Saturday 30 August 2014

Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1955-56)

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a British television crime series starring Boris Karloff that was screened by ITV in 1955-56. It was based on the short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints by John Dickson Carr. 

Colonel March (Karloff) is head of Department D.3 at Scotland Yard, popularly known as the Department of Queer Complaints. His job is to investigate crimes that are too strange or too baffling to be solved by conventional police methods. It is in this respect a forerunner of later series such as Department S.

Twenty-six episodes were made, of which at least twelve survive. Three episodes were combined to produce Colonel March Investigates which was released theatrically in 1955.

Unfortunately the series has never had an official DVD release. There are I believe a couple of grey market releases although I haven’t personally come across them. The episode Error at Daybreak is included in a Mill Creek public domain boxed set. That episode plus the three episodes that comprise Colonel March Investigates are the only ones I’ve seen.

Error at Daybreak concerns the sudden death of an industrialist but nothing is as it seems to be. Was it murder or a heart attack? And why has the body mysteriously disappeared?

Hot Money involves a bank robbery. A young bank teller is implicated in the robbery. He tries to clear himself by following one of the robbers, thereby leading the police to the money. He tells the police that the money is concealed in the office of a crooked solicitor, but the money cannot be found. Colonel March believes the teller is innocent but the only way to clear him is by finding the money and the police have already conducted a very thorough search.

Death In The Dressing Room is an excellent story with a touch of the exotic and a definite hint of the bizarre. The vital clue is a message contained within a Javanese dance. 

The New Invisible Man is even stranger. An old man who watches his neighbours (a little too closely) with a telescope is convinced that he has seen a man murdered by a pair of disembodied hands clad in gloves.

Many of the episodes are based directly on Carr’s short stories. This is a crime series with a distinctly odd touch, with stories of inexplicable events. Inexplicable to any ordinary person, but to a man with Colonel March’s acute and unconventional intelligence even the inexplicable can be explained.

Colonel March is a quietly spoken, very charming and apparently slightly dotty elderly gentleman but appearances are deceptive. He’s a determined and very canny crime-solver. Karloff is delightful in the role.

Colonel March Investigates is available on DVD in Region 2 from an outfit called Simply Media.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard is a fine offbeat crime series. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Johnny Staccato (1959-60)

The rise of television in the late 40s and the 50s more or less killed the traditional crime B-movie. But that doesn’t mean that tough guys, two-bit punks and no-good dames disappeared. They found a new home in the new medium. The edges were softened a little but some of the TV crime series of the 50s still managed to be surprisingly gritty. 

Private eye series were especially popular. Unfortunately some of the best-known examples have not yet appeared on DVD (most notably Hawaiian Eye and 77 Sunset Strip) or are only available in very poor quality public domain prints (such as the excellent Richard Diamond Private Detective starring David Janssen).

One series that is available on DVD and that is worth a look is Johnny Staccato. It only lasted for one season, airing on NBC from 1959 to 1960. 

John Cassavetes plays the eponymous hero. I’ve never much cared for him as either an actor or a film-maker but he’s not bad in this show. He plays Johnny Staccato as a rather hip and rather cocky character but surprisingly he manages to avoid making him too irritating. He's a jazz musician as well as a private eye and he's very much at home in the world of late 50s Greenwich Village. He has discovered that his musical talents aren’t quite sufficient to pay the rent so he does private detective work on the side. It’s not quite clear if he actually has a private detective’s licence or if he is merely an amateur. He does carry a gun although he seldom uses it.

Johnny Staccato inhabits the world of night-clubs and jazz clubs but with a definite bohemian ambience. John Cassavetes (an actor I normally dislike intensely) does a surprisingly fine job. 

The mood of the show is a mix of film noir and late 50s jazz/beat culture cool and it works quite well. Cassavetes is not quite convincing as a tough guy but he does bring a slight edge of melancholy to the character which is quite interesting. Although mostly shot in a studio it doesn’t feel as studio-bound as many series of the era. The most effective scenes are the ones that show Johnny stalking the streets of New York at night, a slightly sad figure but determined to do his best for his various clients.

Much of the action is set in a jazz club and it’s a fascinating glimpse of a vanished era.

Some episodes really do manage to achieve a genuine film noir feel. Of course there’s a limit to what you can do in a half-hour episode but in well-written an well-crafted episodes like Tempted it succeeds surprisingly well. The Poet’s Touch is another interesting episode, dealing with the deeply unwholesome fascination that intellectuals have with violent thugs, a fascination that the literary luminaries of the beat generation were especially prone to. 

The tone does become somewhat dark at times, with some stories having endings that are ambiguous or even tragic. The quality of the writing is generally quite impressive.

The visuals are as close as 1950s television was going to get to film noir and at times it generates a pretty effective atmosphere of glamour with an undercurrent of danger and just the faintest hint of sleaze.

Cassavetes was always ambitious to get behind the camera and this is where he first cut his teeth in that role, directing no less than five episodes.

The late 1950s was a kind of golden age for American private eye television series - Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective all appeared at the tail end of the 50s. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was the most uncompromisingly tough and two-fisted of the bunch - it was genuinely hardboiled and overall it was the most satisfying of them all. Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato both aimed at fusing the world of film noir with the bohemian world of jazz clubs. In my opinion Johnny Staccato does this much more convincingly and entertainingly  than the more popular but rather bland Peter Gunn. Audiences at the time obviously did not agree with me and sadly Johnny Staccato was axed after a single season.

The DVD set is not outrageously expensive and the series looks great on DVD. Johnny Staccato has its own distinctive flavour and is very definitely worth checking out. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Public Eye: The ABC Years

Public Eye, which ran from 1965 to 1975, is about as far removed from the world of the adventure TV series we’ve been discussing recently as any program could possibly be. It represents a very different but equally interesting side of British television in the 60s and 70s.

The series was originally produced by Britain’s ABC Television. In the late 60s a shakeup of British commercial television saw ABC merged with Associated-Rediffusion to form Thames Television, which continued production of the series.

The idea of the series was to do a completely unglamorous private eye series. And Frank Marker is about as unglamorous a hero as could be imagined. Public Eye is determinedly seedy. Frank Marker is a very decent guy but his life is as far removed as could be imagined from the popular image of the private eye. He’s a rather battered and not overly successful middle-aged private enquiry agent. He doesn’t drive a sports car and he isn’t surrounded by beautiful women. His cases do not involve the international jet set. He does credit checks, divorce work, looks for missing dogs and strayed husbands, and in fact takes any work he can get.

It might sound dull but in fact it’s a thoroughly engaging and very entertaining program. What it lacks in action it makes up for in superb writing and great acting.

Much of the success of this series can be attributed to the performance of Alfred Burke as Frank Marker. Burke was enthusiastic about the series right from the start, and was particularly keen to play a very unheroic and unglamorous private eye. Burke brings this shabby but oddly engaging character vividly to life. Frank Marker’s profession can be sordid at times but we never lose sympathy for the character. Unheroic he might be, but he combines this with a quiet strength of character. Marker has his moral standards. There are lines he will not cross, and he sticks to his principles with a great deal of stubbornness. To an outsider his job might seem grubby but because he does stick to those principles he has surprising reserves of self-confidence. He is down-at-heel but he is not a loser. When things get tough he doesn’t give up. He might bend, but he doesn’t break.

Unfortunately the first three seasons are mostly lost but the remaining four seasons starting with the 1969 season survive in full. 

Network DVD have released the five episodes still in existence from the first three seasons in a two-disc set called Public Eye: The ABC Years.

With only five of the 41 ABC episodes surviving it’s frustratingly difficult to judge whether the tone of the series differed in any substantial way from the later Thames seasons. This is particularly frustrating since in its later years the series did undergo several subtle changes in direction. 

Certainly Frank Marker seems just as shabby and his cases seem just as commonplace as in the later seasons. 

The two surviving first season episodes, Nobody Kills Santa Claus and The Morning Wasn't So Hot, suggest that at this early stage Marker may have been slightly more of a tough guy character. In The Morning Wasn't So Hot he takes on a case involving prostitution and organised crime and takes a few risks that the later Marker might have been less inclined to take, although when things start to get rough he certainly backs off rather hurriedly. This episode deals with runaways from the provinces who are “befriended” at the railway station by smooth-talking ponce Mason. Frank Marker is hired to find one of these runaways but Mason has sold her to big-time operators. By the standards of 1965 this episode is extraordinarily frank in confronting some rather sleazy subject matter.

The second season sees Frank relocating to Birmingham. Frustratingly, since the final episode of season one and the first episode of season two do not survive, we have no way of knowing what prompted the move.

The two survivors from season two both deal with divorce cases. In those days divorce work was the bread-and-butter of a private detective. It was boring and routine but it paid the bills. These two episodes illustrate this show’s remarkable ability to make the most mundane details of Marker’s work into totally engrossing television. In Don't Forget You're Mine a woman hires Frank to find her husband. He finds that there are some very important things she has neglected to tell him.

In Works with Chess, Not with Life, Marker exposes a phony compensation claim by a woman complaining of being poisoned with bad mushrooms at an hotel, then gets mixed up in a case of an adulterous doctor. Marker ends up working for three different clients, including both the husband and the wife.

The sole surviving third season episode is The Bromsgrove Venus. This finds Marker once again caught in the middle of a domestic drama, with both the wife and the husband seeking to employ his services. A photographic competition is the catalyst for the drama. The photographs are on display in the Bromsgrove Public Library, with the winning photograph being a nude study of the Chief Librarian’s wife. The situation is much more complicated that it seems to be. Marker as so often finds himself having to function more as a marriage counsellor and psychologist than as a private detective.

Public Eye remains one of the best private eye series ever made. The ABC Years set provides some fascinating glimpses of its early years. Extras include a brief contemporary interview with star Alfred Burke. Highly recommended.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, season one (1979)

The 1979 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV series was kicked off in 1979 with a TV-movie that ended up getting a theatrical release. Producer Glen A. Larson had been responsible for the 1970s Battlestar Galactica series which had also been kicked off by a theatrical release of the pilot episode.

The Buck Rogers character had originally surfaced in the 1920s in Philip Francis Nolan’s novel Armageddon 2419 AD. The novel spawned both a comic strip and a 1939 movie serial as well as an early 50s TV series.

The series has little in common with any of the earlier incarnations of Buck Rogers apart from the basic idea of a 20th century American who gets accidently deep-frozen and wakes up 500 years later. In this case Buck (played by Gil Gerard) is a 1980s US astronaut. How he became deep-frozen is never properly explained but when he does awake he finds himself on board a gigantic starship. This is puzzling but he starts to get really worried when he discovers that this starship does not come from Earth. He gets really really worried when he realises he isn’t dreaming and this is actually happening.

When he gets to Earth he finds that the 25th century is very different from the world he remembers. A nuclear war in the 1990s almost destroyed the planet and the survivors now take their orders from a council of all-wise and benevolent computers. The Earth is protected by a mysterious shield that is never explained, and by fighter spaceships under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) who will naturally become the love interest for the hero.

The first episode of the series proper, The Planet of the Slave Girls, was (for some obscure reason) also feature-length. As usual with episodes of a TV series extended over two episodes it has some pacing problems. It’s still, in its own way, kind of fun. The Earth in the 25th century is dependent on agricultural planets like Vistula 3. Vistula 3’s governor, played by Roddy McDowell, has allowed slavery to flourish on his planet. Now slave-dealer Kaleen (Jack Palance), who has gained a Messiah-like following, is about to lead the people of Vistula 3 in an invasion of Earth. Why a wealthy slave-dealer would want to risk everything on such a venture is never explained.

Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering must foil Kaleen’s plans and save the Earth.

This episode has most of the flaws typical of 1960 and 1970s TV sci-fi. Whole planets seem to have populations of no more than a few hundred people and the planet Vistula 3 is reminiscent of a very bad Star Trek episode, with people running around in costumes that look like they were left over from an epic movie on the Roman Empire.

Glen A. Larson seems to have been a very film believer in the virtue of two-part episodes. While they can be effective they can also tend to drag a little. Episodes 6 and 7 give us yet another two-parter, The Plot To Kill a City, involving a brotherhood of political assassins most of whom seem to have some kind of super power.

The TV series mercifully drops most of the post-nuclear war nonsense that made the original TV-movie rather more tedious than it needed to be.

Whenever it tries to take itself seriously it falls flat on its face, but luckily most of the time it is content to be silly fun entertainment and as such it works fairly well. The bits that are most reminiscent of the 1939 Buck Rogers movie serial are the bits that are most successful. A nice touch is the inclusion of 71-year-old Buster Crabbe in the supporting cast. Buster Crabbe was one of the all-time great screen action heroes and had played the part of Buck Rogers in the 1939 serial (and he’d also played Flash Gordon).

The special effects are very 1970s but for a TV series they’re generally pretty good, although there are a few very obvious and very bad matte paintings.

On the whole it’s reasonably enjoyable in a silly 70s way.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century has been released on DVD and is readily available.

Friday 8 August 2014

Lord Peter Wimsey - Murder Must Advertise

Between 1972 and 1975 the BBC made television adaptations of five of the Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. They are all thoroughly enjoyable and are fine examples of just how good BBC television once was.

The casting of Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter was just about ideal although Carmichael was perhaps just a little too old for the role. Fortunately he is so perfect in ever other way that this minor quibble can be easily overlooked.

Sayers’ 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise was the third of the five stories to be adapted. Lord Peter goes undercover in this tale, obtaining a position as a copywriter in an advertising agency. His predecessor in the position, a Mr Victor Dean, was killed in a most unfortunate accident, meeting his death in a fall down the spiral staircase connecting the two floors occupied by the agency. Mr Dean left behind him a letter addressed to the Mr Pym, the agency’s managing director, stating that undesirable things were happening in the office, things that could have very serious consequences. Mr Pym was sufficiently alarmed to procure the services of a private detective to investigate the late Mr Dean’s allegations. That is how Lord Peter comes to be working as an advertising copywriter. 

He soon discovers that Mr Dean had not been especially popular, He also learns that Mr Dean had been involved with a very dangerous and very notorious social set, centred around the younger members of the de Momerie family. This set represents the wildest of the Bright Young Things.

Wimsey’s brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker, is also interested in the de Momerie set. He has reason to believe they are involved in cocaine smuggling on a large scale.

The plot is fiendishly complicated with various romantic jealousies being possible motives
as well as the dope smuggling angle so Wimsey faces quite a task in unravelling this mystery. The solution to cracking the dope smuggling operation involves the kinds of immensely complicated criminal conspiracies that you will only ever find in detective stories of the golden age.

The one plot point that is somewhat unconvincing is Wimsey’s attempt to make the criminals believe he is actually two people, Lord Peter Wimsey and Lord Peter’s disreputable (and wholly imaginary) cousin Death Breedon. It is utterly inconceivable that two cousins could look so completely identical as to be indistinguishable. It’s one of those plot devices, like disguise, that were once immensely popular in crime fiction but now seem impossibly far-fetched.

Fans of golden age detective fiction are rather sharply divided on the subject of Lord Peter Wimsey. To some readers he seems impossibly affected and they are further irritated by the fact that he seems to be an expert on every subject under the sun. Other readers are delighted by the very things that annoy his critics. I personally like him as a character, and Ian Carmichael gives him a warmth that may be enough to win over those who are not great fans of the Wimsey of the books.

For an early 1970s BBC production Murder Must Advertise looks surprisingly expansive. While much of the action takes place in Pym’s advertising agency there are more outdoor scenes than you expect in this era. 

The period clothes are a major highlight. The men’s clothing is actually even more colourful and outrageous than the women’s, with Lord Peter wearing some truly astonishing suits. He also spends an inordinate amount of time in a harlequin costume, and Carmichael manages to play several serious scenes successfully while wearing this outlandish outfit.

 The BBC also seem to have splurged on 1930s cars for this production. It all looks magnificent.

This production takes a remarkably jaundiced view of the world of the Bright Young Things. Rather than being portrayed as glamorous and liberated they come across as shallow, cruel, self-indulgent, selfish and annoyingly self-destructive. I personally found it to be rather refreshing that the show is willing to do such a hatchet job on a generally over-glamourised social set.

Acorn Media’s DVD release includes part of an interview with Ian Carmichael which is spread over the DVDs of the five 1970s Lord Peter Wimsey serials. 

Murder Must Advertise looks terrific and is splendid fun. Absolutely top-hole. Highly recommended.

Sunday 3 August 2014

The XYY Man, season one (1976)

The XYY Man was a British espionage TV series made by Granada. The first season which aired in 1976 comprised a single three-part story while the second season consisted of a further ten episodes. The premise sounds quite promising. William ‘Spider’ Scott (Stephen Yardley) is a cat burglar. He spent the last year of his most recent prison sentence at a kind of criminological research facility attached to a prison farm. You see Spider has an interesting genetic mutation, an extra Y chromosome. This abnormality predisposes a person to criminal tendencies and makes it very unlikely that the subject, once launched on a life of crime, will ever reform. The British intelligence services have taken an interest in this criminological research and they have decided that such a man, especially one who is a skilled cat-burglar, might prove to be very useful to them.

At least that was the popular psychological theory at the time, but psychological theories are basically intellectual fads and that particular fad is now out of fashion.

Whether this psychological theory has any basis in reality or not the premise of this series  does seem to have considerable potential. An unreformable super-criminal recruited against his will by the intelligence services - that should be the ideal set-up for an entertaining action-filled spy thriller series. Unfortunately The XYY Man is a little short on action, and to be brutally honest it's somewhat lacking in the entertainment department.

So what went wrong? In this case that’s an easy question to answer. The XYY Man is more in the style of those incredibly tedious British political thrillers that started to infest the nation’s TV screens during the 1970. It takes itself very very seriously, it’s very grim, it’s overflowing with fashionable cynicism and it has a political agenda. A political agenda that it is quite happy to use as a bludgeon.

Another problem is that the show’s most intriguing element, the genetic abnormality that predisposes Spider towards crime, gets completely forgotten along the way. In fact, for a criminal who is incapable of reforming, Spider shows an amazing determination to go straight. His determination to stay on the straight and narrow is so string that it undercuts the program’s whole premise. Of course the problem here is that if the writers had followed up on the XYY idea it would have weakened their political agenda, which demands that Spider be seen as a victim of oppressive police officers and oppressive cynical and corrupt intelligence service chiefs. 

It’s probably fair at this stage to indulge in a small digression on the subject of spy TV series. Such series can quite obviously be divided into two schools, the gritty realist school and the glamorous adventure school. They can also be divided in another way, into series where the focus is on the spy, and series where the focus is on the political machinations of the spymasters. On the whole (with a few notable exceptions) I prefer the glamorous adventure school to the gritty realist school. I also much prefer those series that focus on the spy rather than those that focus on the spymasters and the politics. On both counts The XYY Man falls into the categories that I personally am not especially fond of, and this is undoubtedly a major reason for my negative response to this series. If you’re a spy fan who loves the gritty realist approach and the focus on spymasters and politics, if for example you’re a big fan of series like The Sandbaggers and Smiley’s People, then you might well enjoy The XYY Man a great deal more than I did.

The three-part first season of The XYY Man doesn’t really have quite enough plot to sustain a three-part story. Spider gets out of prison and is hoping to start a job working for an art dealer. During his prison sentence Spider had acquired a degree in art history, specialising in Indian antiquities. The evil corrupt and cynical operative from the security services, Colonel Fairfax, makes Spider an offer. Ten thousand pounds for a relatively simple burglary on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. Of course if he’s caught they will deny all knowledge of his activities, but ten thousand quid for two hours’ work is still good money. Spider refuses the offer, so evil corrupt and cynical Colonel Fairfax persuades the Metropolitan Police to put some pressure on him, and since police officers are naturally oppressive they agree to do so. Eventually Spider accepts Fairfax’s offer. Of course we know that the job is not going to go smoothly and that evil corrupt and cynical security services will set poor old Spider up.

The tricky part of the burglary is that it involves breaking into the Chinese embassy. The Chinese have obtained photographs that compromise a senior South African diplomat who is about to play a major role in negotiations over Rhodesia. For rather obscure reasons the British security services wants to get hold of the negatives, which is the job for which they’ve recruited Spider. Lots of other people, including the South African security services and a group of black Rhodesian guerillas, also want the negatives. This plot provides ample scope for heavy-handed political messages and these follow a pattern that would become all too common in British espionage and political thriller series - the British government is always corrupt and cynical, and the British intelligence services are always the bad guys.

One of the problems with the very downbeat approach used in this series is that it can become just as predictable as the mandatory happy endings of an earlier era of movies and TV. The double-crosses become a little too easy to anticipate.

The series has other problems, problems which would also become increasingly prevalent in British TV. There are no sympathetic characters. The atmosphere is unremittingly sleazy. Any British character who is not working-class is automatically assumed to be either vicious and corrupt or vicious and stupid. The tone is grimly pessimistic.

The pacing is problematical. The whole of the 50-minute first episode is spent on setting the story up in a way that really could have been done in half that time. We don’t get any action at all until the second episode. That would be less of a problem if the time had been spent giving us some reason to care about the characters but alas the characters are two-dimensional and invite very little empathy. 

It’s not all bad news. There’s some action in the second and third episodes and the pacing picks up a little. There’s also considerably more dramatic tension and even a little excitement. There are a couple of genuinely clever plot twists and Spider becomes a somewhat more interesting character.

And while most of the supporting performances are rather one-note Stephen Yardley is reasonably good. I didn’t like Spider very much but I liked him a good deal more any of the other characters. Detective-Sergeant Bulman (Don Henderson), a man obsessed by the thought of putting Spider back behind bars, went on to feature in two spin-off series. Mark Dignam as Colonel Fairfax provides some moments of amusement and is at least cynical in an entertaining way.

Network DVD have released all thirteen episodes from both seasons in a boxed set. The transfers are reasonably good. 

The first season of The XYY Man is definitely not my cup of tea. I’ve yet to sample season two so I have no idea if it would be more to my liking. I can’t recommend the first season but as I mentioned earlier that may have quite a bit to do with my personal tastes in spy fiction. You mileage may of course vary.