Friday, 15 December 2017

three Twilight Zones from 1961

Three episodes of The Twilight Zone for this post, all written by Rod Serling, all from the second season and originally aired in 1961.

While I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone and while I have definite reservations about Serling’s writing I have to admit that when Serling got it right he could hit it right out of the ball park. The Silence, from season two, is one of his best episodes.

It’s a very unusual episode in that there are no supernatural or science fictional elements whatsoever. There’s no overt horror. In fact it’s a character-driven drama. The one thing that qualifies it as a Twilight Zone episode is the offbeat nature of the central plot device.

Serling later admitted that he had unconsciously borrowed some of the key plot elements from an Anton Chekhov story.

The setting is a gentleman’s club. Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan) is the club bore. He talks incessantly and his conversation consists mostly of empty braggadocio which usually leads up to attempts to borrow money. Tennyson is a young man who has spent all his inheritance and he’s always looking for ways to make easy money. He has a lovely young wife with whom he is madly in love but she has very expensive tastes.

Colonel Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) offers Tennyson a very easy way to make a great del of money. All he has to do is to shut up. If he can remain absolutely silent for a year Taylor will pay him half a million dollars. It’s not quite so easy as it sounds - Tennyson will be confined in a glassed-in room in the club basement and the room is filled with microphones. If he does speak, even a single word, it will be heard and he will lose the wager.

We get hints early on of where the story is heading but while Serling could on occasions be obvious in this tale he keeps some effective surprises up his sleeve.

Franchot Tone had had a glittering career in the golden age of Hollywood but this is actually one of his best moments as an actor. Liam Sullivan is excellent as well. The third major character in the story is Taylor’s lawyer Alfred, played totally straight but very effectively by Jonathan Harris (a far cry from his famous role as Dr Smith in Lost in Space).

Boris Sagal was a very fine television director and although there’s no action and really only two sets he keeps things interesting and he builds the tension rather nicely. He is also prepared to let the actors get on with the job, a wise move since it’s the characters and the relationship between them that is the strength of this story.

Mention must be made of the splendid glassed-in room set which adds a slight touch of Twilight Zone-style paranoid atmosphere.

This is a superb episode in which everything comes together perfectly.

Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? is also a slightly unusual episode. In some ways it’s more what you expected from The Outer Limits. A UFO has crashed into a lake and a couple of state troopers have arrived to investigate. They find tracks leading from the lake to a nearby diner. In the diner are a group of people, passengers on a bus, who are temporarily stranded due to heavy snow. The problem is that six passengers got onto the bus but now there are seven of them. The state troopers conclude, reasonably enough, that one of them is really an alien from the crashed flying saucer. But which one?

This is a pure science fiction story but it’s done in a light-hearted whimsical style. Serling was not renowned for his ability to write comedy but he does a pretty decent job with this script.

A fine cast of talented character actors certainly helps.

There’s some fairly effective tension as well. The story might be essentially comedic but one of these people is not just a Martian but in all probability a dangerous and malevolent one so we can’t be quite sure whether it’s suddenly going to take a turn into much grimmer territory. A very good episode.

Twenty Two is a good solid supernatural horror story, written by Serling and based on a very famous  E.F. Benson ghost story. Liz Powell is a stripper who has been hospitalised as a result of overwork. All she needs is rest. She has a recurring nightmare in which she ends up in the hospital morgue. Liz has convinced herself that her nightmare is no mere nightmare - that it is real. Her doctor (played by Jonathan Harris) tries to convince her that it really is just a dream but she becomes more and certain that it’s real.

This one establishes the right mood from the start. We know something is very wrong. It’s nothing startling or ground-breaking and the ending isn’t a huge surprise but Serling delivers an effective script nonetheless. The atmosphere of terror is more important than the actual plot. The one fly in the ointment here is that it was made during the period when CBS had insisted on cost-cutting measures and was therefore shot on videotape. This is most unfortunate since the story needs as much help as it can get from the visuals. The hospital sets are good and director Jack Smight knows what he is doing but it doesn’t have quite the creepiness that could have been achieved on film. Barbara Nichols does well as the stripper, making her amusing but genuinely sympathetic - we like her and we don’t want anything terrible to happen to her.

Twenty Two delivers the goods in a fairly impressive fashion.

So three good Rod Serling episodes and they all have one important thing in common. Serling has resisted his natural and all too pervasive urge to us and to bludgeon us with heavy-handed messages, concentrating instead in these three stories on producing well-crafted tales that provide chills and entertainment. The Silence is outstanding but all three are very much worth watching, or (if you’ve seen them before) watching again.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Hazell, season 2 (1979)

The second season of Hazell is very much in the style of the first but with a few personnel changes. Hazell has come to a parting of the ways with lesbian Dot Wilmington and her detective agency. When he finds his feet again he acquires a sort of assistant in the person of the slightly sleazy Graham Morris (Peter Bourke), a young artist specialising in insects. Mostly Graham just helps to pay the rent on the office and answers the phone but he helps on some cases. It’s not exactly a warm friendship between Hazell and Graham. At best they tolerate each other.

Fortunately the other two regular cast members are still there - Roddy McMillan as Inspector ‘Choc’ Minty and Desmond McNamara as Hazell’s cousin Tel. Hazell’s relationship with Minty is somewhat tense although there are moments of grudging mutual respect, and plenty of opportunities for acidic dialogue exchanges. They might not like each other very much but they are useful to each other. Cousin Tel provides the comic relief, and does so very successfully.

Hazell follows a formula that is very very close to that of The Rockford Files. Both deal with down-market private eyes who have uneasy relationships with the police, both feature heroes with unhappy pasts (Rockford was in prison, Hazell had a drinking problem), both take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the private eye genre, both series are stylish and witty, and both are heavily influenced by the American hardboiled and film noir traditions. Of course there is one very major difference - The Rockford Files is very American (in fact very Californian) and Hazell is very English (in fact very London).

Hazell and the Baker Street Sleuth kicks off season 2. Hazell finds himself working for the very down-market Fitch Bureau of Investigations. Fitch has a reputation for not paying his investigators but Hazell needs the work. Getting paid will be one challenge but there is also a moral dilemma - he has to investigate an unfaithful husband who really doesn’t seem to be unfaithful at all but clients want results and Fitch likes to give them results.

Hazell and the Deptford Virgin is a very amusing and very clever riff on The Maltese Falcon with an assortment of rogues after a statue containing a fabulous treasure in jewels. Charles Gray is in magnificent form as the chief villain, although he’s not quite a conventional villain. He’s ruthless and amoral but he’s more of a loveable rogue. This is a truly splendid episode with Hazell having to outsmart some very clever and very unscrupulous people. Luckily he’s equal to the challenge.

In Hazell Bangs the Drum Hazell is hired by a Dr Patel to investigate what appears to be a case of blackmail. Hazell suspects that an illegal immigration racket may be behind it, but it’s just a theory and really he’s not sure what he’s stumbled upon. He has to take crash course in rock’n’roll drumming to solve this case but he finds some surprising compensations in a laundrette.

Hazell Gets the Boot sees Hazell, much against his better judgment, working for a notorious gangster. The job seems harmless enough. Someone has stolen the gangster’s Bentley and he wants it back. Of course the job isn’t harmless at all. This excellent episode features a delightfully twisted plot.

Hazell is hired by a very attractive young lady in Hazell Gets the Bird. Someone is trying to put this lady out of business. Her business is exotic pets but mostly she deals in taxidermy. Hazell finds himself with a personal stake in this case when he starts sleeping with the lady in question. He’s getting well paid, he’s getting to bed an attractive woman and he’s getting to play the knight rescuing a damsel in distress. So far it’s all good. Except for the birds. The birds are a worry. Hazell discovers that sleeping with clients isn’t always a wise idea, although of course that’s not going to stop him from doing it again. A nicely plotted story and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s always a tongue-in-cheek element to Hazell. The combination of this with plenty of homages to  the hardboiled style of 1940s private eye movies is a key part of the charm of the series. Hazell and the Big Sleep isn’t so much tongue-in-cheek as pure farce and for me it doesn’t quite work - even though it deals with Chicago gangsters it lacks the essential hardboiled flavour. Hazell is having cash flow problems and an offer of a job helping an old police colleague to catch a hotel thief seems like a lucky break. It’s more like an unlucky break. Everything goes wrong and Hazell is in trouble with just about everybody.

Hazell finds himself in the heart of the countryside in Hazell and the Suffolk Ghost. His client has inherited a cottage but he has no idea why it should have been left to him, plus there have some slightly spooky incidents. Ghosts and witchcraft are not normally in Hazell’s line and dealing with surly villagers who dislike strangers makes things a bit uncomfortable. There are compensations however. The client is overseas but his wife is staying at the cottage and she’s very young, very attractive and has a rather affectionate disposition. In fact she’s very affectionate indeed to Hazell. Bedding a client’s wife might not be strictly ethical but it doesn’t do to get too hung up on ethics.

Hazell and Hyde starts out as a very routine case. Hazell has to find a missing girl who probably doesn’t really want to be found. In fact it’s the beginning of a nightmare for Hazell. Someone is stalking him and it has something to do with the missing girl. A pretty good episode with a few genuinely scary moments.

Hazell and the Happy Couple has our dauntless enquiry agent dealing with marital problems. Other people’s marital problems, always a messy business especially when the client has been rather less than honest with him.

Hazell Gets the Part introduces Hazell to the glamorous world of the movie business, which turns out to be rather sordid. He’s looking for a stolen necklace but finds other kinds of villainy afoot. There's also plenty of fun to be had in this story.

The less said about Hazell and the Greasy Gunners the better. A clumsy political message episode.

The series gets back on track with the excellent Hazell and the Public Enemy. Hazell is hired by an old childhood friend. The friend has just broken out of prison but he’s actually in big trouble and he wants to hire Hazell to help him. That’s going to make Hazell unpopular with the law, and with a very nasty big-time gangster. Even worse, the whole scheme has been cooked up by a girl crime reporter and Hazell is quite rightly suspicious of her motives. This is a serious episode with a very definite film noir quality.

Hazell is fine television viewing, witty and intelligent but also great fun. Highly recommended.

Both seasons are available on Region 2 DVD from Network in the UK.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Avengers - The Mauritius Penny/Mr Teddy Bear

A couple of 1962 Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers for this post.

Mr Teddy Bear was one of the very early Cathy Gale episodes of the Avengers and was apparently one of Patrick Macnee’s favourites. It was recorded in August 1962, going to air in Britain a month later.

Martin Woodhouse wrote the script. Woodhouse was a doctor by training and he believed that not only would it be desirable to include scientific concepts in his stories, it would be even better if these scientific ideas were plausible.

Woodhouse went on to write a number of episodes featuring both Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Julie Stevens as Venus Smith, as well as one of the Diana Rigg episodes (the excellent A Sense of History).

Mr Teddy Bear is a notorious and very successful hitman. He has just masterminded the ingenious murder of a prominent military man, the murder taking place live on television. He is not just a hitman but a bit of a showman as well. One-Ten (Steed’s boss who appeared as a semi-regular character in the early Cathy Gale episodes) has decided that enough is enough. Mr Teddy Bear must be stopped. The plan is to use Steed as bait. Mr Teddy Bear will be hired to kill Steed. This should bring him out into the open. Of course if the plan goes wrong it will be very unfortunate for poor old Steed.

Mrs Gale is to be the one who makes contact with the assassin. She will be the one who hires him to kill Steed.

Mr Teddy Bear is no fool and Steed will have some uncomfortably close brushes with death in this adventure. And it builds to an effective and exciting climax.

This episode dates from the days when the series was shot live on videotape, a practice which was certainly limiting when it came to attempting any fancy visual tricks (although the talking bear is a nice touch). Fortunately such tricks are not really necessary if you have a good director working from a good script and, most importantly, if the lead actors have a form grasp of what characters tick and what makes the relationship between them tick. That’s very much the case here. It’s a good story but it’s the characters who make it great television. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman had already developed a wonderful chemistry.

This is the early version of Steed, a more cynical and more ruthless operator than the later Steed. There are times when Mrs Gale definitely does not approve of Steed’s cold-bloodedness. That makes the relationship between them rather interesting. There’s flirtatiousness and there’s clearly an element of sexual attraction but there’s a bit of an edge as well. Cathy is a bit cautious about Steed.

The Optimum Region 2 DVD release includes an excellent audio commentary for this episode which features writer Martin Woodhouse.

Mr Teddy Bear is a truly superb episode.

The Mauritius Penny on the other hand has some major problems. It starts promisingly enough, with murder and mayhem in the world of philately. A very rare stamp has come on the market. The trouble is that this stamp is too rare - it just isn’t possible that such a stamp could suddenly turn up out of the blue. One murder in the world of stamp collecting would be odd enough. When Steed and Mrs Gale witness a second murder during a stamp auction it’s obvious they have stumbled onto something big.

Mrs Gale happens to know quite a bit about stamps. Steed unfortunately knows nothing of the subject. The fact that he doesn’t realise that there’s no such thing as a Maltese twopenny blue almost gets him killed.

Had the script stuck to stamps it might have been amusing and offbeat but writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks have a different agenda and the script degenerates into heavy-handed political messaging. And it’s neo-Nazis once again. The obsession of television writers in the 60s with this topic was truly excessive and truly embarrassing. It could be made to work quite well if writers treated the subject as an opportunity for outrageous conspiracy theories and silly fun but this story is more like an earnest political lecture, with endless speeches. As the focus switches away from the stamps the fun seems to evaporate.

A very fine guest cast, including Richard Vernon and Alfred Burke, almost saves this one.

This is one episode that does suffer a little from the limitations of the shot-live-on-videotape format. Too much of the episode is focused on a dull political meeting (that seems to go on forever with speech after speech) in a nondescript hall.

So two episodes, one excellent and one not so good.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Outer Limits - Don't Open Till Doomsday, ZZZZZ

Don't Open Till Doomsday is a fairly generally admired episode from the first season of The Outer Limits. Back in the 1920s a wealthy young couple received an odd wedding gift. It just looks like a fairly ordinary box. If you look inside the box you’ll wish you hadn’t. The groom did look inside the box and that was the end of that marriage.

Thirty years later a young couple elopes. The Justice of the Peace who marries them suggests they might like to stay at Mary Kry’s place. She has a large bridal suite that she’s just started renting out. It sounds like an enticing offer but Mrs Kry’s house turns out to be a gigantic dilapidated wreck of a place, and Mrs Kry herself (played by Miriam Hopkins) is more than a bit disturbing.

Gard Hayden (Buck Taylor) and his bride Vivia (Melinda Plowman) are a bit concerned that Vivia’s dear old dad may be pursuing them and being pursued by Emmett Balfour (John Hoyt) is no joke. He’s a powerful and formidable man, and since Vivia is underage he could cause them a lot of grief.

Still, they are newly married and everything is a romantic adventure and the bridal suite seems like it’s just the place for romance. They’re a nice young couple, hopelessly in love, and we feel that things will probably end up working out for them. If only they don’t look in that deceptively ordinary looking box. It’s not a very big box so it couldn’t possibly contain anything really bad or dangerous, could it? But evil can come in very small packages.

This episode has an extremely gothic feel to it which you don’t really expect from The Outer Limits but it works extremely well, adding to the sense of not just horror but of weirdness. It’s a weird story and it’s an appropriate combination.

The story itself is quite clever and it has the right touches of real menace. Joseph Stefano was a fine writer and his script hits all the right notes.

The Outer Limits was a series that was always willing to do stories that required effective special effects even though early 60s American network television wasn’t really up to doing elaborate effects in a convincing manner. The Outer Limits was also very willing to show us the monster early and show it often even though that’s usually a bad idea unless your monster is effective enough to allow you to get away with taking such risks. In this episode on the whole the gamble pays off, and in any case the real impact of this story is from the atmosphere of gothic creepiness and the horror of the situation the characters find themselves in rather than from the actual scariness of the monster.

Miriam Hopkins goes outrageously over-the-top and it’s the right approach. The rest of the cast take a much more restrained approach, and that’s the right thing to do as well.

An excellent atmospheric episode with some real chills that come from moral dilemmas rather than straight out monster stuff.

In ZZZZZ the rather studious and dedicated middle-aged entomologist Professor Ben Fields gets a new assistant. Regina (Joanna Frank) is a remarkably beautiful young woman and very very sexy. She doesn’t appear to have any actual qualifications and she has no references but she gets the job anyway, which doesn’t please the professor’s wife Francesca (Marsha Hunt) very much. Francesca is middle-aged and just a little on the dowdy side and for some strange reason she’s a bit suspicious of her husband’s new sex kitten assistant.

In fact Ben Fields is a happily married man and he has no idea that Regina is likely to cause a problem. She’s such a nice girl and she’s so keen. He genuinely has no desire to sleep with her.

Regina however is very interested indeed in mating. She is not an ordinary young woman. She is not a woman at all (which is giving anything away since we in the audience know this from the beginning). Being an entomologist Ben knows quite a bit about insect mating rituals, but not enough to realise that he’s right slap bang in the middle of one.

The success of this episode depends to a very high degree on Joanna Frank’s performance. She has to be beautiful and very sexy, which she manages with ease. In fact she oozes sex from every pore. She has to be seductive, but not in a crass way. If Ben Fields is going to be tempted he’s the type of man who is most likely to be tempted by a girl who is sexy in a sweet nice girl sort of way. Wide-eyed innocence and all that sort of thing. She has a stunning figure but it’s those big eyes that are likely to get him. Miss Frank however has to do more than this. Given what we know about her true nature she has to have a certain haughty arrogance, the arrogance of supreme power. She also has to have sublime confidence in her beauty. She has to do all this whilst still being sweet and innocent. Not easy but she does it and she does it extremely well. She also needs to have a certain quality of disturbing strangeness. She has to be a beautiful woman and still let us know that she is not human. It’s a superb performance and it’s enough on its own to carry the episode.

This episode has more than this going for it though. It’s a good story. It’s far-fetched but it’s done skilfully enough to allow us to suspend our disbelief successfully. And it has at least some emotional punch.

There are only a couple of brief special effects and while they’re not great they work well enough. I do love the professor’s laboratory. The gadgetry manages to be clever and imaginative while obviously done on a very limited budget.

ZZZZZ is a terrific episode. And you have to love a story with a monster who combines menace with innocence and seductiveness.

Two excellent episodes that serve as a reminder of just how good The Outer Limits could be.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents - Melissa (1964)

Melissa is a six-episode mini-series first broadcast by the BBC in 1964 as part of the Francis Durbridge Presents series. It was remade in colour in 1974, again as part of the Francis Durbridge Presents series.

Melissa opens in typically Francis Durbridge fashion. Guy Foster (Tony Britton) is a rather inoffensive journalist now trying to make a living as a novelist. He’s not the sort of man you would expect to be a murder suspect. But that is what has happened to Guy. His problem is that the story he has told to the police has been contradicted, in fairly spectacular fashion, by the evidence of other people. Are these people lying? Is there some kind of conspiracy? Has Guy gone insane? None of it makes sense but the upshot is that to the police he’s looking more and more like a guilty man.

Guy is now in a nightmare world. The police don’t seem to believe anything he says. Nobody seems to believe him. People he has never met claim to know him. A very respectable doctor tells the police that Guy is one of his patients, although Guy has never even heard of the doctor. Any evidence that might support Guy’s story seems to disappear,  or (even more worryingly) appears to have never existed although Guy distinctly remembers seeing these pieces of evidence.

It’s obvious that if Guy wants to clear his name, and avoid being arrested, he’ll have to solve the case himself but he doesn’t know if he can trust anybody since nobody seems to be the person that Guy thought they were. In fact his whole life may not have been what he thought it was, and certainly the reality of his marriage differed from Guy’s perception of it. Did he even know his wife Melissa at all?

Guy also thought he knew his friends pretty well. Friends like glamorous racing car driver Don Page (Brian McDermott) and Paula and Felix Hepburn (an amiable if slightly dotty middle-aged couple). Now Guy is wondering if he could have been wrong about them as well.

And it’s not just one murder. And the circumstances of the second murder tend to point towards Guy as well. It’s also by no means certain that this second murder will be the last.

Durbridge’s script twists and turns in very satisfying fashion. By the end of the fourth episode I must confess that I still had no inkling whatever of the solution to this mystery. There are six half-hour episodes and Durbridge knows how to make the most of this format, giving us some kind of surprise (or enigmatic) ending for each episode. 

The solution to the mystery is quite typical of Durbridge’s work but I won’t say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.

Tony Britton gives a fine performance. It’s mostly understated and even when Guy’s whole world is collapsing around him Britton doesn’t overdo the gradually increasing hysteria because Guy is the sort of man who, if he were going to go mad, would go mad quietly and unobtrusively.

Brian Wilde plays Chief Inspector Carter, who seems rather gentle and quietly spoken for a policeman but perhaps that’s just the impression he likes to give. He finds it difficult to believe Guy’s story but what exactly does the inspector believe? He doesn’t give much away.

This is early 60s BBC television so don’t expect too much in the way of production values. There are a few outdoors scenes but mostly it’s shot in the studio and it is a bit dialogue-heavy at times. 

Melissa is one of the four Durbridge serials in Madman’s Australian Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 DVD boxed set. The set also includes The Desperate People and A Game of Murder (both of which are excellent) and A Man Called Harry Brent (which I haven’t yet watched). The transfers are good (considering that this is early 60s shot-on-videotape British television) and the set is great value.

Melissa is an unassuming but entertaining mystery. Durbridge fans won't want to miss it. If you're not yet a Durbridge fan it's probably as good a place as any to start. His television serials are all pretty consistent and all are enjoyable.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Banacek season two (1973-74)

Banacek having been one of the successes of the first year of NBC’s Mystery Movie series it was hardly surprising that a second season of eight episodes followed in late 1973 with George Peppard once again playing the handsome debonair insurance investigator who has a taste for the good things in life, and the money to indulge that taste. It is almost unnecessary to add that Banacek’s idea of the good things of life most certainly includes women.

The format was the same as in the first season with each feature-length episode being an impossible crime story (and usually a pretty good one).

In season two Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), who had appeared in the pilot episode, was added to the regular cast, at least for the early part of the season. She’s an insurance investigator as well and it was obviously felt that the sometimes friendly, but mostly antagonistic, rivalry between the two would add some interest. And of course there’s an uneasy romantic tension as well. I’m not sure it was an entirely necessary change but their interplay is quite amusing. She disappears in the later episodes.

Once again Banacek gets invaluable help from his friend Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson), rare book dealer and expert in all manner of esoteric subjects.

One of the secrets to the success of this series is George Peppard’s ability to make Banacek a character who is both arrogant and genuinely likeable. He’s likeable because the arrogance is done with a twinkle in his eye.

In No Stone Unturned an eleven foot high three ton statue disappears. To get the statue into the museum where it was to go on display required an entire wall to be removed. The wall was then replaced so there was absolutely no way the statue could have been removed from the building. But someone did remove it.

If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is? concerns the theft of a computer. A brand new high-tech medical computer. And this is 1972, so this computer is the size of a room. A large room. The computer, costing several million dollars, was built with money put up by a wealthy hypochondriac. This is a very good episode.

A three million dollar horse-drawn wedding coach belonging to a Middle Eastern potentate is stolen from a shipping container in The Three Million Dollar Piracy. The coach was being shipped to the Middle East for the ruler’s marriage to movie star Diana Maitland.

In this episode Carlie has become engaged to the very respectable, and very dull, Henry DeWitt and this gives Banacek the opportunity to have a good deal of fun at his expense. This is a particularly pleasing episode that includes everything a Banacek fan could ask for.

The Vanishing Chalice is a valuable ancient Greek artifact that is stolen from a museum. Stolen in public. Stolen right in front of dozens of witnesses. But nobody saw it happen. The solution turns out to be a quite ingenious and satisfactory impossible crime solution.

This episode also sees Carlie manoeuvre herself into the position of being Banacek’s assistant. She claims that she just wants to learn from the master but this being Carlie we’re not surprised that she has another more devious agenda. Carlie is pretty good at manipulating men but she discovers that a girl has to get up pretty early in the morning if she wants to out-manipulate Thomas Banacek. Another fine episode.

Horse of a Slightly Different Color is pretty good as well. This one was written by Jimmy Sangster, better known for writing scripts for Hammer horror movies.

A racehorse is stolen, in full view of numerous witnesses. This is not just any racehorse. This is Oxford Don, the best racehorse in America, and he’s insured for a cool five million dollars. That means half a million dollars if Banacek can find the horse (his terms are always that he gets ten percent of the insured value of any items he recovers). Oxford Don had been owned by Katherine Wells, the most glamorous racehorse owner in the country. Katherine admires horseflesh but there are other things that interest her more. To be more specific there is one thing she likes more than horses, and that is men. She chooses her men the way she chooses her horses. They need to be thoroughbreds, in the peak of condition, and with lots of stamina. She prefers stayers to sprinters. Anne Francis has plenty of fun with this role and is able to make Katherine both slightly horrifying and rather sympathetic.

Oxford Don wasn’t exactly stolen. He was taken out for trackwork and when he came back he wasn’t Oxford Don any more.

Carlie Kirkland doesn’t appear in this story which is just as well. There are two women involved in this case and Banacek needs to give them both his undivided attention.

In Rocket to Oblivion a new highly advanced rocket engine is stolen from a science and technology expo. There is no way something of that size could be stolen within a few seconds and there was in any case no way of removing something that heavy from its display, given that the electricity was off at the time of the theft. Nonetheless the engine was stolen. The insurance company wants it back. The inventor of the engine wants it back. The Pentagon wants it back.

Carlie thinks she can crack this case herself. She was a secret weapon. And anyway Banacek seems to be spending all his time bedding the glamorous organiser of the expo, the deliciously named Cherry Saint-Saëns (Linda Evans).

Fly Me - If You Can Find Me concerns a jet airliner forced to make an emergency landing at a remote airfield in Nevada. The crew spend the night at a motel and when they return to the airfield the next day the aircraft is gone. But there is no way it could have taken off. It was not only in no condition to fly, it would have been impossible to get the plane airborne.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t involves stage magic, and usually I love movies or TV dealing with this subject. In this case the setup is very good but to me the ending was just a bit too far-fetched.

The second season generally maintains the high standards of season one. Banacek is stylish and witty entertainment with some reasonably clever plots and it has a charismatic star. There’s not much more you can ask for in a television program. Highly recommended.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Doctor Who - Silver Nemesis (1988)

Finding myself discussing 1980s Doctor Who recently I decided I just had to watch some last night. So I dragged out Silver Nemesis, from 1988.

I know it’s an episode that has a fairly dire reputation, but I’ve found that some of the most reviled Seventh Doctor stories are the ones I enjoy most (like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol). And while most of the criticisms of Silver Nemesis are valid (the plot is overly complicated, the various plot strands don’t quite come together, and the cybermen are absurdly vulnerable) it was still rollicking good fun.

When you have a female 17th century black magician, an ageing Nazi trying to usher in the Fourth Reich with the aid of alien technology, a setting that jumps back and forth between 17th century England and 1980s England, some bizarre and horrendously destructive piece of Gallifreyan technology that the Doctor may well have been responsible  for unleashing, some intriguing hints about the Doctor’s dark and mysterious past and secrets about himself he would prefer not to have revealed, plus you have Ace getting to blow stuff up, how can you not have fun?

It also has a fine supporting cast, with the standout performance being by veteran actor Anton Diffring as a crazed Nazi with a Wagner fixation. Fiona Walker is also excellent as the equally crazed Lady Peinforte, the 17th century dabbler in black magic and time travel with her own plans for world domination.

I was always quite fond of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor, although nowadays I find Ace to be just a little bit tiresome.

Maybe there are just too many interesting ideas thrown together, but perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s only a three-parter. Usually the major problem with classic Doctor Who is an excess of padding, but this is a rare case of a story that might have benefitted from an extra episode. I still thought it was great fun.

Monday, 16 October 2017

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder, season two (1971)


The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder was a delightfully quirky British murder mystery series set in the 1920s and based on Edgar Wallace’s J. G. Reeder short stories. Wallace was known more as a thriller writer than a mystery writer but his J. G. Reeder stories are genuine, albeit slightly unconventional, detective stories. The first season went to air in 1969. A second season followed in 1971, this time with original stories.

This series has many things going for it, not the least of them being Hugh Burden’s marvelous performance as Mr Reeder. Mr Reeder is not a policeman as such. He works for the Office of the Public Prosecutor as a special investigator, concentrating on crimes that require his special talents - crimes that need to be handled with discretion, or with particular urgency, or that are for some reason too awkward for conventional police methods to be successful. Mr Reeder is a shy, awkward, self-effacing physically negligible  little man in late middle age. Not the sort of man, you might think, to strike fear into the heart of the average criminal. appearances can be deceptive. In fact Mr Reeder is very much feared by the criminal underworld. Many criminals have made the mistake of underestimating him. Those miscreants are now either serving lengthy sentences in one of His Majesty’s prisons or they have ended their criminal careers on the scaffold.

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder combines a subtly tongue-in-cheek approach with ingenious and original plotting. The 1920s setting is evoked pretty successfully on the whole.

Willoughby Godard contributes an outrageously over-the-top performance as Reeder’s boss, Sir Jason Toovey. Sir Jason is the kind of civil servant who is very good at two things - taking credit for other people’s hard work and shifting the blame for his own failures onto someone else’s shoulders. He is a man of limited intelligence but possessed of a great deal of cunning. Despite his conning, his duplicity and his utter lack of scruples for some curious reason which he is never able to understand he never seems to be able to get the better of the apparently insignificant and harmless Mr Reeder. The exchanges between Reeder and Sir Jason provide a great deal of the considerable wit that characterises this series.

One interesting thing about the second season is that Sir Jason seems to have been made into a slightly more sympathetic, and slightly more intelligent, character. Fortunately he’s still just as amusing.

The dusty, timid and bookish Mr Reeder is not the sort of man one would normally associate with romance. Mr Reeder is however full of surprises and there is indeed romance, or at least potential romance, in his life. Even more surprisingly the object of his passions is a very beautiful young lady, the charming Miss Belman (Gillian Lewis). The only obstacle they face is their mutual shyness. It is clear that Miss Belman very strongly reciprocates Mr Reeder’s feelings. 

Season two kicks off with The Duke. Mr Reeder has to deal with a Chicago mobster and a disputed succession to an English title and the estate that goes with it. There is murder afoot and with Chicago gangster planning to bring in a few of his boys from the States there’s the potential for a great deal of mayhem. And a great deal of fun - this is an excellent episode.

Man with a Strange Tattoo isn’t a wildly original story but I’ve always enjoyed tales dealing with strange Indian gods and forbidden idols. It’s handled quite well, with Mr Reeder showing his usual mixture of sensitivity and social clumsiness.

Death of an Angel takes Mr Reeder into the world of motion pictures, a world that proves to be every bit as immoral as he had feared. An actress has been murdered but there is an evil plot afoot that may claim several more victims if Mr Reeder does not act quickly. Blackmail is involved and there’s an attempt to blackmail Reeder, but it’s an unwise criminal who thinks he can outsmart J.G. Reeder. A very fine episode.

There are of course plenty of people who would like revenge on Mr Reeder and in The Willing Victim one of them is trying to make that wish into a reality. The plan is a particularly clever and twisted one.

In The Fatal Engagement some very important and very distinguished men are in danger of being implicated in the murder of a music hall star. Sir Jason of course is anxious for Reeder to prove that such men could not possibly have been involved in something as sordid as an affair with a music hall performer. This is one of the episodes that succumbs to the temptation to score cheap political points and as a result it’s not as much fun as it could have been.

Find the Lady involves the mysterious disappearances of a number of young ladies. That would be bad enough but these young ladies are the daughters of some of the most distinguished peers of the realm - they are the flower of the aristocracy. Could it be a Bolshevik plot? Or something much worse - perhaps they have been sold into white slavery! Both Mr Reeder and Miss Belman take active, and dangerous, roles in the subsequent investigation. This is another episode where the social satire is a little overdone but on the whole it’s a fun episode. And I love anything to do with stage magic and this story features a sinister Chinese illusionist.

The Treasure House closes the second season on a high note. Larry O’Ryan is a likeable young man who happens to be a reformed safe-cracker. Now he’s in trouble and he’s come to Mr Reeder for help. He’s in love. He doesn’t even know the young lady’s name but he knows she is in danger. And indeed she is, but the question for Mr Reeder is to decide which of the various oddball types surrounding the lady presents the real danger. This episode has a slightly surreal feel and there’s an outrageousness to the plot that is very Edgar Wallace indeed.

In each episode of this season Mr Reeder finds himself with a new young lady as his secretary, each of whom proves to be wildly unsuitable or simply quite mad but they provide considerable amusement.

Although the second season was shot in colour only two episodes survive in colour. We should be grateful that all eight episodes do survive, even if mostly in black-and-white versions.

Network’s boxed set includes both seasons in their entirety.

The second season is perhaps not quite as good as the first but The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is still wonderfully offbeat  television with mostly fairly decent plots (some being very clever indeed) and it’s executed with a great deal of style and wit and charm. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Callan - A Magnum for Schneider (1967)

My Network DVD Callan: The Monochrome Years boxed set arrived yesterday, and tonight I watched the very first episode. The pilot episode in fact, made as a one-off TV play in the popular Armchair Theatre series in early 1967.

A Magnum for Schneider was later remade (not entirely successfully) in colour as the Callan movie, but I’d never seen the original.

There are some interesting differences between this pilot and the series proper. The relationship between Callan and his disreputable and evil-smelling burglar pal Lonely hasn’t yet been fleshed out. The strange affection that Callan has for Lonely is not yet in evidence, and we have no hints of the backstory that explains the unlikely friendship between a government assassin and a burglar.

The other big difference is that Toby Meres is played by Peter Bowles, of all people! Now I’m a big fan of Peter Bowles, but this is unexpected casting indeed. And it doesn’t really work. Partly this is because you can’t help comparing this to Anthony Valentine’s superb and chilling performance in the series proper. The Bowles version of Meres is neither sinister nor frightening, nor does he have the surface charm that hides the viper underneath.

Edward Woodward though has already nailed the character of Callan pretty effectively. And the cynicism and pessimism, and the total lack of glamour, the seediness, all these ingredients are present. The story itself works quite well. The later movie version takes advantage of the opportunity to flesh out the story a little and is more polished.

Callan of course is an agent for the Section, a shadowy department of one of the security services. If someone is considered to be posing a risk to national security the Section’s job is to neutralise that risk. The preferred methods are persuasion, intimidation and blackmail but if they don’t work then more drastic methods are used. The one sure way to remove a security risk is to kill the person involved.

This is a part of the job that Callan doesn’t like but he accepts that sometimes it’s necessary. He does however have a real problem in those cases where he has to get to know the person first. In this case he gets to know the target pretty well, and worse still he grows to like him.

This neatly sets up a theme that will recur repeatedly in this series. Callan is a very efficient assassin, in fact he’s the best in the business, but he has a conscience and he has emotions. Those are luxuries that an assassin cannot afford.

The picture and sound quality are pretty dodgy, but it’s a miracle this very first appearance of Callan has survived at all.

If you’re a fan of the series then A Magnum for Schneider is obviously a must-watch even if it’s not quite up to the standard of the series proper.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Fugitive, season 1 (1963)

Back in the 1960s if a show began with the words “A Quinn Martin Production” you could be fairly sure you were in for some pretty decent television, with the emphasis on entertainment but entertainment with quality. One of the most successful of these productions was The Fugitive which ran on the American ABC network for four seasons starting in 1963.

The Fugitive was unusual in having a series-long story arc (although this was also the case with another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders). In the case of The Fugitive the ongoing story arc concerns a man on the run, hotly pursued by the police.

Dr Richard Kimble (David Janssen) was on his way to Death Row when a freak railroad accident offered him a chance of escape. Kimble had been convicted of the murder of his wife but he was innocent. His problem was that he could not get the police to accept his story that he had seen a one-armed man fleeing from his house moments after the murder. The police certainly looked for the one-armed man, but to no avail. The jury had no doubts about his guilt.

In pursuit of Kimble is Police Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse), the man who had led the initial murder investigation. Gerard is a tough no-nonsense cop,  dedicated and remorseless. He’s honest and he’s not without a sense of fair play but he believes that the law has to be enforced. A man is entitled to a fair trail but if convicted he must pay the penalty. The law might occasionally make mistakes but his job as a cop is to enforce the law to the letter. His boss has a sneaking suspicion that Gerard’s obsession (and it is certainly an obsession) with recapturing Richard Kimble might be an indication that he has some slight doubt about Kimble’s guilt. Perhaps Gerard is trying so hard because he wants to convince himself that on this occasion the law has not made a mistake.

The format of The Fugitive was clever and flexible. Being on the run means that Richard Kimble has to move from town to town, from job to job and from identity to identity. Each episode therefore has a different setting, with different guest characters. The stories are mostly self-contained but the overall story arc is always there, lurking in the background, adding to the tension.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, a man responsible for a number of very successful and highly influential series including Maverick, The Rockford Files and 77 Sunset Strip.

The Fugitive, partly due to its subject matter but also due to its visual style, has at times some some definite  hints of film noir.

Richard Kimble is a man who is desperately trying to blend into the background, to be as bland and colourless as possible. That’s his only hope of survival. The challenge for David Janssen as an actor was to convey this quality without making the character dull. It has to be said that he doesn’t always succeed. Kimble comes across as being just a bit too passive at times.

The opening episode of season one, Fear in a Desert City, takes place six months after Kimble’s escape. He is working as a bartender in Tucson. He is hoping to attract as little attention as possible but he has inadvertently walked into a situation that is likely to attract a good deal of attention to him, as he tries to help a woman who is being stalked by her deranged and insanely jealous husband. The episode immediately establishes one very important thing about Richard Kimble. Even if it means exposing himself to the danger of discovery he will not walk away from someone in trouble.

The Witch is one of those stories in which every rural person is depicted as either a knuckle-dragging inbred redneck or a gossip-mongering hypocrite. There’s also a little girl who dabbles in witchcraft, and a nasty piece of work she is. She has plans to get even with her enemies and that means anybody who has ever thwarted her in any way. Richard Kimble soon gets added to her enemies list. A weird episode and not an entirely successful one.

The Other Side of the Mountain is a much better story. Kimble stumbles into the wrong town and attracts the attentions of the local sheriff. Pretty soon he is being pursued by helicopters, tracker dogs, a whole posse of sheriff’s deputies, not to mention Lieutenant Gerard. His only hope is a sweet but crazy mountain girl who has her own plans for him - she wants to keep him as a pet! Plenty of excitement in this one as the trap closes remorselessly on poor old Kimble.

Never Wave Goodbye is a two-parter in which Gerard’s pursuit of Kimble, now working as a sailmaker in Santa Barbara, becomes particularly intense. Gerard believes he is very very close to catching the unfortunate fugitive at last, and in fact he’s even closer than he thinks. Kimble meanwhile thinks he can see two possible ways to escape the pursuit for good. He also manages to fall in love, not the wisest thing to do when you’re on the run. It’s an excellent story with real tension and excitement plus romance and the seaside setting is exploited to the full.

Decision in the Ring sees Kimble working for a prize fighter, as a cut man (the guy who has to attend to any cuts the boxer receives during a fight). This is apparently a very important job and the boxing background is moire interesting than you might expect. Unfortunately this episode is sunk by some terrible writing and by some incredibly tedious and clumsy lecturing to the audience (a practice that was becoming all too common in American television at this time). It’s like trying to sit through one of those awful Hollywood Social Problem movies of the 50s. The contrived ending doesn’t help. This episode is a complete washout I’m afraid.

Smoke Screen is another not terribly good episode. With Kimble and a group of firefighters trapped by a forest fire it should have been exciting, and probably would have been without the action being slowed down in order to deliver more unsubtle messages.

See Hollywood and Die promises some thrills as Kimble and a young woman are taken hostage by a couple of punks who have robbed a gas station. The problem here is that in 1963 if you were going to ask American actors to play juvenile delinquents you would always get pretty much the same identical performances. One of the punks is really stupid and an obvious liability, the other is a bit smarter and the dumb one is pathetically reliant on the less-dumb one. The one-note performances cease to be interesting after the first couple of minutes. Unfortunately the young woman is pretty much a standard type as well. Brenda Vaccaro’s performance is fine but she’s playing a character without any real depth and there’s not a lot she can do.

The plot is fairly predictable as well. It’s more or less up to David Janssen to try to make this story interesting and he almost succeeds. The way in which he tries to outsmart the punks is hardly original but Janssen puts some real thought into his nicely understated performance. Not a great episode but watchable.

Ticket to Alaska benefits from an interesting setting and a fine script. Richard Kimble is aboard a steamer heading for a lumbering job in Anchorage, Alaska. One of the dozen passengers on board is about to be arrested although they don’t know it. Then a murder occurs. The captain convenes an informal inquiry (which adds a bit of courtroom-style drama). Richard Kimble is going to have to make sure that the killer is identified before the ship reaches Alaska otherwise all the passengers will be handed over to the federal authorities and he’ll be headed back to Death Row. So this is both a murder mystery and a suspense story and these two strands are tied together very skilfully. And there’s a bonus in the form of a couple of quite amusing sub-plots.

A very solid supporting cast headed by Geraldine Brooks also helps. Both the plotting and the characters are equally important and the main focus is on entertainment. A truly excellent episode.

Fatso is not so good. Kimble befriends an amiable overweight drunk who has a secret that explains the mess he’s made of his life. Kimble tries to help him out. I don’t expect every episode in a long-running TV series to be a dazzlingly original story idea but this one is just a bit too predictable.

In Nightmare at Northoak Kimble does something noble and heroic, which could turn out to a fatal mistake. One odd thing about this series is that while Kimble goes to extraordinary lengths to evade pursuit and hide his secret he will suddenly blurt out the whole truth even in situations where it doesn’t seem really necessary. Perhaps this does make some psychological sense. A lonely man on the run always hiding everything about impossible might I suppose feel an urge to tell someone, to try to make an honest human connection. It’s a device that The Fugitive overuses a bit but in this episode it’s put to a relatively interesting use. This is also the first episode in which Lieutenant Gerard is not just a one-note character. Barry Morse is given an opportunity to stretch his acting muscles just a little and he does so with great subtlety but quite effectively. A good episode with a few unexpected twists and it gets bonus points for advancing the overall story arc, adding some depth to the Kimble-Gerard relationship.

Initial impressions after watching the first eleven episodes are that The Fugitive is very uneven. It’s also a series that just can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be an exciting suspense story about a fugitive endeavouring to keep one step ahead of the law, or does it want to be an earnest social drama? It tries to be both, with very mixed success. When the emphasis is one the suspense we get fine episodes like The Other Side of the Mountain and Never Wave Goodbye. When it veers into social drama territory it becomes heavy-handed and dull.

The good episodes are very good indeed. The bad ones are very bad indeed. The Fugitive is so uneven that it’s difficult to give it a recommendation, except perhaps as a rental.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Twilight Zone - two Charles Beaumont episodes

I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone but I do have fond memories of some of the episodes written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. So I thought I’d take a look at some of the Charles Beaumont episodes.

First up is Static, the twentieth episode of the second season. This was one of six episodes shot on videotape as a cost-cutting measure (The Twilight Zone had turned out to be a very expensive series to make and CBS were getting a little anxious about the budgets). As might have been anticipated the results were very poor and these episodes looked cheap and somewhat tawdry compared to those shot on film. Since the cost savings were minimal anyway the experiment was quickly abandoned.

Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger) is a crusty bachelor who lives in a boarding house. Ed doesn’t have much time for the modern world and he hates television which is unfortunate because all the other boarders watch TV incessantly. Ed thinks television is moronic and he thinks that people who watch TV are moronic and he broadcasts these opinions rather freely. Finally Ed snaps and heads off to the basement to look for his old radio - a huge and very impressive 1930s console model. He brings the radio up to his room and he’s pleasantly surprised to find that it still works. And the programs are wonderful. Who wants to watch TV when you can listen to Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra live on the radio?

The other boarders are quick to point out that this isn’t possible - Tommy Dorsey has been dead for years. Ed insists that it really is Tommy Dorsey live and further insists that he will prove it if they come up to his room to listen. When they get there there’s nothing on the radio but static. It seems that no-one but Ed can hear these programs.

It’s not a very promising premise and sadly it plays out in a very predictable fashion. This was no an original Beaumont script - he adapted it from a story by Oceo Ritch, which might explain why it’s well below his usual standard. Fine performances by Dean Jagger, and by Robert Emhardt as Ed’s friend Professor Ackerkman and Carmen Matthews as Ed’s old girlfriend Vinnie, are the main saving graces here.

Static takes place almost entirely in a couple of rooms in the boarding house. This was obviously very convenient for shooting on videotape but it does have the unfortunate effect of making this episode look even cheaper.

As Buzz Kulik, who directed Static, admits in the accompanying interview on the Blu-Ray disc, the trouble is that it just doesn’t feel like a Twilight Zone episode.

Moving on the episode 21 of season two, The Prime Mover, we find ourselves in more authentically Twilight Zone territory. Ace (Dane Clark) and his pal Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) eke out a living in a crummy diner. Ace is one of the world’s most enthusiastic, and most unlucky, gamblers. Ace just never wins. Not ever. Then one day, quite by accident, he discovers that Jimbo has a rather unusual power. He can move things just by thinking about them. He can move any kind of object. It has never occurred to Jimbo that his telekinetic powers might be useful. Ace can see a very good use for them straight away. Jimbo could use his powers to move things like dice. Or roulette wheels. Ace, with a bit of help from Jimbo, can now transform himself from a gambler who never wins into a gambler who never loses. Of course, this being The Twilight Zone, things don’t turn out quite the way Ace hopes.

The Prime Mover was originally written by George Clayton Johnson. Charles Beaumont rewrote the script and sold it to the producers on the understanding that Johnson would get a screen credit but because of an oversight Johnson did not get the credit.

After seeing the first few minutes of this episode you know how the story is going to unfold and there are no surprises. It’s a typical Twilight Zone morality play. It’s much more interesting as a character study. Both Ace and Jimbo are fairly interesting personalities and Ace in particular has a certain amount of real depth. Superb performances by the very underrated Dane Clark and by Buddy Ebsen are The Prime Mover’s greatest strengths. It’s not an especially memorable episode but it’s OK.

So one rather poor episode and one that’s not too bad. Anthology series are of course inherently uneven so you expect a few disappointments. What these two stories do suggest that Beaumont was a better writer when he stuck to entirely original material.

Friday, 15 September 2017

McMillan and Wife season 2 (1972-73)

McMillan and Wife was one of the big successes among the various mystery series that screened under the umbrella of The NBC Mystery Movie. The second season of seven feature-length episodes went to air in late 1972 and early 1973. The season one cast remained intact, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as the two leads and John Schuck as Detective-Sergeant Enright and Nancy Walker as the McMillans’ maid Mildred.

McMillan and Wife was the television equivalent of the “cozy” detective fiction sub-genre, with no graphic violence or sex and done in a slightly playful manner but with an emphasis on good old-fashioned well-constructed mystery plots.

The season opener, Night of the Wizard, starts in typical McMillan and Wife style with Police Commissioner McMillan (Hudson) pursuing a suspect through the streets of San Francisco. The fact that a Police Commissioner would be incredibly unlikely to be doing such a thing is in fact a sort of running gag. In this instance the chase is rather inspired and quite witty.

Night of the Wizard is by McMillan and Wife standards a semi-serious episode. A woman is terrified when her dead husband appears to her at a séance and accuses her of his murder. The accusation is all the more disturbing since the woman, Evie Kendall, had in fact been charged with the murder but was acquitted.

There are lots of fun Old Dark House elements in this one.

In Blues for Sally M. an attempt is made to murder a composer/pianist. But why does he have a signed photograph of Mrs McMillan in his apartment? Unfortunately this episode suffers from a fatal flaw which makes the solution obvious right from the start. Keir Dullea gives a good performance as the obnoxious self-pitying composer.

Cop of the Year marks two big moments in Sergeant Enright’s life - he gets to collect the Cop of the Year award and he shoots his ex-wife. At least he seems to have shot his ex-wife, it seems like an open-and-shut case, but he denies it. And Commissioner MacMillan believes him. All he has to do now is to prove that Enright didn’t do it despite the overwhelming evidence.

Enright’s ex-wife, Monica, isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly the ideal wife. In fact she was selfish, narcissistic and vicious, so Enright had plenty of motive. This is an episode with a classic film noir setup. It’s based on an Edward D. Hoch short story, Hoch being a noted exponent of the impossible crime story. Robert Michael Lewis emphasis the puzzle aspect by shooting the murder scene from directly overhead.

The mystery here is not whodunit (which is pretty obvious from the beginning), but howdunit. And on the whole it’s a very good locked-room mystery.

Terror Times Two makes use of one of the most hackneyed ideas in television history, the idea of the double. A gangster has found a man who is Commissioner McMillan’s exact double. Rock Hudson does a pretty decent job playing the dual roles but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s an unimaginative idea and the script just doesn’t manage to add any interesting or original twists.

No Hearts, No Flowers is another story which involves one of the hoariest ideas in crime fiction, in which the detective’s wife is the potential victim of a psycho. Sally has her purse snatched. This has unexpected consequences as it becomes apparent that Sally has a stalker. The twist ending might perhaps stretch credibility a bit but this is a detective story, not a documentary. It’s supposed to be entertainment, not reality, and it does entertain. There’s also a car chase. There’s no point in setting a cop show in San Francisco if you don’t have some car chases. It’s a city that seems to have been designed specifically as a venue for car chases.

In The Fine Art of Staying Alive Sally McMillan is once again in danger. Commissioner McMillan has to choose between saving Sally or saving a priceless Rembrandt. This one perhaps doesn’t have quite enough plot to sustain the feature-length running time and the crucial clues are just a bit too convoluted and obscure to be believable. It’s still fairly enjoyable.

Two Dollars on Trouble to Win takes McMillan and Sally to the racetrack. Sally’s Uncle Cyrus (well he’s not really an uncle but rather an old friend) has a horse that’s a sure thing to win a big race. Cyrus is a cantankerous old cheapskate but for some reason Sally thinks he’s wonderful. Cyrus has a bad heart and a series of accidents threatens to make that heart problem critical, or even fatal. Could it be a diabolically clever plot to murder the old boy by indirect means?

McMillan and Wife suffers a little from plots that are, with a few exceptions, rather on the conventional side.

The second season is also pretty uneven. Night of the Wizard and Cop of the Year are the standouts and they're very good indeed. Blues for Sally M. is a fine idea let down by one serious flaw. Terror Times Two is the only episode that could be described as a real dud.

The major strength of McMillan and Wife lies in the two leads. Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James make a convincing married couple. They have the right romantic, and sexual, chemistry. They’re extremely likeable and John Schuck is equally likeable as Enright.

This is definitely crime on the cozy side but it’s thoroughly harmless light entertainment. Not as good as its NBC Mystery Movie stablemates Columbo and Banacek but if you don’t take it too seriously it’s enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Escape Into Night (1972)

Escape Into Night is a 1972 children’s fantasy/horror TV mini-series from Britain’s ITV. It has an interesting premise and it’s quite atmospheric, and decidedly spooky.

It was scripted by Ruth Boswell from a novel by Catherine Storr.

Escape Into Night was shot in colour but only a black-and-white version has survived. Since there’s a definite touch of horror to the series that’s perhaps not entirely a disadvantage. The very studio-bound feel also adds to the stifling and menacing atmosphere.

Marianne is a young girl who has a riding accident. She’s not badly hurt but she is confined to bed for several weeks. She amuses herself by drawing a picture of a house. When she goes to sleep she finds herself in the house in her dream. When she wakes up she draws a boy in the window of the house. Next time she sleeps she’s back in the house, and there’s a boy there, in the upstairs room she drew him. He’s ill and can’t walk. 

Her doctor has arranged for a teacher, Miss Chesterfield, to call regularly so Marianne won’t fall behind with her schoolbook. Oddly enough one of Miss Chesterfield’s other pupils is a boy named Mark, who can’t walk. Even more oddly, the boy in the dream who can’t walk is named Mark and he has a teacher called Miss Chesterfield.

When Marianne adds other details to her drawing they appear in the house in her dream. Unfortunately, in a fit of pique, Marianne draws some stones with eyes. They appear in the dream as well, and they don’t seem to be any too friendly. In fact Marianne and Mark, in her dream, start to feel that they should make plans to escape from the house. This won’t be easy, given that Mark cannot walk at all.

Are Marianne and Mark somehow sharing a dream? Is it really just a dream? Are the two children in actual danger? Is something supernatural or paranormal going on? Why is it that the only drawings that seem to affect the dreams are those done on a particular sketch pad using a particular pencil, a pencil belonging to an art set that had belonged to Marianne’s grandmother. And why is it that every time Marianne sleeps she finds herself back in the same dream?

One of the themes of the series seems to be the way children experience guilt about apparently trivial incidents. Marianne’s annoyance with Mark caused her to draw the stones with eyes and now those stones seem to have a malevolent intent towards Mark. Marianne  of course had no intention of hurting Mark. It was just one of those bursts of childish anger but children can easily be persuaded that they have caused harm to those around them and can end up thinking they are responsible for all kinds of harm. Mark becomes very ill so there is also the issue of how children deal with death and with loss.


Marianne’s father is an engineer and he is out of the country most of the time so Marianne is left without a father figure. Perhaps the dream has something to do with that?

Children of course also don’t always differentiate very well between fantasy and reality.

Marianne is still too young to take a romantic interest in boys but she is approaching the age at which boys will start to become rather interesting. Her odd friendship with Mark is completely innocent but it is a step towards learning to deal with that frightening phenomenon known as the opposite sex. Marianne at times seems to have an almost motherly feeling for the helpless Mark. Independence versus dependency, and the natural human need to want someone who needs us, are other issues that are addressed.

The series was presumably aimed mostly at girls but there’s enough subtle horror to appeal to boys as well, or to adults.

In a program like this the casting of the lead actress is crucial, especially in the case of a child actress. Marianne has to be a fairly ordinary sort of girl and like any normal girl approaching puberty she can be exasperating but somehow the actress has to avoid making her irritating to the viewer, or excessively precocious. At the same time she has to be lively enough, likeable enough and clever enough for girlish viewers to identify with. Young Vikki Chambers does a superb job.

These were innocent days, when a girl would have on her bookshelf a book like The Young Girl’s Guide to Housekeeping. These were also the days when kids still learnt Latin at school.

Given the subject matter, dreams, the big worry was that they’d make a mess of the ending but in fact it works quite well.

The special effects are about what you'd expect from a fairly low-budget children's production but the writing, acting and atmosphere and enough to carry it off pretty effectively.

Network’s DVD release is on a single disc. It’s barebones but the transfer is quite good given the not entirely satisfactory nature of the surviving source material.

Escape Into Night is an intriguing mix of childhood drama, fantasy and gothic horror and it makes thoroughly entertaining viewing. Highly recommended.