Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Reflections on Quality Television inspired by Spyder's Web

Last night (although it was probably more like the afternoon where he is) Grant Goggans kindly left a comment on one of the posts I wrote when I originally went through Spyder's Web episode by episode. To find that series of posts you can click on the Spyder's Web tag on the web version of this blog.
Grant's comments set me off thinking again about Spyder's Web and of course today I have had to crack the set open and have a watch. I have particularly been asking myself the question I asked in my last post, about what I think differentiates quality television from mere television, which is still to ignore the duds completely. I would personally put Spyder's Web in the Quality Television bracket, and I have been thinking about what makes it that. Given that the category of Quality Television would include shows such as The Avengers, The Prisoner, Danger Man, among the better known ones, and among the ones less talked about, I would include Department S, The Champions, Spyder's Web, The Man from UNCLE, and Special Branch.
I think probably there are two defining characteristics here: one is a certain eccentricity, and the other is a reliably offbeat characterisation. For me the kiss of death on an Amazon review is when a show is described as a popular sitcom. What is it about the sitcom format that makes it so popular? I personally can't think of anything less interesting than watching the boring day to day activities of people I will never meet and who have never existed. My own daily life is rather pedestrian and I think I would have to watch TV as an escape from normal life. To drag this blog past back towards the subject I have given it: the life of the characters in Spyder's Web, and in fact all of the shows I mention above, can hardly be described as ordinary. Even film-making, the cover-story of Arachnid Films, is relatively speaking, a rather interesting and sophisticated world to the outsider.
Perhaps the parallel for this requirement that quality television should not depict ordinary life as such is the popularity of murder mysteries in all media. No doubt we have all known people who we would dearly wish were no longer around, but the reality of actually killing somebody is a different matter entirely. I'm also not taken with anything in the line of courtroom dramas, police procedurals, and so on: give me the magical realism of the Avengers any day, where there are no qualms about Steed and Peel suddenly just knowing that something is happening somewhere.
And then there is characterisation: the characterisation of Spyder's Web is incredibly strong, while somehow managing to be rather unreal. What I mean by that is that while we see a little more of Hawksworth's home life and interest in cars, we see nothing that I can remember of Lottie Dean's home life outside of Arachnid Films. Perhaps there isn't a home life, but in reality this makes her character rather one-dimensional. I don't intend it as a criticism if I say that she is almost a caricature of a secret agent: no family life, no home life, nothing that can break in to the secret. As far as this applies to the characterisation I like in Quality Television, I suppose there is a sense of unreality about all my favourite TV characters. Steed is unfortunately so unreal that to give him as an example feels like going straight for the low-hanging fruit. John Drake would be another example. He has a home, he has friends, apparently, but it is all rather unreal. I think what I am really getting at here is the fact that I like my characters to be unreal and going about their unreal business: apparently real people going about ordinary life are not really my cup of tea. Some of the more realistic shows fail in this to my mind, by trying to make what are obviously fictional characters only too real. Cockney cheeky chappies are all very well, but only exist in the imagination of the middle classes.
So: unreality and characterisation are my two main definers for really good television and Spyder's Web manages to tick both boxes. I see when I first wrote about this series I commented that the episodes varied in quality, which I suppose it the result of having different writers. Grant commented that the episodes on disc four are his favourites and of course we disagree about Things That Go Bang in the NIght! Of course An Almost Modern Man has the great advantage of guest starring Mike Pratt, and also of starting with a 'voodoo' ceremony. Magic, conflict and a willingness to discuss the more conflicted aspects of life - well frankly, these sound like a recipe for a post on this blog! Incidentally the magic scene looks exactly like stills from presumably an outtake from The Avengers episode Warlock included in the Optimum DVD set - the idea of what a magic ceremony looks like is strikingly similar, and I suppose the bare chests equate to perhaps a wildness, unconcventionality, or being in touch with the physical, or else possibly it was as close as they could get to the actual ritual nudity of Gerald Gardner's Wicca. Presumably the decision was taken to have Alban Blakelock with a top on for the take that was actually used. There is also nothing not to love about the other episodes on disc four, since they also ramp up the weird and wonderful. I see that these episodes were broadcast amongst the last, and perhaps there was a certain confidence about the show and its format by then.
The aspects of 1960s culture brought to the fore by these episodes are also of great interest to me. The conflict between the ancient and modern, and the fact that the world was simply a place where conflict on the world stage marked everything, are so 1960s. And what is very Avengers was that we see these great dangers being fought by two individuals employed in a rather shady way by Whitehall, and operating under a decidedly flimsy cover story. If only the world was still so simple now!
There is still a lot to like on the other three discs of the boxed set. In my humble opinion some of the episodes reach Avengers standards of quality and weirdness! In fact I think there is another parallel to draw with The Avengers. I am just watching Nobody's Strawberry Fool and Hawksworth has just commented that he hasn't yet finished reading Scouting for Boys. I am reminded of the occasions in The Avengers where Steed is seen to be reading Tintin - in French, of course. Hawksworth is something of a Steed character, in terms of breeding and being a Jolly Good Sort. The fact that his home setting is shown is telling, because in the visual language of television it gives us an insight into what he is about, and his solidly, safely furnished flat is provided with books aplenty, indicating a solidity to him. Where the Avengers thing is rather inverted, is that Lottie is and will always be, the boss in the relationship. That said, of course the relationship between Steed and the 'girl' of the time changed as time went on, and while I love series 6 dearly, I know a lot of the fans see the Tara King character as a mistake. Nor is an 'adult' dynamic ruled out between Lottie and Hawksworth: it feels much more of a relationship between a man and a woman where sex just lurks out of sight, and while it is fairly obvious that nothing is Going On, there is the implication that it could have done if things had been different.
The purpose of this post was just to log some thoughts on the quality status of Spyder's Web. Perhaps I will write a post or several posts actually comparing the various episodes to similar episodes of The Avengers. If you haven't seen this one yet - and let's face it, if you're reading this blog you certainly should have done - I would strongly recommend Spyder's Web as Our Sort of Television and one to be purchased as soon as possible.
Illustrations: screen shots from the galleries on the DVDs of Spyder's Web: An Almost Modern Man and The Avengers: Warlock.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Turtle's Progress Compared to Minder

A belated happy new year to all my readers. I wasn't drunk all this time; I managed to pick up a bug which has literally laid me low for a week, hence the lack of posts here.
Today I want to write about a series I bought on spec and comment on the way it is often compared to the slightly later series Minder. Turtle's Progress is what we would now call a spin-off from the 1975 show Hanged Man. I have owned Hanged Man on DVD, have watched it all the way through, and am not going to beat about the buch in declaring frankly that I didn't take to it. I bought it thinking that I would like its main premise, of a company boss who 'dies' in order to investigate who has it in for him. I still do like that premise, I just found that it lacked oomph and failed to hold my attention, a completely personal response to it, and of course you are welcome to disagree with me vehemently.
Turtle's Progress features one character from Hanged Man, but the setting is very different. It is the sort of East London gangland with forays into the respectable world TV series, which the word 'gritty' could have been coined to describe. Turtle (John Landry) and his sidekick Razor Eddie (Michael Attwell, who I eventually managed to place as playing one of the burglars in the Are You Being Served episode where it is stock taking and burglars break into Grace Brothers) are petty thieves who mistakenly steal a van which just happens to contain a consignment of safe deposit boxes. Naturally the contents of the boxes is much more valuable than the van itself, and the whole series is based on the implications of opening the boxes one by one.
I actually like that plot very much. It allows for a basic set of characters who interact with a different set of characters each episode, and the underbelly of such enterprises as racing and antiques can be visited, depending on who has an interest in the contents of the box opened in that episode. The constant background is the seedy setting and criminal family background of the protagonists.
The internet reviews I have been able to find for Turtle's Progress are few and far between yet almost relentlessly positive. It is evident that this show gained a strong cult following at the time it was first broadcast, and those people have cottoned on to its release on DVD with glee. I therefore feel obliged to make some criticism of the show, and I think it would have to be that considering this show dates from 1979-80 it is remarkably studio-based and doesn't compare well with the action-based series of the time, such as The Sweeney. This is purely a production criticism, but I think that is a major drawback for this show. A further production criticism is one which is simply because this show is caught in an unfortunate time frame: nowadays British ears are more accustomed to hearing real American accents than we were in the 1970s. Unfortunately this means that the actors speaking in 'American' accents are in no way convincing. Perhaps this is best seen as a historical record of how British TV portrayed Americans in the 1970s.
Turtle's production values also show when it is compared to Minder. You will read everywhere that Turtle's Progress had an influence on Minder, in fact it is mentioned on the box. To my mind the way in which it compares best is the depiction of the London demimondaine criminal fraternity, populated entirely by cockney chappies. Nonetheless Turtle's Progress feels much more 'worthy': it feels much more like a series of plays, and while the theme is clearly criminal it feels to me as if the treatment is much less adult. I am almost all the way through Turtle so far and I'm yet to meet a single reference to sex, to a crooked copper, or to the kind of desperation routinely referenced in Minder. Yes, Malone is clearly Turtle's minder, but to my mind the comparison really begins and ends with that fact and the London setting.
A question is raised in my mind by these shows, as to who their intended audience could be. I have written before about the north-south divide in Britain - by this was an ATV show so it couldn't possibly have been to entertain northerners. I also wonder, since the characters are to a man working-class, loveable cockneys, whether this was intended for the entertainment of the middle class? I just wonder that, rather than stating it as a fact. Turtle's aunt Ethel is the sort of loveable cockney character who makes mistakes in terms of simple general knowledge: I love the way she thinks that tea from the Co-Op in Fulham is not foreign, but nonetheless... There is of course a further historical element to this show in that I don't think for an instant the original working class population can afford to live in Fulham these days, unless housed in social housing, inherited a place, or sharing. Turtle is set at a time which has forever vanished in the wake of Thatcher, and the irony is that Turtle bizarrely emulates the private industry advocated by Thatcher.
On a completely personal level, both Turtle and Minder raise questions for me as to what differentiates these shows from what I would consider 'real' cult TV shows, such as The Avengers, The Prisoner, and so on. I think the difference is that those shows have a real streak of unreality. The problem for me with so much 'real' TV is that of course it isn't real at all!
Nonetheless I don't feel the need not to comment on Turtle's Progress as being a complete dud. I don't think the comparison with Minder holds up, and I think they are best approached looking for slightly different things. If you like cheeky Cockney chappies who are down on their luck, well Turtle's Progress might be just your thing.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Public Eye: Welcome to Brighton?

Back to the 1960s, 1969 to be precise, for this episode of Public Eye. I am reminded that it is actually the first episode of the fourth series, although you wouldn't immediately know that on the basis of what is currently available. Virtually the whole of the series up to this point has been wiped, leaving only a few episodes of the ABC series remaining from the run up to this point.

What this means for us now is that to all intents and purposes Frank Marker's career begins with him getting out of an open prison. Of course there are hints of his previous career as a private investigator and the mistake which caused him to be incarcerated. The mistake has obviously left him with a legacy of bitterness, which spills out periodically for the rest of the series.

This series is usually considered an odd one out in the run of Public Eye, because it concentrates far more on Marker himself than on his actual work. The fact that Marker is taken from his life in prison to the rather controlled life of a man out on probation is psychologically very revealing, or rather it is revealing to the viewer in that Marker reveals little of himself to most of the people he meets.

This begins with the prison governor, who actually comments to Marker that he thinks he is the convict he knows least about. Personally I get the impression that that isn't strictly true: I think the prison staff and other convicts actually do know about Marker, but find it difficult to believe what they are seeing. What they are seeing is a man who seems to have no family, no friends, no sexual interest… To the rest of the world this makes Marker a complete mystery! It is also revealing of the ways in which people measure other people: by their relationships with still other people. The fact that Marker can only be measured by his apparent lack of relationships makes him a mystery man.

On the surface this episode is about Marker's release from prison and rehabilitation in Brighton, but on a deeper level it is actually about how people relate to each other, make choices, gain redemption from past mistakes, and being alone and thus forced to face your own reality. It is telling that Marker's encounter with a woman goes horribly wrong and he ends up feeling angry towards her for screwing him over and having to assert himself. If you read this scene in the context of his probation officer pointedly asking him in the same episode whether he is 'queer' and it is obvious that Marker is not, then this scene points out that Marker's relationships with women, in fact other people, are far from conventional. This scene is the bedroom scene with a woman, involving alcohol, and actually only gets as far as sitting on the bed, which is really not very far at all. Because the woman takes advantage of him, Marker's distrust of other people and aloneness is reinforced, both for him and also for us in understanding his personality.

In fact Marker says this himself in his recounting a story about a widow to the probation officer. He says that the widow was seen by her doctor who gave her some medication to take, but also could only give the advice not to live alone. Marker half-jokes that the only way the old lady could not live alone would be to get into the coffin with her deceased husband, but the real point of his story is not about choice, it is about aloneness. The whole point of this episode is indicated by the question mark after the title – Welcome in Brighton? Means Not Welcome in Brighton, and I feel that Marker both expects not to be welcome and also prefers it that way really.

Marker is given work in a building firm, but there are hints here that he will find his way back into his own occupation, because he uses his detection skills to track down the wife of another convict by means of seeing where her butcher delivers to her. Incidentally that was an aspect of this episode that I find interesting in economic terms: the meat he orders for a wife of a man in prison would now be very expensive and probably not something she would be able to afford at the drop of a hat. I do love that it is delivered by bicycle immediately: something which is definitely not bettered nowadays.

There is however some human redemption in this story: Marker is obliged to meet a former solicitor who has also come out of prison, and it is apparent that actually the solicitor's position is worse than his own. Not only professionally, because the solicitor can never return to his work but it is also made excruciatingly plain by the solicitor commenting that Marker's room is better than his and various other comments in that vein. He is forced to encounter the result for a solicitor fallen  from grace, at first hand, rather than merely wallowing in his own anger and misery about the results for him.

There is also a progression in Marker's human condition throughout the episode. He begins it pointedly in prison uniform and therefore one of many in the same position in the prison. Nonetheless he manages to be the odd one out even there. He ends the episode in a much better position, as one who has made his own decisions and determined his own future. He has been screwed by the system and has the anger which goes with that, but he ends the episode relatively free from that and with his self-respect intact. The fact that he lives by himself is a complete mystery to the many men who see him in this episode, but by living by himself and for himself he attains a level of safety and self-determination which cannot be matched by other people in this episode.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Acorn Antiques

I have written about a number of funny programmes here, following my usual policy that since this is a blog it will be about what I am watching and also will not include programmes which I do not like. Obviously Acorn Antiques makes it onto here because it is a programme I like very much, although I am finding it very difficult to write about it because of the complex nature of the programme and also my reaction to it.
For a start, Acorn Antiques was never intended to be a show in its own right, although you can now get it in its entirety on a DVD. It was intended to be a segment in the show Victoria Wood as Seen on TV. I see that this ran from 1985 to 1987 and I remember it with great fondness. The wonderful Wood also unfortunately died of cancer earlier this year, which gives an extra sadness to the fact that I have found Victoria Wood as Seen on TV very difficult to watch at this length of time. I found that it had not worn well over the years. This is not however truse of Acorn Antiques, strangely.
Victoria Wood as Seen on TV was definitely intended to be funny, and of course I referred to funny TV in the first part of this piece, and true enough Acorn Antiques makes me laugh out loud. However there is another element to it which is of particular interest to the cult TV fan. I see that Wikipedia categorises Acorn Antiques as a parodic soap opera, of which there can't be that many about.
Acorn Antiques is a deliberate parody and comment on some of the most famous British TV shows of all time. The obvious contender is the wonderful Crossroads, broadcast originally from 1964 to 1988, and made at the recently-demolished Broad Street studios up the road from here. This is the reason for Mrs Overall's exaggerated Birmingham accent. It is also the reason for the parodic poor production values, since Crossroads was notorious at the time for wobbly sets and so on. Crossroads was immensely popular at the time, and its lengthy run and complicated relations between the characters are referenced repeatedly in Acorn Antiques.
Reference was also made to the radio series Waggoner's Walk, which I am afraid I had not heard of until I started reading around for this post. Contemporary TV soaps such as Eastenders were also parodied. In a very post-modern way, Acorn Antiques is in a sense the formula of every soap opera ever written. In Acorn Antiques, the medium truly satirises itself and becomes truly reflexive. All of the devices used by popular long-running TV shows are used, such as tours of costumes, a release of a record, and a behind the scenes documentary.
The wobbly credits don't detract from the fact that Acorn Antiques is actually played by some of the cream of TV comedy. Julie Walters (incidentally I see that she was born in Edgbaston so that would explain why her Brummie accent is so good) has of course had many 'straight' roles, but performs wonderfully in the uncharacteristic role of Mrs Overall. I have a bit of a thing for Celia Imrie, and her rather superior mein suits the character of Babs down to the ground. I am surprised to rea, though, that she was treated for anorexia nervosa at the age of fourteen by the contemporary treatments of ECT and Largactil, and the doctor concerned still features in her nightmares.
At this stage of a post like this I would normally comment on the production values and reproduction of the show. Acorn Antiques of course has terrible production values, and that is the whole point. The camera angles are all wrong. Cues are missed. The edges of sets are visible. What can I say... As usual none of these things is a criticism!
I would recommend Acorn Antiques as viewing to any of the readers of this blog. And if you happen to be from Abroad, it will acquaint you with some of the televisual treats you luckily missed in the 1970s and 1980s by parodying them.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

No Hiding Place

Legend. Tthat is the only word for this series. It is the stuff of which cult TV legend is made. A phenomenally popular series in the 1950s and 1960s, and for the most part wiped by its makers Associated Rediffusion. It is right up there with the one remaining episode of Police Surgeon, the first series of The Avengers, and I gather that there are enthusiasts out there who have made it their life's work to locate more episodes. I gather there are people on the internet selling the available episodes on DVD but there are also episodes available to be watched and/or downloaded in all the usual places in cyberspace, so there isn't really that much  need to pay for a DVD.
Personally I have downloaded the five available episodes on and watched them in an order which is probably out of synch with the order they were broadcast. I'm not sure that really matters, since it seems they are far divorced in original running order, and so there isn't any continuity in arc development to be had.
The experience has been a rather disorientating one because I am watching one of the all time great TV series with *no* idea of who is who, their character development, or what has happened in the series before I have wandered in. I am also particularly wary of generalisations about TV of the time based on the limited selection I have seen of the limited selection which remains, but I am very interested that crime was apparently of such interest to the public at the time. I am basing this purely on the fact that this show was so popular, and that another of the legendary TV series, Dixon of Dock Green, was of course also about crime.
I have a feeling that there may have been something in the air at the time which made this so. Again I may be leaping to conclusions, but I wonder whether the seismic shifts in society which took place in the 1960s may have been responsible for that, by setting up an apposition between the safe established world which went before and the demi-mondaine world of the young, with their free love and loud clothes. Parallel to this is of course the attitude to progress of the time, which made it fine to sweep away the past and power on into the future. I wonder how these two opposing movements of the time could ever be kept in a safe relationship and whether the disjoint between fear of revolution and the yearning for the brave future would cause a yearning for the relatively safe world of the police procedural?
Again I am risking generalisations based on very little evidence, but No Hiding Place is worlds away from the world of policing depicted in The Sweeney, only a decade later than its later episodes. No Hiding Place is, after all dealing with the same age as The Avengers, which very often deals with the theme of the solid establishment figure (or institution) who goes off the rails and goes to the bad. I think that if you put that theme  together with the solid world of the police procedural, and then add social unrest and the revelations of police corruption from the 1970s onwards, you end up with the world of The Sweeney.
With the benefit of this hindsight, it is apparent that No Hiding Place is dealing with a world which was about to vanish, and even with this knowledge, it is a more cosy and secure world than the one we have lived in since. One of the things I like best about old TV is the way it shows the lives and artifacts of the past, and this distance is very apparent in No Hiding Place. Evening dress, for example. I'm obviously mixing with the wrong sort of person, but I have never worn evening dress in my life. In fact when I look at the clothing in No Hiding Place it is apparent that it is real quality made to last, not the rubbish we have nowadays, which is literally designed to fall apart after being worn a few times.
Naturally the show's writing and production are completely of their time. The pacing of the stories is very interesting, in that it seems to alternate straightforward procedural with some scenes of 'human interest', and alternates the pace slightly. At no point is the pace the sort of snail's pace you find in some 1970s shows, it is always rather faster! This is a show which would require attention, though, and suggests that the viewer is intended to watch along and think about what is happening. The show is almost completely studio-based, of course. The shows I have downloaded are not terribly good quality, but they are fifty years old and in an unrestored state, and apart from anything else were free, so this is a comment and not a criticism.
I looked up this show because of a number of pre-sixties shows I have seen remaining episodes of lately, thinking that it was earlier than it was. No Hiding Place certainly represents an earlier age of television than most of the sixties shows I have written about here, and I would have to characterise it as a solid but not stodgy stalwart of the television of the time. If you like old TV and have not seen No Hiding Place, I would certainly suggest you look it up and have a watch.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Spitting Image

The rest of the classic TV blogosphere is gearing up for Christmas, so in true form, I am going to write about Spitting Image. In fact I can't think how I have never written about it here before, but I am watching my way through all the series of Spitting Image, now that I am feeling the need to give Are You Being Served a rest. Oh - perhaps I had better mention that the paucity of posts here has been because my new job is taking up quite a lot of my energy, but I am glad I jumped ship and should have done so years ago.
My perception is that this most cult of all cult TV shows has been rather ignored by we who write about these things on the internet. This is surprising, because it was prominent throughout its run from 1984 to 1996. Even I, never a political animal, tuned in regualrly and enjoyed its ridicule of the great and the good who run this country, and in fact the world. Perhaps it has rather been ignored because it was so much of its time, and it naturally loses much of its humour if you don't remember the characters and events it satirises.
That said, some of the figures are so well-known that Spitting Image has matured to provide a particular historical take on the news stories of the time. I suppose the classic example of that is the show's treatment of the royal family. I love the way the Queen Mother walks with a Birmingham accent. Incidentally, on the subject of Birmingham, the show was initially made at the Central TV studios here in the Second City. In case any non-Birmingham readers wonder why Brummies are so keen on calling their city the Second one, is not because we want to be Second, but it is because Manchester thinks it is the Second City of England. They are of course wrong, and the point is actually that every time we say it, we are also saying that Manchester is not the Second City. So there.
Spitting Image was actually an incredibly brave programme at the time. Literally nothing was safe from its parody. I remember an illustration of Prince Andrew in the spin-off book of the series, which showed him in the nude with a sausage covering his notional genitals. The Queen was not impressed and sought legal advice. Luck and Flaw, the company responsible for Spitting Image, made it clear that they would happily turn up to court with the puppet and the sausage and heard no more. As I am writing this I am watching an episode from the ninth series which shows the Queen rapping!
Mrs Thatcher was of course a natural target for Spitting Image. She is portrayed variously as a school marm, a dangerous lunatic in a strait jacket, and a butcher. Of course none of these portrayals would be slanderous, since they were simple depictions of Mrs Thatcher as she was.

One thing which does cast a shadow over the show at this length of time is that some of the hints Spitting Image gives that people in public life weren't right, have been proved right beyond most people's wildest dreams. Of course Spitting Image was an ITV production, but as we now know, the BBC at the time was a cess pit of corruption and paedophilia. The irony of this is shown in Spitting Image's portrayal of Jimmy Savile. In the light of the subsequent revelations about his prolific paedophilia, Spitting Image's portrayal of him as a danger to others who should be locked up, becomes frankly chilling. The way he talks about 'my friend Mr Cigar' makes me laugh out loud to this day. Lucky he never replied to my letter asking him to fix it for me, isn't it?
I would be very interested to hear from non-UK readers who have seen the show, what they make of it, because I think that the problem for Spitting Image in retaining a presence in the cult TV blogosphere, is that if you are not British and do not remember the events parodied, the show's impact on you would naturally be much different. That said, I would recommend this show to, well, anyone, really. My favourite parts are the sketches about apartheid South Africa, especially the one where PW Botha turns black overnight and rushes off to his independent homeland!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Redcap: First Impressions

A fortnight into my new job, which is much better than my last one, I have got enough energy to think about a blog post. I have repeatedly put off buying this series although it comes up regularly as a recommendation for me on Amazon, largely based on the reminiscences of army life often found in online reviews. My own interest in cult TV was first raised by the repeats of The Avengers screened in the early days of the UK's Channel Four and can only approach the shows I write about here with any reminiscence once we hit the 1970s. I do not find reminiscence for national service or the glorification of armed service sympathetic and can tend to be put off by the attitudes it engenders.
Yet yesterday I found myself in the Entertainment Exchange Leamington Spa and read the blurb on the back of the box. I have a feeling there is somebody in Leamington with very good taste in television indeed, because that shop has introduced me to many a new TV series. I was surprised to find on the basis of the episode summaries that I was interested in this series and that the episodes gave the impression that they were more about detection and the sort of human problems which interest me, than about the army life which some of this show's fans so appreciate.
First things first. I was surprised to see that this show was originally broadcast in 1964. I think it may be my lack of attention to the small print but the show is in black and white, which of course isn't a problem for me, but I was fully expecting it to be in colour, on the basis of the stills on the box. Naturally the box says the show is in black and white and given that fact I suppose it isn't really naughty to put colour stills on the box, but nonetheless it came as a surprise. Each episode opens with the Cathy Gale-era- Avengers ABC jingle. In fact, this show is in sound terms surprisingly like the early Avengers, because it uses some of the same sound effects. As is the case with all of the ABC series of that era, the titles are vibrant and effective in a way which naturally looks old-fashioned now, but was probably high-quality graphic design at the time.
I suspect another reason I've put off buying this series is that it stars John Thaw, and everyone knows that I don't like actors re-appearing over and over in shows. 'Did you watch that thing with Benedict Cumberbatch last night,' people say, and of course the answer is no because Benedict Cumberbatch is always Benedict Cumberbatch. I am relieved to find though that John Thaw isn't that unwelcome to me in this show. I suppose this was made before he became a National Institution and Much Loved Figure, plus of course he younger and playing a younger character, but he comes across rather differently in this show. His presence and energy are different, it is not just a matter of him playing a different role from the rather acerbic senior roles he became known for. Perhaps it is genuinely that he hadn't matured into his later acting persona, and so can seem quite different. His role here is not lacking in depth, though, and in particular there is an undercurrent of anger to his character which I find interesting: this is exactly the short of character I like, one who recognises when there is something wrong and won't shut up about it.
In addition to Thaw, this show has a cast of differing guest stars each episode, which can only be described as star-studded, although probably the Names only became well-known afterwards. The Names would include Tenniel Evans, Yootha Joyce, Leonard Rossiter, Ian McShane, Mike Pratt, Warren Mitchell, Hywel Bennett, and Colin Blakely. Since at the point of writing this I am just nearing the end of the first disc of four, this list of stars has had the unusual effect on me of making me want to see the roles that these actors play in their respective episodes, since they are sure to be very different roles from those they are best-known for.
There is also a broad spectrum of 'issues' dealt with by the various episodes, including rape, colonialism and racism, black market trading, and the ongoing effects of Britain's relationship with Germany in the Second World War. Naturally all of these are within the context of the army, but personally I don't find that distracting from the actual subjects under investigation. This is far more a human interest show than one about army life, and so I am finding that I take to it.
As usual at the time, the episodes, at least the ones I have seen so far, are almost completely studio-based. Naturally coming from me that is not a criticism. The episodes take the form of three 'acts', familiar from The Avengers. I see that the producer was John Bryce, who unbeknown to me was a producer on The Avengers until he got the push. I feel the episodes have probably had extensive restoration: except when you pause it the picture is as crisp as it is ever going to get in TV of this age. It would be churlish to be over-critical of the odd patch where the sound is a little noisy. Perfectionists should avoid fifty-year-old television.
All in all, Redcap is a series which I am looking forward to delving in to further, and I may even splash out for series 2.