Monday 31 July 2017

The Man in Room 17, season 2 (1966)

The Man in Room 17 is an interesting unconventional crime/espionage series made by Granada in 1965-66, dealing with a hush-hush government department that investigates crimes that are too difficult or too sensitive for any other agency to handle. 

In the first season the men in Room 17 were the pompous very upper-class and wildly eccentric former Oxford don Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Dimmock (Michael Aldridge), the equally brilliant and equally eccentric product of one of the new-fangled red-brick universities of which Oldenshaw does not quite approve. The combination worked superbly but unfortunately Michael Aldridge was unable to appear in the second season due to illness. His place was taken be Denholm Elliott as Imlac Defraits.

Considering Elliott’s very high reputation as an actor that should have worked very well but in fact it doesn’t quite come off. Elliott doesn’t have quite the same delightful chemistry with Vernon that Aldridge had and at times seems a little unsure of himself. The problem might be that Defraits as a character is just a bit too similar to Dimmock. Perhaps Elliott would have been more comfortable being able to create an entirely original characterisation but the difficulty with that would have been that the successful formula of the series required that Oldenshaw’s partner be a certain type of personality.

That’s not to say that Denholm Elliott’s performance is poor. Far from it. He just isn’t quite as good as Aldridge, and Defraits isn’t quite as interesting a character as Dimmock.

Elliott’s decision to give Defraits a slight speech impediment can also be a little distracting.

The big gimmick in this series is that Oldenshaw and his partner almost never leave Room 17. They plan the operations but the execution of their plans in the field is left entirely to others. Each episode cuts between Room 17, where Oldenshaw and Defraits pull the strings, and the field operation itself. In fact the two different strands of each episode even had different directors. It might be a gimmick but it’s used with great skill and cleverness.

The Man in Room 17 was obviously made on a very tight budget and is very studio-bound. At its best the fine writing more than compensates.

In First Steal Six Eggs Oldenshaw and Defraits need to find out what a Hungarian spy named Panacek is up to in England. They employ a young female agent named Tracy but while she’s a good agent will she be able to withstand Panacek’s very considerable charm? Peter Wyngarde has a lot of fun as the treacherous but cowardly Hungarian spy. In this episode the main focus is not so much on catching a spy as on Tracy’s possibly doubtful ability to put the job first, and on Oldenshaw’s willingness to gamble on her capacity for getting herself out of trouble. A truly excellent episode.

The Catacombs is enormous fun and another very fine episode. A wealthy businessman with a slightly shady reputation and an archaeologist with an even more shady reputation are looking for a fabulous jewelled casket in the catacombs in Istanbul. Defraits is sceptical but Oldenshaw is convinced that Room 17 should take an interest. He will need an agent on the spot, whom he finds in the person of an Orthodox priest (played with zest by Warren Mitchell) who is neither very Orthodox not very priestly. This episode has a wonderful femme fatale who has her hooks in the archaeologist (in fact she has her hooks in many men).

Where There's a Will re-introduces female secret agent Tracy to the series and she’s plunged into a classic country house murder mystery complete with a crucial will. With Oldenshaw and Defraits trying to pull the strings but someone else is trying to do the same thing. The result is a tremendous amount of fun for the viewer. A great episode.

The Fissile Missile Makers is a complete romp somewhat in the style of the later more surreal period of The Avengers. The story involves an anti-anti-missile missile, Red Chinese spies, a harassed schoolmaster, a milkman, a ruthless female property developer, a boy genius and a mysterious company about which nobody knows anything at all. The results could have been just silly but the tone is exactly right and it works. And works delightfully.

Goddess of Love is one of the less successful episodes. A group of students plan to steal a Greek statue from a London museum and return it to Greece. Oldenshaw and Defraits decide to give them some professional help. This one doesn’t have any real twists to it and the humour is a bit broad and a bit forced.

In Undue Influence the Lord Chancellor is rather worried by the increasingly erratic behaviour or Mr Justice Easterbrook, especially with a case coming up involving a pop singer accused of murder. The case is going to attract enormous publicity. If the judge’s instructions to the jury were to be as eccentric as they have been in other recent cases British justice would be made to look like a laughing stock. The problem that he hands to Oldenshaw and Defraits is to find out what is behind the judge’s wayward courtroom behaviour and to ensure that it does not occur in this case. It’s a clever little story with enough uncertainty about the source of the undue influence over the judge to keep it interesting.

Lady Luck's No Gentleman is interesting. Someone has found a gambling system that actually works and they’re winning huge amounts in London’s gambling clubs. The club owners are not happy and it’s likely they’ll take extreme measures to protect themselves. The men in Room 17 have to find out what this system is, who is behind it and how it works. 

The Standard is a kind of puzzle-plot mystery. Someone is trying to murder an Arab prince who is attending a British military academy. The motive could be political, or it could be sex or money. Or could it be something else? Not one of the better episodes but it’s OK.

Saints Are Safer Dead is a delightfully convoluted tale involving forged Old Masters, American millionaires, Greek surrealist painters and some remarkably depraved fraudsters. It’s one of the several episodes in which Oldenshaw and Defraits make use of the talents of the glamorous if rather immoral female secret agent Tracy. Tracy as always adds a bit of Swinging 60s flavour. Defraits, already uncomfortable with Tracy’s relaxed approach to morality, is even more shocked by Oldenshaw’s willingness to embrace rather underhanded tactics. It’s all ludicrously complicated but very enjoyable.

Never Fall Down plunges Room 17 into a case of official corruption. Their task is to save the career of a promising politician who has become hopelessly enmeshed in a web of blackmail and crooked dealing. The conundrum for Oldenshaw and Defraits is that if they do their job are they conniving in a cover-up?

This series as a whole has a very studio-bound look even by mid-60s standards but in episodes like Lady Luck's No Gentleman (and in quite a few others) this has been deliberately exaggerated. Production designers Michael Grimes and Denis Parkin have created sets that look very stagey (in an avant-garde theatre sort of way) and unapologetically artificial. Given that the core concept of the whole program is that Oldenshaw and Defraits remain in their little room pulling the strings to make their field agents (and the targets of their investigations) dance like puppets the stagey feel works perfectly. It also fits in well with the very subtle but definite touch of surrealism in this series.

The Man in Room 17 isn’t quite a spy series although it involves espionage. It could perhaps be described as a mildly satirical political thriller series. It’s somewhat cerebral, quite witty and refreshingly different and unusual. Highly recommended.

I reviewed season one of The Man in Room 17 a while back.

Friday 21 July 2017

Mr Rose, season two (1968)

Mr Rose is one of the more delightfully offbeat British murder mystery series of the 1960s. The second season which aired in 1968 is, happily, just as much fun as the first. 

Season one introduced us to Detective Chief Inspector Charles Rose (William Mervyn) who, having come into a large inheritance, has taken early retirement and bought himself a comfortable country house in which he proposes to write his memoirs. It’s a kind of running joke that although he talks constantly about the writing of those memoirs he never seems to get any actual writing done.

Season two brings a number of significant changes. Somehow Rose has managed not only to complete his memoirs but to have them published, and the book has been quite a hit with both critics and the book-buying public. In fact its success has been so considerable that Chief Inspector Rose, anticipating that he will be finding himself in great demand for television interviews, has decided to forego the bucolic delights of Rose Cottage and take a luxury flat in London.

The flat is in a building designed by an avant-garde Swedish architect and it is not quite the sort of thing that Charles Rose is used to. Rose might be an ex-policeman but he has the manners, and the prejudices, of an English country gentleman.

He still has the services of the remarkably versatile John Halifax (Donald Webster) who acts as chauffeur, housekeeper and valet and also as a most useful assistant in Rose’s crime-solving activities which he now pursues on an amateur basis.

Unfortunately Gillian Lewis, who played Rose’s secretary Drusilla Lamb, departed after season one. In season two Rose has decidedly mixed fortunes in attempting to find an adequate replacement for the admirable Miss Lamb. This is a kind of running gag through this season, with each new secretary proving to be a different kind of headache for Mr Rose. He desperately needs a new secretary as he has decided to exploit his new-found literary celebrity by writing a second book.

When he retired Charles Rose had no intention of devoting his life to amateur sleuthing. In season one it seemed that the writing of his memoirs had the effect of forcing him to confront various pieces of unfinished detective business. Now in season two it seems that, although he hopes to devote himself to being a literary celebrity, crime still follows him about.

In the season opener, The Frozen Swede, crime follows him right into the kitchen of his new luxury apartment. The discovery of a dead body in the walk-in deep freeze is naturally disconcerting, although Rose is actually far more concerned about the fact that he has not yet had his breakfast. Charles Rose is not the sort of man who is overly given to displays of sentimentality. Some clever plot twists make this a fine episode and a great start to the new season.

The second episode, The Fifth Estate, does not deal with an actual crime. It deals with something far more serious - a threat to one of Britain’s greatest institutions. Someone is trying to ruin the reputation of Chief Inspector Rose’s London club. The plot is delightfully convoluted. Crime has its hazards for a detective but intrigues in clubland can be even more challenging. A fine and satisfyingly quirky episode.

Episode three is The Golden Frame and Rose finds himself in a very tight spot. Once again it’s an old case that has returned to haunt him. Years earlier he arrested a known villain for a robbery that ended in murder but the man refused to name his partner in crime. This was very odd since this particular criminal was usually rather keen to turn on an accomplice if he thought it would earn him a reduced sentence. The man died in prison and now his daughter claims to have new evidence in the form of a diary. This is also odd, for reasons which will eventually become apparent. In the meantime Mr Rose is facing a murder charge himself. A well-written and engaging story.

The Unlucky Dip is a very old idea given a fresh and amusing twist. Mr Rose has encounter with a pickpocket but to his surprise he finds that far from having robed him the pickpocket has deposited fifteen pounds into his overcoat pocket. Even more intriguing to Rose is the fact that all over London pickpockets are doing the same thing - secretly giving people money. In fact the explanation turns out to be not quite so extraordinary after all but it’s a story that is executed with style and wit and it entertains.

In The Dead Commercial ex-Chief Inspector Rose is offered a considerable sum of money to appear in a television commercial advertising mints. These mints should come with a government health warning. Charles Rose finds himself dealing not only with the world of advertising but also the film world. In the film world there is a great deal of ambition, much of it revolving around aspiring actresses of dubious talent but undeniable physical charms. This is not to be honest one of the better episodes of the season. The plot has its twists but doesn’t quite hold together. It does however afford ex-Chief Inspector Rose an unexpected opportunity to display his skills as a thespian.

A strangler is on the loose in The Heralds of Death. The killer is presumed to be one of a motley group of men and women who call themselves the Outsiders. They see themselves as bold existentialist nihilists but they’re really a rather unpleasant bunch of losers. Mr Rose is prevailed upon by his publisher to take an interest in the case. Also taking an interest (a rather unwise interest) in the case is Mr Rose’s newest secretary Georgina. She might be a foolish girl but Mr Rose does feel that he has a responsibility to keep her out of trouble. It all comes down to alibis and alibis can be treacherously unreliable things. This is a somewhat darker but still highly diverting episode to conclude the second season.

I’m not convinced that the setup for this season was a complete success. In the first season Rose’s attempts at gracious living in the country were wonderfully engaging and the three principal characters balanced each other perfectly. With Charles Rose transplanted to London the series loses just a tiny bit of its charm. Fortunately the writing is still of a very high order and William Mervyn is in absolutely splendid form.

Highly recommended.

Here's my review of the first season.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

four Thrillers from Brian Clemens (1974-5)

ITC had a major success in the 1970s with their Thriller anthology series, created by Brian Clemens (who wrote all forty-three episodes). Each episode was feature length allowing for multiple plot twists. What you expect from Clemens are stories that are not necessarily very original but he generally manages to make even old plot ideas seem reasonably fresh and entertaining.

The production values are standard for early 70s British television - shot on videotape, very studio-bound and looking generally very cheap. By the mid-70s the style of British television changed dramatically in the wake of the success of The Sweeney which made Thriller look a bit old-fashioned and even at times just a little shoddy as far as sets were concerned. It doesn’t really matter. Clemens’ stories have enough going for them to maintain the viewer’s interest.

The fourth season aired from late 1974 and on into 1975.

The acting is variable, sometimes very good and sometimes very bad.

Of course there’s the bonus of some amazingly kitsch 70s clothing. And 70s wallpaper and suchlike things which in my view add to the charm of the series.

Screamer opens season four. A young American woman working for the US Embassy is heading off to the country by train to stay with friends. She is a bit nervous since several women have recently been raped near the railway station where her friends live. It turns out her fears were justified. A man follows her home from the station and brutally rapes her.

Nicola (Pamela Franklin) recovers from the attack after spending several months in a mental hospital. She is now cured. Well, almost cured. She still has nightmares. And she still thinks she sees the man who raped her. She still has screaming episodes even in broad daylight. But she is getting better. And the police have caught the man who raped her. So everything will be OK now. Except that everything is not OK. It’s not OK at all.

Pamela Franklin does a pretty fair job as the understandably disturbed Nicola. Derek Smith is fun as the perpetually exasperated, short-tempered but dogged Inspector Charles.

This is an episode for connoisseurs of 70s kitsch clothing. Frances White as Nicola’s friend Vima wears some extraordinary dresses, the most bizarre of which makes her look like a demented milk maid.

The problem with this episode is that you’re going to figure out what’s going on very quickly and the plot twists are all too predictable. The level of political incorrectness is almost off the scale in this episode, political incorrectness being one of the great delights of 70s British television.

Nurse Will Make It Better is one of the rare supernatural horror episodes and it really is unequivocal supernatural horror. An American diplomat’s daughter, Charley (Linda Liles), is crippled in a riding accident. She now needs full-time nursing but to say that she’s a difficult patient would be an understatement. No nurse lasts more than a week, until the arrival of Bessy Morne (Diana Dors). Bessy is more than equal to the task. Bessy is not just a nurse. She promises Charley that she will be able to walk again. Bessy can deliver on her promise but her methods owe more to black magic than medical science.

Charley’s sister Ruth (Andrea Marcovicci) becomes more and more worried, especially when the third sister, sixteen-year-old Susy, starts behaving oddly. Ruth realises her whole family is in danger but knowing this is one thing, doing anything effective about it is another, given Bessy Morne’s formidable satanic powers. The only hope may lie in a burnt-out drunken wreck of a priest named Lyall (Patrick Troughton).

If Thriller has a flaw it’s that it sometimes veers too close to out-and-out melodrama. In this episode this flaw becomes a major asset. Diana Dors is at her outrageous best. Bessy is one of the great horror villainesses. Patrick Troughton, in the minor but crucial role as the gin-soaked Lyall, decides to see if he can match Diana Dors in the overacting stakes. He can’t, but he gives it his best shot. Linda Liles, Andrea Marcovicci and Ed Bishop (as the diplomat’s faithful and rather amiable bodyguard) are all very solid. 

This episode is a real treat with Diana Dors making it an absolute must-watch.

A Killer in Every Corner was episode 5 of season 4 and originally aired in 1974. This is a psychological horror story. Literally - it’s a horror story about psychologists. 

The brilliant but possibly eccentric Professor Marcus Carnaby (Patrick Magee) has invited three psychology students to his home for the weekend - Tim Hunter (Peter Settelen), Helga Muller (Petra Markham) and Sylvia Dee (Joanna Pettet). Since Carnaby is one of the world’s foremost psychologists the students are naturally honoured and excited. The weekend will certainly be exciting, but not in the way they expected.

What the students would of course really love to see is one of Professor Carnaby’s actual experiments. They will certainly get their wish.

It certainly isn’t long before we realise that the professor’s experiments would get him into a good deal of trouble with an ethics committee. In fact he’s quite mad. Possibly crazier than some of the people he’s experimenting on, and they’re very crazy and very dangerous indeed. And at least two of his patients are living in his house, but they’ve been cured by the professor. At least the professor believes he’s cured them.

We can foresee some of the mayhem that is going to follow but writer Brian Clemens has a few tricks up his sleeve.

If ever an actor was born to play a mad scientist it was Patrick Magee. And he’s in splendid form. He gets great support from Don Henderson as his butler Boz and Max Wall as another of his servants - both characters who may or may not turn out to be sinister but both are distinctly disturbing. Joanna Pettet, an actress whose career was already on the downslide, adds some glamour and makes an adequate endangered heroine.

A Killer in Every Corner is fairly typical of this series - nicely dark and twisted and very well executed. Worth it for Patrick Magee’s performance.

Where the Action Is was the final episode of the fourth season. This particular episode went to air in 1975.

Gambler Eddie Valence (Edd Byrnes) has just lost a lot of money at the roulette tables when he meets Ilse (Ingrid Pitt). If he’d won he’d have been suspicious about a beautiful woman inviting him to her hotel room but since he lost he figures he’s safe - no-one is going to rob him of his winnings since he doesn’t have any. 

Nonetheless he should have been suspicious. He is drugged and he wakes up in the country house of ‘Daddy’ Burns (James Berwick). Burns is a gambler as well. He likes to play for very high stakes. The highest stakes of all. And he never loses. Eddie is going to have to do some serious gambling and if he can’t figure out a way to win he is not going to be leaving alive.

Refusing to play is not an option. Burns’ country house is a fortress, or more accurately perhaps a prison, and escape is impossible.

The episode works because the gambling isn’t just the background to the story - absolutely everything in this tale hinges on gambling of one sort or another.

The plot twists are not going to come as great surprises. They have all been used before. Brian Clemens does however fit them together with a fair amount of skill.

It’s really the acting that carries the episode. Edd Byrnes makes a convincingly cool professional gambler. James Berwick as Burns is suitably obsessive and gleefully malevolent. Ingrid Pitt is glamorous and deliciously treacherous.

Nurse Will Make It Better, A Killer in Every Corner and Where the Action Is are among the most entertaining of the entire series. Screamer has its problems but it’s still worth a look.

 I’ve reviewed the third episode (Night Is the Time for Killing AKA Murder on the Midnight Express) separately elsewhere.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Space: 1999, Year 2

Space: 1999 was both the most ambitious and most expensive of all Gerry Anderson’s science fiction TV series. The first season did pretty well and in normal circumstances a second season would have followed automatically. Unfortunately there were dark clouds on the horizon for the series. Lew Grade was losing interest in television and was all set to embark on his disastrous foray into feature films, a misadventure that would quickly swallow up all of ITC’s money and resources. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s marriage was falling apart. Barry Morse refused point-blank to even consider returning for a second season. And the first season had run into major budgetary problems.

The second season finally got the green light but there would be noticeable changes, and it’s those changes that tend to divide fans.

American Fred Freiberger was brought in as producer to replace Sylvia Anderson (her marriage to Gerry Anderson having come to an end by this point). Freiberger wanted a more action-oriented feel with more emphasis on humour and on the emotions of the character in place of what he felt was the excessively cosmic and philosophical preoccupations of the first season. His new approach was not welcomed by either the cast or the crew. Martin Landau was particularly unhappy with the scripts for Year 2.

The second season definitely saw a move towards more melodramatic plots. While some episodes are very entertaining in general the second season seems to have fewer genuinely interesting science fictional ideas than the first. 

To replace Barry Morse as the show’s resident science expert a new character was introduced, Maya, played by Catherine Schell. Maya is a shape-shifting alien, and her presence in the series pushed the series into fantasy territory and away from the at least vaguely plausible science fiction that had characterised all of Anderson’s earlier series. The necessity to make use of Maya’s shape-shifting abilities also weakens some of the stories. An alien with the ability to take the form of any living creature provided a temptation to writers to use her as a magical means of getting out of plot difficulties (a bit like the over-use of the dreaded sonic screwdriver in some season of Doctor Who).

It’s not that there’s anything actually wrong with Catherine Schell’s performance but her character just seems out of place. Barbara Bain was apparently not very pleased by the inclusion of another major female character, especially one played by an actress as glamorous as Catherine Schell. It has to be said that the episode which introduces Maya, The Metamorph, is pretty good (and it does feature a wonderful guest starring performance by the great Brian Blessed).

The departure of Sylvia Anderson also caused difficulties. Her contribution towards the success of the couple’s earlier series has often been underestimated and after the divorce Gerry Anderson seemed to lose some of his creative spark. He was great with ideas and he was very good on the business and organisational side but not so comfortable with people. Sylvia was great with people and could be counted on to smooth over any personnel problems that arose. That’s why they were a great team. They were equally essential to the success of their programs.

The absence of Sylvia Anderson in Year 2 may also have explained why some opportunities were missed. Maya was potentially a fascinating character - the last survivor of her race now living among beings who were friendly and welcoming but who were, to her, aliens. Star Trek had made the most of Spock’s alienness but at least Spock’s species still existed. Maya had nobody left. This could have led to all sorts of emotional dramas and turmoils and misunderstandings. Instead of which Maya is treated as just another member of the crew, who just happens to have super-powers. One can’t help suspecting that Sylvia Anderson would have seen the potential there and pushed the writers to exploit it.

There were changes in the look of the series in Year 2 as well. The huge and very impressive Command Centre set was replaced by a much smaller and much more claustrophobic set; in fact the sets in general were smaller and more cramped. Budgetary constraints were partly to blame as the first season had proved to be very expensive indeed. More claustrophobic sets are not necessarily a problem but in this case they were since so much of the appeal of the show derived from its lavish visuals and extremely high production values. Year 2 unfortunately does look rather cheaper.

The first episode, The Metamorph, introduces Maya and it features Brian Blessed and it’s actually a pretty strong start for the season. After that there are episodes with interesting ideas, like The Seance Spectre. And a few very entertaining episodes, like The Devil's Planet which is yet another variation on Richard Connell’s classic story The Most Dangerous Game but Michael Winder’s script adds some genuinely new and effective twists. 

The Immunity Syndrome is an episode that sums up the problems that afflict this second season. It starts with a very good idea. The crew of Moonbase Alpha find a planet that seems absolutely perfect as a new and permanent home for them. It seems to have everything they could possibly need. And then, for no apparent reason, the planet itself suddenly turns on them. This episode offers a reasonably effective blend of excitement and suspense. It’s all going so well and then we get to the ending which is uninspired and sentimental and generally disappointing.

The Dorcons also has potential. Aliens wanting to steal Maya’s brain is a silly idea but writer Johnny Byrne does add some more substantial stuff. There’s an ethical dilemma - one person’s life to be measured against the possibility of great harm coming to millions. And the sub-plot of the depraved Caligula-like heir to the throne plotting against the wise old emperor is handled with a certain amount of nuance - the kindly wise old emperor (a very restrained and dignified performance by Patrick Troughton) isn’t really either very wise or very kindly, at best he’s the lesser of two evils. Gerry Sundquist gives a deliciously over-ripe performance as the depraved heir. Ann Firbank is also good as the imperial functionary Varda trying to do her best in difficult circumstances. Varda is another complex character, ruthless but honourable.

There’s almost enough good in this episode to compensate for the silly central idea but as so often in season two the script, potentially very good, doesn’t quite come together and the ending is a bit contrived.

When you get stories like this, that could have been excellent television but don’t quite make it because the script needed a bit more work, you start to suspect that maybe the producer isn’t getting the best out of his writers. Given that not everyone was happy with the job Fred Freiberger was doing as producer it’s tempting to conclude that he really wasn’t the right man for the job.

With all its faults the second season of Space: 1999 is not a complete loss. It has impressive visuals and it has plenty of action. Unfortunately it’s nowhere near up to the standards of the first season and it has much more of a conventional Monster of the Week kind of feel. Lew Grade’s fatal obsession with making movies doomed the show and the second season would be the last.