Thursday 28 May 2015

Callan, the 1974 movie

I’ve posted a review of the 1974 Callan movie at my cult movies blog. While it’s not quite as good as the television series it’s still well worth seeing.

It is of course an extended colour remake of the original black-and-white pilot episode for the series, A Magnum for Schneider. And it does feature Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter, although sadly not Anthony Valentine (whose presence is sorely missed).

Here’s the link to the review.

Friday 22 May 2015

Jason King (1971-72)

Jason King was in many ways a TV series that nobody wanted. Lew Grade, the head of ITC who owned the show, hated it from the word go. Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner, who were responsible for making it, thought it was a dubious idea. And star Peter Wyngarde had serious misgivings about it. In fact it’s a series that probably never have been made. With Department S having been extremely successful the obvious thing for ITC to have done would have been to commission another season of a proven success. That was not how Lew Grade saw it.

Grade always seems to have had a tendency not to follow up on obvious success. His bizarre decision in 1967 to commission Gerry Anderson to do a brand new series (Captain Scarlet) rather than another season of the immensely successful Thunderbirds was an early example of this trend and a decade later he cancelled The Return of the Saint after a single season even though it was a hit. Grade had never particularly liked Department S and he actively disliked Peter Wyngarde. Wyngarde claims that Grade told him that her was only giving the go-ahead for Jason King because his wife loved the character so much. 

Grade also at times seems to have had trouble understanding why his popular series were popular. It was obvious to everyone else that one of the main reasons Department S was a winner was that the three lead characters (and the three lead performers) balanced each other so perfectly. Jason King was indeed the most popular character with the public but that was because he provided the spice in a well-balanced dish. Too much Jason King was likely to be too much of a good thing. And so it proved. 

An equally ill-considered decision was to shoot the series in 16mm rather than 35mm. This made the series immensely difficult to sell in the US. It also meant that a series that relied on colour and glamour ended up looking cheap and shoddy.

Jason King also represented a change in format compared to Department S. Whereas Department S (like its non-ITC contemporary Special Branch) had been a clever blending of the secret agent and crime genres Jason King put much less emphasis on the secret agent side of things. Jason no longer works for Department S. He is now more or less a freelance amateur crime-fighter, although he does on occasions get inveigled into doing jobs for intelligence agencies. 

Jason King in fact belongs to the 1920s and 1930s British thriller tradition of wealthy amateurs for whom solving crimes is an amusing hobby and whose crime-fighting overlaps with the world of espionage. This is the world of Bulldog Drummond and The Saint, of Dornford Yates and Berkeley Gray, but with 1970s fashions (and social attitudes).

The 1970s social attitudes are crucial. Of all the TV heroes of that era Jason King is the most cheerfully irresponsible and hedonistic. He makes Simon Templar look like a prude. Simon Templar was a 1950s hero in a 1960s world. Jason King is a 1970s hero in a 1970s world. Jason King marks the high water mark of the Permissive Society. But not quite - Jason King is no hippie. He has no interest in changing the world. He certainly has no interest in challenging the consumer society. King is the epitome of conspicuous consumption. He is rich and he enjoys the good life. So did Simon Templar, but Simon Templar had a sense of duty. The Saint had made a lot of money (perhaps not entirely honestly) but he sees wealth and a sense of duty to society as being two sides of the same coin. Jason King undertakes crime-fighting and occasionally espionage because it amuses and entertains him.

In the Jason King series the character becomes even more flamboyant and outrageous than he’d been in Department S. In fact while Department S trod a fine line between seriousness and parody Jason King descends into pure parody. That’s the weakness of the series but it’s also its principal charm. Jason King is so deliriously over-the-top that it almost works. More surprisingly, quite often it really does work. For all its faults it has to be admitted that it’s often a great deal of fun. 

The series is also quite clever in the way it deliberately mixes up fiction and reality. Jason King is the author of the fabulously successful Mark Caine crime thrillers and at times he finds himself living out the plots of his own novels. We’re never quite sure if Jason is really capable of distinguishing himself from his fictional creation, just as we’re never quite sure if Peter Wyngarde is playing himself or Jason King. Other characters seem to be equally incapable of telling Jason apart from his fictional detective. At its best the series carries off this ploy with considerable wit and panache.

Most of those involved with the show felt that the quality of the scripts was not quite up to the standards of Department S. Generally speaking that’s true. There’s nothing here to compare to the brilliance of Department S episodes like The Man in the Elegant Room or The Pied Piper of Hambledown. There are however some quite good Jason King episodes - The Constance Missal, Toki, As Easy as A.B.C. and the two-parter All That Glisters are all  excellent. To Russia - with Panache (in which Jason finds himself working for the Kremlin) is fun.

And then of course there are the clothes. Nobody but Peter Wyngarde could get away with wearing such clothes. Jason King likes to surround himself with beautiful things, although his ideas on fashion and interior decoration are somewhat idiosyncratic and outrageously 1970s. He also likes to be surrounded by beautiful women and the series is not lacking in glamour, especially with actresses like Ingrid Pitt appearing as guest stars.

I own the old Region 4 Umbrella DVD boxed set. The transfers are decidedly iffy but that is probably due to the source materials - a series shot on 16mm is never going to look as good as one shot on 35mm. The series has also been released in Region 2 by Network.

Jason King is an indulgence, a guilty pleasure if you like, but it does have a great deal of style. It also has Peter Wyngarde at his most deliciously excessive (and no-one ever did excess quite as well as Wyngarde did). For all its flaws it’s remarkably enjoyable, and it’s certainly distinctive. Highly recommended.

Friday 15 May 2015

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (season one, 1955)

I bought the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on DVD recently. I already have the third season and I’ve watched quite a few episodes of that but I thought it might be worthwhile going back to very first episode of the first season. And it was.

Anthology series were all the rage during the 50s and early 60s. The most famous anthology series was The Twilight Zone but the most successful by far at the time was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It ran for seven seasons as a half-hour series (for a total of 268 episodes), then after a name change to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ran another three seasons in an hour-long format.

The very first episode, Revenge, was one of the seventeen half-hour episodes Hitchcock directed himself. Does that make a difference? I think it does. The other directors who worked on this series were all very competent and some were very good indeed. Revenge though includes a few shots that seem just a little bit better thought-out than you generally expect from series television. 

It’s a nice little story of the kind that appealed to Hitchcock. Not quite black comedy, but getting close to that territory. A newly married couple have moved to California where the husband, Carl (Ralph Meeker) has just landed a job at an aircraft factory. His wife Elsa (Vera Miles) is recovering from a “nervous breakdown” and she’s still a bit fragile. Carl goes off  to work but when he returns home he finds to his horror that Elsa has been assaulted. This being 1950s network television the word rape is not used but it’s certainly implied strongly enough to leave us in no doubt. Carl is determined to get revenge but things don’t work out the way he expects. To say any more would be to risk giving away spoilers. 

It was a fine episode to start a new TV series which of course went on to be enormously successful (and made Hitchcock a household name to an extent that no other director has ever achieved). Hitch’s intro shows him already getting into his stride as a TV personality. His celebrity status is something he enjoyed very much.

The second episode, Premonition, is a nicely twisted tale and a perfect follow-up to the strong opening episode. Famous composer Kim Stanger returns to his hometown after a very long absence. His return was prompted by vague premonitions and these become steadily more troubling. He is anxious to see his father again but learns that he is too late - his father is dead. The accounts of his father’s death given by other family members and friends just don’t seem to add up. Kim is determined to find out what really happened, and he does. And he finds out why nobody wanted to tell him the truth. This is the sort of story at which this series excelled, darkly ironic and with a nasty little sting in the tail.

The third episode, Triggers in Leash, is about two gunfighters in the Wild West, each  determined to kill the other. The woman who runs the town’s eatery is equally determined to stop them from doing so, which she does by a very ingenious method. It’s an amusing little story. This is followed by Don't Come Back Alive. Frank Partridge and his wife are getting on in years and their financial position is far from secure. They hatch a brilliant plan to swindle  their life insurance company by pretending the wife is dead. The only problem is that without a body they will have to wait seven years after which she will be assumed to be legally dead and the husband can claim the money. For seven years the husband is harassed by a very determined insurance investigator. Again the tone is bleakly ironic and the final payoff packs a very nice little punch.

The sixth episode is another very strong story, Salvage. Gene Barry plays a mobster who has just been released from prison. He is determined to avenge his brother’s death by killing the woman he believes was responsible. He is about to kill her when he realises he’d be doing her a favour. What happens next is exactly the sort of vicious twist that this series specialised in.

The seventh episode, Breakdown, was another episode that Hitchcock directed himself. Joseph Cotten is a hard-driving businessman who believes in never showing weakness. Then he is involved in a horrific traffic accident. We see what follows entirely from his point of view. It’s a good story but what makes this one special is Hitchcock’s extraordinarily bold and experimental approach to telling the story. Most of the episode looks almost like a series of still images but it’s a brilliantly effective technique, and wildly innovative for 1950s television. 

The Case of Mr. Pelham is another Hitchcock-directed episode. It’s interesting in being a very rare episode with a genuine hint of the supernatural, something this series was generally scrupulous in avoiding.

The stories were often by very celebrated writers indeed. Our Cook's a Treasure, in which a realtor suspects his new cook might be a serial killer, is based on a story by Dorothy L. Sayers. Shopping for Death was written by Ray Bradbury and is an example of his writing at its best. 

The Older Sister is a potentially interesting take on the infamous Lizzie Borden case but it’s one of the rare episodes in this series that falls rather flat. It’s just too obvious and doesn’t really go anywhere.

Season one comprised no less than 39 episodes and the high standard is maintained to a remarkable degree. The tricky thing with an anthology series is to establish a consistent tone. The series has to have its own distinctive flavour. In this case that flavour had to be characteristically Hitchcockian - dark sardonic stories with a nasty sting in the tail and a touch of black comedy. This is achieved quite successfully. This was made easier by the fact that producer Joan Harrison had worked with Hitchcock for many years. She knew his style and his approach and she made sure the stories reflected this. All story ideas had to be approved by Hitchcock and he had to OK the final scripts. He made a few changes but he did this only occasionally - he trusted the people involved the series and there was no need for him to try to micro-manage proceedings.

TV networks in the 50s insisted that criminals should never be allowed to get away with their crimes. This series got around this rather neatly by having cynical endings and then having Hitchcock appear at the end to assure us that the perpetrator got their just desserts, but he always did so in such a way that the audience was well aware that this was merely a device to placate the network.

The enormous success of the series blazed the trail for other anthology series such as Thriller, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Alfred Hitchcock Presents has stood the test of time better than most such series. The stories hold up well, there’s a definite cynical edge to them and the quality is there. 

The DVD boxed sets are very good but be warned - the text intros tend to give away spoilers so it’s a good idea to avoid them.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents was innovative and quite daring for its time and it remains superb television. Very highly recommended.

Friday 8 May 2015

Joe 90 (1968)

Joe 90 was the last of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s science fiction TV series to be filmed entirely using puppets. His next series, The Secret Service, used a mix of puppets and live action. Joe 90 originally aired in Britain in late 1968 and early 1969 and was syndicated in the US in 1969.

Joe 90 represented something of a departure from the earlier Anderson Supermarionation series, being a blend of science fiction and spy thriller concepts.

The series did not do quite as well as earlier series. There are several possible reasons for this. Ironically the sheer technical sophistication of the series may have counted against it. The previous Anderson series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, had introduced the new-style puppets with realistic human proportions. The puppets were now extraordinarily life-like but they lacked the character and the charm of the older-style puppets used in series like Thunderbirds. This had not been a huge problem in Captain Scarlet with its very dark and brooding tone but it does take some of the fun away in Joe 90.

Joe 90 also suffers from having one of the worst introductory episodes in history. While it does the job of introducing the characters and explaining the background it makes use of a certain plot technique that is just about certain to have most viewers looking for a housebrick to hurl through the TV screen. It’s also the kind of thing that is likely to make viewers suspect that it might turn up again in later episodes. And, unfortunately, it does turn up again, in the very poor episode Three’s a Crowd.

This is a pity because in fact the series as a whole is not all that bad, although it is very uneven.

The central premise is clever, although it has to be said that it's also slightly disturbing. Professor Ian McClaine has invented a machine called BIGRAT which can record a person’s brain patterns and then implant those brain patterns into someone else’s brain. BIGRAT can give any person all the skills and knowledge of any other person. Not surprisingly the World Intelligence Network (WIN) is very interested in this invention. Professor Ian McClaine demonstrates the technique on his nine-year-old son Joe.

WIN super spymaster Sam Loover then comes up with a daring plan. Young Joe can be turned into a truly formidable secret agent. He can be given the skills and knowledge most suited for any mission and he will have the perfect cover - no-one is going to suspect a nine-year-old boy of being a secret agent!

Of course you’d have to wonder whether anyone would agree to have his nine-year-old son sent on incredibly dangerous undercover spy missions but Professor MacClaine rather surprisingly thinks it’s all a splendid idea. Joe McClaine becomes Joe 90, WIN’s Most Special Agent.

Another problem with this series is Professor MacClaine’s jet car. The futuristic aircraft and vehicles in the earlier Gerry Anderson series had always managed to look not just futuristic but sleek, sexy and at least vaguely plausible. And never silly. The jet car in Joe 90 by contrast does look a bit silly and a bit dorky. Gerry Anderson was very unhappy with the design, and rightly so.

By the time Joe 90 entered production Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s team had become extraordinarily technically proficient. The puppets really do look quite life-like. The models of aircraft and vehicles had always looked good but the production team were now able to make them move in a fairly convincing manner. Aircraft really do look like they’re flying. And of course the explosions, which had always been impressive, were now very impressive indeed.

Being essentially a spy thriller series with some science fiction trappings Joe 90 obviously has a different feel compared to Anderson’s earlier series. That’s a good thing in some ways although I do get the impression the writers were less comfortable in the spy genre. Finding story-lines in which a nine-year-old boy (even with expert knowledge) could plausibly play the leading role was a challenge and some of the stories have an edge of silliness. This silliness had been an occasional feature of the very early Anderson series that had largely disappeared by the time he did Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet (in which the standard of writing was generally quite high). To my way of thinking the Joe 90 episodes penned by Shane Rimmer (such as Splashdown, Relative Danger and Big Fish) are more action-oriented and closer in feel to the great Anderson series of the past.

Tony Barwick contributed the dreadful Three’s a Crowd but he also wrote Hi-Jacked (which  is a fun gangster tale) and International Concerto (which includes a clever use of Joe’s abilities). The Unorthodox Shepherd (another Barwick episode) experiments with the use of actual location shooting mixed with the miniatures work, a feature that would be taken much further in the next Anderson series, The Secret Service.

The idea of doing something a bit lighter after the very dark Captain Scarlet was not altogether bad but on the whole Joe 90 was a backward step. Each previous Gerry Anderson series had been just a touch more grown-up than the previous one, which made sense since the kids who’d started out watching Supercar back in 1961 were now that much older. Having a nine-year-old boy as the central character made Joe 90 seem more kiddie-oriented, perhaps just a little too much so. The idea of doing a spy series rather than a straightforward sci-fi series was also by no means bad but it doesn’t quite come off. 

Joe 90 has its moments but after Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet it’s just a little disappointing. If you’re a Gerry Anderson completist you’ll want it, otherwise rent a few episodes before risking a purchase.

Friday 1 May 2015

Warrior Queen (1978)

Warrior Queen is a six-part 1978 British television series dealing with Queen Boudicca’s revolt against the Romans in AD 61. It’s an ambitious idea and it’s not without interest but it is sadly somewhat let down by a minuscule budget.

Warrior Queen was made by Thames TV and was undoubtedly inspired by the huge success the BBC had had with the superb I, Claudius series a year earlier. Welsh actress Siân Phillips had played the wicked but fascinating Empress Livia in that series and had created something of a sensation. Starring her in another historical drama, especially in such an iconic rôle, must have seemed like a splendid idea at the time.

The series begins with the death of the king of the Iceni, a British tribe that had been allied to Rome. Roman imperial policy in dealing with client kingdoms was to annex the kingdom on the death of the client king. The king of the Iceni has tried to forestall this by making a will leaving half his kingdom to Rome and half to his two grand-daughters. The king has however not counted on the rapacity and foolishness of the Roman procurator Catus Decianus (Nigel Hawthorne). The procurator has the king’s widow Boudicca (sometimes known as Boadicea) flogged while Boudicca’s two daughters are raped.

Boudicca is not prepared to let this outrage pass. Encouraged by the druid priest Volthan (Michael Gothard) she decides on open revolt. To have any chance of success she will need allies from other British tribes. She establishes herself as leader of the revolt by defeating Morticcus, king of the Catuvellauni, in single combat.

The revolt goes well at first but challenging the Roman Empire was not something to be undertaken lightly. The Roman Ninth Legion is destroyed in battle and Boudicca’s Britons sack the cities of Verulamium, Camulodunum and Londinium. The Britons will however still have to face the army of Suetonius Paulinus, a tough professional soldier.

The casting of Siân Phillips as Boudicca is generally successful. She has the kind of charisma to make a believable leader although she’s less confident in action scenes. Her single combat with Morticcus is ludicrously unconvincing and quite embarrassingly badly staged.

Nigel Hawthorne as Catus Decianus gives exactly the kind of overripe performance you’d expect from the actor who went on the win fame as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister. Hawthorne plays the procurator as a full-blown melodrama villain. He doesn’t actually twirl his moustaches when contemplating evilness (Romans being clean-shaven) but you know that if he did have moustaches he’d be twirling them. Surprisingly the performance works.

The standout performance however is by Michael Gothard as the druid priest Volthan. Volthan is actually the most interesting character in the series. Catus Decianus is pure wickedness and Boudicca is brave and noble but Volthan is more ambiguous. To a certain extent he manipulates Boudicca for his own ends but at the same time there’s no question of his ultimate loyalty or of the ferocity and sincerity of his hatred of the Romans. At times he’s a wise adviser, at other times he can be seen as an evil genius propelling Boudicca towards a tragic fate.

The series does take a rather sceptical (or at least ambivalent) stance towards the druids. If the Romans are stereotypical bad guys and the Britons are depicted as stereotypical good guys then the druids are something else again. The series makes it plain that the druid religion was pretty savage and Volthan is most certainly a fanatic. He is not however an outright villain. He is totally sincere in his belief that cataclysmic disaster will inevitably follow if the Britons turn away from their old gods. 

Michael Gothard goes totally over-the-top, all crazed eyes and doing some delightfully creepy wolf growls. The scenes where Volthan writhes on the ground in a wolf-skin are probably the most striking scenes in the whole series. And the most effective - those scenes really do convince us that we are dealing with a civilisation that is very alien in its values. It’s also makes it easy to understand why the Romans regard the Celtic inhabitants of Britain as complete barbarians.

The sets and costumes are reasonably good and the makeup (when the Britons paint their face prior to battle) is effective. The problems with this series arise when it comes to the battle scenes. This is after all a story of war. The battle scenes are crucial. And it’s not easy to do memorable battle scenes when you only have a couple of dozen extras. The method chosen to get around the difficulty is to use lots of freeze-frames and close-ups but it’s hardly satisfactory. Most fatally we just don’t get any genuine sense of the might of Imperial Rome, or of the awe the Roman soldiers must have felt when facing Boudicca’s army which at its peak certainly numbered many tens of thousands.

In 1978 British television’s obsession with gritty realism was starting to reach its high-water mark and at least some of that obsession is on display here. Warrior Queen does pull its punches at times, perhaps not altogether surprising since the half-hour format suggests the series was originally aimed at younger viewers. On the other hand there are some quite grim moments, and some very grim concepts, so I can't say I’m entirely sure it was ideal viewing for the kiddies.

The overall atmosphere is fairly convincingly grungy, very much in the style that became increasingly popular for historical dramas.

Warrior Queen has its problems. As spectacle it falls pretty flat. It does feature some fine acting though, Volthan is a wonderfully larger-than-life figure, and the series moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace. The basic story is reasonably accurate historically. And it’s generally quite entertaining. I’m quite happy to give this one a recommendation and if you’re a fan of British historical dramas you’ll definitely want to see it. Worth a purchase. Network’s single-disc DVD release looks perfectly fine.