Monday 4 April 2016

Zodiac (1974)

Zodiac was one of several attempts by British television in the late 60s and early 70s to come up with a formula that would successfully add the paranormal or the supernatural to a mystery or action adventure series. ITC had some success with a ghostly private detective in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in 1969. Baffled was an Anglo-American attempt that got no further than a pilot episode in 1973 although it actually had considerable potential. Zodiac, which lasted just six episodes in 1974, was Thames Television’s foray into this sub-genre.

Detective-Inspector Gradley (Anton Rodgers) teams up with astrologer Esther Jones (Anouska Hempel) in this series which seems to have aimed mostly for gentle comedy.

Anton Rodgers was better known for situation comedies like Fresh Fields. He was certainly adept at light comedy although he makes a somewhat unlikely policeman. On the other hand Gradley is supposed to be an unconventional policeman. He was all set to be an idle young man living on a fortune he’d inherited until he discovered the rather disturbing terms of his grandfather’s  will - he only gets the fortune as long as he remains a serving police officer. As a result he has a slightly casual and even haphazard approach to the job. He doesn’t really think he’s all that suited to being a police officer but he doesn’t have much choice and he’s the sort of chap who accepts such things philosophically. That all works well enough although he’s still perhaps just a little too gentle and effete and aristocratic and laidback.

Anouska Hempel has the advantage of looking the way you might expect a 1970s astrologer to look, or perhaps she really looks more like a model who might dabble in astrology. 

The first episode, Death of a Crab, introduces the two lead characters. Gradley is investigating the murder of a man found in the bath of a penthouse flat only it wasn’t his fault and how he came to be there is as much a mystery as his death. Esther Jones is a suspect. Gradley is pretty sceptical when he discovers she’s an astrologer although his scepticism soon starts to fade. 

The most difficult problem for this type of series is to get the tone right. It can’t be too jokey and there’s a danger in overdoing the whimsy but on the other hand you don’t want to take things too seriously. Initial impressions suggest that Zodiac doesn’t take itself quite seriously enough. There are other problems. Unless you’re aiming for pure comedy there’s not much point in introducing paranormal elements unless there’s at least some spookiness or some definite sense of the uncanny. There isn’t quite enough of either of these elements in the first episode.

Also if you’re going to have a crime-solving team of a policeman and an astrologer you need to convince the viewer that the policeman really could not solve these cases without the astrologer. I’m not sure that Zodiac entirely succeeds in doing this. The astrology stuff doesn’t seem to be quite central enough to the plot of Death of a Crab.

Zodiac was created by Roger Marshall, one of the best TV writers in the business. This was a change of pace for him which was presumably what attracted him to the idea. Marshall was known for writing clever and witty scripts for series like The Avengers and Zodiac demonstrates a certain amount of exactly the same sort of wit. Marshall had also created the superb Public Eye series and the sympathy and humanity with which he imbued that series is also in evidence in Zodiac.

The good news is that the chemistry between the two leads works surprisingly well and they both handle the witty banter with assurance. 

This is fundamentally a good-natured series. Gradley is an unlikely cop but he’s a nice fellow and while Esther has a few hippie tendencies she’s a pretty nice person as well.

Episode two, The Cool Aquarian, is more interesting and a considerable improvement. It relies a good deal on coincidence but then when you’re dealing with astrology maybe the reliance on coincidence could have been quite intentional. A hard-driving businessman receives a ransom demand after a young woman is kidnapped. Which is very strange since he’s never even heard of the young lady concerned. In this episode the series starts to come together quite nicely. The paranormal/psychic/astrological elements play an important plot function but without dominating too much - good old-fashioned psychology and logical deduction help as well. The banter between the two leads seems more relaxed and more natural and the sparks start to fly between them in a very pleasing way.

Roger Marshall wrote the first two episodes himself. The third episode, The Strength of Gemini, was penned by Philip Broadley - Marshall was obviously determined to get hold the best possible writers for this series. In this episode a scoundrel is making use of Esther’s astrological skills her his own purposes although exactly how sinister those purposes might be is not clear at first. Either way Esther is outraged and Gradley has to admit that there might be something there that he should look into. It is a clever scam and it’s a good story, helped along by a delightfully oily guest starring turn by Norman Eshley.

Episode four, Saturn's Rewards, was written by Pat Hoddinott and is even better. An MP witnesses a murder but has his own reasons for not wanting to call the police. He will discover that this murder strikes a lot closer to home than he expected while Esther absolutely refuses to believe that a friend’s new boyfriend is not a Scorpio. He has to be a Scorpio. She just won’t give up on this, which turns out to be just as well. This is another episode that neatly combines astrological clues with ordinary police work and it has some neat twists.

Sting Sting Scorpio (written by Roger Marshall) opens with the murder of Madame Lavengro, an elderly astrologer in Brighton. At least Esther is convinced it’s murder although it appeared to be a heart attack. Esther has the bright idea of taking over Madame Lavengro’s shop in the hope of finding a clue although Gradley warns her that playing amateur detective can have consequences. Esther believes she’s uncovered a vital lead when she does a tarot reading for a maid in a leading Brighton hotel. A hotel in which a series of robberies has taken place. it’s another episode that succeeds quite well in integrating the occult and detective story elements.

The Horns of the Moon, written by Peter Yeldham, goes further than any of the other episodes in the direction of pure comedy and with guest appearances by capable comic talents such as Peter Jones, Graham Crowden and Michelle Dotrice it works splendidly. A retired general who runs a merchant bank ends up in the deep freeze. Gradley is sure he has the murderer pegged and Esther is equally convinced that he’s wrong. Although played for comedy the mystery plot is serviceable enough with at least one nice twist. The astrological angle is a little weaker in this episode but it’s still there and still plays a reasonably important part. This is a particularly delightful episode.

I mentioned coincidence earlier. Strange coincidences just keep on turning up in these stories. They’re a feature of just about every episode. Roger Marshall was far too experienced as a writer and producer to allow such basic writing mistakes to keep cropping up. The more I watch of this series the more convinced I am that this is an absolutely deliberate technique intended to give the show a subtly spooky feel and since the series deals with astrology I think it’s probably a quite justifiable technique. It’s a neat way of emphasising that slightly odd things happen around Esther Jones.

Zodiac is a series that has to accepted on its own terms. It’s not a conventional cop show but while there’s a good deal of humour and romance it’s not out-and-out romantic comedy or a full-blooded spoof either. It’s not a supernatural adventure series in the style of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) - the paranormal elements are not allowed to dominate too much and in fact they could almost be explained away by coincidence and by Esther’s shrewdness at judging people. Zodiac juggles these different elements with surprising success. With good writing, two charming leads, witty dialogue and a slightly whimsical premise Zodiac ends up being slightly dotty but rather endearing and it’s all so remarkably good-natured it’s hard to dislike this series. Highly recommended.

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