Tuesday 24 November 2015

Charlie's Angels, season one (1976)

I’ve been watching the first season of Charlie's Angels (originally screened in 1976), a show that I had surprisingly enough never watched before. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it! Yes I know it’s very very silly, but if you approach it as high camp it starts to work. And frankly I don’t think there’s any other way to approach this series. In fact I don’t think there ever was any other way to treat it.

Years ago I would never have watched a series such as this. I just took life so very very seriously in those days.

Charles Townsend (John Forsythe) runs a high-class private detective agency. He recruits three female cops who are fed up with directing traffic and similar mundane assignments. He offers them a life of glamour and excitement, and that’s certainly what Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson) get.

All three female leads are fun but it’s Farrah Fawcett-Majors who really pushed the show into delightful ultra-kitsch overload.

We never actually see Charlie, and Kelly, Jill and Sabrina never see him either. They get their instructions by telephone, and through Charlie’s right-hand man, John Bosley (David Doyle). Charlie is clearly a devotee of feminine pulchritude and the sexual innuendo-laced interludes involving Charlie and his indefatigable pursuit of the fair sex provide extra campy fun.

There are certainly some fairly weak episodes. To Kill an Angel is unfortunately corny and sentimental and generally very dull, involving an autistic boy Kelly has been mentoring, a boy who may be a witness to a murder. The Seance deals with the ever-popular theme of fake psychics but fails to generate much excitement. Angel Trap tries to add some emotional depth with Jill feeling sorry for the hitman she has to entrap but it isn’t very convincing. In Bullseye Kelly and Jill find themselves in the army, investigating the murder of a female recruit while Sabrina masquerades as an army nurse. There’s something crooked going on   at the base’s medical centre and the Angels also have to deal with a training sergeant with a very bad attitude and a very short fuse. It’s not a good episode and it is very predictable. Angels on a String is a terrible episode with an uninteresting plot involving that hoariest of thriller clichés, the double, and leaden pacing.

Luckily though most of season one is quite entertaining. Angels in Chains proves that being female private detectives isn’t all glamour as the Angels have to go undercover at a women’s prison. It’s not just a tough prison. Inmates have been known to disappear without a trace, and it’s the disappearance of one such inmate that prompts this particular investigation. Seeing Farrah Fawcett-Majors doing the tough girl thing is a definite high camp highlight of season one. Target: Angels puts the girls in real danger - someone is trying to kill all three of them. They have to hide out in Charlie’s house. Of course Charlie isn’t there at the time but they figure this might give them the chance to find some clue as to what he actually looks like.

Lady Killer sees the series move into mildly risque territory. Two centrefold models for Feline magazine have been murdered. The Angels go undercover at the Feline Club (where the girls wear cat outfits, a variation on the clubs run by a certain real-life magazine publisher). Part of the undercover operation involves Jill being the magazine’s next centrefold, providing some mild titillation for the audience although I doubt that anyone actually thought they were going to see Farrah Fawcett-Majors getting her gear off.

Consenting Adults deals with a shady dating service. It’s a fine episode and the skateboard chase at the end is inspired and is one of the highlights of the whole season.

Angels on Wheels is equally interesting, with the Angels investigating the murder of a roller derby queen (women’s roller derby was insanely popular back in the 70s). This episode gets bonus points for Jill not just going undercover as a roller derby skater but also beating the living daylights out of the team’s bad girl. The Big Tap-Out involves a gambling sting and it’s very entertaining. The Vegas Connection is another episode with a gambling theme (plus blackmailing). It’s a good script with some nice twists and the Angels are in fine form.

The major weakness of the series is that the plots do at times tend to be a bit thin and a bit predictable. Fortunately the plots aren’t really the reason anyone would be watching this show. The attraction is the glamour and the exuberant high camp atmosphere. Even in 1976 Charlie’s Angels must have seemed extraordinarily camp. It’s also obvious that no-one involved in the show was taking it seriously or expected the audience to take it seriously. It does not however make the mistake of aiming for pure comedy. The three Angels play things fairly straight although with a kind of slightly exaggerated breathless excitement that suggests they were definitely in on the joke. The fact that they’re not trying to be crazy or zany makes things much more amusing.  

All three lead actresses are very impressive. I’m not suggesting that their acting in this series was truly great acting but their performances are perfect for the kind of show this is - they’re slightly cartoonish and hyper-energetic. They obviously understood the nature of the show and tailored their performances accordingly. Most importantly the three actresses work together extremely well. 

It’s common these days to accuse movies and TV series of the 70s of being outrageously sexist. The idea of this series might well lead one to expect that sort of thing. When you actually watch the series you can see that such accusations tend to miss the point. Many episodes do deal with sexual themes but they do so in a surprisingly nuanced manner, and more often than not in a gently humorous way. Sabrina might suggest to one middle-aged client that he’d be better off confining his woman-chasing to women over the age of twenty but she does so in an amused and good-humoured way. Sabrina is smart enough to know that this is a much more effective approach than getting angry or nasty. The series works on the assumption that men generally like women and women generally like men and that it’s possible for men and women to get along surprisingly well as long as there’s a bit of give and take on both sides. Watching this series today that outlook seems refreshingly civilised.

The Angels are portrayed as (mostly) very competent private detectives who can handle themselves pretty well but they’re not super-women and they’re not the unrealistic kickass action heroines of so many modern movies and TV series. They’re in a dangerous business and as women if they tried to rely on brawn they wouldn’t survive very long, so they rely on brains, good judgment and teamwork and try not to take stupid risks. They also make use of their physical attractiveness because they’re professionals and they realise that it’s a tactic that works. They don’t agonise over whether it’s politically correct or not - they’re too busy trying to get the job done to waste time on stuff like that. 

There is of course no question that the show’s big drawcard was having three hot babes as private detectives and that aspect is played up as much as possible. Almost every shot of Farrah Fawcett-Majors seems to focus on her nipples. Titillation was certainly a considerable factor in the extraordinary success of season one.

There is a definite sleaze factor in many episodes, such as Dirty Business, Lady Killer and Consenting Adults. It’s a bit disturbing and it’s not really necessary. It’s certainly not as bad as modern American television in this respect but it was an ominous portent.

It’s a series that was unashamedly lighthearted and rather silly and to get away with that you need scripts with wit and style. That’s the big problem here. There are too many dull scripts that end up falling flat. Fawcett-Majors, Jackson and Smith always do their best but with stronger scripts they’d have been even better.

Despite the uneven writing Charlie’s Angels is fun. Not one of the great television series of its era but still enjoyable. Recommended.

Saturday 14 November 2015

The Saint - The Ex-King of Diamonds (1969)

The Ex-King of Diamonds was the fourth-to-last episode of the final season of The Saint. Broadcast in January 1969, this episode is of more than usual interest to cult TV fans since it served as a sort of unofficial pilot for The Persuaders!

The idea was to give Simon Templar a partner. The partner would be someone who would provide a complete contrast to the smooth cultured English Templar. He would be a brash American, Rod Huston. Not just an American, but a Texan. A Texan oil millionaire. Despite their differences in style there would be some similarities between them - like Simon Templar Rod Huston is a rich playboy type, rich enough that money is no longer a motivation for him. And like Templar he would have an innate sense of fair play - the sort of man who would amuse himself by righting wrongs.

Stuart Damon (better known as one of the stars of The Champions) was cast as Rod Huston. And he really goes to town with the part. He throws every possible rich Texan oil millionaire cliché into his performance but it works. This is after all an ITC action adventure series - nobody is supposed to take it seriously.

The episode has plenty of things going for it. The story is a good one. A deposed king (King Boris, played by Willoughby Goddard) is financing a revolution by cheating at cards. Cheating on the grand scale - he intends to win several million dollars at the casino at Monte Carlo. And with the ingenious method of cheating that he has devised it appears that nothing will be able to stop him. The only possible problem is brilliant French mathematician Henri Flambeau (Ronald Radd) who knows all the odds when it comes to games of chance.

The Saint and Rod Huston clash violently at first, in fact they spend most of the first half of the episode trying to beat one another senseless (this adversarial relationship would be repeated in the opening episode of The Persuaders!) but of course eventually they learn to work together.

The Simon Templar-Rod Huston partnership worked successfully enough to convince Lew Grade that it would be a winning formula for a series. A few modifications would be made - Roger Moore would become Lord Brett Sinclair and Tony Curtis would play a brash self-made millionaire from the Bronx rather than a Texas oilman - but the basic formula was obviously sound. The Persuaders! was a great series and there’s no question that Tony Curtis proved to be the perfect foil for Roger Moore although it is a bit sad that Stuart Damon (who hoped to reprise his role as Rod Houston in that series) missed out.

The Ex-King of Diamonds is not just interesting as the forerunner to The Persuaders! - it’s a superb and very very enjoyable episode of The Saint in its own right. Very much worth a look.

This episode is of course to be found in various boxed sets of The Saint but it's also included as an extra  in Network's The Persuaders! DVD boxed set.

Friday 6 November 2015

The Samurai, season 3 - Iga Ninjas (1963)

Onmitsu kenshi (Spy Swordsman) was a Japanese TV series made between 1962 and 1965. The English-dubbed version was retitled The Samurai. It was very successful in Japan and also did quite well in New Zealand and the Philippines. It attracted very little attention elsewhere in the world. Except for one place - Australia. In Australia it became more than just a cult sensation. It was the Nine Network’s highest-rating series. It was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. It was the first TV series screened on Australian television to spawn a marketing frenzy. Soon Australian youngsters were running about all over the country dressed in ninja suits.

When star Koichi Ose toured Australia he was greeted at Sydney Airport by crowds larger than those that had turned out the previous year to greet The Beatles. The Samurai was not just a smash hit among boys - Koichi Ose apparently had a fairly significant and devoted female fan base as well. He was an unlikely sex symbol, but perhaps both the character and the actor were simply so different from anything that an Australian female was likely to encounter in the opposite sex at that time. The character he played, the samurai Shintaro Akikusa, was certainly not lacking in the manly virtues. He was brave and noble. He was good-looking. He was also kind and gentle and there was a touch of humour. Koichi Ose in person came across as a somewhat shy and very charming man, and when he was interviewed on Australian television more than forty years later the charm and the humour were still very much in evidence, along with some very fond memories of the series.

The series contained, for its time, much more violence than was usual in children’s TV. The violence was however so stylised that nobody really seemed to notice. It also provided Australians with their first taste of martial arts and Japanese swordplay. 

There were plenty of British and American action adventure series around at the time but The Samurai made them all look rather dull and unimaginative. Not only did the Japanese series have more action, the action was much more stylish. The storylines (the complete series ran to ten story arcs and a total of 128 episodes) were more ambitious. The series was made on a relatively small budget but the locations were well chosen, the period detail was good (it set in the 18th century during the Tokugawa Shogunate), the costumes looked great and in general the production values were more than adequate. Most of all it had (in the 1960s) a wonderfully exotic feel to it.

It also had a coolness rating that was right off the scale. Not just lots of sword-fighting but the ninja make frequent use of star knives (or shuriken), small star-shaped throwing knives, which were even cooler. The ninja also had the exciting ability to leap directly upwards to great heights and there were various other exotic types of weaponry in evidence (such as a rocket launcher). Ninja were even adept at underwater warfare!

Japanese movies of the postwar period mostly adopt a rather sceptical (if not outright hostile) attitude towards Japan’s feudal past and towards the code of honour of the samurai. Interestingly though this series takes a different approach. It takes the hierarchical nature of feudalism for granted. It does not occur to Shintaro to question the social privileges of rank that he enjoys, or to question the deference which his social inferiors display towards him. On the other hand he is very much aware that rank brings responsibilities as well as privileges. Although Shintaro appears to be a wandering ronin we soon discover that this is not the case. He is a very high-ranking member of the nobility - a close relative of the shogun. Shintaro could live a life of luxury and leisure. Instead he risks his life in the service of the government, because his sense of duty and honour compels him to do so. He takes the code of bushido quite seriously, although he tempers the stricter aspects of this code with his innate sense of mercy.

Shintaro does not merely serve the government. If he encounters a person in trouble he will unhesitatingly risk death in order to help them, even if the person in trouble is a humble peasant. A samurai must live his life honourably and be prepared to die honourably. Not that Shintaro wants to die - he is by nature a man who loves life. But he knows where his duty lies. This rather positive attitude towards both feudalism and the warrior code of the samurai is rather refreshing.

The overall tone of the series is much darker than anything you will find in British or American children’s television at this time. Violence has consequences. Being an agent for the shogun’s government is genuinely dangerous. It involves a very real risk of death, and it requires Shintaro to be wiling to kill. In fact the tone is rather grown-up, to an extent that makes me question whether it was ever actually intended as a children’s series at all. There’s enough complexity to make it the kind of series that adults should have no difficulty in enjoying. Despite the sometimes dark and tragic themes there is however no trace of the fashionable cynicism and moral nihilism that has come to plague modern popular culture in the west. The Samurai makes no bones about the existence of evil and makes it clear that the fight against evil is a difficult one. It is however a fight worth fighting. Evil can be beaten, even though the costs are often high. Courage and honour are not futile. And even though there is no guarantee of success in every case it is better to die with courage and honour than to accept the triumph of evil.

Iga Ninjas was the third story arc, first airing in Japan in 1963. The lord Matsudaira Sadanobu has set out on a secret mission to Kyoto, hoping to foil a plot by the lord Owari to gain control of the government. Owari has employed the services of the sinister Momochi Genkurō (Toshiyuki Katsuki) and his ten renegade Koga ninja to assassinate Sadanobu. Shintaro is reluctantly persuaded to act as Sadanobu’s bodyguard (Shintaro has grown tired of killing and would prefer to live in quiet retirement. This story arc introduces one the most popular characters in the series, the Iga Ninja Tombei the Mist (Fuyukichi Maki). Tombei and his Iga ninja will provide valuable help to Shintaro.

Tombei is more than just a sidekick for the hero. He is a brave and skilled ninja and a clever tactician who saves Shintaro’s life on more than one occasion. Tombei is definitely not the sort of sidekick who needs to be constantly rescued from danger by the hero.

Momochi Genkurō makes an absolutely splendid and delightfully sinister villain, a truly worthy adversary for Shintaro.

It’s not that easy to maintain a consistent level of excitement and suspense over the course of a thirteen-episode story arc but writer Masaru Igami manages to do just that while also ensuring that each half-hour episode has its own distinctive features. It’s an achievement that most modern television writers would struggle to emulate.

The level of inventiveness displayed by this series is impressive. There are countless fight scenes but there is always some new variation to keep things interesting. Ninja have plenty of tricks up their sleeves and it’s fun anticipating what each new trick will be. While the basic storyline for this arc is simple - it’s basically the kind of story familiar in westerns, where a wagon train has to fight its way to its destination while being menaced by murderous bandits. Masaru Igami however manages to embroider this simple basic tale with numerous sub-plots involving treachery and Genkurō’s seemingly endless supply of fiendish and outlandishly ingenious schemes to kill Lord Sadanobu. Genkurō employs rocket launchers, gas attacks, a glamorous but deadly lady ninja, a ninja who can steal people’s faces, explosives and all manner of ninja magic. 

It’s never explicitly stated but it’s implied that ninja magic is mainly a combination of illusionism, trickery, chemical agents and perhaps hypnosis rather than anything supernatural.

The Samurai offers excitement, intrigue, adventure and imaginative fight scenes all done with style and also with surprising intelligence and subtlety. It has its dark moments, even tragic moments. It achieved massive popularity in Australia as a kids’ series but in fact it compares very favourably with most action adventure series aimed at adults. Very highly recommended.

The Samurai has been released on DVD in Region 4 (Australia), either in season sets or as a complete series boxed set. The Region 4 season sets are available from both amazon and amazon UK. They're all-region DVDs. It's actually cheaper to buy the complete series boxed set from an Australian supplier like EzyDVD.