Monday, 17 October 2016

French and Saunders Parody the New Avengers

The Avengers: Mister Jerico

Today a post about one of two films I have been meaning toblog about here which are related to The Avengers in one way or another; the other one is Q Planes, which is thought to be a possible inspiration for the character of Steed, and I wil blog about it at some point, although I have never managed to watch it all the way through yet! I make no bones about tagging Mister Jerico with 'The Avengers'. Mister Jerico I believe was intended to be the pilot for another series starring Patrick Macnee. Just reading the box, the names are so familiar: written by Philip Levene, original music by Laurie Johnson, produced by Julian Wintle... This, kids, is what the team behind The Avengers went on to do before they went even further on to the New Avengers.
And in fact the film is so very much like The Avengers in some ways. The font used for the titles was also used for The Avengers titles. It has Patrick Macnee in it, playing the sort of ambivalent figure he played in the earlier series of The Avengers before he became the grand old man of series 6. The trouble is that he talks as if he is Steed. Macnee's character sounds so like Steed, that if you close your eyes you can see Steed in front of you. In fact the sound track uses so many of the sound effects used in The Avengers that this film is in audio terms an extension of series 6 of The Avengers.
I was going to write that I felt this film was partly influenced by the James Bond series of films, and in fact it may well have been. However I have recently been rewatching the series of Pink Panther films and feel that they may well have been more influential. Certainly the obsession with the diamond in this film is more in line with the original Pink Panther film of 1963 than the larger concerns of James Bond. The fact that this film co-stars Herbert Lom was what made me think of the connection, although of course the characters in this film are quite different. Nonetheless, to my mind there is something of the atmosphere of the Pink Panther films rather than that of the James Bond films.
This morning I watched Live and Let Die, and was disappointed that what I inaccurately remembered as a mysterious film about voodoo and tarot cards was actually a James Bond film! I bring this up merely to make another comparison with Mr Jerico. While the clothes in Live and Let Die are obviously of their period (flairs feature highly and the many black characters are played more as caricatures) Live and Let Die does not seem as dated as Mr Jerico. The clothes in Mr Jerico are so very much of their time that they really hit you in the face and cannot be ignored. This is one of the problems with this film for me, that Patrick Macnee doesn't act that much differently to John Steed, but is so obviously not John Steed that it just seems wrong. This is of course an entirely personal viewpoint of this. I have no doubt that some people would like to see the frilly shirts and synthetic fibres of the time on his character. In addition, while I commented above that Macnee plays an ambivalent figure similar to his early Steed, in fact I think the ambivalence is that he is likeable. In reality he is a rogue, pure and unalloyed.
Production values are also more like the Pink Panther films than the Bond films. Definitely a smaller budget, so no wholesale destruction of luxury cars and what have you. Pacing is series 6-era Avengers. This film would be incredibly likeable if it didn't have so many overtones for a dyed in the wool Avengers fan like me! Perhaps it is best seen as a supporting feature - I see that it was originally billed as the supporting feature to Carry on up the Jungle, which dates it to a T. I certainly wouldn't tell anyone not to watch this film, I would just advise you not to be surprised when the conflicting emotions well up.
The final question which this film raises for me personally is whether the Avengers formula would have have been better going in a Mister Jerico direction or a New Avengers direction. My preference would have to be for a New Avengers direction, having never had any of the dislike for that series that some Avengers fans have. That said, I like to approach the New Avengers as if I am watching any 1970s series (The Professionals, say), so perhaps I had better approach Mr Jerico as if it is a Pink Panther film!

Seventies TV: Steptoe and Son the Film

Back to the 1970s today, and while I will grant you that Steptoe and Son was a series which spanned the 1960s and 1970s, I am mainly interested in the first of the two spin off films here, which is also called Steptoe and Son, and as so often on this blog, not really for a very obvious reason, but we will come to that.
I had better begin by making a disclosure that I have never really taken to Steptoe and Son. If I'm frank it is because Steptoe senior is way too much like my own mother; unfortunately for this reason I can never find entertaining his continual manoeuvring to keep his son under his thumb. It is far too near the bone, and in this film he actually does something which my own mother would do, namely pretend to be ill to get his own way, having prevailed on his own son to take him on honeymoon! Personal concerns apart, the subject of this film is really a domineering father who will not let his son, who is nearly forty, grow up or get away from him.
There is a wildly Fruedian irony that while the father isn't above going to see the stripper himself and actually leers over her, it is actually the drag queen he falls for! I love that the underlying sexuality of this is actually so conflicted and while Steptoe senior has obviously at some point been married to Mrs Steptoe, it is actually a man he falls for, and he doesn't like it when his son marries the stripper, who is at least very obviously a woman!
What made me watch the film was that the drag queen is played by Patrick Fyffe, billed as Perri St Claire, who with George Logan was part of the drag act Hinge and Bracket, whom I have always loved and can't believe I have never blogged about here. Fyffe started his work life as a hairdresser and appeared in the local amateur theatricals before making the move to rep. I feel that this film actually shows Fyffe's worth as an actor, since the role is quite different from Dame Hilda Bracket. 'Arthur' is a much more obviously gay character than Dame Hilda, and to me this is apparent from his very first appearance (in drag but speaking as a man) when Steptoe senior falls for him, which underlines the irony of this and the underlying sexual ambivalence.
The plot of the film is predictable. I mean, we know from the initial lines with father and son bickering about the failed marriage that there is no way son is ever going to get away from father. Nonetheless this film does have a charm, and I find the charm in a series of little tableaux. I love that when Steptoe is bathing in the sink there is a box of Omo on the draining board (which it is still sold in some parts of the world Omo is a long-defunct brand here). I love the touch of Son going to Arthur's flat to see if he has any rags. I love the scenes in clubs of strippers and brawling. I love that Zita has the baby hidden away in the dressing room while she is performing. This film is not without charm, although I was mainly interested in seeing it for one character only!
Reading the other reviews on the internet, it seems that this film is a firm favourite with the fans of the show. It is also a firm favourite with the fans of Hinge and Bracket. Just be careful watching it if you have a clingy parent!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Colonel March of Scotland Yard/Colonel March Investigates

In a recent post about Knight Errant, I passed out of my usual time frame, i.e. beyond the beginning of the 1960s. In recent weeks I have also passed beyond my most recent date, previously the 1990s, when I posted about The Game. This has caused me to reflect on what TV was like before television executives began smoking copious amounts of weed in the 1960s and came up with the weird shows I post about here. I think probably Knight Errant was an atypical example, since it definitely has Avengers overtones. I'm not sure whether this is accurate but I have a mental picture of a snobbish division between the worthy broadcasting of the BBC and the more ephemeral broadcasting of the independent channels - in fact exactly the sort of programmes I blog about here. I'm sure the BBC's output required close attention and could not be reduced to background, although I suspect the picture in my mind's eye of people in evening dress (both viewers and broadcasters) is much further back in time!
I am ashamed to announce that up until last week I had never even heard of Colonel March of Scotland Yard, and only discovered him as a recommendation for my viewing by Amazon. It was a TV programme broadcast in 1955 - 6, of which a number of episodes are available to view or download on various sites on t'internet. You can buy DVDs of some episodes. I am unable to comment on the legal or licensing status of these DVDs. Since reviews are wildly mixed, I am also unable to comment on the quality of these DVDs. Certainly the episodes I have downloaded so far are rather low quality, but I would consider it churlish to complain about that because they are free. Obviously everyone reading this will have access to a computer at some point, and presumably could burn the episodes to a DVD if it was so wished.
Before I viewed the remaining episodes which I have downloaded I did actually buy a DVD of a film called Colonel March Investigates, and here we are in slightly different territory. The only thing I would say about that film is that (in Man From UNCLE films style) it is actually three episodes of the TV programme stitched together. I personally don't have any difficulty with that, but if you are expecting a single protracted plot for the whole hour, obviously you are going to be disappointed. I think it well worth buying this DVD because while obviously being sixty years old, the quality is much better than the episodes I have downloaded off t'internet.
I think it important to remember (especially given that I have watched the film three times on the trot this morning while thinking over what to say in this post) that that cinema release of the TV show would have been the only time people would have seen a repeat of the TV show at the time. Since TV sets were very much rarer, it would also have been the only time a lot more people ever saw this show at all. These facts combined with the approach to television as if it was theatre (each broadcast was a one-off 'performance' which would never be repeated) right up until the 1970s conbine to make 1950s TV very much different from now. You see I have managed to get back to the point I started off making. Whether on TV or at the cinema, people would have had to view these shows as if they were a theatre performance - you would have to turn up when the performance was on and if you didn't you would miss it, and probably never get the chance to see it again. The only pity is that I doubt there was time for a gin in the interval. There is a very real sense in which earlier TV was a much more demanding medium than in todays world of replaying and continual repeats.
These reflections on the differences in the medium are  rather by the way in the case of Colonel March. Regular readers will be well acquainted with my dislike of familiar actors who reappear in so many things, to the extent that you notice the actor not the character. In this case there are two actors who are shown in such unusal roles that one at least of them is almost unrecognisable. I am talking of course about Boris Karloff, who plays the kindly detective of the Department of Queer Complaints, in a much different vein from most of his more familiar horror roles. He confirms my opinion that the really great actors do not allow their own personalities to intrude on their roles: it is easy to forget that this is the great Boris Karloff. There is also a very uncharacteristic role for Richard Wattis as a villain rather than the establishment figures he is better known for. His urbane nature and the simple fact that he comes across as the sort of reliable figure who should be respectable, makes him excellent in this role, because of course you don't expect him to be the villain!
The episodes are based on short stories by John Dixon Carr, one of the 'Golden Age' detective writers who was renowned for his 'locked room' mysteries. They are therefore not written by a hack by any manner of means. My only criticism, and it is a completely personal one, is that I feel that while a short story is in itself a sort of 'locked room' in which to consider a mystery, the ones chosen here were perhaps not rich enough to be turned into whole TV shows. This is a completely personal view, and I wouldn't go to the stake for it by any manner of means: my personal opinion is that these shows are better watched for the atmosphere and the personality of Colonel March. 
Production values are more cinematic than televisual, which may be why the three episodes made into a film work so well. That said, I can certainly name TV shows made twenty years later which have much less developed production values than these shows. I particularly like that Colonel March periodically breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the viewer, which reinforces a sense of involvement.  I haven't really watched enough episodes to come to a conclusion about the sort of world and underlying asuumptions references in this TV show, so I will probably come back to it in another post.
Colonel March is a show which has made me think further on what 1950s TV would have been like. I like the atmosphere of this show very much, and in fact it has made me wonder whether I like all of the shows I do because of their atmosphere (The sixth-series Avengers episode called Fog being a prime example)! This show breaks through some of my assumptions about returning actors, and also provides surprising roles for some well-known actors of the time. I consider it a little-known gem. If you want to buy DVDs I can recommend the SimplyMedia release of Colonel March Investigates, but as I say I cannot speak for the quality of the DVD releases of the single TV episodes, which are anyway available for free download on the internet.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Lost Episode Tunnel of Fear Recovered!!!

I'm wrong. I'm wrong wrong wrong wrong.
Never has it given me so much pleasure to say these words. After my confidently stating that no more Avengers Series 1 episodes would be found, behold Tunnel of Fear has turned up. You can read about it and other recovered shows at
I don't need to tell readers how delighted I am and it is one of the episodes I have always wanted to see. My only sorrow is that the first screening next month is sold out!
Image credit:

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Toy Trap

There is something disheartening about watching old TV, in that it reinforces that human nature does not really change, and that the ambivalence about progress which I write about so often here, is a wise way to approach the treatment we humans mete out to each other. This series 1 Avengers episode is incredibly topical - for me at least - since recently in my city three brothels were busted in three separate operations on three successive days. The police were supposed to have reason to believe they were brothels. Well with the best will in the world, apart from the tea rooms in Sutton Coldfield, I knew all along that the other two were brothels and fail to see how they could have been anything else. I also used to live round the corner from the notorious Cuddles, where a major legal concern was that the girls were foreign nationals who had their passports taken off them. Even without that danger, the takings at the other brothels were phenomenal - in the millions - and it is very plain that sex remains a roaring trade from which staggering amounts of money are to be made.
All that is merely a preamble to saying that this Avengers is a series one episode where Steed and Keel enter into the shadowy world of prostitution and break a vice ring. They come literally to blows at the end of the episode over their differing ethical approaches and the tactics used by Steed. I find it particularly interesting that a department store and hostel are used as fronts for the vice ring. Again there is nothing different there: last year when a snooker club in Digbeth was closed down for  violations including drug dealing, blocked fire exits, and allowing rooms to be used for underage sex, personally I wasn't at all surprised since I had walked past it in the evening and decided it had dodgy written all over it. The difference is that I personally can't think of a single snooker club locally which doesn't look iffy, but this Avengers uses an apparently more respectable front to cover up the vice ring.
No doubt the sleazy milieu of this and other series 1 Avengers episodes was intended to be shocking to many viewers of the time, just as the revelations that the world's oldest trade continues to be plied among us are still shocking to some. This episode is poised on a very interesting ethical knife edge: our heroes the Avengers have to enter the sleazy world to avenge the injustices committed against the girls in the sex trade, and of course Steed as usual does the sleazy old man act to perfection. On the other hand, there is another aspect of the world of the 1960s underlying the sleaze of this episode. In reality it would have been difficult to attain anything like the life style we see on the television programmes I write about here. Of the three girls we see at the opening of this episode, the only one who can afford her own place is the one who is working as a prostitute and who as a result is covered in bruises. The other two girls have to make do with living in a hostel, which of course is the front for the vice ring. The irony here is that the entry into the vice ring is what allows the girls' lifestyle even to get close to that of Steed and Keel, and yet they are rescued from sex work by Steed and Keel, which ironically would doom them to a life of poorly-paid shop work and presumably reliance on marriage to improve their lot.
There is the ethical matter between Steed and Keel to provide most of the interest through the last two acts of this Avengers. This is something into which Keel's standing as a physician is brought to play: and which is expertly subverted by having Steed pretending to be a doctor as a 'door-opener' and having Keel disapproving of this. Steed's interest is the bigger one of preventing the whole vice network, operated from the Continent, from working at all, and thus saving many girls from their claws. Keel gets drawn into personal concern for one of the girls, who Steed wants to use as a trap for the big boys of the vice ring. This reinforces the interaction between Steed and Keel which pertains throughout this season: Keel is driven by personal motives, and while Steed is portrayed as a rather sinister figure, it is very plain that he really has higher motives in mind.
With my usual proviso that these old TV shows don't stand up very well to the sort of grilling I give them on this blog, since they were intended to be seen once with no pausing, I would have to say that I actually find this episode rather unsatisfying. I think it would be best seen once only, and not be someone as jaundiced and world-weary as me! The shock factor of the look into the sleazy world of Soho granted by this episode was clearly intended to carry it through the ethical dilemma of the second two acts, and as such it works very well. It has a plot weakness in that the vice ring can only possibly be operated from a setting introduced in the first act and so it can only really be from the department store or from the hostel. It is interesting as developing the relationship between Steed and Keel.
My conclusion on this Avengers series 1 episode is that I would still love it to be discovered so that I could see it. I feel that I am probably too jaundiced and world-weary to be shocked by its revelations of sleaziness, but that is just me. I would particularly like to see it as a elaboration of the poverty trap suffered by so many young people, and to see how it explores that in a 1960s context.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Avengers: The House that Jack Built

Another day of non-stop rain here in Blighty, so I'm going to get my head down to a fairly analytical post on an Avengers episode I have always found difficult. To be frank, and to get the criticism out of the way at the beginning, the big downfall of this episode is that the sequences of Mrs Peel running through the house are way too repetitious, and rather mar what proves to be a seminal episode when considered in a more analytical way. That said, I was unsurprised to find my one big criticism echoed elsewhere on the internet, but was very surprised to discover that this episode has been sold for years in bootleg editions by S and M studios. No, I don't get it either, but this discovery was one of the things that have reinforced for me how differently a show can be understood.
There is a very real sense in which the key concern of this episode is one of the major ones of so much 1960s TV: the fear of the machine, and in fact the absorption of Mrs Peel into the machine is the highest embodiment of this fear. Mrs Peel's opposition to automation to the utmost degree, is here placed in contrast with the former Professor Keller's plan to use the machine to absorb her and ultimately kill her.
This direct confrontation between the worlds of humanity and automation is emphasised in true Avengers fashion by the use of the visual language used throughout the last three series of The Avengers and so I intend to go through the show and examine the meaning of what we see in detail.
The episode begins with an image and sound suggestive of conflict, with an alarm which would have indicated an air raid to anyone aged over about twenty-five-ish at the time this episode was made. The chase and dogs already indicate that somebody or something is being hunted, and the uniform of the pursuer indicates that the man who is being hunted is a fugitive from justice, the system, or at any rate some authority figure. This is not the world of secret espionage here. The hounds used in the chase are suggestive of fox hunting, particularly as the land the chase goes through is countryside. As usual The Avengers places the situation visually in the Avengersland world of England, a world it is about to turn on its head by the simple insertion of a diabolical mastermind.
The pursued man manages to escape his pursuers with a gun and cartridges, symbolic of taking their authority and power with him. I think the clothes he is wearing are intended to be prison clothes, indicating that the kindly state has already punished him for some infringement of the law, and placing him firmly in the camp of the baddie from the start. It is ironic that his escape from his captors is achieved by climbing over a high wall, indicative of enclosure again, into a country house, where the stone lions which 'guard' the entrance and the taxidermy owls and mounted butterflies in the room he breaks into, are in stark contrast to the live lion which attacks him. Thevisual language of the country house indicates the reliability of Our Sort of Person, the animals indicate the traditional pursuit of hunting, fishing and shooting, which is yet placed in contrast with the prison warders' pursuit of the man, and the dust on the chair indicates neglect and abandonment. This episode therefore starts by setting the episode in the sort of solid world the eccentrics of Avengersland inhabit, and yet confusing the world completely.
Another immediate contrast is provided by Mrs Peel's entry into the comparative safety of Steed's flat. The idea of technology is introduced at once by the fact that Steed is developing holiday pictures in an improvised dark room. Perhaps it is superfluous to comment at this point that there is a further irony that these technology-based 1960s shows don't wear that well because the technology of the time looks incredibly dated and cumbersome to us now. Only the aficionados of film would go to all that trouble for their holiday pictures nowadays, and the big drawback of the house is that well before its projected millenium-long lifespan, it would have needed to be rewired. Anyone living in a house with the rubber-insulated wiring of the time could tell you that it would have burned down well before a thousand years was up! I have also read that for Mrs Peel's key to do what it does, it would have had to be radioactive, but I'm no great scientist myself.
Concerned at the imprint of the key on his photographic paper, Steed rings the solicitor, and of course visually the view of the elderly man in the panelled room, melting sealing was with a candle, speels the quintessence of secure, solid tradition. Of course the scenery Mrs Peel drives through to get to the house is classic Avengersland, which in the visual language of the show is intended to make a similar impression to that made by the solicitor. An eccentric aspect is introduced by the grown man dressed as a boy scout. I think at the time this would have indicated something different to the dodgy sexual connotation that it would tend to have today. At any rate, we don't know that he is Steed's man at this point, but the scout uniform suggests a kindly authority figure, albeit one to whom Mrs Peel takes an instant dislike. That he is on Mrs Peel's side is very well hidden by his behaviour in the car: his expression and behaviour indicate a completely ambivalent figure.
The fact that the place signs change as Mrs Peel drives past are a major visual indicator that the real subject of this episode is technology, rather than a mere confrontation between the establishment and a diabolical mastermind. Instead of the impression of neglect given by the house to the excaped convict, because Mrs Peel has the key she is granted admission to the 'reception' areas of the house, giving a far grander impression. Again, the visual impression is one of rather dated opulence, possibly old money (as old as the nineteenth century, anyway).
From here on, the whole visual point is that we have been set up to expect the gentility of an old family, and just as in so many other episodes where the gentry have deteriorated so far as to go over to the other side, in this one the house is itself the genteel setting for the hatred and corruption of Dr Kelling's obsession with technology and hatred for Mrs Peel. Around fifteen minutes in, Mrs Peel leaves the genteel world of old England and enters the machine, to be trapped for most of the rest of the episode.
Steed is the only person concerned for her in the outside world, and the fact that he remains outside of the machine in Avengersland, turns on its head the setting of pursuit that we saw at the beginning of the episode. The outside world can be jailor is you are a criminal, but it can also be the saviour if you are trapped in the machine. There is also an irony that the prisoner would have been safer to stay outside and give himself up to his pursuers, since his entry to the machine ultimately causes his death.
There are just a few things about the house and Mrs Peel's working out of its secret. It is the fact that she keeps one foot in the outside world of reality which enables her to work out the machine's secret. Personally I find this a weakness in this one, in contrast say, to Joker, where I think no real clue is given at all. Once Mrs Peel has worked out, about half way through, that the illusion is worked by machinery, the cast is out of the bag once and for all. Of course we see the contrast of Steed breaking through the literal barriers set up for him by the machine, in stark contrast to the welcome given by the machine to Mrs Peel. I also don't find the real control room very satisfying, since it is necessary that Mrs Peel discovers it relatively easily, rather than just sitting down and going off her head. The putative control box thingy in the psychedelic trap scene is much more effective and is echoed later in the decade by the effect of the lava lamp in The Prisoner. That would have spoken much better to the fear of technology of the time: as I find myself commenting here repeatedly, the more 'intelligent' computers get, we lose our fear of them because we know that they can't actually keep up with us. The final point of this episode is of course that Professor Keller has quite literally given Mrs Peel the 'key' to destroy his machine, albeit with the lucky chance of the convict intruding into the machine.
On the whole, it feels terribly mean to be criticising this Avengers for any visual effects, when on the whole it is superb. I find it interesting that the actual colours of the set were blue and gold, presumably to look better in black and white, because the appearance of Mrs Peel and the set is superb. Hand-held camera angles are used extensively to indicate confusion. Apart from my one criticism (although objectively it doesn't take up as much of the episode as I would have thought) that too much time is spent with Mrs Peel running through the mechanical maze, the episode moves at exactly the right pace to maintain the suspense perfectly.
Mrs Peel returns to the secure world of Blighty and cycles off with Steed into the scenery of Avengersland. My conclusion on this Avengers episode is that while it has tended to be one that I have let play in the background, it benefits greatly from more attentive viewing.
Image source: Production still from the Optimum DVD box set.