Thursday 24 November 2016

The World of Wooster (1965-67)

The World of Wooster was a BBC series adapted from the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. It was a very successful and highly acclaimed series which ran for three seasons from 1965 to 1967 so naturally the BBC destroyed every episode they could. As far as I know only one episode survives (which you can find on youtube).

I have very dim memories of seeing this series many years ago. What I do remember about it is that is was superb and very funny.

If you’re going to adapt the Jeeves stories you really need to get the casting just right and that’s exactly what the BBC did. Ian Carmichael (one of the great British comic actors of the 20th century) is the perfect Bertie Wooster. The trick with getting Bertie’s character right is that he is certainly a silly ass but he’s not a drooling halfwit. He even displays, on rare occasions, traces of what might even be taken as rudimentary signs of intelligence. His problem is not that he’s a complete idiot. He’s not terribly bright but mostly he gets into scrapes because he overestimates his ability to extricate himself from awkward situations. His schemes for getting himself out of trouble are often ingenious but they’re impractical and he tends to overlook the ways in which they’re likely to backfire. And invariably they do backfire.

Fortunately the schemes that Jeeves comes up with to rescue his amiable but accident-prone master do not suffer from these deficiencies. His plans work with the clockwork precision of well-planned military operations. 

Bertie is not a character we are supposed to regard with contempt. He’s a good-natured kindly generous soul even if he is lazy and irresponsible. We’re supposed to regard Bertie with amused affection. Ian Carmichael captures all these qualities perfectly, Carmichael made an entire career (and a very successful one) out of playing good-natured but not overly intelligent characters who somehow manage to bumble their way through life and avoid disaster. 

Other attempts to portray Bertie Wooster on television have succeeded less well because they end up pushing the character too far into the realms of mere caricature.

Dennis Price is equally good as Jeeves. Jeeves has a very low opinion of Bertie’s intelligence but he is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. He is calm and unflappable and he is used to getting his employer out of scrapes and he has sublime confidence in his own ability to do so. It’s all part of the job. He does these things in the same way he performs his other duties, efficiently and without fuss. He is never smarmy.

The surviving episode, Jeeves and the Delayed Exit of Claude and Eustace, naturally sees Bertie in hot water again but this time none of it is his fault. He is expecting his prospective father-in-law to call on him. Sir Humphrey Wardour (Clive Morton) does not drink, or smoke, or gamble. In fact he disapproves of all the things that Bertie enjoys doing. Bertie’s attempts to make a good impression might well have succeeded had it not been for the very unlucky circumstance that he has his nephews Claude and Eustace staying with him. He’s supposed to keep an eye on them until the following morning when they take ship to South Africa. Claude and Eustace make Bertie seem like a paragon of respectability and responsibility. They are being shipped off the Colonies to keep them out of further trouble. As you might expect it takes them only a few hours to manage to reduce Bertie’s life to chaos, shipwreck his impending marriage and (far more seriously) threaten his always delicate relationship with his dreaded aunts.

On this occasion Bertie doesn’t even consider trying to devise a hare-brained scheme of his own to save the situation. He realises that this is a job for a man of gigantic intellect. It is a job for Jeeves.

One of the reasons the 60s was such a golden age for British television was the wealth of truly marvellous character actors available to fill the supporting roles. In this case Clive Morton as Sir Humphrey Wardour, Fabia Drake as Aunt Agatha, Timothy Carlton as Claude and a very young Simon Ward as Eustace all give just the right performances and in the right Wodehousian spirit.

The World of Wooster is in my opinion one of the two totally successful attempts to bring the delightful works of P.G. Wodehouse to the small screen (the other successful attempt being the BBC’s 1974-78 Wodehouse Playhouse anthology series). It’s a tragedy that such a wonderful series has been almost entirely lost to us. The surviving episode at least gives us a glimpse of what we’ve lost.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Sentimental Agent (1963)

The Sentimental Agent (a spin-off from another ITC series, Man of the World) is a slightly unusual 1963 British adventure series. It’s unusual because the protagonist is not a cop, a spy, a private eye or a playboy amateur crime-fighter. He’s just a businessman. Carlos Varela (Carlos Thompson) runs a successful import-export business. In the course of running this business he becomes involved in various adventures, some of which do involve crime or espionage although others are more in the nature of commercial intrigues.

The most famous of all import-export agents was of course a certain James Bond although for Bond it was merely a cover. It’s not a cover for Carlos Varela. It’s how he makes his living. He’s not interested in espionage or counter-espionage but there are times when he isn’t given any alternative.

The Sentimental Agent’s biggest single plus is its star. Carlos Thompson has an air of the exotic (he was ethnically German but born in Argentina and has a slight accent), he has charisma and he has style. He has lots and lots of style. Carlos Varela makes Simon Templar look like an unsophisticated hick. Thompson also has no trouble at all trading witty dialogue with anyone.

And did I mention that Varela drives an Aston Martin DB5? Yes, the same car James Bond drives in Goldfinger, but Varela got to drive it a year before Goldfinger came out. 

Unfortunately even though Carlos Thompson is the series’ main asset he was eased out towards the end of the season and does not appear in several of the later episodes, being replaced by an somewhat unmemorable character, Bill Randall (played by somewhat unmemorable actor John Turner).

Carlos Thompson gets some excellent support from Burt Kwouk who plays Varela’s gentleman’s gentleman Chin, a most useful servant although something of a tyrant when it comes to his master’s wardrobe. As the series progresses we find that Chin is considerable more than just a valet - he’s a versatile and invaluable assistant who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything. He also has an endless supply of cousins, all of them possessing remarkably useful skills. Burt Kwouk gets to display his considerable comic gifts and seems to be having a lot of fun (and judging by the interview with him included in the DVD set he really did enjoy making the series a great deal).

The series gets off to a great start with All That Jazz, a real spy thriller story and done with enough flair to make it both fresh and amusing. Varela has a slight problem - a consignment of goods has been held up at London Airport. The consignment in question is a modern jazz quintet. MI5 has reason to believe the beatnik musicians are mixed up in an espionage operation although they have no evidence and no idea as to how the secrets in question are being passed to a foreign power. They persuade Varela (or rather they give him no choice in the matter) to help them to solve this puzzle. The solving of the puzzle is rather clever. Julian Bond’s script combines a genuinely good spy story with some gentle humour and the episode establishes Varela as a debonair and charming hero.

The Beneficiary is a reasonably well done story about a dead man and the key to a safety deposit box in Lisbon. There’s nothing startling about the plot but some splendid guest starring turns (especially by Derek Francis and Aubrey Morris) make it entertaining.

Express Delivery is a very nice little Cold War spy thriller story. Carlos is in Poland for a trade fair but he seems to be attracting a lot of attention from the police. Then he’s approached by a beautiful Polish girl named Katrina in the hotel bar. She wants him to help her escape to the West, but is it as simple as that? Having much of the action take place on a train is a definite bonus - trains are such perfect settings for this kind of story. Also helping to make this episode a delight are Patrick Magee as a Polish spymaster plus Ann Bell’s quirky performance as Katrina (in fact the whole supporting cast is excellent).

A Very Desirable Plot shows this series at its best. A shady real estate developer is selling plots of land in the Bahamas. The only problem is that the plots of land are more or less underwater. Carlos Varela had made a deal, in good faith, to supply prefabricated houses to be erected on these plots. A great many people stand to lose their life’s savings while Carlos stands to lose a great deal of money and his good name. Carlos is a shrewd and hardheaded businessman but his success is based on his reputation for honesty and he also does not like to see decent people defrauded by crooked operators. There may be a way he can save his own reputation and the money of the unlucky investors but it’s going to take exquisite timing and a good deal of cunning. The highlights of this episode are guest appearances by the always delightful William Mervyn as a retired British army colonel and as his daughter a young unknown actress making her first screen appearance - the actress being Diana Rigg.

Never Play Cards with Strangers is a case of the biter bit. Carlos had arranged passage on a cruise ship for a middle-aged couple but their cruise was ruined by an encounter with a couple of unlikely card sharps. The shipping line can do nothing without evidence so Carlos decides to take action himself. He books a cabin on the liner, accompanied by the beautiful daughter of the couple who were fleeced. His plan is obviously to win back the money and teach the card cheats a lesson but there’s a snag - Carlos is a rank beginner at bridge. Luckily Chin has yet another cousin who is a croupier in Vegas and who has taught him all the tricks. Card games can always be used, whether in fiction or movies or TV, as excellent arenas for a battle of nerves between the hero and the villain and it’s a technique that works extremely well in this episode. James Bond fans will be delighted that Carlos’s final coup at the card table is something he learnt from Ian Fleming’s Moonraker, a copy of which he just happens to have on him. An excellent episode.

May the Saints Preserve Us is a delightful romp. A rich Texan girl wants Carlos to export something from Ireland to Texas for her - a castle. For some reason the locals don’t seem too happy about his. Carlos suspects the castle is connected with the smuggling of whisky. He’s half right. Something is being smuggled, but it isn’t whisky. This is pure farce but it’s great fun. We also get to hear Carlos attempting both a Texan accent and a French accent.

The Scroll of Islam is a solid episode that sees Carlos inadvertently caught up in the theft of an ancient scroll from a desert sheikhdom. Patrick Troughton makes a rather good sheikh. He is, like Carlos, shrewd but scrupulously honest and their mutual respect may be  the only thing that can avert disaster.

The Height of Fashion is one the episodes featuring Bill Randall rather than Carlos Varela. Varela is supposedly overseas and Randall has to deal with a perplexing problem - what to do with 30,000 horse blankets. They had been ordered by a small Central Asia country for their cavalry horses but now there’s been a revolution and the cavalry has been disbanded. The horse blankets are almost impossible to get rid of, being of a very small size and intended for very small horses. Randall’s attempts to dispose of this unwanted shipment end up involving vintage cars, high fashion and a royal wedding. This is lightweight stuff but it does have its gently amusing moments and it does give Burt Kwouk a chance to shine. Not much substance here but it has a certain charm.

Finishing School, another Bill Randall episode, is even more slight. A girl has been kidnapped from an exclusive girls’ finishing school. The principal, Lady Graffham, is an old friend of Carlos Varela’s but Carlos is in New York so Randall has to step into the breach. Lady Graffham is desperately anxious to avoid a scandal while Randall is inclined to find the whole story a bit suspect. The kidnapping turns out to have an unexpected motor racing connection. This one is a bit like a lesser episode of The Saint, and it’s the sort of thing that Roger Moore could carry off but alas John Turner is no Roger Moore.

Not Quite Fully Covered is the third and probably the best of the Bill Randall episodes. This time it’s a matter of an insurance claim in respect of a very valuable collection of French antique furniture which someone wants to remove from a foreign country without the government of that country knowing about it. 

The are two problems with the Bill Randall episodes. The first is that the tone is too jokey. The basic premise of this series is fairly slight to begin with and if the stories are played too much for laughs the whole thing is in danger of becoming just a bit too silly. The second problem is quite simply the absence of Carlos Thompson. In Carlos Thompson they had a winner - an actor with genuine star quality who knew exactly how to tread the thin line between lighthearted witty fun and mere silliness. 

While the three Bill Randall episodes are a bit of a let-down this series taken as a while really is a delight. There is action  and adventure (and there’s at least one perfectly fine spy story here) but overall the emphasis is on whimsical fun. That can be dangerous to attempt. The tone has to be just right. If you overdo it or underdo it disaster will result. Happily The Sentimental Agent consistently hits just the right note.

Mention must be made of the truly bizarre theme tune. It sort of grows on you. Sort of.

If you’re looking for a straightforward action adventure series this is not it. However if you don’t mind wit, whimsy and light-hearted fun you should thoroughly enjoy The Sentimental Agent. Carlos Thompson’s performances are the main attraction and they’re good enough to make this must-see television and Network’s DVD set offers excellent transfers. Highly recommended.

Sunday 6 November 2016

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, the Dr Thorndyke episodes

I’ve written before about Thames Television’s superb 1971-73 series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes which comprises adaptations of some great stories written in late Victorian and Edwardian times by authors who were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At the moment I want to talk about the two episodes adapted from R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke stories. Freeman wrote countless novels and stories featuring this character including masterpieces such as The Mystery of 31 New Inn and The Eye of Osiris

The first truly scientific detective in crime fiction, Dr John Thorndyke is a Professor of Medical Jurisprudence. He is not a detective as such. He does however take an interest in criminal cases that call for his particular talents. He does not interview suspects nor does he take the slightest interest in motives. He concerns himself purely with forensic evidence, usually but not always of a medical nature.

The first of the Dr Thorndyke episodes is the first episode of the first season, A Message from the Deep Sea. John Neville stars as Dr Thorndyke. One of Thorndyke’s former students, Dr Hart, has obtained a position as assistant to the Police Surgeon. The Police Surgeon not being immediately available Dr Hart finds himself called to the scene of a murder and being overwhelmed by the responsibility prevails upon Dr Thorndyke to accompany him. A prostitute has been murdered and to the police it appears to be an open-and-shut case. A fellow prostitute, May O’Brien, seems destined to face the hangman.

John Neville as Dr Thorndyke in A Message from the Deep Sea
It is fortunate indeed that Dr Hart had managed to persuade Dr Thorndyke to become involved as both the investigating police officer, Detective Sergeant Bates, and the Police Surgeon, Dr Davidson, are the kinds of bumbling fools who jump to conclusions and are very likely to end up sending innocent people to the gallows. Dr Thorndyke spots some vital clues that they have overlooked, the types of clues that would be meaningless to anyone without a rigorous scientific training. Dr Thorndyke reveals the identity of the real killer in a dramatic courtroom finale.

This episode captures the spirit of Freeman’s stories very well. The police have found a suspect with an obvious motive but Dr Thorndyke demonstrates that the actual physical evidence tells a very different story. It is fortunate that Thorndyke has a good working knowledge of the minute marine organisms of the eastern Mediterranean (Freeman liked to throw in some obscure and esoteric elements such as this) and it is equally fortunate that Thorndyke and his assistants understand the crucial importance of noting every piece of evidence even if its significance is not immediately apparent.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes has the very studio-bound feel you expect in a British TV series from 1971 but this is more than compensated for by a superb cast and Philip Mackie’s entertaining and intelligent script. John Neville captures both the arrogance and the amiability of Thorndyke. James Cossins is excellent as Thorndyke’s junior partner Jervis, who displays an uncanny ability to spot all the vital evidence without being able to make the slightest bit of sense out of any of it. Paul Darrow, who would later find fame in Blake’s 7, is the keen but hopelessly out-of-his-depth Dr Hart. Terence Rigby makes a fine bumptious policeman as Sergeant Bates and Bernard Archard is wonderful as the arrogant but obtuse Police Surgeon.

Barrie Ingham (left) as Dr Thorndyke in The Moabite Cypher
The second of the Dr Thorndyke episodes, The Moabite Cypher, came towards the end of the second and final season. This time Dr Thorndyke is played by Barrie Ingham while Peter Sallis steps into the role of Jervis. Having totally different actors and a different writer and director (this time Reginald Collin fulfills both roles) from A Message from the Deep Sea means that we can expect a rather different treatment.

A suspected anarchist bomber is found dead and in his coat pocket is a very strange letter. It is written in an ancient variant of Hebrew and in a cypher of some description. Scotland Yard can make nothing of this puzzle and they have high hopes that Dr Thorndyke can help. While the puzzle yet remains unsolved Thorndyke and his partner Dr Jervis receive a desperate plea for assistance from a man who is convinced that his brother is being poisoned by his young wife.

Dr Thorndyke does of course crack the cypher, in a rather unexpected way, and unravel the mystery which is both more and less than it originally appeared to be.

Barrie Ingham is very good although I think he seems just a little young to be convincing as such an eminent man. Peter Sallis on the other hand is much too old, in fact two decades too old, for the role of Jervis who is after all supposed to be one of Thorndyke’s  ex-students. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, he’s just too old. Some of the supporting players are just a bit too hammy and there are some perfectly outrageous accents on display. On the other hand it’s a fine story with plenty of twists.

A Message from the Deep Sea is I think closer in spirit to Freeman’s stories. Both John Neville and Barrie Ingham give interesting interpretations of Dr Thorndyke although it’s John Neville who strikes me as being closer to the character as described in the books. Both episodes are however very entertaining and well worth seeing if you’re a fan of Freeman’s stories, and of course The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes as a whole is a must-see series.