Saturday 27 December 2014

Carry On Laughing (1975)

Carry On Laughing was A British ATV TV comedy series that was, as its title suggests, an attempt to transfer the formula of the Carry On movies to the small screen. It ran for six episodes in early 1975, followed by a second season of seven episodes later the same year.

By this time the Carry On formula was starting to wear a bit thin on the big screen and some of the regular cast members were starting to drop out. The TV series does at least have some of the established Carry On stars, including Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims and Peter Butterworth. Sadly Kenneth Williams decided against appearing in the TV series.

The results are rather mixed although the series does definitely have its moments. 

Dave Freeman, who had some experience of writing for the Carry On crew, wrote most of the episodes.

The first episode, The Prisoner of Spenda, is of course a spoof of the movie The Prisoner of Zenda (and also of course of the original book by Anthony Hope). In this case the crown prince of Pluritania has not just one double but half a dozen, all played by Sid James. The idea of an Englishman taking over the identity of a European prince is pushed to ludicrous extremes, with moderately funny results. Sid James and Barbara Windsor do their best to overcome the thinness of Dave Freeman’s script and do manage to get a few laughs.

The Baron Outlook, a kind of medieval farce, is rather better. Barbara Windsor is the standout performer but Joan Sims and Sid James do pretty well while Peter Butterworth is amusing as a randy friar who dabbles in alchemy.

With the third episode, The Sobbing Cavalier, the series finally manages to capture the authentic Carry On spirit. Sid James is a luckless cavalier on the run from Oliver Cromwell’s forces although he still manages to find time to pursue maidservant Sarah (Barbara Windsor) although it has to be said she doesn’t seem too anxious to escape his attentions. Joan Sims is the lady of the house reluctantly playing hostess to Cromwell. Peter Butterworth is Cromwell while Jack Douglas is more musing than usual as the country gentleman switching sides continuously as the fortunes of war ebb and flow. Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Joan Sims all have a good deal of fun with this material and the laughs are pleasingly plentiful.

Orgy and Bess continues the historical theme, with Hattie Jacques as Queen Elizabeth I and Sid James as Sir Francis Drake. Kenneth Connor is King Phillip of Spain while Barbara Windsor is a lady-in-waiting of dubious morals. Both The Sobbing Cavalier and Orgy and Bess serve us up a heady diet of double entendres. The humour might be risque but it is undeniably very funny. 

One in the Eye for Harold features very few Carry On regulars and was written by Lew Schwarz who was a fairly prolific TV comedy writer but one with no experience of writing Carry Ons. This one falls very flat and is very heavy going. Schwarz doesn’t seem to understand this style of comedy and most of the cast seem all at sea.

The Nine Old Cobblers spoofs Lord Peter Wimsey, the very popular 1970s series based on the detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers. This is perhaps the funniest of the season 1 episodes and in fact it’s extremely good. Jack Douglas plays Lord Peter Flimsy while Kenneth Connor is his faithful manservant Punter. The joke is that it’s Punter who actually does all the crime-solving. Kenneth Connor is more restrained than usual, but also funnier. Joan Sims relishes the opportunity to play a role rather different from the shrewish roles in which she was so often typecast. She’s the eccentric Amelia Forbush, a woman with a passion for the drums. Barbara Windsor is the saucy landlady of the local pub and she’s in sparkling form. In this episode everything comes together nicely. It’s clever and it’s very amusing.

So six episodes in this first season, with three being extremely good, two being reasonably OK and only one complete washout. That’s not a bad batting average and suggests that this series (or at least its first season) has been unfairly neglected.

All thirteen episodes (I haven’t had a chance to sample the second season yet) are included as extras in the ITV Studios Home Entertainment Carry On Complete Collection DVD boxed set which includes every one of the Carry On movies. The TV series has also been released on its own by A&E.

If you’re a fan of 1970s British television comedy or of the Carry On movies then Carry On Laughing is definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Monday 22 December 2014

Doctor Who - Enlightenment (1983)

Enlightenment was the third serial in the Guardian trilogy which formed a major part of the twentieth (1983) season of Doctor Who. The trilogy had begun with the excellent Mawdryn Undead and continued with the reasonably good Terminus.

By his time the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) was down to just two companions, Tegan and Turlough.

Enlightenment was writer Barbara Clegg’s only Doctor Who script which is rather a pity since it combines some interesting science fictional ideas with an oddly moving storyline.

The Doctor has received a rather garbled message from the White Guardian. All he knows is that he has to stop someone from winning a race. The Tardis arrives on board an Edwardian racing yacht. The atmosphere on board is subtly disconcerting. None of the crew members can remember coming aboard. The officers are scrupulously polite but seem rather distant and emotionless. The First Mate takes quite a shine to Tegan but his attentions towards her are slightly disturbing. It’s not so much that he doesn’t seem to know how to communicate with a woman - it’s more that he seems unsure how to communicate with a human being. He just doesn’t seem to comprehend emotions.

Pretty soon things become much stranger. The yacht is not a sailing ship - it’s a spaceship. It’s engaged in a race with other spaceships, all of which have the appearance of sailing ships but from a bewildering variety of different time periods. Although they are spaceships they behave like sailing ships. The crews are sent aloft to set the sails. 

This story introduces the Eternals, one of the more interesting alien races in Doctor Who. They normally exist outside of time but the only way they can tolerate the boredom of eternity is by seeking diversion. The only way they can find diversion is by making use of mortals whom they refer to as Ephemerals. In fact the only way they can experience any kind of emotion or excitement or mental stimulation is by raiding the minds of Ephemerals and emotion, excitement and mental stimulation are things they crave with a kind of desperation. The Eternals are not really evil, just entirely amoral. And while they’re frightening and cruel in some ways in other ways they’re more to be pitied. They’re a splendid idea and Enlightenment explores that idea with intelligence and subtlety.

This serial’s other great strength is the concept of sailing ships in space. It’s a concept that has been used before (and since) but it’s never been handled quite as cleverly as this.

This serial is also notable for its visual style. Instead of the uniform overlit very flat style that is so familiar in TV programs of its era Enlightenment is full of shadows and low-key lighting. Director Fiona Cumming was anxious to shoot it this way and to her surprise and delight she found that Fred Wright, the man in charge of the studio lighting, was happy to experiment with moody low-key lighting approaches. Apart from being wonderfully atmospheric and considerable enhancing the story it also gives this serial a rather modern look.

Designer Colin Green helped out with some very good set designs. The costumes are great fun as well with the pressure suits being delightfully bizarre. Janet Fielding was also given the opportunity to look rather stunning in an Edwardian evening gown although her dress caused a certain amount of controversy by being excessively “provocative” - and considering the truly stupendous amount of cleavage she’s displaying that’s not entirely surprising. It does at least give us the chance to see a remarkably sexy and very feminine Tegan.

The support cast is mostly very strong, with Keith Barron being particularly good as the icily courteous but slightly creepy captain of of the yacht and Christopher Brown being even more disturbing as First Mate Marriner. Lynda Baron perhaps goes too far over-the-top as the captain of The Buccaneer.

Mark Strickson as Turlough gets to do a bit of actual acting while Janet Fielding as Tegan underplays her performance nicely. This is one serial in which Tegan comes across as a very sympathetic and rather likeable character. Peter Davison is as solid as ever.

Enlightenment is included in the Guardian Trilogy DVD boxed set and the BBC really went to town with the extras on this release. Apart from some good featurettes and an excellent audio commentary by Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, director Fiona Cumming and writer Barbara Clegg we also get (on a second disc) a completely re-edited feature film-length version of Enlightenment with new CGI special effects. 

Unfortunately this new version has been matted to make it appear widescreen and the results are very similar to the horrific results we used to see with pan-and-scanned widescreen movies. The framing in many scenes is terribly wrong, sometimes ludicrously so, with the Doctor’s head totally lopped off in one scene. The CGI effects do look very good. I personally dislike CGI because it always looks so fake but in a Doctor Who story about sailing ships in space it isn’t a major problem. The re-editing does remove some of the obvious padding but it also tends to dissipate the effect of the episode cliff-hangers.

The idea of trying to re-edit an 80s Doctor Who serial to appeal to modern audiences is not however an entirely bad idea (although not to my personal taste) and the result is certainly infinitely superior to any of the episodes of the horrible 21st century Doctor Who series.

The original four-part Enlightenment serial is well-written, well-made, well-acted and visually pleasing and includes some excellent ideas. An impressive example of 1980s Doctor Who at its best. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Danger Man, season one (1960)

In the 1950s Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment had enjoyed great success with their various historical adventure TV series. By the beginning of the 60s that formula was starting to wear a bit thin. Danger Man, which premiered in 1960, came along at exactly the right moment. Danger Man was the first of the classic 1960s TV spy series and proved to be both highly successful and immensely influential.

The series appeared two years before the first of the Bond movies so it has some claims to have been the starting point for the whole 1960s spy craze.

The series had an odd production history. 39 half-hour episodes were broadcast in 1960 and 1961. Despite its popularity there was then a three-year hiatus. The series was then revived and 47 one-hour episodes went to air between 1964 and 1967. There were significant differences between the first season and the later hour-long episodes. Although the hero is still called John Drake it’s not even entirely clear that he’s the same character. In fact the differences are sufficient in some ways to make it advisable to consider the later seasons to be a separate, albeit related, series.

The identity of the hero is an intriguing question indeed. Apart from the two incarnations of Danger Man Patrick McGoohan went on to play another spy in the cult favourite series The Prisoner. In the half-hour Danger Man series John Drake works for an unnamed international agency. He is a secret agent of indeterminate nationality. This was easy enough since McGoohan was born in the United States, raised in Ireland and lived in England and therefore had a conveniently indeterminate accent. In the revived hour-long Danger Man series he again plays a secret agent named John Drake but now he is clearly British and works for a British intelligence agency. So is he in fact the same man? And there has always been speculation that the unnamed character he played in The Prisoner was actually John Drake. So did he play three different spies, or two, or only one?

What is not  in dispute is that playing television spies proved to be a wildly successful career move for McGoohan, lifting him from obscurity and making him for a time the most highly paid actor on British television. 

McGoohan was a man with very strong views, deeply religious and with very clearly defined moral principles. He insisted on having these views taken into consideration. He would not countenance any hint of sexual promiscuity and he insisted that the violence should be kept within very strict bounds. You might think this would have caused major problems but oddly enough it seems to have worked in the series’ favour. Since the writers could not rely on resolving everything with a climactic shootout they had to put a bit more thought into their scripts. It also gave the series a definite flavour of its own. John Drake was a complex character, not always entirely happy with the things he had to do in the line of duty.

The first season was sufficiently successful to put McGoohan into the running for the rôle of James Bond in the first of the Bond movies. McGoohan however decided that playing Bond was incompatible with his moral views. While McGoohan became a major 1960s pop culture icon the actor did not really approve of the 1960s, believing that society had begun a downward slide into moral degeneracy (and  of course he turned out to be quite correct in his assessment).

The creator and producer of Danger Man was Ralph Smart, an Australian with considerable experience producing, directing and writing for both feature films and television. Smart had worked on several earlier ITC television series and had produced The Invisible Man for them in 1959, a series that was closer to being a spy series than a science fiction series.

It was Smart and McGoohan who were primarily responsible for setting the tone of Danger Man. It was rather unusual at that time for an actor to have that sort of input but McGoohan was an unusual actor. Danger Man would also give McGoohan his first chance to try his hand at directing.

The half-hour format had its weaknesses but in the hands of competent writers it had its advantages. At its best it made for fast-moving and tightly focused television.

John Drake is a professional secret agent although at times he does a little unofficial freelancing. In the episode Position of Trust (which features a delightful guest starring performance by Donald Pleasence) Drake is acting as a vigilante to break up a drug smuggling racket.

Smart was obviously keen not to get locked into doing too many straight Cold War stories. The idea was to have plenty of variety in the settings, and plenty of variety in the bad guys Drake would come up against. There are very few Russian spies in this series. Most of the stories are set in fictional countries with Drake having to deal with corrupt, incompetent or obstructive local authorities. The series relies entirely on stock footage and a bit of atmospheric set dressing (it’s amazing what you can do with a few potted palms) to convince us that John Drake is in a different country each week. This was the standard technique of the time and generally works quite satisfactorily even if some of the accents are rather mysterious.

The Island sees Drake is escorting two prisoners, professional assassins. They cause the aircraft to crash near an island. There’s only one person living on the island, a hermit with a gun. The action takes place entirely on the island. This is one episode that entirely fails to convince us that it’s not taking place in the studio but it’s an amusing little tale.

Find and Return is one of several episodes guest starring Donald Pleasence. Drake has to bring a woman back from a Middle Eastern country to face charges of high treason. Drake does the job but finds himself feeling sorry for the woman. His sympathy for her tempts him in this case to break the rules. The Gallows Tree is another fine episode that puts John Drake once again in a situation where duty may not be entirely compatible with humanity. This is a very grown-up series that does not disguise the fact that a secret agent’s job can involve some genuine moral quandaries.

Position of Trust sees Drake acting as a lone wolf (and a bit of a vigilante) to fight drug traffickers. Quite appropriate, given Patrick McGoohan’s intense dislike of the way society was heading in the 1960s.

The Girl Who Liked GI's involves an American serviceman murdered in Germany. He’d ben working on a top-secret missile project so both the West German security services and the Americans are worried. As is NATO, who have assigned John Drake to the case. The serviceman had been dating a German girl. Was she involved in espionage? Was the American soldier a spy? Drake will find the answers.

The episode Vacation was McGoohan’s first attempt at directing and he does a solid job. Drake is just about to enjoy his first vacation for four years but an apparently innocent encounter with an American businessman on the plane changes all that. Drake finds himself taking the place of a hired killer but the identity of the target is the first puzzle. The identity of the client is the second part of the puzzle.

The Conspirators comes as something of a surprise, with quite a bit of fairly impressive location shooting - a very unusual feature for a British series of this era. The Honeymooners is one of the rare episodes that really does suffer from the half-hour format. By the time the exciting climax is set up the episode had simply run out of time. It’s a tribute to the quality of the writing for this series that such failures are so very rare.

The A&E DVD boxed set boasts fairly good transfers. Some British series of this era have not survived not in the best of condition but Danger Man is one of the lucky ones, surviving in its entirety and still looking pretty good.

Danger Man still holds up extremely well. It’s an intelligent and stylish action adventure series and it certainly deserves its iconic status. One of the absolutely essential British series of the 1960s. Very highly recommended.

Monday 8 December 2014

Raffles (1977)

As much as I love the Raffles TV series (made by Yorkshire Television and originally transmitted in 1977) I find it’s a bit like a very rich chocolate cake - it’s best enjoyed in moderation. It’s not the kind of series where I’d want to watch two episodes back-to-back. One can have too much of Bunny Manders! But when you’re in the mood for the television version of chocolate cake then Raffles is certainly the ideal viewing.

The series was based on the celebrated Raffles short stories by E. W. Hornung. Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Raffles stories, beginning with The Amateur Cracksman in 1898 and continuing with a novel and two more short story collections, were immensely successful. In fact their popularity was exceeded only by that of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

A. J. Raffles is a complex and exceedingly interesting character. He is usually described as a gentleman thief. In fact what makes him so interesting is that his social status is quite ambiguous. He has a public school education and can certainly pass as a gentleman. His success as a cricketer (he is the finest spin bowler of his day) has gained him a certain measure of acceptance but although he has the education of a gentleman he does not have the breeding or the family connections to back it up. And he does not have the money.

He is in fact not quite a gentleman. He is keenly aware of this, and is keenly aware that those who tolerate his presence in society do not regard him as a social equal. That’s the key to Hornung’s Raffles stories and it’s an element that is definitely present in the TV series.

Raffles steals partly out of necessity (he was absolutely penniless when he discovered his talent for burglary) and partly to maintain the standard of living that allows him to live as a gentleman. But he also steals to some extent out of revenge - revenge on those who would not welcome him in society had it not been for the happy accident of his cricketing genius.

Raffles has certain quixotic moral standards. He steals from people who can easily afford the loss and if he is a guest he will not steal from his host. That would be impolite. Gentleman do not steal from their hosts. Of course gentlemen usually don’t steal at all but Raffles has a moral code that is conveniently rather flexible. He also on occasions steals for the sheer excitement of the deed, or as a challenge, or even on rare occasions (as in the episode The Last Laugh) to write what he perceives as a wrong. But he is not a Robin Hood, although he has his generous moments. He enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, financed entirely by crime.

He is also an ambiguous character in other ways. His partner in crime is Bunny Manders, an old school friend. But it is not an equal partnership. Raffles is very much the dominant partner, and it can even be said that his friendship with Bunny is rather exploitative. Raffles like to dominate people and the fact that he can persuade Bunny to do anything he chooses to have him do gives Raffles a great deal of pleasure. There is a touch of sadism in Raffles. This is downplayed a little in the TV series but it’s still very much there. Raffles is charming and he is capable of generosity and even kindness but he enjoys having power over people. He is likeable, but there is an edge to his character.

The opening episode, The First Step, establishes the power relationship between Raffles and Bunny very effectively.

Anthony Valentine was in every way the ideal actor to play Raffles. As Toby Meres in Callan he had demonstrated his uncanny ability to combine enormous charm with a sinister and sadistic edge. Meres’ job sometimes involves killing people, and for Meres that is more of a bonus than a downside. Raffles has a very much more light-hearted tone than Callan and Raffles as a character is much less dark than Toby Meres but that very slight hint of sadism is still there and it’s one of the things that makes this an intriguing and unusual series. On the whole the series is witty and done with a very light touch but it has its occasional darker moments. Raffles is an anti-hero, even if he’s a very charming anti-hero. 

The episode The Gold Cup illustrates one side of Raffles. The cup in question is a medieval cup, originally presented to Henry VIII, now kept in the British Museum. Raffles falls in love with its beauty. And when he sees something of rare beauty, he simply has to steal it. He doesn’t actually want the cup. It would be impossible to sell. He just wants the joy of stealing it and enjoying it for a time. This well-intentioned plan is threatened when Raffles and Bunny are invited to dine with the Criminologists’ Club, a society of crime enthusiasts who believe they are on the verge of uncovering the identity of Britain’s most notorious and most discerning burglar. They believe that man to be none other than Raffles. For most burglars this would be at the very least an annoyance, but for Raffles it’s just another challenge, another opportunity to put his own wits to the test. And as a bonus there’s the chance to show off in front of an attractive, charming, very wealthy and very well-connected lady.

If The Gold Cup shows Raffles at his most quixotic The Last Laugh shows another and much nobler side of his character, although it also demonstrates his capacity for ruthlessness. In this case his ruthlessness is justified. This episode also demonstrates his surprising capacity for selflessness and even sacrifice. 

Mr Justice Raffles is another episode that reveals our hero in a ruthless mood. Raffles believes in avoiding violence wherever possible - he is a burglar, a craftsman of crime, not a street thug. On rare occasions however when he’s in the mood for putting injustices right (which he sometimes does but according to his own idiosyncratic moral code) he is prepared to use a certain amount of violence. And in this instance he’s up against a man who gives decent criminals a bad name. 

In To Catch a Thief he has to match wits with a rival burglar. It’s one of several episodes in which Raffles’ schemes come perilously close to bringing him undone. Being a burglar is a dangerous profession and both the original stories and the TV series emphasise the risks and the possible dire consequences if something goes wrong.

A Trap to Catch a Cracksman sees Raffles stealing for the sake of the honour of English sport. Raffles’ strange mixture of motivations is one of the highlights of Hornung’s stories, and of the TV series.

Raffles was an expensive undertaking for Yorkshire Television but it was money well spent. Production values are high. 

Unfortunately only one season of 13 episodes was made (or 14 episodes if you include the rarely seen pilot).

The 2004 British DVD release from Acorn Media (which is the one I have) was a six-disc set and seems to be out of print. The quality was very satisfactory. There has been a subsequent British DVD release (2010) from ITV Studios Home Entertainment which is still in print and very inexpensive. The series has also been released on DVD in the US.

Raffles is superb entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday 1 December 2014

Man with a Camera (1958-60)

Throughout the 1950s Charles Bronson played bit parts in movies and TV series, but in 1958 the 37-year-old actor got his big break with the lead role in the American television crime series Man with a Camera. It’s slightly odd to see the legendary screen tough guy armed with nothing but a camera.

The series ran for two seasons on the US ABC network, from 1958 to 1960.

Although he plays a photographer the show is in fact a crime/adventure series. Mike Kovacs (Bronson) is a freelance news photographer who seems to spend more time acting as an amateur private eye than in taking pictures. 

Two episodes of this program are included in Mill Creek’s TV Detectives DVD boxed set, and they’re the only two episodes I’ve ever seen. Judging by these episodes the series does manage to bring photography into the story lines quite cleverly and this combined with the fact that Kovacs doesn’t carry a gun gives it a distinctive flavour.

Kovacs gets mixed in uncovering the activities of international con-men and in finding the missing wife of a police detective buddy of his. And Bronson manages to get some action scenes - the climax of the second season episode Missing has Kovacs taking on a couple of hoods in a car wash, using a steam cleaner as a weapon. It’s quite an eerie and somewhat film noirish scene and it’s a definite highlight.

Worth a look if you’re a Charles Bronson fan although his later screen persona is not yet fully developed, and also worth a look if you enjoy slightly offbeat crime series.