Thursday 26 June 2014

Return of the Saint (1978-79)

Return of the Saint was a late entry in the cycle of ITC adventure series, airing on ITV in Britain in 1978 and 1979 and on CBS in the United States.

Return of the Saint lasted only a single season. This was largely due to the hostility of Lew Grade and his concerns about the cost of the show. It was in fact highly successful in Britain and was sold to 75 countries. In retrospect the decision to cancel the series after one season was a serious mistake.

The idea of reviving The Saint had been around almost from the time that production ceased on the original series. A major problem was of course casting. The problem was not just that Roger Moore was so completely identified as Simon Templar, it was also that Moore had very much defined the character. Any new actor stepping into the role was going to have to be to some extent in the same style, otherwise the new series would simply be another generic action series rather than an authentic Saint series. Ian Ogilvy proved to be the best possible choice. He even slightly resembled Roger Moore and he had no difficulty adapting to the role. Perhaps he does not have quite as much charisma as Roger Moore but he does fit the character as defined in the later Saint stories pretty well.

The character of The Saint in Leslie Charteris’s stories changed quite dramatically over the years. Sadly no-one has ever attempted a film or television adaptation of the early Saint stories in an authentic early 1930s setting. Return of the Saint, like the original series, is based on the Simon Templar stories of the 1950s when he has become a slightly world-weary loner, still bursting with self-confidence but with just a touch of melancholy and cynicism. Roger Moore was probably just a little more successful in capturing the nuances of this incarnation of The Saint. Having said that, Ian Ogilvy does a fine job.

Ogilvy thoroughly enjoyed making this series and was very disappointed at its cancellation.

One difficulty facing the makers of Return of the Saint was that there had been an outcry about violence on TV in the US and as a result it was decided to tone down the violence as much as possible. In the late 70s this made the program seem a bit dated compared to the typical very violent British series of that era. Seeing the show today I’m inclined to think it actually works in the show’s favour, forcing the writers and directors to find other ways to make things exciting.

While earlier series like the original Saint series relied on stock footage and set dressing to suggest the exotic locales in which episodes were supposedly set by the late 1970s at least some authentic location shooting was expected. Return of the Saint was slightly unusual though in that many episodes, particularly those set in Italy, were filmed in their entirety on location. This naturally pushed the budgets ever higher.

The generous budgets certainly contributed to the high production values of the series. And in episodes like Duel in Venice (Ian Ogilvy’s own favourite episode) the money was well spent with the Venetian locations being used very effectively.

Return of the Saint makes some attempt to deal with topical issues of the day, such as terrorism, in episodes such as One Black September (with rather mixed results in that particular episode). The opening episode, The Judas Game, is a rather generic spy thriller story. Other episodes are closer in feel to the original series with the Saint acting as a dashing knight errant. None of the episodes were based on Leslie Charteris story but episodes like The Village That Sold Its Soul are at least in the Charteris style.

The Arrangement is a blatant rip-off of Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train, except that this time it’s strangers on a plane, but it’s done rather well thanks largely to a very chilling performance by Carolyn Seymour. This episode is also notable for the footage of one of my favourite Australian bands, The Saints (presumably chosen for this purpose because of their very suitable name), in full cry at the Marquee.

Return of the Saint proved to be a huge hit in Britain and achieved very impressive overseas sales. The cancellation of the series came as a major surprise. Ian Ogilvy in particular was disappointed, the show having made him a household name overnight. He was clearly expecting (quite reasonably) to reap the benefits of this high-profile exposure for some time to come.

One thing for which we can be thankful is that Ian Ogilvy is not made to look like a 1970s fashion victim. His clothes are tasteful and somewhat on the conservative side, which is how you’d expect Simon Templar to dress in the 1970s.

The 1970s incarnation of the Saint drives a Jaguar XJS in place of the Volvo P1800 sports car of the original series. It's definitely the right sort of car for the character.

The series is available on DVD in most regions. The Region 4 boxed set offers very satisfactory transfers and includes a few tempting extras.

Return of the Saint surprisingly succeeds quite well. It’s certainly much better than I expected it to be. Very entertaining and highly recommended, even if Leslie Charteris purists might have a few doubts.

Friday 20 June 2014

Mystery and Imagination - Dracula (1968)

Another feature-length episode from Thames TV’s Mystery and Imagination gothic horror anthology series, this one dating from 1968.

The decision to tackle Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t quite as crazy in 1968 as it would have been a decade later. The 1970s saw numerous Dracula movie and TV adaptations but in such an adaptation could really only be compared to Universal’s 1930s version and Hammer’s version.

The Mystery and Imagination Dracula is reasonably faithful to the book although with a few significant changes. In this version the Renfield character is actually Jonathan Harker (played by Corin Redgrave) who had become Dracula’s servant on his business trip to Transylvania. He is a much more central character here compared to the book or to other screen versions.

Dracula is played by Denholm Elliott, a rather odd casting choice. Elliott does his best but he lacks the necessary charisma. The principal structural flaw of the novel is that Dracula is relegated for long periods to being a mostly unseen presence lurking in the background. This fault also applies to this TV version and this makes it difficult for Elliott to establish the Count as the truly dominating character he needs to be. At times Elliott is very good; at other times his performance is perilously close to parody.

Bernard Archard is a rather elderly Dr Van Helsing who takes quite a while to realise exactly what he is up against. Dr Seward (James Maxwell) actually has more substance than most of the other characters. He plays Seward as very much the sceptic, very determined not to admit that anything supernatural could possibly be occurring in 19th century England.

A major theme of the novel is a cultural clash between the aristocracy (represented by Dracula) and the rising middle class (represented by Dracula’s enemies). Dracula’s opponents deploy the full force of late 19th century science and technology against a menace whose power rests on tradition and superstition. This theme is not brought out to any great extent in this TV version, although it’s fair to note that the same criticism applies to most other TV and movie versions of the story.

The mystery and danger of sexuality is however very much to the fore here, largely due to Susan George’s hyper-sexualised performance as Lucy Weston. Susan George is the best thing about this particular version and once she becomes vampirised Lucy becomes considerably more menacing, more disturbing and more frightening than Dracula himself. Suzanne Neve as Mina Harker is also impressive. In this version the vampire’s threat to society is very much based on the power and destructive capabilities of sex.

This episode was shot in black-and-white and suffers from the studio-bound feel common to British television of this era. This is no great disadvantage and is even perhaps an asset. The claustrophobic feel of 1960s studio-bound television compensates to some extent for the limited sets and the cheapness of the special effects. For some reason film-makers insisted on including the vampire’s ability to change into a bat even though they lacked the technology to make the transformations convincing and this version falls into the usual trap. And as usual the bat scenes fall flat and come across as slightly silly.

Dracula is not quite as successful as the other episodes of this series but despite a few problems it’s worth a look, if only for Susan George’s performance.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

The original Battlestar Galactica series first aired in 1978. It was an expensive and ambitious series and folded after one season. It was of course revived a quarter of a century later. The later version was more successful but not as much fun.

The story of the last survivors of the human race making an epic voyage through space in search of a legendary planet known as Earth has some obvious biblical overtones. Series creator Glen A. Larson is a Mormon and this series also utilises elements from Mormon theology and history. Fortunately it’s done fairly subtly and most viewers probably didn’t even notice.

There’s a famous story that Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek to NBC by telling them that it would be Wagon Train in space, Wagon Train being a very popular late 50s TV western series. That was just a way to sell the network on what would otherwise have been a much too unfamiliar concept, but it really is true of Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar Galactica really is Wagon Train in space, with occasional hints of Little House on the Prairie (as in the episode The Lost Warrior). This isn’t a major problem and the series combines science fiction and western tropes fairly effectively. The Magnificent Warriors is another episode that is pure western and succeeds surprisingly well.

Harlan Ellison apparently used to refer to Glen A. Larson as Glen A. Larceny due to his habit of borrowing ideas a little too freely from other writers. It’s true that there’s very little original in Battlestar Galactica. It’s mostly a conglomeration of fairly old ideas but they’re blended into an entertaining enough mixture.

Much of the fun comes from identifying which movies and TV series each particular episode has been inspired by (or put less charitably stolen from).

Despite the obvious borrowings the series does have a distinctive flavour of its own, and it does have a certain sense of style. I particularly love the fact that the Viper pilots’ helmets have a vaguely ancient Egyptian look to them.

The Cylons, a malevolent and remorseless robotic civilisation, make effective villains. Mechanical man-type robots are difficult to do convincingly. All too often such robots just look like a guy in a tin man costume. It’s even more difficult to make them seem genuinely menacing. This is one area where Battlestar Galactica succeeds pretty well - the Cylons do look sinister and nasty.

The special effects still look good. There’s an abundance of action with enough battles between the Vipers and the Cylon fighter ships to keep any reasonable person happy. 

Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) is the character who made the most impact on viewers, a good-natured Han Solo-type hero. He provides a good deal of the comedy whilst also being a classic action hero. Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo is a more straightforward square-jawed noble hero type, rather overshadowed by the more flashy Starbuck. Lorne Greene pretty much reprises his most famous role as the kindly but deceptively tough patriarch of the Ponderosa Ranch from the long-running Bonanza series. Greene’s presence in the cast is yet another nod to the classic western genre.

Battlestar Galactica’s biggest problem is that it was a very expensive series to make. Its initial ratings were quite favourable but expensive series need to rate very well indeed to have a chance of survival. They tend to make TV networks very nervous and when the ratings faltered after a switch in time-slots ABC pulled the plug after one season. The series was revived in 2003 although in my personal opinion the original series was vastly superior.

The entire series is available on DVD and the transfers are very acceptable.

If you like the idea of a space western then Battlestar Galactica should keep you pretty happy. Recommended.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67)

One of the less known British television adventure series of the 1960s was the BBC’s Adam Adamant Lives! which ran for two seasons in 1966 and 1967. Most of season 1 survives but unfortunately almost all of season 2 is lost.

The premise was a clever one that offered the opportunity for some satirical observations on the social mores of the past and present. Fortunately the fun adventure elements predominate. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper) was an Edwardian adventurer and secret agent who disappeared in 1902. In fact he was deep-frozen by a dastardly enemy. In 1966 he is revived and resumes his career as crime-fighter, adventurer and secret agent.

Adam finds the world of Swinging London in the 1960s rather perplexing and he finds much of which he disapproves. His old-fashioned attitudes and sense of honour might seem to be a disadvantage in the world of the 1960s but they actually turn out to be more of an asset than a hindrance. Adam is both courageous and determined and wrong-doers find him to be a surprisingly formidable enemy. Adam prefers to use his sword-cane rather than firearms, a habit that causes amusement to his foes until they discover just how dangerous and skillful he is with such a weapon.

Naturally a hero has to have a sidekick and Adam’s sidekick is Georgina Jones (Juliet Harmer), a Swinging 60s chick whose modern attitudes are often disturbing to our hero. In spite of often disapproving of her he can’t help also being rather fond of her. Georgina is brave to the point of foolhardiness and is always getting herself into scrapes but if there’s one thing Adam admires it is courage. Although Adam is a gentleman of the Edwardian era and Georgina is a free-spirited modern girl a considerable mutual respect develops between the two characters. The interplay between Adam Adamant and Georgina Jones is always a delight. Even more unusually, the attitudes of both Adam and Georgina are treated with a surprising degree of respect. There’s considerable humour from their clash of attitudes but neither character is treated as a mere figure of fun. 

Mention should also be made of Adam Adamant's gentleman's gentleman Simms (Jack May) who provides further amusement.

I hadn’t realised until I looked at the relevant chapter in James Chapman’s excellent study of British TV adventure series of the 60s and 70s, Saints and Avengers, that Adam Adamant Lives! was originally going to be based on the popular fictional detective Sexton Blake (a sort of low-budget pulp version of Sherlock Holmes). It was originally to be called Sexton Blake Lives! The late Victorian crime-fighter was to be frozen in 1895 and resurrected in the Swinging 60s.

Unfortunately the Sexton Blake copyright holders wanted to be paid for the use of the name and the character and that was enough to scare the BBC off. But the head of the Drama Group (Television), Sidney Newman, was still keen on the idea so he simply tweaked it a little by creating an original character.

The BBC hierarchy in those days was of course very hostile to science fiction or fantasy. They wanted to make gritty social realist dramas. Audiences however did not agree. They were switching off the BBC to watch shows like The Avengers on commercial TV. Sidney Newman was looking for a formula that audiences would go and that would also satisfy the  BBC hierarchy, and that was part of the appeal behind the idea of Adam Adamant Lives! - he could sell the idea to the BBC on the basis that it would be a program that would explore the social mores of the 60s and contrast them with the traditional values espoused by the title character. The interesting thing is that Adam Adamant Lives! really does do just that. It just happens to do it in an entertaining way and with a surprisingly light touch. In fact it’s one of the more successful attempts of that era in dealing with the social revolution of the 60s and the rise of youth culture. It manages to do this whilst still being a fun light-hearted action adventure series. 

Adam Adamant Lives! is an excellent example of a program that has a very English feel to it, but in a very good way. It has not only the Swinging London of the 60s vibe but also a London of the 1890s vibe as well. And the very English flavour is in this case very definitely an asset. 

It is also, for a BBC production, extraordinarily good fun in a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek way. It’s one of the few BBC series that captures the same kind of witty, sexy and good-natured feel that made series like The Avengers so successful. The scripts weren’t always up to the standards of The Avengers but it benefits from a truly wonderful cast with all three recurring characters being just right.

Despite the BBC’s legendary reluctance to spend real money on mere light entertainment such as this the production values are reasonable, a tribute to the ability of BBC producers  to make a very small amount of money stretch surprisingly well. The program started shooting in 1966 with a budget of £4,900 per episode. By way of comparison, ITC’s The Champions started shooting the following year with a budget of £40,000 per episode. Unlike the BBC, ITC’s chairman Lew Grade recognised that to have a chance of overseas sales British series needed to be able to match the production values of American television.

The BBC remained unrelentingly hostile to the series and cancelled it after the second season in spite of good ratings and a steadily improving reputation with viewers. And of course the BBC had its final revenge by destroying almost all of the second season.

The stories are fairly typical of 1960s secret agent/crime-fighter series but the unusual nature of the hero gives the series an original and very engaging feel.

The surviving episodes have been released on DVD. Adam Adamant Lives! is immense fun and is very highly recommended.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Sergeant Cork, season 1 (1963)

Sergeant Cork was a British ATV crime series devised by Ted Willis that ran from 1963 to 1968.

The idea was to do a series set in the Victorian era, but with a police detective as hero rather than a Sherlock Holmes-style private investigator. Since most actual detective stories of that era focused on the Sherlock Holmes type of detective the decision was made to create an entirely new character and to rely on entirely original stories.

The late Victorian era seemed ideal. Official police detectives had existed before then but this was the period that saw such officers beginning to adopt recognisably modern and even scientific methods of solving crime. The central character, Detective-Sergeant Cork (played by John Barrie), would be an officer who personified the new police methods.

Sergeant Cork has a side-kick in the person of Bob Marriott (played by William Gaunt who went on to star in the cult favourite series The Champions). Marriott is introduced in the first episode as a young man who has tried various professions, with a singular lack of success. Now he has used personal connections to secure for himself the opportunity to pursue a new career as a police detective. He is given a chance, initially on probation. Marriott turns out to have, surprisingly, something of a flair for the job. Sergeant Cork is in desperate need of an assistant and he sees Marriott as the sort of keen intelligent young man he can mould into the kind of forward-thinking detective officer Scotland Yard will need in the future.

John Barrie does a splendid job. Cork is a bit of an eccentric, rather gruff and very blunt, but a dedicated policeman who lives for the job. Barrie manages to make him more than just the stereotypical gruff older cop with a heart of gold. William Gaunt is equally impressive as the slightly bumptious but enthusiastic Marriott and he and Barrie play off one another perfectly.

The stories are, by the standards of police procedurals, not particularly complex. The identity of the criminal is usually fairly obvious. This may have been a deliberate choice, with the intention of showing a detective solving the everyday sorts of cases he would really be dealing with rather than with far-fetched but ingenious locked-room mysteries or “impossible crime” stories. Some of the stories are a little more adventurous. On the whole the series succeeds fairly well in giving a impression of real policemen investigating plausible cases.

The first season (which is all I’ve seen so far) has the typical very studio-bound feel of 1960s British television. There’s virtually no location shooting at all, in fact in the episodes I’ve seen so far there’s absolutely none at all. Fortunately viewers of the time would have expected a crime series set in Victorian times to feature a great deal of fog, and fog is wonderfully good for covering up the fact that everything is taking place in the studio. The feel of the period is captured reasonably realistically (or at least it conforms to the popular conception of the period created by the Sherlock Holmes stories).

The series proved to a great success, eventually running to six seasons and a total of sixty-six episodes. The producers were lucky enough to be able to keep the partnership between John Barrie and William Gaunt intact throughout the entire six seasons.

The first season gets off to an impressive start with The Case of the Reluctant Widow, a case of poisoning that provides a considerable challenge to Sergeant Cork’s deductive powers an offers him the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of professional police methods. It sets the tone for the series very effectively.

The second episode, The Case of the Girl Upstairs, is even stronger. The new “science” of psychology was becoming fashionable in the 1890s and this story is a dark twisted little domestic tragedy involving a sinister psychiatrist. 

These were the days before Special Branch had been created and on occasion Sergeant Cork has to deal with terrorism and international intrigue, as in the very fine episode The Case of the Persistent Assassin.

In keeping with the series’ intention to portray the work of the police realistically Sergeant Cork’s cases are not all sensational murders (although there are a few such cases). 

As is inevitable in any series set in the past the present does occasionally intrude, with characters expressing views that are rather too much of the 1960s to be convincingly Victorian. On occasions it falls into the easy trap of portraying the upper classes as nasty and stupid and the working class as the noble downtrodden poor. In the 1960s though television producers at least made some effort to portray the past authentically whereas today period dramas are populated entirely by 21st century characters, making the whole exercise completely pointless. Generally speaking Sergeant Cork doesn’t offend too badly in this respect.

Network DVD have released all six seasons in single-season boxed sets. Picture quality is about as good as can be expected for a 1960s shot-on-videotape series.

Sergeant Cork is fine entertainment. Recommended.