Friday 28 February 2014

The Avengers - the David Keel era

After contractual problems caused the demise of a short-lived  series called Police Surgeon Britain’s ABC Television found themselves with a promising star in Ian Hendry but nothing in which to star him. Police Surgeon’s producer Leonard White was instructed by ABC’s Director of Drama, Sydney Newman, to come up with a new series as quickly as possible. Within a few weeks he’d come up with a crime drama that was to be called The Avengers. By the end of 1960 it was in production.

Hendry would star as Dr David Keel, a man who turns amateur crime-fighter when his wife is murdered. In his hunt for the killer he would find an ally in a rather shadowy character named John Steed, to be played by Patrick Macnee. Whether Steed had any official status with any law enforcement or intelligence agency was left rather obscure, although he clearly had at least an unofficial connection with some such agency. After finding the murderer of his wife Dr Keel agrees to assist Steed in an unofficial capacity in future cases.

Since only two out of the twenty-six episodes of this first season of The Avengers have survived, and since only one of these surviving episodes features Steed, it’s difficult to be sure precisely how the partnership between Keel and Steed actually functioned. Dr Keel’s nurse Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner) was also a regular character and seems to have played  an active role in some cases.

It’s also impossible to make any kind of fair judgment on this season, although both the surviving episodes are very good. Based on these episodes and plot summaries of the remainder it seems to have been reasonably close to the formula used in the second season, with some fairly straightforward crime stories and some stories dealing with crimes that have diplomatic or national security ramifications, and the stories would appear to have been fairly serious in tone but with some tongue-in-cheek elements.

In the first of the surviving episodes, Girl on the Trapeze, Dr Keel witnesses an apparent suicide. There is more than a little doubt about the identity of the victim, and the postmortem reveals that the girl died of a barbiturate overdose. But if she had consumed a fatal dose of barbiturates how could she have jumped off a bridge? And yet Dr Keel saw her do just that. He and his nurse Carol do a bit of amateur sleuthing and the trail leads them to a circus. The problem is that the circus is from a country behind the Iron Curtain so any official police investigation will be hampered by the fear of creating a diplomatic incident. Dr Keel and Carol aren’t constrained by any such fears and they soon discover that nothing in this case is as it appears to be. 

Dennis Spooner’s script is clever and suspenseful and I’m not going to ruin things by revealing any spoilers. Suffice to say there’s an enjoyably intricate plot and plenty of action, with Carol playing a very active role. The absence of Steed does not prove to be a problem as Ian Hendry and Ingrid Hafner make a very effective partnership.

The second surviving episode, The Frighteners, is just as good. It was written by Berkeley Mather, who had apparently been a real-life intelligence officer. The story has some neat twists and the characters are not only colourful but several also turn out to be either less villainous or more villainous than they appeared to be.

Steed is on the trail of a gang who specialise in “massage therapy” - this being their euphemism for violence and intimidation. The gang has been employed to persuade a young man named Jeremy de Willoughby to break off his engagement to a wealthy young heiress. The method of persuasion adopted in this case involves knuckle-dusters and razors. Steed calls on Dr Keel’s assistance and while their main task is to bring the strong-arm gang to justice they discover that Jeremy de Willoughby is not quite the innocent victim after all.

Steed’s solution to the Jeremy de Willoughby problem is typically devious while Dr Keel proves himself to be pretty adept at intimidation himself. His bluffing of the gang leader with a hypodermic full of hydrochloric acid is a nice touch.

Steed has many of the characteristics that would become trademarks as the series progressed. He’s a snappy dresser, he’s clearly upper-class and he can turn on the charm when required. He does seem to be a harder-edged character than the later Steed though, and with a bit of a sadistic steak, taking obvious delight in threatening to torture a suspect. He also has some machiavellian ways of manipulating people into doing his bidding. That machiavellian touch can still be seen in seasons two and three where he has no compunction about manipulating Cathy Gale. On the whole the Steed of season one seems to have been tougher and more ruthless than the later Steed but since we only have one episode to go on it might be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from it.

Apart from Girl on the Trapeze and The Frighteners all that remains of this first season is the opening act of the first episode, Hot Snow, and Steed did not make his appearance in that one until the second act.

The series was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for Ian Hendry, with Patrick Macnee being an important but essentially subsidiary character. Dr Keel would be the hero, with Steed being the man pulling the strings. Steed turned out to be popular with viewers so it’s possible that his role was beefed up as the season progressed.

The first season of The Avengers proved to be a modest success, certainly doing well enough to ensure that a second season would follow, although without Ian Hendry. Interestingly enough, according to producer Leonard White Ian Hendry never actually left the series. There was a long-running actors’ strike which delayed the production of the second season and by the time production of the series was ready to recommence Hendry had accepted some film roles and thus was no longer available. The original intention though was that Hendry would star in the second season and Hendry had been perfectly willing to do so. 

The first of Optimum’s Avengers boxed sets includes the whole of the second season plus all that remains of the first season, the two surviving episodes and the opening act of Hot Snow. What little we have suggests that the loss of most of this first season is a very considerable loss indeed.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Police Surgeon (1960)

If you read anything about the early history of The Avengers you’re going to come across references to a series called Police Surgeon. In fact some people are under the impression that Police Surgeon was a kind of ancestral incarnation of The Avengers, with Ian Hendry playing the same character. This is not the case, but there is a link between the two series, albeit a tenuous one.

Police Surgeon was a half-hour drama made by Britain’s ABC Television in 1960 with Ian Hendry playing a London police surgeon, Dr Geoffrey Brent. It was moderately well received but was cancelled after 13 episodes, apparently due to contractual problems. The series had been based on the experiences of a real-life police surgeon. The producers had made what they considered to be a very generous deal with the surgeon only to have him start threatening legal action, which may have been part of the reason the series was cancelled. 

Either way ABC now found themselves with the very promising up-and-coming Ian Hendry but no series for him to star in. ABC’s Director of Drama, Sydney Newman, ordered Police Surgeon’s producer Leonard White to come up with a new series to utilise Hendry’s talents. Within a few weeks a new crime series had started to take shape. It would be an hour-long series and would be called The Avengers. Ian Hendry would again play a doctor, in this case Dr David Keel. Keel would be a kind of freelance crime-fighter and he would have a sidekick, a fellow named John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee.

But back to Police Surgeon. The series had been devised by Julian Bond who would be the main writer and also the producer. After the first few episodes it became obvious than Bond was not producer material and Leonard White took over.

Bond’s idea had been for a socially conscious crime series, the sort of worthy but rather dreary sort of thing that was all the rage with British television producers at the time. Dr Brent would be a bleeding heart police surgeon who would deal with social outcasts and the other assorted misfits who needed saving by people like Dr Brent.

It’s difficult to make judgments on how the idea actually panned out since only one episode survives. That episode, Easy Money, sees Dr Brent trying to straighten out a juvenile delinquent played by an absurdly young Michael Crawford. 

Easy Money is actually by no means entirely bad. The juvenile delinquent in question is about to be charged with a robbery and since he already has a record he’s in a fair amount of trouble. Dr Brent tries to persuade him that taking responsibility for your life is a better plan that trying to be a swaggering tough guy. 

When Optimum released the first of their Avengers boxed sets, comprising the surviving episodes of season one plus the whole of season two they decided to throw in the one surviving episode of Police Surgeon as a bonus. It’s not exactly in pristine condition but it’s watchable and it is an interesting opportunity to see a very young Ian Hendry. Hendry is pretty good, coming across as caring without being na├»ve or irritatingly sentimental.

Police Surgeon might not be great television but it is an interesting curiosity.

Friday 21 February 2014

M Squad (1957-60)

I’ve been getting into hardboiled 1950s American crime series recently. Most of the ones I’ve been watching have been private eye shows but M Squad is a hardboiled cop show. And it’s a good one. A very good one.

This was Lee Marvin’s only TV series. He plays Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger of the Chicago Police Department’s M Squad. The series ran on NBC for three seasons from 1957 to 1960.

As you’d expect with Lee Marvin playing the role Ballinger is a very tough guy. Marvin however doesn’t make the obvious mistake of playing him as cynical. Ballinger likes being a cop and he believes in it. He’s the sort of guy who actually thinks that you can make a difference by being a cop. Marvin also doesn’t make the equally obvious mistake of making Ballinger a starry-eyed idealist. Sometimes cops have to do unpleasant things. It’s all part of the job. You learn to deal with it. In other words Ballinger comes across as a believable cop.

Raymond Chandler’s famous quote about detectives comes to mind - “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour.” That describes Ballinger pretty well. He has a moral code and he lives by it and he can be sensitive without being sentimental.

He’s also a man to whom loyalty is important. If he believes in someone he’ll stick by him even if it’s unpopular to do so.

As for the mean streets, this series certainly has them. This is one of the 50s American cop series that shows a very obvious film noir influence. Even if the term film noir wasn’t being used back then the style of movie-making that we now call noir was certainly familiar, and M Squad draws heavily on that style. In 1950s television you couldn’t achieve a full-blown noir visual style, but M Squad has its shadows and it has the sense of alienation and despair of the mean streets Chandler was talking about. This is not the Chicago the city authorities would have wanted tourists to see. It has a certain very effective grunginess to it.

A television series at that time had to tread warily when dealing with matters like crooked  police but this series certainly acknowledges it as a reality and one episode deals quite directly with corrupt prison guards. The series has its downbeat moments but it doesn’t wallow in pessimism. Frank Ballinger keeps going because the job is worthwhile, because sometimes the bad guys do get caught and justice does prevail. There’s squalor and there’s corruption, but there’s also decency and justice.

By 50s TV standards it has its violent moments. They might be tame by today’s standards but they’re enough to get the point across. This is one of the things I personally like about the television and the movies of the past. They make their point without bludgeoning the viewer with it.

I’ve always believed that limitations are only limitations if you look at them that way. M Squad was hampered by the half-hour episode format that was standard at the time and the shooting schedules were frighteningly tight - two days per episode. M Squad demonstrates the way such limitations can be turned into assets. The writing is tight, the pacing is fast and the series has a frenetic drive that grabs the viewer from the start.

Of course Lee Marvin also helps. He was an actor who always radiated vitality and manic energy, but he managed to do this while always remaining the epitome of cool. He approaches his role in this series with the same dynamism he approached every other role.

I have the two-disc set that includes the first fourteen episodes of season one. The entire series, all 117 episodes, is also available on DVD.

Picture quality is quite acceptable but it’s not exactly pristine. Luckily this is the sort of series that is actually enhanced by a slightly battered visual appearance!

M Squad is great television, and with the considerable bonus of Lee Marvin as its star it’s pretty much essential viewing for crime TV fans.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Mission: Impossible - season 1 (1966)

Mission: Impossible was one of the most successful spy series of its era, running on the American CBS network from 1966 to 1973.

There are broadly speaking two approaches to the spy thriller. There’s the gritty realist approach, usually with a hint of cynicism, typified by British series like Callan. Then there’s the action/adventure approach, typified by the Bond films and by most British and American spy TV series of the 60s such as The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and It Takes a Thief. Mission: Impossible belongs firmly in the action/adventure camp. The action/adventure type of series can be done in a tongue-in-cheek manner or it can take itself fairly seriously. Mission: Impossible takes itself fairly seriously, more seriously than The Man From U.N.C.L.E. for instance. It is most certainly not a spoof, no matter how outrageous some of the plots might become.

I’d seen numerous episodes of Mission: Impossible years ago but it wasn’t until I bought the DVD boxed set than I realised I had never seen any of season one. So it’s with season one that this review is concerned.

The main difference is that in the first season the leader of the Impossible Missions Force is Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill. This came as quite a shock to me since I’d been so accustomed to the later episodes with Peter Graves. The other, reasonably minor, difference between the first season and the second is that the opening sequences in which Dan Briggs gets his orders and then has to destroy them are more varied, and more imaginative, than in the later seasons.

Apart from Dan Briggs, the basic team is the same as in the second and third seasons. Barney Collier (Greg Morris) handles the gadgetry, Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus) provides the muscle, Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) uses her feminine wiles and Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) uses his mastery of disguise and illusionism. Landau is always billed in season one as Special Guest Star although he’s in almost every episode. He was originally intended to be an occasional character but quickly became a regular. Landau and Bain would leave after season three and the series would change slightly but it’s season one we’re concerned with here.

In his book on British action/adventure series of the 60s Saints and Avengers James Chapman singles out Mission: Impossible as an example of a series that conforms rigidly to the conventions of the genre and adheres strictly to a set formula, in contrast to a series like The Avengers which in its later years gleefully played around with genre conventions. In general it’s a fair observation. Of course it’s an observation that applies to the vast majority of TV series, but Mission: Impossible is a fairly extreme example. Not just the content but the tone of the series remains very consistent, never becoming really dark but never veering into the spy spoof arena. There’s a small amount of humour, but not much, and that remains constant in just about every episode.

Of course working to a rigid formula provides its own challenges. Somehow you have to stick to the formula without letting it get stale, and without letting the audience realise you’re working to a formula. The favoured way of doing this in the 60s was to ship your spies off to a different exotic location for each episode. Of course even American TV series did not have the budgets actually to do this, so both British and American series relied on stock footage, clever set dressing and heavy (and usually rather unconvincing) accents. Mission: Impossible uses these techniques in practically every episode.

There are a couple of interesting and slightly unexpected elements in this series. The first is that the IMF is usually aiming to discredit enemy spies rather than kill them. This is in fact the preferred technique of real-life intelligence agencies in peacetime. Killing agents of a foreign power tends to cause unpleasant diplomatic incidents, and that in turn tends to cause intelligence agencies to get major grief from their own political masters. 

The other surprisingly realistic element is the way Cinnamon Carter is used. Real female spies are very rarely kickass action heroines. They are much more likely to be used as bait for one of the most popular and perennially successful espionage techniques, the honey trap. In other words, using sex to set up enemies who can then be blackmailed or discredited. This is in fact exactly how Cinnamon Carter is used in most episodes. She is in fact by far the most realistic of all the female spies in 1960s television, or in spy TV series or spy movies of any era for that matter.

The difference between a successful series and an unsuccessful one more often than not comes down to having the right balance between the characters, and between the actors. Mission: Impossible (in its early seasons at least) scores highly in this area. The four main agents employed by Dan Briggs provide a very good balance and they had the right actor  to play each role. Briggs himself seems like a convincing spymaster - he’s polished and slick and could just as easily be taken for a middle-ranking bureaucrat, but Hill avoids making him merely dull. He seems like a guy who would be a natural leader, accustomed to taking responsibility and to issuing orders. Greg Morris plays Barney Collier as exactly the kind of tech nerd who would be doing the high-tech gadgetry stuff. Peter Lupus is the muscle, but without being a stereotype heavy. Martin Landau plays Rollin Hand with the mischievous deviousness you’d expect from a successful stage magician. 

Barbara Bain has perhaps the most difficult role because she can’t rely on martial arts skills and gunplay. The roles assigned to Cinnamon Carter in a typical mission do not require such skills. What they do require are a cool head, nerves of steel and a great deal of seductiveness. Bain gives her character the air of a woman who possesses these skills and knows how to use them. She’s a bit of an ice blonde, which is what you’d expect. A woman who betrays her emotions will quickly end up dead when playing such dangerous games. It’s also interesting that it is at least implied, albeit very discreetly (as was necessary in a network TV series in 1966), that Cinnamon is prepared to sleep with enemy agents in the line of duty.  We can believe that she would be prepared to go this far, and we can still respect her for it because she’s a professional doing her job.

Those involved in making the series clearly felt that too much reliance on straight Cold War themes might try the audience’s patience so the IMF’s missions frequently take it to a variety of Third World countries where they are either trying to overthrow hostile governments or prop up friendly ones. There is, mercifully, no attempt to deal with any serious political issues. This is an action/adventure series, not a political soap-box, and we take it for granted that the IMF represents the good guys and their enemies are the bad guys. If you want cynicism and a questioning of the morality of espionage then you’re watching the wrong series.

As I said earlier the tone remains very consistent. There are one or two minor exceptions. In The Short Tail Spy Cinnamon Carter goes perilously close to becoming emotionally involved with the Russian spy she’s supposed to be setting up for a honey trap, and Bain gets the opportunity to have Cinnamon show some real emotions. Which she does, without overdoing it. 

Mission: Impossible has been released on DVD in Region 1, Region 2 and Region 4. The set I have is the Region 2 set, which offers perfectly acceptable transfers at a reasonable price.

Mission: Impossible might be in most respects a very conventional TV spy series but in season 1 at least it’s extremely well-executed and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Gold Robbers (1969)

The Gold Robbers was produced by London Weekend Television in 1969 and it’s an example of the British crime television series at its best.

It’s a 13-part serial that follows the lengthy police investigation of the biggest and most daring robbery in history, obviously inspired at least in part by the real-life Great Train Robbery of 1963. The government of an African country is about to be overthrown and its leaders have decided to get all the country’s gold reserves to safety. To be used for their own benefit, of course, and not the benefit of their country. The gold arrives by air at a remote and little-used airfield in England. The strong police presence and the elaborate security measures in place are not often to stop a very determined and very ruthless criminal gang. The gold is stolen and flown off, to an unknown destination, leaving one policeman dead and several others seriously injured.

The gang involved is large and well organised. The robbery is carried out with military precision.

The man assigned to catch the gold robbers is Detective Chief Superintendent John Craddock (Peter Vaughan). It will prove to be a frustrating case, and Craddock has his own problems to deal with. His personal life is in a shambles. But Craddock is dogged and he is a very good policeman.

Each episode focuses on the hunt for one member of the gang. There are at first very few leads but gradually Craddock picks up enough snippets of information to put him on the trail of the members of the gang. He starts with the relatively small fish, tracking them down one by one, always hoping that the next small fish will lead him to a bigger fish.

Each episode sees Craddock make some progress but it’s a case of two steps forward, one step backwards. Finding enough hard evidence even to convict the small fry is a frustrating process and all too often he finds his man, only to have him slip through his fingers, or be unable to lay any actual charges. But Craddock presses on, and while progress is slow he is a patient man. 

The first episode kicks off with a lengthy filmed sequence showing the robbery itself. This sequence is quite a tour-de-force by the standards of 1960s British television. I suspect that the producers blew a large part of their budget on this one sequence, but it was money well spent. 

Each subsequent episode opens with a portion of the same robbery sequence, but each time we see something we didn’t see before. We see the part played by one particular robber, the one that the episode will focus on. It’s a clever technique, gradually building up a complete picture from a previously incomplete picture.

Peter Vaughan will be a very familiar face to every fan of British TV of this era. He made countless guest appearances in just about every series made in that period, usually playing a heavy. He made a wonderfully effective heavy but this series gives him the opportunity to really stretch his acting wings. Craddock is a complex character and  sympathetic one. He has some serious character flaws, but they are balanced by considerable strengths. He can be tough and he can be ruthless, but he is also capable of moments of surprising sensitivity. 

Of course any successful detective has to have not only a shrewd knowledge of human nature but also an ability to gain people’s trust. You can’t solve crimes unless you can get people to help you, and they have to want to help you. 

In other words Craddock is an entirely believable detective, and we can readily understand why he has risen to high rank.

Vaughan dominates the series with his superb performance but he gets plenty of assistance from some very capable guest stars, actors of the calibre of Ian Hendry and Roy Dotrice.

The series has the look typical to British television of its period, mainly shot on videotape but with filmed inserts. That, combined with the fact that it’s in black-and-white, might make it seem a little dated to modern audiences. If you stick with it however you will soon be drawn in by the brilliant writing and the excellent acting. 

British crime series were developing a much harder edge in the late 60s, a process that started with series like Public Eye and Callan that both debuted in 1967. These series were part of a trend to strip away both the glamour and the cosiness of previous television series and replace them with gritty realism and cynicism, and a certain measure of fairly graphic violence (at least by the standards of the day). The Gold Robbers was part of this trend. It has a definite edge to it.

The secret to success was to find a way to achieve greater realism without sacrificing entertainment and The Gold Robbers gets the balance just right. It’s tense and gripping and it has the necessary feel of being about real people.

The various subsidiary characters are developed in considerable depth. Some of the robbers are very nasty individuals indeed. Others are not evil but merely weak personalities who find themselves involved in something that seemed to promise way money but rapidly became a nightmare. They are in over their heads and they are scared. Some are oddly sympathetic in some ways but the series never makes the mistake of being too sympathetic towards them. 

The series was a major hit at the time but has been little seen since then.

Network DVD have released the complete series on Region 2 DVD and it really is a must-watch series for all fans of top quality British crime television. Highly recommended.

Friday 7 February 2014

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

In 1966, with Thunderbirds having been a major success Gerry Anderson was confidently expecting the series to be renewed. To his surprise and consternation his boss at ITC, Lew Grade, dropped a bombshell. Grade had decided that a completely new series would be easier to sell than a new series of Thunderbirds. Anderson was unhappy but since Grade had always supported him he felt he could not in all conscience oppose him on this issue.

While Anderson was undoubtedly correct that with the merchandising already in place a new series of Thunderbirds would have been a better decision Grade’s decision was in some ways understandable. Each of Anderson’s puppet series up to that date had marked a significant advance in technology and production values and it was reasonable to expect that a new series would be another step forward. In fact Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons would be a step forward technologically, although a somewhat controversial one.

The first major change was that the machinery that controlled the lip movement of the puppets had been made small enough to fit into the puppets’ chests, allowing the puppets for the first time to have normal human proportions. With this advance it seemed logical enough to try to make the puppets look as human possible with realistic facial features in place of the slightly caricatured faces of the earlier seasons.

The result was puppets that looked very realistic, but lacked the personality of the earlier versions. In some ways the technology had become too successful.

The second major change was that this new series would have a much darker tone. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is, as Gerry Anderson has stated, a war series. And it’s a grim war for survival for Earth.

The cumulative result of these changes was that some of the fun disappeared. Captain Scarlet is in its own way an excellent series and it certainly has its own virtues but it has to be admitted that it doesn’t have the energy or the exuberance of Thunderbirds. To this day fans are divided on the issue of whether Captain Scarlet represents the pinnacle of the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series or the beginning of the end.

Thunderbirds had been the first Anderson series to switch to hour-length episodes. The decision to revert to the half-hour format for Captain Scarlet was perhaps in retrospect a mistake. The darker tone of the series really required the longer episode length to develop its themes more fully and in particular to explore the emotional consequences for the characters, although it has to be said that had they gone down that road they might well have ended up with a series that would not have been ideally suited to the market they were aiming for which was after basically a children’s audience.

That’s the real problem with Captain Scarlet - it’s just not entirely sure if it’s aimed at children or at adults. Possibly Anderson should have kept the idea on the back burner until the opportunity arose to move into live action series (an ambition he had been nursing  right from the beginning). 

It has to be said that this tension as to the series’ exact objective does make it rather interesting television.

The first episode sets up the complex back story very neatly. The first manned mission to Mars discovers an alien city. They believe they are about to be fired upon, so they fire first. It’s a genuine honest mistake, with catastrophic consequences. The Martian civilisation had developed the technology to regenerate objects that had been destroyed. Objects, and people. This will be the weapon that the Mysterons use in a war of revenge. It will be used to give them control of two key officers in the Earth defence organisation Spectrum - Captains Scarlet and Black. Captain Black will become their permanent agent on Earth. Their control over Captain Scarlet proves to be less permanent, but it does leave him with an ability that will become vital in the fight against the Mysterons - the ability to survive fatal injuries. Captain Scarlet is now virtually indestructible.

Much of the excitement of Thunderbirds was generated by the fact that almost every mission for International Rescue involved a race against time. This same element provides the suspense in Captain Scarlet. The Mysterons’ strategy is to conduct a war of nerves against Earth, always threatening destruction but always issuing a warning first. So Spectrum, like International Rescue, always has time as the enemy. It’s a clever way of using one of the techniques that been so successful in Thunderbirds.

The Mysterons’ method of war also makes for nicely varied plots, or rather for endless series of variations on plots.

Gerry Anderson always liked the idea of things that are not what they seem to be and the format of Captain Scarlet means that nothing can ever be assumed to be what it appears to be.

Anderson also liked to make the headquarters of whichever organisation a particular series was dealing with the subject of clever gimmicks - the apparently innocent island that really houses the headquarters of International Rescue, the film studio that is really SHADO headquarters in UFO, etc. Captain Scarlet boasts one of the cleverest of these ideas - Cloudbase, an aircraft carrier in the sky. 

The gadgets and the equipment are as cool as you would expect and the miniatures work is at least the equal of anything in Thunderbirds.

Trying to achieve realism with puppets presented continual challenges. How do you operate a puppet that is sitting in a model aircraft cockpit with a glass canopy over her? How do you make a Spectrum helicopter appear to fly by the use of wires with rotating rotor blades getting in the way? Gerry Anderson provides the answers to these and other challenges in the commentary track he recorded for the opening episode. He also gives some insights into the extraordinary care with which his programs were made, aided considerably by the very generous budgets provided by Lew Grade. The idea of being able to build a complete set, even a miniature one, for a single scene occupying a few seconds of air time would make a contemporary BBC producer green with envy. 

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons certainly has a different flavour compared to Anderson’s other puppet series. For some it might be an acquired taste but it’s always been my favourite of all his Supermarionation series. It is darker in tone but underlying that is a certain 1960s optimism - no matter how formidable an enemy the Mysterons might be Spectrum has no intention of giving up the fight.

And of course it has glamorous female fighter pilots. For me no episode of this series is entirely satisfactory unless the Angel Interceptors put in an appearance.

The series has been released on DVD in most regions but the pricing varies to an extraordinary degree. It’s a series that is worth owning on DVD but you’ll find it’s worth shopping around for the best price.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

The Strange Report

After half a dozen episodes of The Strange Report I’m perhaps not entirely hooked on the show but I’m enjoying it enough to keep going with it. The series first aired in Britain in 1969 and in the US in 1971.

Adam Strange (Anthony Quayle) is a criminologist, retired from Scotland Yard and now pursuing cases that happen to catch his interest him on an unofficial basis. He still has contacts at the Yard, and he has the obligatory two assistants, one male and American, the other young, female and pretty.

To give Adam Strange the necessary touch of eccentricity he drives an (unlicensed) London taxi-cab. 

It’s a bit along the lines of Department S in the sense that the plots revolve around crimes that are offbeat or unusual. It’s not as stylish as Department S but it’s still quite entertaining. 

ITC always hoped for American sales for this series but for this one they felt they had guaranteed it by making it as a co-production with an American company, Arena. The idea was that the first production run would be filmed in Britain and the second in the US. In fact after the initial production run of sixteen episodes shot in Britain in 1968 and 1969 the series came to a rather unexpected halt when Anthony Quayle lost interest and quit (which was apparently something he was prone to do). 

It’s also somewhat unusual among British series of its era in that, in keeping with its Anglo-American origin, it features scripts by both British and American writers.

Anthony Quayle’s performance is enjoyable and strikes just the right balance. He plays the role fairly straight but with just a hint of a twinkle in his eye. This is in keeping with the general tone of the series - it’s mostly played straight and avoids the overt camp feel that is so evident in series like The Avengers and Department S, whilst at the same time avoiding the gritty realistic feel that had started to appear in British television in the late 60s with series like Callan and Public Eye.

It’s a tricky balancing act that is not always entirely successful, some episodes coming across as rather serious and even including (alas) some political content whilst other episodes such as Cover Girls are almost too lightweight. 

Strange and his assistants rely on scientific methods rather than flights of intuition. It has to be said that the series does manage to come up with some genuinely original ideas in this area. My favourite is the episode where the solution to the crime hinges on the fact that sewing machines, like typewriters, have a distinctive signature. If you have a piece of sewn fabric you can trace the sewing machine on which it was sewn. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this or not but it is a fun idea. 

Another episode sees Strange trace a kidnapper through a ransom note written, in time-honoured style, with letters cut from magazines. By identifying the types of magazine from which the letters were cut he deduces the personality of the kidnapper. These are the kinds of nice little original touches that help to give the series a certain distinctive flavour.

Kaz Garas is quite adequate as Strange’s male side-kick Hamlyn Gynt while Anneke Wills brings a delightful Swinging 60s charm and glamour to the role of his female side-kick Evelyn.

As is always the case with British TV of this era you can have fun spotting the wonderful actors who show up in guest roles.

The series was released on DVD in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment a few years back, and more recently in Britain by Network DVD.

The Strange Report has a certain quirkiness, but it’s a nicely subtle quirkiness, and it’s enough to make it worthwhile viewing.