Monday 30 October 2017

Banacek season two (1973-74)

Banacek having been one of the successes of the first year of NBC’s Mystery Movie series it was hardly surprising that a second season of eight episodes followed in late 1973 with George Peppard once again playing the handsome debonair insurance investigator who has a taste for the good things in life, and the money to indulge that taste. It is almost unnecessary to add that Banacek’s idea of the good things of life most certainly includes women.

The format was the same as in the first season with each feature-length episode being an impossible crime story (and usually a pretty good one).

In season two Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), who had appeared in the pilot episode, was added to the regular cast, at least for the early part of the season. She’s an insurance investigator as well and it was obviously felt that the sometimes friendly, but mostly antagonistic, rivalry between the two would add some interest. And of course there’s an uneasy romantic tension as well. I’m not sure it was an entirely necessary change but their interplay is quite amusing. She disappears in the later episodes.

Once again Banacek gets invaluable help from his friend Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson), rare book dealer and expert in all manner of esoteric subjects.

One of the secrets to the success of this series is George Peppard’s ability to make Banacek a character who is both arrogant and genuinely likeable. He’s likeable because the arrogance is done with a twinkle in his eye.

In No Stone Unturned an eleven foot high three ton statue disappears. To get the statue into the museum where it was to go on display required an entire wall to be removed. The wall was then replaced so there was absolutely no way the statue could have been removed from the building. But someone did remove it.

If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is? concerns the theft of a computer. A brand new high-tech medical computer. And this is 1972, so this computer is the size of a room. A large room. The computer, costing several million dollars, was built with money put up by a wealthy hypochondriac. This is a very good episode.

A three million dollar horse-drawn wedding coach belonging to a Middle Eastern potentate is stolen from a shipping container in The Three Million Dollar Piracy. The coach was being shipped to the Middle East for the ruler’s marriage to movie star Diana Maitland.

In this episode Carlie has become engaged to the very respectable, and very dull, Henry DeWitt and this gives Banacek the opportunity to have a good deal of fun at his expense. This is a particularly pleasing episode that includes everything a Banacek fan could ask for.

The Vanishing Chalice is a valuable ancient Greek artifact that is stolen from a museum. Stolen in public. Stolen right in front of dozens of witnesses. But nobody saw it happen. The solution turns out to be a quite ingenious and satisfactory impossible crime solution.

This episode also sees Carlie manoeuvre herself into the position of being Banacek’s assistant. She claims that she just wants to learn from the master but this being Carlie we’re not surprised that she has another more devious agenda. Carlie is pretty good at manipulating men but she discovers that a girl has to get up pretty early in the morning if she wants to out-manipulate Thomas Banacek. Another fine episode.

Horse of a Slightly Different Color is pretty good as well. This one was written by Jimmy Sangster, better known for writing scripts for Hammer horror movies.

A racehorse is stolen, in full view of numerous witnesses. This is not just any racehorse. This is Oxford Don, the best racehorse in America, and he’s insured for a cool five million dollars. That means half a million dollars if Banacek can find the horse (his terms are always that he gets ten percent of the insured value of any items he recovers). Oxford Don had been owned by Katherine Wells, the most glamorous racehorse owner in the country. Katherine admires horseflesh but there are other things that interest her more. To be more specific there is one thing she likes more than horses, and that is men. She chooses her men the way she chooses her horses. They need to be thoroughbreds, in the peak of condition, and with lots of stamina. She prefers stayers to sprinters. Anne Francis has plenty of fun with this role and is able to make Katherine both slightly horrifying and rather sympathetic.

Oxford Don wasn’t exactly stolen. He was taken out for trackwork and when he came back he wasn’t Oxford Don any more.

Carlie Kirkland doesn’t appear in this story which is just as well. There are two women involved in this case and Banacek needs to give them both his undivided attention.

In Rocket to Oblivion a new highly advanced rocket engine is stolen from a science and technology expo. There is no way something of that size could be stolen within a few seconds and there was in any case no way of removing something that heavy from its display, given that the electricity was off at the time of the theft. Nonetheless the engine was stolen. The insurance company wants it back. The inventor of the engine wants it back. The Pentagon wants it back.

Carlie thinks she can crack this case herself. She was a secret weapon. And anyway Banacek seems to be spending all his time bedding the glamorous organiser of the expo, the deliciously named Cherry Saint-Saƫns (Linda Evans).

Fly Me - If You Can Find Me concerns a jet airliner forced to make an emergency landing at a remote airfield in Nevada. The crew spend the night at a motel and when they return to the airfield the next day the aircraft is gone. But there is no way it could have taken off. It was not only in no condition to fly, it would have been impossible to get the plane airborne.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t involves stage magic, and usually I love movies or TV dealing with this subject. In this case the setup is very good but to me the ending was just a bit too far-fetched.

The second season generally maintains the high standards of season one. Banacek is stylish and witty entertainment with some reasonably clever plots and it has a charismatic star. There’s not much more you can ask for in a television program. Highly recommended.

Monday 23 October 2017

Doctor Who - Silver Nemesis (1988)

Finding myself discussing 1980s Doctor Who recently I decided I just had to watch some last night. So I dragged out Silver Nemesis, from 1988.

I know it’s an episode that has a fairly dire reputation, but I’ve found that some of the most reviled Seventh Doctor stories are the ones I enjoy most (like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol). And while most of the criticisms of Silver Nemesis are valid (the plot is overly complicated, the various plot strands don’t quite come together, and the cybermen are absurdly vulnerable) it was still rollicking good fun.

When you have a female 17th century black magician, an ageing Nazi trying to usher in the Fourth Reich with the aid of alien technology, a setting that jumps back and forth between 17th century England and 1980s England, some bizarre and horrendously destructive piece of Gallifreyan technology that the Doctor may well have been responsible  for unleashing, some intriguing hints about the Doctor’s dark and mysterious past and secrets about himself he would prefer not to have revealed, plus you have Ace getting to blow stuff up, how can you not have fun?

It also has a fine supporting cast, with the standout performance being by veteran actor Anton Diffring as a crazed Nazi with a Wagner fixation. Fiona Walker is also excellent as the equally crazed Lady Peinforte, the 17th century dabbler in black magic and time travel with her own plans for world domination.

I was always quite fond of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor, although nowadays I find Ace to be just a little bit tiresome.

Maybe there are just too many interesting ideas thrown together, but perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s only a three-parter. Usually the major problem with classic Doctor Who is an excess of padding, but this is a rare case of a story that might have benefitted from an extra episode. I still thought it was great fun.

Monday 16 October 2017

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder, season two (1971)

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder was a delightfully quirky British murder mystery series set in the 1920s and based on Edgar Wallace’s J. G. Reeder short stories. Wallace was known more as a thriller writer than a mystery writer but his J. G. Reeder stories are genuine, albeit slightly unconventional, detective stories. The first season went to air in 1969. A second season followed in 1971, this time with original stories.

This series has many things going for it, not the least of them being Hugh Burden’s marvelous performance as Mr Reeder. Mr Reeder is not a policeman as such. He works for the Office of the Public Prosecutor as a special investigator, concentrating on crimes that require his special talents - crimes that need to be handled with discretion, or with particular urgency, or that are for some reason too awkward for conventional police methods to be successful. Mr Reeder is a shy, awkward, self-effacing physically negligible  little man in late middle age. Not the sort of man, you might think, to strike fear into the heart of the average criminal. appearances can be deceptive. In fact Mr Reeder is very much feared by the criminal underworld. Many criminals have made the mistake of underestimating him. Those miscreants are now either serving lengthy sentences in one of His Majesty’s prisons or they have ended their criminal careers on the scaffold.

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder combines a subtly tongue-in-cheek approach with ingenious and original plotting. The 1920s setting is evoked pretty successfully on the whole.

Willoughby Godard contributes an outrageously over-the-top performance as Reeder’s boss, Sir Jason Toovey. Sir Jason is the kind of civil servant who is very good at two things - taking credit for other people’s hard work and shifting the blame for his own failures onto someone else’s shoulders. He is a man of limited intelligence but possessed of a great deal of cunning. Despite his conning, his duplicity and his utter lack of scruples for some curious reason which he is never able to understand he never seems to be able to get the better of the apparently insignificant and harmless Mr Reeder. The exchanges between Reeder and Sir Jason provide a great deal of the considerable wit that characterises this series.

One interesting thing about the second season is that Sir Jason seems to have been made into a slightly more sympathetic, and slightly more intelligent, character. Fortunately he’s still just as amusing.

The dusty, timid and bookish Mr Reeder is not the sort of man one would normally associate with romance. Mr Reeder is however full of surprises and there is indeed romance, or at least potential romance, in his life. Even more surprisingly the object of his passions is a very beautiful young lady, the charming Miss Belman (Gillian Lewis). The only obstacle they face is their mutual shyness. It is clear that Miss Belman very strongly reciprocates Mr Reeder’s feelings. 

Season two kicks off with The Duke. Mr Reeder has to deal with a Chicago mobster and a disputed succession to an English title and the estate that goes with it. There is murder afoot and with Chicago gangster planning to bring in a few of his boys from the States there’s the potential for a great deal of mayhem. And a great deal of fun - this is an excellent episode.

Man with a Strange Tattoo isn’t a wildly original story but I’ve always enjoyed tales dealing with strange Indian gods and forbidden idols. It’s handled quite well, with Mr Reeder showing his usual mixture of sensitivity and social clumsiness.

Death of an Angel takes Mr Reeder into the world of motion pictures, a world that proves to be every bit as immoral as he had feared. An actress has been murdered but there is an evil plot afoot that may claim several more victims if Mr Reeder does not act quickly. Blackmail is involved and there’s an attempt to blackmail Reeder, but it’s an unwise criminal who thinks he can outsmart J.G. Reeder. A very fine episode.

There are of course plenty of people who would like revenge on Mr Reeder and in The Willing Victim one of them is trying to make that wish into a reality. The plan is a particularly clever and twisted one.

In The Fatal Engagement some very important and very distinguished men are in danger of being implicated in the murder of a music hall star. Sir Jason of course is anxious for Reeder to prove that such men could not possibly have been involved in something as sordid as an affair with a music hall performer. This is one of the episodes that succumbs to the temptation to score cheap political points and as a result it’s not as much fun as it could have been.

Find the Lady involves the mysterious disappearances of a number of young ladies. That would be bad enough but these young ladies are the daughters of some of the most distinguished peers of the realm - they are the flower of the aristocracy. Could it be a Bolshevik plot? Or something much worse - perhaps they have been sold into white slavery! Both Mr Reeder and Miss Belman take active, and dangerous, roles in the subsequent investigation. This is another episode where the social satire is a little overdone but on the whole it’s a fun episode. And I love anything to do with stage magic and this story features a sinister Chinese illusionist.

The Treasure House closes the second season on a high note. Larry O’Ryan is a likeable young man who happens to be a reformed safe-cracker. Now he’s in trouble and he’s come to Mr Reeder for help. He’s in love. He doesn’t even know the young lady’s name but he knows she is in danger. And indeed she is, but the question for Mr Reeder is to decide which of the various oddball types surrounding the lady presents the real danger. This episode has a slightly surreal feel and there’s an outrageousness to the plot that is very Edgar Wallace indeed.

In each episode of this season Mr Reeder finds himself with a new young lady as his secretary, each of whom proves to be wildly unsuitable or simply quite mad but they provide considerable amusement.

Although the second season was shot in colour only two episodes survive in colour. We should be grateful that all eight episodes do survive, even if mostly in black-and-white versions.

Network’s boxed set includes both seasons in their entirety.

The second season is perhaps not quite as good as the first but The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is still wonderfully offbeat  television with mostly fairly decent plots (some being very clever indeed) and it’s executed with a great deal of style and wit and charm. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Callan - A Magnum for Schneider (1967)

My Network DVD Callan: The Monochrome Years boxed set arrived yesterday, and tonight I watched the very first episode. The pilot episode in fact, made as a one-off TV play in the popular Armchair Theatre series in early 1967.

A Magnum for Schneider was later remade (not entirely successfully) in colour as the Callan movie, but I’d never seen the original.

There are some interesting differences between this pilot and the series proper. The relationship between Callan and his disreputable and evil-smelling burglar pal Lonely hasn’t yet been fleshed out. The strange affection that Callan has for Lonely is not yet in evidence, and we have no hints of the backstory that explains the unlikely friendship between a government assassin and a burglar.

The other big difference is that Toby Meres is played by Peter Bowles, of all people! Now I’m a big fan of Peter Bowles, but this is unexpected casting indeed. And it doesn’t really work. Partly this is because you can’t help comparing this to Anthony Valentine’s superb and chilling performance in the series proper. The Bowles version of Meres is neither sinister nor frightening, nor does he have the surface charm that hides the viper underneath.

Edward Woodward though has already nailed the character of Callan pretty effectively. And the cynicism and pessimism, and the total lack of glamour, the seediness, all these ingredients are present. The story itself works quite well. The later movie version takes advantage of the opportunity to flesh out the story a little and is more polished.

Callan of course is an agent for the Section, a shadowy department of one of the security services. If someone is considered to be posing a risk to national security the Section’s job is to neutralise that risk. The preferred methods are persuasion, intimidation and blackmail but if they don’t work then more drastic methods are used. The one sure way to remove a security risk is to kill the person involved.

This is a part of the job that Callan doesn’t like but he accepts that sometimes it’s necessary. He does however have a real problem in those cases where he has to get to know the person first. In this case he gets to know the target pretty well, and worse still he grows to like him.

This neatly sets up a theme that will recur repeatedly in this series. Callan is a very efficient assassin, in fact he’s the best in the business, but he has a conscience and he has emotions. Those are luxuries that an assassin cannot afford.

The picture and sound quality are pretty dodgy, but it’s a miracle this very first appearance of Callan has survived at all.

If you’re a fan of the series then A Magnum for Schneider is obviously a must-watch even if it’s not quite up to the standard of the series proper.

Monday 2 October 2017

The Fugitive, season 1 (1963)

Back in the 1960s if a show began with the words “A Quinn Martin Production” you could be fairly sure you were in for some pretty decent television, with the emphasis on entertainment but entertainment with quality. One of the most successful of these productions was The Fugitive which ran on the American ABC network for four seasons starting in 1963.

The Fugitive was unusual in having a series-long story arc (although this was also the case with another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders). In the case of The Fugitive the ongoing story arc concerns a man on the run, hotly pursued by the police.

Dr Richard Kimble (David Janssen) was on his way to Death Row when a freak railroad accident offered him a chance of escape. Kimble had been convicted of the murder of his wife but he was innocent. His problem was that he could not get the police to accept his story that he had seen a one-armed man fleeing from his house moments after the murder. The police certainly looked for the one-armed man, but to no avail. The jury had no doubts about his guilt.

In pursuit of Kimble is Police Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse), the man who had led the initial murder investigation. Gerard is a tough no-nonsense cop,  dedicated and remorseless. He’s honest and he’s not without a sense of fair play but he believes that the law has to be enforced. A man is entitled to a fair trail but if convicted he must pay the penalty. The law might occasionally make mistakes but his job as a cop is to enforce the law to the letter. His boss has a sneaking suspicion that Gerard’s obsession (and it is certainly an obsession) with recapturing Richard Kimble might be an indication that he has some slight doubt about Kimble’s guilt. Perhaps Gerard is trying so hard because he wants to convince himself that on this occasion the law has not made a mistake.

The format of The Fugitive was clever and flexible. Being on the run means that Richard Kimble has to move from town to town, from job to job and from identity to identity. Each episode therefore has a different setting, with different guest characters. The stories are mostly self-contained but the overall story arc is always there, lurking in the background, adding to the tension.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, a man responsible for a number of very successful and highly influential series including Maverick, The Rockford Files and 77 Sunset Strip.

The Fugitive, partly due to its subject matter but also due to its visual style, has at times some some definite  hints of film noir.

Richard Kimble is a man who is desperately trying to blend into the background, to be as bland and colourless as possible. That’s his only hope of survival. The challenge for David Janssen as an actor was to convey this quality without making the character dull. It has to be said that he doesn’t always succeed. Kimble comes across as being just a bit too passive at times.

The opening episode of season one, Fear in a Desert City, takes place six months after Kimble’s escape. He is working as a bartender in Tucson. He is hoping to attract as little attention as possible but he has inadvertently walked into a situation that is likely to attract a good deal of attention to him, as he tries to help a woman who is being stalked by her deranged and insanely jealous husband. The episode immediately establishes one very important thing about Richard Kimble. Even if it means exposing himself to the danger of discovery he will not walk away from someone in trouble.

The Witch is one of those stories in which every rural person is depicted as either a knuckle-dragging inbred redneck or a gossip-mongering hypocrite. There’s also a little girl who dabbles in witchcraft, and a nasty piece of work she is. She has plans to get even with her enemies and that means anybody who has ever thwarted her in any way. Richard Kimble soon gets added to her enemies list. A weird episode and not an entirely successful one.

The Other Side of the Mountain is a much better story. Kimble stumbles into the wrong town and attracts the attentions of the local sheriff. Pretty soon he is being pursued by helicopters, tracker dogs, a whole posse of sheriff’s deputies, not to mention Lieutenant Gerard. His only hope is a sweet but crazy mountain girl who has her own plans for him - she wants to keep him as a pet! Plenty of excitement in this one as the trap closes remorselessly on poor old Kimble.

Never Wave Goodbye is a two-parter in which Gerard’s pursuit of Kimble, now working as a sailmaker in Santa Barbara, becomes particularly intense. Gerard believes he is very very close to catching the unfortunate fugitive at last, and in fact he’s even closer than he thinks. Kimble meanwhile thinks he can see two possible ways to escape the pursuit for good. He also manages to fall in love, not the wisest thing to do when you’re on the run. It’s an excellent story with real tension and excitement plus romance and the seaside setting is exploited to the full.

Decision in the Ring sees Kimble working for a prize fighter, as a cut man (the guy who has to attend to any cuts the boxer receives during a fight). This is apparently a very important job and the boxing background is moire interesting than you might expect. Unfortunately this episode is sunk by some terrible writing and by some incredibly tedious and clumsy lecturing to the audience (a practice that was becoming all too common in American television at this time). It’s like trying to sit through one of those awful Hollywood Social Problem movies of the 50s. The contrived ending doesn’t help. This episode is a complete washout I’m afraid.

Smoke Screen is another not terribly good episode. With Kimble and a group of firefighters trapped by a forest fire it should have been exciting, and probably would have been without the action being slowed down in order to deliver more unsubtle messages.

See Hollywood and Die promises some thrills as Kimble and a young woman are taken hostage by a couple of punks who have robbed a gas station. The problem here is that in 1963 if you were going to ask American actors to play juvenile delinquents you would always get pretty much the same identical performances. One of the punks is really stupid and an obvious liability, the other is a bit smarter and the dumb one is pathetically reliant on the less-dumb one. The one-note performances cease to be interesting after the first couple of minutes. Unfortunately the young woman is pretty much a standard type as well. Brenda Vaccaro’s performance is fine but she’s playing a character without any real depth and there’s not a lot she can do.

The plot is fairly predictable as well. It’s more or less up to David Janssen to try to make this story interesting and he almost succeeds. The way in which he tries to outsmart the punks is hardly original but Janssen puts some real thought into his nicely understated performance. Not a great episode but watchable.

Ticket to Alaska benefits from an interesting setting and a fine script. Richard Kimble is aboard a steamer heading for a lumbering job in Anchorage, Alaska. One of the dozen passengers on board is about to be arrested although they don’t know it. Then a murder occurs. The captain convenes an informal inquiry (which adds a bit of courtroom-style drama). Richard Kimble is going to have to make sure that the killer is identified before the ship reaches Alaska otherwise all the passengers will be handed over to the federal authorities and he’ll be headed back to Death Row. So this is both a murder mystery and a suspense story and these two strands are tied together very skilfully. And there’s a bonus in the form of a couple of quite amusing sub-plots.

A very solid supporting cast headed by Geraldine Brooks also helps. Both the plotting and the characters are equally important and the main focus is on entertainment. A truly excellent episode.

Fatso is not so good. Kimble befriends an amiable overweight drunk who has a secret that explains the mess he’s made of his life. Kimble tries to help him out. I don’t expect every episode in a long-running TV series to be a dazzlingly original story idea but this one is just a bit too predictable.

In Nightmare at Northoak Kimble does something noble and heroic, which could turn out to a fatal mistake. One odd thing about this series is that while Kimble goes to extraordinary lengths to evade pursuit and hide his secret he will suddenly blurt out the whole truth even in situations where it doesn’t seem really necessary. Perhaps this does make some psychological sense. A lonely man on the run always hiding everything about impossible might I suppose feel an urge to tell someone, to try to make an honest human connection. It’s a device that The Fugitive overuses a bit but in this episode it’s put to a relatively interesting use. This is also the first episode in which Lieutenant Gerard is not just a one-note character. Barry Morse is given an opportunity to stretch his acting muscles just a little and he does so with great subtlety but quite effectively. A good episode with a few unexpected twists and it gets bonus points for advancing the overall story arc, adding some depth to the Kimble-Gerard relationship.

Initial impressions after watching the first eleven episodes are that The Fugitive is very uneven. It’s also a series that just can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be an exciting suspense story about a fugitive endeavouring to keep one step ahead of the law, or does it want to be an earnest social drama? It tries to be both, with very mixed success. When the emphasis is one the suspense we get fine episodes like The Other Side of the Mountain and Never Wave Goodbye. When it veers into social drama territory it becomes heavy-handed and dull.

The good episodes are very good indeed. The bad ones are very bad indeed. The Fugitive is so uneven that it’s difficult to give it a recommendation, except perhaps as a rental.