Wednesday 27 January 2016

Star Trek - A Piece of the Action (1968)

I've just been watching A Piece of the Action, from season two of the original Star Trek (this episode was first broadcast in 1968). It really is great fun seeing William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy doing the hardboiled gangster thing! Star Trek at times veered perilously in the direction of silliness but sometimes the silliness worked remarkably well, as it does in this episode.

Those suits are pretty sharp as well. Not to mention the very sleek 1920s roadster that Kirk drives (very badly).

One of the most successful comedy-themed episodes of the series. I loved this one!

Wednesday 20 January 2016

The Sweeney, season 1 (1975)

In 1971 Britain’s Thames Television set up a production company called Euston Films. The idea was that the company would pioneer a new style of British police action TV series. They would abandon completely the traditional shot-on-videotape style of British TV. They would be shot entirely on film, with lots of location shooting and a fast-paced, hard-hitting approach. For their first production in 1973 they revived Special Branch which had originally aired for two seasons in 1969-1970. The new version of Special Branch (which bore no resemblance to its earlier incarnation) was reasonably successful. Euston really hit pay dirt with their next attempt, The Sweeney, which ran for four seasons from 1975 to 1978.

The Sweeney was like no previous British cop show. It was much tougher, much more violent, much more action-oriented, much grittier and it moved a whole lot faster. The end result was one of the greatest cop shows of all time.

The pilot episode, entitled Regan, was made as part of the Armchair Cinema series and introduced viewers to Detective-Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw). Regan was in the grand tradition of the maverick cop who breaks all the rules but gets results. The pilot was successful and the series got the go-ahead.

Apart from its revolutionary style the series also owed much of its success to the performance of John Thaw. Thaw was by no means an unknown, having already starred in the fairly successful series Redcap. The Sweeney would make him a television legend and he would of course go on to even greater fame in the late 80s with Inspector Morse.

Jack Regan could have been just another maverick cop but as well as making him a very convincing tough guy Thaw adds unexpected touches of warmth and a wry sense of humour. Dennis Waterman as Detective-Sergeant George Carter is the perfect foil for Thaw. Garfield Morgan is superb as their boss, Detective Chief Inspector Haskins, another character who could have been a mere stereotype but becomes an interestingly complex personality.

The Sweeney is certainly gritty and it’s also at times very dark and with a fair leavening of cynicism. Regan and Carter don’t always get their man. Sometimes things go wrong; sometimes things go badly wrong. However The Sweeney avoids the excessively cynical and even nihilistic tone that makes some British series of the era very heavy going. There are moments of humour in every episode and there’s the occasional episode that is played in an almost tongue-in-cheek style. And while Regan and Carter don’t solve every case they do solve a lot of them. Sometimes the good guys do win.

The Sweeney attracted attention at the time for its violence and its toughness but its success had a lot to do with finding just the right balance. It wasn’t too pessimistic. It portrayed a criminal justice system that was far from perfect but that did work a lot of the time. The police could be brutal but they were dealing with brutal criminals. If society expects to be protected from brutal people then we have to accept that policemen can’t always be Boy Scouts. The 1970s was a period of social disintegration. This was no longer  the kind of England that could be policed by loveable kindly bobbies like Dixon of Dock Green.

Jack Regan is prepared to bend the rules when he needs to and on occasions he bends them quite a bit. In spite of this he is unequivocally an honest cop. And while he is happy to break a few heads when dealing with the nastier sort of villains he is not without human feelings. Regan does a job that he believes in and he does it as efficiently as he knows how. He’s not a mere thug or a vigilante. 

In The Placer Regan goes undercover investigating a series of lorry hijackings. It’s an episode that demonstrates the series’ ability to take a fairly routine crime story but make it memorable due to the fact that the execution is top-notch. Stoppo Driver starts with a robbery gone wrong in which the getaway driver is killed, leaving a criminal gang in search of a new driver whom they find in a rather unexpected place.

Cover Story is one of many episodes in which Regan gets personally involved in a case, usually too personally involved. This time it’s a beautiful female crime reporter, but does she just report crime or does she actually get involved in the crimes she reports on? Regan’s human side is very much in evidence in this one.

Abduction deals with a theme that is somewhat overused in TV cop shows - criminals targeting a police officer and/or his family. However it’s done well in this episode. It offers another opportunity to see Regan’s human side. More importantly it fleshes out the relationship between Regan and his boss, DCI Haskins. Haskins often disapproves of Regan’s methods and in this case he disapproves very strongly but he finally realises where Regan is coming from and his disapproval changes to respect. It’s typical of the complexity of this series that Haskins, a secondary character, is a fully rounded character who has his weaknesses and his blind spots but also has the ability to admit to being wrong and the ability to try to understand Regan even though the two men are temperamentally poles apart. 

Interestingly enough in the episode Contact Breaker it’s Jack Regan who has to admit that he’s been wrong about Haskins. These are two men who find it very difficult to admit to making mistakes but, just as in the real world, sometimes you have to learn to do just that. This is a cop show for grownups - it avoids easy stereotypes about people and their inter-relationships. Contact Breaker also shows Regan having to put aside his prejudices. He has enough evidence to make an arrest and the suspect is a known villain but Regan has a niggling suspicion that he might be innocent. As much as he dislikes professional villains he dislikes the idea of sending an innocent man to prison even more.

In Golden Boy Regan and Carter just happen to come across Harry Fuller in a pub. Harry is very drunk and he has a lot of money to throw about. Which is odd, since a week earlier he was penniless. Harry sells information, to the police and to anyone else who pays, but he’s small-time. To have that much money means he’s sold some important information and he hasn’t sold it to the police. Carter thinks there’s nothing in it but Regan has a hunch there’s something big behind it. And he’s right. Regan gets his big break on this case when a successful young CEO reports his car stolen. This seems to have no connection with a major crime but Regan is sure it just doesn’t smell right.

Big Spender starts with Regan and Carter being ordered to find evidence, any evidence, that will put away three clever but vicious criminal brothers. Their prospects don’t seem promising until they stumble onto a connection with a multi-storey car park, a mild-mannered accountant with way too much money and a very high-class courtesan. There’s the touch of sleaze that you expect in mid-70s British TV, and some dark humour courtesy of Warren Mitchell’s outrageous performance as the errant accountant.

Network have released the entire series on DVD and it looks extremely good. More recently they have released season 1 on Blu-Ray.

The Sweeney has aged remarkably well. If you ignore the sometimes embarrassing 1970s fashions this series still comes across as tough, fast-moving, action-packed and exciting with a leavening of wry humour and flashes of human warmth. And a great deal of style.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Lord Peter Wimsey - Five Red Herrings (1975)

Five Red Herrings was the last of the superb BBC adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries starring Ian Carmichael. Comprising four one-hour episodes, Five Red Herrings originally went to air in 1975.

I personally think the BBC adaptations were more enjoyable than Sayers’ novels. Nit-pickers might object that Ian Carmichael was by this time a little too old for the role but he’s so absolutely perfect that it doesn’t matter.

This is in some ways the most outrageous of the five BBC adaptations, with the victim and all the suspects being artists and all of them wildly eccentric.

Lord Peter is in Scotland, looking forward to two weeks of relaxation and fishing. He is of course accompanied by his gentleman’s gentleman Bunter (who also provides a good deal of useful assistance in Lord Peter’s crme-solving activities). Bunter, a keen Sunday painter,  is hoping for an equally relaxing time with his brushes and his easels. Of course it is not to be - wherever Wimsey goes murder is sure to follow.

The Scottish village that Wimsey has chosen for his holiday is something of an artists’ colony. Everybody there seems to be a painter. Even the secretary of the golf club is a painter. And what do you get when you put a group of artists together? You get an extraordinary amount of bitchiness, back-biting, jealousy and murderous rages. The catalyst for much of the trouble is the incredibly bad-tempered argumentative Campbell. Just about everyone has at some time threatened to kill him, and he’s threatened to kill them as well. 

When murder finally is committed it does not come as a great surprise.

And it is murder, although it has been cunningly contrived to appear to be an accident. Wimsey knows it is murder because the paint on the painting at the murder scene is still wet, which is impossible. Equally impossible is the absence of a certain tube of paint.

It is clear that the murderer has to be one of six local artists. Therefore five of these artists must be red herrings.

As you would expect in an adaptation of a golden age detective novel alibis play an absolutely crucial role. This means a great deal of emphasis on railway and bus time-tables, on the time it would take a man to travel a certain distance no foot, by bicycle or in a car, on the accuracy or otherwise of eyewitness sightings of suspects, and all the other similar stuff that golden age detection fans like myself dote on. In this case it all reaches a climax in the re-enactment of the crime - this very extended sequence (taking up most of the final episode) is an absolute tour-de-force as Lord Peter gradually reveals the intricate manner in which the murder was planned and carried out. Detective novels often end with the detective offering a lengthy description of such events but having it all re-enacted by the indefatigable Lord Peter (and the long-suffering Bunter who must endure of good deal of discomfort in the process) makes it much more fun. Ian Carmichael really throws himself into these sequences and seems to be having enormous fun. 

There is however more to this story than elaborate alibis. The lineup of suspects is a delightfully rich gallery of outrageous and extremely entertaining eccentrics. All the suspects have powerful motives and secrets to hide and the motives reveal just what a powder keg an artists’ colony can be!

Ian Carmichael is in magnificent form. It was a tricky role - Wimsey’s affectations could easily make him appear to be a bit of an ass but the viewer has to be convinced that he really is a shrewd and determined sleuth. He has to be amusing but also have a certain dignity. He has to be witty and charming but with some emotional depth. We have to both like him and respect him. The affectations can’t be downplayed - they’re an essential ingredient of the character but we have to believe that he is more than just a collection of aristocratic affectations. He has to be able to exclaim “What ho!” and “Jolly good” without seeming ridiculous. Carmichael carries it all off with effortless style.

Glyn Houston is as solid as ever as Bunter. The supporting cast is very strong. The highlight may well be Russell Hunter’s deliciously bizarre performance as Matthew Gowan, although the young Julie Peasgood’s splendidly over-the-top turn as the precocious Fenella Strachan is also memorable.

There’s some lovely location shooting in Scotland as an added bonus.

Acorn Media’s DVD release offers a satisfactory transfer. The only significant extra is an excerpt from an interview with Ian Carmichael.

All five of the 1970s BBC Lord Peter Wimsey series are delightful but this one might be the most enjoyable of them all. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 3 January 2016

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956)

The Adventures of Robin Hood, launched in 1955, having proved to be a huge success for Lew Grade’s fledgeling ITC Entertainment it was hardly surprising that the company followed it up with several more medieval action/adventure series. One of these was The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which was produced for them by Sapphire Films (a company that enjoyed some success until the heavy-handed politicking of the ill-fated The Four Just Men series sank them).

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot was screened by NBC in the US and was sufficiently popular to prompt the bold decision to make the final fourteen episodes in colour.

William Russell, best remembered as one of the early companions of Doctor Who, played the title role with a considerable amount of both dash and charm.

The first episode, The Knight with the Red Plume, deals with Sir Lancelot’s arrival at Camelot, an arrival that is not welcome by everyone. In fact Lancelot is accused of having slain the brother of one of the Knights of the Round Table. Could Lancelot actually be a villain? It’s a reasonably serious introduction to the series although there are certainly some light-hearted moments as well. 

We also meet Merlin for the first time and an interesting character he is. As a magician he’s a total fake. His magic is a mixture of illusionism, applied science and out-and-out trickery. In fact all of the magic in this series falls into these categories - there are no real supernatural elements at all. This is actually an advantage. The trouble with magic is that it’s all too easy to use it as a plot device to get a writer out of a tight corner rather than having the writer use some imagination, and it can also make things too easy for the hero (or for the villains). On the whole the decision to include no genuine magic was the right one.

On the other hand while Merlin’s magic might be faked he really is a wise old bird and a shrewd and intelligent adviser to King Arthur - the phony magic is necessary to make people believe in him and listen to his generally very sound advice.  

The following episode, The Ferocious Fathers, is much more light-hearted and at times almost farcical. Of course it has to be remembered that this was a kids’ show so one can hardly complain if it’s a bit lightweight. The episode does have some genuinely amusing moments and it gives William Russell the chance to show that he can handle light comedy rather well. This episode also introduces Brian (Robert Scroggins), a kitchen boy who wants to become a knight and who will become Lancelot’s sidekick. The series was of course aimed largely at kids so giving Lancelot a youthful sidekick made sound commercial sense, and luckily he’s not overly annoying.

The Queen’s Knight introduces Sir Mordred, the chief villain of the Arthurian legends, and he’s up to some dastardly villainy here. In The Outcast Lancelot encounters opposition when he announces that he intends to have his new young squire Brian trained as a knight. There are some slightly grating anachronistic class conflicts in this story and it’s a bit too predictable (this predictability is unfortunately a fault with quite a few of the episodes). Winged Victory on the other hand is a fine episode enlivened by Nigel Green’s performance as the treacherous King Mark who captures Lancelot and puts him to the torture to persuade him to reveal King Arthur’s battle plans for the capture of Mark’s castle.

The Lesser Breed was one of the colour episodes and it does look rather splendid. Witches Brew is another colour episode and it’s a good one, having the advantage of a reasonably strong and interesting plot. Plus it features a contest between Merlin and a beautiful but evil sorceress! And hypnotism!

The limited budget means that many episodes are very light on action and even lighter on spectacle and the half-hour format and the need to tailor the series towards kids mean that some of the scripts are pretty lightweight and under-developed. The episode The Bridge features an epic battle for control of a bridge - with half a dozen villagers defending the bridge and four knights as the assault force. Even a dozen more extras would have helped.

It’s always fun to see guest appearances by unknown actors who later went on to stardom, such as Patrick McGoohan as a dastardly knight in The Outcast.

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot offers a pleasing and light-hearted mix of adventure and gentle humour with just an occasional hint of romance.

These medieval adventure series were essentially the British equivalents of American TV westerns, and in particular those TV westerns aimed at younger viewers (such as Annie Oakley). You know that good will triumph and that Sir Lancelot will always act bravely and nobly. There’s always some action but not too much obvious bloodshed. I don’t mind that - I don’t require that a show aimed at younger audiences should be dark and edgy and cynical. I don’t even demand that a show aimed at adult audiences should go overboard on darkness, edginess and cynicism.

Don’t expect too much historical accuracy. If there really was a King Arthur he lived in the 6th century AD while the arms and armour in this series clearly date from many centuries later. But then most of the stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are of course much later medieval legends. This series gives us the legendary version, which is what television audiences in the 50s would have expected since that’s what they’d seen in Hollywood movies like Knights of the Round Table.

On the other hand the producers went to a lot of trouble with the sets and costumes and they look splendid given the very limited television budgets. William Russell makes a lively and very personable hero and handles the action scenes with dash and enthusiasm.

Network have released the entire series on DVD. Happily all 30 episodes have survived. The DVD set includes colour transfers of 12 of the 14 episodes made in colour. The picture quality is slightly variable (as you’d expect in a series made 60 years ago) but on the whole the quality is fine and most of the colour episodes look superb.

As long as you remember that it was aimed at younger audiences this series is great fun and highly recommended.

Friday 1 January 2016

Cult TV highlights of 2015

I watched a lot of cult television in 2015. In fact 383 episodes’ worth, dating from 1956 to 1976. So what were the particular highlights? It’s not easy to chose from so many episodes but here’s my attempt. They’re in chronological order - I couldn’t possibly attempt to put them in order of merit.

First up was the Killer in Town episode of M Squad from 1957, one of the great 50s crime series and Lee Marvin’s only television series. Despite incredible shooting schedules (they shot each episode in two days) the overall quality of this series was remarkably high. It also had some definite hints of film noir.

Next is A Chorus of Frogs from 1963, universally recognised as the best of the Venus Smith episodes of The Avengers and a very fine episode by any standard.

Colony Three was perhaps the most ambitious of the one-hour Danger Man episodes and was a kind of dry run for The Prisoner.

The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth was the episode that really put The Wild Wild West on its feet after a shaky start.

The Bishop Rides Again was the pilot for one of the most unjustly neglected British comedies of the 60s, All Gas and Gaiters.

The offbeat 1967 British detective series Mr Rose has been one of my most exciting discoveries of the year. Picking a standout episode is almost impossible but if pressed I’ll go for The Jolly Swagman or The Tin God.

All Done With Mirrors may well be the best of all the Tara King episodes of The Avengers but my particular favourite is Look - (stop me if you've heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers...

This year I rediscovered The Persuaders, and great fun it is too. A Death in the Family, with Roger Moore playing multiple roles, is hard to beat.

Public Eye is an old favourite of mine and Who Wants to Be Told Bad News? sums up the quirkiness of this series extremely well.

I’ve always had a soft spot for The New Avengers. The later Canadian episodes have a poor reputation but Forward Base is actually superb, and it’s classic Avengers stuff - an outrageous plot, bizarre characters and more than a hint of the surreal. The slow-motion swan boat chase is a wonderful touch.

Another major discovery this year has been Paul Temple, a series I will definitely be posting about in the neat future. Cue Murder! is an especially fine episode.