Sunday 27 March 2016

a 1972 Columbo theatrical double-header

I love murder stories with theatrical or movie studio backgrounds and the second season of Columbo provides two such tales which makes these two episodes a perfect double feature for me.

The fourth season two episode Dagger of the Mind could have been called Columbo Goes to London. Never have I seen so much gratuitous use of travelogue-type footage of the tourist spots of London. This is also a very under-appreciated episode - there are several very important elements that many people seem to overlook in this story.

Everyone’s favourite shabby detective is in London, as a guest of Scotland Yard, to address a police conference. He finds himself caught up in a theatrical murder.

Fading stars Nicholas Frame (Richard Basehart) and his wife Lillian Stanhope (Honor Blackman) are about to open in Macbeth in the West End when the wealthy aristocrat putting up the money for the play is killed. Since this is Columbo and the murderer is always revealed right at the start there’s no harm in revealing that our two has-been actors are involved. The murder has been arranged to look like an accident but Columbo just happens to be on the scene and he’s immediately suspicious.

What follows is the usual battle of wills as Columbo tries to persuade the killers to make a mistake so he can prove his case.

The first important thing to note is that Frame and his wife are appearing in Macbeth. Just like the protagonists in the play the protagonists of Dagger of the Mind find that ambition has its price and it’s a price that keeps on increasing. There is one plot point that has attracted criticism but once you remember the Macbeth connection it makes sense - once you decide that ambition overrides everything else you have jumped aboard a roller coaster that you can’t get off.

Another point sometimes overlooked relates to Richard Basehart’s performance. He is not supposed to be playing a great Shakespearian actor. He is playing an ageing ham who thinks he is a great Shakespearian actor and thinks he sees his opportunity to prove it, and to prove his critics wrong. In fact both Nicholas and Lillian are well past their prime and this production is their last chance to rekindle their fading careers. With this in mind it’s clear that Basehart knows exactly what he’s doing with his performance and he nails Nicholas Frame’s character superbly. Blackman is equally good and the two of them chew every piece of scenery they can get their teeth into.

Adding to the fun is the great Wilfred Hyde-White as the butler Tanner.

The fifth episode, Requiem for a Falling Star, can be seen as a kind of follow-up to Dagger of the Mind dealing as it does with murder in Hollywood. Another link between the two episodes is that both deal with stars whose careers are on the downslide. 

Fading star Nora Chandler (Anne Baxter) is the murderess but she kills the wrong person. She meant to kill sleazy gossip columnist Jerry Parks (Mel Ferrer) who is blackmailing but by mistake she kills her faithful secretary and friend Jean Davis (Pippa Scott). Lieutenant Columbo happens to be one of Nora’s biggest fans and he hates to think she might be a murderess but the evidence seems to point that way.

This is a rather untypical Columbo episode. As usual it’s an inverted detective story but with several very interesting variations (I won’t spilt the episode by giving any hints as the nature of these variations).

Like all Columbo episodes it’s pretty scrupulously fair play. We see all the same clues that Columbo sees although of course we might not always interpret them correctly.

Anne Baxter gives a spirited performance as the formidable Nora. 

Columbo never pretended to be a realistic cop show and always works best when Columbo is up against formidable adversaries played by actors who are willing to go over-the-top. These two episodes qualify on both counts. Dagger of the Mind is more fun thanks to the extraordinary overacting of Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman but Requiem for a Falling Star is more ambitious and demonstrates what could be achieved when the basic formula of the series was tweaked just a little. Both episodes are fine entertainment.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - The Case of the Mirror of Portugal

I posted recently about the Rivals of Sherlock Holmes episode The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds dealing with a delightfully colourful rogue. The series featured a couple of episodes dealing with an even more dastardly rogue and swindler - Horace Dorrington, the hero (or rather anti-hero) of Arthur Morrison’s superb 1897 short story collection The Dorrington Deed-Box. The Case of the Mirror of Portugal (first screened in October 1971) shows Dorrington at his villainous best (or worst).

Horace Dorrington (Peter Vaughan) is a private detective, the principal of the Dorrington and Hicks agency (although we never actually hear anything of Hicks and we suspect he may not exist). An impoverished French charcoal-burner, Jacques Bouvier (Michael Forrest) enlists Dorrington’s help to retrieve an item that was stolen from him by his cousin Leon Bouvier (Oscar Quitak). The item is a diamond. A very large diamond. A very large and very valuable diamond known as the Mirror of Portugal that was once part of the French Crown Jewels. It might seem very unlikely that a humble French charcoal-burner would have possessed this fabulous jewel but Dorrington finds his story to be strangely plausible. In fact Dorrington is convinced that the story is true.

The first order of business for Dorrington is to rid himself of Jacques Bouvier as a client. Dorrington intends to retrieve the diamond but he also intends to keep all the proceeds to himself. Dorrington is a very competent private detective but he is also, alas, a very dishonest one. He is in point of fact a thorough scoundrel.

Actually getting hold of the diamond should be child’s play for Dorrington. He’s up against rank amateurs who have foolish ideas about fair play. Or at least that’s what the villainous private detective thinks.

Julian Bond did a fine job with the adaptation. It’s a wonderfully clever little tale with some very nice plot twists. Mike Vardy’s direction is very competent. 

As I mentioned in my piece on The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds this 1971 series was made in the style of British television of the 60s, in other words shot almost entirely in the studio, although this particular episode does include a very brief sequence shot on location (a very unusual feature for this series). 

Paul Eddington is almost unrecognisable at first as a diamond merchant with very flexible ethics. Eddington is remembered for his roles in sitcoms like The Good Life and Yes, Minister but he was actually quite a versatile actor. He was memorably slimy and sinister as Strand in Special Branch and The Case of the Mirror of Portugal gives him a chance to be rather shady and sneaky, which he does rather well.

Kenneth Colley as Farrish and Petronella Barker as Miss Parrot, Dorrington’s two long-suffering assistants, provide competent support.

It’s Peter Vaughan’s performance however that dominates this episode. Vaughan was a marvelous actor who could really go over-the-top when required to do so. In this episode he does so to spectacular effect. He plays Dorrington as a moustache-twirling villain straight out of Victorian melodrama. It’s absolutely the right approach.

It’s not just Vaughan’s acting that brings to mind classic Victorian melodrama - everything about this episode is done in that style and it works to perfection.

It’s the combination of an excellent adaptation of a terrific story and Peter Vaughan’s epic scenery-chewing as Dorrington that makes this a superbly entertaining piece of television. Highly recommended.

In fact both seasons of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (available on Region 2 DVD from Network) can be very warmly recommended.

Saturday 12 March 2016

The Professionals, season 1 (1977)

The Professionals marked a change of pace for Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. They had enjoyed enormous success with series like The Avengers and The New Avengers - witty and stylish action adventure series with no pretensions to realism. In 1977 they launched a new series for London Weekend Television - a series that was determinedly and self-consciously in the mould of the increasingly popular Gritty Realism school of television drama. The series was The Professionals which was a major hit, running for five seasons from 1977 to 1983.

The Professionals deals with CI5, an elite (and wholly imaginary) British counter-intelligence agency specialising in anti-terrorist operations. CI5 is run by the hardbitten George Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and the focus of the series is on Cowley and his two top agents, Doyle (Martin Shaw) and Bodie (Lewis Collins)

The Professionals aimed not only to be gritty and realistic but also reflected the increasingly violent and cynical tone of British television in the late 70s. The body counts in some episodes are quite alarmingly high!

Gordon Jackson had been best known for playing a butler in Upstairs, Downstairs so he might have seemed an unlikely choice to play the ruthless Cowley. Jackson was however a versatile actor and he relished the opportunity to play a bit of a heavy.

London Weekend Television had asked Clemens to create a buddy series for them and that’s exactly what he gave them. Doyle and Bodie spend as much time trading wisecracks as they do blowing away terrorists. Fortunately most of the scripts (for the first season at least - I haven’t ventured any further than that so far) provide them with the right sort of dialogue so the formula works.

One of the things that Brian Clemens felt strongly about in regard to this series was that the emphasis should be on action and on the relationship between the three principals. Overt political content of social commentary was to be avoided since such elements would slow down the action and also date the program - there’s nothing more tedious than yesterday’s hot-button political issue.

When Clemens was asked how much background research he did on counter-intelligence and anti-terrorist agencies prior to creating the series he cheerfully replied that he had done none at all. Not that it matters - this is an action adventure TV series not a documentary and Clemens always understood that entertainment was the name of the game.

Old Dog With New Tricks was intended to be the debut episode and it gives us some of the background on CI5 and its peculiar structure (there are no ranks) and its powers (which are in practice virtually unlimited). It’s essentially an anti-terrorist squad and despite  Clemens’ having done no background research it’s a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the kinds of paramilitary anti-terrorist squads that have since become common. We also get a little background on Doyle and Bodie. Doyle is an ex-cop while Bodie is ex-military. The story is somewhat far-fetched. IRA terrorists steal a shipment of arms from an army base only to be hijacked in turn by a criminal gang with spectacular plans to spring a convict from prison.

Private Madness, Public Danger was the first episode to go to air (although this had definitely not been Clemens’ intention). It was a bizarre choice to launch what was intended to be a tough realistic no-nonsense series - this episode has a plot so far-fetched that it could easily have served as an episode of The New Avengers (of course that might have been the reason London Weekend Television picked it as the debut episode). Well-meaning idealists (and there’s nobody George Cowley hates more than well-meaning idealists) have decided to force the British Government to outlaw biological warfare - by launching a campaign of biological warfare. They are going to lace the nation’s drinking waters with hallucinogenic drugs. This is one episode that has not aged well.

Where the Jungle Ends, like Old Dog With New Tricks, is also outrageous enough to have been a New Avengers episode apart from the much higher level of violence. A team of mercenaries is conducting their own private war, in the heart of England. This episode gives us a bit more background on Bodie - it’s implied that he’s not only ex-military but possibly an ex-mercenary himself. These two episodes are quite over-the-top but both were written by Brian Clemens and if you can suspend your disbelief they’re quite fun. It’s amusing seeing David Suchet (Hercule Poirot himself) as a hardbitten and rather psychotic mercenary.

Long Shot (written by Anthony Read)  involves a plan to assassinate a former US Secretary of State, or at least that’s what CI5 thinks they’re dealing with. Roger Lloyd Pack gets to overact outrageously as the suave but ruthless assassin Ramos. Killer with a Long Arm (written by Brian Clemens) also deals with a foreign assassin operating on British soil, an assassin with a very special gun (and a very special target).

I thought the premise of Heroes was a bit unlikely - I can’t imagine the British government deporting a US Senator no matter how much they might disapprove of him. Clearly there are others who disapprove of him a good deal more - they intend to assassinate him. Cowley’s problem is to keep the Senator alive long enough to expel him from the country. One of the slight weaknesses of this series is the overuse of one particular plot element - the bad guys systematically killing all the witnesses to their crime. This episode makes full use of this idea and it becomes just a little predictable.

Everest Was Also Conquered begins with a prologue. It is 1953, the year of the Coronation (and the year Mount Everest was climbed for the first time, hence the title). A woman, a witness under police protection, is murdered by being hurled out of a window. A quarter of a century later a death-bed confession re-opens the case. The trail is well and truly cold but Cowley is determined to get a result. And yes, you guessed it, we again have the bad guys trying to kill all the witnesses!

The Female Factor is much more interesting. A call girl is murdered. She had tried to contact Doyle shortly before her death. Doyle takes this rather personally and involves himself in the case, even though this is certainly not a case for CI5. Cowley is about to give Doyle a dressing-down for wasting time of such a trivial matter when an alarming discovery is made. A sheet of notepaper with a telephone number is found in the dead woman’s flat. The telephone number is the Prime Minister’s direct line. Now this is definitely a CI5 case - only a handful of people have that phone number and all of them are very important people with access to very important secrets. 

The political incorrectness of this series is absolutely off the scale. There’s more political incorrectness packed into one episode than you’ll find in an entire season of The Sweeney.

The extraordinary ruthlessness of CI5 may also come as something of a shock. George Cowley really doesn’t care what methods he has to use to get results. There is nothing that is off limits.

What makes The Professionals interesting is that it tries on the surface to be a hardboiled and brutally realistic crime/espionage series and in many ways it succeeds in being just that but then on occasions some of the story lines really do stretch credibility. That’s not by any means a fatal weakness and even when the stories are a little incredible they’re highly entertaining.

I wasn’t a great fan of this series when I first encountered it but revisiting it now I’m finding it to be rather enjoyable indeed. Recommended.

Saturday 5 March 2016

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds

Everyone loves a good villain. The best villains of all (for entertainment value) are either diabolical criminal masterminds or brilliant swindlers. Swindlers are fun because they’re clever and they can appeal to us on two other levels - either as glamorous rebels or as dastardly cads. Guy Boothby (1867-1905) was an Australian writer who created both a memorable diabolical criminal mastermind (Dr Nikola) and an equally memorable swindler (Simon Carne). It is Simon Carne we are concerned with at the moment, or more specifically the 1971 television adaptation of The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds which was the fourth episode of the first season of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, made by Thames Television in Britain between 1971 and 1973, included adaptations of many of the superb stories written by late Victorian and Edwardian authors who were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds was adapted by Anthony Stevens and directed by Kim Mills, a reliable and prolific TV director during the 60s and early 70s.

Wealthy socialite Simon Carne (Roy Dotrice) has just returned to England after an extended stay in foreign climes. Simon seems to have everything a man could want - wealth, breeding, education, a ready wit and a good deal of charm. He is a charismatic and fascinating figure with an entrée into the world of fashionable high society. He does however suffer from one slight social disadvantage - he is a hunchback.

You might think that his disfigurement would make him bitter. He is bitter, but for other reasons. Simon Carne is not quite what he appears to be.

He arrives back in England to find that the latest sensation in fashionable circles is a mysterious private detective known as Klimo. There has been a disturbing rash of daring jewel robberies which have baffled all the attempts of Scotland Yard to bring the perpetrator to justice. Klimo has been enjoying great success by solving these crimes. Although he does not exactly solve them, not does he catch the criminals. What he does, for a large fee, is to explain to the wealthy victims precisely how the crimes were carried out. This has caused much humiliation for Scotland Yard since Klimo’s explanations are invariably not merely plausible but quite watertight.

There is much trepidation at the Yard at the approach of the glittering ball about to take place at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Wiltshire. The duchess will be wearing the fabulous, and enormously valuable, Wiltshire Diamonds. It seems almost certain that the daring jewel thief who has caused them so much trouble will try to steal the diamonds. The Duke has decided there is only one way to prevent such a calamity - rather than waiting until after the robbery he will hire Klimo to prevent such an eventuality. This turns out to be not such a simple thing.

What does all this have to do with Simon Carne? You’ll have to watch this episode to find that out. It’s a clever story and it’s extremely well executed.

Roy Dotrice is a fine actor and he gives a suitably mesmerising performance. THe supporting cast is exceptionally strong, with John Nettleton as Carne’s butler Belton being particularly outstanding.

The mid-70s saw a dramatic sea change in British television drama, with the old shot-in-the-studio-on-videotape style giving way to the new shot-on-location-entirely-on-film style. The emphasis was on greater realism and more action. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was made in the older style and it does have that characteristic studio-bound feel. On the other hand the sets and costumes are generally impressive and it was made in colour and on the whole it looks rather splendid.

The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds was not the only episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes to feature a dastardly cad and unmitigated bounder and I’ll be posting a review of some of those other episodes in the near future.

Both seasons of this wonderful show are available on Region 2 DVD from Network. Great viewing and highly recommended.