Sunday 26 July 2015

Sherlock Holmes - The Resident Patient (1985) and The Empty House (1986)

It’s slightly outside our usual timeframe but Granada’s wonderful Sherlock Holmes TV series that ran from 1984 to 1994 is so good it’s worth discussing anyway. And since I’ve been rewatching a few episodes recently that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Much of the well-deserved praise this series has received is due to the truly inspired casting of Jeremy Brett as Holmes. There have been other fine interpretations of the rôle. I’m still very fond of Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Ronald Howard in the 1954 TV series was also a superb, if rather unconventional, Holmes. The fact remains that Jeremy Brett is the definitive screen Holmes and his performances are unlikely ever to be surpassed.

This is a brilliant and mercurial Holmes but he is also unstable and neurotic.  Playing Holmes in this manner could easily have been disastrous but Brett is in complete control and he does not make the mistake of overly emphasising the great detective’s darker side. His Holmes might be somewhat unpredictable but he can also be generous, compassionate and at times almost warm and affable. The dark side is however certainly there. Interestingly enough, a few years before the Granada series Brett had played Dr Watson in a stage production.

Equally revolutionary, and equally successful, is the approach taken to Dr Watson. The Watson of this series is essentially the Watson of Conan Doyle’s stories. He might not be capable of following his friend’s brilliant deductive reasoning but he is a calm thoughtful man of intelligence and sound common sense. He is exactly the sort of man that Holmes would choose as a friend and colleague - their personalities are diametrically opposed but complementary. 

David Burke played Watson in the first thirteen episodes. After his departure to join the Royal Shakespeare Company he suggested Edward Hardwicke as his replacement. While the two actors have slightly different approaches both are equally good and both are perfectly convincing as the Dr Watson created by Conan Doyle. This is a Dr Watson who is frequently bemused and even exasperated by his friend’s idiosyncracies while at the same time being fiercely loyal.

The Resident Patient is one of the earlier episodes (from 1985) with David Burke as Watson. It has the kind of baroque plot that makes Sherlock Holmes stories so much fun, with mysterious Russian aristocrats, rare and exotic diseases, bogus burglaries and events from the past catching up with people. It also has a fine guest performance by the very underrated Patrick Newell (probably best remembered as Mother in The Avengers).

It also has Sherlock Holmes at his most eccentric, stubbornly refusing assistance to a client because he is convinced the client is not being honest with him even though he knows the client is most certainly in need of help.

The Empty House introduces Edward Hardwicke as Watson. To be honest it’s not a great story but it is extremely important since it reintroduces Holmes after his dramatic and fateful struggle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem. It’s also important in its implications for the Holmes-Watson friendship. Hardwicke settles into the rôle of Watson very confidently which can’t have been easy given that David Burke had been such an excellent Watson. The Empty House also offers Jeremy Brett plenty of opportunities to deliver a trademark bravura performance.

Between 1984 and 1994 Granada ended up adapting 42 of the 60 canonical Sherlock Holmes stories. This superb series is one I keep returning to, just as I keep returning to Conan Doyle’s original stories. 

Monday 20 July 2015

Batman, season one (1966)

I was never a great fan of the Batman TV series. On the other hand I can see why people liked it so much. I can appreciate its virtues. And revisiting it now I have to say has turned out to be fairly enjoyable.

Batman pushed the edge of the high camp envelope about as far as it could be pushed. In fact it pushed it even further than that. It was also the first TV series based on a comic book that really went all out to capture the comic book flavour. It makes not the slightest concession whatsoever to realism.

I do like the mock-serious mock-heroic way Adam West and Burt Ward play the Dynamic Duo. I was also amused to note the number of jokes that would certainly have flown over the heads of younger viewers. I remembered this series as being basically pure parody but I’d forgotten the way the audience (or at least the older and more sophisticated members of the audience) were invited to share in the jokes.

There are some truly inspired visual moments - the use of umbrellas in the first Penguin story is very clever and very witty.

The first outing for The Penguin, the double episode Fine Feathered Finks/The Penguin's a Jinx, has an exceptionally clever (and ambitious) premise - The Penguin will feed false clues to Batman and those false clues will lead Batman unwittingly to plan The Penguin’s next big heist for him. It’s not just a clever idea - writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. develops it rather well. In fact several early episodes see the villains using Batman’s own reputation against him, with The Riddler suing him for false arrest in Hi Diddle Riddle/Smack in the Middle and The Joker discrediting Batman in The Joker Is Wild/Batman Is Riled, and rubbing it in by inventing his own utility belt - at this very early stage the series was already starting to parody itself.

Of course the show’s biggest strength is the incredibly high calibre of the actors appearing as Special Guest Villains. Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, Cesar Romero as The Joker, George Sanders as Mr Freeze and of course Burgess Meredith as The Penguin. That’s an era in which no modern adaptation can match this series - you just don’t get character actors of that quality today. No-one will ever equal Burgess Meredith’s performance as The Penguin.

Adam West and Burt Ward obviously “got” the series right from the start and their performances strike just the right note. What’s more surprising (and pleasing) is that the other cast regulars like Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) pitched their performances in exactly the same mock-serious way. Adam West strongly believed that it was essential not to go too far over-the-top. It’s not surprising that guest stars of the calibre of Burgess Meredith and George Sanders also understood the kinds of performances that were needed.

The costumes capture the comic book feel perfectly. They’re fun but they still manage to be at least vaguely menacing and most importantly they suit the characters. The combination of The Penguin’s costume and his quacking noises might seem too over-the-top but it works. The Riddler and The Joker are both quite creepy.

The copious use of Dutch angles might have become irritating but actually it helps with the comic-book feel.

The gadgets are naturally a lot of fun. The Batmobile manages to look outlandish but without looking merely silly. The gadgets have clearly all been given a great deal of thought. The Batcave is still a pretty impressive secret headquarters, especially the giant atomic motor.

Of course the problem with the gadgets was that they made production of the series very expensive. That was fine during the first season. The show was an instant hit and the network was happy. Unfortunately that ratings success was not sustained. The series was perhaps just a little too quirky for the late 60s. Being aimed mainly at a young audience probably didn’t help - such an audience loses interest quickly and wants to move on to the next big thing. Other series from this era that were in their own ways just as quirky (such as The Avengers and The Wild Wild West) had the advantage of appealing to a slightly older, and possibly more loyal, audience. After two and a half seasons the ABC network pulled the plug on Batman.

It’s amusing to see the biting way the series makes fun of progressive prison reformers. That’s about as close as this show gets to social comment but it’s surprising to see any social comment at all.

Batman looks very good on DVD - the colours are pleasingly vivid which is of course a must for a series such as this.

I have to confess that my knowledge of the Batman comics is almost entirely non-existent. I have however seen the 1949 movie serial Batman and Robin which has a very different feel from the TV series and is worth a look.

The Batman TV series has turned out to be a good deal more fun (and a good deal wittier) than I’d remembered. Recommended.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Danger Man AKA Secret Agent, first season (1964)

The original Danger Man series comprised thirty-nine half-hour episodes broadcast in 1960 and 1961. The series was a success but for various reasons it ceased production until it was revived in 1964. The new series (which retained the Danger Man title in Britain but was known as Secret Agent in the US) would differ from the earlier version in a number of important ways. The switch was made to hour-long episodes, which allowed more complex stories but more importantly allowed more emphasis on the characters. The nature of the hero changed slightly as well. The original John Drake was a NATO secret agent of indeterminate nationality - possibly British, possibly American, possibly neither. The new John Drake was a British secret agent working for a British intelligence outfit. 

One thing that did not change was the willingness to take a fairly realistic and sometimes unglamorous look at the world of espionage and international intrigue. It’s a world with a certain amount of moral ambiguity. Sometimes the good guys have to do unpleasant things and sometimes the results of trying to do the right thing can be messy and unsatisfactory.

That’s not to suggest that Danger Man (in either of its incarnations) ever succumbed to the nihilism and cynicism that marred so many later British spy series. There is no suggestion that both sides are just as bad as each other and that both are morally bankrupt. John Drake is one of the good guys, and in this series the good guys mostly win. What makes the series so interesting is that the victories are not always clear-cut and not always wholly satisfactory. Sometimes Drake has to accept that a partial victory is better than nothing, and sometimes victory comes at a price. And sometimes the price is paid by someone who doesn’t really deserve theor fate.

The episode Yesterday’s Enemies is a good example. An ageing disgraced British spy (Howard Marion Crawford) wants to get back in the game, but whose side is he actually on? A very dark story, with definite hints of the moral ambiguity of later British spy series such as Callan.

In The Professionals Drake is sent to Prague where a British spy has gone missing. Has he gone over to the other side? Possibly yes, possibly no.

Colony Three is a particularly interesting episode. Drake finds himself in a typical English village full of typical English people, except that this village is behind the Iron Curtain. It is a training school for Soviet spies. Colony Three has hints of the surrealism that would blossom in McGoohan’s next series, The Prisoner. The village is staffed by British communists who have defected to the Soviet Union, but they quickly discover that life in the Workers’ Paradise is a lot less fun than they expected. In fact it’s no fun at all. They also discover that rather than being welcomed as heroes for defecting they are treated as mere cogs in the machine deserving of no particular respect. They are after all traitors, and nobody trusts a traitor. It’s an ambitious story with a slightly downbeat ending. It’s all rather bold for television in 1964.

Episodes like Fish on the Hook are more conventional but still quite complex - Drake has to extract a British spy whose cover is about to be blown from an eastern country but nobody (not even the agent’s British employers) know the agent’s identity. This episode in fact has quite a lot of fun with the question of identity. The Battle of the Cameras seems to have been an attempt at James Bond-style glamour and sophistication, interesting given that McGoohan had turned down the role of Bond. This episode demonstrates convincingly that he could have handled the role pretty well.

That's Two of Us Sorry is an interesting echo of one of the best episodes of the earlier half-hour series, with a different but equally effective twist at the end. A Man to Be Trusted throws in an amazing number of plot twists that’s keeps us (and John Drake) guessing until the end. Don't Nail Him Yet is an absorbing (and for Drake incredibly frustrating) cat-and-mouse game with a Russian spy.

One of the most intriguing things about the three spy series Patrick McGoohan made in the 60s is the identity of the hero. 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?

The longer format gives Patrick McGoohan more opportunities to stretch his acting abilities and it allows for a much greater focus on psychology. John Drake becomes a more interesting and rounded character.

McGoohan directed two of the hour-long Danger Man episodes (he had already directed one of the half-hour episodes). 

As was usual in this period the exotic settings rely on the judicious use of stock footage. 

The revamped 1964 series is even better than the extremely good 1960 half-hour Danger Man series benefitting from more complex plots, deeper characterisations and more perplexing moral dilemmas.

This is a top-notch spy series. Highly recommended.

Sunday 5 July 2015

The Avengers - How To Succeed...At Murder

In the light of Patrick Macnee’s recent death I thought I should revisit The Avengers, so last night I watched How To Succeed...At Murder.

This is one of the late Mrs Peel black-and-white stories with a Brian Clemens script and there’s plenty of fun to be had. The story is delightfully outrageous.

One of the great joys of The Avengers was always the outrageous minor characters and they don’t come much more outrageous than perfume maestro J. J. Hooter, who gets some truly delicious lines.

Capturing the perfume sample in a tyre pump is a highlight, as is the mysterious Henrietta. It’s also interesting as an episode in which Steed is more than willing to use a gun.

As always Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg work together superbly.

This is an episode that certainly could not get made today but it’s throughly enjoyable silliness.

Friday 3 July 2015

Columbo, season one (1971)

At the beginning of the 1970s NBC launched the first “wheel series” - the idea was that rather than making a single series for a particular timeslot they would make three different series which would screen on a three-week rotation in the same timeslot under the umbrella title The NBC Mystery Movie. The three series would comprise feature-length episodes made in conjunction with Universal. The three series were Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife. The network was either very lucky or they displayed remarkably good judgment in selecting these three series - all three turned out to be major hits. 

Columbo was a very big hit indeed, running from 1971 to 1978 and then being revived (on the ABC network) from 1989 to 2003.

The character of Lieutenant Columbo was actually created as early as 1960, in an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show written by William Link and Richard Levinson. Columbo was played by Bert Freed. A couple of years later Link and Levinson used the character again in a play called Prescription: Murder, with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. The play was turned into a TV movie for NBC in 1968. Mitchell had passed away by that time and although the character had been written as a much older man Peter Falk landed the role this time. The TV movie was successful enough that in 1971 NBC authorised a pilot episode for a possible series. The series materialised later that same year.

In Prescription: Murder Columbo matches wits with a psychiatrist (played by Gene Barry) who has murdered his wife. What makes things really interesting is that Lieutenant Columbo is at this stage more or less the Columbo who would become so familiar to viewers, but not quite. His distinctive methods are already in place - he tries to appear more foolish and more absent-minded than he really is in order to lull the suspects into a false sense of security and he wears them down with an annoying but apparently friendly persistence. On the other hand he’s more abrasive and more aggressive, even becoming quite intimidating to a witness at one point. He’s closer to being the typical cop than he would ever be in the series proper.

The first episode of the series proper, Murder by the Book, was directed by some guy named Steven Spielberg. I wonder whatever happened to him? It sets the tone for the series. Not only does the series take its inspiration from the golden age of mystery fiction - this episode is about a murder committed by a writer of that very type of fiction! There are obviously lots of opportunities for detective fiction in-jokes.

Columbo is easier to write about than most mystery series since virtually every episode is an inverted detective story, a form invented by R. Austin Freeman in the early years of the 20th century in which the killer’s identity is revealed right at the outset. The interest of the story lies in the way in which the detective unravels the mystery and finds enough evidence to make an arrest. Since the audience knows who the murderer is right from the start there is no need to worry about revealing spoilers!

That format was only ever going to work if the murderers were clever and ruthless enough to prove worthy adversaries for the shabby but brilliant detective, and if the guest stars were of sufficient calibre to carry a feature-length episode. Gene Barry as the psychiatrist in Prescription: Murder had certainly met both criteria. In the series pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man, Columbo comes up against a murder suspect every bit as formidable in the person of one of the country’s top trial lawyers, played by the very capable Lee Grant. The plot was equally clever and the series was given the green light.

Big name guest stars continued to be a feature of the series, with Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, Roddy McDowall and Anne Francis all making appearances in season one, along with cult TV notables like Robert Culp (from I Spy) and Ross Martin (from The Wild Wild West).

By the early 1970s cop movies and TV cop shows were changing - the trend was towards harder-edged series with tough-guy maverick cops who break all the rules battling pimps, drug dealers, vicious hoodlums on the mean streets of the big city. The levels of violence and sleaze steadily rose, and this was accompanied by an unhealthy obsession with psychos, serial killers and sex crimes. The creators of Columbo, William Link and Richard Levinson, decided to turn their backs on these pernicious trends. Columbo would recreate the feel and the tone of the classic detective stories of the past. There would be no mean streets in Columbo. The emphasis is on the psychological duel between detective and suspect, with (mercifully) no interest in social commentary and few concessions to the “realism” that would become more and more of a fetish in TV cop shows during the course of the 70s. This is pure entertainment and it’s all the better for it.

Another interesting feature of this series is that we know very little definite about the hero. This is a little odd since Columbo tends to talk incessantly about his wife and various family members. We get the strong suspicion however that this is merely part of his unusual approach to crime-solving - that it’s more than possible that Columbo says whatever he thinks is likely to provoke the reactions he wants from witnesses. Some of these family members may not even exist - it’s even just barely possible that Mrs Columbo doesn’t exist! And, famously, Columbo’s first name is never mentioned at any time. Aside from all this it’s equally possible that the entire persona he presents when on duty is just a mask. We know he’s a lot smarter than he pretends to be and even the notorious absent-mindedness might well be feigned, or (more probably) wildly exaggerated. We don’t really know how much the real Columbo actually resembles the persona he adopts, or how much is carefully calculated. That might seem like a potential weakness but in practice it makes the series more interesting since it’s Columbo the detective who matters, not Columbo the man, and part of the fun is seeing just how useful his carefully crafted professional persona is to him.

By the time we get to episode 4, Suitable for Framing, the formula has become more or less set - the murder will take place among the rich and famous, the killer will be a clever psychopath, despite his cleverness Columbo will be convinced of his guilt, the suspect will use his influence to try to get the annoying detective taken off the case and the case will come down to a psychological struggle between detective and suspect. The surprising thing is that despite the rigidity of the formula it works extremely well. Much of the credit for this is due to Peter Falk - he really is a joy to watch. The consistently high production values don’t hurt either.

The Region 1 season one boxed set includes both the earlier Prescription: Murder and the later pilot Ransom for a Dead Man. There are no extras but the transfers are good.

Columbo is an interesting throwback to an age when murder was civilised entertainment. It’s enormous fun. Highly recommended.