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.


  1. I'll have to try this one again. I sat down to watch it, and gave up on both of the first two episodes within about 10 minutes - was a bit annoying as the 2nd season DVD set is a lot more expensive, and a lot rarer, than the 1st season. Neither episode is reviewed here, so I guess you thought they weren't the best, either!

    1. Having given the second season another chance, I think that this show is the ultimate example of 'hit and miss'. The good things in it are brilliant - there's a scene with the two men using a radio to try to contact Tracy in 'Saints Are Safer Dead' that is one of the funniest things that I've ever seen. But annoyingly, some of the most irritating things are in the best episodes, such as killing a character to move the plot along and then never mentioning them again.

      I do wonder what it was like to watch this in the mid-60s. I watched it on a 32-inch HDTV on DVD, and I struggled sometimes, especially with the dialogue. God knows what it was like back then, especially in areas with less than 100% reception!

      Having said that, I'm glad I watched it - I did try the follow-up, The Fellows, with Vernon and Aldridge, but that seems to be entirely about British-based crime.