Saturday 27 December 2014

Carry On Laughing (1975)

Carry On Laughing was A British ATV TV comedy series that was, as its title suggests, an attempt to transfer the formula of the Carry On movies to the small screen. It ran for six episodes in early 1975, followed by a second season of seven episodes later the same year.

By this time the Carry On formula was starting to wear a bit thin on the big screen and some of the regular cast members were starting to drop out. The TV series does at least have some of the established Carry On stars, including Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims and Peter Butterworth. Sadly Kenneth Williams decided against appearing in the TV series.

The results are rather mixed although the series does definitely have its moments. 

Dave Freeman, who had some experience of writing for the Carry On crew, wrote most of the episodes.

The first episode, The Prisoner of Spenda, is of course a spoof of the movie The Prisoner of Zenda (and also of course of the original book by Anthony Hope). In this case the crown prince of Pluritania has not just one double but half a dozen, all played by Sid James. The idea of an Englishman taking over the identity of a European prince is pushed to ludicrous extremes, with moderately funny results. Sid James and Barbara Windsor do their best to overcome the thinness of Dave Freeman’s script and do manage to get a few laughs.

The Baron Outlook, a kind of medieval farce, is rather better. Barbara Windsor is the standout performer but Joan Sims and Sid James do pretty well while Peter Butterworth is amusing as a randy friar who dabbles in alchemy.

With the third episode, The Sobbing Cavalier, the series finally manages to capture the authentic Carry On spirit. Sid James is a luckless cavalier on the run from Oliver Cromwell’s forces although he still manages to find time to pursue maidservant Sarah (Barbara Windsor) although it has to be said she doesn’t seem too anxious to escape his attentions. Joan Sims is the lady of the house reluctantly playing hostess to Cromwell. Peter Butterworth is Cromwell while Jack Douglas is more musing than usual as the country gentleman switching sides continuously as the fortunes of war ebb and flow. Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Joan Sims all have a good deal of fun with this material and the laughs are pleasingly plentiful.

Orgy and Bess continues the historical theme, with Hattie Jacques as Queen Elizabeth I and Sid James as Sir Francis Drake. Kenneth Connor is King Phillip of Spain while Barbara Windsor is a lady-in-waiting of dubious morals. Both The Sobbing Cavalier and Orgy and Bess serve us up a heady diet of double entendres. The humour might be risque but it is undeniably very funny. 

One in the Eye for Harold features very few Carry On regulars and was written by Lew Schwarz who was a fairly prolific TV comedy writer but one with no experience of writing Carry Ons. This one falls very flat and is very heavy going. Schwarz doesn’t seem to understand this style of comedy and most of the cast seem all at sea.

The Nine Old Cobblers spoofs Lord Peter Wimsey, the very popular 1970s series based on the detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers. This is perhaps the funniest of the season 1 episodes and in fact it’s extremely good. Jack Douglas plays Lord Peter Flimsy while Kenneth Connor is his faithful manservant Punter. The joke is that it’s Punter who actually does all the crime-solving. Kenneth Connor is more restrained than usual, but also funnier. Joan Sims relishes the opportunity to play a role rather different from the shrewish roles in which she was so often typecast. She’s the eccentric Amelia Forbush, a woman with a passion for the drums. Barbara Windsor is the saucy landlady of the local pub and she’s in sparkling form. In this episode everything comes together nicely. It’s clever and it’s very amusing.

So six episodes in this first season, with three being extremely good, two being reasonably OK and only one complete washout. That’s not a bad batting average and suggests that this series (or at least its first season) has been unfairly neglected.

All thirteen episodes (I haven’t had a chance to sample the second season yet) are included as extras in the ITV Studios Home Entertainment Carry On Complete Collection DVD boxed set which includes every one of the Carry On movies. The TV series has also been released on its own by A&E.

If you’re a fan of 1970s British television comedy or of the Carry On movies then Carry On Laughing is definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Monday 22 December 2014

Doctor Who - Enlightenment (1983)

Enlightenment was the third serial in the Guardian trilogy which formed a major part of the twentieth (1983) season of Doctor Who. The trilogy had begun with the excellent Mawdryn Undead and continued with the reasonably good Terminus.

By his time the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) was down to just two companions, Tegan and Turlough.

Enlightenment was writer Barbara Clegg’s only Doctor Who script which is rather a pity since it combines some interesting science fictional ideas with an oddly moving storyline.

The Doctor has received a rather garbled message from the White Guardian. All he knows is that he has to stop someone from winning a race. The Tardis arrives on board an Edwardian racing yacht. The atmosphere on board is subtly disconcerting. None of the crew members can remember coming aboard. The officers are scrupulously polite but seem rather distant and emotionless. The First Mate takes quite a shine to Tegan but his attentions towards her are slightly disturbing. It’s not so much that he doesn’t seem to know how to communicate with a woman - it’s more that he seems unsure how to communicate with a human being. He just doesn’t seem to comprehend emotions.

Pretty soon things become much stranger. The yacht is not a sailing ship - it’s a spaceship. It’s engaged in a race with other spaceships, all of which have the appearance of sailing ships but from a bewildering variety of different time periods. Although they are spaceships they behave like sailing ships. The crews are sent aloft to set the sails. 

This story introduces the Eternals, one of the more interesting alien races in Doctor Who. They normally exist outside of time but the only way they can tolerate the boredom of eternity is by seeking diversion. The only way they can find diversion is by making use of mortals whom they refer to as Ephemerals. In fact the only way they can experience any kind of emotion or excitement or mental stimulation is by raiding the minds of Ephemerals and emotion, excitement and mental stimulation are things they crave with a kind of desperation. The Eternals are not really evil, just entirely amoral. And while they’re frightening and cruel in some ways in other ways they’re more to be pitied. They’re a splendid idea and Enlightenment explores that idea with intelligence and subtlety.

This serial’s other great strength is the concept of sailing ships in space. It’s a concept that has been used before (and since) but it’s never been handled quite as cleverly as this.

This serial is also notable for its visual style. Instead of the uniform overlit very flat style that is so familiar in TV programs of its era Enlightenment is full of shadows and low-key lighting. Director Fiona Cumming was anxious to shoot it this way and to her surprise and delight she found that Fred Wright, the man in charge of the studio lighting, was happy to experiment with moody low-key lighting approaches. Apart from being wonderfully atmospheric and considerable enhancing the story it also gives this serial a rather modern look.

Designer Colin Green helped out with some very good set designs. The costumes are great fun as well with the pressure suits being delightfully bizarre. Janet Fielding was also given the opportunity to look rather stunning in an Edwardian evening gown although her dress caused a certain amount of controversy by being excessively “provocative” - and considering the truly stupendous amount of cleavage she’s displaying that’s not entirely surprising. It does at least give us the chance to see a remarkably sexy and very feminine Tegan.

The support cast is mostly very strong, with Keith Barron being particularly good as the icily courteous but slightly creepy captain of of the yacht and Christopher Brown being even more disturbing as First Mate Marriner. Lynda Baron perhaps goes too far over-the-top as the captain of The Buccaneer.

Mark Strickson as Turlough gets to do a bit of actual acting while Janet Fielding as Tegan underplays her performance nicely. This is one serial in which Tegan comes across as a very sympathetic and rather likeable character. Peter Davison is as solid as ever.

Enlightenment is included in the Guardian Trilogy DVD boxed set and the BBC really went to town with the extras on this release. Apart from some good featurettes and an excellent audio commentary by Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, director Fiona Cumming and writer Barbara Clegg we also get (on a second disc) a completely re-edited feature film-length version of Enlightenment with new CGI special effects. 

Unfortunately this new version has been matted to make it appear widescreen and the results are very similar to the horrific results we used to see with pan-and-scanned widescreen movies. The framing in many scenes is terribly wrong, sometimes ludicrously so, with the Doctor’s head totally lopped off in one scene. The CGI effects do look very good. I personally dislike CGI because it always looks so fake but in a Doctor Who story about sailing ships in space it isn’t a major problem. The re-editing does remove some of the obvious padding but it also tends to dissipate the effect of the episode cliff-hangers.

The idea of trying to re-edit an 80s Doctor Who serial to appeal to modern audiences is not however an entirely bad idea (although not to my personal taste) and the result is certainly infinitely superior to any of the episodes of the horrible 21st century Doctor Who series.

The original four-part Enlightenment serial is well-written, well-made, well-acted and visually pleasing and includes some excellent ideas. An impressive example of 1980s Doctor Who at its best. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Danger Man, season one (1960)

In the 1950s Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment had enjoyed great success with their various historical adventure TV series. By the beginning of the 60s that formula was starting to wear a bit thin. Danger Man, which premiered in 1960, came along at exactly the right moment. Danger Man was the first of the classic 1960s TV spy series and proved to be both highly successful and immensely influential.

The series appeared two years before the first of the Bond movies so it has some claims to have been the starting point for the whole 1960s spy craze.

The series had an odd production history. 39 half-hour episodes were broadcast in 1960 and 1961. Despite its popularity there was then a three-year hiatus. The series was then revived and 47 one-hour episodes went to air between 1964 and 1967. There were significant differences between the first season and the later hour-long episodes. Although the hero is still called John Drake it’s not even entirely clear that he’s the same character. In fact the differences are sufficient in some ways to make it advisable to consider the later seasons to be a separate, albeit related, series.

The identity of the hero is an intriguing question indeed. Apart from the two incarnations of Danger Man Patrick McGoohan went on to play another spy in the cult favourite series The Prisoner. In the half-hour Danger Man series John Drake works for an unnamed international agency. He is a secret agent of indeterminate nationality. This was easy enough since McGoohan was born in the United States, raised in Ireland and lived in England and therefore had a conveniently indeterminate accent. In the revived hour-long Danger Man series he again plays a secret agent named John Drake but now he is clearly British and works for a British intelligence agency. So is he in fact the same man? And there has always been speculation that the unnamed character he played in The Prisoner was actually John Drake. So did he play three different spies, or two, or only one?

What is not  in dispute is that playing television spies proved to be a wildly successful career move for McGoohan, lifting him from obscurity and making him for a time the most highly paid actor on British television. 

McGoohan was a man with very strong views, deeply religious and with very clearly defined moral principles. He insisted on having these views taken into consideration. He would not countenance any hint of sexual promiscuity and he insisted that the violence should be kept within very strict bounds. You might think this would have caused major problems but oddly enough it seems to have worked in the series’ favour. Since the writers could not rely on resolving everything with a climactic shootout they had to put a bit more thought into their scripts. It also gave the series a definite flavour of its own. John Drake was a complex character, not always entirely happy with the things he had to do in the line of duty.

The first season was sufficiently successful to put McGoohan into the running for the rôle of James Bond in the first of the Bond movies. McGoohan however decided that playing Bond was incompatible with his moral views. While McGoohan became a major 1960s pop culture icon the actor did not really approve of the 1960s, believing that society had begun a downward slide into moral degeneracy (and  of course he turned out to be quite correct in his assessment).

The creator and producer of Danger Man was Ralph Smart, an Australian with considerable experience producing, directing and writing for both feature films and television. Smart had worked on several earlier ITC television series and had produced The Invisible Man for them in 1959, a series that was closer to being a spy series than a science fiction series.

It was Smart and McGoohan who were primarily responsible for setting the tone of Danger Man. It was rather unusual at that time for an actor to have that sort of input but McGoohan was an unusual actor. Danger Man would also give McGoohan his first chance to try his hand at directing.

The half-hour format had its weaknesses but in the hands of competent writers it had its advantages. At its best it made for fast-moving and tightly focused television.

John Drake is a professional secret agent although at times he does a little unofficial freelancing. In the episode Position of Trust (which features a delightful guest starring performance by Donald Pleasence) Drake is acting as a vigilante to break up a drug smuggling racket.

Smart was obviously keen not to get locked into doing too many straight Cold War stories. The idea was to have plenty of variety in the settings, and plenty of variety in the bad guys Drake would come up against. There are very few Russian spies in this series. Most of the stories are set in fictional countries with Drake having to deal with corrupt, incompetent or obstructive local authorities. The series relies entirely on stock footage and a bit of atmospheric set dressing (it’s amazing what you can do with a few potted palms) to convince us that John Drake is in a different country each week. This was the standard technique of the time and generally works quite satisfactorily even if some of the accents are rather mysterious.

The Island sees Drake is escorting two prisoners, professional assassins. They cause the aircraft to crash near an island. There’s only one person living on the island, a hermit with a gun. The action takes place entirely on the island. This is one episode that entirely fails to convince us that it’s not taking place in the studio but it’s an amusing little tale.

Find and Return is one of several episodes guest starring Donald Pleasence. Drake has to bring a woman back from a Middle Eastern country to face charges of high treason. Drake does the job but finds himself feeling sorry for the woman. His sympathy for her tempts him in this case to break the rules. The Gallows Tree is another fine episode that puts John Drake once again in a situation where duty may not be entirely compatible with humanity. This is a very grown-up series that does not disguise the fact that a secret agent’s job can involve some genuine moral quandaries.

Position of Trust sees Drake acting as a lone wolf (and a bit of a vigilante) to fight drug traffickers. Quite appropriate, given Patrick McGoohan’s intense dislike of the way society was heading in the 1960s.

The Girl Who Liked GI's involves an American serviceman murdered in Germany. He’d ben working on a top-secret missile project so both the West German security services and the Americans are worried. As is NATO, who have assigned John Drake to the case. The serviceman had been dating a German girl. Was she involved in espionage? Was the American soldier a spy? Drake will find the answers.

The episode Vacation was McGoohan’s first attempt at directing and he does a solid job. Drake is just about to enjoy his first vacation for four years but an apparently innocent encounter with an American businessman on the plane changes all that. Drake finds himself taking the place of a hired killer but the identity of the target is the first puzzle. The identity of the client is the second part of the puzzle.

The Conspirators comes as something of a surprise, with quite a bit of fairly impressive location shooting - a very unusual feature for a British series of this era. The Honeymooners is one of the rare episodes that really does suffer from the half-hour format. By the time the exciting climax is set up the episode had simply run out of time. It’s a tribute to the quality of the writing for this series that such failures are so very rare.

The A&E DVD boxed set boasts fairly good transfers. Some British series of this era have not survived not in the best of condition but Danger Man is one of the lucky ones, surviving in its entirety and still looking pretty good.

Danger Man still holds up extremely well. It’s an intelligent and stylish action adventure series and it certainly deserves its iconic status. One of the absolutely essential British series of the 1960s. Very highly recommended.

Monday 8 December 2014

Raffles (1977)

As much as I love the Raffles TV series (made by Yorkshire Television and originally transmitted in 1977) I find it’s a bit like a very rich chocolate cake - it’s best enjoyed in moderation. It’s not the kind of series where I’d want to watch two episodes back-to-back. One can have too much of Bunny Manders! But when you’re in the mood for the television version of chocolate cake then Raffles is certainly the ideal viewing.

The series was based on the celebrated Raffles short stories by E. W. Hornung. Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Raffles stories, beginning with The Amateur Cracksman in 1898 and continuing with a novel and two more short story collections, were immensely successful. In fact their popularity was exceeded only by that of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

A. J. Raffles is a complex and exceedingly interesting character. He is usually described as a gentleman thief. In fact what makes him so interesting is that his social status is quite ambiguous. He has a public school education and can certainly pass as a gentleman. His success as a cricketer (he is the finest spin bowler of his day) has gained him a certain measure of acceptance but although he has the education of a gentleman he does not have the breeding or the family connections to back it up. And he does not have the money.

He is in fact not quite a gentleman. He is keenly aware of this, and is keenly aware that those who tolerate his presence in society do not regard him as a social equal. That’s the key to Hornung’s Raffles stories and it’s an element that is definitely present in the TV series.

Raffles steals partly out of necessity (he was absolutely penniless when he discovered his talent for burglary) and partly to maintain the standard of living that allows him to live as a gentleman. But he also steals to some extent out of revenge - revenge on those who would not welcome him in society had it not been for the happy accident of his cricketing genius.

Raffles has certain quixotic moral standards. He steals from people who can easily afford the loss and if he is a guest he will not steal from his host. That would be impolite. Gentleman do not steal from their hosts. Of course gentlemen usually don’t steal at all but Raffles has a moral code that is conveniently rather flexible. He also on occasions steals for the sheer excitement of the deed, or as a challenge, or even on rare occasions (as in the episode The Last Laugh) to write what he perceives as a wrong. But he is not a Robin Hood, although he has his generous moments. He enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, financed entirely by crime.

He is also an ambiguous character in other ways. His partner in crime is Bunny Manders, an old school friend. But it is not an equal partnership. Raffles is very much the dominant partner, and it can even be said that his friendship with Bunny is rather exploitative. Raffles like to dominate people and the fact that he can persuade Bunny to do anything he chooses to have him do gives Raffles a great deal of pleasure. There is a touch of sadism in Raffles. This is downplayed a little in the TV series but it’s still very much there. Raffles is charming and he is capable of generosity and even kindness but he enjoys having power over people. He is likeable, but there is an edge to his character.

The opening episode, The First Step, establishes the power relationship between Raffles and Bunny very effectively.

Anthony Valentine was in every way the ideal actor to play Raffles. As Toby Meres in Callan he had demonstrated his uncanny ability to combine enormous charm with a sinister and sadistic edge. Meres’ job sometimes involves killing people, and for Meres that is more of a bonus than a downside. Raffles has a very much more light-hearted tone than Callan and Raffles as a character is much less dark than Toby Meres but that very slight hint of sadism is still there and it’s one of the things that makes this an intriguing and unusual series. On the whole the series is witty and done with a very light touch but it has its occasional darker moments. Raffles is an anti-hero, even if he’s a very charming anti-hero. 

The episode The Gold Cup illustrates one side of Raffles. The cup in question is a medieval cup, originally presented to Henry VIII, now kept in the British Museum. Raffles falls in love with its beauty. And when he sees something of rare beauty, he simply has to steal it. He doesn’t actually want the cup. It would be impossible to sell. He just wants the joy of stealing it and enjoying it for a time. This well-intentioned plan is threatened when Raffles and Bunny are invited to dine with the Criminologists’ Club, a society of crime enthusiasts who believe they are on the verge of uncovering the identity of Britain’s most notorious and most discerning burglar. They believe that man to be none other than Raffles. For most burglars this would be at the very least an annoyance, but for Raffles it’s just another challenge, another opportunity to put his own wits to the test. And as a bonus there’s the chance to show off in front of an attractive, charming, very wealthy and very well-connected lady.

If The Gold Cup shows Raffles at his most quixotic The Last Laugh shows another and much nobler side of his character, although it also demonstrates his capacity for ruthlessness. In this case his ruthlessness is justified. This episode also demonstrates his surprising capacity for selflessness and even sacrifice. 

Mr Justice Raffles is another episode that reveals our hero in a ruthless mood. Raffles believes in avoiding violence wherever possible - he is a burglar, a craftsman of crime, not a street thug. On rare occasions however when he’s in the mood for putting injustices right (which he sometimes does but according to his own idiosyncratic moral code) he is prepared to use a certain amount of violence. And in this instance he’s up against a man who gives decent criminals a bad name. 

In To Catch a Thief he has to match wits with a rival burglar. It’s one of several episodes in which Raffles’ schemes come perilously close to bringing him undone. Being a burglar is a dangerous profession and both the original stories and the TV series emphasise the risks and the possible dire consequences if something goes wrong.

A Trap to Catch a Cracksman sees Raffles stealing for the sake of the honour of English sport. Raffles’ strange mixture of motivations is one of the highlights of Hornung’s stories, and of the TV series.

Raffles was an expensive undertaking for Yorkshire Television but it was money well spent. Production values are high. 

Unfortunately only one season of 13 episodes was made (or 14 episodes if you include the rarely seen pilot).

The 2004 British DVD release from Acorn Media (which is the one I have) was a six-disc set and seems to be out of print. The quality was very satisfactory. There has been a subsequent British DVD release (2010) from ITV Studios Home Entertainment which is still in print and very inexpensive. The series has also been released on DVD in the US.

Raffles is superb entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday 1 December 2014

Man with a Camera (1958-60)

Throughout the 1950s Charles Bronson played bit parts in movies and TV series, but in 1958 the 37-year-old actor got his big break with the lead role in the American television crime series Man with a Camera. It’s slightly odd to see the legendary screen tough guy armed with nothing but a camera.

The series ran for two seasons on the US ABC network, from 1958 to 1960.

Although he plays a photographer the show is in fact a crime/adventure series. Mike Kovacs (Bronson) is a freelance news photographer who seems to spend more time acting as an amateur private eye than in taking pictures. 

Two episodes of this program are included in Mill Creek’s TV Detectives DVD boxed set, and they’re the only two episodes I’ve ever seen. Judging by these episodes the series does manage to bring photography into the story lines quite cleverly and this combined with the fact that Kovacs doesn’t carry a gun gives it a distinctive flavour.

Kovacs gets mixed in uncovering the activities of international con-men and in finding the missing wife of a police detective buddy of his. And Bronson manages to get some action scenes - the climax of the second season episode Missing has Kovacs taking on a couple of hoods in a car wash, using a steam cleaner as a weapon. It’s quite an eerie and somewhat film noirish scene and it’s a definite highlight.

Worth a look if you’re a Charles Bronson fan although his later screen persona is not yet fully developed, and also worth a look if you enjoy slightly offbeat crime series.

Monday 24 November 2014

The Twilight Zone, season 1 (1959)

The Twilight Zone was one of the most influential television series ever made and it remains one of the most loved. It has retained a major cult following over more than half a century, and its creator Rod Serling is one of the legends of television.

I have to be perfectly honest right up front and say that I have never been a fan of Serling’s writing. At times I find his work to be overly sentimental. He often seems to me to be excessively concerned with stories that have a moral, and inclined to bludgeon the viewer with that moral. The political content of his writing is less than subtle. And at times his writing simply seems clumsy and heavy-handed. One of the most interesting extras included in the Blu-Ray release of season one of The Twilight Zone is a series of audio recordings of Serling delivering lectures at Sherwood Oaks College in 1975. These show that Serling himself was aware of the flaws in his writing, and was painfully aware of the deficiencies of many of his scripts for The Twilight Zone. In fact he is his own best critic, ruthlessly exposing his writing mistakes.

Having said that, I still regard The Twilight Zone as a very important series and I still have a great deal of affection for it, although my favourite episodes tend to be the ones written by Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont rather than the Serling-penned stories. Serling’s great achievement was in conceiving the series in the first place, and (against the odds) not only getting it made but renewed for a total of five seasons.

There were other excellent suspense/mystery anthology TV series made at around the same time, some of which (such as the superb Alfred Hitchcock Presents series) pre-date The Twilight Zone. Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was another very fine series of this type. These series relied on clever and nasty little plot twists, they were often very dark in tone, and at times they crossed the boundary into outright horror. Thriller at times even flirted with overt supernatural horror. What made The Twilight Zone different was that it was much more explicitly dealing with science fictional and fantasy themes, and it was much more uncompromising in rejecting the tyranny of realism. The Twilight Zone doesn’t even pretend to deal with reality. In 1959 this was a very bold move for a television series.

Serling wrote 92 of the 156 episodes himself. This enormous output probably has quite a lot to do with the unevenness of his writing at this time. He was under so much pressure to produce scripts that it’s not entirely surprising that some are not up to par. 

One of Serling’s most important contributions to the success of the series was his determination to maintain high production values. Persuading CBS that they were going to have to spend real money on the show was an extraordinary achievement and he fought bitterly against any moves to cut costs at the expense of quality. Serling was able to maintain a fair degree of control over the series, and to ensure that the directors employed were not only among the best in the business but were also people who understood his intentions for the series. As a result of these efforts of Serling’s The Twilight Zone is by the standards of its day a remarkably impressive-looking series. Indeed it looks impressive by any standards. It features some of the best black-and-white cinematography in television history.

These to me are the real strengths of this show - superb and imaginative visuals that set the mood plus an overall impression of quality. These strengths are often enough to compensate for the uneven quality of Serling’s writing.

This can be seen quite clearly in the very first episode, Where Is Everybody? A guy suddenly finds himself on a road. He doesn’t remember who he is. He comes to a town and it’s deserted. Totally. We eventually find out the explanation, but as Serling admits in his 1975 lectures, it’s very clumsy and full of bad writing and bad writing devices. As an example, it makes the mistake of having the guy tell us he feels like he’s being watched when that impression should have been achieved by visual means. Show, don’t tell. Serling is particularly devastating in his criticism of his own writing for this episode.

The Hitch-Hiker is a very much much better Rod Serling episode, based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher. Inger Stevens stars as Nan Adams, a young woman driving cross-country who has a tyre blow-out. After having the tyre repaired she keeps seeing the same mysterious hitch-hiker over and over. This episode is Serling at his most subtle and his most skillful. He gives us a steady accumulation of hints as to what is really going on but the final reveal has real impact. One of the reasons it works so well is that both the audience and the protagonist  learn the truth at the exact same moment. A superb story brillantly executed.

Judgment Night is another very fine Serling story, superbly directed by John Brahm. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric production and it’s an example of a Serling story that succeeds in delivering the emotional punch the author intended. Unfortunately it’s impossible to say anything about the plot without the risk of revealing spoilers.

One For the Angels, Walking Distance and Escape Clause are well-regarded episodes written by Serling. The 69-year-old salesman protagonist of One For the Angels is told by Mr Death that his time is up. There is no escape but there are special circumstances in which an extension of time can be granted. The salesman believes he qualifies for such an extension, to give him time to make the one great pitch that he has never made. This is one of the more successful examples of a gently humorous Twilight Zone. It has some moments where it comes perilously close to sentimentality but on the whole it’s a fine episode.  

Walking Distance and Escape Clause are not so good. In Walking Distance a 36-year-old advertising executive from New York goes back to his home town and finds that he’s travelled back 25 years into the past. He sees his parents (now deceased) and himself as a boy. Serling in his 1975 lecture admits that the episode just doesn’t work, and he’s right. No-one could experience the shock that the protagonist experiences and continue to function. And as Serling points out the character keeps verbalising things that he would not and should not be verbalising. Escape Clause is yet another story of a man, in this case a hypochondriac obsessed by death, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for immortality. He then of course finds life unutterably boring. It has a couple of twists, one of them quite clever. It’s another episode that seems too pleased with its own cleverness, and again the moral is too obvious and too laboured.

Apart from Serling the two other main writers of this series were Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont.

In Matheson’s The Last Flight a WW1 fighter pilot, Flight Lieutenant Decker, takes off in 1917, flies into a cloud-bank and lands at a US Air Force base in France in 1959. This is not just a case of weird stuff happening for its own sake. There is a very good for his finding himself at that particular place at that particular moment in the future, and it allows him to find his destiny. A World of Difference, also by Richard Matheson, stars Howard Duff as Arthur Curtis, a 36-year-old business executive who suddenly discovers that actually he’s actor Gerald Regan. And that Arthur Curtis is only a character in a movie. These are both very well-written and very well-made episodes that hit their target.

Charles Beaumont’s Elegy by is very creepy and very effective. Three astronauts lost in space in 2185 find an asteroid that seems remarkably like Earth in the 20th century. Except that everyone seems frozen in time. Eventually the caretaker explains to them the purpose of the asteroid. The only wish of the astronauts is to be in their ship on their way home. They get their wish, but with a very clever twist. A great episode.

Beaumont’s Long Live Walter Jameson involves an elderly college professor who discovers why his colleague Walter Jameson is able to teach history so vividly that you can almost believe him to be an eyewitness of the events he describes. This discovery makes it obvious that Walter Jameson is much too old to marry the elderly professor’s daughter. Much much too old. The basic idea is far from original but it’s reasonably well executed. Not as strong an episode as Elegy but still an effective story.

A Stop at Willoughby is thematically similar to Walking Distance, with another protagonist yearning for an idealised past. A Stop at Willoughby handles the idea with much greater skill and subtlety and is a fine and very moving story.

The Chaser was written by John Collier, Robert Presnell, Jr from a story by John Collier, and is notable for the strange and extraordinary book-lined room in which the protagonist meets the seller of potions. Director Douglas Heyes came up with the idea and recalls that despite the considerable expense this set entailed he had no difficulty getting the go ahead for it. The willingness of both Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton to risk spending extra money was a major factor in the success of the series, allowing directors to create the kind of atmosphere that added so much to the stories.

Mr Denton on Doomsday was one of the very early episodes and it’s generally, and rightly, much admired. It’s a fine example of a Serling script that could have come across as being a little corny but Serling pulls off a fine balancing act and the story works.

The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine stars the great Ida Lupino who gets the opportunity to play a rôle clearly based on Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and she makes the most of it. This is another story which flirts dangerously with sentimentality but gets away with it. The premise of this story was later appropriated by Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The After Hours has always been a favourite of mine and it remains one of the archetypal Twilight Zone stories.

I’d seen many of these episodes years ago on television and seeing them now on Blu-Ray is quite a revelation. The UK Blu-Ray release looks absolutely magnificent and includes quite a few audio commentaries as well as The Time Element, a 1958 television play written by Rod Serling and presented as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse series, which served as an unofficial pilot episode for The Twilight Zone

Despite the reservations I still have about Serling’s writing this remains an impressive series, a series that set new standards for television in terms of visual boldness and high production values. As Douglas Heyes, who directed some of the best episodes, notes in an interview included in the set, the half-hour format was particularly suitable for this series. Heyes maintains, correctly I think, that the premises of most of the stories could not have been sustained in an hour-long format. Episodes like The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine and the classic The After Hours seem to me to  be good examples of what Heyes was talking about.

The Twilight Zone is one of those must-see television series and the Blu-Ray release of season one is highly recommended. It should be noted that the screencaps used to illustrate this review are from the early DVD release and do not reflect the superb quality of the Blu-Ray release.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Who Killed Lamb? (1974)

Who Killed Lamb? is a 1974 British television movie that is included as an extra in Network DVD’s boxed set of Brian Clemens’ 1970s Thriller anthology series. At the time it was broadcast in the same time slot the week after the last of the second season episodes of Thriller, which apparently led many people to think it was part of the same series. Which seems a bit far-fetched to me since not only the subject matter but the entire tone of Who Killed Lamb? is very very different compared to Thriller. Be that as it may it’s difficult to complain when it comes as an extra to a series I wanted to buy anyway. And when it stars Sir Stanley Baker there’s really no reason not to watch it. Which I did.

It’s a straight-out police procedural. A prosperous, respected and apparently well-liked businessman is found shot to death. Detective Chief Superintendent Jamieson of New Scotland Yard (Stanley Baker) takes charge of the murder inquiry.

There’s the usual assortment of suspects, all with apparently convincing reasons to have committed the murder. As the investigation proceeds it uncovers the murder victim’s secret life, and that ill prove to be the key to solving the case.

Who Killed Lamb? in some ways illustrates quite strikingly both the best and the worst of 1970s British television. On the plus side it’s extreme well-made, generally reasonably well-written and very well-acted. On the minus side it’s a bit too obsessed with the seamy side of life and writer Anthony Skene is much too inclined to fall into the trap that so many lazy writers have fallen into since that time, that of portraying any character who seems to be conventional and respectable as a smarmy hypocrite.

Stanley Baker was a superb actor and his performance cannot be faulted. His performance is backed up by an array of very capable supporting players. Visually it’s very much of its time, feeling very studio-bound.

On the whole it’s not really a program that I would recommend to anyone if they had to buy it individually but if you do happen to buy the Thriller boxed set it’s probably worth a watch if you have nothing better to do, especially if you’re a Stanley Baker fan. The transfer is acceptable although far from sensational (and definitely not as good as the transfers for the actual Thriller episodes).

Monday 10 November 2014

The Invisible Man (1958-59)

I don’t usually bother with the local library but browsing among the DVDs there I came across the late 1950s British Invisible Man TV series. Or to give it its full title, H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man, although the connection to Wells is pretty tenuous. 

Peter Brady is a British scientist working on the problem of invisibility. He works in a nuclear research facility. Of course the great thing about nuclear power is its potential for making stuff invisible. So far Brady has confined his experiments to rats. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there’s a radiation leak and Brady finds himself turned totally invisible!

The first episode, Secret Experiment (originally screened in 1958), is concerned with giving us this background.

The second episode, Crisis in the Desert, shows us what the series is really about. It’s a crime/espionage/adventure series. In this episode the invisible Dr Brady is recruited by British Intelligence for a special assignment in the Middle East. He must rescue a British agent from a military hospital before the secret police can force him to reveal Britain’s espionage secrets. Dr Brady is helped in this adventure by a beautiful glamorous female spy named Yolanda.

I haven’t been able to find any other first season episodes but I have come across the second season which continues with the same format. In one episode (Point of Destruction) Brady uncovers sabotage in the aviation industry, a highlight for aviation geeks being a rare opportunity to see a Vickers Valiant V-bomber in flight. Another story has Brady helping a man accused of murder. The Vanishing Evidence and The Prize are more or less straight spy stories but they make good use of the invisibility of the hero.

It’s always fun spotting the wonderful character actors making guest appearances in series of this era. Having Charles Gray and Michel Ripper in the one episode is a bonus, and in The Prize Anton Diffring gets to play yet another sadistic totalitarian thug, and does so with his usual panache. Fans of 60s cult TV will be pleased to see Public Eye star Alfred Burke pop up in a small role in the Point of Destruction episode.

It suffers a little from the 30-minute episode format that was standard at that time so the plots are pretty thin. Still it’s entertaining enough and it’s certainly fast-paced.

The series was created by Ralph Smart who had a long and distinguished career in film and television in Britain and Australia. After The Invisible Man he went on to develop one of the most successful and iconic British TV series of the 60s, Danger Man.  

There’s quite a bit of location shooting, certainly more than you expect in this period. The series has the look of a program intended to compare favourably with American series of the time and on the whole it succeeds. Smart had worked with Michael Powell so it’s probably not surprising that he appreciated the importance of high production values.

The special effects work reasonably well although there are occasional glitches when Peter Brady is not quite as invisible as he should be!

Surprisingly (but pleasingly) the second season episodes are in very good shape, especially given the atrocious condition of so much surviving British television of this era. Even more surprising is the fact that both seasons survive in their entirety.

Dark Sky Films have done a fine job with their DVD release of season two.

Friday 7 November 2014

merchandising and cult TV

Merchandising associated with TV series is something we take for granted these days. But when did the practice start?

Corgi Toys in Britain were producing diecast models of the vehicles featured in series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers by the mid-60s. I suspect though that it may have started on a large scale with the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series of the 60s. I knew they were producing merchandising for Stingray in 1964 but it appears that there were Fireball XL5 models earlier than that, and the Fireball XL5 series dates from 1962.

I can remember the Lincoln International remote-control Stingray which could even submerge. I’m fairly sure that the same company also made a Z Cars remote-controlled Ford Cortina police car.

Of course merchandising really took off in a huge way with Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. The Corgi die-cast Captain Scarlet vehicles were very cool. Another treasured memory is the Airfix Angel Interceptor plastic kit.

The Corgi “Thrush-Buster” car from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a bit odd, being really just a saloon car. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was slightly unusual in not putting its heroes behind the wheels of sexy sports cars, perhaps because the concept of the series was that they were law enforcement officers and law enforcement officers don’t drive sexy sports cars. The Corgi Avengers Gift Pack with Mrs Peel’s Lotus Elan and Steed’s 4½-litre supercharged Bentley was rather nice.

Tie-in novels were also well-established by the mid-1960s with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series eventually running to two dozen titles and apparently selling very well indeed. I still have vivid memories of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin battling vampires in The Vampire Affair.

Even more exciting (to me at least) were the TV21 Annuals that represented a bold attempt to link all the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series into a single unified universe. And with lots of cool technical details of the equipment.

Merchandising would really explode with the Star Trek and Star Wars phenomena but it was already big business in the 60s.

I just wish I'd had the brains to keep all the stuff of this type that I used to own. Especially those TV21 Annuals!

Monday 27 October 2014

Federal Men (1950-55)

The classic Hollywood B-movie was virtually dead by the 1950s. One of the great B-movie staples had always been the B crime movie, and its place was largely taken by TV cop shows and private eye shows. One of the more successful of these TV series was Federal Men, also known as Treasury Men in Action, which ran from 1950-1955.

This series was clearly influenced by the documentary-style crime movies that had started appearing at the tail end of the 40s, movies like The Naked City (1948). It follows the adventures of a team of Treasury agents as they hunt down tax evaders and counterfeiters. Treasury agents had of course already featured in crime movies like Anthony Mann’s classic T-Men.

In the episodes I’ve watched over the last few days a certain film noir influence is also apparent, with several stories focussing on fundamentally decent guys who get caught up in crime more or less against their will. The Case of the Chartered Chiseler for example features a classic noir loser who made one dumb mistake and as a result gets dragged deeper and deeper into a noir nightmare. The Case of the Man Outside involves a prisoner who is desperately trying to steer clear of a prison racket. He’s serving a long sentence but now he’s almost eligible for parole, if he can stay out of trouble for the next few weeks. This turns out to be an almost impossible challenge. The Case of the Iron Curtain is yet another story in which an innocent man is unwittingly lured into crime.

The series was claimed to be based on actual cases.

While the photography was in the typically flat style of television the cheap sets and generally gritty atmosphere gives the series a feel not dissimilar to the average crime B-movie. An entertaining series and fairly typical of the realistic style that American TV was striving for in its early 50s cop shows.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Callan - The Monochrome Years (1967-69)

Network DVD’s Callan - The Monochrome Years boxed set includes all twelve surviving black-and-white episodes from the first two seasons originally broadcast in 1967 and 1969. 

A Magnum for Schneider was later remade in colour as the Callan movie, but I’d never seen the original version which served as the pilot episode of the Callan TV series. 

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 us 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, although the later movie version is probably superior overall.

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

Watching the very early episodes of Callan it’s interesting to note the differences compared to the more familiar third and fourth seasons. I’ve seen all the third and fourth season episodes several times, but I’d never seen the black-and-white episodes at all. 

Both the pilot episode and the first episode of the series proper make extensive use of voiceover narration by Edward Woodward. Dropping that practice in later seasons was definitely a good idea - it’s overused and not really necessary. By season two the series has settled down into the format that would become more familiar in seasons three and four.

The relationship between Hunter and Callan in season one is interesting - more personal and much more bitter. I can’t imagine Callan speaking to the William Squires version of Hunter the way he speaks to the original version. 

Even this early on the Callan-Toby Meres relationship is fun. In a single episode so much has already been established. Not just their intense dislike for one another, but the reasons for it. I love the fact that as much as they hate each other’s guts, they still have great respect for each other’s professionalism. They both know that in their line of work you can’t allow personal feelings to influence the way you do your job. You might hate the guy you have to work with, but you might also have to rely on him to save your life.

It’s also interesting finding out more about Callan’s early history with the Section. Most of it could be inferred in later seasons, but it does make some of his bitterness more comprehensible.

The Good Ones Are All Dead was the first true episode after the original Armchair Theatre drama, and it’s very typically Callan - loads of moral ambiguity and cynicism. It has a rather sympathetic Nazi war criminal, and a rather unsympathetic and quite fanatical Israeli agent hunting him. At the same time the horrors of the Nazi’s crimes are not minimised. Callan’s ambivalence about the morality of his job, even when the target is someone who is clearly guilty of terrible crimes, is already becoming nicely complex and tortured.

Quite a few of these early episodes do not have pure Cold War themes. Death of a Friend deals with French OAS terrorists. The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw deals with a British brigadier who has unwisely becomes embroiled in Middle Eastern politics. This episode fills in quite a bit of Callan’s personal backstory, the brigadier in question having been Callan’s CO in Malaya.

There were several different Hunters (as the head of the shadowy Section is named) in the first two seasons and they seem to get themselves mixed up in the action to a degree that the Hunter of seasons three and four would have disapproved of. One of these Hunters, in the extremely good episode Heir Apparent, is a British spy in East Germany. Before he can take over as Hunter Callan and Meres will have to get him out of East Germany alive, an undertaking that turns out to be considerably more difficult than they’d anticipated.

Without taking anything away from the performance of Patrick Mower (a very fine actor) as Cross in season three and the early part of season four there’s no question that Toby Meres as portrayed by Anthony Valentine was the ideal foil for Edward Woodward’s Callan. The menace wrapped in public school charm of Meres is one of the high points of television espionage.

Had Callan been made a few years later it would undoubtedly have been shot on film with a lot more location footage. We can therefore be thankful it was made when it was, with all the brooding claustrophobia that was so much easier to capture in a studio. 

Callan remains the greatest of all television spy series and viewing these black-and-white episodes, unseen for decades, further enhances the reputation of the series. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Tales of Frankenstein (1958 TV pilot)

Tales of Frankenstein was the 1958 pilot episode for a proposed television series which was to be a collaboration between Columbia and Hammer Films. The immense success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents had resulted in a great deal of interest on the part of TV networks in the possibility of other anthology series, an interest that would bear fruit in such series as Thriller and The Twilight Zone. Tales of Frankenstein would have been slightly different - a true gothic horror anthology series.

Given that Hammer were riding high after scoring a major with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and that this success had established that there was a definite audience for gothic horror, the television series seemed like a very good idea. In fact it was a very good idea, but unfortunately everything went wrong.

The plan was for 26 episodes, 13 to be made by Columbia in the US and 13 by Hammer in England. The pilot episode was to be made in the US, and that’s where the trouble started. Columbia had bought the TV rights to the old Universal horror films and had had considerable success with them. They naturally wanted the TV series to be done in the Universal style. This was both puzzling and exasperating for Hammer, who just as naturally had assumed that the series would be in the Hammer horror style. After all, why involve Hammer at all if you weren’t going to make use of their expertise in making their own distinctive and much more modern style of gothic horror? 

Even worse, Hammer’s Michael Carreras discovered that Columbia weren’t interested in the script ideas Hammer had developed for the series. The only real input that Hammer had to the pilot episode was the choice of star. Hammer wanted Anton Diffring to play Baron Frankenstein, a logical choice since they were about to launch him as a gothic horror star in their upcoming (and extremely good) movie The Man Who Cheated Death. Diffring got the starring role in the TV pilot.

Columbia had a script written by Henry Kuttner and his wife C. L. Moore. They had gained plenty of in the genre writing for the pulp magazines in the 30s. Their script was based on a story by Curt Siodmak. Siodmak was a fine writer so there should have been no problem. Unfortunately Siodmak was also hired to direct the pilot. Curt Siodmak was proof that being a good writer does not automatically make someone a good director.

Michael Carreras had by this time given up in despair and returned to England, sending out Anthony Hinds to keep an eye on things in the US. Hinds had no more success than Carreras had had in getting Hammer’s viewpoint across and soon he too gave up and returned home. 

Nobody at Hammer Films was the slightest bit happy with the pilot once they saw it. It was most definitely not at all what they had had in mind.

So was the pilot as bad as Hammer thought? The answer to that is a qualified no. Given that Columbia wanted something that looked like the old Universal horror movies the results were by no means terrible. And the ABC network was quite impressed by the pilot and were very interested in buying the series. Sadly it was not to be. Relations between Columbia and Hammer having more or less broken down completely the project was shelved.

The pilot episode was pretty much a stock-standard Frankenstein story but as an introduction to the series that was not necessarily a bad thing. Once the series had established itself there would have been plenty of opportunities to do slightly more original stories.

The attempt to copy the Universal style worked fairly well. The gothic atmosphere is captured quite effectively. The horror is rather low-key but that at least meant there would be no censorship hassles with the network.

It also needs to be said that capturing the distinctive Hammer horror style in black-and-white would have presented quite a challenge.

Diffring is a reasonably good Baron Frankenstein although his characteristic rather distant acting style meant that the character lacked the subtlety of Peter Cushing’s interpretation, and it has to be said that Diffring’s Frankensein probably had less potential for development than Cushing’s.

The whole affair was not a complete loss for Hammer. Many of the ideas they had come up with for the series were later utilised in their Frankenstein movies. In fact the experience of trying to come up with variations on the story may well have convinced them  that making movie sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein was a more promising idea than a TV series.

Image Entertainment have released the pilot episode on DVD. The problem they faced was that even at a budget price purchasers might be disappointed that all they were getting was a single half-hour episode of a TV series. Their solution was to load the DVDs with extras. There’s a very good commentary track, there are brief interviews with Michael Carreras and Peter Cushing, there’s an extended radio interview with Boris Karloff and another with Glenn Strange (who played the monster in the later Universal movies). There are also lots of trailers for various Frankenstein movies. Given the very reasonable asking price the DVD is not bad value. Tales of Frankenstein itself is in reasonable condition for a 1950s TV episode.

Tales of Frankenstein was a lost opportunity but the pilot episode is not without interest, and not without entertainment value. It’s definitely worth a look.