Wednesday 23 December 2015

Christmas with Steed and Mrs Peel - Too Many Christmas Trees

I suppose one should make an effort to get into the seasonal spirit, and sharing Christmas with Steed and Mrs Peel seemed like a pretty good way to do just that. In other words I have just revisited one of the most-loved of all episodes of The Avengers, Too Many Christmas Trees, which first went to air in Britain exactly 50 years ago.

This was one of Tony Williamson’s earliest scripts for the series and it’s a corker. Steed is having recurring nightmares, Christmas nightmares complete with a sinister Santa, a forest of Christmas trees and a corpse. The corpse of a fellow agent, suspected of treason, who has just died as a result of a complete mental collapse.

Mrs Peel has been invited to spend Christmas at the country house of Dickens fanatic Brandon Storey. Storey owns a priceless collection of Dickens memorabilia and his whole house is Dickens-themed - there’s even a Hall of Great Expectations complete with cobwebs. Mrs Peel decides to invite Steed to accompany her, hoping to keep his mind off the nightmares. But the nightmares just get worse.

I’m not going to reveal any plot details other than to say that this is an episode that veers strongly in the direction of the macabre, the uncanny and the paranormal.

One of the delights of this episode is that everything meshes and interconnects perfectly. Apart from his love of Christmas Charles Dickens also had a love for ghost stories and mysteries so a Christmas episode involving Dickens and the uncanny is wonderfully appropriate. Mervyn Johns who plays Brandon Storey had been one of the stars in the classic 1951 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which also featured a young Patrick Macnee. Mervyn Johns had also starred in the superb 1945 anthology film Dead of Night which had an eerie atmosphere of nightmare and reality becoming hopelessly confused -exactly the atmosphere this episode is aiming for.

There are Avengers-related in-jokes as well, with Steed getting a Christmas card from Cathy Gale - from Fort Knox! Williamson’s script provides witty dialogue in abundance and Macnee and Rigg are in sparkling form. Rigg was always great at handling the comic side of things but in this story she also gets a couple of opportunities to show her serious acting chops. The Steed-Mrs Peel relationship is also thrown into sharper focus as Mrs Peel shows her genuine affection for Steed when she thinks he’s in real trouble.

Roy Baker directed this episode and he succeeds beautifully in getting the tone just right. The sets and costumes are top-notch. The dream sequences are spooky and surreal and genuinely dream-like. 

All this would be enough to make Too Many Christmas Trees a great episode but we get even more - Diana Rigg looking as cute as a button dressed as Oliver Twist, an excellent and imaginative climactic fight scene, a nicely romantic tag scene and Steed and Mrs Peel singing together. If Christmas is a time for indulging oneself then this episode is a glorious indulgence indeed. It’s like a magnificent Christmas dinner with all the trimmings accompanied by the finest wines and followed by the finest port and cigars. 

A truly superb episode.

And by the way, Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Sunday 20 December 2015

Dead of Night (1972)

Dead of Night was a short-lived BBC horror anthology series which ran for seven episodes in 1972. Only three episodes survive and have been released on DVD by the BFI. Having now watched the series I feel that it’s perhaps a pity that any episodes survived.

The first episode, Don Taylor’s The Exorcism, opens with a dinner party in a country cottage. The owners of the cottage have spent a great deal of money on renovations to make the cottage a snug comfortable country home. They have invited another couple over for dinner. 

Strange things start to happen. The electricity supply fails; the telephone goes dead. The food and wine have a strange taste. What can the explanation be?

Sadly the explanation is an excuse for some of the crudest and most manipulative television you’re ever going to be unlucky enough to be subjected to. It’s delivered in a smarmy self-satisfied and extraordinarily insulting manner. Most of all this episode is an opportunity for some very ugly wallowing in misplaced adolescent guilt. The DVD liner notes describe it as a Marxist ghost story and if you think that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea you’d be right.

Episode two, Return Flight, is much better. It helps that it had a competent writer in the person of Robert Holmes. A middle-aged airline pilot, Captain Rolph (Peter Barkworth) has a near miss shortly after departure from Hamburg. The only problem is that no-one else, not even his co-pilot, saw the offending aircraft. It also didn’t show up on ground radar. The German authorities are sceptical of Rolph’s story. Eventually it is decided that a DC-8 on a training flight may have wandered off course. Both the German authorities and the British investigators are happy with this explanation.

Captain Rolph is relieved that his reputation has been vindicated but then some rather disturbing things start to happen. He hears voices that appear to be the crew of an unknown aircraft in distress. He catches fleeting glimpses of the same aircraft he saw before - a four-engined propeller-driven aircraft. Perhaps it’s just a reaction to the recent death of his wife. Then he strikes trouble on another flight from Hamburg. Is he haunted by the past - or more to the point is he haunted by someone else’s past? Or is he imagining things?

It’s quite a good story with just enough ambiguity to keep things interesting. It also has the advantage that it’s a straightforward story without any axes to grind. It benefits from an exceptionally fine and subtle performance by Peter Barkworth.

The third of the surviving episodes (and the seventh to be transmitted) is A Woman Sobbing by John Bowen. A middle-aged middle-class couple have moved to the country for the sake of the children. The wife, Jane, hears the sound of a crying woman but nobody else hears anything and she slowly cracks up. The plot could have been disposed of in ten minutes (and even then it would be an uninteresting story). It’s padded out to 50 minutes with talking. Lots and lots of talking. Followed by more talking. It’s not even interesting talking. It’s deadly dull talking. It’s an object lesson in how not to make a television program.

This being the 70s a lot of the talking is about sex. It manages to make this into a very tedious subject. 

The story seems to have conceived as an exercise in social commentary and it illustrates all the reasons why social commentary makes for boring television. Jane is unhappy. Considering that she and her husband are wealthy and live in a lovely home and that her husband, Frank, is a pretty nice guy it’s easy to see why she’s unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? Being wealthy and living in a large comfortable picturesque house in the country must be Hell. They talk about their problems. Endlessly. Nothing happens until the entirely predictable ending (which happens to be very clumsily foreshadowed early on thus ensuring that there is no suspense at all).

The BFI have released the three surviving episodes on a single DVD. Picture quality varies from mediocre to poor. There are a few extras - there stills galleries from the lost episodes and fairly informative liner notes.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Ghost Squad, season 2 (1962-63)

Ghost Squad was a very successful ITC series that ran on British television from 1961 to 1964 (with the title changed to G.S.5 for the third season). The Ghost Squad is part of Scotland Yard and specialises in undercover operations and was inspired by a real-life squad that operated as part of the Metropolitan Police.

I reviewed the first season in an earlier post.

There is some debate about when the second season actually started. The first season was a co-production with the Rank Organisation and was shot on 35mm film. It was to comprise thirteen episodes. Due to a strike production of the last three season one episodes (The Green Shoes, Princess and Death from a Distance) was delayed and they eventually went to air as part of season two.

Rank dropped out of the picture after the first season and seasons two and three were produced entirely by ITC, and were shot on videotape.

The first two seasons survive in their entirety while the whole of season three has been lost.

ITC always favoured the idea of using imported American actors in their action adventure series so it’s no surprise that the star is an American, Michael Quinn, who plays undercover agent Nick Craig. 

For some reason it was decided during season two to introduce a second lead character. Tony Miller, played by English actor Neil Hallett, is another Ghost Squad agent. The series then alternates between Nick Craig cases and Tony Miller cases. There’s nothing at all wrong with Neil Hallett’s acting but he does not quite have Michael Quinn’s easy-going charm and charisma.

The first season featured Donald Wolfit as the head of the Ghost Squad, Sir Andrew Wilson. He disappears in the second season to be replaced by Anthony Marlowe as Geoffrey Stock as the squad chief, although Gordon Jackson takes over as chief in one episode. The second season also introduces Claire Nielson as Stock’s Scottish secretary Jean Carter.

The Green Shoes, which was either the eleventh episode of season one or the first episode of season two depending on your point of view, is a competent spy thriller story. Scientists at a British nuclear research facility have discovered a new element. The discovery is not just of great scientific importance, it also has enormous military significance. It will make the development of a neutron bomb a real possibility. Security at the facility is so tight that there is no danger of the new element being stolen, but of course it is stolen and the Ghost Squad have to recover it. The matter is urgent, the element being extremely radioactive. The episode was photographed by the great Nic Roeg.

Doubles were something of an obsession with writers of television spy series during the 60s. Interrupted Requiem uses the double idea quite effectively. A scientist working on a British missile project has been persuaded to refuse to do any further work on the project when his daughter’s life is threatened by agents from the eastern European nation of Ordania. But his daughter is already dead - she died in an air crash two years earlier. So what is going on? It’s up to Nick Craig to find out and that means going to Ordania. His cover story is that he is a salesman for a toy manufacturer.

Interrupted Requiem plays like an episode of Danger Man but Nick’s toy salesman cover and a comic supporting performance by Derek Nimmo as a British Embassy official in Ordania adds just a hint of the flavour of The Avengers. It’s a fine episode with a good script by Bill Craig.

The Big Time is a very impressive episode. Nick Craig has to find a very small-time bag snatcher who got more than he expected when he stole a handbag containing £70,000 worth of uncut diamonds. He is now in the big time - but the big time can be very dangerous for a small time sneak thief. The script by Leon Griffiths offers a nice combination of suspense, humour and pathos with some surprisingly subtle characterisation. This episode was directed by the very talented Peter Sasdy who went on to have a good carer in films. Network’s DVD set includes an audio commentary by Sasdy for this episode. Sasdy always does good audio commentaries and this one is typical. He was a director whose approach to television was quite ambitious and he was clearly trying (with some success) with The Big Time to do something a bit more than just a run-of-the-mill crime story. The Big Time is an example of how good ITC’s action adventure series could be on those occasions when they were lucky enough to have a good director working from a good script. It’s also a demonstration of how effective the early 60s shot-on-videotape style of television could be when it was done right.

Sentences of Death is another excellent Peter Sasdy-directed episode, with Craig drugged and forced to reveal vital information.

East of Mandalay is very much in the Danger Man mould with Tony Miller investigating gun-running in a small South-East Asian country. A British mining company appears to be involved in supplying arms to anti-government rebels. The highlight is Denis Shaw’s scenery-chewing performance as rebel leader Ah Tok.

The Golden Silence is a crime rather than an espionage story, dealing with gold smuggling. It’s another Tony Miller story, with Tony posing as a courier for the smugglers. It’s a reasonably tale enlivened by good supporting performances by David Garth as a crooked Treasury official and David Lodge as the cheerful but vicious Max, who provides the muscle for the smugglers.

In The Man with the Delicate Hands a man is killed in a car accident. Although the body is burnt more or less beyond recognition there seems to be no doubt of his identity but his sister insists that the corpse is not her brother. Her brother had thin delicate hands while the corpse has coarse stubby hands. The Ghost Squad gets involved because the man has access to financial secrets worth millions and it is vital to know if he is really dead or not.

In Escape Route Nick Craig learns just how dangerous and unpleasant being an undercover cop can be. A derelict has been killed by a car in Australia. The odd thing is that he was an embezzler who had escaped from justice in the UK with a very large amount of money. So how did he become a penniless derelict? Nick’s boss suspects that someone helped the man escape from the British police but clearly something went wrong. Nick goes undercover posing as another embezzler keen to depart for foreign climes and he learns that escaping is not such an easy thing.

The Missing People is a particularly fine episode. Tony Miller goes undercover as a pilot to infiltrate a gang smuggling people out from behind the Iron Curtain. Not that the British government is overly concerned about the idea that people are escaping from the communist bloc, but the trouble is that once they escape they are never seen again.

Ghost Squad has a surprisingly dark tone with some stories being really quite hard-edged (although there are lighter moments). On the whole the series doesn’t suffer quite so badly as most early 60s British series from the characteristic studio-bound feel of that era. Obviously the exotic locales are faked with stock footage and with a minimal amount of location shooting but visually it’s not too bad and the strong writing (stronger than most of its ITC stablemates) is enough to keep the viewer interested enough to overlook the studio shooting.

This is a rather ambitious series with a more serious tone than other contemporary ITC series like The Saint. It was one of the first ITC series to adopt the hour-long episode format and it makes good use of the format to tell fairly complex stories. On the whole it’s an enjoyable well-written well-crafted series with a mix of crime and spy stories. Highly recommended.

Network's excellent Region 2 DVD boxed set includes the whole of the first two seasons.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Fantasy Island, season one (1977)

If you’re of a certain age the words “De plane! De Plane!” will bring a rush of nostalgia. Yes, we’re talking about Fantasy Island.

Fantasy Island premiered in 1977 and ran for seven seasons on the American ABC network. It was one of legendary producer Aaron Spelling’s many television hits.

It can be considered as a variant of the anthology series concept. Each week a number of guest stars arrive on the private island owned by Mr Roarke (Ricardo Montalban). Each has paid $50,000 to live out a cherished fantasy. Mr Roarke provides the setting and the people they need to live their fantasy. You have to exercise a certain amount of suspension of disbelief here - some of the fantasies require Mr Roarke to reproduce luxury homes or in one case an entire London pub as the setting and even in 1977 that would obviously cost a lot more than $50,000. On the other hand it is implied that Mr Roarke is very rich indeed and that money is no object for him. It is also implied that he has no real interest in making a profit and some guests do not pay anything at all or only a token price.  Mr Roarke just likes acting in a God-like capacity.

In fact it probably helps to regard Mr Roarke is a bit of a Mephistopheles-like figure, or perhaps a kind of wizard able to grant any wish, or even perhaps an angel or minor deity of some variety. The hints that he may have some supernatural powers are very subtle but they are there and there’s no question that he seems to know more about his guests than he possibly could know. The island also seems remarkably huge and has a seemingly impossible variety of terrain types - in the second TV-movie it appears to have a large chunk of the Wild West in it. This also strengthens the likelihood that Mr Roarke is more than he appears to be. Of course he could just be unbelievable rich and have a network of private detectives working for him to supply him with so much information on his guests.

He is a benevolent sort of wizard. Well, mostly benevolent.

Hervé Villechaize plays Mr Roarke’s pint-sized assistant Tattoo. The interplay between Mr Roarke and Tattoo was one of the highlights of this series.

The guests always get the fantasy they asked for although more often than not it turns out in a way they didn’t expect. They don’t always really understand exactly what it is they are looking for from their fantasy, but Mr Roarke always knows.

Fantasy Island began with two tele-movies and they are subtly different from the series proper - there is a slightly darker and definitely less sentimental tone. The original concept as expressed in these two tele-movies really was extremely clever and both are very well executed.

Most episodes comprise two separate stories but the two movies give us three stories. In the pilot we have an American ex-serviceman wanting to relive a wartime romance in London during the Blitz, a woman who wants to attend her own funeral so that she can discover what her family really thinks of her and a big game hunter who wants to find out how it feels to be the hunted rather than the hunter (obviously inspired by the countless film adaptations of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game). All three stories have a dark edge to them and have some neat and unexpected twists.

The second TV-movie, Return to Fantasy Island, again comprises three separate stories intercut. There’s a couple who hope to be reunited with the daughter they surrendered for adoption twelve year earlier and a man who wants to spend the weekend with his female boss only she doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the idea. The third story is the most interesting, a psychological thriller tale about a young woman who lost her memory during her honeymoon four years earlier.

The series proper unfortunately doesn’t have quite the same edge to it. On the other hand as it progresses it becomes more and more apparent that Mr Roarke must have some supernatural or science fictional powers - one small island could not possibly accommodate so many incredibly elaborate fantasies involving entire quite sizeable communities.

The idea of having two completely separate stories per episode is a good one. Some stories (such as The Funny Girl) do edge dangerously close to out-and-out schmalz but pairing a story like that with an adventure yarn like Butch and Sundance makes it tolerable. The Prince/The Sheriff is another episode that combines a slightly sentimental love story with a more action-oriented tale. Family Reunion is even more schmaltzy but it’s paired with an excellent and much darker story, Voodoo. Pairing very lightweight or romantic stories with adventure-type stories seemed to become a definite template. Sometimes it fails miserably, as with Superstar/Salem which combines a dull story about a man who dreams of being a baseball star with a heavy-handed and clumsy tale of the witch trials in Salem. At other times the template works reasonably well, as in Trouble, My Lovely/The Common Man with a mildly amusing tale of an insignificant dweeb wanting to be a hardboiled private eye and a story of a downtrodden husband and father who just wants a little respect.

I have seen criticism of this series as being too much like soap opera but that seems to me to be perhaps somewhat unfair. That might apply to some of the stories but others are quite dark and twisted. In fact some stories remind me just a little of the blending of black comedy and twisted psychology of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents series (this is true at least of the two tele-movies). Unfortunately in the series itself this element tends to disappear. The big problem is that too many scripts are under-developed and the desire to give every story a happy ending leads to excessive predictability. The basic idea behind the series was extremely good and the two TV-movies lived up to the promise but the series gradually becomes just a little too bland.

Ricardo Montalban as Mr Roarke and Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo really are the series’ biggest assets. They are so good they tend to overshadow the guest stars.

The first season is available on DVD everywhere.

Fantasy Island is interesting for its nostalgia value, its unusual format and for the Mr Roarke-Tattoo interplay. Probably worth a rental but not a purchase.