Wednesday 22 June 2016

It’s Dark Outside, season one (1964)

Chief Inspector Rose was a central character in no less than three Granada Television series during the 1960s. He made his first appearance in the final two seasons of the police drama The Odd Man. He then featured in a new cop series, It’s Dark Outside, the first season of which included another character from The Odd Man, Detective Sergeant Swift. Then in 1967 he was the subject of yet another series, the superb Mr Rose.

Chief Inspector Rose was played throughout by William Mervyn, a fine character actor with a particular gift for comedy but who was quite capable of being serious or even sinister when required.

Rose does change somewhat between It’s Dark Outside and Mr Rose but the change is plausible enough. In Mr Rose he has mellowed quite a bit. He has also inherited a great deal of money, taken early retirement and now lives in gracious comfort in the country. I imagine I’d mellow as well if that happened to me.

The subject of this review is however It’s Dark Outside, which lasted two seasons from 1964 to 1965. In the first season Rose’s sergeant is Detective Sergeant Swift (Keith Barron). Barron left after the first season and was replaced by Anthony Ainley as Detective Sergeant Hunter.

Chief Inspector Rose is a rather pompous character but it would be a dangerous mistake to dismiss him lightly for that reason. Under the pomposity there’s a sharp mind and a streak of considerable ruthlessness. 

The first episode, The Grim World of the Brothers Tulk, introduces us to the series’ two other regular characters, Anthony Brand (John Carson) and his wife Alice (June Tobin). Anthony is a barrister and human rights campaigner and is even more pompous than Chief Inspector Rose while lacking the positive qualities that make Rose so fascinating. Alice is a typical crusading journalist. This episode is certainly very dark indeed, dealing with a child murder, a couple of faded music hall performers and an unfortunate sequel to an interrogation. DS Swift finds himself in trouble and feels he is being stabbed in the back by Rose.

There are two ongoing story arcs intertwined with the individual stories that make up the eight episodes of the first season. One arc concerns a tentative romance between Detective Sergeant Swift and Alice Brand; the other concerns a figure from Anthony Brand’s past. These story arcs will gradually assume more and more importance as the series progresses. They’re not really apparent in the first episode but it does lay down the groundwork by giving us some insights into the characters involved.

This is a series that must be watched in sequence and from the beginning otherwise you will find the last few episodes quite mystifying.

In the second episode, One Man’s Right, Brand is organising a human right convention but his illustrious guest speaker proves to be rather embarrassing - his view of human rights is not at all the view that Brand takes and more alarmingly he puts his principles into practice. Which brings Chief Inspector Rose into the picture.

Speak Ill of the Living opens with a hanging, but then a day later another woman confesses to the murder. Her confession is however just a little suspicious. Anthony Brand sees this as a wonderful opportunity to advance yet another of his human rights causes. Chief Inspector Rose and DS Swift are meanwhile making their own investigation.

This is typical of the approach taken by this series. The case is complex, even more complex than it seems to be at first. The truth is shadowy and elusive and the moral dilemmas prove to be fiendish traps. Anthony Brand is as usual convinced that his cause is just and seems unable to perceive that his self-righteousness is leading him into dangerous moral territory. His own conduct is ruthless and unscrupulous, ethically very questionable indeed and possibly illegal. While he likes to think of himself as being morally superior to his friend Charles Rose it is clear that Rose would never stoop to such dubious methods.

More Ways of Killing a Cat is a more straightforward crime story without the obvious political subtexts of the earlier episodes. DS Swift is being stalked by someone from his past, someone who had been in a mental hospital but is now completely cured and has therefore been released. At least the psychiatrists thought he was cured (psychiatrists do not come off very well in this tale).

Wake the Dead is a major improvement on earlier episodes. Mercifully Anthony Brand is relegated to a minor role. An old lady is found dead under very mysterious circumstances - with alcohol and barbiturates in her bloodstream although she was a non-drinker and several letters are found from her late husband. The trouble is the letters were posted three years after his death. Meanwhile Alice Brand is once again trying to rescue a poor downtrodden criminal - in her mind no criminal has ever been responsible for his actions and no amount of evidence or experience will change her views. It’s starting to become obvious by now that we’re expected to have much more sympathy for Chief Inspector Rose’s worldview (do your duty as efficiently as you can with decency and commonsense) than for the worldview of the Brands (everything is the fault of society and criminals are always victims). Wake the Dead is neatly plotted and benefits from fine guest performances by Patrick Newell as a phony spiritualist and Liam Redmond as a cheerful habitual thief.

A Room with No View has two completely unconnected plots. The main plot concerning a rent collector is heavy-handed and preachy and makes no sense. The subsidiary plot though, involving Anthony Brand’s war service that might in reality have been a good deal less than glorious, is subtle and very very clever. 

With A Case for Indentification the series starts to fall apart really badly. Excruciatingly poor acting, a ludicrous plot involving a disturbed young man and it’s all made worse by the increasingly embarrassing ongoing story arc detailing a squalid entanglement between Sergeant Swift and the awful Alice Brand. This may be the worst single episode of any 1960s British TV series.

The final episode, You Play the Red and the Black Comes Up, is surprisingly good. In fact it’s very good indeed. This one resolves both of the two ongoing story arcs and does so quite satisfactorily. This was one of the three episodes written by Marc Brandel (the other two being Speak Ill of the Living and Wake the Dead) which are by far the strongest of the first season. Anthony Brand’s past catches up to him in a very unpleasant way but what’s most impressive about this episode is that it makes sense given what we’ve already learnt about his character in the preceding seven episodes. It’s believable.

It’s worth pointing out that It’s Dark Outside and Mr Rose had entirely different production teams - different producers and a quite different roster of writers and directors. In fact the only connection between the two series is the character of Chief Inspector Rose and even he’s not quite the same.

It’s Dark Outside is very much an oddity. It’s wildly uneven and it suffers from a certain amount of genre confusion - it’s not sure if it wants to be a quirky cop series, a soap opera or a slice of heavy-handed moralising social realism. It doesn’t quite succeed on any of these levels although it’s an intriguing attempt and it does avoid being overly obvious. Social commentary was common enough in 60s British TV but It’s Dark Outside doesn’t always follow the ideological line you think it’s going to follow. At times it will strike modern audiences as being very politically correct while at other times it will seem to be almost shockingly politically incorrect.

Two years later when Philip Mackie revived the character of Chief Inspector Rose in Mr Rose he was careful not to fall into such a trap. Mr Rose focuses entirely on being a quirky crime drama and it’s one of the very best examples of the genre from its era. It’s Dark Outside on the other hand never quite manages to resolve its internal contradictions and ends up being less successful although it remains interesting. You’d probably want to rent it first before risking a purchase.

Network’s DVD release includes the whole of the first season plus the two surviving episodes of the second.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Out of the Unknown - The Last Lonely Man (1969)

The Last Lonely Man, originally transmitted in early 1969, is the only episode from the third season of Out of the Unknown to survive in its entirety. I’ve already blogged at length about the first two seasons of this interesting but wildly uneven BBC science fiction anthology series.

Out of the Unknown was intended to be a series of adaptations of notable stories by well-known science fiction authors. This formula was largely adhered to in the first three seasons but abandoned in season four.

The third season saw the series switch to colour and also saw changes to the production tram with Alan Bromly taking over from Irene Shubik as producer and Roger Parkes coming in as script editor. They had however limited control since Shubik had already commissioned scripts for all thirteen episodes.

The Last Lonely Man was adapted by Jeremy Paul from a story by John Brunner.

This episode deals with an intriguingly different future. Society has been changed dramatically by the advent of Contact although at this stage no-one has quite realised the true significance or scale of the change. Contact is a government program that offers  citizens a kind of technological immortality. Everyone is to have at least one and preferably several Contacts. Contact is achieved by visiting a free government clinic. A complete copy of a person’s brain patterns is recorded and implanted into the brain of their Contacts. If the person dies his personality instantly jumps into the brain of one of his Contacts.

No-one need ever fear death again. No-one need ever truly die. The only disadvantage is that when you die you have to share a brain with another person - and that other person will from that time on have to share a brain with you. This is however a very minor problem  - the government has done studies and it’s really no problem at all. 

In this new world of virtual immortality everyone is much happier, although they are a little more careless. Not having to worry about dying means not having to fuss so much about taking precautions. In fact when people go to the movies and see images of people being slaughtered they laugh uproariously. Death is something to be light-hearted about.

If you decide you no longer want someone to be your Contact you can always cancel the contract - this is known as expunging the person. It’s no big deal. It happens all the time. You can do this at any time - as long as the person is still alive. Once they’re dead and they’ve made that final jump into your brain the process is permanent. The government has done studies on this as well and it’s also no problem. In any case they provide Adjustment Clinics for the tiny handful of people who have really very minor problems as a result.

James Hale (George Cole) is sure that the government is right to tell people not to worry. He’s not worried. He’s quite happy when Patrick (Peter Halliday) begs him to be his Contact. Patrick has just been expunged by Mary (Lillias Walker). Patrick’s problem is that Mary was his only Contact. Now he is not covered. This means if he dies now he will be really dead. James is a nice guy though and he’s happy to be Patrick’s Contact, purely on a short-term temporary basis until Patrick can make other arrangements with one of his many friends.

Needless to say James will find out that Contact is not quite as foolproof and trouble-free as those reassuring government television commercials claim. He will also discover, indirectly, a paradox about immortality. Immortality can actually make some people more afraid of dying.

This is a clever and well-constructed story with several neat and genuinely unexpected twists. It’s the kind of science fiction story that does not require much in the way of special effects In fact it requires none, nor does it require elaborate futuristic sets. It’s about ideas, not gadgetry. This future world looks pretty much like 1969. The fact that it could be done at minimal expense must have been a considerable relief to the BBC which was notoriously tight-fisted when it came to television science fiction budgets. Amazingly enough though it still manages to look cheap even by BBC standards.

Of course if considered in any detail the whole premise is pretty much scientific nonsense but it’s the idea in the broadest sense that is the point of the story and it’s a provocative idea.

Apart from the excellent script the major plus here is the terrific performance by George Cole. 

The first season of Out of the Unknown had varied quite alarmingly in quality and this inconsistency continued in season two, with brilliant moments such as The Machine Stops and some fairly dire moments as well. The Last Lonely Man is one of the better moments and it’s excellent television. Highly recommended.

Sunday 5 June 2016

The Baron (1966-67)

The Baron was one of ITC’s less successful action adventure series, running for a single season (of 30 episodes) in 1966 and 1967. The series was based, fairly loosely, on the character created by John Creasey and starred American Steve Forrest (brother of Hollywood star Dana Andrews) in the title role.

The character in Creasey’s books belonged to the gentleman-thief tradition, a tradition that began in the 1890s with Raffles and Simon Carne and was still going strong in the 1920s. John Mannering, known as The Baron, was something of a latecomer making his literary debut in Meet the Baron in 1937. Mannering is a jewel thief who is gradually transformed into an amateur detective.

The TV series turns Mannering into a thief-turned-crimefighter in the style of The Saint and downplays the character’s criminal past to the point where that aspect is practically non-existent. The problem with this is that what makes such characters so fascinating is the hint of moral ambiguity, and in the case of Simon Templar it’s the fact that although he often helps the police (and they accept his help) they still believe he’s a thief and they still want to see him behind bars. The John Mannering of the TV series comes across as an eminently respectable antique dealer, which unfortunately makes him rather dull.

ITC were firm believers in the theory that the best way to crack the US market was by casting American actors. Sometimes this worked. Casting Richard Bradford in Man in a Suitcase was an inspired choice - being an American effectively exiled from the US makes him an even more convincing haunted loner, a man who really does live out of a suitcase. In the case of The Baron it was a mistake. The character would have worked better had he been portrayed as an Englishman, as he was in the novels. 

Making Mannering a former Texas cattleman was an even more dubious idea.

Casting an American to play the role might not have been a fatal error but they certainly chose the wrong actor. This is the kind of series that desperately needs a witty and charismatic star. Someone like Roger Moore. Steve Forrest, alas, is entirely lacking in charisma and is not suited to the sort of witty repartee that such a series needs. It’s not that he’s a terrible actor or that his performance is terrible. He’s just the wrong actor and he gives the wrong performance. Forrest could have been a perfectly convincing hard-boiled private eye but that’s not what this series needed.

Forrest had apparently been very impressed by Patrick McGoohan in Danger Man and was trying to model his performance on McGoohan’s. Sadly Forrest just doesn’t have McGoohan’s combination of subtlety and charisma.

Initially John Mannering was to have an assistant named David Marlowe, played by Paul Ferris. After filming eight episodes it was decided that a beautiful female assistant would be a better idea and the Marlowe character was replaced by Cordelia, played by Sue Lloyd. Given that Steve Forrest is not the world’s most exciting actor giving him a glamorous co-star who was a decent actress was on balance a smart move. Cordelia is quite an interesting character. She often manages to get herself captured by the bad guys but when this happens she invariably starts thinking of some ingenious and outlandish method of escape. Her plans don’t always succeed but they’re usually well thought-out and sometimes they do work.

The Baron was reasonably popular with audiences in Britain but attracted little interest in the US and any ITC series that failed to attract American interest had no chance of being renewed for a second season. The fact that the critical response to the series was almost uniformly negative did not help. If critics disliked the series they disliked Steve Forrest even more.

A bigger problem is that the TV series is just too obviously a clone of ITC’s mega-hit series The Saint. You have a debonair man-of-the-world hero, with just a hint of the rogue, who moves in a world of money, high culture, high fashion and style. A member of the jet-set. He solves crimes involving the rich, the fashionable and the powerful. He has adventures in exotic locales. The series are so similar that at least one episode of The Baron was simply a rehash of an earlier script for The Saint. The series was always going to be compared to The Saint, and the comparison was not going to be in The Baron’s favour.

Having said all that, The Baron is not a bad series. Some episodes are rather good. Most are at least watchable. You always end up feeling that even the good stories would have been even better as episodes of The Saint but if you try to put such thoughts aside there’s a certain amount of enjoyment to be had here. The better episodes are the ones that make the most use of the fact that Mannering is a deal in art and antiques, and to be fair the writers do try to make as much use of this as possible. These episodes do give the series at least some of the distinctive flavour it needed but unfortunately they’re outnumbered by rather generic episodes that could have been written for any adventure series.

You Can't Win Them All is an episode that very definitely takes advantage of John Mannering’s expertise as an expert in art and antiquities. The chief interest in this story is the poker game played for very high stakes between Mannering and the criminal. Whether it’s a suspense or mystery or spy novel or movie or TV series poker games always offer the opportunity for a tense battle of wits, nerve and will between hero and villain in this instance writer Dennis Spooner makes very skillful use of this opportunity. One of the best episodes of the series.

The Edge of Fear is another art-centred story and a potentially interesting one involving the theft of a very very valuable painting indeed. Unfortunately it’s let down a bit by an over-reliance on the diabolically clever master criminals suddenly making incredibly stupid mistakes so that the hero can save the day. It’s as bit disappointing to see lazy writing like this from Dennis Spooner.

In The Terry Nation-penned The Seven Eyes of Night it’s jewels rather than paintings being stolen and it’s a very fine story with some very good twists and is also highlighted by a neurotically manic performance by Jeremy Brett. In Time To Kill an exquisite cameo is the driving force of the action. There is a curse, which we are not surprised by, but we may be surprised by the connection with radioactivity. A fine episode (written by Dennis Spooner) in which Cordelia takes centre stage.

With A Memory of Evil we’re back to paintings although this is a much more outrageous tale. In fact the story, involving a neo-nazi plot to finance a plot to resurrect the Third Reich by selling looted art treasures hidden in a cave in the Alps, is ludicrously far-fetched but it’s great fun. Robert Hardy does some serious scenery-chewing as the neo-nazi leader. The alpine setting adds extra interest.

In a 60s adventure series there are always has to be at least one episode dealing with South American revolutionaries and Long Ago and Far Away is a good example of the breed. This time Cordelia gets to play a major role when Mannering sends her to meet an explorer who seems to have discovered more than rare plants or ancient artifacts.

Masquerade and The Killing are actually one two-part episode and it’s an odd one. Doubles were a popular feature in science fiction and spy series in this era but they’re more unusual in this kind of series. It’s the sort of story you’d expect from The Avengers but is a bit out of place here.

The Long, Long Day is more or less a western, with Mannering and a girl under siege in the sheriff’s office holding off attacks by outlaws, only it’s an Italian police station and it’s being attacked by mafiosi rather than outlaws. It’s a decent episode with plenty of action. 

So Dark the Night is fairly routine, with the bad guys trying to find something that they want very badly but that something is very well hidden. The rather gothic house is a plus and Sue Lloyd gets plenty to do in this one including some clever heroic stuff. Routine perhaps but still reasonably enjoyable.

Night of the Hunter is the sort of episode that gave this series a bad name. It’s an uninspired tale of revolution in an unnamed country. The Saint could get away with this kind of thing because Roger Moore had the charisma to carry off even a less than stellar script. As an episode of The Baron it’s just too obviously a second-rate copy of The Saint.

The Maze was written by Brian Clemens who provides a brief introduction to the episode on the DVD. As you might expect from Clemens this story has just a bit of the flavour of The Avengers. It’s a very good episode with nice use of the maze and a reasonably good dream sequence.

Had the producers tried harder to stick with stories that made better use of Mannering’s expertise in art and his position as a leading dealer and had they stuck a little more closely to John Creasey’s original creation The Baron could have been an excellent series. They had Sue Lloyd’s lively and entertaining performance to compensate for Steve Forrest’s adequate but unexciting portrayal of the hero. As it stands it’s still not a bad series and it has its moments. Recommended, but probably better to rent it rather than buy it.