Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Corridor People (1966)

The Corridor People, made by Granada in 1966, may be the strangest British television series of the 1960s. In fact it may well be the strangest television series ever made anywhere. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all surrounding this series is why Granada ever thought it was going to work. Only four episodes were made and it’s surprising it lasted that long. It was much too weird to have any chance at all of commercial success. Despite this it certainly has a bizarre fascination. 

A brief synopsis of the plot of the first episode, Victim as Birdwatcher, might leader an innocent viewer to think that it sounds a bit like an episode of The Avengers. That would be an entirely false impression. The Corridor People is closer in feel to The Prisoner, or even Twin Peaks. It also bears a certain resemblance to the bleak surreal existentialist nihilism of early Roman Polanski (especially movies like Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac) with a strong touch of Theatre of the Absurd. There’s also a dash of the kind of inspired madness that Spike Milligan was capable of, although oddly enough The Corridor People is entirely lacking in humour. While it tries to be outrageous it takes itself very seriously.

It has the familiar shot-on-videotape look of early 60s British television but it was clearly produced on a minuscule budget. It’s extremely stagey and is often crude and amateurish in execution although some of that may have been an ill-advised attempt to be self-consciously arty.

To add yet another layer of complexity there are also attempts at social satire. It’s the kind of clumsy and inept social satire you’d expect from an irritatingly pompous undergraduate.

The series was created by Edward Boyd who also wrote all four episodes.

While the resemblance to The Avengers is superficial there is a tenuous connection. The star of The Corridor People is Elizabeth Shepherd, who was the original Mrs Peel in The Avengers. One and a half episodes were filmed with her in the role. They were never screened and are now lost. After this she was somewhat unceremoniously dumped and hurriedly replaced by Diana Rigg. 

Victim as Birdwatcher plunges us straight into the weirdness. A birdwatcher is kidnapped by Syrie Van Epp (Elizabeth Shepherd). Syrie Van Epp is a beautiful, mysterious but sinister Persian woman who has ambitions to become a diabolical criminal mastermind. Her plan is to gain control of a British cosmetics firm which has accidentally developed a scent that has the potential to become a super-weapon. The top-secret British intelligence agency Department K, led by the apparently amiable but actually rather ruthless Kronk (John Sharp), intends to stop her. He has an agent in her organisation and he also has the services of two bumbling detectives, Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound. There’s also his prim middle-aged secretary, Miss Dunner, who happens to be Department K’s top assassin.

Syrie Van Epp is prepared to use extreme measures in order to carry out her plan but Kronk is even more ruthless and perfectly willing to resort to torture and murder if he deems it necessary.

Complicating things is hard-boiled private eye Phil Scrotty (Gary Cockrell) who appears to be playing a double game.

Things get even more outrĂ© in Victim as Whitebait. This time Syrie Van Epp has found a mad scientist who can raise people from the dead. These dead people who won’t stay dead are causing Kronk some concern. Kronk has other problems - he needs to find a certain genius accountant in order to nail a businessman who has defrauded the Treasury of several million pounds. The trouble us that the accountant is a recluse and the only person who knows his identity is dead, but of course the dead do not necessarily stay dead so that may not be quite such a problem. This episode also features a midget assassin and a Swedish film director researching the dark recesses of the human psyche.

Victim as Red has more of a straightforward spy thriller plot, but done in an extreme surreal style. A middle-aged colonel had disappeared seven years earlier. He may have defected or he may be dead. Kronk is inclined to believe he defected. The puzzling thing is his possible connection with a two million pound train robbery. At this juncture I should point out that in this series the plots are really of very secondary importance, being little more than an excuse for a succession of increasingly surreal set-pieces. In this episode the vaguely coherent plot is if anything a disadvantage.

Victim as Black marks a serious downturn in quality. The plot is rather uninteresting, the deliberate artificiality seems strained and the social commentary is exceptionally clumsy.

Elizabeth Shepherd’s performance is effective enough in an offbeat sort of way while Gary Cockrell is lively as the amoral Scrotty. The acting overall is deliberately artificial and extremely stagey, something that viewers will find interesting or irritating depending on taste (I have to confess that mostly I found it irritating). The actors often break the fourth wall to address the audience directly. This can be effective in certain circumstances but in this series it just seems to be part of a general tendency to try to be terribly clever and daring and avant-garde. Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound may well be intended to be frightfully amusing but the joke wears thin very quickly.

The character of Syrie Van Epp changes subtly over the course of the four episodes, from being a would-be diabolical criminal mastermind to being just an amoral schemer out to enrich herself. She’s slightly less interesting in the final two episodes. In fact the final two episodes are considerably weaker than the first two which despite their flaws did have moments of inspired weirdness.

The sets are crude but I assume this was another deliberate choice, to give the impression  of a stage production. The sets are actually one of the more effective elements. Mention must be made of Syrie Van Epp’s bizarre wardrobe. This also works quite well and is certainly in keeping with the overall mood.

While there’s no question that this series is insanely bold and brilliantly imaginative and breathtakingly innovative and it does have some genuinely inspired moments it has several weaknesses which contribute to its ultimate failure. It is entirely lacking in wit, it is full of cheap adolescent cynicism and despair, its attempts at artiness veer perilously close to pretentiousness, the satire is cringe-inducingly inept and heavy-handed, and overall it’s just too nihilistic and bleak to be truly entertaining. The first two episodes do have their moments.

Of course it has to be noted that there is a question of taste involved. I’m personally not too fond of postmodern attempts to subvert the genre and all that sort of stuff. If that type of thing does appeal to you then you’ll probably get more enjoyment out of this series than I did. Only recommended if your tastes run in that direction although it has curiosity value.

The Corridor People is available on DVD in Region 2, from Network DVD.

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