Monday 31 October 2022

Thriller - Brian Clemens’ favourite episodes

I’ve finally made my way to the end of the 1970s British Brian Clemens anthology series Thriller. It’s taken me eight years to watch all 43 episodes. That might sound a bit ominous. It might suggest that I’m not a big fan of this series. Nothing could be further from the truth. I adored this series when I first saw it many years ago and I adored rewatching it. I’ve watched it slowly because I like to do that with anthology series, especially ones of which I’m particularly fond. I just like to return to them every now and then when I feel the need for reliable spooky entertainment.

And given that each episode is feature length and of course completely standalone it’s a perfectly feasible way to approach such a series.

Having reached the end I’ve decided to revisit the five episodes of which Clemens himself was most proud. Since I haven’t seen these particular episodes for seven or eight years that also seems to me to be a feasible idea.

Thriller occasionally dabbled in the supernatural. It did this very seldom, but it did do it occasionally. Which was actually a rather clever move on Clemens’ part - when you watch a Thriller episode you might be confident that everything will have a rational explanation but you can never discount the possibility that Clemens might unexpectedly throw something supernatural at you.

Someone at the Top of the Stairs

Someone at the Top of the Stairs was the third episode of the first season.

Chrissie Morton (Donna Mills) and Gillian Pemberton (Judy Carne) are two broke art students in London. They think they’ve had a fabulous stroke of good fortune when they find a room in a charming old Victorian rooming house. The rent is ridiculously cheap.

The rooming house of course turns out to be a nightmare.

At first it’s just very subtle creepy things. Odd sounds. One of Chrissie’s bras disappears. The other guests seem to laugh at inappropriate things. Various little things just don’t seem quite right. Then Chrissie discovers the peephole in the bathroom.

Chrissie’s unease grows, as does her frustration that Gillian refuses to take her fears seriously. She does find a boyfriend, Gary, but he doesn’t take her fears seriously either.

The viewer knows that there’s definitely something wrong in this house but we don’t really know much more than the two girls know. Like Chrissie we just slowly grow more uneasy.

Director John Sichel handles things carefully. He avoids anything too obvious. He’s content to let the creepiness develop through hints and through the accumulation of very trivial things, things that taken in isolation would not even be disturbing but they become unsettling when taken together.

Clemens of course wrote the script and it’s a fine effort which builds to a satisfying payoff. It’s satisfying because at the end we have to admit that this really is what all those hints have been pointing towards.

The two lead actresses, Donna Mills and Judy Carne, are effective because they really do come across as two very ordinary girls. Chrissie is the one who gets worried but she’s not hysterical. She’s reacting in a perfectly understandable way. She sees a pattern of little things adding up to something that might be sinister. Gillian’s scepticism is equally plausible. That same pattern of little things seems to her to be very unlikely to be anything to get worried over. They’re not showy performances but they work.

Someone at the Top of the Stairs is pretty effective stuff. Highly recommended.

An Echo of Theresa

An Echo of Theresa is the fourth episode of the first season. American businessman Brad Hunter (Paul Burke) has taken his wife Suzy (Polly Bergen) to London for a second honeymoon. It’s a business trip as well - an English businessman named Trasker wants to negotiate an important deal with him.

Brad starts doing strange things. He calls Suzy Theresa by mistake, and then claims that he’s never met anyone called Theresa. Although he’s never been to London he insists that a cabbie take him to an obscure street to find an old red-brick block of flats. That building was demolished years earlier - how could he possibly know it even existed? He becomes agitated an aggressive. He writes “I love Theresa” on a postcard.

Hardly surprisingly Suzy insists that he sees a psychiatrist pronto.

The psychiatrist discovers that there are two things Brad is sure of. Firstly, that he knows Theresa. Secondly, that he has never met Theresa. He knows her from Vienna, but he has never been to Vienna, in fact he has never been to Europe.

Suzy has a friend at the American Embassy who suggests that this might be a case for Matthew Earp (Dinsdale Landen) . Matthew Earp is a private detective. He claims to be not just a very good a private detective but a magnificent one and he charges accordingly for his services. And he really is as good as he thinks he is.

There are those who find this episode confusing. I have no idea why. Most of what is going on is perfectly obvious very early on. There’s simply no other plausible explanation and there are abundant and very obvious clues. Of course we still don’t know exactly how such an outlandish situation arose and we don’t know how it’s going to be resolved but we know enough for the story to lose much of its punch.

It’s played out rather oddly. Paul Burke and Polly Bergen play it very straight (and Paul Burke is very effective as a man caught in a bewildering situation) while the other main characters are more off-the-wall and seem like they would have been more at home in a different story. And Dinsdale Landen plays Matthew Earp with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Ultimately it’s Dinsdale Landen’s gloriously over-ripe performance that makes this one worth watching.

An Echo of Theresa is interesting and at times very clever, but it’s not a complete success.

One Deadly Owner

One Deadly Owner was the fourth episode of the second season. It went to air in February 1974.

Fashion model Helen Cook (Donna Mills) buts herself a new car - a Rolls-Royce. It has only had one careful owner. Her boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Brett) thinks the car is a foolish extravagance. The odd things is that Helen feel that it rather than her choosing the car, it chose her.

The car seems to have a mind of its own. It takes her places she doesn’t want to go. And then she finds the ear-ring in the boot. She tracks down the previous owner, a very rich man named Jacey (Laurence Payne). She’s sure the ear-ring belonged to Jacey’s wife. His wife left him a few months earlier. Helen becomes convinced that there’s some mystery involving the wife and she feels compelled to solve the mystery.

Most of the things that happen early on are not really frightening or even particularly disturbing - they’re just puzzling. It’s almost as if Helen is being led on. Led on by the car.

Now I know what you’re thinking - that this haunted car story sounds a bit like John Carpenter’s Christine, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. But Brian Clemens came up with the idea of a possessed car almost a decade before King. And they are two quite different stories.

In this outing we know from the start that there’s something vaguely supernatural (or paranormal) going on. We also know that a crime has been committed, and there are multiple plausible suspects. It’s both a haunted car story and a whodunit and it works equally well both ways.

One of this episode’s major assets is that Donna Mills and Jeremy Brett work so well together. Their relationship is convincing and both give fine performances.

The fact that it’s a rather low-key story works in its favour. We’re slowly drawn in, just the way Helen Cook is slowly drawn in.

This is an extremely good episode.

A Coffin for the Bride

A Coffin for the Bride opened the third season. We know what is going on right from the start. A ex-merchant seaman (played by Michael Jayston) marries rich middle-aged women and then drowns them in the bathtub (after they have made wills in his favour of course). The murders are successfully passed off as accidents but a lawyer named Mason (Michael Gwynn) is convinced that murder is indeed what they were. Mason is just a very ordinary solicitor but he’s intelligent and once he gets an idea into his head he pursues it grimly. And he does not intend to forget this particular murderer.

The killer, calling himself Mark Walker, has now found himself in a very curious position. He has fallen for a woman. Really fallen for her. A young pretty woman named Stella (Helen Mirren). This time he really wants the woman, and not for the purposes of murder or profit.

But of course he still has a living to make, and murder is his business. He already has his next victim picked out, a rich widow named Angela. I can’t tell you any more without risking spoilers.

The twist ending is outlandish but justly celebrated - there are hints earlier on and when the big reveal comes you realise that of course that had to be the explanation. Which is of course the hallmark of good writing.

It’s not just the ending that makes this one notable. The performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Gwynn are superb but it’s Michael Jayston who really impresses. Mark Walker is a monster but he has odd vulnerabilities. They certainly don’t justify his actions but they do suggest that there are things in his past that have made him into a monster.

Arthur English is a delight as the friendly barman Freddy.

A bravura effort from scriptwriter Clemens and from a fine cast make this deservedly one of the most fondly remembered episodes of the entire series.

I'm the Girl He Wants to Kill

I'm the Girl He Wants to Kill is the second episode of season three. This is a pure suspense episode - we know the killer’s identity right from the start. But the police don’t know. They think they do, but they don’t.

It starts with the murder of a woman. Then there’s a second murder. They’re clearly the work of a serial killer. Ann Rogers, an American working in London, saw the killer. Unfortunately she can’t identify him from the police mug shots file.

She does however fall for Mark (Tony Selby), the Detective-Sergeant in charge of the case, and Mark falls for her. A few weeks later she sees the killer in the street, she recognises him and he recognises her. She realises immediately that he’s going to try to kill her. She returns to her office and as usual she has to work late. There’s nobody else in the building, apart from the security guard. But the killer is inside the building. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game which occupies the whole of the second half of the episode. 

To makes things even more exciting the killer has locked the building so there seems to be no escape for Ann.

Robert Lang plays the killer and he’s a wonderful choice. He’s just one of those scary sinister-looking actors. Julie Sommars is very good as Ann - she’s convincingly terrified but she’s also quick-witted.

A deserted office building proves to be a fine setting for such a suspense story. Everything looks so harmless, except that there’s a psycho running loose.

The tension builds up and up and when you think it’s all over, it isn’t.

This is an effective Brian Clemens script and it’s perfectly executed by director Shaun O’Riordan.

This is a classic woman-in-peril story which works beautifully.

Final Thoughts

I’m not totally sold on An Echo of Theresa but the other four Brian Clemens favourites can certainly be very highly recommended.

Sunday 2 October 2022

Hannay (1988-89)

Hannay is a thirteen-episode (spread over two seasons) TV series featuring the hero of John Buchan’s classic thrillers, Richard Hannay. The series serves as a kind of prequel to The 39 Steps.

The episodes really have nothing to do with Buchan, apart from borrowing his hero. They’re all original stories. If you’re expecting the stories to be in the same class as Buchan’s novels you’ll be disappointed.

The stories are all over the place as far as tone is concerned. The best episodes are very lightweight and rely to an embarrassing degree on unlikely narrow escapes carried out by methods that are both silly and corny. These stories are much more like a cross between an Edwardian Boys’ Own Adventure Paper tale and an episode of Ripping Yarns. But they are fun in their own way. Other episodes are much more humourless and try to be serious. Many episodes are not spy tales at all but mysteries, some good while others are not so good.

The series does have one huge asset - Robert Powell as Hannay. He played Hannay in the 1970s movie version of The 39 Steps and he was by far the best thing about that film. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Robert Powell is the definitive screen Richard Hannay. Even better than Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s 1935 movie (which I rate as one of the ten best movies ever made).

At least he should be a huge asset. Unfortunately his performances are uncharacteristically restrained. A bit too restrained. If you’re going to put Robert Powell in an adventure series then you expect him to go totally over-the-top. You expect him to sparkle. But he doesn’t.

I can’t help thinking this series would have been much much better had it been made fifteen years earlier. For starters a younger more vigorous Robert Powell would have been a lot more fun. And it would have featured fewer ludicrously anachronistic social attitudes.

The biggest problem with this series is that not a single character behaves as you would expect people to behave in 1912. They’re all 1980s people wearing period costume. All the political, social and cultural attitudes are pure 1980s.

The characters we’re supposed to find sympathetic never express a single thought that is at variance with the orthodoxies of late 1980s social attitudes. This has the effect of making them seem self-satisfied and at the same time lacking in any actual personality. The characters we’re supposed to find unsympathetic come across as cardboard cut-out villains. Richard Hannay himself has no real personality whatsoever.

The TV series was shot entirely on videotape. Even the location shooting (of which there’s quite a bit) was shot on videotape. In spite of this looks it looks quite handsome. This is British TV at the tail end of its golden age so the costumes are terrific and it takes advantage of the abundance of superb character actors in Britain at that time.

Episode Guide

The first episode, The Fellowship of the Black Stone, opens with Hannay getting shot in South Africa. He is left for dead and is found clutching a black stone. His would-be assassin was notorious German spy Count von Schwabing (Gavin Richards). And a fine melodrama villain he turns out to be. He doesn’t actually twirl his moustache before carrying out dastardly deeds but you know that he’d like to.

On the ship carrying him back to Britain Hannay encounters the Earl of Haslemere (David Waller) and the earl’s daughter, the Lady Anne. Hannay is charmed by Lady Anne, to say the least.

Hannay had worked for the British Secret Service but had left their employ some years earlier. He finds himself caught up in a spy drama anyway, with the Germans hatching dastardly plots and poor Hannay getting himself repeatedly captured, tortured and threatened with certain death. Fortunately, although the German secret service is very efficient their agents have never been taught to tie a knot properly. Hannay keeps escaping by slipping out of his bonds.

The highlight of this episode is Charles Gray as a senior Scotland Yard man.

It’s all breathless stuff with a reasonable amount of action. A fine episode.

In A Point of Honour Hannay meets Lady Madrigal Fitzjames on a train. They get off at the wrong station and then arrive at the wrong country house. The staff assume they are the honeymooning couple whose arrival they were expecting. Hannay and Madrigal decide to have a bit of fun. They pretend they really are the honeymooners.

As it happens there’s an immensely valuable diamond necklace sitting in the safe. And things will soon get complicated and dangerous.

Historical anachronisms are always a problem in series such as this. I have to say that in this episode I just didn’t buy Lady Madrigal’s behaviour. The story takes place shortly before the First World War. We assume it’s around 1912. I don’t believe any well brought up lady at that time would have risked her reputation so recklessly. It would have been social suicide and would have wrecked any chance she might have of making an even halfway respectable marriage. Had she been one of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s then I might have found it plausible. But not in 1912.

It’s still an amusing, clever and entertaining story with a certain amount of charm.

In Voyage into Fear Hannay is accosted in an art gallery by a young girl who insists that there is a dangerous man who is trying to kidnap her. She insists that Hannay should pretend to be her father, to get her out of the gallery and back home safely. Hannay is inclined to think it’s all nonsense until he realises that the girl might be telling the truth.

Then things start to go badly wrong, Hannay and the girl are drugged and they wake up on board a ship, having absolutely no idea where they are. This is a really fun episode.

Death With Due Notice is a murder mystery story. Several men have received anonymous threatening letters, all in the form of quotations from Shakespeare. A routine episode that doesn’t really have the right flavour.

Act of Riot is one of the worst pieces of television I have ever seen in my life. A clumsy embarrassingly obvious script, stodgy direction, heavy-handed political messaging, atrocious acting, leaden pacing, a total lack of action, dull and humourless. Robert Powell is clearly bored and uninterested and I can’t say that I blame him.

The Hazard of the Die is better. At least it’s a spy story. The wife of a Cabinet Minister loses heavily at the casino at Monte Carlo and is trapped into espionage. The first problem is that there really aren’t enough plot twists. It’s a bit predictable. The second problem is a total lack of action. This is an adventure series. We’d like to get some adventure. It all falls just a bit flat.

So the first season of six episodes is a mixed bag. The first three are terrific fun. The next three are pretty dull.

The second season opens with Coup de Grace. Hannay gets involved with a woman and he’s charmed by her, and he meets charismatic hard-driving businessman and gambler Sir Marcus Leonard (Anthony Valentine). And Hannay gets caught in the middle. With Anthony Valentine as guest star you assume you’re going to be in for some fun and Valentine certainly delivers the goods. What’s strange is that Robert Powell allows himself to be totally overshadowed by Valentine. It’s a crime plot rather than an espionage or adventure tale but it’s a decent story.

The series gets right back on track with The Terrors of the Earth. Not only is it a spy story, it’s a totally outrageous spy tale. There’s actually some action and Hannay gets to be much more energetic and pro-active than usual. And Robert Powell’s performance has some zest. A very entertaining episode.

In Double Jeopardy a rich dying man entrusts Hannay with some diamonds. Hannay is to pass them on to a man named Desmond Leigh but only on certain conditions. This puts Hannay in a very awkward spot. Leigh has failed to meet those conditions but he has a young wife. Then the plot gets really convoluted with a murder and a kidnapping and Hannay under suspicion and all manner of conspiracies. The plot might be convoluted but it’s quite nicely constructed with some fine twists. A very good episode.

The Good Samaritan gets off to a promising start. Hannay is in central Europe, he’s on a train and he’s just met a beautiful mysterious woman. There’s a shady oilman of indeterminate nationality. And oh yeah, there’s a corpse. And a vanishing lady. It’s hard to go wrong with those ingredients. This is a terrific episode which movies along at break-neck pace.

In That Rough Music an old friend of Hannay’s dies and leaves his estate and fortune to his half-African daughter. A totally unconvincing story told in a very clumsy manner.

The Confidence Man is a major improvement. Hannay comes to the rescue of a music-hall proprietress menaced by an extortion racket. Hannay’s initial attempt to help ends in disaster. He realises he’s going to have to be much cleverer and he turns out to be a rather goof confidence trickster, all naturally in a good cause. A lightweight episode but it moves along briskly and it’s fun.

Say the Bells of Shoreditch involves a disappearing bridegroom. The young man works for his father who runs a shipping and insurance empire. There’s something strange going on in the company with all sorts of rumours flying around.

The jilted bride is Hannay’s goddaughter so he feels compelled to find the missing young man. Hannay discovers an ingenious and dangerous conspiracy.

Final Thoughts

Most of the episodes are quite entertaining but the series just doesn’t quite ring true. It’s very very uneven. The bad episodes are absolutely terrible but the good ones are very good. And the good episodes do outnumber the bad.

The biggest problem is that the series can’t decide if it wants to be fun or if it wants to be serious. Hannay is a slight disappointment but it’s still worth a look.

Network have released the complete series on DVD.