Tuesday 30 September 2014

Espionage (1963)

Espionage is a British 1963 television espionage series from ITC. Unusually for a TV spy series it is an anthology series with each of the 24 48-minute episodes being an entirely self-contained drama.

Given this format there was no regular cast but the series employed a galaxy of interesting actors from both Britain and the US, including Dennis Hopper, Steven Hill (who went on to star in Mission: Impossible), Martin Balsam, Patrick Troughton, James Fox, T. P. McKenna (who later played the Soviet master-spy Richmond in Callan), Bernard Lee and Donald Pleasence.

The problem with this kind of format is that such a series can end up having no actual identity, being merely a series of disconnected stories with very little in common. Most successful anthology series solved this problem by having some unity of tone and some kind of commonality in approach. You expect a Twilight Zone episode to be spooky and quirky. You expect an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode to be dark and twisted with a dash of black comedy. Unfortunately Espionage, based on the episodes I’ve watched so far, has no such unifying elements. The only common element is that all of the stories have at least a vague connection with espionage. Even that link is tenuous - episodes like He Rises on Sunday and We on Monday and The Dragon Slayer are concerned with revolutionaries than rather than spies.

Which raises another problem - while it is difficult to deal with a theme like espionage without dealing with politics at least peripherally this series often seems to be much more concerned with politics with only a passing interest in espionage. And nothing dates quite so irrevocably and embarrassingly as political television.

An anthology series is also likely to be more varied in quality than a conventional series, and that’s spectacularly true of this series which ranges from truly excellent to horrendously bad. Sad to say, the horrendously bad seems to outnumber the excellent by a considerable margin.

As with most series from this era the episodes were not necessarily screened in the order in which they were produced so there’s some confusion as to the episode sequence. When I refer to the “first” episode I mean the first episode in Network’s boxed set, which may not have been the first episode to go to air.

The first episode in the set is The Incurable One by Albert Ruben and Halsted Welles, and it’s a definite high point. It concerns Celeste (Ingrid Thulin), a Scandinavian countess who had worked as a spy for the Allies in the Second World War. She had been recruited and trained by American agent Andrew Evans (Steven Hill) and they had undertaken several dangerous missions together. Now the war is long over, but for Celeste it will never end. When you have been trained as a killer how can you adapt to peacetime life? This episode is superb intelligent television that focuses on the psychological cost of espionage rather than the glamour.

Next up is The Weakling, written by Arnold Perl, which has an extremely interesting an promising idea as its centre-piece. Alas it is derailed by some monumentally cringe-inducing acting excesses by Dennis Hopper and by a very basic mistake which gives away far too much of the plot far too early. Even worse it suffers from some spectacularly anachronistic dialogue. A World War 2 spy was unlikely to speak like an early 1960s beatnik, but that’s what happens here. This was something that was occasionally employed in the 1960s as a deliberate technique in an ill-judged attempt to make a story seem more “relevant” and up-to-date. That may have been the case here, or the director may simply have made the mistake of allowing Dennis Hopper to improvise his own dialogue. Either way it’s jarring and irritating. 

It’s a pity because the basic story really is very clever (and it is exactly the sort of idea that real-life spies like Ian Fleming actually came up with during the Second World War). To reveal any plot details would be to risk spoilers so I’ll content myself with saying that Hopper plays an American spy who ends up being caught by the Gestapo.

Covenant with Death, written by Peter Stone, is considerably better. Two young Norwegians have been helping Jews to escape across the border from German-occupied Norway to neutral Sweden. They have proved themselves to be brave and dedicated but in May 1942 they are two frightened young men who do a terrible thing because they see no other way out. In 1947 they face trial as a result. The episode cuts between the courtroom scenes and flashbacks to those fateful moments in 1942.

The series hits real problems with the next episode. Ernest Kinoy’s The Gentle Spies is truly awful. It concerns ban-the-Bomb protesters in contemporary Britain. The protesters are the usual mixture of starry-eyed idealists, cranks and foreign agents. This episode for irony but simply comes across as an embarrassing mish-mash of muddle-headed naïvete and adolescent emotional posturing. It’s clumsy and heavy-handed and it telegraphs its punches in a depressingly obvious manner. It’s overly earnest, a fatal weakness if you’re attempting satire.

He Rises on Sunday and We on Monday deals with the bungled Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. Once again the series abandons espionage for clumsy political polemics, and once again the viewer is bludgeoned with a partisan political message. Even a fine performance by Patrick Troughton can’t save this episode from being crude propaganda.

The Dragon Slayer deals with the revolutionary activities of Dr Sun Yat-Sen in China. What has this to do with espionage? Precious little, but the long-suffering viewer is again assailed with earnest political propaganda.

By this time the patience of even the most tolerant viewer has been tried beyond endurance and I find it difficult to believe that many viewers would choose further misery. By this point I felt I had suffered enough. Perhaps at some future stage I will be in a particularly masochistic mood and will struggle through a few more episodes. Just remember, gentle reader, that I have already suffered a good deal so that you won’t have to.

British television series of this era tend to have a characteristic studio-bound feel. This could be used to advantage to create a stifling atmosphere of entrapment, and that is very much the case with Espionage. It has to be said that the sets are imaginative and effective. I thought Celeste’s flat in The Incurable One was a marvelous example of a set that looked good and worked well, and it reflected her personality. It’s obvious that quite a bit of money was spent on this series.

Network DVD have done an exceptional job with this boxed set. Image quality is absolutely superb, remarkably so for an early 60s British series.

Espionage was an expensive series with a great deal of potential, most of which was sadly wasted. A couple of fine episodes, but there’s an enormous amount of dross to be sorted through for a few tiny nuggets of gold. I cannot in all conscience recommend this set. 

Monday 22 September 2014

Rod Serling’s The Time Element

The Time Element is a 1958 television play written by Rod Serling and presented as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse series, hosted by Desi Arnaz. The Time Element was intended to serve as a pilot for the series Serling was planning, the series which would become The Twilight Zone. When CBS saw the script they were underwhelmed and lost interest in the projected series. The producer of Desilu Playhouse, Bert Granet, was on the other hand highly impressed and anxious to make do the story as part of that series. The audience response was so positive that CBS’s interest was rekindled and Serling was given the opportunity to do another pilot. The rest, as they say, is history.

As the title suggests this is a time-travel story. Peter Jenson (William Bendix) goes to see a psychiatrist (played by Martin Balsam) because he’s troubled by a recurring dream. Only he insists that it isn’t a dream. He insists that it’s real and that he really does travel through time. So far he has always awakened at the same point so he doesn’t know how the dream is supposed to end.

One of Serling’s chief weaknesses as a writer was a tendency to deliver the moral of his stories in a very obvious and laboured manner. In this story however he keeps that propensity in check. He is also prepared, in this story, to be quite open-ended. This tale can be interpreted in a number of ways and Serling is content to allow the viewer to make up his own mind.

His other major weakness as a writer was that he had a political axe to grind and he was prepared to do so in a remarkably heavy-handed way. Serling was one of those people who firmly believe that it’s not enough to have strong opinions - you have to inflict those opinions on others. If other people resent having your opinions foisted on them you just have to try even harder to bludgeon them into submission. Mercifully this story does not suffer from that flaw.

I have to be up-front and say that I am not at all a fan of Serling’s writing. Considering his vast reputation he can be astonishingly clumsy. The Time Element is one of his better efforts.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were very major players in American television in the 50s and had founded their own TV studio, Desilu, following the immense success of I Love Lucy. The Desilu Playhouse was something of a prestige production with a correspondingly generous (by television standards) budget. This works very much in The Time Element’s favour and the high production values found in this TV play were of course something that Serling was keen to see incorporated in his new series, The Twilight Zone.

Another major asset of The Time Element is director of photography Nick Musuraca, not only one of the great cinematographers but one with a superb track record in film noir (movies like Out of the Past) and horror (Cat People). 

At the end of the show host Desi Arnaz offers his own interpretation of the story, and it has to be said that it’s a perfectly valid if conventional interpretation (although other quite different interpretations are equally valid).

William Bendix and Martin Balsam were very fine and very experienced character actors and they help a good deal in creating the necessary suspension of disbelief by making their characters seem like real people. Darryl Hickman is equally good as the young naval officer whose fate becomes so important to Pete Jenson.

The Time Element is included as a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray release of season 1 of The Twilight Zone. It’s in remarkably good condition and on Blu-Ray it looks exceptionally good. This bonus feature comes with its own bonus features including an audio commentary by Mark Scott Zicree. 

The Time Element includes a lot of the best elements that would later feature in The Twilight Zone. It doesn’t quite have that Twilight Zone atmosphere in a fully developed fashion but it certainly points the way forward. The Time Element is important historically and it’s entertaining as well. Recommended.

It's interesting to compare this one with Nightmare at Ground Zero, a very Twilight Zone-ish episode he wrote in 1953 for the Suspense anthology series.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Peter Gunn, season two (1959-60)

In 1958 NBC started airing Peter Gunn, a private eye TV series that enjoyed considerable success. It ran for two seasons on NBC and then for a third season on ABC. It’s probably the best remembered such series of its era. Peter Gunn was created and produced by Blake Edwards who also wrote and directed a number of episodes. Henry Mancini, a frequent Blake Edwards collaborator, provided what was to become one of the best-known theme tunes in TV history. 

The program adheres to the half-hour format that was then standard on American television. The visuals have a definite and conscious film noir feel.

Craig Stevens in the title role is a reasonably convincing tough guy private eye but he's just a little too stolid and even perhaps a bit of a Boy Scout. The world of Peter Gunn is the world of night-clubs and jazz clubs. His cases take him into more sordid surroundings at times but his own world is a fairly classy one. He has a swanky apartment. He always seems clean, maybe too clean to be a private detective. Peter Gunn naturally has some underworld connections, as you would expect in his line of work. He is however very much at home with the arty and literary crowds, the world of pretentious urban sophisticates.

The series is in marked contrast to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer which started screening on rival network CBS in the same year. Mike Hammer is definitely not at home with the arty crowd. Sleazy bars are more his scene. Peter Gunn is a fairly tough guy but he’s totally outclassed in the tough guy department by Mike Hammer as played by Darren McGavin. Gunn also lacks the edge of craziness that Hammer has, and he certainly lacks Hammer’s unapologetic enjoyment of violence. 

What this all adds up to is that Peter Gunn is a less interesting series than Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Less interesting, but it has its strengths.

Herschel Bernardi plays Gunn’s cop friend Lieutenant Jacoby, and he’s one of the show’s strengths. Lola Albright plays Gunn’s girlfriend Edie, a singer whose main function is to get herself kidnapped on a regular basis so that Gunn can rescue her.

Gunn spends much of his time at a moderately up-market somewhat trendy bar called Mother’s. He spends more time there than in his office. In fact I’m not even sure that he has an office!

Jazz is not as central to this series as it is to Johnny Staccato but it’s still an important ingredient. The jazz in Peter Gunn though is a much more sedate kind of jazz. Despite his arty connections Peter Gunn is a guy with pretty mainstream tastes. He’s a sharp dresser but far from flashy. He’s somewhat bemused by the excesses of modern art. He represents Middle America flirting cautiously with modernity (and I can’t say I blame Middle America for being cautious about such tendencies).

The overwhelming impression I get from this series is its unevenness. A lot of episodes are really quite routine private eye stories. Murder Is the Price for example is a very conventional revenge story. The Wolfe Case is better but it’s still nothing out of the ordinary. Then just as one starts to lose faith in this series along comes an episode like The Briefcase. This is one of the episodes directed by Blake Edwards and it’s mayhem laced with a little comedy, as you might expect from Blake Edwards. It also has a convoluted but clever story, with everyone trying to get their hands on a briefcase full of incriminating documents. For a semi-comedic story it has a remarkably high body count. The Briefcase is a sparkling and very entertaining little tale. 

In The Game Gunn acts as go-between for an insurance company paying off jewel thieves, and he gets a beating for his troubles. The Game has a definite hint of cynicism to it. 

Then there are episodes like Edge of the Knife and The Comic (one of the episodes written and directed by Blake Edwards), which are remarkably grim and downbeat by the standards of 50s network television with more than a hint of a genuine film noir sensibility.

I guess what Blake Edwards was trying to do with this series was to avoid making his hero into a Mike Hammer clone, and to avoid the taint of vigilante justice that surrounded Hammer. Peter Gunn is not a one-man army and he’s not a maverick. He’s a solid dependable professional. Craig Stevens certainly succeeds in making Gunn more respectable than most screen private eyes, but at the cost of making him just a little bland. Peter Gunn will kill bad guys when he has to and he’ll do it without hesitation but he’ll do it in a very dispassionate manner. It’s just part of the job. Craig Stevens lacks the exuberance, the edginess and the sheer panache that Darren McGavin brought to the rôle of Mike Hammer, and he lacks the humanity that John Cassevetes brings to Johnny Staccato.

Peter Gunn on the whole is middle-of-the-road entertainment executed with a certain amount of style. It’s far from being my favourite private eye series of that era but it’s reasonably enjoyable and it’s worth a look.

Thursday 11 September 2014

The Secret Service (1969)

The Secret Service was the last of the classic Gerry and Sylvia Anderson Supermarionation series (although Gerry Anderson did attempt to revive the format some years later with Terrahawks. Originally broadcast in the UK in 1969, The Secret Service was also the least successful of all the Supermarionation series.

The Reverend Stanley Unwin (played by the real-life comedian of the same name) appears to be an ordinary country parish priest. In fact he’s a secret agent working for an organisation known as BISHOP. His assistant, who masquerades as his gardener, is Matthew Harding. Matthew handles most of the dangerous work, and does so in a rather strange way. The Reverend has a device known as the Minimiser that can shrink Matthew to one-third of his normal size. This allows him to go places where an ordinary man would be too easily detected. In fact much of the time he travels hidden inside the Reverend Unwin’s briefcase.

By 1969 Gerry Anderson was starting to feel that he’d gone just about as far as he could with puppets. In fact his problem was that the puppets were now too good. They were so lifelike that he might just as well use real actors, who were (generally) better actors than the puppets. 

The Secret Service was a transitional program insofar as, in an attempt to achieve even more realism, it uses live actors for some scenes, particularly scenes involving movement (always the weakness of the puppets). It also uses both miniatures and real cars and aircraft. This, combined with the technique of having the same characters played by both puppets and real actors, gives the series a rather strange feel that doesn’t quite work.

There are many other oddities about this series. The quirky nature of the program is apparent right from the start with the very strange theme music. Stanley Unwin also had a running gag that he’d been using in his comedy routines for years, of suddenly starting to talk in a strange gobbledygook which he called Unwinese. It’s basically incomprehensible nonsense but it sounds like it means something. This is incorporated into the show as a device the Revered Unwin uses to confuse his opponents. Whether this is an amusing or an irritating feature depends on your own personal taste. I find it mildly amusing.

Another strange and uneasy feature of this series is the ambiguous setting. Most of the time it appears to have a contemporary setting, which seems to be confirmed by the use of what are clearly real 1968-vintage commercial airliners (which I think are actually Vickers Viscounts) in the first episode, A Case for the Bishop. But then in the next episode, A Question of Miracles, we see miniatures representing futuristic cars and helijets. This is all somewhat disconcerting. The great strength of previous Supermarionation series such as Captain Scarlet  and Stingray was that they took place in fully-realised future worlds which were internally consistent. The partial abandonment of this future world was in retrospect a mistake.

Lew Grade took one look at the series and cancelled it immediately. As a result only thirteen episodes were made. Gerry Anderson was actually quite pleased with the show’s cancellation since it allowed him to concentrate on his next project, UFO, in which he would switch entirely to the use of live actors. Interestingly enough, UFO reverted to the kind of futuristic world that had made the earlier series so successful.

While the weaknesses already enumerated certainly counted against it the real reason for the failure of The Secret Service was that it was just too quirky for its own good and Lew Grade was probably correct in his judgment that it would be impossible to sell to US networks. It’s also unfortunate that the first episode, A Case for the Bishop, is rather weak. The following episode, A Question of Miracles, is very much better and is closer in feel to the classic Supermarionation series.

To Catch a Spy is a routine sort of story but The Feathered Spies is unusual and entertaining. An episode like The Deadly Whisper sums up the series quite neatly. Donald James contributed scripts to most of the British sci-fi and action adventure series of the period. There was no doubting his ability to deliver perfectly serviceable scripts and The Deadly Whisper, involving a plot to use a top-secret high-tech gun to destroy an experimental aircraft, could have been a thoroughly satisfactory episode for any series of that type. And mostly it works quite well, except that in practice it has just a little too much of the series’ characteristic whimsicality.

My impression from what I’ve seen of the series so far is that as it progresses it becomes more firmly anchored in the expected future world of other Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series.

The miniatures work is impressive, as was the case in all of Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation series, although the format of this series offers fewer opportunities for special effects compared to the earlier series. The secret agent in a suitcase idea is a good one and having the suitcase equipped with a periscope is a nice touch.

The idea of a village priest being a secret agent might have worked but with the series already suffering from a surfeit of whimsy it's just a bit too much. Having him drive a bright yellow Model T Ford adds to the problems, which are exacerbated even further by having even more comic relief being provided by Father Unwin's housekeeper. 

The Secret Service cannot be described as a real success but it does have an odd charm and it’s worth a look.

Thursday 4 September 2014

Special Branch - season one (1969)

Special Branch was a rather unusual police drama series produced by Britain’s Thames TV. It ran from 1969 to 1974 (although with a lengthy hiatus between seasons 2 and 3).

The series was unusual because it reflected the unusual role of the real-life Special Branch (as it existed at the time). They were police officers, and they were in fact part of the Metropolitan Police, but they worked in conjunction with the security services. The duties of the 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, but they were in effect the enforcement arm of that service. 

The series reflects these wide-ranging duties, which in themselves provide plenty of material for interesting television, while also dealing with the complex problems such duties brought with them. They have to walk a fine line between respecting the rights of citizens in a free country and protecting those citizens from very real threats. It’s not just a fine line, at times it becomes very blurred indeed. The biggest problem of all is political interference by politicians desperate to pander to public opinion, and senior bureaucrats more interested in advancing their careers than in seeing the job done properly.

They also have a very uneasy relationship with the Security Service, in the person of Charles Moxon (Morris Perry). Moxon gives them information they need but he can be very selective in doing so, and quite devious in withholding the most important facts of all. 

Detective Superintendent Tom Eden (Wensley Pithey) is close to retirement age and is anxious not to jeopardise his pension while at the same time he is determined to do his duty. His duty as he sees it, which is not always the way either his superiors or his subordinates see it. Chief among his subordinates is Detective Chief Inspector Jordan (Derren Nesbitt). Jordan is young and ambitious. He is also flamboyant, a snappy dresser in the very latest styles, and a man with a definite fondness for the opposite sex.

This sounds like a classic setup, with Eden as the crusty conservative old school copper and Jordan representing the new breed of forward-thinking policeman. The series however avoids falling into that obvious trap. In fact Eden is a bit of a bleeding heart and a stickler for civil liberties while Jordan, despite his trendy Carnaby Street threads, is far more conservative at heart. While Eden is inclined to bend over backwards not to tread on the toes of the protest generation Jordan has no patience for such nonsense and certainly has no patience with the counter-culture of the 60s. Jordan is also a very dogged and very conscientious policeman.

Detective Constable Morrissey (Keith Washington) is the new boy at Special Branch, as keen as mustard but painfully inexperienced. Despite his youth he regards any manifestation of 1960s youth culture with horror and contempt.

The mix of characters is excellent and gives the show not just balance but some nice dramatic tension as loyalties are tested in dealing with some exceptionally complex cases.

Some of the episodes could qualify as out-and-out spy thrillers while others focus on much more mundane cases. Good writing and fine acting allows the more mundane cases to be just as interesting as the glamorous ones.

The writers are clever enough not to indulge in too much cynicism. The good intentions and hard work of the Special Branch officers comes to naught in many episodes due to political machinations but they are still professionals doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. The series does not veer too far in the direction of moral relativism. These are cops working to uphold a system that is far from perfect but it is always made clear that however imperfect the system might be, the alternatives are much more unpalatable. The job can on occasion be unpleasant but these are still the good guys. There is moral ambiguity in this series, but there is still right and wrong.

It was very common at this time for series to be given mid-life revamps but very few series ever underwent as drastic a revamp as Special Branch got in 1973. After two series virtually the entire cast was replaced. Even more importantly, Thames TV’s Euston Films division took over production of the show for this third season. Up until this time 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 were mostly shot in the studio. Euston Films changed all that with the last two seasons of Special Branch, with everything done on film and on location, and in so doing changed the face of British television, although the revolutionary nature of the change did not become fully apparent until the next series they tackled, The Sweeney.

As a result the last two seasons of Special Branch have tended to overshadow seasons one and two. That’s a pity because those first two seasons are in fact superb television. They might have been made in a visual style that would soon start to look old-fashioned but they are well-written well-crafted stories with real depth and complexity to them. And Detective Chief Inspector Jordan is, for my money, one of the classic British TV cops.

Special Branch has been released on DVD in Region 2, and the first two seasons have been released in Region 4 as well. Unfortunately only seasons 3 and 4, which are very different in style, have been released in Region 1.