Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Avengers Series 1: The Yellow Needle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: dissolute.com.au

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

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

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Why old TV?

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

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Peaky Blinders: Second Impressions

You will see that I have changed my profile picture: a bare chest made it difficult to comment on other people's blogs and you will see that I have on a Birmingham City Football Club shirt, which reminded me I had series 2 of Peaky Blinders to watch.
First things first, I have to confess to not getting on very well with Peaky Blinders and I can't think why. Naturally it has been watched and talked about at length locally. There has even been a bit of a trend for flat caps.
The elephant in the room with the peaky blinder thing is that it isn't true. The gang the story is based on were around in the 1890s, not the 1920s. It is unlikely they used razor blades at all, as they were luxury items.
Don't get me wrong, there were areas of this city at that time where the police just didn't go. There was also a myriad of geographically-based gangs.
There's also something wrong with the way the show looks. To this day, I can show you real poverty in this city. At the time Peaky Blinders is set people lived in slums. The illustration to this post is one of those slums, as it was before the National Trust opened it as the Back to Backs museum. Peaky Blinders looks too clean, too spacious, too light: all things which come at a premium.
One thing I will say of the second series over the first: they've got the accents better. The predominantly Liverpool accents of series 1 are gone. The local detail is also just right.
If it's any consolation to the die-hard fans, I may seem negative, but a show only gets blogged about here if it isn't a complete dud!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

My TV Shopping Basket

The title of this post may seem rather strange, and is certainly a departure from the way I usually write about TV here, but given that I see I repeatedly post about a fear that the supply of old TV will dry up, it is interesting that there are a few things in my Amazon basket at the moment, taht I may obtain and write about. That said, I won't necessarily buy them from Amazon, or at least from Amazon themselves: I shop around between Amazon, Cex and eBay, and more rarely will buy something off the shelf in HMV, but use my Amazon basket as a way to remind myself of things I possibly want to see. Regular readers will know that I usually only write about shows here that I rate: this post is an opportunity to write about shows I haven't seen at all, so can't really judge, but to comment that I would like to see them.
First up is Flower of Gloster, which it seems has taken a long time for Network DVD actually to release. I am very pleased that a review for it has already appeared on Amazon, commenting on what quality TV it is, and particularly how dated it looks in terms of young boys wandering off on their own, talking to strange men on canal boats, and the fact that the boys 'do their own stunts' on the show. You can see such a scene on the video that I am using to illustrate this post. Then, as now, canal locks are very dangerous things, contained areas of water with possibly unseen things underneath, the likelihood of catching Weil's disease from the water... as a modern health and safety exercise, this show would just go on and on and shows how the world has changed. The video I have used here also shows the point I make periodically, that a man's bare chest wasn't a sexual thing once upon a time. As a Brummie, I also want to see this show because it shows the city and its canals (in case you didn't know Birmingham famously has more canals than Venice) as they were in the 1960s.
Spike Milligan's show Q has been released in two box sets, and they are definitely on my list of things to watch. Considering I could never tolerate the Goons very well (I would have to admit that Harry Secombe merely irritated me) I love Spike Milligan's humour a lot. I have one of those BBC Classic Comedy single-disc anthologies, which claims to capture the highlights of Q and his other series There's A Lot of It About. It is perhaps more associated with Peter Sellers (who plays his own ghost), but Milligan also features in a film in my shopping basket, Ghost in the Midday Sun. I have never seen it so really cannot comment at all, but given that the online reviews tend to comment on its surrealism I suspect that it is my kind of thing.
I notice that recently I have been venturing back in time from the sixties fantasy Avengerland in which I feel most comfortable. Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular crime writers of the earlier years of the twentieth century, and I am finally planing on trying one of the anthology DVDs of his Mysteries series. I was looking at them when I popped into HMV today and thinking that since I do like an old film, they ought to be bang up my street. I have never read any of his myseries so cannot comment on what they are actually like.
Returning to comedy, I have to admit that Dick Emery never fails to make me laugh, although his humour is so old-fashioned nowadays. I lent Ooh You Are Awful to a friend once who watched the beginning and returned it silently to me as if she didn't want it in the house, but he makes me roar. I have another of those BBC Classic Comedy discs, but the one I have in my basket is the disc containing the recordings Emery did for ITV in a rare departure from the BBC. The blurb and the reviews on the internet don't suggest that they differ in any great way from his normal output, so I am looking forward to more of the same.
I am more ambivalent about the Armchair Theatre series, believing anthology series to be rather patchy by nature. That said, it seems to me that the several box sets of the various series are retaining their value on the resale market, which often suggests that a TV series is quality and thus those who buy it on release don't sell the discs on. Otherwise, it is of course one of the all-time great names in TV shows, with what can only be described as a glittering cast of writers and actors. Of course you all know my reservations about great name actors in TV shows - and even before they became famous, watching those shows afterwards can often still bring the actor's later success intrusively into the viewer's mind.
Other shows I would like to see? Well the parody Laughing Prisoner would be high up on there. It has been on Amazon as awaiting release for some years, but never actually comes out. I remember seeing it in the 80s when there was a fad for shows like The Prisoner and The Avengers, which were being shown on the then-new Channel 4.
Perhaps I will make a point of writing an occasional post on what has caught my eye in the world of classic TV without the obligation to watch the show and thus make some judgement on it first, I have found it quite refreshing. Just please bear in mind that I am making no recommendation of any of these shows, so watch them at your own risk!

The Avengers: The Master Minds

Another of the great and very popular Avengers episodes, this one. In fact it's a bit difficult to know what to say about it because of the sheer volume of stuff on the internet, even to the extent of a detailed analysis of the crib notes on Steed's cuff.
From the very start this Avengers is so very, well, Avengers. There is literally not one image in this episode which doesn't scream Avengers. The outmoded uniform of the guard, juxtaposed with the instruction to 'Kill him,' which is surely more shocking than it would normally be in the circumstances. As always in The Avengers the guard is killed without blood, and with the apparently incongruent juxtaposition of the episode's title. The scene then cuts straight to the image of Steed driving through what can only be Avengerland.
The Avengerland depicted in this episode is actually an interesting mixture of the great institutions of State (the Tower), the classical columns Steed drives through to get to Sir Clive's house, and the fact that Sir Clive's house is relentlessly modern in architecture and fixtures. Incidentally I love the open fire in the centre of the sitting room, and am wondering whether the people in the flats above me would mind having a chimney put through their living rooms. The additional fact that the ransack organisation is using the traditional surroundings of the school, places this Avengers firmly in the category of an infiltration of the Establishment by Diabolical Masterminds.
Something which I feel hasn't been commented on much about this Avengers, is the recurring theme of the body and embodiment. Physical fitness is contrastes with mental fitness - although of course in this case physical fitness wins out in the end. Physical medicine is seen as relatively helpless in comparison to psychological medicine, and the theme of the body, the use of the body recurs frequently.
Nor is this episode short on the sexiness, not all of it coming from Mrs Peel as it happens, although the fact of her being asleep in Steed's car and the fact she wears a nurse's uniform must have set more than a few pulses racing at the time! Additionally when she and Steed arrive at Sir Clive's house the camera lingers on the rather glitzy catsuit she is wearing: Mrs Peel is clearly the principle sex interest in this one. Sex raises its lovely head in various other places in this episode as well: the struggle Steed has with Sir Clive's daughter who is only wearing a fur coat over a bathing suit, in which she has flown home, and I do like the scene of Steed with the male pin-ups, and the way he flexes his biceps, clearly putting him in the "body" side of the divide here, in one of the girls' bedrooms in the school. Mrs Peel's reaction to them, when she comes across them in the midst of her uncharacteristically subservient role of helping Steed unpack, places her firmly in the "mind" camp.
There is a more serious element to this Avengers, though, and it picks up on the oft-recurring theme of technology and particularly the misuse of technology, in this case for mind control, using the cover of an apparently innocuous organisation. The contemporary interest in psychiatry also raises its head and in one wonderful scene we see Steed beating the service psychiatrist at his own game. The diabolical masterminds who run Ransack attempt to control the members' bodies by the use of psychological means indicates that Ransack isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The fact that Steed can get in by pure cheating shows for sure that they are not that clever. And of course as usual Mrs Peel is shown up to be the brains of the outfit, as well as the sexy piece.
I particularly love the scene in the gym, where the opposition between mind and body is complicated somewhat by the fact that the brainy members of Ransack do get their exercise in. Steed poses as the non-physical person - he doesn't even have gym shoes - and I like the way that he and Mrs Peel remain clothed when everyone else is in gym kit, which naturally makes them stand out like sore thumbs. Mrs Peel is also posing, of course, since she is the very embodiment of physicality as well as having brains, but is not joining in the exercise. While Steed and Mrs Peel appear to be united, they are set against each other by the enemy, when Steed has to tell Mrs Peel that she doesn't remember a single thing that happened to her the night before.
As is often the case with TV shows that I love, I am finding it very difficult to find something to criticise in The Master Minds. You could say that the whole plot is frankly incredible, but of course that is the whole point of The Avengers. I find the voice over the tannoy telling the members of Ransack what to do, rather annoying, and think it would have been better and pushed more buttons in the psyche if a more commanding or military-sounding voice had been used. There are some criticisms of the factual stuff in this - the things on Steed's cuff and the conversation about the word yogurt - but since the whole point of this episode is that the brainy people are wrong, these criticisms are not incongruent at all, to my mind. There are also criticisms on the internet that this one takes a long time to get into its stride: I certainly think it improves as it goes on, and certainly once the opening scene is over, the visuals improve once the action in the school starts.
In the final analysis of this Avengers, the body wins out over the mind, and of course that was always going to be the point. The opposition between the two was set up from the start, and much of the point of this episode is that Mrs Peel is on the brains side of the equation and gets taken in completely. Steed doesn't have the brains, but has the sense to unplug the speaker in his room and is thus immune. Here, brawn saves the Great Institutions of Britain when they are threatened by the brains of The Enemy.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Public Eye: Don't Forget You're Mine

This second-series episode of Public Eye is an odd one which has survived from the series, which may be found among the extras on the 1971 series box series, along with a canalside interview with Alfred Burke during filming of the series. For the second series of 1966, Public Eye relocated here to Birmingham: Burke gives as the reason that Birmingham hadn't really been exploited on television up until then. Of course it was also to have use of the state-of-the-art facilities at the recently-demolished ATV studios on Broad Street.
The scene is set with a wonderful view of the old Bull Ring market complex - with the moving sign on the side of St Martin's house set to give the title of the programme. Perhaps I'd better get the local colour out of the way now, since I realise that the majority of my readers live very far away from here. It is interesting that the scenes of Birmingham used in the show are actually of the very modern, futuristic Birmingham of the 1960s, which was created by the council getting a lot of compulsory purchase order and demolishing everything in sight. It is also interesting that virtually all of the street scenes shown in this show are now gone. Fifty years later, the only thing that remains is one wall Marker walks along. My point here is that the heady futuristic dream of the sixties has largely bitten the dust.
One of the things which made me think about this episode is that I have been watching the second series of Peaky Blinders. I was wildly critical of the first series, but had heard that the second was better. Accent-wise, it is certainly better (you would think the first series was set in Liverpool), but I would have to say that coming to this from Peaky Blinders, I'm feeling bad at having even the slightest criticism of the accents. The episode begins marvellously with Marker trying to find an office to rent from Souter, an estate agent. His accent is ever so slightly overdone, but nonetheless is about as spot on as you're going to get on television, and serves to set the scene that Marker has definitely arrived in Birmingham. The best accent is actually the school teacher later on in the episode.
Local colour over, this situation is exactly the kind of outsider situation which Marker is so used to. He manages to get a run-down office and is essentially in business. Of course it only takes one phone call for him to get his first case and off he goes to see Mrs Jessup, around whom this case revolves. QUite literally revolves, because the whole point of this case it that it is something of a wild goose chase and Mrs Jessup is not quite what she seems to be. In fact she really isn't what she seems to be, because - look away if you don't want the story spoiled - it is really unexpected when she is seen with her toy boy later in the episode. The fact that Marker asks the young man is he is above the age of consent, moves Mrs Jessup into a category which is genuinely unexpected. The real nature of her search is very well hidden from the viewer until almost the end, making this episode a real surprise.
This episode shows the leg work of the private eye very well. Marker quite literally gets through shoe leather finding Mr Jessup, and many of the locations which are mentioned are real places, giving an extra sense of veracity to the viewer.
There is, however, one thing wrong with this episode, which must be ignored if you want to enjoy it. When she tells him that her husband has disappeared, this is merely stated as a statement of fact, and that is what is wrong with this one. People don't just vanish, without argument, without warning. If they do, their nearest and dearest have a habit of ringing the police. Marker's suspicions as to Mrs Jessup should have been aroused at the first interview, and he would have asked her what had happened to make him just vanish. I also have a feeling that Marker would have not hesitated to point out that usually if a man doesn't contact his wife the reason is an obvious one.
The oft-repeated situation of Marker having the wool pulled over his eyes and used, is opposed to the strong educational background to this episode, with its concurrent background of art and culture. The contrast is between the instilling of learning and the deceit of Marker. In fact the whole point of this episode is one of deceit: when Marker does track down Mr Jessup (I'll call him that for the sake of tidiness), it turns out that the wool has also been pulled over our eyes about his relationship.
A further contrast is between the go-ahead modernism of sixties Brum, which doesn't sit at all well with some of the squalor shown in the suburbs, and Jessup's landlady's old-fashioned shock at having an unmarried couple living in her house. Visually, this show is marvellous. The interior scenes are wonderful, and I love Donald Jessup's bohemian flat. Both visually and plot-wise, this Private Eye maintains interest to the very end.
I like Pauline Delaney in this one a lot. Far from the stable support character to Marker who she plays in later series, she is a far more louche character. I love the dramatic character she plays here: she overdoes it marvellously. And of course she is set up in the plot to be the person you end up disliking most. Marker winds up with his usual role of being the person who does what is right - in this case by not cashing Mrs Jessup's cheque so that he can prove what she is up to.
And that is the reason this Public Eye works so well - it is a plot calculated to work well with Marker's character. I would recommend it to any viewer.