Friday 27 November 2020

The Human Jungle, season one (1963)

The Human Jungle is an intriguing drama series made by Britain’s ABC Television which ran for two seasons in 1963 and 1964. It follows the case histories of psychiatrist Dr Roger Corder (Herbert Lom). Psychiatry was a popular subject for movies from the 40s to the 60s but those movies almost invariably dealt with crazy and/or evil psychiatrists. Making a TV series about a skilful and dedicated psychiatrist was an ambitious idea and rather risky. It could easily have been dull or preachy or excessively contrived.

Herbert Lom is one of my all-time favourite actors and this was a rare opportunity for him to play a serious rôle as an entirely sympathetic character. Most of his serious rôles were as villains, cads, losers or otherwise sinister creepy characters.

The obvious temptations for such a series would have been to focus on stories related in some way to crime (in other words to make it a series about a psychiatrist crime-solver) and to focus on patients with severe and spectacular mental illnesses. Some of the stories do deal with such matters. Some deal with more everyday problems, but in an interesting way.

There are stories that involve the possibility of crime, either a crime that has been committed or might be about to be committed. Because it’s not actually a crime series you can’t be sure that there really is a crime, which makes things more interesting.The slightly unconventional nature of the series make it intriguingly unpredictable.

A series about a psychiatrist could hardly ignore the subject of sex, and in 1963 that meant having to walk on eggshells. The Human Jungle does confront this subject occasionally, and on the whole does so reasonably well.

It was an expensive and rather ambitious series. It was shot on film with hopes of making some inroads into the U.S. market and it was in fact syndicated in America.

Critics mostly disliked it, finding the stories to be somewhat unlikely and contrived. To some extent this is accurate but then the series was intended as entertainment and some melodrama had to be added. Had Dr Corder just stayed in his consulting rooms talking to patients the results would have been deadly dull so it was necessary to have him out and about getting involved in the lives of his patients. This is a bit unrealistic and melodramatic (and may be one of the reasons actual psychiatrists seemed to dislike the series) but it makes for much better television drama.

To some extent the series was always going to have to be somewhat contrived if they were to have some happy endings. The Human Jungle is not afraid to have some downbeat endings but they didn’t want to do this too often. No-one is going to want to watch a TV program about a psychiatrist if all of his patients end up killing themselves, in prison or on Skid Row.

Whatever critics may have thought of it the series gradually built a strong following with the viewing public over the course of its first season. In commercial terms it was a definite success and a second season was commissioned.

The other regular cast members are Michael Johnson as Corder’s young assistant Dr Jimmy Davis and Sally Smith as Corder’s teenaged daughter Jennifer (Dr Corder is a widower). Jennifer is fiery and she and her father squabble at times but on the whole their relationship is affectionate. She’s just a normal teenager.

Mary Yeomans appears in most episodes as Dr Corder’s secretary and Mary Steele appears in half a dozen episodes as therapist Jane Harris but most of the stories revolve around Dr Corder, Dr Davis and Jennifer Corder.

Network have released the complete series (two seasons) on DVD and it looks great.

Episode Guide

In the opening episode, The Vacant Chair, Dr Corder has been hired by a large industrial conglomerate to help them choose a new managing director for one of their key companies. The two candidates for the job represent wildly different approaches to management. Basil Phillips is a hard-driving autocrat with no apparent scruples. Geoffrey Hunter is a conciliator and a team player. Dr Corder interviews the two men’s families and colleagues and finds himself in a hair-raising world of backstabbing, deceit and all-round chicanery. Dr Corder’s daughter goes on a date with Geoffrey Hunter’s son, and gets rude awakening herself. At the same time Dr Corder is trying to deal with a difficult case involving a withdrawn and possibly suicidal young boy. There’s not much plot to speak of. The focus is entirely on personalities and interpersonal dynamics. Those interpersonal dynamics are rather entertaining. And the reasons for Dr Corder’s recommendation is interesting. Not a bad start to the series.

The Flip Side Man is pop singer Danny Pace (played by real-life pop singer Jess Conrad whose performance is actually pretty good) and his problem is that he’s being followed about by his double. This double of course exists only in his mind, but why? Corder is certainly worried by this case. Apart from seeing his double Danny is nervous and irritable. And he does not want to talk to a psychiatrist. There’s some suspense at the end as matters reach a crisis. A good episode.

In Run with the Devil a man wants Dr Corder’s help because he’s worried that it might be possible for a man to do something wrong without knowing it. Which immediately worries the doctor. The man is deeply religious and appears to have lost the use of his right arm although there’s nothing physically wrong with it. It’s the man’s wife that Dr Corder is worried about. It’s obvious that the man is troubled by guilt but also by issues with sex. This being 1963 the series has to tread carefully when it comes to sex but it makes its point clearly enough. It also manages to avoid being too anxious to leap to judgments. A good episode.

Thin Ice involves rising 14-year-old ice skating star Verity Clarke. After a very minor accident in which she sustained no permanent injury she can no longer skate and Roger Corder has to find out why. He has to find the psychological block that has destroyed her confidence. Perhaps she just can’t handle the pressure but that doesn’t quite seem to fit. There are no crimes in this story, or at least not in the usual sense. Quite a decent story.

The Lost Hours is a kind of detective story. There’s no crime but there is a mystery that has to be solved.  Dr Corder has to do some detecting, even going so far as to shadow a patient. It begins when Julia Gray freaks out at a party and accuses her husband Henry of seeing another woman. She then tries to kill herself. It turns out that she is obsessed by this idea. It’s clear the poor woman is suffering from a delusion. Or is she? It all hinges on those lost hours in her husband’s life. Dr Corder is not sure if she should be treating the wife or the husband. A very clever story.

A Friend of the Sergeant Major is over-the-top melodrama. It takes place in a British army base in Germany. Sergeant Major Bennett (a career soldier with a fine record but with an interesting past) is put on a charge for smashing up a bar. He has only six weeks to go before retirement and now faces the prospect of a dishonourable discharge. Dr Corder is brought in as an expert witness as the defence relies on proving that Bennett’s commanding officer is a paranoiac. Corder starts to suspect that he is being used by the army in a cynical public relations exercise. In fact there’s much more to the story which takes some surprising (and outrageous) twists. It’s an interesting case study of two flawed men. There’s a fine performance by Alfred Burke as the Sergeant Major. 

We also get some of Dr Corder’s backstory. He had been a British Army psychiatrist during the Second World War. When it comes to matters of army discipline and the ethics of the psychiatric profession I’m sure it’s all ludicrously unrealistic but it is original and entertaining.

In 14 Ghosts the wife of a High Court judge is arrested for shoplifting. She obviously doesn’t need to steal a scarf worth a few shillings. Dr Davis happens to be friends with the woman’s son-in-law and suggests that Dr Corder could help. Corder finds it’s a complicated family drama and as in The Lost Hours it’s by no means certain which member of the family has the real problem. A good episode.

Fine Feathers deals with a young couple living way beyond their means. The wife, Penny, has not only landed herself hopelessly in debt but in trouble with the police. Dr Corder has to find out why Penny feels compelled to present a front of genteel high living, and why she is so riddled with guilt and shame. A pretty good story of someone who has constructed a false identity for herself.

The Wall presents Dr Corder with six patients for the price of one. Young Jan Zapotski is arrested for throwing bottles at a window but the police can’t do anything - he was on his own property throwing bottles at his ow window. Dr Corder has to find out why. This means he has to find out what is going on with Jan’s wife Rita and with Jan’s parents and with Rita’s parents, all of whom live in the same house. This is a clash of cultures. The Zapotskis are Polish Jews and they want to live the way they did in the old country while Jan and Rita just want to be an ordinary English married couple. They’re all really nice people and they all want what is best for each other but Rita is going slowly crazy and Jan is going noisily crazy. This story features some actual psychiatric stuff - word association, dream interpretation, group therapy sessions, etc. It’s also a rather light-hearted episode, at times almost farcical. It’s a good change of pace and it’s amusing and entertaining.

A Woman with Scars presents Dr Corder with a patient who is every psychiatrist’s nightmare - a woman who makes a false allegation against him. She’s an MP’s wife and she really is out to get him. Dr Corder’s problem is that obviously he wants to defend himself but he is more worried about her mental state. His unwillingness to take the gloves off in a court case could cost him his career. A tricky story to deal with since it involves sex but a good episode that tries to be nuanced.

is wildly far-fetched but it is clever. It involves a burglar who only burgles houses with gables, and is obsessed with clocks. Especially clocks that don’t work. By now we’re discovering that Dr Corder is extraordinarily stubborn when he thinks a matter of professional ethics is involved, even if this means risking trouble with the police. A good episode.

The Two Edged Sword presents us with two different stories. The stories are unconnected but as both stories develop it gradually becomes apparent that there are a couple of very important common themes. There’s a married woman who wants to put her baby up for adoption, and another married woman who is afraid of something but she’s not quite sure what it is. In this episode for the first time we see Dr Corder using hypnosis. A fine episode which deals with differing kinds of anxieties and does so quite sensitively.

Over and Out involves a mystery that has to be solved. An experimental aircraft crashes on a test flight. At this stage there’s no certainty as to whether it was a mechanical failure or pilot error. The pilot survived but is delirious and has no memory of the crash. The aircraft company hires Dr Corder. They very much hope he will prove that the pilot was suffering from some kind of mental problem which caused the accident - If he doesn’t then the company may have to cancel the test program and may lose a huge contract. There’s evidence that might point to the pilot’s having deliberately crashed the aircraft but the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. As Dr Corder discovers new facts the whole affair becomes even murkier. The ending is melodramatic but very tense and the viewer has no idea what the actual solution to the puzzle is going to be. A very goos season finale episode.

Final Thoughts

The Human Jungle sometimes stretches credibility just a little but on the whole it’s fine human drama and very entertaining. It’s melodramatic, but in a good way, and Herbert Lom is terrific. Sally Smith adds a much-needed touch of lightness as his exuberant but devoted daughter Jennifer. Highly recommended.


  1. "Basil Phillips is a hard-driving autocrat with no apparent." - what? I'm guessing that the missing word is "scruples".

    1. "Basil Phillips is a hard-driving autocrat with no apparent." - what? I'm guessing that the missing word is "scruples".

      Yes. I've now fixed it. Thanks.

  2. I saw this on a 2 for 1 sale on Network's UK site, and like you, I've always loved Herbert Lom. I've only watched one complete episode, the first one, which I really liked - quite a good melodrama. Because the 2nd one was about an early 60s pop singer, I muted it as soon as he started singing!

    Not got round to watching the others - I'm mostly going through the colour episodes of The Saint, which is the other set I got on offer.

    1. I'm mostly going through the colour episodes of The Saint, which is the other set I got on offer.

      I picked up that set as well recently. I'd been looking for it at a reasonable price for a couple of years. I'm looking forward to getting into more serious Saint watching next year.