Thursday 29 December 2016

Lost In Space, season 1 (1965) - the beginnings

I’ve been watching some of the early first season episodes of Lost In Space. I have very fond memories of this series but revisiting the first few episodes has provided a few surprises.

Lost In Space was originally envisaged as a serious (or at least semi-serious) science fiction adventure series rather than the campfest it quickly became. The original concept can be seen pretty clearly in the first episode, The Reluctant Stowaway. The preparations for the launch of the Jupiter II are handled in a straightforward manner. Dr Zachary Smith is introduced to us as a US Air Force officer who has turned traitor and plans to sabotage the mission. His sabotage plans encounter one hitch - he had intended to be well clear of the spacecraft before its launch but he miscalculates the timing and ends up still aboard when the spaceship lifts off.

This is a Dr Smith who is certain scheming and cowardly but he’s not a mere figure of fun. He is a genuinely sinister villain. The role is not really played for laughs at all in The Reluctant Stowaway. The robot also has a sinister aspect, being the tool Dr Smith has chosen to wreck the spacecraft (and thereby cause the deaths of all its crew members). 

This opening episode actually works quite well as science fiction. In fact in some ways it’s more realistic than most television science fiction programs. The Jupiter II’s destination is the closest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri, just over four light years away. We are told that the Robinsons will be in suspended animation for five years, which means the spacecraft will be traveling at something below light speed. So far the series scores surprisingly high for scientific plausibility. The assumption that spacecraft in 1997 would be powered by atomic motors must have seemed well within the bounds of probability in 1965. OK, towards the end it enters the world of television sci-fi pseudoscience but it’s remarkable that it maintains at least a degree of scientific plausibility for most of the first episode - that’s more than can be said for many other sci-fi series.

Most importantly, The Reluctant Stowaway is very exciting. It manages to give us the background information we need while still giving us plenty of plot and plenty of thrills.

Episode two, The Derelict, has a similar feel. Dr Smith remains sinister and menacing. The Jupiter II continues on its journey through space, narrowly dodging a comet and then encountering a very large and very strange spacecraft. Dr Smith has his own ideas about the origins of this spacecraft and is rather taken aback to discover that it really is an alien spaceship. The set design is quite imaginative and the aliens and much more interesting and more truly alien than most of the aliens we will encounter in later episodes. And they look rather cool. The Derelict, like The Reluctant Stowaway, is a pretty decent space adventure. 

In episode three, Island in the Sky, we can see the formula starting to fall into place. The Jupiter II crash lands on an unknown planet which brings the spaceflight adventure element of the series to an abrupt halt. For the first time we see the relationship between Dr Smith and the robot start to take on the comedic aspect that would come to dominate more and more. On the other hand Dr Smith (who is still referred to at times as Colonel Smith) is still pretty villainous in a fairly straightforwardly murderous way, and the robot is still more frightening than amusing. At this stage in the series it could have gone either way, either continuing as a relatively serious space adventure or making the switch to high camp comedy. We all know which way the series did in fact go.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no real complaints about the subsequent course taken by Lost in Space. It was a deliciously entertaining series and as far as high camp goes it doesn’t get much better than this. The byplay between Dr Smith and the robot was genuinely funny and Dr Smith remains quite justifiably one of the most beloved characters in television history. I’m very much a Lost in Space fan. It is however fascinating to get a glimpse of the alternative course the series could have charted. Would it have been as successful? There is of course no way of knowing.

What we can be fairly sure of is that sooner or later there would have been pressure from the network to lighten things up and play the situations for comedy rather than thrills. That seems to have been the almost inescapable pattern in 1960s American network television. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are notable examples of series that changed midway through their runs as a result of network interference and the obsession of the networks with treating science fiction and action adventure themes as lightheartedly as possibly. It was not a great strategy but no-one was able to convince the suits at the networks but maybe they were wrong.

By episode four, There Were Giants in the Earth, the formula has been pretty much locked in. Jonathan Harris is playing Dr Smith more for laughs than menace. The robot is becoming a comic relief character rather than a deadly menace. It’s becoming obvious that there’s going to be a monster in just about every episode and that the monsters will be somewhat on the silly side. There would still be the occasional more ambitious episode that tried to deal with relatively serious science fictional themes but the emphasis was going to be on light-hearted fun and monsters. Fortunately it would be a great deal of fun indeed and there’s no point in regretting the slightly more serious Lost in Space that was never to be.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Thriller, two musical episodes (1960-61)

The late 50s and early 60s was the great age of American television mystery/suspense anthology series and the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller is one of my favourites. Today I want to talk about two episodes that both deal with music and musicians, in very different ways and with varying levels of success. The episodes are The Terror in Teakwood and Papa Benjamin, both from the first season.

Both are stories about the price that a musician will pay for his art, a price that turns out to be much too high.

The Terror in Teakwood was written by Alan Caillou from a story by Harold Lawlor. It opens, in classic gothic style, in a graveyard. A man has bribed the caretaker to allow him to enter the mausoleum. What did this man want in the mausoleum? We don’t know but it certainly horrified the caretaker.

This is a story of two musicians, both great pianists, and bitter rivals. Carnowitz is now dead, but for the survivor, Vladimir Vicek (Guy Rolfe), the rivalry is far from over. Before he died his hated rival had composed a sonata that he alone could play - no-one else but Carnowitz was physically capable of playing it.

Vicek’s wife Leonie (Hazel Court) has become increasingly concerned about her husband. She suspects that someone is trying to kill him. She persuades her old flame Jerry Welch to take a job as Vicek’s manager in order to keep an eye on him. After an encounter with the creepy graveyard caretaker Gafke (Reggie Nalder) Welch knows that something is certainly going on and that it might have something to do with the teakwood box that seems to be so important to Vicek.

The plot borrows from a couple of classic 1930s horror movies but I won’t tell you which ones for fear of spoilers.

This episode was directed by Paul Henreid who had been a successful actor (best-known perhaps for Casablanca and Now, Voyager) before becoming a prolific television director. He does a fine job here. 

There’s an abundance of gothic atmosphere on display. The special effects work well. Guy Rolfe is terrific as the disturbingly obsessed Vicek. Hazel Court was one of the great cinematic scream queens appearing in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and several of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies including the superb Masque of the Red Death. Reggie Nalder is wonderfully sinister as the sly Gafke.

Papa Benjamin was written by John Kneubuhl from a Cornell Woolrich short story. An American band leader, Eddie Wilson (John Ireland), in search of the musical inspiration which he feels has deserted him, thinks he has found the answer in voodoo. He does find his inspiration, but at a terrible cost. His choice then seems to be to kill or be killed.

Ted Post directed this episode and in the audio commentary he recorded for the Image Entertainment DVD set he has some very harsh things to say about it. He felt at the time that Kneubuhl’s script was incoherent and badly needed extra work and (with each episode having to be completed in just five days) there was no time to do this. He was also deeply unhappy with the casting (which was forced upon him) of John Ireland in the lead role. He felt that Ireland’s performance was one-note and failed to get to grips with the character. Post was also scathing about producer Maxwell Shane.

It has to be admitted that Post’s criticisms are perfectly valid. While Papa Benjamin is beautifully shot and very atmospheric the story never really engages our interest or our sympathy. It is impossible to care what happens to Eddie Wilson. He’s a flat and uninteresting character.

The voodoo scenes work extremely well and there are some very nice film noir-influenced shots.

Despite the insane pace at which Thriller was made, with constant pressures to keep within the shooting schedule and the budget, production values were always high and it was always a visually impressive series. Sometimes, as in The Terror in Teakwood, the results exceeded all expectations - the best Thriller episodes such as this one are among the most outstanding television achievement of their era. Sometimes, as was the case with Papa Benjamin, it didn’t quite work.

The Image Entertainment Thriller boxed set is superb and includes a wealth of audio commentaries. The transfers are excellent. 

Saturday 10 December 2016

The Search for the Nile (1971)

It’s a rather different sort of program compared to most of those that I discuss here but The Search for the Nile is in its own way an astonishing television achievement. This is not a spy series or a science fiction series but a documentary-style historical drama about exploration. A mini-series centred on African exploration might sound dull but The Search for the Nile is anything but.

This was a very ambitious (and clearly very expensive) project for the BBC featuring a good deal of location shooting. The results are certainly impressive.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the hot topic in geographical circles was the source of the River Nile. In fact it had been a hot topic in geographical circles for around two thousand years and no-one was any closer to finding the answer.

This is more than just a story of exploration. It is a race. The rivalry between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke for the honour of making the great discovery is an epic in itself. Burton and Speke undertook joint expeditions as well as solo expeditions and the relationship between the two men was uneasy and complex. It is difficult to imagine two men less suited to work together in harness and Burton’s decision to choose Speke to accompany him on his first major attempt to find the source of the Nile in 1856 is at first sight surprising. The one thing they had in common was the obsession to unravel this greatest of all geographical mysteries.

There was also another potential runner in this race. Scottish missionary David Livingstone  was rumoured to have an interest in finding the source of the Nile as well and the depth of Livingstone’s knowledge of Africa made him a formidable rival. There would be others joining the race later, most notably Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century (a century that produced more than its share of remarkable men). He initially gained fame as the first European non-Muslim to visit Mecca, an incredibly foolish and dangerous undertaking  as the city was absolutely off limits to non-Muslims. Burton mastered countless languages and gained as much fame as a translator of eastern classics as he did from his journeys of exploration. His interest in eastern erotica scandalised Victorian England. He immersed himself in non-European cultures to an extent that raised eyebrows. He was wildly eccentric and unconventional and nothing pleased him more than to shock English society.

Speke was more of an enigma, a man driven by burning ambition that led him to make great discoveries and tragic errors of judgment. Speke was rather straitlaced and while Burton was fascinated by other cultures Speke hated everything about Africa and its people. Their joint expedition would prove that they were disastrously ill-suited to the task of working together. 

The TV series deals not just with this one epic journey of exploration but with a whole series of expeditions led by an assortment of extraordinary larger-than-life and often eccentric characters - Burton, Speke, Livingstone, Samuel and Florence Baker and Henry Morton Stanley. The search for the source of the Nile proved to be elusive and frustrating. Each of the various expeditions filled in some of the missing pieces but it seemed that the final solution to the puzzle was always just out of reach.

The journeys of exploration make fascinating viewing and the personal dramas of these remarkable human beings provide even greater interest. 

The excellent cast is a major asset. Kenneth Haigh is splendidly extravagant and outrageous as Burton. Michael Gough is equally good as the obsessive, saintly but amiable Dr Livingstone. John Quentin landed the most challenging and potentially most thankless role as Speke. Speke’s motivations remain mysterious and although he gave the impression of being something of a straight arrow his conduct on several crucial occasions is difficult to explain except as the actions of a man whose excessive ambition drove him to behave selfishly and dishonourably. It isn’t easy to make Speke sympathetic but Quentin does manage to make him a tragic figure.

James Mason adds a touch of further class as the narrator.

The location shooting is stunning and by the standards of 1971 British television it’s really quite spectacular. 

This being 1971 the material is handled in a pretty even-handed manner with surprisingly little preachiness. The viewer is assumed to be capable of making his own judgments. It’s actually a little surprising that the BBC has finally allowed this series to be released on DVD - this is an historical series for grown-ups who do not require everything to be filtered through a lens of political correctness.

The Victorian era produced an immense number of colourful larger-than-life heroic figures like Richard Burton and (albeit in a very different way) David Livingstone. These were men whose achievements and virtues were on the grand scale, and at times their vices were on an equally grand scale. They were complex men and this series takes them seriously and generally speaking it takes them on their own terms without trying to judge them by late 20th century standards. The courageous and indomitable Florence Baker, who accompanied her husband Samuel on his expedition down the Nile, showed that Victorian women could be just as remarkable and just as heroic.

The Search for the Nile is intelligent literate television and it’s also immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended and it looks great on DVD.

Friday 2 December 2016

A Game of Murder (1966)

Francis Durbridge wrote some very successful mystery novels (such as Send for Paul Temple) but his fame rested to a much greater extent on his prolific output of radio and television scripts. As a writer for these media he had few peers. 

He wrote no less than seventeen mystery serials for the BBC. The eight serials broadcast between 1952 and 1959 under the umbrella title The Francis Durbridge Serial are all lost. Fortunately ten of the eleven serials that went to air between 1960 and 1980 the title Francis Durbridge Presents survive in their entirety. Happily most are now available on DVD. The surviving episodes of the BBC's excellent 1969-71 Paul Temple TV series are also available on DVD.

A Game of Murder was screened in 1966 and stars Gerald Harper (who was also being seen in the BBC’s delightful adventure series Adam Adamant Lives! at about the same time).

A Game of Murder gets off to an excellent start with the first of its six 30-minute episodes. Bob Kerry, a once famous golfer who now runs a sporting goods store, is killed in a tragic accident on the golf course. His son, Detective Inspector Jack Kerry (Gerald Harper), cannot bring himself to accept the verdict of accidental death. He has no evidence to the contrary, just a feeling that something is not quite right. 

The first indication that his suspicions may be justified comes from his father’s housekeeper’s dog. The dog had been missing for a week. Finally someone answers the advertisement that Jack Kerry had placed in the newspaper. Jack goes to collect the dog and that’s when things begin to get puzzling. 

And this is when Durbridge’s plot really starts to throw some delightfully odd twists and turns at the viewer. A freak golfing accident, a blonde in a car, a collection of photographs, a missing dog, a missing dog collar, a man in a wheelchair and a small donation to a charity - how on earth can so many odd little details possibly be connected? Nonetheless Inspector Jack Kerry is convinced they are connected. And all this is just in the first half-hour episode!

With his experience writing for radio Durbridge understood the serial format very well. Each episode has to have a cliffhanger ending and he does a fine job in providing them.

I was pretty confident I knew the identity of the chief bad guy very early on but I turned out to be totally wrong. Beware of red herrings! 

Jack Kerry is actually on leave at the time of his father’s death so the investigating officer is Detective Inspector Ed Royce (David Burke). Jack is draw into the case anyway and his relationship with Ed Royce becomes slightly uneasy as he starts to feel that Ed doesn’t believe him. Jack’s relationship with his boss, Chief Superintendent Bromford (Conrad Phillips), is even more uneasy since some of Jack’s actions could be, and are, misinterpreted.

Jack is going to need some help from the blonde in the car mentioned earlier, Kathy White (June Barry), but the difficulty is that he can’t be sure how far he can trust her and she can’t be sure how much she trusts him. The man in the wheelchair is a problem too, as is his wife, as is the pet shop owner who sold the mysterious vanishing dog collar, and then there’s the man who accidently killed Jack’s father in that golfing accident. Not to mention his housekeeper and her very smooth nephew, and even the mild-mannered manager of Jack’s father’s sporting goods store. Any one of these people could be mixed up in the conspiracy and Jack doesn’t even know the nature of the conspiracy.

It’s 1966 so naturally it’s all very studio-bound but it’s a story that relies on good writing and acting rather than spectacle so that’s not a problem.

The late 60s was a period of transition for British television crime dramas, with a move away from the dedicated and loveable bobbies of Dixon of Dock Green towards a harder-edged more self-consciously realistic style that in the 70s would eventually lead to The Sweeney. A Game of Murder marks an early stage in this transition. There are hints of the seamy underside of life but it’s still relatively genteel (very genteel indeed compared to The Sweeney) and there’s no graphic violence whatsoever. 

There’s also just about no action. Durbridge was still content to rely on the classic techniques of the mystery/suspense story and he happened to be very adept at those techniques.

Gerald Harper gives a very fine performance as Jack Kerry, certainly much more restrained than his delightfully bravura turn in Adam Adamant Lives! but he’s sympathetic and convincing. David Burke and Conrad Phillips are equally impressive.

Danann have released A Game of Murder on an all-region DVD in the UK but it’s rather pricey. Much much better value is the Australian Region 4 release from Madman - their Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 boxed set is substantially cheaper and includes A Game of Murder and three other serials. The transfer is also slightly better on Madman’s Region 4 release. 

A Game of Murder is a fine old-fashioned mystery tale and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

You might also be interested in my review of the 1975 Francis Durbridge Presents serial The Doll.

Thursday 24 November 2016

The World of Wooster (1965-67)

The World of Wooster was a BBC series adapted from the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. It was a very successful and highly acclaimed series which ran for three seasons from 1965 to 1967 so naturally the BBC destroyed every episode they could. As far as I know only one episode survives (which you can find on youtube).

I have very dim memories of seeing this series many years ago. What I do remember about it is that is was superb and very funny.

If you’re going to adapt the Jeeves stories you really need to get the casting just right and that’s exactly what the BBC did. Ian Carmichael (one of the great British comic actors of the 20th century) is the perfect Bertie Wooster. The trick with getting Bertie’s character right is that he is certainly a silly ass but he’s not a drooling halfwit. He even displays, on rare occasions, traces of what might even be taken as rudimentary signs of intelligence. His problem is not that he’s a complete idiot. He’s not terribly bright but mostly he gets into scrapes because he overestimates his ability to extricate himself from awkward situations. His schemes for getting himself out of trouble are often ingenious but they’re impractical and he tends to overlook the ways in which they’re likely to backfire. And invariably they do backfire.

Fortunately the schemes that Jeeves comes up with to rescue his amiable but accident-prone master do not suffer from these deficiencies. His plans work with the clockwork precision of well-planned military operations. 

Bertie is not a character we are supposed to regard with contempt. He’s a good-natured kindly generous soul even if he is lazy and irresponsible. We’re supposed to regard Bertie with amused affection. Ian Carmichael captures all these qualities perfectly, Carmichael made an entire career (and a very successful one) out of playing good-natured but not overly intelligent characters who somehow manage to bumble their way through life and avoid disaster. 

Other attempts to portray Bertie Wooster on television have succeeded less well because they end up pushing the character too far into the realms of mere caricature.

Dennis Price is equally good as Jeeves. Jeeves has a very low opinion of Bertie’s intelligence but he is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. He is calm and unflappable and he is used to getting his employer out of scrapes and he has sublime confidence in his own ability to do so. It’s all part of the job. He does these things in the same way he performs his other duties, efficiently and without fuss. He is never smarmy.

The surviving episode, Jeeves and the Delayed Exit of Claude and Eustace, naturally sees Bertie in hot water again but this time none of it is his fault. He is expecting his prospective father-in-law to call on him. Sir Humphrey Wardour (Clive Morton) does not drink, or smoke, or gamble. In fact he disapproves of all the things that Bertie enjoys doing. Bertie’s attempts to make a good impression might well have succeeded had it not been for the very unlucky circumstance that he has his nephews Claude and Eustace staying with him. He’s supposed to keep an eye on them until the following morning when they take ship to South Africa. Claude and Eustace make Bertie seem like a paragon of respectability and responsibility. They are being shipped off the Colonies to keep them out of further trouble. As you might expect it takes them only a few hours to manage to reduce Bertie’s life to chaos, shipwreck his impending marriage and (far more seriously) threaten his always delicate relationship with his dreaded aunts.

On this occasion Bertie doesn’t even consider trying to devise a hare-brained scheme of his own to save the situation. He realises that this is a job for a man of gigantic intellect. It is a job for Jeeves.

One of the reasons the 60s was such a golden age for British television was the wealth of truly marvellous character actors available to fill the supporting roles. In this case Clive Morton as Sir Humphrey Wardour, Fabia Drake as Aunt Agatha, Timothy Carlton as Claude and a very young Simon Ward as Eustace all give just the right performances and in the right Wodehousian spirit.

The World of Wooster is in my opinion one of the two totally successful attempts to bring the delightful works of P.G. Wodehouse to the small screen (the other successful attempt being the BBC’s 1974-78 Wodehouse Playhouse anthology series). It’s a tragedy that such a wonderful series has been almost entirely lost to us. The surviving episode at least gives us a glimpse of what we’ve lost.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Sentimental Agent (1963)

The Sentimental Agent (a spin-off from another ITC series, Man of the World) is a slightly unusual 1963 British adventure series. It’s unusual because the protagonist is not a cop, a spy, a private eye or a playboy amateur crime-fighter. He’s just a businessman. Carlos Varela (Carlos Thompson) runs a successful import-export business. In the course of running this business he becomes involved in various adventures, some of which do involve crime or espionage although others are more in the nature of commercial intrigues.

The most famous of all import-export agents was of course a certain James Bond although for Bond it was merely a cover. It’s not a cover for Carlos Varela. It’s how he makes his living. He’s not interested in espionage or counter-espionage but there are times when he isn’t given any alternative.

The Sentimental Agent’s biggest single plus is its star. Carlos Thompson has an air of the exotic (he was ethnically German but born in Argentina and has a slight accent), he has charisma and he has style. He has lots and lots of style. Carlos Varela makes Simon Templar look like an unsophisticated hick. Thompson also has no trouble at all trading witty dialogue with anyone.

And did I mention that Varela drives an Aston Martin DB5? Yes, the same car James Bond drives in Goldfinger, but Varela got to drive it a year before Goldfinger came out. 

Unfortunately even though Carlos Thompson is the series’ main asset he was eased out towards the end of the season and does not appear in several of the later episodes, being replaced by an somewhat unmemorable character, Bill Randall (played by somewhat unmemorable actor John Turner).

Carlos Thompson gets some excellent support from Burt Kwouk who plays Varela’s gentleman’s gentleman Chin, a most useful servant although something of a tyrant when it comes to his master’s wardrobe. As the series progresses we find that Chin is considerable more than just a valet - he’s a versatile and invaluable assistant who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything. He also has an endless supply of cousins, all of them possessing remarkably useful skills. Burt Kwouk gets to display his considerable comic gifts and seems to be having a lot of fun (and judging by the interview with him included in the DVD set he really did enjoy making the series a great deal).

The series gets off to a great start with All That Jazz, a real spy thriller story and done with enough flair to make it both fresh and amusing. Varela has a slight problem - a consignment of goods has been held up at London Airport. The consignment in question is a modern jazz quintet. MI5 has reason to believe the beatnik musicians are mixed up in an espionage operation although they have no evidence and no idea as to how the secrets in question are being passed to a foreign power. They persuade Varela (or rather they give him no choice in the matter) to help them to solve this puzzle. The solving of the puzzle is rather clever. Julian Bond’s script combines a genuinely good spy story with some gentle humour and the episode establishes Varela as a debonair and charming hero.

The Beneficiary is a reasonably well done story about a dead man and the key to a safety deposit box in Lisbon. There’s nothing startling about the plot but some splendid guest starring turns (especially by Derek Francis and Aubrey Morris) make it entertaining.

Express Delivery is a very nice little Cold War spy thriller story. Carlos is in Poland for a trade fair but he seems to be attracting a lot of attention from the police. Then he’s approached by a beautiful Polish girl named Katrina in the hotel bar. She wants him to help her escape to the West, but is it as simple as that? Having much of the action take place on a train is a definite bonus - trains are such perfect settings for this kind of story. Also helping to make this episode a delight are Patrick Magee as a Polish spymaster plus Ann Bell’s quirky performance as Katrina (in fact the whole supporting cast is excellent).

A Very Desirable Plot shows this series at its best. A shady real estate developer is selling plots of land in the Bahamas. The only problem is that the plots of land are more or less underwater. Carlos Varela had made a deal, in good faith, to supply prefabricated houses to be erected on these plots. A great many people stand to lose their life’s savings while Carlos stands to lose a great deal of money and his good name. Carlos is a shrewd and hardheaded businessman but his success is based on his reputation for honesty and he also does not like to see decent people defrauded by crooked operators. There may be a way he can save his own reputation and the money of the unlucky investors but it’s going to take exquisite timing and a good deal of cunning. The highlights of this episode are guest appearances by the always delightful William Mervyn as a retired British army colonel and as his daughter a young unknown actress making her first screen appearance - the actress being Diana Rigg.

Never Play Cards with Strangers is a case of the biter bit. Carlos had arranged passage on a cruise ship for a middle-aged couple but their cruise was ruined by an encounter with a couple of unlikely card sharps. The shipping line can do nothing without evidence so Carlos decides to take action himself. He books a cabin on the liner, accompanied by the beautiful daughter of the couple who were fleeced. His plan is obviously to win back the money and teach the card cheats a lesson but there’s a snag - Carlos is a rank beginner at bridge. Luckily Chin has yet another cousin who is a croupier in Vegas and who has taught him all the tricks. Card games can always be used, whether in fiction or movies or TV, as excellent arenas for a battle of nerves between the hero and the villain and it’s a technique that works extremely well in this episode. James Bond fans will be delighted that Carlos’s final coup at the card table is something he learnt from Ian Fleming’s Moonraker, a copy of which he just happens to have on him. An excellent episode.

May the Saints Preserve Us is a delightful romp. A rich Texan girl wants Carlos to export something from Ireland to Texas for her - a castle. For some reason the locals don’t seem too happy about his. Carlos suspects the castle is connected with the smuggling of whisky. He’s half right. Something is being smuggled, but it isn’t whisky. This is pure farce but it’s great fun. We also get to hear Carlos attempting both a Texan accent and a French accent.

The Scroll of Islam is a solid episode that sees Carlos inadvertently caught up in the theft of an ancient scroll from a desert sheikhdom. Patrick Troughton makes a rather good sheikh. He is, like Carlos, shrewd but scrupulously honest and their mutual respect may be  the only thing that can avert disaster.

The Height of Fashion is one the episodes featuring Bill Randall rather than Carlos Varela. Varela is supposedly overseas and Randall has to deal with a perplexing problem - what to do with 30,000 horse blankets. They had been ordered by a small Central Asia country for their cavalry horses but now there’s been a revolution and the cavalry has been disbanded. The horse blankets are almost impossible to get rid of, being of a very small size and intended for very small horses. Randall’s attempts to dispose of this unwanted shipment end up involving vintage cars, high fashion and a royal wedding. This is lightweight stuff but it does have its gently amusing moments and it does give Burt Kwouk a chance to shine. Not much substance here but it has a certain charm.

Finishing School, another Bill Randall episode, is even more slight. A girl has been kidnapped from an exclusive girls’ finishing school. The principal, Lady Graffham, is an old friend of Carlos Varela’s but Carlos is in New York so Randall has to step into the breach. Lady Graffham is desperately anxious to avoid a scandal while Randall is inclined to find the whole story a bit suspect. The kidnapping turns out to have an unexpected motor racing connection. This one is a bit like a lesser episode of The Saint, and it’s the sort of thing that Roger Moore could carry off but alas John Turner is no Roger Moore.

Not Quite Fully Covered is the third and probably the best of the Bill Randall episodes. This time it’s a matter of an insurance claim in respect of a very valuable collection of French antique furniture which someone wants to remove from a foreign country without the government of that country knowing about it. 

The are two problems with the Bill Randall episodes. The first is that the tone is too jokey. The basic premise of this series is fairly slight to begin with and if the stories are played too much for laughs the whole thing is in danger of becoming just a bit too silly. The second problem is quite simply the absence of Carlos Thompson. In Carlos Thompson they had a winner - an actor with genuine star quality who knew exactly how to tread the thin line between lighthearted witty fun and mere silliness. 

While the three Bill Randall episodes are a bit of a let-down this series taken as a while really is a delight. There is action  and adventure (and there’s at least one perfectly fine spy story here) but overall the emphasis is on whimsical fun. That can be dangerous to attempt. The tone has to be just right. If you overdo it or underdo it disaster will result. Happily The Sentimental Agent consistently hits just the right note.

Mention must be made of the truly bizarre theme tune. It sort of grows on you. Sort of.

If you’re looking for a straightforward action adventure series this is not it. However if you don’t mind wit, whimsy and light-hearted fun you should thoroughly enjoy The Sentimental Agent. Carlos Thompson’s performances are the main attraction and they’re good enough to make this must-see television and Network’s DVD set offers excellent transfers. Highly recommended.

Sunday 6 November 2016

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, the Dr Thorndyke episodes

I’ve written before about Thames Television’s superb 1971-73 series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes which comprises adaptations of some great stories written in late Victorian and Edwardian times by authors who were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At the moment I want to talk about the two episodes adapted from R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories. Freeman wrote countless novels and stories featuring this character including masterpieces such as The Mystery of 31 New Inn and The Eye of Osiris

The first truly scientific detective in crime fiction, Dr John Thorndyke is a Professor of Medical Jurisprudence. He is not a detective as such. He does however take an interest in criminal cases that call for his particular talents. He does not interview suspects nor does he take the slightest interest in motives. He concerns himself purely with forensic evidence, usually but not always of a medical nature.

The first of the Dr Thorndyke episodes is the first episode of the first season, A Message from the Deep Sea. John Neville stars as Dr Thorndyke. One of Thorndyke’s former students, Dr Hart, has obtained a position as assistant to the Police Surgeon. The Police Surgeon not being immediately available Dr Hart finds himself called to the scene of a murder and being overwhelmed by the responsibility prevails upon Dr Thorndyke to accompany him. A prostitute has been murdered and to the police it appears to be an open-and-shut case. A fellow prostitute, May O’Brien, seems destined to face the hangman.

John Neville as Dr Thorndyke in A Message from the Deep Sea
It is fortunate indeed that Dr Hart had managed to persuade Dr Thorndyke to become involved as both the investigating police officer, Detective Sergeant Bates, and the Police Surgeon, Dr Davidson, are the kinds of bumbling fools who jump to conclusions and are very likely to end up sending innocent people to the gallows. Dr Thorndyke spots some vital clues that they have overlooked, the types of clues that would be meaningless to anyone without a rigorous scientific training. Dr Thorndyke reveals the identity of the real killer in a dramatic courtroom finale.

This episode captures the spirit of Freeman’s stories very well. The police have found a suspect with an obvious motive but Dr Thorndyke demonstrates that the actual physical evidence tells a very different story. It is fortunate that Thorndyke has a good working knowledge of the minute marine organisms of the eastern Mediterranean (Freeman liked to throw in some obscure and esoteric elements such as this) and it is equally fortunate that Thorndyke and his assistants understand the crucial importance of noting every piece of evidence even if its significance is not immediately apparent.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes has the very studio-bound feel you expect in a British TV series from 1971 but this is more than compensated for by a superb cast and Philip Mackie’s entertaining and intelligent script. John Neville captures both the arrogance and the amiability of Thorndyke. James Cossins is excellent as Thorndyke’s junior partner Jervis, who displays an uncanny ability to spot all the vital evidence without being able to make the slightest bit of sense out of any of it. Paul Darrow, who would later find fame in Blake’s 7, is the keen but hopelessly out-of-his-depth Dr Hart. Terence Rigby makes a fine bumptious policeman as Sergeant Bates and Bernard Archard is wonderful as the arrogant but obtuse Police Surgeon.

Barrie Ingham (left) as Dr Thorndyke in The Moabite Cypher
The second of the Dr Thorndyke episodes, The Moabite Cypher, came towards the end of the second and final season. This time Dr Thorndyke is played by Barrie Ingham while Peter Sallis steps into the role of Jervis. Having totally different actors and a different writer and director (this time Reginald Collin fulfills both roles) from A Message from the Deep Sea means that we can expect a rather different treatment.

A suspected anarchist bomber is found dead and in his coat pocket is a very strange letter. It is written in an ancient variant of Hebrew and in a cypher of some description. Scotland Yard can make nothing of this puzzle and they have high hopes that Dr Thorndyke can help. While the puzzle yet remains unsolved Thorndyke and his partner Dr Jervis receive a desperate plea for assistance from a man who is convinced that his brother is being poisoned by his young wife.

Dr Thorndyke does of course crack the cypher, in a rather unexpected way, and unravel the mystery which is both more and less than it originally appeared to be.

Barrie Ingham is very good although I think he seems just a little young to be convincing as such an eminent man. Peter Sallis on the other hand is much too old, in fact two decades too old, for the role of Jervis who is after all supposed to be one of Thorndyke’s  ex-students. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, he’s just too old. Some of the supporting players are just a bit too hammy and there are some perfectly outrageous accents on display. On the other hand it’s a fine story with plenty of twists.

A Message from the Deep Sea is I think closer in spirit to Freeman’s stories. Both John Neville and Barrie Ingham give interesting interpretations of Dr Thorndyke although it’s John Neville who strikes me as being closer to the character as described in the books. Both episodes are however very entertaining and well worth seeing if you’re a fan of Freeman’s stories, and of course The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes as a whole is a must-see series.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Moonbase 3 (1973)

In 1973, at the time they were enjoying great success with Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dick decided they wanted to do a totally different kind of science fiction television series. They persuaded the BBC to give them the go-ahead. The result was Moonbase 3.

Moonbase 3 was conceived as a kind of anti-Doctor Who series. Doctor Who was aimed mostly at kids, scientific accuracy was never a consideration and there were lots of monsters. Moonbase 3 would be aimed at an adult audience, it would aim for scientific plausibility and it would steer clear of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit kind of monster. In fact it would aim at a degree of gritty realism and would focus on psychological drama.

It ran for only six episodes and failed to ignite any real audience interest. Terrance Dicks later felt they’d overdone the gritty realism aspect.

The opening episode sets the tone. Moonbase 3 is the European lunar base. There are also US, Russian and Chinese bases. The atmosphere at Moonbase 3 is a little tense and it’s about to get considerably more tense. Space exploration is inherently dangerous and accidents will occur but when they do they have to be thoroughly investigated. In this case an accident investigation puts the personnel at Moonbase 3 under a great deal of stress. There is a suspicion that a number of key personnel may have made errors of judgment that may have contributed to the accident. The errors of judgment, if they occurred, were rather minor in themselves but a succession of minor mistakes can have catastrophic consequences. In this instance the difficulty for a board of enquiry is that nothing about the accident is clear-cut. Perhaps there weren’t any actual mistakes made at all. Perhaps it was simply that decisions were made that were perfectly sound in the light of the information available at the time but that, with the benefit of hindsight, proved to be the wrong decisions.

The arrival of a new director for the base creates even more tension, especially given that Dr David Caulder (Donald Houston) has a very different style of leadership compared to his predecessor.

The second episode, Behemoth, brings more trouble for Moonbase 3. There’s a series of serious accidents but the worrying thing this time is that they are quite inexplicable. In fact the circumstances are positively mysterious. Astronauts being killed in accidents is one thing but when they disappear without trace that’s another matter. A sudden catastrophic depressurisation of a laboratory might have a rational explanation but when the wall of laboratory has been smashed and a scientist ripped apart that’s a mystery that is worrying indeed. And there are tracks leading to the laboratory where there could not be any tracks. It’s absolutely impossible. After all there’s nothing living on the Moon. Or is there?

In episode three, Achilles Heel, Moonbase 3 personnel seem to be making costly and very uncharacteristic mistakes. Nobody has been hurt but these mistakes have cost the European space program a lot of money and the lunar base is already facing severe budgetary squeezes. Deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates) believes the answer is to tighten up discipline, but then Lebrun always believes discipline should be tightened up. 

The fourth episode, Outsiders, was a remarkably bold story for a science fiction TV series. Written by John Brason, it’s quite cerebral and deals with metaphysical and even religious themes. Two scientists at Moonbase 3 are on the verge of major scientific breakthroughs but is scientific progress enough to make life worthwhile and how great is the price to be paid? It’s a clever and original story but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would be likely to have mass audience appeal.

If the whole series had been as good as the fifth episode, Castor and Pollux, then Moonbase 3 might well have been a major success. This episode provides some real excitement and some real suspense. A routine repair job on a satellite goes wrong and one of Moonbase 3’s shuttle spacecraft is not only in dire peril but seems to be doomed, with the astronaut facing certain death. A rescue in space in this instance seems quite impossible. There’s just one very slim chance but even that appears to be hopeless since there’s no way permission would be granted for such an attempt. 

This story is not just exciting but is also a study in the pressures of command. Both David Caulder and Michel Lebrun will be tested to the limit as risks have to be balanced and terrifyingly difficult decisions taken. This is the first episode that really gives Ralph Bates as Lebrun a chance to demonstrate his acting chops and he does so quite impressively. There’s some actual character development here. Lebrun has always had very strong views on the subject of command but he’s always had the luxury of being second-in-command and therefore of not having to take ultimate responsibility. Now he has to make a crucial decision which will not only mean life or death for the astronauts but could end his career if his decision turns out badly, and the responsibility is his and his alone.

Sadly it all falls apart badly in the sixth and final episode. Up to this point they’d avoided the preachiness that afflicted so much 1970s BBC TV sci-fi (including at times Doctor Who). In this episode the preachiness is all too apparent but it’s not the only problem. I don’t want to reveal spoilers but this story incorporates plot devices that always exasperate me.

This series has an interesting cast. Donald Houston had had quite a successful career in film. Ralph Bates, who plays deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun, is best remembered for starring roles in a number of Hammer horror movies. The third major character is psychologist Dr Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt). Fiona Gaunt had a fairly busy career in British television in the 70s before disappearing without trace. All three leads are fairly effective and the characters are reasonably well developed and, more importantly, they’re all fallible. That’s true of the minor characters as well. Astronauts might be carefully selected but they still have human weaknesses. In fact this group of space explorers has lots of human weaknesses!

The chief difficulty this series faced is a tough one. If you’re going to do a science fiction series without aliens and monsters how do you provide the action and the suspense that science fiction fans are going to be looking for? The writers manage to meet this challenge with reasonable success although one can’t help wondering how long they could have continued to do so had the series enjoyed a longer run.

If there’s one major criticism that can be levelled at Moonbase 3 it’s that for a serious science fiction program it doesn’t have much in the way of really meaty science fiction content. The focus is almost entirely on the psychological dramas that arise among the crew. It’s no coincidence that one of the three main characters is the base’s resident psychologist, Dr Helen Smith. The psychological dramas are quite interesting though and the emphasis on the peculiar kinds of stresses that arise among a group of people isolated in a hostile environment is quite effective and it does take full advantage of the setting. Of course they could have achieved the same results by setting the series in a remote part of the Earth (such as the Antarctic) but at least by setting it on the Moon they can throw in a few spaceships. On the other hand what science there is is much more realistic than one expects in TV sci-fi.

The production values are what you expect from the notoriously penny-pinching BBC in 1973. In other words they’re pretty awful. The sets and the special effects look very very cheap indeed when compared to something like Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999.

Moonbase 3 was for quite a few years believed to have been another victim of the BBC’s insane policy of destroying practically every archived series they could get their hands on. Fortunately a copy was not only eventually found, it was in pretty good condition and even more fortunately it was a colour copy. The complete series of six episodes has been released on DVD by Second Sight (and I believe it’s an all-region DVD set). There are no extras but image quality is quite good.

Moonbase 3 had potential and even if that potential was not fully realised it has some good moments. It’s intriguingly and daringly different in tone from most television science fiction. It doesn’t always quite succeed but it’s a brave attempt. I think it’s definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Callan - The Richmond File (1972)

Multi-episode story arcs were relatively unusual in television series in the 1960s and 70s but they were certainly not unknown. Callan (1967-72) featured several, including The Richmond File which occupied the final three episodes of the fourth season.

In the first installment of the Richmond File, Call Me Enemy (written by George Markstein), Callan has to debrief a Soviet defector at a safe house out in the countryside. The defector is Richmond, a colonel in the KGB. Rather unusually Callan is assigned to the job on a completely solo basis. He has no other agents to back him up. It’s just the two of them. Considering that Richmond’s KGB career includes a number of killings it seems like a very risky procedure but Callan’s boss Hunter has his reasons for doing it this way.

Partly the idea is that Callan and Richmond are in a way equals. Callan is the top operative for the ultra-secret British counter-intelligence agency known as the Section and he has more than a few killings to his credit. He’s a very experienced and very senior operative. Richmond is equally experienced and equally senior. There are even some uncanny similarities in their backgrounds. With someone as experienced and as tough as Richmond  a conventional interrogation might succeed. If Dr Snell (the Section’s specialist in such things) were put in charge of the interrogation it would certainly succeed but Snell’s methods have an unfortunate tendency to leave the subject permanently damaged. Callan on his own might well have a better chance of finding out what Richmond is really up to.

And Hunter strongly suspects that Richmond is up to something. The possibility that his defection is genuine cannot be ignored but Hunter is inclined to think it’s a setup. 

The stage is set for a battle of wills between two men who are both hardened professionals and both exceptionally strong and devious personalities. Callan’s task is to find a weakness or spot some tiny error that will tell him whether or not Richmond is a genuine defector; Richmond for his part is equally keen to break down Callan’s resistance, either to persuade the Section that he should be given political asylum or to achieve some unknown objective for his KGB masters.

While other series regulars make brief appearances this story is mostly played out by Callan and Richmond. This puts considerable pressure on the two actors involved. Fortunately both Edward Woodward and T.P. McKenna (as Richmond) are equal to the task.

Do You Recognise the Woman? (scripted by Bill Craig) forms the second part of this story arc. Hunter has come up with a typically devious plan to use a Soviet agent currently serving a long sentence in a British prison as a means of trapping Richmond. Since there in no chance that the agent in question, Flo Mayhew (Sarah Lawson), will co-operate voluntarily she will have to be tricked into doing so. Callan always gets the dirtiest jobs so it’s not surprising that he lands this one. He has a bit of a personal interest this time - Flo Mayhew was captured while carrying out an operation for the KGB, the purpose of the operation being to kill Callan.

Despite this he discovers that spies have quite a lot in common. There’s a certain strange camaraderie. He also discovers that even KGB killers have human weaknesses and emotional lives. Even KGB killers as ruthless as Richmond.

In the third installment, A Man Like Me (written by James Mitchell), the net is closing on Richmond but that merely makes him more dangerous. 

The Section is so determined to get him that Hunter is even prepared to resort to using a computer. The computer does provide some leads but Callan’s much more old-fashioned methods provide the vital break.

Of course the climax is going to be a final duel between Callan and Richmond but it manages to provide an ending that is both slightly unexpected and totally satisfying, both dramatically and emotionally.

In The Richmond File Callan finds himself having to confront several Soviet spies as individuals rather than as mere enemies. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Callan is always uncomfortable when he may have to kill someone after getting to know them (that’s part of the business of counter-espionage) but he’s never had to confront the problem with actual KGB officers before. It’s particularly disturbing when he finds himself not only understanding them but liking them.

T.P. McKenna was a very fine character actor and he does a superb job as Richmond. He makes him believable and sympathetic without sentimentalising him. We never forget that while Richmond is intelligent and charming he is also a killer. Just as Callan is a killer. McKenna and Edward Woodward really do work together magnificently in these three episodes. With two actors so perfectly cast and with such very strong scripts you really can’t go wrong.

The Richmond File provided a top-notch finale for the fourth season, which turned out to be the finale for the series as a whole. Callan certainly went out on a very high note indeed. Essential viewing. 

Monday 10 October 2016

The Owl Service (1969)

The Owl Service is a 1969 mini-series from Britain’s Granada Television. It’s a children’s program although it’s obviously aimed at what would probably today be described as the young adult market. In fact it deals with a few concepts that very definitely qualify as adult themes. It’s a fantasy series in a contemporary setting although the supernatural elements are subtle and ambiguous. 

Alan Garner wrote all eight half-hour episodes. He adapted the series from his own novel.

Clive (Edwin Richfield )and his new wife Margaret are holidaying in a remote very rural Welsh valley. Both had been married before. Clive has a teenage son, Roger (Francis Wallis), from his previous marriage while Margaret also has a teenager, Alison (Gillian Hills), from her previous marriage.  Their housekeeper Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and Nancy’s son Gwyn (Michael Holden) complete the household, apart from a gardener named Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), a strange character who may be a bit touched in the head.

Investigating odd scratching noises coming from the attic Alison and Gwyn discover an old dinner service (this is the owl service of the title). The pattern on the plates is a little puzzling but after tracing the design Alison finds that it comprises flowers and that when put together the flowers make an owl. She starts, rather obsessively, to make paper owls from the tracings. The paper owl models seem to have a rather disturbing effect on Alison.

The plates have some kind of connection to a local legend involving a romantic triangle that ended in a strange double murder, one of the murders being committed by a dead man. There’s also a mysterious stone near the house with a hole through it, allegedly made by a spear cast and also connected with the legend. This legend also tells of a woman made from flowers who turns into an owl.

The plates have a surprising property. After Alison copies the design on one of the plates the design disappears from the plate.

There’s a good deal of tension between the various characters, at least some of this tension being emotional or sexual in nature. There’s an obvious attraction between Alison and Gwyn while the relationships between Alison and some of the other characters are slightly unsettling (I did say this series touched on some adult themes).

There are other complications with roots in both the distant and the recent past.

The pacing is leisurely, which is a polite way of saying that it’s slow. I’m inclined to think this story might have worked better as a six-part rather than an eight-part series. There’s not quite enough plot to sustain eight episodes and while it’s useful to develop the characters and the atmosphere of unease at a deliberate pace it really is unnecessarily slow.

Of course a potential problem with a series in which the key characters are children or teenagers is that it makes heavy demands on inexperienced actors. The big problem here is Francis Wallis who fails completely to get a handle on his performance as Roger. Roger ends up being not only a character the viewer doesn’t care about - we also can’t imagine any of the other characters caring about him or even bothering to notice his existence. Michael Holden gets the brooding intensity right as Gwyn. Gillian Hills (who at 25 should have been much too old to be playing a teenager) does pretty well in what is a formidably demanding role.

In some ways The Owl Service strikes me as the kind of series that adults would imagine that teenagers would like. I suspect that actual teenagers might have preferred a bit more spookiness or a bit more excitement, and possibly just a touch of humour. As it stands the series has at times a bit of a dour kitchen-sink drama feel to it. There’s a teen romance angle that would obviously appeal to girls but I can’t imagine most teenage boys lasting beyond the first couple of episodes. That’s not to say that this is a bad series. It’s just terribly serious and intense, and slow.

At the time there were those who felt that the series was quite unsuitable for children and I have to say I agree with them. It’s wildly unsuitable material. Alan Garner’s original novel was apparently not actually intended as a children’s novel although it ended up being labelled as such. It’s probably better (and less disturbing) not to regard The Owl Service as a children’s series at all.

It also has a feature that is, alas, rather common in British television of its era - it pits cruel snobby wicked upper-class people against a noble long-suffering working-class hero. This is always tiresome and in this case it also seems like an unnecessary distraction from the main story.

The inspiration for both the novel and the TV series was a Welsh legend from The Mabinogion. A wizard creates a woman named Blodeuwedd out of flowers, and as a punishment for betraying her husband (and causing two murders) she is turned into an owl. The central premise of The Owl Service is that the tragic romantic triangle of the legend is destined to repeat itself over and over again.

Rather surprisingly for the period this series was shot mostly on location in Wales. It was also shot in colour at a time when this was still unusual for British television. Unfortunately it went to air in December 1969 in black-and-white and was not seen in colour until 1978.

Network’s DVD release contains all eight episodes and image quality is pretty good. There are some worthwhile extras as well. There’s a documentary film on Alan Garner which left me determined not to read any of his books. More interestingly is the accompanying booklet which includes an incredibly detailed essay on the production of the series, interviews with Gillian Hills and Raymond Llewellyn and a brief but enthusiastic appreciation by Kim Newman.

The Owl Service was a wildly ambitious project. Not surprisingly it’s not always a complete success. Producer-director Peter Plummer approaches the series more in the spirit of an art film than a popular television series and on occasion he gets a little carried away (the surreal touches in the final episode seem out of place). At times it’s heavy going and it has severe pacing problems but it’s still a fascinating if somewhat pretentious attempt to do something different in the field of television fantasy. If you have a higher tolerance than I have for artiness and you can overlook some clumsy “social commentary” then it’s worth a look.