Saturday 27 February 2016

Dynasty (1981-89)

One of the reasons I enjoy doing this blog is that it inspires me to watch lots and lots of old TV shows. And one of the reasons I enjoy watching so many old TV shows is that I missed  so many of them in the past. I am afraid that when I was younger I took life rather too seriously. In was a bit of a pop culture snob. There were certain types of television shows that I would never have considered watching. Shows like Dynasty and Dallas for example.

Fortunately I have overcome most of my prejudices and as a result I’ve been watching both Dynasty and Dallas recently, and enjoying them both a lot more than I expected to.

Of course the two series have a great deal in common. Both are soap operas, albeit big-budget prime-time soap operas. Both deal with oil billionaires. Both focus on the lifestyles of the very wealthy. Both focus not only on the personal and family dramas that are the staple of soap operas but also on the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes in the world of big business. Both feature outrageous over-the-top characters and both feature delightfully outlandish plot lines. Both include unscrupulous conniving characters (J. R. Ewing in Dallas and Alexis Carrington in Dynasty) that the audience loves to hate. Both series wear their trashiness as a badge of pride, which is something I admire tremendously.

There are however some subtle differences. Having now watched quite a bit of both these shows it seems to me that Dallas is a bit more grounded in reality. The characters are more or less believable - even J. R. might be larger than life and over-the-top but he is still just about believable. The other characters are mostly reasonably realistic. The story lines are convoluted and rely to a considerable extent on coincidence and they can get pretty outrageous (all of which is simply to say that it conforms to the conventions of the soap opera genre) but they still maintain at least a modicum of plausibility.

Dynasty on the other hand abandons any pretense at realism. This is pure fantasy stuff. The characters are straight-out melodrama figures, and the villainous characters are pure melodrama villains (or villainesses). The stories make no attempt to remain within the bounds of probability or plausibility. In other words Dynasty conforms to the conventions of melodrama - not the Hollywood style of melodrama but the classic stage melodramas of the 19th century.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Dynasty. The approach the producers decided to run with was a deliberate choice and it’s a perfectly valid choice. And that choice having been made the writers, directors and cast have done a splendid job and the results are ridiculously entertaining (even if at times they’re also entertainingly ridiculous).

On the whole I think I slightly prefer Dallas but I’m certainly not immune to the charms of Dynasty. And it’s Dynasty I’m supposed to be talking about at the moment.

Dynasty tells the story of oil billionaire Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) and the immensely complicated inter-relationships of his ill-assorted and frequently feuding family members. Forsythe wasn’t a bad actor but he knows this is soap opera and he is never tempted to try for subtlety. He knows what is expected of him in this sort of television and he delivers the goods.

Of course Dynasty’s biggest drawcard and its greatest asset is Joan Collins. She is magnificent. She knows it’s her job to be the uber-bitch and she knows just how to go about it. Alexis is appalling and yet she’s so mesmerising and so magnetic and she plays the bitch with so much style that you almost find yourself on her side.

Joan Collins is the sort of actress who is likely to overshadow everyone else but this doesn’t really happen. Everybody else is overacting as hard as they can and for the most part they succeed in not being overshadowed too badly. Pamela Sue Martin as Alexis’s daughter Fallon Carrington is certainly in no danger of that - she holds her own very convincingly. She might not be an uber-bitch but she’s capable of some pretty impressive scheming of her own and she can be frightening formidable when she’s set her mind on something. Young actresses don’t always have the confidence to give outrageously over-the-top performances but Pamela Sue Martin is most definitely not afraid to do so. Blake’s wife Krystle (Linda Evans) is one of the more sympathetic characters but even she has her moments, and to her credit Evans is not intimidated even by Joan Collins in full flight.

When you happen to come across an episode like The Downstairs Bride which features Joan Collins, Pamela Sue Martin and Heather Locklear all competing to see who can be the most deliciously bitchy then you have true trash TV heaven.

And the scenery-chewing and the gloriously excessive viciousness and backbiting are not monopolised by the male characters, with Adam Carrington (Gordon Thomson) being perhaps even more breathtakingly appalling than Alexis.

The acting in this series could not in all honesty be described as good acting in the conventional sense. It’s soap opera acting and (with a few exceptions) it strikes the right notes. You just can’t be too excessive in this kind of television.

Dynasty began its run in 1981 and at the moment I’m getting close to the end of the third season which takes us up to 1983. As you’d expect there’s a lot of early 80s style to the show but while there’s some amusing and rather delightful expensive bad taste on display by 80s standards the overall look of the series is by no means as ghastly as you might expect (although some of Linda Evans’ costumes are rather frightening). Joan Collins of course could look stylish in anything and always manages to look magnificent.

Dynasty is trashy, no question about it, but it doesn’t care. It’s not afraid to go all the way, and then go even further. You really can’t push high camp much further than this. Its sheer extravagant and shameless outrageousness is intoxicating. It’s a lot of fun. Plus you get Joan Collins at the absolute peak of her form. Recommended.

Friday 19 February 2016

Burke’s Law, season one (1963)

When a television cop show is centred around a police captain who happens to be a multi-millionaire and who gets driven to crime scenes in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, I think it’s fair to assume we’re not meant to take the program all that seriously. Such is definitely the case with Burke’s Law, which ran from 1963 to 1965.

Captain Amos Burke (Gene Barry) is the chief of the homicide division but he only turns up at the police headquarters when an actual murder occurs. The rest of the time he spends lazing on the beach with his beautiful girlfriend, chasing other equally beautiful women, attending exclusive parties and hanging out at expensive night-spots. It’s a tough life being a cop.

But don’t let appearances fool you. Amos Burke is actually a very good detective and he takes murder very seriously. Of course if there are two suspects to be questioned, and one is  female and attractive and the other is neither of those things, somehow Captain Burke always ends up interviewing the attractive female. 

Of course a TV cop has to have side-kicks. Burke has two. One is an old-time hard-bitten cop played by Regis Toomey, the other is young ambitious up-and-comer Tim Tilson, played by Gary Conway. Tim is efficient to a fault. No matter what needs to be done, he’s already done it. His superior regards all this with amusement rather than jealousy.

It’s all played with tongue planted firmly in cheek. There are running jokes, there are wisecracks, there are bizarre suspects. What’s pleasant is that everyone is clearly in on the joke, including the guest stars. Elizabeth Montgomery hams it up outrageously in Who Killed Mr X as a ditzy blonde sexpot actress who is obviously a kept woman for a wealthy eccentric.  

In the following episode, Who Killed Cable Roberts, it’s the turn of Lizabeth Scott, still looking remarkably glamorous in one of her last screen appearances before her retirement became final and determined to show she can chew scenery with the best of them. Any scenery still left unchewed is taken care of by Paul Lynde and Zsa Zsa Gabor in supporting roles. When you’ve got Zsa Zsa Gabor cast as a maid you know that this is not exactly going to be a gritty realistic police procedural.

There are three key ingredients in this show - humour, glamour and sexiness. The humour is good-natured and fun, the glamour is over-the-top (it was produced by Aaron Spelling, later responsible for Dynasty), and it’s as sexy as a prime-time network TV show could get away with being in 1963. Amos Burke is a character who could be insufferable but Gene Barry strikes just the right note, making him likable, genuinely charming and extremely witty.

Gritty it may not be, but the tongue-in-cheek approach is combined with reasonably good and well-written whodunit stories.

The guest stars are a mix of movie stars in the twilight of their careers and young up-and-comers, but the witty scripts and the ample opportunities to overact inspire them all and the show benefits from some truly glorious and outrageous performances. Anne Francis’s guest performance landed her her own spin-off series as glamorous private eye Honey West. Carolyn Jones (better known as Morticia Addams from The Addams Family) makes a couple of guest appearances, in one episode playing no less than four parts. Yvonne de Carlo, Ida Lupino, Tina Louise and Annette Funicello are among other guest stars.

If you think this sounds like a delightful frothy concoction then you’re spot on. It’s a hugely enjoyable romp.

Burke’s Law ran for two seasons, followed by a third season with a new title (Amos Burke Secret Agent) and a revamped formula, the new formula sadly being much less successful than the original.

I have the season 1 boxed set and I will definitely be buying the season 2 set as well, assuming that it finally gets released (which unfortunately seems increasingly unlikely).

Monday 8 February 2016

Public Eye, season 5 (1971)

Public Eye is both one of the best and one of the most unusual of all television private eye series. The first three seasons were produced by Britain’s ABC Television between 1965 and 1968. After the merger of ABC and Associated-Rediffusion to form Thames Television four more seasons were made between 1969 and 1975.

All but a handful of the ABC episodes are lost but happily all the Thames episodes survive. 

When Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott created the series they had a very definite aim in view - Public Eye would strip away the glamour and the tough guy aura from the private eye genre. The hero, Frank Marker, would be a very ordinary private detective (or private enquiry agent as they were usually known in Britain). He would handle the sorts of cases that an actual private enquiry agent would handle - a bit of divorce work, missing persons cases, credit checks and other routine matters. While Marker is no wimp he dislikes violence intensely. Fortunately violence is rather uncommon in the usual run of cases that such a man would deal with.

Marker is very unglamorous indeed. He is middle-aged, he doesn’t own a car, he most certainly does not own a gun, he is no fashion plate (he is often a bit on the dishevelled side), he is more at home with a pint of bitter and a packet of crisps than sampling vintage wines or gourmet food.

It all sounds deadly dull. It isn’t. It’s not only intelligent and thoughtful television, it’s immensely entertaining and totally fascinating. It success stems from the soundness of the original idea, the consistently high quality of the scripts and the superb performance of Alfred Burke as Marker.

Public Eye was made in the usual style of late 1960s/early 1970s British TV - shot on videotape in the studio with a relatively small amount of outdoor shooting on film. Towards the end of its run Thames contemplated switching the series over to the new style that their subsidiary Euston Films had pioneered with Special Branch and The Sweeney - series shot entirely on film with much more location shooting, faster pacing and much more action. Alfred Burke felt that this would be a very bad idea indeed and decided to call it a day, and thus this very popular series ended with the 1975 season. Burke was absolutely correct - Public Eye would never have worked in this new style. The older shot-on-videotape-in-the-studio approach suited the material perfectly, giving it a slightly seedy and slightly claustrophobic feel and allowing the emphasis to be on character rather than action.

At the time this series was made British television was also moving towards a focus on gritty realism, violence and cynicism. Public Eye adopted a slightly different approach. While it can be at times quite dark and it does have its own distinctive style of kitchen-sink realism and can be quite gritty it never really succumbs to cynicism. It certainly never succumbs to nihilism or despair. Frank Marker might be a very down-at-heel private eye who makes a very modest living out of the game he is not a man given to despair or self-pity. He mostly enjoys his work. Sometimes it’s a bit sordid but it can be interesting and it beats digging ditches for a living. And besides, it’s all he knows. He has his share of troubles and setbacks, even serving a term in prison after being set up by a client, but Marker is the kind of guy who picks himself up again and gets on with life. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself and he doesn’t need anyone to feel sorry for him. He’s unmarried and a loner but on the whole he finds the human race to be quite interesting and even worthy of a certain guarded affection.

The rather short Season 4 had been something of an experiment. Each episode had a self-contained plot but there was also an overall story arc, following Marker’s (successful) attempts to get back on his feet after being in prison. Season 5 followed a more conventional format with no ongoing story arcs. It also saw Marker relocate from Brighton to Windsor.

Marker’s office in Windsor sets the tone of the series exceptionally well. It’s a poky shopfront and there is no glamorous secretary to answer the telephone because Marker can’t afford a secretary. Just inside the door there are bookshelves - all of them completely empty! This could be a depressing or even a pathetic touch but oddly enough it isn’t. Frank Marker doesn’t believe in cluttering up his life with anything that is not strictly necessary and it would never occur to him to fill the bookshelves just to make a good impression.

Who Wants to Be Told Bad News? is a particularly fine episode demonstrating the masterful way in which the writers on this series could make great stories out of the most seemingly mundane cases. In this instance it’s a credit check. It seems that a remarkable number of people just don’t want Marker to help then.

The Man Who Didn't Eat Sweets shows that checking up on an unfaithful husband can produce results that can even surprise the most hardened private detective.

Ward of the Court presents Marker with one of those cases he wishes he hadn’t taken on. He has to find a father who has taken his son from his estranged wife. Although he’s working for the mother he finds himself in sympathy with the father, but to make things more difficult he can still see the mother’s point of view and in fact both parents seem more intent on hurting each other than on the boy’s welfare. Not an especially pleasant job, but he’s taken it and now he can see no alternative other than to see it through. An episode typical of the moral complexity of this series - sometimes you have two choices and whichever you choose someone gets hurt.

Transatlantic Cousins is the type of episode that really illustrates the genius of this series. Marker takes on a case that is remarkable for being so trivial and minor. In a conventional private eye series the case would of course turn out to be something much more serious. Public Eye avoids that kind of obviousness. The case really is as trivial as it seems to be. Marker encounters a wealthy American tourist named John L’Etrell in an antique shop. The American, whose family went to the US in the 18th century, wants to find his long-lost English cousins. What he finds is an English baronet who is a shocking old reprobate. 

That’s all there is to the story. There are no crimes, no conspiracies, no deep dark family secrets. And yet this episode is compulsively watchable. It’s a finely crafted piece of social observation. Not social criticism, just social observation. It’s about real people and no matter how trivial it might all be to the people involved these things are important. Real people do concern themselves with matters that appear trivial to outsiders. And these are real people - what makes it especially interesting is that at first they seem to be stereotypes, but actually they aren’t. John L’Etrell seems to be the archetypal brash American tourist but he’s actually a pretty decent guy. His daughter seems to be the archetypal rebellious daughter but she isn’t. Despite initial appearances she loves her father and she respects him. Sir Roger L’Etrell seems to be the archetypal wicked old aristocrat but he’s really a rather sad old man. James Doran’s script displays the perfect lightness of touch.

Shades of White is somewhat darker. A rich man wants Marker to check up on his teenaged daughter’s wild friends. Marker discovers things he would be have been happier not knowing and his faith in human nature takes a bit of a knock. We know he’ll get over it, he always does, but it will hurt for a while. John VII. Verse 24 is another story that has a somewhat serious tone. Marker is employed by a policeman who claims to be victimised by a corrupt senior officer. This is the sort of case that Marker really prefers to avoid like the plague. There’s just too much potential for serious aggravation and the last thing Frank Marker wants is trouble with the police. It’s his stubborn streak that makes him stick to this case. When someone warns him off a case he digs his heels in.

Generally speaking I’m not a great fan of television series (or movies) that aim for absolute realism. My tastes tend to run more towards the fantastic and the baroque (series like The Avengers). If you’re going to aim for absolute realism you really have to do it well. Public Eye does it very very well indeed. It’s an object lesson in how to take apparently mundane  subject matter and turn it into fascinating and very entertaining television, helped by great writing and Alfred Burke’s superb acting.

The four Thames TV seasons have all been released on DVD by Network, as have the surviving ABC episodes (as Public Eye: The ABC Years).

Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Man in a Suitcase (1967-68)

Man in a Suitcase was an ITC series that screened on British television from 1967 to 1968 and on ABC in the US in 1968. It marked a bit of an interesting departure from the standard pattern of ITC’s action adventure series, having a decidedly hardboiled flavour to it.

It was created by Richard Harris and Dennis Spooner but once the series started production they played no further part in proceedings.

The central character is McGill, a disgraced ex-CIA agent who now earns his living as a freelance private enquiry agent. The first episode to be filmed (although for some curious reason it was not the first to go to air), Man from the Dead, gives us McGill’s backstory. He was a high-ranking CIA operative who had been forced to resign under suspicion of treason. He had always claimed that he was set up. This opening episode is a little contrived and thanks to one unfortunate casting choice it stretches credibility a little, but it explains why an ex-CIA man is working as a private eye, and it does fulfill the necessary function of explaining why he’s a somewhat embittered loner with a chip on his shoulder. It also sets a pattern for the rest of the series - the script is routine but the execution is exceptionally interesting and the tone is intriguingly dark and edgy.

While the original idea (and it’s by no means a bad one) was to have a hardboiled cynical American private eye based in London it’s clear from the interview with him included in Network’s DVD boxed set that the star of the series, Richard Bradford, had more grandiose ambitions for the series. He hoped it would be something quite ground-breaking - something much tougher and very much more realistic than any previous secret agent/private eye series. In particular Bradford had very definite ideas on how the violence in the series should be handled. McGill is after all a trained spy - he’s a very tough guy. And the people he comes up against are hard men as well. When those sorts of people fight it’s a serious matter. It’s a big deal. You don’t just pick yourself up and dust yourself off afterwards. You’re lucky if you can walk at all. That’s the kind of thing Bradford wanted to bring to the series - that violence has consequences. People get badly hurt.

This was all very well but Bradford was also a Method actor. Not just a Method actor, but a young, slightly cocky Method actor who liked to bring all the moody intensity of Method acting to his performances. This was bound to raise some eyebrows among British television people accustomed to a very different approach to acting. Added to this, as Bradford admits, being young at the time he tended to be somewhat more abrasive than was really necessary. Not surprisingly he earned the reputation of being temperamental and difficult to work with. He also earned a reputation for excessive enthusiasm when it came to doing fight scenes, to the point where stuntmen disliked working with him. To cap it all off he clashed with the producers over various issues, particularly the quality of the scripts.

In retrospect this was unfortunate because the interview also makes it clear that Bradford was genuinely excited by the series and approached it with a considerable degree of passion and commitment. His criticisms of the uneven nature of the scripts were interestingly enough echoed a few years later by another American actor working on an ITC series, Tony Curtis (in The Persuaders!) and it has to be admitted that both Bradford and Curtis had a point. ITC did have a tendency to let scripts go by that really should have had more work done on them and they also had a habit of recycling scripts (which particularly irritated Bradford).

Bradford’s Method acting also, inevitably, antagonised some British critics, especially those who already disapproved of ITC’s practice of hiring American actors.

Despite these problems Man in a Suitcase really is in its own way rather ground-breaking, just as its star had hoped. The tough, gritty and cynical tone and the realistic approach to violence anticipated the very approach that British television would start to adopt in the late 60s and early 70s, in landmark series such as Callan. The visual style of Man in a Suitcase also marks it as a transitional series - there’s the usual extensive use of stock footage but there’s also slightly more location shooting than you might expect (and in Man from the Dead the location shooting is extremely effective). There’s also at times a definite hint of a film noir visual style. There’s even actual night shooting, rather than just the usual day-for-night shooting.

The episodes alternate between straightforward private eye and espionage-themed plots (McGill might not be in the CIA any longer but it’s the kind of past that tends to catch up to a man). Brainwash is a particularly strong example of the espionage stories and it’s characterised by a bold and effective visual style that builds up the paranoia very nicely. Somebody Loses, Somebody... Wins? is another fine spy story with all the obligatory double-crosses and betrayals. The Girl Who Never Was isn’t very original but it’s enlivened by a fine performance by Bernard Lee cast against type as a seedy sleazy broken-down ex-soldier who thinks he’s finally going to make it big when he tracks down a hitherto lost Botticelli. 

The Boston Square is another espionage-themed episode, involving oceanographers, undersea farming in the Adriatic and defence secrets. In Web with Four Spiders McGill has to protect a high-profile American lawyer from blackmail, with the future of outer space at stake.

Why They Killed Nolan is on the other hand standard private eye fare but the double-chase them (the hero hunts the bad guy while the police hunt the hero) is handled well. Sweet Sue is amusing for its look at the excesses of youth culture and young people with too much money for their own good, plus it has the always-excellent Judy Geeson in fine form as a rather lost spoilt rich brat. Essay in Evil is a fine exploration of the consequences of blackmail with Peter Vaughn being suitably sinister, something he always did well. The Sitting Pigeon sees McGill employed by Scotland Yard to protect a cowardly gangland boss (played with panache by George Sewell) about to testify against his brothers.

Who’s Mad Now? isn’t a very original idea (a woman thinks her husband is trying to drive her insane) but it’s nicely executed and the use of mirrors is very effective.

Mention should also be made on Ron Grainer’s splendid jazz-influenced theme tune.

Network have released the complete series (of 30 episodes) on DVD. The only real extra is the exceptionally interesting interview with Richard Bradford. 

Man in a Suitcase could have been a fairly routine private eye/espionage series but it’s slightly gritty feel, its blending of American hardboiled style with an otherwise very English feel, and most of all Richard Bradford’s offbeat but very effective acting style are enough to make it stand out as something special. Highly recommended.