Saturday, 30 December 2017

TV viewing highlights of of 2017

Instead of doing a list of the best television I watched in 2017 I’m going to focus instead on the most exciting discoveries I made and on the series that provided the most pleasant surprises.

First up has to be The Plane Makers. This British ATV series ran for three seasons from 1963 to 1965. It’s concerned with the behind-the-scenes dramas at an aircraft factory about to launch a new small jetliner. It’s tale of boardroom plots, political manoeuvring, industrial tensions and personal dramas. It’s much more entertaining than it sounds, superbly written and with a fine cast.

Somewhat similar in style is Mogul (which was renamed The Troubleshooters after the first season). This long-running adventure/drama series about an oil company began in 1965.

I was definitely pleasantly surprised that the second season of Banacek lives up to the promise of the first season. George Peppard stars as a dashing insurance investigator with a taste for expensive art, and expensive women. Each episode is an impossible crime mystery.

The 1967 French historical action/adventure series The Flashing Blade was also quite good fun and it’s certainly a handsome production.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Columbo season 4 (part one)

The Columbo formula worked right from the very first episode and the producers wisely stuck to it. Season four is more of the same, which is no problem at all as far as I’m concerned.

An Exercise in Fatality is the season opener. Milo Janus runs a string of health clubs. He sells franchises but once they’ve signed up and paid the franchisees discover that Milo is cheating them.  It’s difficult to prove but one franchisee, Gene Stafford, is getting very close to finding the evidence for fraud. Not surprisingly Mr Stafford meets with a fatal accident. At least it looks like an accident, but Columbo is worried about a few things, especially the scuff marks on the newly waxed floor.

Proving murder in this case isn’t easy since if it was murder it was very well planned. The trouble with well-planned murders is that they’re complicated and those complications are the things that bring the killers undone. There’s the usual battle of wits with Robert Conrad being wonderfully combative as Milo.

The clues are cleverly arranged and as so often it’s Columbo’s knack for noticing tiny details that proves to be crucial. A very good episode.

In Negative Reaction a photographer has finally had enough of being controlled by his wife. His plan to get rid of her is exceptionally ingenious and well thought out. Since he’s a photographer it’s not surprising that photography plays a role in his plan. And it’s also not surprising that photographic evidence plays a crucial (and extremely clever) part in Lieutenant Columbo’s solution of the case. This episode is delightfully well plotted.

There’s plenty of humour here as well, with the scene in the homeless men’s shelter being particularly good. Larry Storch contributes a wonderful comedic turn as a very nervous and uptight driving examiner whose evidence may be vital.

Dick van Dyke is (to me at least) an oddly colourless villain but that’s the only weakness in this otherwise excellent episode. And he’s by no means bad, just not quite lively enough.

By Dawn's Early Light marks the first of Patrick McGoohan’s four guest-starring appearances in the series and what a bravura performance he gives. He plays Colonel Rumford, the commandant of the Haynes Military Academy. Rumford’s problem is that the latest member of the Haynes family to control the purse-strings, William Haynes, hates him and hates the military academy. William wants to turn the place into a co-ed junior college. Girls running loose in the sacred precincts of the academy! It’s too awful even to contemplate. And of course if the Haynes Military Academy goes then America is doomed to communist takeover. William Haynes has to be stopped and Rumford comes up with one of the more spectacular murder methods you’re likely to see in order to accomplish this.

Rumford’s plan was ingenious. The one flaw in the plan was something he could not foresee.

Everyone at the academy, including the staff, is terrified of Rumford. He’s not just a martinet. He’s clearly fighting a constant battle to maintain some degree of mental stability and he has a Captain Queeg-like obsession with small details. He’s a very unsympathetic character on the whole but perversely this makes him slightly sympathetic to the viewer. As much as we are appalled by him we can’t help feeling sorry for a man fighting a one-man war against the modern world.

It’s a good episode and worth seeing for McGoohan’s scenery-chewing.

Troubled Waters takes Columbo onto the high seas. He’s on vacation but you won’t be surprised to hear that within a day of leaving port he’s investigating a murder. Used car mogul Hayden Danziger (Robert Vaughn) has to dispose of an inconvenient mistress and he has a plan to frame loser musician Lloyd Harrington (Dean Stockwell) for her murder. The evidence against Harrington seems overwhelming but there’s one tiny clue left behind by the killer that puts Columbo on the right track.

Robert Vaughn is a splendidly smooth villain, just the type of murderer with whom Columbo can engage in the kind of battle of wits that always delighted fans of the series. Jane Greer is excellent as his wife Sylvia, a woman who is unlikely to forgive a straying husband. Dean Stockwell is as creepy as usual. A major highlight for cult TV fans is Patrick Macnee as the ship’s captain, a slightly stiff no-nonsense chap who is not at all happy about murders taking place on his ship. Upsets the passengers you know.

The murder method has a few interesting touches and there’s a fairly clever alibi involved.

Columbo is on the cruise with his wife but of course we never actually see her. Other characters do however see her so at least we know she really does exist!

Add in good performances from the entire cast and you have fine entertainment.

All in all the first half of season four is pretty impressive.

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.