Friday, 17 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Laughing Prisoner

I was very pleased to find today that the Laughing Prisoner is back on YouTube in its entirety. It vanished for quite a time because a DVD release was mooted, which it seems has never transpired, so some kind soul has uploaded it again. As I am writing this I am watching it for probably the first time in thirty-five years and marvelling on the effect this spoof has had on me. Picture it. The 1980s. In Britain we had four television channels for the first time ever and there was some difficulty filling them with material. Channel four quickly became known for its arty and risque content, amongst which was the show which created The Laughing Prisoner, The Tube. I remember not liking The Tube very much, but obviously there was something in the zeitgiest which created the best parody of The Prisoner ever. The fact that the then young crowd felt they could parody a TV show from twenty years before was that at the time much of the television of the 1960s was being mined to fill the schedules of the TV channels - I think there may also have been a showing of The Prisoner to mark its twentieth anniversary. The two things came together, and this was the result.
I don't know who had the brilliant idea of casting Stanley Unwin as Number 3, but the choice is so successful that it creates a marvellously ridiculous atmosphere. I love particularly that footage from The original Prisoner is interwoven to give the illusion that Number 6 is still imprisoned there since the 1960s. As Stephen Fry says, nobody has ever got a thing out of him, and frankly The Laughing Prisoner gives an impression that all the inhabitants of The Village are rather deranged. Number 6 is shown fighting with Rover, who elsewhere has become a good pet, who Stephen Fry takes for walks.
There are other things changed from the original series. The bleakness of the scenery and the difficulties that must have been experienced maintaining Portmeirion are much more apparent here: gone is the happy sun-filled Village of the original series, and it is replaced by a much bleaker world. This, of course, makes The Village much less frightening than the manufactured spontaneity and happiness of the original. The gloom is lifted by the musical interludes - I imagine they are there because The Tube was primarily a musical show.
When I watched this show last, I had not had the experience I had at the end of last year of resigning. My employers didn't need to ask me why, my 2,000 word letter of resignation told them in great detail all my dissatisfactions going back for sixteen years. I don't therefore need to fear that I will be taken away to a Village and pressed to reveal why I have resigned, but I am nonetheless myself in the position of Number 6 (or Number 7 here). My point is that the act of resignation puts you outside of The Establishment, who can then feel free to punish you. Of course in The Laughing Prisoner it is apparent that there are only three resignees and two of the three are doubtfully sane. The Laughing Prisoner also shows the temperamental and petty nature of The Establishment's hatred against those who abandon it, something which is left ambiguous in the original series. In my own case, fortunately my industry in this city is largely split into two organisations and I have moved from one to the competition, and a surprising number of my former colleagues are texting me asking to be kept posted on vacancies...
The Laughing Prisoner moves faster than the original series because (in my humble opinion) it isn't mainly setting out to create an enigma but rather a set of pastiches of aspects of The Village. What it does show up very clearly - despite the already archive quality of the 1980s show - how bad the original footage was at that time, in comparison to the fully-restored look we are so used to today. It looks awful. It's crackly, the colours are bad, in fact it looks like I remember The Avengers looking in the 1980s. Lucky us, with technology moving on as it has. And (this really is going to sound ridiculous) I had forgotten how big hair was in the 1980s, on both men and women. That is so embarrassing to say! But it again highlights the bleak, austerity-driven world we live in now. Perhaps it was my age, but I remember the 1980s as a time when things felt possible, when it felt as if the prosperity dream would never end, it felt as if you could do pretty much anything you wanted... The reality reminds us of the injustices and pain of the time, but also prevents the freedom we felt at the time.
This all-pervading unreality is the theme of The Laughing Prisoner and what I love absolutely best about it is the way the board of Channel 4 are all cardboard cut-outs.
I so badly want a Prisoner chair now.

George and the Dragon: First Impressions

I am stuck at home sick, having managed to scratch the surface of my eye. It is getting better slowly but be prepared for this post to be even more eccentric than usual, at least in spelling and punctuation. It has given me time to indulge in this new-to-me series, which I bought largely on spec on the basis that I tend to like things with Sid James in.
I am ashamed to say that while I was obviously aware of Peggy Mount's existence, I don't think I have seen much with her in, except for some episodes of The Larkins (which I downloaded and are waiting to be posted about here). I am interested to find that she is a very interesting person, whose life was marred by a wildly unhappy upbringing – she got into acting largely to get away from this upbringing, because her mother told her she would never amount to anything in comparison to her sister. She did that thing which is probably one of the most difficult human actions – she cut off all contact with her birth family in the 1940s, later surrounding herself with an adoptive 'family' of more positive relationships. It must have been extraordinary for her birth family to see her on the telly, but of course if you don't want to risk your child cutting you off, you don't treat the child that badly.
The underlying sadness to Mount's life of course is in opposition to the fire-breathing characters she tends to play. It is evident that this was not character casting, and in fact the Dragon character here is not half such a dragon as she's made out to be, rather she is kind and has a heart of gold. You can meet much worse dragons any day off the week (I recently overheard one of my current colleagues saying that she had told her son's girlfriend that if push came to shove he would choose his mother over his partner and the mother of his child. Asking for trouble, that is).
The fundamental relationship in this show is that between, well, George, and Gabrielle Dragon. I was astonished to read that this show was broadcast as laste as 1968, because the success of the show is dependent on the fact that nothing is ever going to happen between those two. There is clearly a romantic and sexual chemistry between them, and much of the action is based on the to-ing and fro-ing between them. The subject of sex comes up repeatedly and yet, and yet…in comparison to The Avengers this show seems so old-fashioned. Admittedly comparing this show to The Avengers is hardly fair, because nothing will ever compare to it, but I think there are other 1960s series which make George and the dragon look like a 1950s relic.
There are other ways it seems like an older TV series than it is (this is not a criticism, merely a statement of my perception). The Colonel's household is so old-fashioned just in terms of staffing. Sure there are people who can still afford to employ a housekeeper, gardener, and chauffeur, but I feel that sort of household better represents an age of fuller employment and lower wages.
The show's production values also represent an earlier age in television than 1968. It is completely studio-based, with no external footage at all. I like the sets a lot – I like the looks of the 1960s interiors which are aiming for traditional rather than modern. I like the way smoking is mentioned casually, as just something people did rather than the self-conscious smoking you would find in Mad Men. Despite my conviction that this show represents a slightly earlier era in TV than some of the up-to-date shows of 1968, I have afeeling that it probably better encapsulates the way of living of most ordinary people in the 1960s. Were long players available in the 1960s? I'm fairly sure they were, but Gabrielle is passionately attached to mer mother's old 78s which get broken in one episode.
I have a feeling that normally this is a show I wouldn't take to – that is you think of it as a situation comedy. But George and the Dragon manages to hold my interest largely because of the chemistry between the characters and the relatively fast pace of the stories.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Flower of Gloster

Regular readers will remember how I walked out of my last job in September and walked straight into a better one. I am delighted to announce that only three months later an even better opportunity for promotion has come along and my notice is in. As my congratulatory present to myself I bought several of the things in my Amazon basket, Spike Milligan's Q, which I don't doubt I will be writing about here soonish, and Flower of Gloster, about which I just have to rush into print at once.
On reflection I find that I have written about several children's programmes here, or rather programmes intended for children, which may or may not have a grown up following as well, but relatively few of these stay in my permanent collection. Tintin is there in French - he used to irritate me in English, and then I actually went to France and saw kids sitting on the floor in the hypermarkets reading the books, and got hooked. I also keep the 1970s version of the Famous Five, just because. I have a feeling that Flower of Gloster will be a keeper.
You see, Flower of Gloster is a dream. It is so sweet. It is the sort of show you can put on after a nightmare day at work, and be taken elsewhere. Notwithstanding that moving a canal boat down the length of the country is very hard work indeed, so you do see some real labour going on.
A major constituent of the different world depicted in Flower of Gloster is the sheer difference that the intervening fifty-odd years have wrought on the world we live in. For a start, there is a complete absence of the sort of safety-mindednes subsenquently enshrined in law by the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. On several occasions, you see the actors in the 'cut', actually in the canal water and while canal swimming may have been a commonplace in the nineteenth century, I don't really think it was ever a good idea. Children are seen running around completely without parental supervision, and one of the wonders of this show is that is shows a world for children which is free of the then-prevalent fear of stranger danger. Ironically this show depicts almost exactly the world I write about her so often - the 1960s world where the old order was passing, and a brave new world being built. I suspect that at the time people thought the canals were dead, although I have no idea whether they are actually used commercially any more in the age of high-speed communication. Another aspect of the difference in communication is the regional accents you hear - I genuinely think that probably you couldn't hear such strong British regional accents nowadays, and in places, even as a native speaker I have difficulty understanding what the characters are saying!
Then at the start of disc 2, the show suddenly comes home, which is announced by the words, 'We've got to get to Wolverhampton by tonight'. Living in the Venice of the UK as I do (no, seriously...) there is no way my home city of Brum could not appear in this show. If nothing else it shows how bad the state of the canals was in the 1960s before the restoration movement took off, and Flower shows the post-industrial landscape of the Midlands before the warehouses were turned into flats and what have you. I love the 1960s view of the city centre - and I particularly love that the instant they tie up in Gas Street basin they get out and get shopping! But what I love most is the contrast between the 'old' canal and the thrusting new world being built about it - which exemplifies that contrast that features in so much of the TV I like. I love that they go shopping in the Bull Ring and you get to hear the market traders shouting - which really hasn't changed in the years since, although they don't tend to wear ties nowadays! I love the way the man selling rolls of cloth works out the maths in his head *in old money* - I mean actual shillings - which is something which always defeated me although my mother still thinks in old money. I love that then as now and always, Birmingham is one big building site with cranes everywhere - in fact this is a Birmingham thing and there is a 19th century folk song about a sailor who came back home and didn't recognise it as Brummagen!
Production values of this show are interesting: I believe it to be a filming of a book, although I'm not sure whether it is a true story, but I know for a fact the show is made in a way which is far divorced from story-telling. Much of the lore of the canals is explained at great length, so there is a kind of educational undercurrent, but it is presented very much as the tale of a real journey. In fact it looks and feels much more like a documentary than a scripted show, and the extras who tow the boat in Wolverhampton are very obviously locals judging by the accent! Purists probably wouldn't be that keen on aspects of the restoration - the sound is clean and crisp, but the picture shows more dots and marks than some people would probably like. The theme is orchestral but I love the way the incidental music is jazz numbers, which is one of the things that prevents this show from becoming unadulterated pastoral idyll.
I have no hesitation in not only telling the rest of the cult TV blogosphere to go out and buy this series right now, but I am also giving it my rare Stonking Good Television award, for its escapism and unusual production.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Prisoner: The Computer Wore Menace Shoes

I have come incredibly late to the cult of The Simpsons - for some strange reason I took an instant dislike to them in the nineties, but now they make me roar with laughter. I make no apologies for blogging about an episode here, since I think The Simpsons are now venerable enough to be considered Cult, and they're also not the newest show I've written about here. This episode in particular fits in to this blog because it is the famous one which parodies The Prisoner and has a guest appearance by Patrick McGoohan, so is definitely suitable a cult TV blog.
The first thing to say about this show is that I think you should ignore many of the reviews for the season twelve boxed set, which say that the packaging is impossible, and you inevitably damage the discs removing them. To get that out of the way, the way to get one disc out is to squeeze the flaps containing the discs you don't want and turn it upside down until the disc you want starts to slide out and grab it. There, simple, and controversy out of the way.
There is an irony about this Simpsons - a deliberate one, no doubt - that it comments on our modern world of internet surveillance and invasion of privacy. In fact, if this isn't exactly the sort of world the original Prisoner series warned us about, I don't know what is. The themes of anonymity and the use of knowledge run through this Simpsons at every step. This is seen through the microscope, and the tiny world being viewed is what could happen in any town if a single person started using the 'information' he had, and of course the trouble is that *everyone* has secrets and they don't want them revealed! Like all good television, The Simpsons hold up a mirror to our world, and the uncomfortable truth is that so many people will believe any old rubbish, and the point of the prisoners' knowledge is that it is really a load of old rubbish which is clearly very threatening to the powers that be. It is so clever that the particular bit of nonsense which Homer has stumbled upon is the hysteria around flu jabs, thereby drawing on a true ridiculous theory.
I love the sequence where Homer wakes up in The Island, which deliberately apes the awakening in The Village scene of The Prisoner. The Simpsons version of The Prisoner effectively hold up a mirror to the real series as well by pointing out that Rover is actually only a balloon when it comes to it, while maintaining the fear that the agents of control of The Island are actually in our own homes. My only criticism of the episode is that it reverses the priorities of The Prisoner by spending the majority of the episode showing what Homer has done to deserve incarceration, rather than spending the majority of the episode on The Island only slowly showing what he has done.
Nonetheless this is a Simpsons episode of special interest to cult TV fans.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Avengers Series 1: The Yellow Needle

Back to series 1 of The Avengers today. I think I'm going to have to accept that even though I may plan series of posts in an orderly line on an orderly theme, I don't think like that and thus my blog is always going to be more of a mishmash of posts on different themes which come and go as they enter and leave my head.

Anyway this Avengers is a classic series 1 Avengers, in that it completely lacks the weirdness of the later series. There is sex, or rather sexual tension in it, but it also lacks the sheer sexiness found in the later Avengers. I don't really have an overview of the series in my head, but I suspect that Steed plays a larger role in this one than he may have done in a lot of series 1 episodes.

The differences from the later Avengers aside, this is one that is very much of its time and perhaps is now seen at a disadvantage, since we can only see it with the benefit of hindsight. The specific time in which it is set is that when Britain's former colonies in Africa were seeking independence and making their first steps as new states. The fact that this transition was frequently accompanied by a bloodbath is a fact which can be explained in any number of ways and tends to draw out the prejudices of the commentator. To declare my own bias: it is what you can expect when we (the British) create a country to our own design, pillaging it of natural resources, ignoring existing tribal tensions and boundaries, treating the indigenous population as backward idiots who should be grateful to us…and then leave them to it, with no possibility of a return to their previous forms of government and high expectations of future prosperity and so on.

The assumptions of the Avengers episode are completely different and surprisingly characteristic of The Avengers when they are examined. For a start, the depiction of Tenebra, the African state which is on the verge of independence, is breath-takingly politically incorrect by today's standards. Even the name indicates that this is a country in the darkness which is incapable of taking its own steps to independence without descending into anarchy.

The answer to this is of course the intervention of the British government in the form of John Steed, and this is what I mean about the Avengers-ness of this story. It is very much one where our hero races to the rescue of whatever institution is at risk from some diabolical mastermind, and the peace and security of Blighty and our way of life is assured. In this case the life of the president of Tenebras is assured so that the country can't be taken over by the opposition who are obviously dirty tricks merchants. Thus the president of Tenebras, who is obviously thoroughly Westernised, remains Our Sort of Chap.

If I seem to be a little waspish over this, it is interesting that the president is here placed in opposition to people who clearly have African (I think I would probably have to place the country in West Africa in one of the parts which are semi-Christian and semi-Islamic) names and interests, and one of them has an Islamic name. These people are depicted as not learning our gentle Western ways from the years of colonialism and will clearly stop at nothing to get their own way.

The colonialism/independence conflict apart, this is additionally a fairly straightforward political story of intrigue, and it falls down because it is very obvious that Jacquetta Brown is going to be on the side of the enemy. It's a classic of detective fiction – the person administering the life-saving injections has the access to administer life-finishing injections. Obvious really. The story further falls down because it is inconceivable that nobody would notice in the five years she has worked for Sir Wilberforce, that she has a K branded on her forehead. A whole five years of a fringe which has remained solidly in place and never betrayed her secret? Impossible.

What this Avengers does for we fans who will never now see it, it illustrate marvelously the thing I have noted so often about Steed before: he uses his associates and exposes them to danger. In this case Keel only gets drugged, but since the person who did it is obviously a killer, he could quite easily have ended up dead. There is an irony in this, because it seems like the exposure to danger theme comes from above in the form of the British government, since Steed goes off to Tenebras alone posing as a reporter and is in probably even more danger, with no hope of support at all. So while Britain will interfere in other countries' plans for independence, it yet will not look after its own subjects. This Avengers manages to leave a very nasty taste in the mouth if one is British.

Image credit:

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

One of the all-time great Dr Who adventures, this one, or rather one of the legendary ones because it was intended to be the first ever, before being demoted to first adventure of the second series.
I'm trying to make a connection betweem the original educational intent of Dr Who and the major concern of the time which is the real subject of this adventure. This concern is of course the contemporary ambivalent attitude to technology, where it is both the white hot hope for the future, and also a source of danger if not managed properly. Rachel Carson's book about the supposed dangers of DDT was published the year before Dr Who started, and since her findings - that DDT has effects further down the food chain - while not being completely unchallenged at the time, would have been very much the latest science at the time. Ironically, since I believe Carson's research is now believed not to have been controlled enough, of course this Who's educational intent missed the point.
That is not a criticism, because anyone can be right with the benefit of hindsight. This Who has however been subjected to the sort of attention which any show of this age is particularly unable to withstand, and as a result has tended to get heavily criticised on the internet. Since this blog is my own ramblings on classic TV I will just say that my only real criticism is that the twin strands of dangerous chemical and shrunken TARDIS crew are too easily mixed up. Once again, though, I think the real reason for that is that TV shows of this age require watching with closer attention than many newer ones, so it may just be me.
I notice a tendency to connect the shrinking motif here to the 1950s film The Incredible Shrinking Man, but I think it can be traced much further back in various media - it can be found in Laurel and Hardy, and of course in Lewis Carroll. It is the science fiction thread here, in counterpoint to the real world concern about dangerous chemicals. I would also note that The Avengers picked up on both these themes later in the sixties, in different episodes: the shrinking motif is well suited to The Avengers' unreal world, while the poisonous dust motif is well suited to The Avengers' plotline of attempted world domination by some diabolical mastermind.
One thing I didn't realise as I watched the four episodes on the DVD was that in the extras I would find two additional episodes cut from the show as originally made. In fact they are recreations of those episodes, and I have decided that the way they are done is my favourite way to reconstruct a show. Footage is cleverly taken from elsewhere and the missing soundtrack voiced by actors playing the original actors playing the characters. These actors are superb, and you really do have to look closely in places to see that the action doesn't quite match the dialogue. This way of reconstruction to my mind beats the animation or still photography methods hands down.
The other extras on the DVD are also superb, and give an insight into the making of the series.
This Who adventure will always have to bear a heavy burden in terms of its status as the one which could have been the first but wasn't. Personally I don't think it would have been up to the task of kickinh off an entire new sci-fi series: while of course it does bring the world of the time lords into ours it doesn't manage the atmosphere of strangeness that An Unearthly Child has. That said, it is still a very atmospheric Who, using both a stock science fiction trope and a contemporary concern to weave a competent tale.
My favourite bit: the switchboard operator and her policeman husband using the switchboard to trick the baddies into giving themselves away.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Why old TV?

Subjects I have mentioned here frequently include a fear that no 'new' old TV will ever come to light again, and the atmosphere of old TV. I have never really posted about what it is about vintage TV that I and others appreciate.
A reasonable assumption would be that it is an exercise in nostalgia, but I think this assumption is flawed, although of course it will be true for some people. Personally I often find that programmes I remember fondly fall flat on their face being watched at this length of time. Obviously I don't mean the ones I write about here! In fact while you do get reviews on Amazon where nostalgia is clearly the point, it is noticeably lacking in the TV blog community, the sort of people who will read this.
It must be that there is something different about old TV from the contemporary version. I don't think it is primarily quality, as I say, I think it is found in the medium rather than the writing. Of course I can't ignore that modern TV is written much differently.
Of course modern TV depicts a different world from, say, that of 1960, but I still don't think that is the thing about old TV. I personally don't tend to take to period dramas of whatever age, and that is what makes me think that the era depicted on the screen is not what makes the difference: I don't think I would like a modern series set in the sixties. In fact I didn't like Mad Men, not least because its depiction of smoking was far too self conscious.
I am reduced to production then, and I think this might be the reason we like old TV. It is perhaps like those people who prefer records to digital audio because the sound's better. When you don't ordinarily watch CGI it is very obvious and apparent. Of course everyone knows it's there, but there is something more real about TV which required the events shown actually to take place and to be filmed. There is a reality about the events depicted which you don't get from computers.
Perhaps this is what it is? Perhaps we who watch old TV want to see things really happening to people who really existed?