Thursday 23 February 2017

Mogul, AKA The Troubleshooters (1965)

The Troubleshooters was one of the BBC’s more successful drama series, running from 1965 to 1972. The first season was in fact entitled Mogul. It was moderately successful but it was decided to make some drastic changes for the second season which was also given the slightly more exciting title The Troubleshooters.

The series deals with the Mogul oil company, a large concern with international interests. The oil business is not for the faint-hearted and Mogul conducts its business efficiently but rather ruthlessly. Managing director Brian Stead (Geoffrey Keen) is determined and very competent, with somewhat flexible ethics.

There is virtually no limit to the number of things that can go wrong in this business and it’s up to troubleshooters like Peter Thornton (Ray Barrett) to sort out these problems, wherever in the world they may occur.

Only five of the thirteen first season episodes survive.

The very first episode, Kelly’s Eye, does survive. Information has leaked to the press about the progress being made at one of Mogul’s exploration platforms in the North Sea. The company regards this very seriously indeed. Any information gained in the process of oil exploration has been gained at considerable expense to the company and even information of a negative nature could give Mogul an advantage over its rivals. As a result the company goes to great lengths to ensure that leaks of information from drilling crews just don’t happen. Every member of every drilling crew has to sign a confidentiality agreement before being employed. But now a leak has occurred and it’s up to the company’s top troubleshooter, Peter Thornton (Ray Barrett), to find out how this information got out.

It’s almost like a private eye story, as Thornton not only has to interview every member of the crew he has to do quite a lot of detective work as well. An excellent episode.

Young Turk takes place in a small sheikhdom in the Middle East where Mogul are seeking oil exploration rights. Things haven’t gone too well. In fact a Mogul employee has been killed. Young Bob Driscoll (Barry Foster) is sent out to take charge of the negotiating team. The negotiations will be delicate and Driscoll is not the most subtle man in the world. Have Mogul made an error of judgment here? Another fine episode.

Tosh and Nora is an odd episode, more a kitchen sink drama kind of story, about an ageing seamen on one of Mogul’s oil tankers. Tosh Brinkwater has never been much of a seaman and he’s never been much of a husband to Nora. I suppose we’re expected to regard him as a loveable rogue but he’s actually a rather unpleasant old fool, the sort of person who is too stupid and too stubborn to realise that people are trying to do him a favour. The only positive thing about his episode is that we get to see another, slightly more human, side to Brian Stead. This is really a very dull episode.

Out of Range involves a geological survey in the Sahara. This is the first time in the desert for young geologist David Izard, the son of company secretary Willy Izard (Philip Latham). The head of the survey team, Chris Darnley (Percy Herbert), goes to extraordinary lengths to explain the hazards of the desert, and the rules that have to be followed if you wish to stay alive in such an environment. Of course trying to persuade a young Oxford graduate to listen to good advice was always likely to be a futile task. Meanwhile Peter Thornton has decided the whole survey is a waste of time anyway and the party is called back. They’ll be back at the coast in a day - surely nothing can go wrong now? This is a truly excellent story.

Stoneface takes place in the icy wastes of northern Canada. Bob Driscoll has been despatched to interview Mojida, an Iroquois working for Mogulo as an oil exploration rig boss. Mogul has been considering promoting him to the ranks of their troubleshooters and Driscoll’s job is to make sure he’d be capable of handling the pressures of the job. As it happens disaster is threatening to strike the oil exploration rig and there are serious tensions between Mojida and his French-Canadian number two man Godin. They’re both very competent but Godin believes in taking risks while Mojida believes in playing it safe. It’s a good episode with a dramatic action finale.

This series doesn’t quite fit into conventional genre categories. It borrows from the action adventure genre but there are boardroom struggles, there’s international intrigue, and there’s human drama. In this first season it’s obvious that the intention was to focus not just on the glamour and excitement of the oil industry but to show the human faces of some of the ordinary Mogul employees as well. It’s years since I’ve seen any of the episodes from the later seasons so I can’t really comment on the extent of the format change after season one, although I suspect that it was probably felt that a greater focus on the glamour and excitement would be desirable.

Unusually for a BBC series Mogul isn’t overly heavy-handed in its treatment of the political aspects of the oil business. Mogul is a company competing in a cut-throat business and they play the game hard but they’re not depicted as being evil incarnate. Brian Stead’s ethics may be somewhat flexible but he’s not a crook and although he can be a hard man he’s no monster. Willy Izard is a company man who has devoted his life to Mogul but while he’s paid a price for this he’s not portrayed as being stupid or wrong. He’s made his choices and he’s prepared to live with them.

Peter Thornton’s job sometimes involves stepping on people’s toes and he accepts that but he isn’t a man to throw his weight around just for the sake of it. He can be tough but he can be conciliatory as well. At times Bob Driscoll’s job can involve deception and while he is prepared to do what is necessary he doesn’t always enjoy it (just as Peter Thornton doesn’t always enjoy having to make tough decisions). In other words all the characters have some depth and nuance to them. They’re not heroes but they’re not evil capitalist lackeys, they’re just realists who accept the world as it is.

It’s tragic that only five episodes of this first season survive - it’s not quite enough to get more than a vague impression of what the series set out to achieve. It’s to be hoped that this DVD release will be successful enough to lead to a DVD release for the fifteen surviving episodes of season two. Danann’s Region 2 release of the first season boasts transfers that are quite acceptable. Some episodes are in better shape than others but we’re lucky that any of them survive in any form.

Mogul is fine television. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 (1981)

I reviewed Assignments 1 to 4 of the excellent British science fiction series Sapphire and Steel here a while back.  

Assignment 5 went to air in 1981. It was written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read - this was the only one of the six Sapphire and Steel serials not written by series creator P.J. Hammond.

Sapphire and Steel, an ATV production which aired between 1979 and 1982, can be seen as a more sophisticated and more grown-up version of Doctor Who. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are agents whose job it is to prevent any person, or any entity, from interfering with the smooth and regular progress of time. Sapphire and Steel are clearly not human. What exactly they are is one of the many things the series never really explains. That’s actually one of the strengths of the series - it doesn’t try to over-explain things. It’s content to leave some ambiguities. Sapphire and Steel seem to be a bit more than just very advanced aliens. They may even qualify as gods of a lesser type, albeit gods of a science fiction type.

The casting of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley was inspired. They don’t overdo things but they do manage to convey the slightly disquieting impression of non-humanness. They have absolutely nothing against humans and often try to help them but we’re always aware that they don’t actually care about humans. They have more important priorities. Interference with time could have catastrophic consequences for the entire universe, compared to which human concerns are not terribly important. Sapphire and Steel are not callous but they have an almost complete emotional detachment. They do have some concern for the fate of human civilisation, but they’re prepared to sacrifice individual humans. This makes them unusual but interesting heroes.

Assignment 5 concerns a party thrown by Lord Mullrine (Davy Kaye). The party is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his company, Mullrine International. Since the company was founded in 1930 Mullrine decides it would be fun to give the party a 1930 feel. In fact he takes this to obsessive lengths. Everything in his palatial home is authentically of the period. He insists that his guests wear the fashions of 1930. He has a 50-year-old radio set and when one of the guests switches it on to find out how the Test Match is going he hears a broadcast of the First Test at Trent Bridge in 1930.

This is all a harmless whim, or is it? It soon becomes apparent that somehow the party really is taking place in 1930. Not an re-enactment of 1930 but the actual year 1930.

Sapphire and Steel were already aware that something odd was going to happen in Lord Mullrine’s house and they managed to get themselves invitations.

This episode has the perfect setup, and the perfect setting, for a traditional English country house murder mystery. And indeed murder soon follows. Murder however is the least of the problems that Sapphire and Steel have to face. The year 1930 was not chosen randomly. Something significant happened in June 1930. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that something significant is going to happen in June 1930.

While it makes use of the classic murder mystery tropes the murders are not really what the story is all about. Or then again, looked at another way, maybe murder really is the key to the mystery.

The mixing of past and present, with the same actors playing the same characters fifty years ago and in the present, and in some cases playing a character and the character’s own father, is nicely disorienting.

Compared to Doctor Who this series takes interference with time much more seriously. Any disruption of time is a potential disaster; in fact any disruption of time is almost certainly going to be an actual disaster. Playing around with time is not a game. While the scientific explanations are obviously totally invented they at least sound fairly convincing.

While Sapphire and Steel was far from being a big-budget production the period setting is done very well. It should also be added that David McCallum looks rather dashing in a 1930s suit while Joanna Lumley looks even more glamorous than usual with her 1930 hairstyle and a very fetching evening gown.

As usual in this series the special effects are of the most basic kind, which does not matter at all since the stories rely on ideas not special effects. 

Sapphire and Steel has its own very distinctive feel. It’s a science fiction series in which mood is more important than gadgetry, and ideas are much more important than action. It also has an odd tone of emotional distance since we’re seeing everything from the point of view of the very non-human title characters. We’re not encouraged to engage to any great degree to the human characters but this is a strength rather than a weakness of the series. It helps us to understand the motivations of Sapphire and Steel. They might superficially appear callous but they aren’t, they are totally lacking in malice or cruelty and what they do is vital and necessary even if it can occasionally seem harsh. They have a kind of god-like perspective.

Sapphire and Steel are among the most convincingly alien-like of alien characters in television science fiction, and Lumley and McCallum achieve this effect with commendable subtlety.

This series appears to be readily available on DVD just about everywhere.

This is slightly cerebral but still very entertaining television. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents - Bat Out of Hell (1966)

Francis Durbridge was a novelist but is better known as one of the great mystery writers for radio and television. He wrote eight serials broadcast between 1952 and 1959 under the umbrella title The Francis Durbridge Serial but unfortunately all are now lost. Happily all but one of the eleven serials screened between 1960 and 1980 under the title Francis Durbridge Presents do survive in their entirety. These survivors include Bat Out of Hell which first went to air in 1966.

Bat Out of Hell comprises five half-hour episodes.

Geoffrey Stewart (Noel Johnson) is a wealthy real estate agent. He has a luxurious home and an Aston Martin and a beautiful but much younger wife, Diana (Sylvia Syms). The marriage does not seem to be a great success. Geoffrey thinks his wife is foolish and extravagant; Diana thinks her husband is tight-fisted and bad-tempered. Mark Paxton (played by a 24-year-old John Thaw) works for Stewart. Given that the Stewarts’ marriage is shaky you might think there’s the potential there for a romantic triangle to develop, and you’d be right.

You might also think that such a situation could lead to murder. Again you’d be right. This is however a rather puzzling murder. No-one is quite sure who has murdered whom. Even the murderer doesn’t know!

Things get steadily more puzzling, with dead people making telephone calls and people telling obvious lies for no obvious purpose. Fortunately Inspector Clay (Dudley Foster) is an unflappable sort of fellow and he’s a more formidable policeman than you might take him for at first.

Despite his youthfulness John Thaw was already a fairly experienced television actor. He doesn’t yet have the intensity that one associates with him but he handles his role quite adeptly.

Sylvia Syms does well as the young wife who has landed herself in a nightmare of her own making. She’s certainly scheming but mostly she really just doesn’t seem to appreciate the consequences of her actions.

For my money Dudley Foster steals the show as the quietly relentless detective who patiently assembles the pieces of the puzzle.

Emrys Jones is a lot of fun as the downtrodden but cheerful husband of Diana Stewart’s friend Thelma Bowen. Walter Bowen is one of those people who has never managed to be quite a important or significant as he feels he ought to have been but he’s still sure that if he keeps trying people will take him seriously. It’s not exactly a comic relief role but it does provide a few moments of gentle humour in an otherwise rather grim tale.

Francis Durbridge’s script is what you expect from such a distinguished television writer. It has the necessary twists and turns and he provides a decent cliffhanger ending for each episode. 

Alan Bromly directed all five episodes of Bat Out of Hell and in fact he directed a very large proportion of the various Francis Durbridge television serials.

There’s just a touch of the creakiness you sometimes get in these mostly studio-bound shot-on-videotape productions. By 1966 BBC standards (which are admittedly rather low) the production values aren’t really too bad and there is at least some location shooting.

The semi-rural setting (apparently about an hour-and-a-half from London) and the lack of anything in the way of graphic violence gives this production something of the feel of a “cosy” mystery although without the cutesiness often associated with that sub-genre.

Pay attention to the music in the first episode - at one point you’ll hear the famous theme music for Callan (which began its run a year later).

An outfit called Danann in the UK have released Bat Out of Hell on an all-region DVD. It’s also available in the very good value Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 2 boxed set from Madman in Australia. The set also includes no less than four other Francis Durbridge serials. I have the Madman set and while there are no extras the transfers are pretty good.

Bat Out of Hell is a fine old-fashioned and rather unassuming murder mystery that provides harmless enjoyment. Highly recommended.