Friday 24 November 2017

The Avengers - The Mauritius Penny/Mr Teddy Bear

A couple of 1962 Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers for this post.

Mr Teddy Bear was one of the very early Cathy Gale episodes of the Avengers and was apparently one of Patrick Macnee’s favourites. It was recorded in August 1962, going to air in Britain a month later.

Martin Woodhouse wrote the script. Woodhouse was a doctor by training and he believed that not only would it be desirable to include scientific concepts in his stories, it would be even better if these scientific ideas were plausible.

Woodhouse went on to write a number of episodes featuring both Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Julie Stevens as Venus Smith, as well as one of the Diana Rigg episodes (the excellent A Sense of History).

Mr Teddy Bear is a notorious and very successful hitman. He has just masterminded the ingenious murder of a prominent military man, the murder taking place live on television. He is not just a hitman but a bit of a showman as well. One-Ten (Steed’s boss who appeared as a semi-regular character in the early Cathy Gale episodes) has decided that enough is enough. Mr Teddy Bear must be stopped. The plan is to use Steed as bait. Mr Teddy Bear will be hired to kill Steed. This should bring him out into the open. Of course if the plan goes wrong it will be very unfortunate for poor old Steed.

Mrs Gale is to be the one who makes contact with the assassin. She will be the one who hires him to kill Steed.

Mr Teddy Bear is no fool and Steed will have some uncomfortably close brushes with death in this adventure. And it builds to an effective and exciting climax.

This episode dates from the days when the series was shot live on videotape, a practice which was certainly limiting when it came to attempting any fancy visual tricks (although the talking bear is a nice touch). Fortunately such tricks are not really necessary if you have a good director working from a good script and, most importantly, if the lead actors have a form grasp of what characters tick and what makes the relationship between them tick. That’s very much the case here. It’s a good story but it’s the characters who make it great television. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman had already developed a wonderful chemistry.

This is the early version of Steed, a more cynical and more ruthless operator than the later Steed. There are times when Mrs Gale definitely does not approve of Steed’s cold-bloodedness. That makes the relationship between them rather interesting. There’s flirtatiousness and there’s clearly an element of sexual attraction but there’s a bit of an edge as well. Cathy is a bit cautious about Steed.

The Optimum Region 2 DVD release includes an excellent audio commentary for this episode which features writer Martin Woodhouse.

Mr Teddy Bear is a truly superb episode.

The Mauritius Penny on the other hand has some major problems. It starts promisingly enough, with murder and mayhem in the world of philately. A very rare stamp has come on the market. The trouble is that this stamp is too rare - it just isn’t possible that such a stamp could suddenly turn up out of the blue. One murder in the world of stamp collecting would be odd enough. When Steed and Mrs Gale witness a second murder during a stamp auction it’s obvious they have stumbled onto something big.

Mrs Gale happens to know quite a bit about stamps. Steed unfortunately knows nothing of the subject. The fact that he doesn’t realise that there’s no such thing as a Maltese twopenny blue almost gets him killed.

Had the script stuck to stamps it might have been amusing and offbeat but writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks have a different agenda and the script degenerates into heavy-handed political messaging. And it’s neo-Nazis once again. The obsession of television writers in the 60s with this topic was truly excessive and truly embarrassing. It could be made to work quite well if writers treated the subject as an opportunity for outrageous conspiracy theories and silly fun but this story is more like an earnest political lecture, with endless speeches. As the focus switches away from the stamps the fun seems to evaporate.

A very fine guest cast, including Richard Vernon and Alfred Burke, almost saves this one.

This is one episode that does suffer a little from the limitations of the shot-live-on-videotape format. Too much of the episode is focused on a dull political meeting (that seems to go on forever with speech after speech) in a nondescript hall.

So two episodes, one excellent and one not so good.

Thursday 16 November 2017

The Outer Limits - Don't Open Till Doomsday, ZZZZZ

Don't Open Till Doomsday is a fairly generally admired episode from the first season of The Outer Limits. Back in the 1920s a wealthy young couple received an odd wedding gift. It just looks like a fairly ordinary box. If you look inside the box you’ll wish you hadn’t. The groom did look inside the box and that was the end of that marriage.

Thirty years later a young couple elopes. The Justice of the Peace who marries them suggests they might like to stay at Mary Kry’s place. She has a large bridal suite that she’s just started renting out. It sounds like an enticing offer but Mrs Kry’s house turns out to be a gigantic dilapidated wreck of a place, and Mrs Kry herself (played by Miriam Hopkins) is more than a bit disturbing.

Gard Hayden (Buck Taylor) and his bride Vivia (Melinda Plowman) are a bit concerned that Vivia’s dear old dad may be pursuing them and being pursued by Emmett Balfour (John Hoyt) is no joke. He’s a powerful and formidable man, and since Vivia is underage he could cause them a lot of grief.

Still, they are newly married and everything is a romantic adventure and the bridal suite seems like it’s just the place for romance. They’re a nice young couple, hopelessly in love, and we feel that things will probably end up working out for them. If only they don’t look in that deceptively ordinary looking box. It’s not a very big box so it couldn’t possibly contain anything really bad or dangerous, could it? But evil can come in very small packages.

This episode has an extremely gothic feel to it which you don’t really expect from The Outer Limits but it works extremely well, adding to the sense of not just horror but of weirdness. It’s a weird story and it’s an appropriate combination.

The story itself is quite clever and it has the right touches of real menace. Joseph Stefano was a fine writer and his script hits all the right notes.

The Outer Limits was a series that was always willing to do stories that required effective special effects even though early 60s American network television wasn’t really up to doing elaborate effects in a convincing manner. The Outer Limits was also very willing to show us the monster early and show it often even though that’s usually a bad idea unless your monster is effective enough to allow you to get away with taking such risks. In this episode on the whole the gamble pays off, and in any case the real impact of this story is from the atmosphere of gothic creepiness and the horror of the situation the characters find themselves in rather than from the actual scariness of the monster.

Miriam Hopkins goes outrageously over-the-top and it’s the right approach. The rest of the cast take a much more restrained approach, and that’s the right thing to do as well.

An excellent atmospheric episode with some real chills that come from moral dilemmas rather than straight out monster stuff.

In ZZZZZ the rather studious and dedicated middle-aged entomologist Professor Ben Fields gets a new assistant. Regina (Joanna Frank) is a remarkably beautiful young woman and very very sexy. She doesn’t appear to have any actual qualifications and she has no references but she gets the job anyway, which doesn’t please the professor’s wife Francesca (Marsha Hunt) very much. Francesca is middle-aged and just a little on the dowdy side and for some strange reason she’s a bit suspicious of her husband’s new sex kitten assistant.

In fact Ben Fields is a happily married man and he has no idea that Regina is likely to cause a problem. She’s such a nice girl and she’s so keen. He genuinely has no desire to sleep with her.

Regina however is very interested indeed in mating. She is not an ordinary young woman. She is not a woman at all (which is giving anything away since we in the audience know this from the beginning). Being an entomologist Ben knows quite a bit about insect mating rituals, but not enough to realise that he’s right slap bang in the middle of one.

The success of this episode depends to a very high degree on Joanna Frank’s performance. She has to be beautiful and very sexy, which she manages with ease. In fact she oozes sex from every pore. She has to be seductive, but not in a crass way. If Ben Fields is going to be tempted he’s the type of man who is most likely to be tempted by a girl who is sexy in a sweet nice girl sort of way. Wide-eyed innocence and all that sort of thing. She has a stunning figure but it’s those big eyes that are likely to get him. Miss Frank however has to do more than this. Given what we know about her true nature she has to have a certain haughty arrogance, the arrogance of supreme power. She also has to have sublime confidence in her beauty. She has to do all this whilst still being sweet and innocent. Not easy but she does it and she does it extremely well. She also needs to have a certain quality of disturbing strangeness. She has to be a beautiful woman and still let us know that she is not human. It’s a superb performance and it’s enough on its own to carry the episode.

This episode has more than this going for it though. It’s a good story. It’s far-fetched but it’s done skilfully enough to allow us to suspend our disbelief successfully. And it has at least some emotional punch.

There are only a couple of brief special effects and while they’re not great they work well enough. I do love the professor’s laboratory. The gadgetry manages to be clever and imaginative while obviously done on a very limited budget.

ZZZZZ is a terrific episode. And you have to love a story with a monster who combines menace with innocence and seductiveness.

Two excellent episodes that serve as a reminder of just how good The Outer Limits could be.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents - Melissa (1964)

Melissa is a six-episode mini-series first broadcast by the BBC in 1964 as part of the Francis Durbridge Presents series. It was remade in colour in 1974, again as part of the Francis Durbridge Presents series.

Melissa opens in typically Francis Durbridge fashion. Guy Foster (Tony Britton) is a rather inoffensive journalist now trying to make a living as a novelist. He’s not the sort of man you would expect to be a murder suspect. But that is what has happened to Guy. His problem is that the story he has told to the police has been contradicted, in fairly spectacular fashion, by the evidence of other people. Are these people lying? Is there some kind of conspiracy? Has Guy gone insane? None of it makes sense but the upshot is that to the police he’s looking more and more like a guilty man.

Guy is now in a nightmare world. The police don’t seem to believe anything he says. Nobody seems to believe him. People he has never met claim to know him. A very respectable doctor tells the police that Guy is one of his patients, although Guy has never even heard of the doctor. Any evidence that might support Guy’s story seems to disappear,  or (even more worryingly) appears to have never existed although Guy distinctly remembers seeing these pieces of evidence.

It’s obvious that if Guy wants to clear his name, and avoid being arrested, he’ll have to solve the case himself but he doesn’t know if he can trust anybody since nobody seems to be the person that Guy thought they were. In fact his whole life may not have been what he thought it was, and certainly the reality of his marriage differed from Guy’s perception of it. Did he even know his wife Melissa at all?

Guy also thought he knew his friends pretty well. Friends like glamorous racing car driver Don Page (Brian McDermott) and Paula and Felix Hepburn (an amiable if slightly dotty middle-aged couple). Now Guy is wondering if he could have been wrong about them as well.

And it’s not just one murder. And the circumstances of the second murder tend to point towards Guy as well. It’s also by no means certain that this second murder will be the last.

Durbridge’s script twists and turns in very satisfying fashion. By the end of the fourth episode I must confess that I still had no inkling whatever of the solution to this mystery. There are six half-hour episodes and Durbridge knows how to make the most of this format, giving us some kind of surprise (or enigmatic) ending for each episode. 

The solution to the mystery is quite typical of Durbridge’s work but I won’t say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.

Tony Britton gives a fine performance. It’s mostly understated and even when Guy’s whole world is collapsing around him Britton doesn’t overdo the gradually increasing hysteria because Guy is the sort of man who, if he were going to go mad, would go mad quietly and unobtrusively.

Brian Wilde plays Chief Inspector Carter, who seems rather gentle and quietly spoken for a policeman but perhaps that’s just the impression he likes to give. He finds it difficult to believe Guy’s story but what exactly does the inspector believe? He doesn’t give much away.

This is early 60s BBC television so don’t expect too much in the way of production values. There are a few outdoors scenes but mostly it’s shot in the studio and it is a bit dialogue-heavy at times. 

Melissa is one of the four Durbridge serials in Madman’s Australian Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 DVD boxed set. The set also includes The Desperate People and A Game of Murder (both of which are excellent) and A Man Called Harry Brent (which I haven’t yet watched). The transfers are good (considering that this is early 60s shot-on-videotape British television) and the set is great value.

Melissa is an unassuming but entertaining mystery. Durbridge fans won't want to miss it. If you're not yet a Durbridge fan it's probably as good a place as any to start. His television serials are all pretty consistent and all are enjoyable.