Friday, 10 November 2017
The second thing is that I prepared for this blog post by *listening* to the episode rather than watching it, and what I listened to was the version produced by Springbok Radio in South Africa in the 1970s. I have all the remaining episodes of that show which I downloaded from the website about it and they are jealously backed up on two laptops, my google drive and a CD-Rom: they're not getting away from me anytime soon. I have previously commented here that the website devoted to the South African radio Avengers series no longer seems to allow the shows to be downloaded. I am pleased to announce that the shows (I'm not sure whether by the agency of somebody else) now seem to be on youtube, and the first episode of the Saffer version of this one can be found here.
Back to the show. I love this one. It's one of my favourites. It's absolutely bonkers and if transported to the real world would be completely unconvincing. I love the music played in the opening scene of the man with a pram. It really completely disarms the viewer. At this length of time it is also completely of its age - the pram is huge and old-fashioned, the street of shops is far from the collection of chain stores the street would probably be now, I love the touch of a hole being dug in the street, and of course the red phone box makes the setting perfect. I love the comedic pacing of the man chasing the pram, and the scene is made perfect by the discovery that the pram contains (impossibly) the dead body of a grown man and the emphasis is on his tattoo.
Last night I was talking to a friend about the Avengers, and commented on Lily Savage's parody of the show, in which she comments that Steed is 'bevied' and she's too pissed to fight because they're always drinking champagne. I only mention this a propos of the number of empty beer cans Steed has to hand to shoot at in the next scene. As well as a full one for his lunch time refreshment. Certainly the amount of booze The Avengers get through is staggering by today's standards. Would a secret agent really have a can of beer (and mild at that) at lunch nowadays? WOuld they then? Probably - it seems the whole department was permanently sozzled.
I love the room in which Willie Fayre is being guarded or looked after. I think I recognise the fireplace from other Avengers episodes, but I love the implication that Willie is being kept in a grand old house where a room with such a grand fireplace can be turned into a bathroom. The room is truly *huge* and if that is the bathroom, you can get some small idea of what the other rooms must be like!
Of course if such a grand house is being used by the organisation it has fallen on hard times. And one of the themes of this episode is that very few things are what they seem, at least as far as standing goes. We have the dancing school, one of the traditional ways in which people would try to give themselves some polish. We have the suit hire firm, the way in which people who don't automatically have evening dress to hand in the wardrobe can look as if they are made to it. And finally we have the world of tattoos, which at this time would have been the province of sailors and the underclass generally. These settings provide the episode with an underlying theme of people (who are probably criminals) pretending or aspiring to higher standards than they were born to - witness Piedi's false accent. This is actually quite different to the true high society who usually populate the world of The Avengers.
What stops this being a social commentary is the strong streak of Avengers unrealism that runs through it. Piedi, for example. While many a man would probably have loved to play with Mrs Peel's feet in the 1960s, Piedi is so unreal that he is one of the type of characters we find in The Avengers, who if placed in the real world, would stand out like a sore thumb. In the world of The Avengers, he is just another eccentric with a passion for shoes. Mackidockie Street is another example. I googled its name just now and discovered that it actually comes up on Google as a suggestion, so many a viewer must have wondered whether it's real. Of course it isn't. And Mackidockie doesn't sound right to my mind anyway - it's a vaguely Scottish name invented for a location in Avengerland (it's reused in Escape in Time, of course). Incidentally, I don't often spot bloopers but there's something very wrong with the sequence in Mackidockie Street, which is that if you look closely as Steed enters the building, to the right of the wall the sign is fixed to is a window which reveals a row of men standing there. Presumably the real office workers in the building who wanted to see the TV show being made? Once again it is incredibly improbable that a modern office building would just have an open door on the ninth floor leading to nothing, but hey, the unreality is the point.
But the height of unreality is attained in the dancing school. I love the music which accompanies the scenes here. I love that the band consists of cardboard cut outs and an alcoholic. I love the absolutely hopeless people it takes on. I love Lucille and have suddenly conceived an ambition to learn ballroom dancing.
I have just a couple of criticisms of this episode. One is inherent in the plot, which is that when you give several characters the same wonderful name of Mr Peever, it's bound to get confusing. Another is that the extreme improbability of the plot frankly makes it rather implausible as a story. In fact it isn't so much plotted, as a series of characteristic Avengers situations loosely thrown together and tied together with a tattooist, a dancing school, a garlic sausage and a pram. You have to like the Avengers thing to like this episode, I think - at one point Mrs Peel is teaching dance steps completely different to the ones Lucille as told her to teach. Realism - or indeed any narrative coherence or plausibility - have been sacrificed here with a vengeance. Of course this isn't really a criticism, more a statement of fact.
Because as a series 4 episode of The Avengers, this one is superb. Pacing is superb, and attention is maintained. The scenes in the dancing school are perhaps rather drawn out, but the heaps of Avengers touches maintain interest. It has the whole Avengerland atmosphere in buckets. Just don't expect it to stand up to too much scrutiny as a spy story about a dance school as a cover for infiltrating foreign spies into the country. Definitely Stonking Good Television.
Thursday, 9 November 2017
My favourite scene in this Bottom episode is the card game with which it opens. It is obvious that this kind of card game has frequently been replayed in this house, and also that the cheating has been the same every game. I love that the deck has been reduced to twelse cards and that Eddie knows all of Richard's little cheats. He still trumps them by winning with five kings of course - and Richard fails to notice that Eddie is therefore also cheating!
Cheating is a sort of theme running through this episode and in fact through all three series of Bottom. We see how the gas appliances in the flat are all going at full whack and how Richard and Eddie have rigged the meter to show no use of gas at all. The plan looks as if it might be going wrong when the gas man comes to the door to read the meter. I love his reaction to Richard's hysterical shouting of 'Gas man! Gas man! Gas man!' - 'Do you have someone who looks after you?'!
Bottom is another of those shows which depend on a lot of visual gags for their effectiveness. There is a very real sense in which the acting is way overdone for comic effect. Take for example, Eddie creeping up on the gas man with a cricket bat and going to hit him, until he looks round. Like everything else in Bottom, the violence for which the series is well known is also overdone for effect, and that is why it is funny. This places Bottom in a great comedy tradition, of which pantomime and cartoons such as Tom and Jerry are also part, where terrible things happen to people, but because they are not real they are hilarious. It also draws on the tradition of Tony Hancock's eternally put-upon and failing through no fault of his own hero: Richard's explanation to the gas man of how they heat up the water for tea without using gas, is worthy of Hancock at his best.
The inventiveness is also worthy of Hancock, just with a surreal element the lad himself would never have thought of. They first think of getting rid of the dead gasman's body by eating it, then offering it to kebab shop, then throwing it out of the window onto the roof of a bus! Similarly the plan to break into Mr Rottweiler's house via a very creaky pipe is so clearly doomed it is bound to be hilarious. The next plan, of making a little hole in the wall and replacing the bricks so that he won't notice, is even more ridiculous. In true Hancock style, their plan is derailed by the distraction of a real woman naked, and the contents of a fridge that they won't have to pay for, in addition to the obvious disaster of a huge gas flame which can't be put out.
The boys are of course stealing their gas off Mr Rottweiler, the man next door, ably played by former wrestler Brian Glover. He is the embodiment of adult sexuality who is the counterpoint to Eddie and Richard's rather adolescent fantasising about sex. Who else would even consider finding out what snogging is really like by giving the kiss of life to a dead gas man? In this Bottom steals another comedy convention, of the protagonist's jealousy of another person's life and experience. The point is of course that we have all been there, but we can laugh at this because if we are still at the stage of wondering what sex is like we can pretend we are not, and if we know what sex is like we recognise Richard and Eddie's state in our outgrown youth and can laugh at how ridiculous we were. We can also be very happy that we don't have to resort to quite such ridiculous plans - in a cruel twist of fate, as Eddie and Richard try to escape Mr Rottweiler's house they walk straight into the gas man they have already killed once, who is ringing the door bell.
Bottom is a great show which draws on many of the classic comedy conventions and gives them a 1990s spin. It is probably also guaranteed to offend your maiden aunt, which can only be good.
Tuesday, 7 November 2017
I see this episode was originally broadcast on 24th December 1973, and I hope my post on this Goodies episode will count as a contribution to the Christmas viewing people will be writing about as the weeks go on, because when everyone else is writing about Christmas I know for a fact I won't feel like it!
It is strange but I have repeatedly watched all of the episodes of Danger Man (although not recently) and had no recollection of the amount of what we might call spy technology used in the show. Once again the ambivalent 1960s attitude to technology where it can both be our saviour and destroyer if it gets into the wrong hands. In this episode the spy technology used by Drake is a bug which he fires from an umbrella and which attaches itself to the lintel of a room opposite. This coupled with a typewriter as the other end of the communications device means equipment truly worthy of Get Smart!
Ultimately the theme of this episode is the individual human as the arbiter of what knowledge and technology are used for. Just one scientist is the holder of the secret which gives the episode its title and which could be used as a weapon, if it fell into the wrong hands...or even if he was subjected to enough pressure. Would it be right to control this individual human, and so prevent him popping across the channel and risk his secret falling into foreign hands? Or is it better that he retain his liberty and 'we' (obviously in television 'we' are always the goodies) run the risk that one scientist's knowledge could be used as a weapon, possibly against 'us'? The ethical question hidden behind this one is whether it would be better to restrict research into viri because the research could be used to make weapons, or better to facilitate the research because of its potential benefits. The solution to the quandary this show presents is the very 1960s TV one that there are a lot of very evil people in the world and while we must allow good people their freedom, including freedom to make mistakes, there must be secret agents to protect vulnerable scientists from preying foreigners. It's all very Avengers.
The episode is filmed in a way which is effective and carries the heavyweight ethical issues underlying it in a way which stops it being turgid. It is effective that so much of the episode takes place in a French holiday town, and there is a repeated scene of men playing cards in the lobby of the hotel. Of course this could be an image of the heavy layers of decision and chance which are playing out in the plot - if you want to get all symbolic about it, but it puts the viewer in a relaxed mindset, providing an effective background to Drake's problem. It is also an episode which doesn't put a foot wrong. Every scene is effective, every conversation contains tantalising hints of what is going on, you wouldn't doubt that it was actually filmed in France, so sure-footed is it. I particularly love the old Citroen DS cars.
Criticism...criticism... I'm afraid I don't seem to be able to think of any cogent criticisms of this episode! It's not often I can say that about a TV show, but I will here, and I think that is what puts this one in my coveted category of Stonking Good Television.
Sunday, 5 November 2017
Both are points which have great impact on this episode of Danger Man. Let's face it, if Judgement Day were to be remade nowadays it would look radically different, and the fact it is as convincing as it is, is a great testimony to the TV makers of the time. The opening scenes of the making of the bomb are completely studio-bound, and then stock footage is used for the externals of the airport, before returning to the studio for Drake's encounter with an 'official' who changes his travel plans abruptly. At the time this was the ordinary technology used in so many of these shows and in the restored boxed set I have, the seam between studio and stock footage is seamless.
Similarly the subject is very much of the time. I have a feeling that no TV espionage show would set something in the Middle East nowadays, without mentioning the endlessly sensitive subject of Islamisation. Rather there is a terrorist group here, but its interests are based on events in the regios of 70 years ago now. That isn't to say that the Arab world depicted here isn't a European stereotype of what Arabs are like - the country is carefully depicted as a nest of intrigue, instability and corruption! While Garriga is afterwards revealed to be Spanish, he must be a British subject or at least British sympathiser to be rushed out of the country because of being at such risk. Here it isn't apparent what the scientist is doing in Bir Azhad, but I love the touch that he is not in the room when the bomb explodes and even the cat escapes. (Phew!) There is a remarkable economy in this story - it just happens and there is no need felt to explain the reason for what is happening.
Further contemporary limits of communication are seen in the show. Drake has his phone line to London cut off by the weather - of course bad weather may still take down the internet or whatever, but nowadays he would go through several failing communication methods before being obliged to give up. It is so redolent of the 1960s espionage craze that of course his call is in code and he subsequently has to translate it using a key - I wonder whether they still do that? Once he and Garriga arrive at the hotel he wants a telegram sent and is quite happy to wait for the boy to come back to send it. Nowadays of course he would log onto the hotel's wifi and even in the back of beyond would probably find an internet cafe he could queue at. Naturally the telegram never actually goes.
There is another theme running through this Danger Man episode, which is the desert and life in the desert. The nature of this life is depicted in the isolation of the people, both from 'civilisation' by reason of the collapse of travel methods, and from each other by reason of cultural and linguistic barriers. The first thing Jessica Shore comments on is that after weeks in the desert she wants to hear English spoken again. The things that the desert does to people aren't really explicitly mentioned but the theme is always there - that the people are surrounded by something which isolates them and makes them vulnerable, while they are always surrounded by other people well used to the world of the desert. Even the mysterious Dr Garriga is emblematic of the mystery of the desert - he is alone, as it were an oasis of modern scientific learning in the middle of the desert.
I love the super-cool Drake depicted in this episode. He is positively Steed-like in his confrontation of the ridiculous difficulties put in his way. My absolutely favourite bit is where he demands to see the regulations which tell him he must take Jessica Shore in his flight, only to discover that they are in Arabic! He does, however, lack Steed's charm in his attempts to stop her flying with them - Drake makes it very apparent he doesn't want her but I think Steed would have been much more subtle. Steed may even have flirted with her until she didn't want to travel with the dirty old man! I also love the way that when it looks as if all is lost Drake still manages to look moody and smokes a small cigar while he enlists the pilot's aid.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this episode is that I have always lost my interest in the show at the same point, which I think marks a distinct turning point in the plot. It is the point at which the plane is forced to land, and as I write this I've just paused the show at 28 minutes and nine seconds in - just over halfway into the episode, and the point at which I have always tended to lose interest. The reason I've always lost interest is that I think this plot device introduces something new at such a late stage in the story that it is obvious what is happening. It is obvious that the pilot has been bribed, and it is obvious that Shore is a wrong 'un. The forced landing turns the plot into a sort of 'locked room' mystery and it becomes obvious that the protagonists are going to get out of this rather than end up dead. Drake does, after all, have the rest of the series to film and a Village to investigate later in the decade - this creation of expectations is perhaps the reason I have always lost interest in this episode here. It is unfortunate to my mind, that the time up until about the 46 minute mark is filled by what amounts to a moral discussion of Nazi research into bacteriology. That's most of the approximately 18 minutes from when the plane landed, and I sense a filler. The ending is an anticlimax.
My conclusion on this episode is that it starts off with a promising plot which is weakened by an abrupt change of direction in the middle. I feel that this is an episode which could have made a decent half hour episode, but has been over-stretched to the fifty minute slot. Obviously I don't think it's a complete dud because it appears on this blog, but in an otherwise quality series it's a weak offering which fails to maintain its interest.
Saturday, 28 October 2017
The first thing I have to say about The Secrets Broker is that despute being black and white it is *so* visually effective. I suppose there may be a similarity to black and white photography which is always more 'artistic' than boring old colour. In the case of this episode the visuals are also very effectively chosen. The opening scene of the pretend seance in the cellar literally can't put a foot wrong, since it ticks every horror film box ever. The next scene, in Mrs Gale's flat, also can't go wrong, since it is very apparent that Mrs Gale's flat was designed for visual effect rather than comfort. One of the things I love best about Avengers of this era is Mrs Gale's wardrobe, also very visually effective.
I like the subject matter of this series 3 episode. At base it is a classic detective story about blackmail, and as a classic detective story it rather swims against the flow of many of the preoccupations of 1960s people as seen in their TV programmes. We see them so often here - the preoccupation with the future, with progress, with technology, with science and the knowledge and power which goes with it. Usually there is an ambivalence about the future or the technology, and a fear of weak humans' ability to use these things safely. The blackmail in this episode is based on scuppering part of the dream future because it is gaining knowledge about the activities of a research establishment. And yet the fear is not the future, what is being protected is the research, rather the blackmailers are using people's vulnerability in the very 19th century guise of the seance, as the cover for their activities. And their activities are also covered by a wine merchant's business - surely an elite operation, and yet one in which Steed is obviously completely at home. The Secrets Broker therefore uses the paraphernalia of the past as the cover of an attempt to scupper the future, which is normally seen as the scary thing in TV of this era.
Steed and Gale are both in their absolute elements in this one. Mrs Gale as the envoy into the research station and Steed as the spy into the wine merchant's. So far so good. My criticisms begin when an affair is mixed in to this. I genuinely can't think what the writer was thinking of - unless it was either to interest those who like that sort of thing or as a red herring. Anyway, in my humble opinion it could have been handled much better by not giving the love affair the relative prominence it gets, and just mentioning it as one of the causes of the blackmail. I was going to criticise this episode as rather difficult to follow but I think that if you take the sequences about the affair out of the picture, the plot hangs together much better. There are some further plot weaknesses in that by the halfway point it is very obvious exactly what is happening and who is responsible, and also how it will end, this being a TV show. In my opinion this show's endearing qualities, wonderful atmosphere, and witty dialogue make up for any plot deficiencies.
Obviously I mix in the wrong circles but I have never been to a wine tasting in my life, and have what Steed calls the 'depraved taste' of preferring spirits to wine. I must be Not Our Sort of Person. Nonetheless one of the things which strikes me about this is that it is touching on some very high (or at least wealthy) life indeed. The box of wines with which Steed walks out of the wine merchant's must have cost a small fortune.
The absolute high point of this one is where Steed 'falls' into a vat at the wine tasting, revealing the dark room hidden within. This is such an Avengers moment. In fact I htink in many ways this episode is one of the ones which shows the way the Avengers was feeling its way towards its future at this point. So many of the elements which make The Avengers The avengers are there in bucketloads - diabolical masterminds, elements of British tradition which are subverted, elements of the modernistic future which is here at risk. One element of The Avengers' later series which rarely appears this early is the magical omniscience with which the show just begings on its mission with next to no explanation. The explanations are actually there, but they are such a minor element that they are easily missed, which gives this show a feeling of some of the later series.
My conclusion on The Secrets Broker is that it remains one of my favourites atmospherically, but it has some plot weaknesses when seen under the microscope. It has however clarified one thing for me. Tomorrow I'm going to Selfridge's. I'm in search of orange bitters for cocktails and have so far completely failed to track down a bottle of Creme de Violettes. What I need is a wine merchant, obviously.
Saturday, 14 October 2017
'Starring Diane Keen and Patrick Troughton, The Feathered Serpent is a story of murder, intrigue and political manoeuvring set amid the splendour and turmoil of ancient Mexico. This release comprises every episode of the children's drama series from Thames Television, memorable for its spectacular sets and lavish costumes, originally transmitted between 1976 and 1978.'
Watching this show has caused me to reflect rather waspishly on vintage children's TV, and particularly the few children's shows that I have written about here. These shows are so few because I have found that TV shows I remember from my actual childhood rarely stand up to the rosy memories I have of them: mym memories of shows from my adolescence onwards are much more accurate and so are less likely to be disappointing.
I find, though, that I am now wary of giving children's TV shows a viewing, because so many of them have been greatly disappointing. These shows have the dual challenges of being entertaining something like forty years after they were made, and being intended to be entertaining to children or young people at the time they were made, despite being made by adults. It is no wonder that that children's TV can be so disappointing at this length of time. In fact, Freewheelers (and now The Feathered Serpent) are the only TV shows made for children which I do not remember from my childhood and yet have written about here.
I have a feeling that the problem with children's TV is that it isn't really intended to entertain children, as such, but can have several other agendas. Surely every reader of this blog will remember how Doctor Who started off as an educational show? And that, for me is the problem with children's television. I think middle class parents still do this, but I can remember children of my generation being given boxy, cheaply-produced sets of classic books to read. Well, some children may have read them but I didn't. The classics of world literature which are or were given to children cannot have been intended to entertain, but as improving exercises.
And in contrast to Freewheelers, which I remember thinking was very cleverly geared to appeal to adolescents at a certain stage of yearning for adulthood, and thus was largely about fantasy and entertaining, despite a certain moral agenda, Feathered Serpent reminds me of those sets of classic books. The Flockton Flyer would be another example of a show not aiming to improve, since every boy's dream of having a whole steam train to play with is never really a worthy sort of thing to think about. Feathered Serpent is not about an escape into a fantasy world, I have a feeling it is about improvement. And it is only as I write this that I realise that this is almost exactly the unreal/real divide I perceive so often in adult TV cast in the terms of improving.frivolous. The mere fact that the show is set in ancient Mexico suggests that it has a didactic aim rather than a frivolous one.
And there's a very simple reason I know this. I have been forced to quote the blurb off the box because the show launches with no explanation whatsoever. Nowadays, of course, if the viewer wants the background, he will consult the internet, but in the 1970s no such resources existed and I think the curious child would have had to take some such course of action as this - first the Radio Times or the TV times would have been consulted, which would have given about the same amount of information as the blurb I quote above. Without the benefit of the Radio Times the viewer would have had to ask parents for advice or ask around at school the next day. The only way to discover the historical background to this show would have been in books. Many children's homes would not contain an encyclopedia and they would have resided in the sort of homes which also contained sets of standard novels to read. So the library would have been the way to find out what this show was about. When you watch a show which is intended purely to entertain, it will not usually raise questions in your mind or require background reading, therefore this show is either deliberately intended to be educational or else very worthy television, with a rather unfortunate assumption that the children of the age would just know the historical background.
And yet... I wouldn't like you to think that I am just making out that this is a worthy, educational show, because it's interesting that some of its themes plug in well to the times. As we know the 1970s were a time of fear of nuclear holocaust, of exploration of magical powers and natural mysteries, and of all things considered Pagan. In many ways the 1970s were most people's 1960s, and there is a very real touch of Paganism involved in this show. We see divnities really consulted and decisions and asked for signs, which of course they never fail to produce. We see the primacy of religion (and yet a religion so different from our own Church of England) at the heart of a society, and also the clash between an old religion and a new religion.
And so, some criticisms. The obvious one is that The Fathered Serpent is not a light view. You have to concentrate and it moves at a slower pace than, say, The Avengers, so watching it while ironing would not be a good idea. My own main criticism is that I really don't think the years have been kind to it. In comparison to the effects produced now, the sets and costumes tend to look a bit home-made and not really lavish or spectacular. Production values are of the period, and it is completely studio-bound. The colour palette is of the time, although I wonder why everyone's skin is the shade of brown it is. What I really love about the sets is the wall paintings, which must have taken much labour and are clearly inspired by the art of the time and place. As I commented above, to me a major problem is a lack of explanation of who is who or what is happening with the result that several episodes in I'm frankly rather confused, but again this may be something that may be solved by an attentive viewing paying attention to every word.
Another thing that Feathered Serpent makes me think of is that I want to write a piece on our regional TV stations in the 1960s onwards. I have a feeling that the reason I have no recollection of this show (in the days when we only had three stations) was that it may not have been broadcast in the Midlands, being a Thames production. Ths post I have planned on our various regional stations and the reasons for their existence, is sadly one which has defeated me every time it has landed on the drawing board so far.
In summary, you will like The Feathered Serpent if you have an interest in ancient Mexico. You will also like it if you were the sort of child who actually read the improving books given to you for birthdays, you will watch it if given to you, but I'm afraid I wasn't that sort of child. If you want the classic children's TV of the age, I would seriously suggest getting some Tiswas or Grange Hill and watching that.