Monday, 18 February 2019
The initial DVD release from Network, which I reviewed some time ago, included the sole surviving first season episode plus the first half of season two (all of seasons two and three have survived).
John Wilder is still in control at Scott-Furlong, still under siege by his enemies and still displaying his uncanny ability to take insane risks and get away with them.
The Plane Makers is sometimes described as a boardroom drama but that’s a bit misleading. It’s a series that focuses not just on the activities of management but also on the goings on on the shop floor, and the devious activities of bureaucrats, bankers, politicians and union officials. And it’s surprisingly even-handed. The representatives of the working class are short-sighted and selfish, but then so are the representatives of the ruling class. Workers, managers, capitalists, union men and civil servants are all the same. A handful are visionaries. Most are blinkered and stupid. A handful are courageous. Most are timid if not overtly cowardly. A few are genuinely dedicated; most are self-serving. This was Britain in the 60s. Getting anything done was just about impossible. No-one wanted to take any responsibility, no-one wanted to take any risks, no-one wanted to look to the future.
John Wilder is ruthless, devious, unscrupulous, untrustworthy and thoroughly reprehensible but he gets things done. He is selfish but he is a visionary. He doesn’t care if people think he’s a nice guy, as long as they don’t get in his way. He is not however a villain. He is not a stereotyped evil capitalist. He intends to get to the top but he also intends to take the Scott-Furlong Aircraft Company to the top of the aviation industry and that’s going to benefit everybody who works for the company.
Patrick Wymark is able to make Wilder breathtakingly cynical and unscrupulous and still make him a heroic figure. You just can’t help hoping he wins. Although he’s a giant surrounded by pygmies in a perverse sort of way he’s the underdog - there isn’t anyone on whom he can truly depend except himself.
The second half of season two begins with How Do You Vote? and it’s the kind of boardroom battle (or boardroom bloodbath) at which John Wilder excels. Scott-Furlong need to sell forty-two of their new Sovereign short-haul jetliners. They’ve already had quite a few orders but Wilder wants to press ahead and build the whole forty-two right now, even without firm orders. His thinking is that this will give Scott-Furlong a major advantage over their French rivals - Scott-Furlong will be able to offer immediate delivery to future customers. It’s the kind of risky but bold thinking that has made Wilder a legend in the aviation industry but his board of directors is composed of men who are not noted for either boldness or risk-taking.
In One Out, All Out! John Wilder faces a crisis. His board of directors, and especially the chairman, are determined to cut him down to size and force him to do their bidding. They’re going to sabotage his plan to start immediate construction of twelve new Sovereigns. Scott-Furlong are also facing industrial problems with a major strike seeming like a virtual certainty, and that seems to be a result of another misjudgment by Wilder. John Wilder is on the ropes and is facing not just censure but the very real possibility of being sacked as managing director. Given all this the curious thing is that Wilder seems not only unconcerned, he actually seems to be very pleased with the way things are going. Is it possible he’s going to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Has he fatally over-reached himself or is he once again a step ahead of his enemies? And what of general manager Arthur Sugden, torn once again between his old union loyalties and his loyalty to Wilder. He seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. And like Wilder he seems to be oddly unconcerned. There are some very devious power plays going on here, which is what this series is all about.
Loved He Not Honours More continues the power struggle between Wilder and Sir Gordon Revidge, the chairman of the board. He has his back to the wall but it’s unwise ever to assume that John Wilder is beaten.
A Bunch of Fives follows the mixed fortunes of a sales tour through southern Europe. Perhaps it should have been obvious that eight men and one woman was a dangerous mixture, especially if the woman is an attractive young widow. Sales manager Don Henderson has enough to worry about trying to sell aeroplanes without having to spend his time preventing the other men from killing each other over the young widow. An amusing little episode.
A book on the history of the Scott-Furlong Aircraft Company puts the cat among the pigeons in the episode In the Book. General Works Manager Arthur Sugden is incensed by the chapter dealing with one of Scott-Furlong’s more successful aircraft of the 1930s. It’s all a matter of who should get the credit for that particular long-ago project. It would be merely an interesting historical argument except for the fact that the brother of one of the major players at that time is now a potential customer. He wants his brother to get all the credit for that 1930s triumph, and if that doesn’t happen then the projected sale of five Sovereigns worth millions of pounds could be in doubt. This is an intriguingly different business drama but there is a serious point to it. Sugden wants to make a stand for the truth. Wilder would prefer to sacrifice the truth in order to sell those five aircraft. It’s an episode that shows the strength of this series - a slightly offbeat story that has a lot to say about the characters of the men involved.
Miss Geraldine owns land that Scott-Furlong needs for their ambitious projects for the future, and in the short term for an accelerated production schedule for the Sovereign. Persuading Miss Geraldine to sell is however quite a challenge. She is extremely wealthy so money is not going to induce her to sell. Various underlings have been assigned the task of persuading her to sell, with a conspicuous lack of success. Finally John Wilder decides to take the matter in hand himself.
A Condition of Sale is what causes a crisis at the works. An Italian airline is prepared to place a firm order for for Sovereigns but they insist on a demonstration flight with the new Mark VII engines. Unfortunately there’s no way the new engines can be ready in time but somehow Arthur Sugden has to perform a miracle and make sure they are available. In the process Sugden learns the John Wilder method of doing business and loses a few illusions. An excellent character-driven episode.
A Job for the Major causes headaches for Arthur Sugden. Major Crabbe has been brought into the form to do some reorganisation of the works. John Wilder has made it clear that the Major can’t be fired (having an ex-military man in a senior position impresses the Ministry of Defence and could help in lading military contracts). The headache is that is Sugden can’t get rid of him then the Major is going to end up triggering mass resignations of key personnel who cannot tolerate the military discipline on which the Major insists. What makes this episode interesting is that while the Major is his own worst enemy he’s not a fool and in his own way he’s a very decent fellow. His greatest strengths are at the same time his greatest weaknesses. And although the people with whom he clashes do have some reason for resenting him they’re not entirely blameless either.
"A Matter of Priorities” lands Wilder in trouble with women. Lots of women. Including his wife who wants a divorce, which is of course out of the question. His mistress is being unreasonable as well, and then there’s Mrs Rossiter, the wife of a brilliant young Scott-Furlong technician. Wilder has no interest in her, except as a way of preventing her husband from leaving the company, but she still causes him no end of trouble. Oddly enough his mother-in-law is the least trouble of all. But the big problem is his wife and the question is how high a price will he pay to keep her?
In "The Homecoming” Arthur Sugden is giving serious thought to his future and he has to confront some awkward questions of loyalty.
The final episode of the second season is How Can You Win If You Haven't Bought a Ticket? and it involves a power struggle between WIlder and Arthur Sugden. The odds are stacked very heavily against Sugden but he has no intention of going down without a fight. And he has a few surprising allies.
The Plane Makers achieves a perfect balance, focusing enough on the personal lives of the characters to make them three-dimensional but keeping enough emphasis on the professional side to avoid the danger of becoming a soap opera.
John Wilder is a marvellous creation, a man who is equally worthy of both admiration and contempt. This is the tycoon as hero, but as flawed hero. Flawed, sometimes appalling, but sometimes magnificent. Patrick Wymark is superb.
While Arthur Sugden is a very different type of character he’s just as complex and Reginald Marsh’s performance is just as impressive. Barbara Murray as Pamela Wilder and Robert Urquhart as the fussy but hyper-competent chief test pilot Henry Forbes are also exceptionally good.
The Plane Makers is a product of the “everything shot live in the studio” era of British television. At its worst this style can seem clunky and stilted but at its best it can achieve a degree of immediacy and drama that puts to shame the products of later and supposedly more sophisticated eras of television. The Plane Makers is an outstanding example of the style at its best, with everything depending on the writers and the actors.
The Plane Makers is intelligent provocative and rather subtle television. Very highly recommended.
My review of the first half of season two can be found here.
Saturday, 9 February 2019
Jim Rockford lives in a trailer. Magnum lives in a mansion in Hawaii (even if he doesn’t own it). Rockford drives a bottom-of-the-range Pontiac Firebird, Magnum drives a Ferrari (even if he doesn’t own it). Rockford has been in prison. Magnum was obviously born into wealth and comfort. The 70s was the decade of cynicism. There was glamour but it was a decidedly sleazy glamour. The 80s would be the Decade of Greed. There would be glamour and it would be flashy and trashy.
That's not to say the 80s weren’t cynical. Maybe they were more cynical than the 70s, but it was the decade in which we came to accept cynicism. Cynicism was the New Normal.
Even the fact that Magnum’s wealth isn’t real is significant. The 80s was when we discovered we could live on credit forever.
Magnum, P.I. was created by Donald P. Belisario and Glen A. Larson, two figures who would play major rôles in 80s action/adventure television. Larson created the archetypal 80s action/adventure series, Knight Rider. You don’t expect originality from Larson but you expect high-octane action and a certain amount of style. Belisario would go on to create Airwolf, the best of all the 80s action/adventure series. From Belisario you also expect high-octane action but with a definite dash of intelligence.
Magnum, P.I. premiered in the same year that Hawaii Five-O ended its incredibly twelve-year run. It would have been a crying shame to see the production facilities that had been established for Hawaii Five-O not being used so Magnum, P.I. which had originally been intended to be about a private eye living in a Hollywood mansion became a show about a private eye living in a Honolulu mansion.
One of the fun things about Magnum is that while Hawaii Five-O was a fictional state police agency it is often referred to in Magnum as a real agency. In fact you could argue that Hawaii Five-O and Magnum both take place in the same fictional universe.
Tom Selleck has the right mix of relaxed charisma and mischievous charm. He does the action hero stuff well, he handles the light comedy with ease and when he’s called upon to do slightly more serious acting he’s quite adequate. John Hillerman is fun as Magnum’s nemesis Higgins, who is determined to clip Magnum’s wings. Roger E. Mosley and Larry Manetti as Magnum’s old army buddies T.C. and Rick make fine sidekick material.
Magnum, P.I. kicks off with the two-parter Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii. It establishes Thomas Magnum’s character. He had been a Navy officer and he’d left the service under a cloud and with a reputation for indiscipline and insubordination. We know he’s a Loner and a Maverick. We know he doesn’t play well with the other children. He’s a Trouble Maker, but he’s also Brave and Resourceful and he’s also a bit of a Don Quixote. And he has a certain appreciation for the female of the species. In other words he’s a walking cliché. Whether that will work or not depends very much on Tom Selleck and on whether he has the charm to make Magnum likeable and whether he has the charisma to make him interesting. It becomes obvious very early on that the answer to both questions is likely to be in the affirmative.
This episode also introduces the other main characters. Higgins (John Hillerman) is an ex-British Army sergeant-major who runs the Hawaii estate belonging to bestselling thriller writer Robin Masters (we never actually see Robin Masters and he doesn’t seem to spend any time in Hawaii). Higgins of course disapproves of Magnum. Their antagonism follows predictable lines - there’s both conflict and grudging respect - but both actors are good enough to make it amusing. Despite the grudging respect both Higgins and Magnum are too stubborn and too childish to work out their differences. Magnum lives on this estate, he’s supposed to be in charge of security (his duties don’t seem to be particularly onerous), we don’t really know how he got such a comfortable berth but presumably the owner of the estate finds him amusing. Higgins considers Magnum to be basically a freeloader and to an extent he’s right.
We also meet his buddies from Vietnam. He’d been in some kind of covert operations outfit. Vietnam would cast a huge shadow over quite a few 80s action-adventure TV series, notably The A-Team and Airwolf, as well as Magnum, P.I. In all these series there is a common assumption that neither the government nor the military can be trusted.
Episode two is China Doll. Magnum is rather sweet on a cute Chinese antiques dealer named Mai Ling. She hires him to protect her and a fabulously valuable Chinese vase for two days. It sounds like an easy job but it nearly gets Magnum and his buddies Rick and TC killed. The guy trying to steal the vase is a Chinese martial arts master and he’s a psychopathic Tong assassin as well.
Thank Heaven for Little Girls and Big Ones Too seems like a missing persons case, nothing unusual in that except that his clients are five schoolgirls. Just looking at their innocent childish faces Magnum knows that these are obviously clients who can be trusted implicitly. That’s his first mistake. Then there’s the girls’ pretty blonde teacher. He trusts her too. That’s his second mistake. Of course she doesn’t really thinking that stealing a Gauguin worth several million dollars is a crime. She has a really good explanation as to why it would be silly to get the police involved. This episode has a kind of interesting double plot which works rather well. This is a fun little story, very light-hearted but it has style and it has charm.
In No Need to Know there’s another house guest and he makes things a bit tense, given that he’s a British Army brigadier and the IRA is actively making plans to assassinate him. The American intelligence people are not officially involved but unofficially they’re keeping a close on things (they’re not happy about the idea of foreigners getting assassinated on American soil), and they’re worried enough to call in some unofficial help. In fact they hire Magnum to keep a watch on the brigadier. Being intelligence agency people they naturally don’t bother to tell Magnum what’s really going on. This is a darker episode and it’s pretty good.
In Never Again... Never Again Magnum is up against Nazis! The obsession with Nazis that is such a remarkable feature of 60s and 70s TV was obviously still going strong even in 1980. This story does at least manage one original twist on the theme.
The Ugliest Dog in Hawaii belongs to a wealthy socialite. Sir Algernon Farnsworth really is a dog that only an owner could love. Curiously enough an ageing gangster is determined to get his hands on Sir Algernon. This episode is a total romp and it works splendidly. A government quarantine officer who is terrified of dogs, an elderly mobster who thinks it’s still the glory days of Prohibition, his incompetent henchmen who represent the new generation of gangsters except that they are entirely clueless, plus Higgins doing his social climbing thing and Magnum has his hands full. Enormous fun.
Missing in Action is another Vietnam story. A singer has arrived in Honolulu looking for her boyfriend Eric Tobin. He was a Marine and was posted as missing in action in 1972 but she is convinced that he is alive and in Honolulu. Magnum starts digging around. And he finds that a rather sinister character from Delta Section is also taking an interest in Eric Tobin. Delta Section is one of the more shady U.S. intelligence agencies specialising in black ops. If they’re interested in Eric then it’s a fair bet that either he’s alive or they’re trying to cover up the circumstances of his death. A very dark but very good episode.
The King Kamehameha Club, run by Magnum’s old navy buddy Rick, is cursed by a kahuna (a kind of priest/sorcerer) and the curse soon has fatal results for a competitor in a surf ski race. But why would anyone want to curse the club? Magnum thinks he may know but then his neat theory seems to come crashing down. Overall The Curse of the King Kamehameha Club is a good episode.
In Thicker Than Blood T.C. makes the mistake of trying to repay a guy who saved his life in Vietnam. Unfortunately Joey is a junkie and a loser and trying to help a guy like that is just asking for trouble. And T.C. gets lots of trouble. Like the possibility of five years in prison. He doesn’t want Magnum and Rick to help him but they’re going to do so anyway. Helping T.C is going to require Magnum to get some coöperation from some very unwilling allies. A pretty good little story.
All Roads Lead to Floyd seems to be a routine missing persons case. A young woman is looking for her father, the only clue to his whereabouts being a postcard from Oahu. His daughter is not the only one looking for Floyd Lewellyn (Noah Beery Jr). Floyd is a small-time crook and con-man and he owes money all over the place. And some of the people looking for him definitely do not wish him well. Noah Beery Jr is delightful as the loveable old rogue. This is a fairly light-hearted episode and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
The Adelaide in the episode Adelaide is a 32-year-old woman from Iowa who wears sensible shoes and wants to hire Magnum as a bodyguard for Norman. What he doesn’t realise is that Norman is a horse. On the other hand he is a very very valuable horse. Quite an amusing episode.
The Black Orchid is the kind of Magnum episode that I enjoy. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s stylish, it has glamour and humour and it’s lightly offbeat. Louise DeBolt is a very rich young woman and she’s bored and she deals with her boredom by living out her fantasies. No, not sexual fantasies. These are more in the nature of romantic adventure fantasies. A bit like acting out scenes from old movies (it’s no coincidence that she had originally wanted to be an actress). She hires people to play various rôles in her fantasies and when her fantasies call for a hardboiled private eye type she naturally hires Magnum. Magnum doesn’t mind. It’s more fun that most of the case that a PI works on and Louise’s games all seem very harmless.
Of course they’re harmless as long as everyone understands they‘re games and as long as reality and fantasy don’t start to collide. But that’s exactly what happens and Magnum starts to suspect that thee’s something sinister going on, but of course the problem is that Louise is so addicted to her games that it’s impossible to be sure if she’s really in danger or if it’s just another level of game-playing. It’s a very well executed and very enjoyable episode.
J. "Digger" Doyle is a female security operative called in when Robin Masters life is threatened. Her presence irritates both Magnum and Higgins. It’s kind of fun to see Magnum and Higgins working as genuine allies. One of the trademarks of the series is that we never see Robin Masters. We almost see him in this episode. We do hear him. And it’s the voice of Orson Welles! A well constructed episode.
In Beauty Knows No Pain a crazy lady hires Magnum to find her boyfriend Roger. Everybody wants to find Roger. And some of them do not wish him well. Magnum also gets conned by T.C. into entering the Ironman triathlon competition which oddly enough provides the key to the case of the missing Roger. A very amusing very witty episode.
The first season of Magnum, P.I. is very stylish sometimes slightly outrageous fun. Highly recommended.
I've also reviewed season two of Magnum, P.I.
Friday, 1 February 2019
There’s some debate as to whether only those four feature-length episodes constitute the first season or whether the following thirteen hour-long episodes should be included as well. For convenience I’m going to treat the four feature-length episodes as constituting season one.
The title character is a Los Angeles Medical Examiner and we very soon discover that he’s a chronic trouble-maker. Quincy just can’t help himself. He’s never satisfied. If a post-mortem establishes a cause of death with 99% certainty that’s not good enough for Quincy. He’s a natural contrarian. He’s argumentative. He ignores instructions from his superiors. He antagonises the police. He can’t stop himself from playing amateur detective. He’s a complete nightmare, and the worst thing about him is that he’s usually right.
To play a rôle like this you need an actor who can be cheerfully obnoxious and still be likeable and sympathetic and Jack Klugman was the perfect choice. He plays Quincy with manic intensity and single-mindedness but still manages to convey to us that Quincy is basically a good-natured overgrown kid.
This series is often seen as a forerunner of later crime series focused on forensic science.
Quincy’s boss is Dr Robert Asten (played with oily smarminess by John S. Ragin). Asten might be a doctor but he’s a bureaucrat by nature and he and Quincy clash constantly. Quincy despises Asten as a pen-pusher and Asten regards Quincy as a gratuitous trouble-maker.
Robert Ito provides fine support as Quincy’s Japanese assistant (and partner in trouble-making) Sam Fujiyama.
The guest casts are also very strong.
As with the other Sunday Mystery Movie series production values are consistently high.
The Episode Guide
Go Fight City Hall... to the Death starts with a routine case. A girl has been raped and murdered on a beach and shortly afterwards the killer is gunned down by a cop. It’s an absolutely open and shut case but Quincy is obsessed by a couple of irritating small details. The perpetrator shot and wounded by the cops just doesn’t seem like a guy powerful enough to snap a girl’s neck, plus his hands are kind of small and the marks on the victim’s neck suggest large hands. The police are exasperated. They have a straightforward case and they have the suspect in custody and Quincy is making trouble for them. And then there’s a suicide at City Hall and it’s just as straightforward and Quincy has to go and make trouble about that case as well.
It’s the third death that really gets Quincy wound up.
There’s not really much in the way of actual technical forensic science stuff in this episode. Quincy solves the case mostly by having the sort of suspicious mind that notices things that form a pattern. The plot is solid enough. You might find that the the action climax stretches credibility a bit - Jack Klugman is an unlikely action hero and it seems a bit out of character. On the other hand the producers presumably felt that an action climax was needed and they got one.
In Who's Who in Neverland Quincy’s boss Dr Asten makes a mistake that could be more than embarrassing. It’s a mistake that could be career-ending. He releases a body to the funeral home and the body is immediately cremated. The problem is that the body was not properly identified, all the paperwork was phoney and Quincy had intended to do an autopsy because he was not satisfied about the cause of death. Now it turns out the woman was a celebrity and the whole thing looks less and less like death due to natural causes and all hell is going to break loose unless Quincy can solve the mystery of the woman’s death and solve it quickly.
A Star Is Dead concerns a dead movie star, dead in circumstances that are highly ambiguous. Suicide is entirely possible, but so is murder. And accusations are being levelled at a smooth-talking congressman who happens to be an old buddy of Quincy’s. There are very important people wanting to protect the congressman and very important people wanting to bring him down. And there’s the editor of a scandal sheet who would be happy to bring Quincy down as well.
Quincy gets personally involved in this case, perhaps to a dangerous degree. At times it does appear that his judgment has been clouded by his personal feelings. But that’s Quincy. That’s the way he rolls. It’s a weakness but it’s a strength as well. He relies on gut feelings. On the other hand he is a scientist and he backs up his gut feelings with hard evidence.
This episode is the first to feature a courtroom scene. OK, not quite an actual courtroom, but a formal coroner’s inquest. And Quincy produces the kind of courtroom pyrotechnics that would make Perry Mason proud.
If there’s a weakness to this series it’s the sensationalistic endings, but then this is television and it’s in the business of providing exciting and highly dramatic climaxes and while they might be sensationalistic they are fun. There’s not much scientific stuff in this story but it’s certainly entertaining.
Quincy, M.E. is very much in the tradition of the terrific mystery series that American television produced in such prodigious quantities in the 70s. And it’s a fine example of the breed. The first season plots can be a little over-the-top but they’re executed with style and energy and they work.
The first of the DVD boxed sets includes the four movie-length episodes and season and the next thirteen one-hour episodes as well.
While this may have been the forerunner of so many later forensic science-based crime series Quincy, M.E. is mercifully free of the gratuitous gruesomeness that later came to define the genre.
A very entertaining series. Highly recommended.