Monday 30 May 2016

Thriller - Night Is the Time for Killing (Murder on the Midnight Express, 1975)

ITC’s Thriller was one of the most successful of all British television anthology series, in fact one of the most successful such series made anywhere. It ran for six seasons beginning in 1973. Brian Clemens created the series and wrote the bulk of the episodes.

Thriller is generally regarded as a horror series but it avoids the supernatural (apart from occasional hints that usually turn out to have non-supernatural explanations). The title in fact describes the series pretty well - these are crime thriller stories with an admixture of the horrific and occasionally the uncanny.

Night Is the Time for Killing (retitled Murder on the Midnight Express for a later US release)  came midway through the fourth season in 1975. It was written by Brian Clemens and is slightly unusual for this series in being a spy story.

The opening scenes suggest this will be very much a standard espionage tale. A diplomat from an eastern bloc country wishes to defect to the British. Unfortunately the intelligence services of his own country are aware of his plans to defect and are taking active steps to prevent this from happening. Very active steps, including trying to gun him down in a London street. As a result the would-be defector has insisted on setting up a rendezvous with his British contact in an unexpected manner.

Appearances can be deceptive and this spy tale is not quite as standard as it originally appeared to be. After the brief opening sequences it suddenly switches gears dramatically, focusing on a young American woman, Helen Marlow (Judy Geeson), setting out from London’s Euston Station on a long train journey. The other focus of our attention is on one of her fellow passengers - the pompous, opinionated and supremely supercilious bon vivant and celebrity Hillary Vance (Charles Gray).

Some of the other passengers could be regarded as suspicious characters. One does not normally expect to find men wearing shoulder holsters or young women carrying automatic pistols fitted with silencers on the average British train journey.

Hillary Vance does not like trains. He does not like them one little bit. He makes his displeasure very obvious. We have to wonder what a man with such an evident distaste for rail travel is doing aboard a train.

Helen Marlow is deeply unhappy for other (and rather more valid) reasons. She is being packed off to the country after spending a considerable time in a mental hospital following the sudden death of her fiancĂ©. 

Helen is even more unhappy when she discovers a dead man aboard the train. She is more unhappy still when, after she has reported the matter, the body disappears and everyone thinks she’s crazy. Having just left a mental hospital she’s a tiny bit sensitive on the subject of craziness. She will soon have cause to have her own doubts about her sanity.

It’s obvious that some of the passengers are British agents and some are Soviet agents but we’re unsure which is which and we’re even more unsure about what they’re up to. It has to have something to do with that defector but he is nowhere on the train.

Brian Clemens provides a nicely twist-laden plot. It’s hard to go wrong with a spy thriller that takes place on board a train and the setting is used skillfully by director John Cooper.

I have no idea why it was decided to make Helen Marlow American. There is absolutely no reason why she should be American. Judy Geeson is English and while her American accent is just about passable (she very wisely decides not to overdo it) it seems slightly odd and can probably only be explained by ITC’s ongoing obsession with the notion that US sales for their series could only be achieved by including American characters. Luckily Judy Geeson is an accomplished and underrated actress and does a fine job even with the accent.

Charles Gray always relished playing larger-than-life characters and he’s very much in his element. He overacts with superb style.

The supporting cast is quite adequate with Jim Smilie being likeable as an Australian engineer who takes a shine to Helen only to discover that he may have inadvertently managed to get himself  entangled with a crazy woman. Alister Williamson is also good as the rather shabby Barkly who is obviously a spy for one side or the other.

With a slightly offbeat spy story script from Clemens and great performances by Judy Geeson and Charles Gray Night Is the Time for Killing is a superior episode of a very good television series. Highly recommended.

Network have released the entire six seasons (43 feature-length episodes) of Thriller in a Region 2 DVD boxed set while the complete series has also been released on DVD in the US.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88)

Tales of the Unexpected was a British anthology series made by Anglia Television which had a long run - nine seasons from 1979 to 1988. The episodes in the first season were based on short stories by Roald Dahl who provided a brief introduction to each story. Most of season two was also based on Dahl’s writings with a few episodes adapted from the works other writers. From season three onwards Dahl’s involvement was minimal.

The oddest thing about this series is that it reverts to what was by 1979 a very old-fashioned format - the half-hour episode. This is the series’ biggest weakness since many of the stories, despite promising beginnings, don’t really go anywhere. A certain ambiguity and open-endedness may have been a feature of Dahl’s original stories (it’s so many years since I’ve read Dahl that I can’t be dogmatic about this) but while that might work for a short story it doesn’t quite work on television.

This was also a fairly low-budget production. By 1979 British television standards this makes it seem like a bit of a throwback to an earlier era.

While it has its weaknesses Tales of the Unexpected has its strengths also. It’s not a horror series or even a mystery series - these stories are often just odd and even darkly whimsical (if you can imagine whimsy being dark) and the avoidance of standard horror tropes can make for interesting viewing. 

The entire series (of 112 episodes) is available on DVD in Region 2 from Network but the set is alas slightly out of my price range at present. Happily there is a Region 4 DVD release which includes 20 assorted episodes and it’s available for rental.

The episodes I’ve watched to date from all been from the second season.

The Hitch-Hiker is an amusing little tale of an American writer named Paul Deveen (Rod Taylor) who picks up an Irish hitch-hiker (Cyril Cusack). The hitch-hiker won’t reveal what he does for a living but Deveen is about to find out. It’s a light-hearted story that is almost too slight to work but the fine performances by the two leads (especially Cusack) are enough to carry it through. 

Poison is a nicely twisted tale. Harry is an Englishman in India who has a very close encounter indeed with a krait - one of the world’s most feared and deadly snakes. The krait has crawled into his bed and decided that his stomach would be a suitably warm place to have a little nap. Harry knows that the slightest movement on his part will mean death. His friend Woods and an Indian doctor have to find a way to save him, a difficult problem indeed. It’s a tense situation that makes for a fine suspenseful story. And of course there’s a neat little twist at the end. A bonus is having the wonderful Judy Geeson in the cast. My only minor quibble is that the story is obviously supposed to take place in India during the Raj and while the sets and costumes make sense for the time period the 1970s car that Woods drives hits a rather jarring note. 

Taste is a clever story involving a momentous bet. If you’re betting on an absolutely sure thing that’s not really being irresponsible is it? OK you can’t be 100 percent certain of winning, but what if you’re 99 percent of winning? It would almost be more irresponsible not to take such a bet, regardless of the stake. And even the greatest wine expert in the country surely could not be guaranteed to be able to identify an incredibly obscure claret. This is one of the strongest episodes of the series.

These three episodes, all based on Roald Dahl stories, aren’t necessarily  horror tales as such. Some are almost whimsical, albeit in a black comedy sort of way.

My Lady Love, My Dove has a very promising setup but fizzles out disappointingly. Georgy Porgy is just rather distasteful. Depart In Peace is unmemorable.

The Umbrella Man, another episode based on a Dahl short story, is on the other hand an extremely clever idea handled exceptionally well.

Fat Chance is based on a Robert Bloch story but it has the same sort of black comedy feel, as a pharmacist tries to find a way to rid himself of a wife with a weight problem. Of the eight episodes I’ve watched this is the only one not based on one of Dahl’s stories.

The ideas behind the stories are often rather slight. This may well be a characteristic of Dahl’s approach to the short story format. Sometimes it works quite well, when the idea is quirky enough. And some of the ideas are intriguingly original. Unfortunately when the trick doesn’t come off the results are very flat. Dahl’s stories can also have, at times, a rather unpleasant edge to them - unpleasant in a mean-spirited and petty way.

Tales of the Unexpected is moderately entertaining. Having samples eight episodes I don’t really feel compelled to go any further with this series, for the moment at any rate.

The tone is rather similar to the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents series of the 50s with definite and often very strong touches of black comedy. Unfortunately Tales of the Unexpected is nowhere near as successful, with too many of the twist endings being rather obvious. The half-hour format is not always used to its best advantage with too much time being spent setting things up for rushed and often unsatisfying endings.

This series is perhaps worthwhile as a rental (and the early seasons will most certainly be of interest to hardcore Roald Dahl fans) but I wouldn’t really consider it to be worth a purchase.

Saturday 14 May 2016

The Protectors (1964)

The Protectors is a British crime series produced by ABC in 1964 and is not to be confused with the later and much better-known ITC series. It ran for only one season - like so many British series of the 60s and 70s it was shipwrecked by industrial disputes.

The series deals with a firm of security specialists set up for former insurance investigator Ian Souter (Ian Faulds) and ex-policeman Robert Shoesmith (Michael Atkinson). Heather Keys (Ann Morrish) is the third member of the team. She’s the secretary but her knowledge of the art world makes her invaluable. The firm of Souter and Shoesmith refer to themselves as the SIS (Specialists in Security).

Ian Faulds is brisk and businesslike and makes a fine lead for this type of series. Michael Atkinson’s performance is slightly odd but it’s odd in a good way, or perhaps quirky would be more accurate. Ann Morrish is fine as well and the three leads combine quite well. Ian Souter is a more bustling energetic character while Robert Shoesmith is more cerebral and slightly ironic.

The SIS are not quite private detectives but they’re more than just security consultants. It’s quite a good setup for a series, offering possibilities for varied stories and a mix of detection and action.

Typically for an ABC production the tone is slightly more serious compared to contemporary ITC action adventure series. It’s played very straight. On the other hand it’s certainly not grim. The emphasis is on entertainment.

The Protectors is a far cry from the “gritty realism” school of British television drama that started to emerge in the late 60s but it has a pleasingly everyday quality to it. One of the strengths of this series is that it has a certain plausibility. It deals with the sorts of cases such a firm might actually take on - industrial espionage, insurance fraud and various assorted scams. These are not private eyes who find themselves getting mixed up in big time crime. Their cases don’t end in murder or shootouts or car chases. It’s actually a bit along the lines of the slightly later ABC series Public Eye, although with a bit more action. There’s probably more action than a real-life security company would encounter but even the action is plausible - if you go poking about in warehouses where illegal things are going on you could reasonably expect to get clobbered by disgruntled criminal types.

Like Public Eye this is a low-key deliberately unglamorous series. Souter and Shoesmith don’t drive about in fancy sports cars or wear trendy designer clothes or mix with the rich and famous. This is an ABC series, not an ITC series.

While it doesn’t exactly deliver high-octane excitement the stories are well thought out and the series has a feel that is refreshingly different from a routine private eye series.

The debut episode, Landscape with Bandits, is an extraordinarily convoluted tale of double-dealing in the art world. A Monet is being offered for auction but some doubts have been cast on the legal ownership of the painting. Add to the mix a ruthless gallery owner, an ambitious employee of the gallery who wants his own gallery, a newspaper mogul, a mysterious wealthy Russian emigre and an assortment of miscellaneous crooks and you have some fine entertainment.

In The Bottle Shop Souter and his team are employed by a pharmaceutical company where industrial espionage is suspected. Ian goes undercover as an efficiency expert and needless to say no-one likes having an efficiency expert about. Peter Bowles is delightful (as always) as a highly strung, rather unstable but brilliant research chemist.

Happy is the Loser sees the SIS team working for The Society of British Gaming Clubs. Under British law gambling debts were not enforceable in law and as a result gambling clubs had chronic problems with gamblers who lost heavily and refused to pay up. Many of the clubs solved this problem by using strong-arm merchants to collect their bad debts. The Society of British Gaming Clubs is trying to end this unfortunate practice by offering the clubs insurance. Ian and his team have the job of trying to persuade club owners to join the society. This brings them into conflict with a couple of the most unpleasant of the aforementioned strong-arm merchants, a rather nasty crook named Happy Dyer and his even nastier thuggish sidekick Cyprian.

Ian and Robert have to resort to some unconventional and perhaps dubiously ethical methods to break the stranglehold that Happy Dyer has over the club owners. They get some invaluable assistance from Heather who poses as a wealthy glamour girl who doesn’t like to pay her gambling debts, from suave aristocrat and inveterate gambler the Hon. Arthur Keir (Gerald Harper) and a delightfully bubbly and ditzy high-class call-girl named Delores (Christine Finn). The SIS team’s plans threaten to go wrong right from the start and they find they may have bitten off more than they can chew. It’s a good story but the highlights are provided by the wonderful performances by the supporting players, especially by Gerald Harper and Christine Finn.

No Forwarding Address deals with an insurance swindle at a wholesale warehouse but the trouble with swindlers is they can get double-crossed themselves. The Pirate is another episode with a similar theme - thieves and confidence tricksters all trying to do each other down with stolen diamonds providing the catalyst.

The Loop Men is another insurance fraud, with a gang of railway thieves stealing heavily insured electronic goods. This story is enlivened by a delightfully excessive performance from Jeremy Kemp  as a totally insane ex-army corporal who runs his racket like a military operation, the only problem being that he really thinks it is a military operation. This gives the episode a slightly outrageous quality unusual for this series. Also look out for Derren Nesbitt (of Special Branch fame) as a smooth but twitchy heavy.

An insurance company calls in Souter and Shoesmith when they start getting worried about a valuable stamp collection for which they’ve written a policy in the episode The Stamp Collection. Some kind of fraud seems to be in the offing but just what is the nature of the fraud? This is a decent episode with a dangerous ex-army officer mixed up in things and he’s a man who may be even more dangerous than he seems. 

It Could Happen Here is a change of pace. Souter and Shoesmith are called in by a trade union to investigate phony lotteries which the union feels are exploiting its members. In fact there’s a lot more than that going on, and there may be a connection with the murder of a union branch secretary. Shenanigans in a trade union might suggest something political but is that what is really behind these shady goings-on? This is quite a hard-edged episode (and a good one).

Freedom! represents yet another change of pace. It’s more of a spy story with Ian and Heather getting mixed up in a potential international incident when two Albanian musicians on a concert tour of the UK decide to defect to the West. Souter and Shoesmith are supposed to be providing security for the hotel at which the visiting Albanian orchestra is staying - their job is to prevent just this sort of unfortunate incident from occurring at a time when Her Majesty’s Government is negotiating a trade deal with Albania. Writer Bill Strutton seems to be under the impression that Albanians are pretty much the same as Russians so all the Albanians have Russian names. Despite this minor defect this is a very fine episode with Ian facing more than one moral dilemma, and with the partnership of Souter and Shoesmith threatened with dissolution. It has an intriguing plot twist at the end making it a rather subtle and nuanced spy story.

The Protectors is a rather ambitious series characterised by some very good writing and some complex moral problems. The tone is generally quite serious. At around about this time ABC were also responsible for both Public Eye and Callan which tends to suggest that they were aiming at a darker and more serious tone than their competitors in the British television market (and it’s worth pointing out that when their most famous series, The Avengers, was launched in 1961 it was also intended to be a dark and edgy series). Like Public Eye and Callan The Protectors benefits from the studio-bound feel of early 60s British TV which gives it an enclosed and slightly paranoid edge.

Remarkably enough all fourteen episodes survive and are available in a DVD set from Network. For an early 60s shot-on-videotape series the transfers are very acceptable.

It’s a great pity that The Protectors lasted only a single season. It was cancelled not because it was unsuccessful but because of industrial disputes. It deserved a better fate. It’s an intelligent action adventure series that manages to be extremely entertaining as well. Highly recommended.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Paul Temple (1969-71)

Paul Temple had originally been created by Francis Durbridge for a BBC radio series in 1938. The character later featured in novels, a comic strip and four late 1940s movies (including Calling Paul Temple and Send for Paul Temple which are both great fun). In 1969 it became a BBC TV series. The second and subsequent series were co-productions with a German company, Taurus Films.

The Paul Temple TV series was intended to offer a mix of action and adventure with some lighthearted fun and it proved to be extremely popular, all of which horrified the BBC. Despite its popularity they axed the series and promptly destroyed most of the episodes. Only sixteen of the fifty-two episodes survive, although it is believed that Taurus Films preserved other episodes in German-dubbed versions. 

It’s particularly unfortunate that five of the sixteen surviving episodes exist only in relatively poor quality black-and-white versions, since this is a series that really made the most of the possibilities of colour filming. 

Paul Temple is a bestselling crime novelist who solve real crimes in his spare time, a formula that has been used in various novels and TV series, most notably ITC’s Jason King a couple of years later. Jason King in fact is basically a much more extravagant version of Paul Temple. As portrayed in the TV series by Francis Matthews Paul Temple also has a taste for fashionable clothing, fine wines and food, and exotic places. Unlike Jason King he has a wife, Steve (Ros Drinkwater), so his tastes don’t include chasing women. Matthews gets to wear some truly outrageous clothing (which apparently he chose personally) - this was the great age of cravats for men. Ros Drinkwater’s wardrobe is pretty impressive also in a late Swinging 60s sort of way.

The entire first season is lost. The earliest surviver is the third episode of season two, Games People Play. On a Mediterranean holiday Paul and Steve encounter movie star Mark Hill (played with considerable flair by George Baker). British television in the 60s displays both a fascination and an anxiety for what was then called the Permissive Society  and the rising tide of violence and anti-social behaviour. Mark Hill represents all of this. He is a wealthy and dangerous degenerate. Mark though goes beyond casual sex, booze  and drugs. His dangerous passion is for playing games. Playing games with people. Mark’s games are the kind that require a victim. Picking Paul Temple’s wife as as victim proves to be a little unwise. Paul Temple can play games as well, and he plays to win. It could have been a fine episode. The problem is that it’s a bit rushed - 50 minutes wasn’t quite enough time to explore the idea fully - and the ending is contrived and unsatisfying.

Corrida is interesting, dealing with gangsters and bullfighting in the Camargue in the south of France.

The Specialists is quite a good story of business plotting and assassination. It’s highlighted by some wonderful interplay between Sammy Carson (George Sewell) and Lewis (Garfield Morgan), both gangsters who might be on the side of the angels, well partly at least. In fact George Sewell became a semi-regular cast member, appearing in a total of eleven episodes. We never really find out to what extent Sammy Carson was, or perhaps still is, a  crook. He certainly has far too many underworld connections to be a respectable citizen but he is a loyal and exceptionally useful friend to both Paul and Steve Temple, and Sewell was always an actor worth watching.

Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly? was written by Dennis Spooner, always a promising sign. It’s a delightfully complicated espionage story about a feckless Irish artist named Kelly who seems to be caught in the middle of a international conspiracy and also finds himself accused of murder. He happens to be an old friend of Steve’s so Paul finds himself somewhat reluctantly trying to help out although he doesn’t realise just how complex a situation he’s stumbled into. A guest starring performance by the always delightful Richard Vernon is a highlight.

Motel is a terrific little episode. A strange variety of people turn up at a remoter Scottish hotel during a blizzard. And they keep turning up. Each guest seems to be slightly more eccentric than the previous one. And among these guests are Paul and Steve Temple. Also among the guests is a bank robber. In fact any or all of the guests may be accomplices of said bank robber. Or they may be police officers, or amateurs after the reward money, or even genuine guests there for the fishing. The situation becomes more and more farcical but underneath the farce there is a serious side - there is a great deal of money at stake, enough money to kill for. The whole situation is treated with a wonderfully light touch. Superb television.

Cue Murder! is even better. The entire episode takes place in a television studio where Paul is participating in a panel show that attempts to solve previously unsolved crimes. This setting works very well, the plot is nicely convoluted and fine supporting performances add to the fun. Philip Madoc is typically and delightfully over-the-top as the host of the TV series.

Death of Fasching was one of Francis Matthews’ favourite episodes and it’s easy to see why. This is a somewhat surreal and slightly experimental episode in which nothing is as it appears to be. The surreal touches invite comparison to The Avengers but in some ways this story is even more daring and ambiguous in narrative terms than anything attempted by The Avengers. Paul and Steve are in Munich for Fasching, a sort of Carnival month in which the normally staid inhabitants of the city let themselves go. Perhaps some of them go just a little bit overboard. There is something very strange going on but the more Paul and Steve find out the more puzzling the whole situation becomes.

Catch Your Death employs a favoured idea of 1960s thrillers - the theft of a virus from a research establishment. The puzzling thing though is that the would-be thieves seem to have been after a virus that does nothing more dangerous than cause the common cold.

Ricochet is a so-so story although it is amusing to see an action adventure story involving coffee smuggling and toboggan racing - both of which are apparently very very serious matters in Switzerland!

The Guilty Must Die is a delightfully twisted tale of double crosses and triple crosses and dangerous romantic entanglements. An old friend of Steve’s is engaged to be married to be married to smooth-talking but sleazy used car salesman Peter Blane (Patrick Mower in a gloriously over-the-top performance). Steve finds herself trying to warn her friend that Peter is not merely sleazy but also has a very shady past but it seems that love is blind. Or is it?

Paul Temple really is a treat for fans of classic British action adventure television. The location shooting (yes, actual location shooting) in exotic places is a major plus. This series looks stylish and classy. Francis Matthews is a perfect suave playboy crime-fighter hero (and he is certainly the definitive screen Paul Temple) and he and Ros Drinkwater make a great team. Judging by the episodes that have survived the quality of the scripts, although variable, was often very high indeed. It’s all great fun. Very highly recommended.

Network’s excellent DVD release includes all sixteen surviving episodes. It doesn't include a huge amount in the way of extras but the interview with Francis Matthews is certainly worthwhile.

Sunday 1 May 2016

The Outer Limits - The Sixth Finger (1963)

I’ve talked recently about a couple of the most admired episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. Now it seems appropriate to consider a highly regarded episode of that other notable anthology television series, The Outer Limits. I’ve chosen the fifth episode of the first season, The Sixth Finger (written by Ellis St. Joseph), originally broadcast in 1963.

The Outer Limits ran from 1963 to 1965 and differed from the other popular anthology series in having a mostly science fictional slant. It was a pretty uneven series and although the ideas were often brilliant the special effects didn’t always do them justice. You don’t need expensive or elaborate special effects to do science fiction well but unfortunately the kinds of stories this series attempted often tended to be stories that really did need fairly convincing effects.

In spite of these weaknesses The Outer Limits was a bold and innovative series and often breathtakingly ambitious. And The Sixth Finger aims very high indeed - it deals with a million years of human evolution!

Professor Mathers (Edward Mulhare) is a scientist working on the problem of human evolution. The problem with human evolution as he sees it is that it is much too slow. He wants to speed it up. Speed it up dramatically. He believes that our only chance to avoid self-destruction is to become much smarter and we need to do it now. Professor Mathers conducts his researches in a small village in Wales. 

He believes he has found the ideal subject in coal miner Gwyllim Griffiths (David McCallum). Gwyllim is reasonably intelligent and ambitious and he desperately wants to escape from life as a coal miner. He is also filled with resentment and anger but it doesn’t occur to Professor Mathers that this might be a problem. 

The experiment is a success. Gwyllim evolves thousands of years in a few seconds. He is now super-intelligent. That’s a good thing. He is also still filled with resentment and anger. This proves to be a bad thing. He has super-normal intelligence but he has some very ordinary character flaws. Those character flaws were not particularly dangerous when he was just a young coal miner. Now they have become a real problem.

You see the experiment had some unexpected results. Gwyllim has evolved some disturbing powers - he can read minds and he can inflict injury or even death at a distance purely by mental means. Given that he has the character flaws mentioned above he is now a very dangerous young man. The question is, is intelligence enough to compensate for everyday human weaknesses? An even more urgent question is - can Professor Mathers deal with the potential problem he has created? Is there any way to control Gwyllim? And what if Gwyllim decides he’d like to do some more evolving?

It’s a brave attempt to tackle some serious issues - intelligence versus emotions, the possibility of human perfectibility, the dangers of too much progress too soon. There are some scientific absurdities - there are some fundamental misunderstandings about how evolution actually works. Despite this it does have some real impact. It’s not a complete success but it’s typical of The Outer Limits in its willingness to tackle Big Ideas. And David McCallum does a pretty fair job, particularly when encumbered by some drastic makeup effects.

The Outer Limits was always interesting even when is stumbled a little. The stumbles were generally due to excessive ambition and it’s easy to forgive a show that was genuinely trying to push the boundaries of television science fiction. What’s most surprising about this series if how often it actually succeeded. The Sixth Finger might be only a partial success but it’s a bold and interesting partial success. Recommended.