henchman in the person of the polite but ruthless Malov (Oscar Quitak). 

The action sequences are mostly extremely good. The fight against the cybernaut on the staircase is superb. There’s plenty of humour and it works (the scene in the lab with the lady in the cupboard is particularly amusing) and the banter between Gambit and Purdey is cleverer than usual.

The main set representing Kane’s lair is excellent, conveying very effectively a sense of his obsessive madness.

The ending doesn’t quite come off. It’s too whimsical for a final confrontation with a villain as menacing as Kane.

There’s a great deal to enjoy here. A great villain, plenty of well-executed action, witty dialogue.

I hadn’t seen any of the three episodes for some years and I’m pleased to say that they all turned out to be very much worth seeing again.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Roger Moore tribute double header

In view of the sad passing of Sir Roger Moore I thought it would be fitting to spend the evening watching him at his best. And while I enjoy his Bond movies for me Roger Moore at his best means The Saint and The Persuaders!

The Lawless Lady is episode 20 of the second season of The Saint. It is based on Leslie Charteris’s 1930 novella which is included in the volume Enter the Saint (which I reviewed here a couple of years ago). It went to air in January 1964.

Simon has a chance encounter with London’s most glamorous hostess, the young and beautiful Countess Audrey Morova. Only it wasn’t a chance encounter. Simon deliberately engineered it. It seems he knows a secret about the countess. She is a crook. Now he wants to join her gang of jewel thieves.

Of course we know that the Saint can’t really want to join the ungodly but there he is, robbing someone’s safe.

Dawn Addams is excellent as the countess, a woman motivated as much be a desire for excitement as by greed. Julian Glover is splendidly sinister as her lovelorn but vicious henchman.

Roger Moore as usual doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The interplay between Simon and his would-be nemesis and occasional ally Inspector Claud Eustace Teal (played with style by Ivor Dean) is always a delight. This time Teal really thinks he’s got Simon, but then Claud Eustace always thinks that and he always turns out to be wrong.

This is interesting as one of the episodes which refers at least obliquely to Templar’s criminal past. Nothing is stated outright but it is obvious that the Saint has had considerable experience as a jewel thief. ITC were unwilling to take the risk in the early 60s of having a television series hero who is a criminal but of course the whole point of the character is that he is an ex-crook, albeit one who always had certain moral standards. It was a tricky balancing act but the series pulled it off as successfully as one could expect.

I’ve always been a fan of crime stories set on board ships. Most of this episode takes place on the countess’s yacht. Naturally the entire episode was shot in the studio but the shipboard setting is reasonably convincing.

There’s everything you could want in an episode of The Saint - the background of money and glamour, a beautiful but bad woman who is perhaps not entirely bad and a fairly suspenseful story which puts the Saint in extreme peril.

Moving on now to The Persuaders! and to the episode The Man in the Middle, written by the usually reliable Donald James. It originally went to air in 1971. Brett has been inveigled into helping to catch a British traitor but his problem is that now the British intelligence people thinks he’s the traitor and they want to kill him. And the opposition also think he’s the traitor and for their own reasons they want to kill him as well. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse Brett runs into his cousin Archibald Sinclair Beachum (Terry-Thomas).

The story itself is nothing special but it’s approached with so much zest and flair that its shortcomings can be readily forgiven. Roger Moore and Tony Curtis have a magical acting chemistry while Terry-Thomas (as a very reluctant hero indeed) is in sparkling form. Of course the presence of Tery-Thomas in the cast is a clear indication that we are not to take  this story the slightest bit seriously. Of course we’re actually not expected to take any episode of The Persuaders! seriously - it was all style and wit and unapologetically light-hearted.

It’s all great fun. And that’s possibly the best way to sum up Sir Roger Moore’s career - it was unfailingly great fun for the viewer.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Columbo season 3 (1973)

I’m now working my way through the third season of Columbo. I probably saw them all many years ago but the great thing is it was so long ago I’ve totally forgotten them so now they all seem new to me!

Lovely But Lethal kicks off the season and it’s worth it for Vincent Price’s performance. It’s an engagingly outrageous story centring on a miracle cosmetic formula.

Next up is Any Old Port in a Storm. This is a great episode with Donald Pleasence as a boutique winery owner. I love the clue relating to the sports car. The fencing between Donald Pleasence and Peter Falk is superb. Falk’s great strength as an actor was his ability to play off other actors and the better the guest star the better Falk’s performances were. It has a terrific (and oddly poignant) ending as Columbo shows off his newly acquired knowledge of fine wines. 

Candidate for Crime is also excellent. It’s politics mixes with murder. Great stuff with a clever (if unavailing) attempt at an absolutely unbreakable alibi.

Double Exposure guest stars Robert Culp as an advertising and motivational guru who sets up not one but two unbreakable alibis. The golf course scene as Columbo wears the murderer down by ruining his golf game while simultaneously beginning to tighten the noose is classic Columbo. Usually in a Columbo story the murderer remains fairly cool but in this one it’s fun to watch Robert Culp getting closer and closer to exploding in rage and frustration.

The stuff about subliminal advertising (which had been the subject of some controversy back in the 60s) adds to the fun.

In Publish or Perish a publisher murders a writer about to desert him for another publisher. The writer is played by Mickey Spillane, the real-life author of the MIke Hammer novels. This is another episode where the murderer really start to lose his cool under Columbo’s constant pressure. It’s typical Columbo. It’s a case that seems straightforward except for a couple of very minor details that don’t quite fit.

In Mind Over Mayhem Columbo investigates a murder at a high-tech research institute. The work of the institute includes computer modeling of nuclear war and it also includes robots. The robot in this case looks like a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie (mostly because it is a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie) but since Columbo is a series that   never bothers much with tawdry realism it doesn’t matter and it adds some fun. 

Swan Song features country music legend Johnny Cash as the murderer. It does help if you’re a fan of the Man in Black since you get to hear him singing rather a lot. It also boasts the great Ida Lupino as his wife. She has a hold over her husband and is able to divert most of the money the successful singer makes into building a $5 million tabernacle. He’s less than happy about this, and he’s also less than happy that she also stops him chasing his young female backup singers. As an actor Johnny Cash is a great singer but he does have the right presence for the role.

Columbo has to enlist the help of an air crash investigator to unravel this puzzle. The murder method is far-fetched but it’s fun.

A Friend in Deed has a wonderfully elaborate plot which owes a very great deal indeed to a certain very well-known Hitchcock movie. A series of burglaries is being carried out by a professional and very skillful burglar who has now turned to murder. Of course we know that the burglar didn’t actually commit the murder. The murderer turns to an old friend for help but he finds himself mixed up in a whole lot more trouble that he hadn’t anticipated. To solve the case Columbo will have to match wits with the Police Commissioner himself. It all hinges, as usual, on a couple of puzzling clues. In this case it’s not fingerprints that bother Columbo, it’s the lack of fingerprints. It’s a delightfully far-fetched but very cleverly worked out plot.

Columbo was unusual for a 70s cop show in being so strongly plot-focused, and even more unusual in that so many of the plots work so well. At a time when crime fiction and crime movies were starting to focus to an excessive degree (in my opinion) on psychology, action and sordid realism it was like a throwback to the golden age of crime fiction when a detective story was intended to be entertainment. Entertainment of a somewhat intellectual  kind with its emphasis on puzzle-solving but still entertainment.

Columbo is squarely in the tradition of the detective fiction of the interwar years, the so-called golden age, in that it quite deliberately does not attempt to mirror reality. This is a kind of parallel universe in which rich successful famous people murder each other constantly. A real-life homicide cop would mostly deal with open-and-shut cases in which depressingly ordinary people murder each other for depressingly ordinary reasons, or obscure losers kill other obscure losers for five dollars in loose change. However every case that Lieutenant Columbo investigates deals with very smart people committing complex and ingenious murders for often incredibly esoteric motives. 

This is of course precisely the appeal of golden age detective fiction and it’s precisely the appeal of Columbo. Who wants to watch a TV show about boringly everyday crimes? Viewers want killers who are glamorous and also clever enough to provide Columbo with a real challenge in every episode. A battle of wits is no fun unless the combatants are evenly matched. Of course we know that Columbo will win the battle of wits but that’s no reflection on the intelligence of the murderers. The odds are stacked against murderers - they only have to make one tiny mistake and they’re undone - but the audience wants to feel that Columbo really has to use every ounce of his experience and his skill if he’s going to solve the case.

There’s nothing wrong with cop shows that aim at realism, but there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mystery series like Columbo that ignore reality and concentrate on enjoyable intellectual puzzles that take place in a fantasy world of glamour and glitz. Personally my preference is for the approach taken by Columbo.

The series relied heavily on the quality of the guest stars and on the whole the producers were remarkably successful in finding just the right guest stars.

The third season maintains the very high standard set by the earlier seasons. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Mission: Impossible, season 4 (1969)

Season 4 saw Mission: Impossible undergo some major shakeups both behind and in front of the camera. The most obvious change is the departure of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. In fact the loss of Landau is no problem at all. Leonard Nimoy takes over, playing exactly the same sort of role (professional magician, master of disguise, etc). And Nimoy is actually more fun than Landau.

The departure of Barbara Bain is however a very big problem. Without Cinnamon Carter to add her glamour the IMF team seems unbalanced. For some odd reason the producers decided not to replace Bain, instead using a series of female guest stars. This was a serious error of judgment. Given that Cinnamon was mostly used as the bait for honey traps (which is exactly the way a female agent would have been used in real life) she was more often than not in even more danger than the other members of the team. In these circumstances it is essential that  the female member of the team should be a regular cast member - we have to get to know her so that we worry when she’s in danger. And the female guest stars just aren’t very impressive (with the glorious exception for the wonderful Anne Francis). Lee Meriwether was brought into the series on a semi-regular basis for a while but she just isn’t a satisfactory substitute for Barbara Bain - she doesn’t have the class or the style and her performances are just a little flat.

In season four I’m again struck by the ruthlessness of the IMF. They don’t actually carry out assassinations but in episode after episode they set people up to be killed by others. They’re basically indirect assassinations. Rather startling for a spy series set during peace time! It’s also amusing if a bit frightening to contrast the psychological traumas suffered by British assassin David Callan in the directly contemporary Callan series to the casual cold-bloodedness of Jim Phelps and his team. Mind you Callan’s boss Hunter is every bit as cold-blooded as Jim Phelps - maybe assassinations really aren’t a big deal if you don’t actually pull the trigger yourself. I must confess that I really don’t know if the producers of Mission: Impossible were actually aware of the fact that this aspect of the series might one day raise eyebrows.

Of course in most spy series enemy spies get killed but usually the victims are actual professional spies and they get killed in gun fights rather than being set up for murder in a premeditated way.

Mission: Impossible is very much a spy series in which there are no moral dilemmas. There are good guys (who are always US allies) and bad guys (who are always anti-US) and it’s all very clear-cut. When the series started in 1966 this was pretty much the norm in American television spy dramas, while British series like Danger Man were already starting to introduce at least some shades of grey. By 1969 when the fourth season of Mission: Impossible was made the British TV spy drama was starting to become much more morally complex (not just Callan but also series like the very underrated Man in a Suitcase). I guess it’s not really a fair comparison since Mission: Impossible never had any pretensions towards realism. That’s why the IMF’s fondness for arranging to have bad guys rubbed out is slightly disturbing.

The opening episode of season four, The Code, is typical Mission: Impossible territory - the IMF must foil an attempted invasion in Latin America and in order to do so they must break an unbreakable code. The coding method is clever and intricate. The IMF team must also totally disrupt the invasion plans which they do in their customary way, spreading disinformation and suspicion. Leonard Nimoy makes a rather spectacular debut, sporting an impressive Fidel Castro-type beard and playing a Che Guevera-type professional revolutionary. Nimoy really has some fun with this part.

Director Stuart Hagmann is almost in danger of going overboard with the crazy tilted camera angles but since this is a spy series (and it’s an episode dealing with revolutionaries) the resulting feeling of disorientation is appropriate and it works. 

The Controllers is a two-part story in which the IMF has to discredit a scientist who has almost perfected a mind-control gas. 

 In The Numbers Game Mr Phelps and his team come up with an extraordinarily elaborate scheme to con a former dictator out of his wealth which is hidden away in a Zurich bank. The dictator had had plans to return to power in his country, plans which the American government is determined to thwart. While the con is so grandiose in conception that it well and truly stretches credibility that’s really a plus rather than a minus - this is Mission: Impossible after all and plausibility is not a major concern.

Fool's Gold deals with a plot to destabilise a friendly nation through the use of counterfeit money. The plot is a bit too reminiscent of other Mission: Impossible episodes. Perhaps the formula was starting to become just a little stale.

Commandante is better, with a few nice twists. There’s a revolutionary movement in a Latin American nation, only there are no less than three revolutionary factions. The US government is backing one faction. The IMF has to secure the release of an imprisoned priest (a member of one of the revolutionary factions) while discrediting and neutralising the other factions and at the same time leaving the way clear for the US-backed faction. The trick with the helicopter is rather cute.

The Double Circle requires the IMF to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula with a typically Mission: Impossible plot involving an elaborate deception to enable the theft of the formula. In this episode they finally solve the problem of filling Cinnamon Carter’s shoes. Anne Francis is absolutely delightful. She is so obviously the perfect replacement for Barbara Bain. The great mystery is why on earth she wasn’t made a permanent cast member. The deception plan in this episode really is intricate and ingenious. This is classic Mission: Impossible.

Neo-Nazis were a favourite theme in 60s action adventure television. Submarine, written by Englishman Donald James, is one of the most deliriously silly but inspired examples of the genre. A former SS officer is about to be released from prison is an Eastern Bloc country. He knows the location of one of those hoards of Nazi gold that were so popular with thriller writers of the time. American intelligence wants that gold so the IMF cooks up an insane plan to kidnap the SS officer and convince him he is aboard a WW2-vintage German submarine on its way to the secret Neo-Nazi headquarters where the gold will be used to re-establish the Third Reich. It’s an absurd idea but it’s executed with panache and imagination, and with a truly wonderful fake submarine set. Peter Graves and Leonard Nimoy get to practise their best phony German accents. It’s all fabulous fun.

Robot is one of the many episodes in which a dastardly plot is turned against the plotters, in this case the conspiracy being part of a power struggle in an eastern European country. Paris again gets to do his master of disguise thing but this time not just impersonating a secret policeman but also impersonating a robot! Good silly far-fetched fun with a fine supporting turn from Malachi Throne (well-known to cult television fans from his role as the spymaster in In Takes a Thief).

Mastermind is one of the organised crime stories that became increasingly common as the show’s run continued. The basic plot could have been just a tired old retread but they added a couple of delightfully bizarre elements - ESP and telepathy! So it ends up being very enjoyable.

In The Brothers Jim Phelps and his team have to risk the king of a Middle Eastern country but the difficulty is that they have no idea where he is being held. Their plan is to trick those who are holding the king to produce him. Standard Mission: impossible fare but well executed. This time the female IMF member guest star is Michelle Carey, sadly a very very poor substitute for Barbara Bain.

Time Bomb is one of the few episodes that does have some moral complexity, with an oddly sympathetic and sensitive villain (albeit one who intends to blow a entire city sky-high). It’s also a story in which Phelps’ ruthlessness takes on a slightly cruel tinge.

The Falcon is a three-part story and it has a definite Ruritanian flavour to it. This is the world of The Prisoner of Zenda, and it’s carried off with considerable style. There’s an imprisoned prince, a plot to force a beautiful princess to marry against her will, an eccentric and slightly simple-minded reigning prince and an elaborate conspiracy to seize the throne.

An amusing performance by Noel Harrison as the hapless and child-like Prince Nikolai certainly helps. There’s a nice combination of old-fashioned gadgets (like Prince Nikolai’s beloved clocks and clockwork toys) and the high-tech gadgetry of the world of Mission: Impossible. Leonard Nimoy as Paris gets to do his magician thing. The method by which the scheming General Sabatini is fooled into thinking he still has the imprisoned prince under lock and key is very clever. Even stretched out as it is over three episodes it’s highly entertaining.

Gitano is another Ruritanian kind of episode, with a young king being kidnapped. This is the central Europe of the pre-First World War era, with grand dukes and bandits and gypsies. The plot line is not overly inspired, although I do have a soft spot for these Ruritanian-flavoured stories.

Phantoms sees the IMF attempting to overthrow a Balkan dictator. The outrageous plot has them trying to send him mad by making him see ghosts! Their mission also includes saving the life of an imprisoned dissident poet. I actually found myself sympathising with the dictator - he was a nice old guy! And the dissident poet was an irritating young punk. When I find myself hoping the IMF will fail I guess you could say that for me that episode is a bit of a failure!

Chico has the IMF trying to retrieve two halves of a microfilm before big-time drug dealers can put the two halves together and discover the names of vital narcotics undercover agents. There are two highlights to this episode - Leonard Nimoy doing the worst Australian accent in television history and ace canine undercover agent Chico. Chico is one smart well-trained dog! This is one of several episodes over the years featuring animal IMF agents and they’re always particularly far-fetched but great fun.

Season four maintains the high standards of the previous seasons pretty well. On occasions the formula shows signs of wearing a bit thin but there are some great episodes and most of the stories are still very entertaining with nicely imaginative and satisfyingly far-fetched touches. Mission: Impossible might not bother itself with moral complexities or irritating details like realism but at its best it was glorious entertainment and the fourth season mostly delivers the goods. And there’s the bonus of Leonard Nimoy in top form. What more could you want?

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Special Branch, season 4 (1974)

Special Branch, produced by Britain’s Thames TV, underwent a very drastic revamp for its third season in 1973. In fact it became almost entirely a different series, with an entirely new cast and a whole new look. Thames TV’s Euston Films division took over the production. The new season would abandon the traditional practice of shooting mainly on videotape with only outdoor scenes shot on film. Everything would now be shot on film and there would be more emphasis on action and gritty realism. 

The only thing that the these two later seasons had in common with the first two seasons was the subject matter - the activities of Special Branch, police officers who were part of the Metropolitan Police but who worked in conjunction with the security and intelligence services. 

The lead character was to be Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven, played by George Sewell.

Halfway through the initial season of the new-look series it became obvious that it wasn’t quite working. It looked terrific but it just didn’t generate any real excitement. At which point the producers decoded to bring in a new character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty, played by Patrick Mower. Mower, having played the neurotic but sinister assassin Cross in Callan, had the right tough guy credentials and he had the youth and energy to be a great action hero type. Equally important he was good at playing prickly characters and the combination of George Sewell’s more laid-back style with Mower’s manic energy promised to work well. The slightly antagonistic relationship between Craven and Haggerty would also add some needed edge to the series.

This proved to be a very good decision, the series became quite successful in Britain and a further season was made in 1974 but it wasn’t enough for the US networks. They wanted even more action. There were plans to try to ramp up the action but eventually Euston Films felt that it would be better to drop Special Branch and develop a whole new series. The result was The Sweeney, which (for good and ill) revolutionised British television.

Special Branch is thus a transitional series, and an important one.

While the Euston Films incarnation of Special Branch is entertaining I find it to be a bit uneven. I generally like George Sewell a great deal as an actor but I have to confess that I really don’t care for Craven as a character. He has a bit of a self-righteous side and his sensitivity comes across as smug and at times irritating. He’s the sort of policeman who wants people to like him and understand how sensitive and caring he is. Perhaps he should have been a social worker. Haggerty on the other hand is a great character - he’s like a bomb ready to go off at any moment.

The scripts are mostly good but occasionally veer into an annoying preachiness (a mistake that the writers for The Sweeney would wisely avoid).

In Double Exposure Haggerty goes undercover to investigate a photographer who makes his living by taking embarrassing photographs of important people. Haggerty has to get very close to the photographer and also finds himself getting very close indeed to the photographer’s female assistant. Haggerty is in serious danger of getting just a bit too personally involved. What really puzzles him is that the investigations seems utterly pointless. There seems to be no security angle at all. Strand (Paul Eddington), the smooth,  somewhat sinister and frighteningly ruthless man from the Security Service (MI5) is however determined that the investigation should continue. Strand always has a reason for doing things but in this case that reason is a complete mystery. This episode is typical of the extremely cynical tone that came to dominate this series more and more.

In Catherine the Great Craven has to find a German assassin, the difficulty being that although Special Branch knows he’s in Britain to carry out an assassination they don’t know who the target is. And how did he get into the country? They know he was on board a freighter but he didn’t get off, and yet he did leave the ship. Craven finds himself working with his old sergeant, Bill North, now an Inspector with the CID. It was Craven who had North kicked out of Special Branch, which adds the potential for a certain amount of tension.

The 70s saw British television moving in a much sleazier direction and this episode has plenty of sleaze. It’s made worthwhile by fine performances by Tony Beckley as the cross-dressing assassin and Jacqueline Pearce as a German stripper.

Stand and Deliver is a good example of the problems afflicting this later incarnation of Special Branch. Michael J. Bird’s script has too much clumsy political messaging and too much cheap cynicism. It’s also wildly far-fetched and stretches credibility to breaking point and beyond. Two losers steal a new high-tech anti-tank gun from the British Army and Craven and Haggerty have to get it back. Somehow we’re meant to believe that two guys in an old beat-up truck can just drive out of an army base with the army’s latest super-weapon and the police can’t find them even though they have a description of both the men and the truck and the anti-tank gun is not exactly easy to conceal. An episode that is preachy, obvious and dull. And silly as well.

Something About a Soldier is a very fine episode with a pretty spectacular action set-piece at the end. Garfield Morgan is wonderful as a disgraced British army officer turned mercenary  who is discovered, by a lucky chance, to be back in England and with quite an armoury with him. He’s clearly up to no good but what exactly is he planning?

Rendezvous, written by the reliable Tony Williamson, is very much a spy thriller with some very nice plot twists and as much action as anyone could possibly wish for. Craven has to babysit a Russian defector at a safe house although in this case safe house is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about as safe as being in the middle of a war zone.

Sounds Sinister is a nice little episode about a pirate radio station broadcasting outrageous allegations about various very prominent people. These allegations could cause a crisis of confidence in the government and in the business and financial worlds. The problem is that the allegations are all true. 

Entente Cordiale finds Haggerty in a spot of bother after an arrest doesn’t go quite as smoothly as might have been hoped while Craven has to deal with his French ex-wife who seems to have gotten herself mixed up with the remnants of the OAS. Not one of the better episodes but it's OK.

Date of Birth is a very fine spy thriller story. A vital piece of microfilm is going to be passed to one of six au pair girls in London, but which of the six is the contact for the KGB spy? Craven and Haggerty have to find out, and fast. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The most famous line from The Sweeney, “Get Yer Trousers On You're Nicked,” is actually spoken by Patrick Mower in this episode of Special Branch, a couple of months before the pilot episode of The Sweeney went to air.

Intercept is a neat little story about a corrupt South American dictator, some morally dubious manoeuvrings by the Foreign Office, diamond smuggling, sleazy show-biz types and a mad bomber. 

Alien on the other hand is a bit of a nothing story about the deportation of a German student revolutionary.

Diversion perhaps tries too hard to be cynical, ironic and convoluted. Craven and Haggerty are asked to investigate Strand, who has been drinking heavily and chasing women. Craven soon comes to suspect that Strand is actually up to something devious (after all Strand is almost always up to something devious) The plot throws in hints of blackmail and treason and personal betrayal but somehow it feels just a bit contrived. Trying to humanise Strand is not a good idea - he’s much more interesting when he’s being his usual inhuman self.

The final episode, Downwind of Angels, is a very strong story to takes the series out. A police shooting is always a nightmare. Even if the officer was justified in shooting it’s bad enough but when it’s an innocent bystander who gets shot things get very nasty indeed. Especially when the officer claims to have fired at a man trying to assassinate a visiting dignitary but all the witnesses deny that any such man existed.

The Euston Films version of Special Branch was genuinely ground-breaking at the time and it stands up pretty well. There’s plenty of action but the graphic violence that would become more and more common in British series of this type is not yet in evidence. Craven can be an irritating character but Patrick Mower as Haggerty is great fun to watch. Paul Eddington as Strand takes cynicism to a whole new level and his performance is a delight. Frederick Jaeger is very good as Commander Fletcher. Season four introduced Susan Jameson as Detective Sergeant Mary Holmes, obviously an attempt to add a bit of glamour and a hint of romance (Craven is clearly interested in her). I still prefer the original 1969-70 shot-on-videotape Special Branch but the later version does have a modern action-oriented feel for those who prefer that approach. It’s on DVD from Network (Region 2) and they offer a boxed set that includes all four seasons. The series is also available on DVD in Region 4. Recommended.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - the Martin Hewitt episodes

Of the many late Victorian writers of detective fiction who followed in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the most consistently brilliant was Arthur Morrison. His main series detective was Martin Hewitt. The first season of Thames TV's  The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes television series in 1971 featured two adaptations of Martin Hewitt stories.

Both episodes feature Peter Barkworth as Martin Hewitt.  Martin Hewitt as portrayed by Barkworth is perhaps a little more colourful and jovial than in the original stories (although Morrison’s Hewitt is amiable enough) but overall his performance is a delight.

The Case of Laker, Absconded is one of the best of Morrison’s detective stories and happily the TV adaptation is every bit as good. Hewitt has just landed a contract with an insurance company to investigate cases of fraud, embezzlement or other crimes and now the insurance company is facing a very large pay-out. A walk clerk employed by a bank, a man by the name of Laker, has absconded with no less than fifteen thousand pounds in cash. A walk clerk’s job is to go around to other banks to change securities into cash. It’s a very responsible job and such employees are usually considered to be extremely trustworthy. Laker has always had a reputation for being honest and reliable but the evidence against him is overwhelming.

What puzzles Hewitt is how such a man could have been so foolish as to make off with such a large sum of the bank’s money and then buy a tourist ticket to France in his own name.

Even more puzzling is the fact that Laker’s fiancée assures Hewitt that Laker is a clever young man.

This is a fine complex mystery with some very impressive detective work by Martin Hewitt. 

Ronald Hines appears as Hewitt’s likeable junior partner Jonathan Pryde. 

The Affair of the Tortoise involves a tortoise, in fact two tortoises although of very different types, a voodoo curse, a retired sea captain, a troublesome tenant and a beautiful heiress. It also involves a murder although the absence of a body provides something of a puzzle. It’s a delightfully baroque plot and it’s executed with great deal of style and verve.

Dan Meaden’s performance as Inspector Nettings, a bluff jovial extremely confident and entirely incompetent Sotland Yard officer, is a complete joy. 

Peter Barkworth is in fine form. Martin Hewitt makes a wonderful detective hero - he’s clever, resourceful and determined and he’s a decent and thoroughly admirable man. He’s fascinated by murder but he seems to derive as much pleasure from proving a suspect’s innocence as he does from solving a complex puzzle.

The Case of Laker, Absconded and The Affair of the Tortoise are two of the most thoroughly enjoyable episodes in a truly wonderful series. Very highly recommended.

Network have released both seasons of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes on DVD. They are essential viewing for all fans of classy television crime series, and indeed for fans of Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction.

My review of Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewitt stories can be found at my Vintage Pop Fictions blog.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Star Trek - Assignment Earth (1968)

There are a number of Star Trek episodes (I’m naturally talking about the original series here) in which Captain Kirk and his crew find themselves not only back on Earth, but on Earth in the 20th century. The methods by which this happens vary. The odd thing is that these episodes usually turn out to be quite entertaining, and often quite clever. The final episode of the second season, Assignment Earth, is a good example. It first went to air on 29th March 1968.

Art Wallace’s screenplay (the story is credited to Wallace and to Gene Roddenberry) has some playful moments and some high suspense. In fact it’s a sort of spy thriller.

It all starts when Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), in the process of being beamed by transporter beam over an unimaginable distance, gets caught in the Enterprise’s transporter beam. Gary Seven appears to be a perfectly ordinary twentieth century human, but if that’s what he is how could he have been transported across a distance of thousands of light years? He claims to be what he appears to be but explains that he’s been living for some time on a much more advanced planet, a planet the existence of which is totally unknown to the Federation. He also claims to be on a vital mission to Earth, The fate of civilisation might well hang in the balance.

His story, however outlandish, might be true. Or he might be some kind of alien in human form. Kirk has no way of knowing but he must decide whether he should be helping Gary Seven or stopping from doing whatever he plans to do.

Robert Lansing’s performance works very well. It’s very low-key but he conveys a strange kind of detachment which could indicate that his story is true and that he is a kind of interstellar secret agent engaged on a mission to save the Earth, or it could indicate that he’s totally non-human in which case his motives are anyone’s guess, or it could indicate that he’s just some poor paranoid deluded slob.

There’s some nice interplay between Gary Seven and his super-computer and there are nicely amusing exchanges with secretary Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr) who has apparently been working for two of Gary Seven’s agents without having the slightest idea that she was working for secret agents from another planet. 

There is a bit of a political sub-text but it’s not too intrusive and the main focus is on Kirk’s dilemma. Should he trust Gary Seven or not? If Kirk makes the wrong choice the consequences will be unthinkably horrific. The loneliness of command and the pressures of having to make decisions that could mean life or death for thousands or even in this case millions are recurring themes in Star Trek and these themes propel some of the very best episodes.

This episode works so well because the audience is kept as much in the dark as Kirk - we really don’t know which way he should jump.

There’s a nice mix of humour, mystery and suspense. It all adds up to a very good episode.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Plane Makers, season 1 (1963)

Aviation, big business and politics are the ingredients that make ATV’s The Plane Makers heady viewing. This British TV series ran for three seasons from 1963 to 1965. Of the first season only the first episode survives. The whole of seasons two and three survives. It was followed by a series called The Power Game which was a sequel of sorts. 

The setting of The Plane Makers is the fictional Scott Furlong aircraft factory. The series deals with the various power struggles in the boardroom and between the management and the trades unions as the company tries to launch its new Sovereign medium-range jetliner onto the international market.

The Plane Makers could have been a tedious exercise in political television but it isn’t. Yes it focuses on the double-dealing and chicanery of top executives, bureaucrats and politicians, but the workers are no better - they’re trying to feather their own nests or they’re lazy and dishonest. The Plane Makers doesn’t focus on the corruption of the ruling class (although the British ruling class is certainly portrayed as being vicious and corrupt) - it focuses on the corruption of Britain as a whole in the early 60s. It does not however descend to nihilism or despair. 

While it’s often critical it also celebrates the efforts of those who are honestly trying their absolute best to make the Sovereign a success for both the company and the country. Even the ruthless chief executive John Wilder, for all his faults, has to be reluctantly admired as a man who has the drive and ambition to succeed. We might not like men like Wilder very much but we do need them.

There’s also a certain sense of guarded optimism about the future. Technology is exciting and aviation is exciting and in 1963 it was still possible to believe that British industry had a future.

Unusually for a British series of this vintage The Plane Makers doesn’t feel studio-bound. There’s quite a bit of outdoor shooting and it has a reasonably expansive feel to it.

Network have released the second season in two boxed sets and it’s the first of these, containing the initial thirteen episodes of the season, that we’re concerned with here.

Don't Worry About Me kicks off season one and it has to be said it’s a slightly odd way to begin a series dealing with an aircraft factory. We don’t really see any aircraft and it could be any sort of factory. It’s actually not that bad a story, just a strange choice as the series opener. It’s a shop floor drama involving one of the company’s best craftsmen who has as reputation for making short cuts and taking risks. The apprentice assigned to him is a very promising lad but he’s starting to pick up bad habits and these bad habits lead to potentially tragic results. It’s the kind of gritty (and usually tedious) social realist drama that British television churned out in immense quantity during the 60s, although this one is reasonably well done if you like that sort of thing. It’s unfortunate that it’s the only surviving first season episode since it doesn’t really give much of a feel of what the series is about, and it doesn’t offer any background on the characters who will dominate the series.

On the other hand the second season opener, “Too Much To Lose,” is an object lesson in how to start a new season with maximum effectiveness. In the space of 50 minutes it gives us all the background information we need on the key characters and on the Scott Furlong aircraft company and also tells an exciting and very tense story. 

The company’s newest aircraft, the Sovereign airliner, is almost ready for its first test flight. Exhaustive ground testing has been carried out. Everything seems to be working perfectly. The company’s chief test pilot, Henry Forbes (Robert Urquhart), is reasonably happy but he is determined that the Sovereign will not leave the ground until every possible test has been made and the results checked and rechecked and then rechecked again. Forbes is a very very cautious test pilot. That’s why he’s still alive. The Sovereign’s first flight is now three weeks away but the hard-driving ruthless chief executive of Scott Furlong, John Wilder (Patrick Wymark) has other ideas. Their main competition is a new French airliner that will make its first flight in ten days’ time. The Sovereign must beat its French competitor into the air. The first flight must take place in two days’ time.

Forbes is very uneasy about this. In fact there’s a general air of uneasiness within the company which is exacerbated by Wilder’s decision to break with long-standing company tradition. When a new Scott Furlong aircraft makes its first flight the company’s chief executive is always aboard, but Wilder announces he will not be making the first flight. This does not make the best of impressions. Wilder is under pressure from his board of directors as well. His control of the company is not as total as he would like. And there are tensions surfacing in his marriage as well. All these stresses on all the key characters keep building as the first flight approaches. Will the flight end in triumph, or in disaster and tragedy? This is superb television.

In No Man’s Land the company is in turmoil. The possibility of a fault in the Sovereign is enough to threaten the company’s survival and Wilder is determined to make sure the person responsible is found and fired. It turns out not to be so simple. There’s the danger of upsetting the union. Even trickier is deciding just where responsibility might lie. Might it not lie with the person who insisted on rushing the flight testing - that person being Wilder himself. For works manager Arthur Sugden it’s a question of where his loyalties lie and that’s a tricky question indeed. Sugden came up through the ranks so to speak - does he identify with the workers or the management?

In A Question of Sources Wilder finds out that there is one thing worse than a possible fault in a new aeroplane, and that’s the press getting wind of it.

All Part of the Job deals with the sort of low-level corruption that is endemic in any organisation. While executives are awarding contracts to outside firms on the basis of favours owed to them the ordinary workers are ripping off the company in countless small ways. No-one sees this as real corruption- it’s just taking advantages of the perks of the job.

John Wilder takes Arthur Sugden, now promoted to works general manager, along with him on a sales trip to Italy in “Don't Stick Your Head Out" and Sugden learns that there’s more to selling aeroplanes than he’d thought. Sometimes selling aeroplanes is all about not selling aeroplane. Sugden finds it difficult to cope with such subtleties and perhaps that’s why Wilder brought him along - if you want to be an executive you have to learn to embrace such subtleties.

"The Old Boy Network" raises the old question - is there one rule for the ordinary workers and another for the executives? Does being a gentleman mean you get a second chance when you make a bad mistake, a second chance that the ordinary worker would not get? In this case Ernie Wainwright, a very lowly employee, has made a serious mistake but up-and-coming sales executive Nigel Carr’s mistake is arguably just as serious. Will Nigel be looked after by the Old Boy Network? As usual with this series the issue is dealt with without resorting to mere clichés.

Any More for the Skylark? is a real change of pace, being not merely light-hearted but verging on out-and-out comedy. It is a tradition of the firm that when a new aircraft makes its first long-distance flight the seats are allocated to random employees. In this case that means a free trip to the Mediterranean. This causes nothing but headaches for the two unfortunates in the PR department who find themselves saddled with the job of allocating the seats. There are sixty seats and hundreds of employees who think they should be on the flight. It’s a gently amusing episode and it comes just at the right time, midway through the second season, when a touch of light-heartedness is rather welcome.

A Matter of Self Respect is more in the style of the British kitchen sink dramas of the day. Tim Carter used to be a high-flyer in the design department, until he spent a year-and-half in prison. Now he’s back at Scott Furlong, on the shop floor, and it’s a difficult adjustment. And that’s the least of his problems. His private life is a shambles. He’s trying to put himself back together piece by piece but at any moment it could all come crashing down again. It’s a reasonably well done episode but kitchen sink dramas are not really my thing.

"Costigan's Rocket" is pure whimsy. Harry Costigan works in the stores department at Scott Furlong. Harry is renowned as a man who is always in a rush and gets his jobs done quickly but he has never been known to do overtime. That is, until his daughter gets engaged. Weddings are expensive things and Harry is determined that his daughter will be married in style. Even with overtime it’s going to be a struggle to pay for it. Then, quite out of the blue, the answer to Harry’s problems drops into his lap. The answer is Costigan’s Rocket. Costigan’s Rocket is a greyhound. Not just a greyhound however - the Rocket is the fastest thing on four legs. Owning this dog is like having a licence to print money. It’s actually a small syndicate of Scott Furlong employees who own the dog but there’s no doubt that this animal will guarantee them all a very tidy profit on their modest investment.

You might wonder why the man at the very top of the company, John Wilder himself, would be concerning himself with this dog racing scheme but there are reasons why it becomes absolutely essential that the Rocket should win his first race. Given that this dog is an absolute dead certainty nothing could go wrong. Could it?

This is actually quite a delightful little story, warmhearted without being sentimental and genuinely amusing. It is however the third consecutive episode that has nothing whatever to do with aviation. Of course the idea behind this series was to focus not just on the boardroom struggles and flying dramas but also on the ordinary employees without whom the Sovereign could never have been built and flown. That’s a perfectly valid approach for such a series to take (and it’s certainly in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s) but I can’t help thinking it might have been wiser to make the ordinary worker-related stories have at least something to do with aircraft manufacture. Still, the series ran for three seasons which suggests that the producers knew what they were doing.

Things get back on track with "The Thing About Auntie" - now we’re back to boardroom infighting and political intrigues and these are the subjects that this series does well and that give it its punch. The death of the Chairman is likely to lead to a three-way power struggle. John Wilder wants the position but his candidacy will be complicated by certain rumours that have been circulating about his wife. Of course a really skilled and devious intriguer might be able to find a way to turn potentially damaging rumours to his own advantage. Someone as skilled and devious as John Wilder for example.

The Cat's Away nicely combines tensions on the shop floor with tensions among management. Efficiency experts have everybody worried, including Arthur Sugden. With the pressure on to move delivery dates forward the company cannot afford any hint of a strike but that’s exactly what they might be facing. A fine episode.

Strings in Whitehall very much takes place in the rarefied but rather corrupt world in which business and politics intersect. Wilder sees a chance of making a sale to a South American airline but he’ll need government support in financing the deal and the government may not be prepared to risk public money, given that the airline in question is at best marginally solvent. John Wilder is not a man to take no for an answer and he’ll pull every string that he can but how much is he willing to risk? This is the type of story that shows this series at its best.

Scott Furlong’s chief test pilot may have a problem on his hands with his first officer in The Best of Friends. Pilots tend to be loyal to one another, but is this always a good idea? And there are other kinds of loyalty that raise questions as well in this fine episode. 

The Plane Makers is fine television drama. Highly recommended.