Monday 28 July 2014

The Rockford Files, season one

The Rockford Files was a very successful private eye series that aired on NBC from 1974 to 1980. James Garner played the lead character, Jim Rockford.

What made The Rockford Files unusual for an American private eye series was that Jim Rockford was not a suave glamorous private eye. Rockford is an ex-con and he lives in a trailer. He wears cheap off-the-rack clothes. As American TV private eyes go Rockford is very close to the bottom of the food chain.

This approach had already been used with great success in the British series Public Eye which ran from 1965 to 1975. Frank Marker, the unlikely hero of Public Eye, is also an ex-con and he is also a very down-market and rather seedy private eye. Like Jim Rockford he has an uneasy relationship with the police, being always conscious that a man who has been in prison has to be extraordinarily cautious in dealing with cops. Being an American series The Rockford Files is naturally much more action-orientated although it is notable that Rockford rarely carries a gun.

Jim Rockford prefers to deal with cold cases. Open cases lead to problems with the police. In fact Jim manages to get himself involved in difficulties with the cops no matter what sort of cases he takes on. He’s not the most tactful individual and he has a stubborn streak that leads him to accept cases he’d be better off avoiding.

James Garner is perfectly cast in this series. He captures the rather seedy spirit of Jim Rockford perfectly. Rockford would like to be a glamorous PI but he doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the class. No matter how hard he tries he looks cheap. That’s not to say he’s not an admirable character is his own way. His stubbornness makes him an effective detective and while he’d hate to be thought of as a soft touch the fact remains that he finds it difficult to turn down a case when the client has a convincing sob story. And once a case captures his interest nothing will persuade him to let it go.

The series is played fairly straight but with some definite comic overtones, and that’s a mix that is ideally suited to James Garner’s acting style. Garner is adept at trading wise-cracks but underneath the brassy and cheap exterior he is able to convince us that Rockford has a certain integrity, that he has more substance than we might think at first glance.

While Rockford very rarely carries a gun (he claims to be terrified of them) there’s no shortage of action. So far, judging by the season 1 episodes I’ve watched, the action sequences are more imaginatively staged than you generally expect in a TV series. The pilot episode features a duel between a man on the ground with a handgun and a guy in an aircraft with a machine-gun. Another early episode features a rather witty car chase on a golf course. Tall Woman in Red Wagon has action scenes in a cemetery. In yet another episode there’s a very clever car chase in a car park.

It seems like some real effort was put into giving this series a distinctive flavour, with the slightly offbeat action sequences being part of this strategy. The fact that Rockford doesn’t carry a gun proves to be an advantage, forcing the writers and the directors to come up with action scenes that don’t involve gunplay.

The series features, as you would expect, quite a few glamorous female guest stars. Rockford though is not really much of a womaniser. The impression we’re given is that he has enough trouble dealing with day-to-day life without getting into constant romantic entanglements. Ex-girlfriends do show up in several episodes but they generally spell trouble.

By 1974 you could be forgiven for thinking that the television private eye genre had been mined for every possible ounce of ore but The Rockford Files manages to feel reasonably fresh. 

This series is readily available on DVD in most markets.


Sunday 20 July 2014

The Avengers - The Forget-Me-Knot

I’ve recently bought a book on the Tara King era of The Avengers. It inspired me to watch the episode that introduced her, The Forget-Me-Knot.

The Forget-Me-Knot is of course best remembered as Mrs Peel’s farewell episode. It had a curious production history. It actually belongs to the final 1968 season. It was made months after Diana Rigg had left the series, by which time Linda Thorson had not only been signed as her replacement but had actually filmed a couple of episodes. Then someone got the idea of an episode that would give Mrs Peel a proper send-off and also act as an introduction to the two new Season 6 characters, Tara King and Mother.

According to some sources Brian Clemens cobbled the whole thing together from an episode from the previous season that had been half-completed and then abandoned. He could only get Diana Rigg for four days’ shooting (and he could only get her at all rather reluctantly). 

The circumstances must have been a little embarrassing for both Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. Thorson was nervous enough in her first few episodes (even a more experienced actress would have been somewhat daunted by stepping into Diana Rigg’s shoes) and having to appear onscreen with Rigg would hardly have helped her confidence.

While all fans of The Avengers have a soft spot for this episode for the closing scene with Mrs Peel, as an actual Avengers story it has a rather poor reputation. While the plot is nothing special it does have some nice touches. I like the fact that the amnesia-inducing drug is only partially effective, leaving its victims with confused snippets of memory. That actually gives Clemens the opportunity to make more inventive use of memory, both as a plot device and as a vehicle for gags. And since it’s Mrs Peel’s farewell episode it’s appropriate that the whole episode is about memory.

This episode also has an amazing number of fight scenes, with most being quite clever. I love Tara King taking out one of the bad guys by slugging him with her handbag, having had the forethought to place a housebrick inside it first. It’s not the way Mrs Peel or Mrs Gale would have done it, but it works and it immediately establishes that Tara is not going to be an Emma Peel clone or a Cathy Gale clone.

I think Linda Thorson acquits herself quite well. As the season wore on she steadily improved but it’s already clear that she has potential. The concept of the character was that she would be softer and more feminine than her predecessors, which certainly gave Thorson a challenge since she obviously also needed to make the character a convincingly formidable secret agent.  

The script might not have been one of Brian Clemens’ finest moments but The Forget-Me-Knot gets by on its visual style. It was on the whole a fairly successful attempt to link the final two eras of The Avengers.

And of course it leaves us with a puzzle that has intrigued fans for years - what exactly does Mrs Peel whisper in Steed’s ear?

The Forget-Me-Knot is included in the Region 4 boxed set of the 1967 season although it was actually first screened in 1968 as part of the following season.

Monday 14 July 2014

Special Branch, season 3

Produced by Britain’s Thames TV, Special Branch was a somewhat unconventional police drama series. It ran for four seasons from 1969 to 1974, undergoing a major overhaul with the third season in 1973. This review will focus on that extremely influential third season.

The series differed from the general run of cop shows because it reflected the unusual role of the real-life Special Branch (as it then existed). Special Branch officers were police officers, and in fact formed part of the Metropolitan Police, but they worked in conjunction with the security and intelligence services. 

The duties of Special Branch could range from arresting spies to protecting VIPs to border security. They did background checks on people in line for appointment to sensitive jobs and they collected intelligence on subversive organisations. They were not exactly spy-hunters, that was left to the Security Service (popularly known as MI5), but they were in effect the enforcement arm of that service. 

Mid-life revamps were a common practice in those days but very few series ever underwent a revamp as drastic as Special Branch received in 1973. The entire cast was replaced. Even more importantly, Thames TV’s Euston Films division took over production of the show and in the process changed the face of British television.

Prior to this British TV shows were usually shot on videotape with location shooting done on film (which accounts for the sometimes jarring difference in picture quality between inside scenes and outside scenes), and most shooting was done in the studio. Euston Films changed all that, with everything done on film and on location. The revolutionary nature of the change did not become fully apparent until the next series they tackled, The Sweeney, but it was Special Branch that paved the way.

The familiar faces of the first two seasons all disappeared. The central character was now Chief Inspector Alan Craven (George Sewell). The action centres almost entirely on Craven with the other characters playing distinctly subsidiary roles. Craven’s sergeant, Detective Sergeant North (Roger Rowland), is a rather low-key character and is kept in the background. 

While the third season is dominated by Craven some spice is added by the introduction of Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty (Patrick Mower) as a semi-regular character. Haggerty gives the series a much better balance, thanks to Patrick Mower’s characteristically colourful performance. Haggerty is much more abrasive and mercurial and provides the perfect foil to George Sewell’s much more dour Craven. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Sewell’s performance. He was a fine actor and he makes Craven an interesting and complex character, a man who appears on the surface to be a by-the-book officer but is actually quite willing to bend the rules when it suits him. Haggerty gives the impression of being more of a young maverick cop but in actuality he is often more inclined than Craven to go by the book. Craven and Haggerty have an uneasy relationship but it’s one that produces results. The most effective third season episodes are certainly the ones featuring Haggerty as well as Craven.

At times it has to be said that Craven shows some disturbing bleeding heart tendencies, an ominous sign of things to come in British television. Thankfully Haggerty shows no such tendencies.

Compared to the first two seasons Special Branch now became slightly more action-oriented. While the visual approach adopted by Euston Films was revolutionary the series does become in some ways more of a typical police series, focusing more on police work on the streets than on the political machinations that were so much a feature of the first two seasons. The cases are still the kinds of cases that Special Branch would deal with, involving security risks rather than bank robberies, but with a much greater emphasis on violent political crime such as terrorism.

It is however a matter of degree - season 3 also features plenty of episodes that focus on routine investigations. The investigations might be routine but thanks to fine writing, good acting and imaginative directing ensure that it never becomes dull television.

The series is typical of 1970s British police series in combining glamour with seediness. The episode Threat has Craven and Haggerty moving in the world of movie stars but in the following episode, The Other Man, Craven is investigating the squalid private life of a suburban general practitioner. Police officers have to do things that are sometimes unpleasant and often boring and the series doesn’t try to avoid these realities.

Hostage and Blueprint for Murder deal with terrorism and political violence and they end season 3 on a relatively action-filled note.

Some of their investigations may lead to the discovery of major spy rings while others will lead nowhere. That’s the nature of the job. Sometimes there’s danger, sometimes there’s excitement, sometimes there’s frustration and sometimes there’s just plain boredom. The writing on this series is so good that the investigations that provide Craven with the most frustration and the most boredom are often the ones that provide the viewer with the most entertainment. 

It's noticeable that compared to the first two seasons the third season suffers from a subtle change in political orientation. The first two seasons try very hard to show things from the perspective of police officers who are doing their jobs in the most politically neutral way they can. The third season occasionally makes the mistake of taking a more overt political stance. This actually makes for less interesting and more predictable television. It's only a slight and very subtle change but it's a disturbing foretaste of the future. 

Personally I do slightly prefer the earlier seasons where the emphasis is very much on the difficulties faced by Special Branch officers trying to do their jobs despite political interference, bureaucratic power plays and an often tense relationship with the Security Service. Having said that season 3 is still very high-quality television.

All four seasons of Special Branch have been released on DVD in Region 2, and seasons 3 and 4 have been released in Region 1. In Region 4 only the first two seasons have been released. 

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Star Maidens (1976)

Star Maidens was an Anglo-German science fiction TV show that first aired in 1976. It was filmed in Britain.

The planet Medusa is ruled by women, with men kept for doing hard physical work, and providing sexual services to the women. The planet has been thrown out of its orbit around Proxima Centauri and is now on the outer fringes of our own solar system. The rulers of Medusa want to avoid contact with Earth but two men from the outlawed Men’s Liberation Movement steal a space yacht and head for Earth, attracted by the stories they’ve heard about submissive Earth women. Supreme Councillor Fulvia (Judy Geeson), the owner of one of the renegade men, and security chief Octavia (Christiane Krüger) set off for Earth to capture the runaways and return them to Medusa.

Contact is established between the two planets. The contact is friendly if slightly uneasy.

The action switches back and forth between Earth and Medusa, with a couple of human characters on Medusa and several Medusans on Earth. The Medusans find Earth just as bewildering as the humans find Medusa. The contact between the two worlds will eventually shake Medusan society to its foundations. 

This is not shoot ’em up science fiction. Don’t expect any space battles. The producers didn’t have the budget and it’s not that type of series anyway.

It’s an attempt at sexy humorous sci-fi with a satirical edge. Whether intentional or not, seeing the show today it comes across as amazingly and delightfully camp. The model shots of the Medusan cities are crude compared to the brilliant model work seen in British series of the same vintage such as UFO and Space: 1999, but they’re imaginative and fun. The sets and costumes are as outrageously 1970s as anything you’re ever going to see. They’re silly but they’re wonderful.

Production designer Keith Wilson also worked on Space: 1999 which accounts for a certain resemblance between the two series. Star Maidens was made on a much smaller budget but the production design is fairly impressive. The sets and costumes are fun in an outlandish 1970s way.

The program’s sexual politics are a little muddled but although it’s been accused of being anti-feminist I don’t think it is, although it may well be antipathetic to a certain strain of intolerant feminism. Both the Medusan women and the Earth men trade snide remarks about the opposite sex and behave with outrageous arrogance, which is pretty much what people do when confronted by other people who hold opposing views. In the two episodes I’ve seen so far the nastiest put-down is Octavia’s response when asked by an Earth scientist if the Medusans have done much space exploration. She replies that most of the universe isn’t very interesting and that “space travel is for little boys.” It’s rather typical of the show in being amusingly double-edged.

So far it doesn’t seem to portray Medusa as either a feminist utopia or a nightmarish dystopia. It’s more like a kind of reversed view of human society before the second wave of feminism. The Medusan women don’t hate men. They adore them. They treat them as much-loved, highly pampered and rather adorable pets. They just don’t think it’s wise to become too attached emotionally to their pets, and the idea that men might be capable of thinking for themselves or taking responsibility for their own lives seems to them to be a silly sentimental fantasy, pure science fiction. It doesn’t seem inclined either to idealise or demonise the Medusan women and their female-ruled society, or to either idealise or demonise men.

Medusa is a somewhat totalitarian society, although it’s totalitarianism with a warm fuzzy cuddly edge to it. Rules are enforced by social pressure rather than with jackboots although the Medusans are prepared to use force when they deem it necessary.

There are no actual villains in this series. Everyone is doing what he or she thinks is right. Sometimes they’re wrong, but they still believe that they’re right. Sometimes they’re inflexible and sometimes they are simply unable to comprehend a contrary point of view. Most of the characters are idealists, and of course it’s true that idealists can do a great deal of harm.

In our present age of political correctness this series possibly has more bite to it, and certainly more irony, than it would have had in the 70s.

There’s lots of eye candy for everyone whether your tastes run to men or women. Judy Geeson as Fulvia and German actress Christiane Krüger as Octavia both get to wear bizarre makeup and outlandish clothes and to look rather glamorous in a very very 1970s sort of way. The acting is the biggest surprise in such an obviously low budget program. It’s pretty decent, and Geeson (in full-on sex kitten mode) and Krüger are very good. Plus you get a pre-Blake’s 7 Gareth Thomas. A bit of trivia - Christiane Krüger is the daughter of famed German actor Hardy Krüger.

The writing is variable in quality but it has its moments. Some episodes, notably The End of Time and Creatures of the Mind, include some genuine science fictional ideas.

The series was released on DVD in Region 2. The transfers are of reasonable quality, perhaps a little grainy at times but generally very acceptable.

Star Maidens is delightfully excessive visually and it’s silly, outrageous, amusing and generally a great deal of fun.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Mystery and Imagination - Sweeney Todd (1970)

Sweeney Todd was screened on British television in 1970 as part of the final season of the Mystery and Imagination series. 

This feature-length production starts out as a rather promising version of the classic tale (which had been published in 1850 as a  “penny dreadful”). Like most British of this period it’s very studio-bound but that’s more of an asset than a liability - creating a gothic kind of atmosphere tends to be easier in a studio. And given that the budget was obviously much smaller than would be usual for a feature film it’s a reasonably handsome production.

The tale of course involves a barber who murders his customers whose bodies then end up being served to the patrons of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. The barber, Sweeney Todd, steals an extremely valuable string of pearls from one of his unfortunate customers. This will eventually be his undoing. 

Sweeney Todd has a young apprentice named Tobias. Sweeney’s apprentices also tend to meet with unfortunate fates, ending up in a lunatic asylum which is in reality a death factory. Tobias will not last long. He will be succeeded by another apprentice named Charlie, who will play a key role in the plot.

Freddie Jones makes a suitably sinister Sweeney Tood. Russell Hunter (best known to fans of British television of this era as Lonely in the excellent Callan series) steals the picture, playing several very creepy doctors including the villainous director of the previously mentioned asylum. Sweeney Todd is classic melodrama and melodrama requires a larger-than-life villain. Russell Hunter is so good that he actually outshines the star.

The rest of the supporting cast do reasonably well, although Mel Martin isn’t going to fool anybody into thinking she’s a boy, which rather weakens the plot.

Compared to other screen versions of the story this one adds some very blatant sexual perversity. I’m not really sure this element is entirely appropriate to this type of melodrama.

Things go reasonably well until the ending, which I found to be very unsatisfactory indeed. I won’t give any hints as to what happens but it is the kind of ending that I always find to be irritating to an extreme.

On the plus side this production does deliver some real chills, although these are mostly provided by Dr Fogg’s lunatic asylum rather than Sweeney Todd himself.

Sweeney Todd is worth seeing for the performances of Freddie Jones and Russell Hunter, but apart from that it’s difficult to recommend this one.

The definitive screen version of the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber remains the 1936 British movie with Tod Slaughter in the title role.