Friday 22 March 2019

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. - The Global Globules Affair (novel)

The Global Globules Affair, published in 1967, was one of five tie-in novels associated with the short-lived TV series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which aired on the American NBC network in 1966-67. All five tie-in books were original novels although only two were published in the United States. The Global Globules Affair was not published in the U.S. but was available in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and some other markets.

The author was Simon Latter, who was actually British writer Reginald Martin (1908-71). Martin wrote in various genres and was also reasonably successful as a children’s author.

The Global Globules Affair gets under way when secret agent April Dancer, on leave in London and wandering through Carnaby Street, notices a curious new fashion trend - metal dresses. She also runs into Dr Carl Karadin. Karadin is a mad scientist but he’s generally been presumed to be a harmless example of the breed. And then April’s fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent Mark Slate has to borrow money from her. He had two five-pound notes in his wallet but they’ve kind of disintegrated. Which causes April to remember that Dr Karadin had been something of a crank on the subject of global currency reform.

There doesn’t seem to be much connection between these odd events but April has a hunch there may be a sinister pattern here and U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverley has learnt to respect April’s hunches. April and Mark will investigate further, and they will uncover a bizarre conspiracy involving molecular globules of a chemical known as K.S.R.6, disappearing bank notes, metallic clothing, sinister street signs and dolly birds on mopeds.

It’s a story that is in keeping with the feel of the TV series. It’s outlandish but clever and witty. The TV series at times became too overtly silly and too self-consciously high camp. Both Simon Latter and Michael Avallone, who wrote the other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel I reviewed recently, have (wisely) tried to keep the silliness and the camp elements within strict limits. They’ve also added just a very slightly darker edge. On the whole I think The Global Globules Affair feels like it could have been one of the better and less silly Girl from U.N.C.L.E. episodes.

Latter has done a reasonably effective job bringing April Dancer and Mark Slate to the printed page. Mark Slate is the trickier character since his personality in the TV series is largely the product of Noel Harrison’s delightfully quirky performance. On the whole though the two U.N.C.L.E. agents are fairly believable as the characters from the TV show.

In the TV series the relationship between the two characters is made quite clear. They’re friends and colleagues but they have no romantic interest in each other. That relationship is maintained in the novel.

Most crucially Latter has come up with a fairly entertaining story. There’s plenty of action, there’s reasonably amusing banter between the two lead characters, there are cool gadgets, there are fast cars and helicopters and the conspiracy is something that threatens the entire civilised world.

Latter’s prose style is perfectly adequate and he avoids the temptation to try to be too jokey.

Like most TV tie-in novels this is a fairly short novel. Like the TV series it’s based on it’s a light-hearted and enjoyable mix of science fiction and spy thriller. Recommended.

Sunday 17 March 2019

two Thrillers - Good Salary Prospects Free Coffin, The Next Voice You See

Two more episodes from the excellent British ITC anthology series Thriller, both from season five and originally aired in 1975.

Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin
Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin (retitled as Mirror of Deception in the U.S.) starts with a hole being dug, a hole that looks not unlike a grave. The scene then switches to a London flat shared by three girls, Wendy, Babs and Helen. The delivery of the newspaper has raised some excitement, It contains a job advert that sounds very tempting. It’s a well-paid live-in job in the country for a young woman with no ties and a sense of adventure.

Wendy lands the job and Babs and Helen never hear from her again. Of course that’s not all that unusual - they had only shared a flat for six months or so, and Wendy did not the other two all that well. A few months later the same job advert appears again. This time Babs gets the job. And Helen never hears from her again. This is a little surprising since Babs and Helen were reasonably close.

Another few months go by. Helen gets married to her long-time boyfriend Charley (Keith Barron). Helen is an American and so she has to go to the American Embassy to get her passport updated with her new marital status. She has quite a shock when the Embassy official dealing with passports turns out to be Babs Bryant, an amazing coincidence since Bryant was the surname of Helen’s friend Babs. And this Babs is from York too, just like the other Babs. But it’s not Babs.

The other curious incident concerned the scarf. Bans had borrowed Helen’s scarf and left it behind at the office where she was interviewed for the mystery job. When Helen turned up at the office the following day to retrieve her scarf the office was deserted, and she was informed that it had been deserted for months. A very curious employment agency.

In fact Helen has no idea just how curious this employment agency is.

It doesn’t take too long to get a fairly good idea as to what’s going on. That’s not a weakness in Brian Clemens’ script - he wants us to know exactly what it is that is happening. He wants us to be very afraid indeed for the heroine when she decides to play amateur detective. He wants us to know just how much danger she is putting herself in.

And he has some twists still held in reserve.

Julian Glover is deliciously sinister as the sadistic Gifford. James Maxwell is extremely good as Carter and there’s a nice edge to the relationship between the two bad guys.

The weak link is Kim Darby as Helen. This was an ITC series which meant that it was pretty much compulsory to have at least one American star per episode (ITC boss Sir Lew Grade being totally obsessed with the wrong-headed notion that this was the secret to cracking the U.S. market). Thriller’s American imports are all very much second-string stars but mostly they do a decent job. Kim Darby however is just a bit too bland. The chemistry between Darby and Keith Barron just isn’t there also and it’s difficult to imagine why two such people would want to get married.

On the whole Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin delivers the necessary suspense and thrills. A fine episode.

The Next Voice You See
The Next Voice You See (retitled as Look Back in Happiness in the U.S.) concerns a man who is an eyewitness to a crime. Or, more correctly, he is an earwitness.

It opens with a prologue in 1964. Visiting American jazz pianist Stan Kay (Bradford Dillman) is caught in the middle of a bank raid in London. His wife is killed and he is blinded permanently by a shotgun blast.

A decade later Stan Kay is back in London, as part of a successful European tour. At a party he hears a voice. A voice he has not heard for ten years. It is the voice of the man who killed his wife and blinded him. It is the voice of the armed robber from 1964.

That sounds like a lucky break for Stan, a chance he will finally get justice. The difficulty is that it was a voice heard at a very crowded party and in such circumstances it is just about impossible for a blind man to tell which of a hundred or so guests was the man with the voice.

He does have an ally. Julie (Catherine Schell) works for Stan’s agent and she is acting as a kind of personal assistant/companion to him during the British leg of his tour. She likes Stan and she believes his story. It’s still an awesomely difficult task to identify the killer. Stan knows the voice and Julie doesn’t, but Julie has eyes and Stan doesn’t. Maybe between the two of them they can do it.

The danger of course is that their snooping is going to be noticed by the killer, so that while  Stan and Julie are stalking him through the crowded party the killer could be stalking them.

Bradford Dillman is this week’s cheap imported American star and he’s OK. He manages to be convincing as a slightly temperamental musician type and he conveys Stan’s anger and frustration pretty well.

Catherine Schell is also good as Julie. She’s a woman whose job entails being nice to people who are sometimes very difficult but she’s a sympathetic sort of person and although Stan is prickly she copes with him very well. She gets completely drawn into Stan’s obsessive quest to find the murderer.

Thriller was made on tight budgets with very little location shooting. That’s ideal for this kind of story where everything has to take place in just a few rooms and a claustrophobic feel is highly desirable. The nature of the story also means that almost every scene involves at least a dozen people - it is all taking place at a crowded party - so you need a competent and pretty experienced director to keep things under control. Robert Tronson was perfectly qualified for the job and he handles it well. He manages to make a party overflowing with guests seem like a very dangerous place.

This is another Brian Clemens story but the actual screenplay is by Terence Feely. So you’ve got a lot of very experienced and talented TV people involved and the results are more than satisfactory.

Another fairly good episode.

Sunday 10 March 2019

The First Churchills (1969)

The First Churchills is a lavish 1969 BBC costume drama. These productions are I guess the television equivalent of chick flicks, although in 1969 they were generally well-written well-acted and very handsomely mounted. And they were the one thing that British TV could do that American TV couldn’t.

This one has the advantage of being set in a truly fascinating period of English history which is sadly little known and since Restoration England was also a famously debauched period of history it has the added advantage (from the BBC’s point of view) of providing plenty of titillation with a kind of artsy veneer.

It is the story of John Churchill (who eventually became the 1st Duke of Marlborough and was claimed as an ancestor of by Winston Churchill) and his wife Sarah. John Churchill rose from relative obscurity to the heights of fame as a general and the Churchills also enjoyed immense prestige and influence in the court of Queen Anne. John Churchill’s success was at least partly attributable to what might charitably be called his moral flexibility. He betrayed his king but he was lucky enough to choose the winning side and became, for a time a least, a hero.

The mini-series takes up the story in the latter part of the reign of Charles II. John Churchill is an obscure courtier and junior officer. He is as debauched as the rest of Charles II’s court. He is also quite penniless and he desperately needs a rich wife. He meets Sarah Jennings, maid of honour to the Duchess of York. Sarah is also penniless and desperately needs a rich husband. To the horror of their families they fall madly in love and marry. John Churchill is so much in love he is even prepared to give up his mistresses.

It was an incredibly turbulent period of history with a series of rebellions, both unsuccessful and successful, a series of rather futile wars and endless conspiracies. The Churchills contrived to be in the thick of it all.

John Neville was in my view a very poor choice to play John Churchill. He was always an actor who contrived to combine woodenness with pomposity.

Susan Hampshire was not the first choice to play Sarah and it was apparently made clear to her by other members of the cast that they did not consider her to be good enough to play the rôle. In fact she does very well in a difficult and challenging rôle, giving a characteristically spirited performance. In contrast to John Neville, who seems to be merely declaiming speeches, she brings Sarah to life.

The other acting highlight is the criminally underrated James Villiers’ deliciously overripe performance as Charles II. In fact Villiers is by far the best thing about this series.

This is a mini-series that does definitely assume that you have a basic knowledge of the religious and constitutional crises of late 17th century English history. If you’re not familiar with the period you’d be well advised to read up on it a bit before watching the series.

The series tries to be reasonably even-handed, which isn’t easy. This is a period of English history that still generates a surprising amount of angst and ill feeling. It’s amazing how many people have an axe to grind when it comes to subjects like the Glorious Revolution and Monmouth’s Rebellion.

Charles II comes across very sympathetically, which is fairly natural. He was dealt a very bad hand by fate but played it with immense skill and it’s hard not to feel a certain admiration for him. James II is more controversial and more difficult but the series does at least take his religious motivations seriously and does portray him as a complex man with the wrong personality to be a successful king at that time. John Westbrook’s performance might seem superficially dull but it’s probably accurate - James seems to have been a man who took things very very seriously and lacked the ability to make people like him.The Prince of Orange, later William III, is interestingly enough portrayed as a rather nasty and very untrustworthy little creep.

To be honest the only entirely sympathetic character here is Charles II, and perhaps to a lesser extent Marlborough’s close friend Sidney Godolphin, a politician with at least some principles. The unsympathetic portrayals of the other characters are probably quite realistic. These were people who played the game of power. You don’t win at that game by being a nice guy (or a nice lady). You win by putting ambition first and destroying anyone who gets in your way.

One of the main themes of the series is Sarah Churchill’s friendship with Princess (later Queen) Anne. It was a friendship that gave Sarah Churchill enormous influence over Anne, and whether that was a good thing or a bad thing is a matter for historians to debate. It’s certainly a friendship that makes for good television. It’s hard enough for a friendship to bridge the gap between monarch and subject and Sarah’s legendary foul temper did not always help matters. Anne, played by Margaret Tyzack, comes across as well-meaning but not too bright.

John Churchill himself was always going to be difficult. The series gives us a slightly sanitised version of the man (in the 1960s it’s hardly likely that a British television production would have portrayed one of Winston Churchill’s ancestors unsympathetically). I’m not sure it succeeds - to me Churchill still seems ambitious and self-serving. John Neville’s performance is particularly unfortunate since rather than showing Churchill as a man facing a crisis of conscience he seems to be merely a pompous self-justifying prig.

The year 1969 was an interesting era for British television. These were still the days when British television was shot more or less live on videotape, videotape being horrifically expensive to edit in those days. Shooting on film was becoming slightly more common in big-budget commercial TV productions and within a few years location shooting would become much more common. But The First Churchills, based on the testimony of Susan Hampshire, was apparently shot almost entirely on videotape.

The series was shot in colour. Production values are extremely high. The sets are lavish and the costumes are gorgeous. Given the subject matter you expect a visual extravaganza and by and large that’s what you get. Of course on a television budget it was not going to be possible to do full-scale battle scenes so the challenge was to try to capture the drama and the confusion and the terror whilst using only a handful of extras and spending virtually no money. That’s not easy to do but they succeeded reasonably well.

The First Churchills is like a combination of a superior domestic melodrama and a political thriller, with the emphasis on the melodrama. It’s the personalities that matter, and the personal relationships between them. The characters might not be loveable but they are intensely fascinating. As I said at the beginning it’s clearly a series made primarily with a female audience in mind. If you enjoy these costume dramas this one is more interesting than most and can be recommended.

The First Churchills is readily available on DVD in Regions 1, 2 and 4.

Friday 1 March 2019

Ironside season one (1967), part one

The enormous success of Perry Mason had made Raymond Burr one of the biggest stars on American television. When Perry Mason ended its nine-year run in 1966 Burr went straight into Ironside, another immensely successful series that enjoyed an eight-season run. At this time Raymond Burr truly could do no wrong.

Ironside began in 1966 as a made-for-TV movie, A Man Called Ironside. It was picked up as a series by NBC and began its run in 1967.

One thing that is obvious from the start is that Raymond Burr did not intend to play Ironside as Perry Mason in a wheelchair. They’re very different characters and Burr, very wisely, was determined to make them as different as possible. Perry Mason has a great deal of charm and affability and this is not just something he fakes in the courtroom. The charm is genuine, and the warmth is genuine as well. There’s nothing charming or warm about Robert T. Ironside. He’s abrasive and he’s rude and he rides roughshod over anyone who gets in his way. He’s not the kind of guy to whom anyone would take an instant liking. He’s the kind of man for whom you would develop a grudging respect which might, in the fullness of time, ripen into affection. Perry Mason is a lawyer. It’s his job to make a jury like him and trust him and empathise with him. Ironside is a cop. He expects people to hate him. He doesn’t care.

Of course the hero of a TV series has to be someone that audiences will empathise with but Burr is confident enough to believe that he can persuade the audience to accept Ironside as an uncompromising curmudgeon and to learn to admire the positives in his personal makeup and overlook his character flaws. In fact he was confident that they’d accept that there was real depth beneath the curmudgeonly exterior. The series was a hit so clearly Burr knew what he was doing.

This was 1967 and this was a time when American television decided it had to focus on “social issues” - almost always with cringe-inducing results. Ironside was not immune from these pressures and in the TV movie there’s plenty to cringe about. 1967 was also a time when American TV wanted to get in touch with youth culture, with results that were always excruciating. There’s a lot of that here as well. It’s not enough to wreck the TV movie but it is embarrassing.

The TV movie is crucially important as it gives us the essential backstory. San Francisco Chief of Detective Robert T. Ironside (Burr) is gunned down while on vacation. He survives but will never walk again. It marks the end of a distinguished police career. Or it would for any normal man. But not for Ironside. He can’t officially work for the department any longer and he can’t earn money without losing his pension but he persuades the Commissioner to take him on as a volunteer consultant. Persuade is perhaps the wrong word. He tells the Commissioner that this is what is going to happen and the Commissioner does what everybody does - he does exactly what Ironside tells him to do.

He also “persuades” the Commissioner to give him a large space in the old headquarters building as a combined living/work space. And to give him an old police paddy wagon which he intends to convert for his own use. And to give him his own staff.

So we pretty much know by now how Ironside operates. The man is unstoppable. When he encounters an immovable object he simply crushes it. Finding himself confined to a wheelchair is no more than a petty annoyance. Ironside is a cop. It’s what he lives for. If he can’t be a cop officially he intends to go on being one unofficially. And being unofficial (or semi-official would be more accurate) will give him a lot more leeway.

Ironside has a team of assistants and they’re pretty predictable. There’s Detective-Sergeant Ed Brown (Don Galloway), a rather dull straight arrow. There’s the obligatory female cop, Officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson), who is not too irritating. And there’s the black street thug Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) who has been reformed by Ironside. The interactions between these four are every bit as cliché-ridden as you’d expect. Raymond Burr is the only regular cast member who can actually act so he has to carry the whole thing himself.

The Episodes

The TV movie follows Ironside’s investigation into his own shooting. There’s some awful 60s arty/hippie stuff to try to distract us. The plot is OK. The art gallery climax is unusual and original. It’s very very silly, but it is unusual and original. It is at least a bold attempt to solve the problem of having an action climax with a hero confined to a wheelchair so they get points for trying. Overall I was at best moderately impressed.

Look out for an appearance by bizarre 60s icon Tiny Tim.

The first actual season one episode is Message from Beyond and it takes Ironside to the racetrack where we learn something new about him - he likes to play the ponies. His gambling fever serves the useful purpose of making him a bit more human. But there are bigger things to worry about, like the $175,000 that has just been stolen from the track. It was a clever theft by a stupid thief which gives Ironside something to ponder.

Once again we see the action climax done quite imaginatively so as to allow Ironside to be involved. A good solid episode with a clever hidden clue involving a car. Everyone knows the clue is there but no-one can find it. This is good stuff.

The Leaf in the Forest pits Ironside against the Bayside Strangler. Six murders, all following an apparently identical pattern. So why is Ironside extremely interested in one of these murders and much less interested in the others? This episode has a reasonably solid plot and works pretty well.

Dead Man's Tale is a gangster story. The number two man in a major organised crime organisation has been trying to contact Ironside, to make a deal. He has a pretty fair idea that there’s a contract out on him. One way or another Ironside intends to use him to get to the number one man, John Trask (Jack Lord). It’s a battle of wits and wills between Ironside and Trask which works very well (and Jack Lord provides Ironside with a convincingly formidable opponent). This episode is a good one.

In Eat, Drink and Be Buried it seems that someone is out to get rich successful advice columnist Francesca Kirby. The problem is, as one of Ironside’s team puts it, almost everybody would like to kill Francesca but none of them can afford to do so. A pretty nifty mystery plot here. Very entertaining.

I’m inordinately fond of mysteries that hinge on the breaking of an unbreakable alibi and The Taker includes a fine example. Ironside investigates the murder of a cop who was one of his protégés. There are two investigations that the dead cop had been involved in that catch Ironside’s attention as providing possible motives. A good old-fashioned puzzle-plot mystery.

In An Inside Job Ironside and Eve are held as hostages by escaped prisoners in Police Headquarters. Ironside has to help the prisoners to escape or they’ll shoot Eve. This one falls a bit flat. This is possibly because the odds are too clearly stacked against the prisoners.

Tagged for Murder is quite a neat little story. A man is accidentally electrocuted but that isn’t possible. He was an electronics specialist in the Army during the war. And his dog tags, which he always wore around his neck, are missing. The main clue is a list of numbers, serial numbers of six American soldiers. Three of whom are now dead, which is odd. Something links these men together and Ironside has to find that link. Look out for Bruce Lee is a guest staring appearance.

Let My Brother Go is an episode that tries to be socially aware and it illustrates all too neatly why such attempts invariably backfire. Ironside wants to get young black gang members off the streets so he gets football hero Bat Masterson to give them some coaching. Meanwhile Bat’s brother Joe is out on parole and getting himself into deep trouble. It’s excruciatingly earnest and it’s heart is in the right place but it ends up being embarrassingly contrived.

The series gets back to proper crime stories and back on track with Light at the End of the Journey. This is the blind witness idea that has been used in various movies and TV shows  over the years. The only witness to a murder is a blind girl and of course being blind she didn’t actually see anything so she isn’t really a witness but the killer doesn’t know that, and Ironside wants to use a bluff to smoke out the gunman. It might not be original but it’s well executed and it works.

The Monster of Comus Towers is a heist story and a pretty good one. A very very valuable medieval religious painting is stolen. It’s more or less an impossible crime story. It’s hard to see how the thief could haver gained entry, and quite impossible to see how he could have left with the painting, considering that it’s not a canvas but a large wooden panel.

The Man Who Believed unfortunately takes us back to Youth Culture. An irritating junkie girl singer-songwriter kills herself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge only Chief Ironside knows it’s not suicide because the singer wrote him a letter after he was shot. He doesn’t think the girl who wrote that letter would have killed herself. Everyone think he’s crazy but Ironside is adamant. He eventually finds what could be definite proof but it turns out to be useless. Or maybe not so useless?  Ironside is after all a cunning old curmudgeon and he can find a way to use even useless evidence. A fairly clever story.

A Very Cool Hot Car deals with a clever car theft scam but again we’re back to Youth Culture and Socially Aware television. An OK episode.

In The Past Is Prologue Ironside has to try to save a friend from a 19-year-old murder rap. He starts digging into the records of the case and what he finds disturbs him. It looked like an open-and-shut case so everybody involved from the police to the defence attorney assumed that was what it was and didn’t exert themselves too much. Ironside is not convinced that the case was quite so clear-cut. He also doesn’t like it when people get lazy and take their jobs casually, especially when it’s a capital case and a man’s life is at take. So now he’s really riled up and he isn’t going to stop until he’s absolutely satisfied that justice has been done. A good episode.

Girl in the Night is quite ambitious. It has a bit of a 1940s hardboiled private eye movie vibe with perhaps just a hint of film noir. Ed Brown goes to Las Vegas to bring back an extradited hoodlum and he meets this girl (played by Susan Saint James, looking as cute as a button). Then he gets knocked on the head by two guys. It sounds like he’s been set up by the girl but he won’t believe this. This girl is different. She’s special. And she’s in trouble. He has no evidence for any of this, but he just knows it. He has in fact stumbled upon something very nasty and eventually Ironside is convinced that he’s right. This is fairly dark stuff with some nasty bad guys and some sadly broken people. A very good episode.

Final Thoughts

The DVD release (in Australia anyway) is a half-season set, a deplorable practice. This first set contains the original TV movie and the first fourteen episodes of season one. There are no extras. Image and sound quality are fine.

Compared to most other series of this vintage Ironside is wildly uneven. The bad episodes are truly terrible. The good episodes are very very good. The good episodes do outnumber the bad ones. Raymond Burr is terrific and the series is worth a look.