Friday, 21 July 2017

Mr Rose, season two (1968)

Mr Rose is one of the more delightfully offbeat British murder mystery series of the 1960s. The second season which aired in 1968 is, happily, just as much fun as the first. 

Season one introduced us to Detective Chief Inspector Charles Rose (William Mervyn) who, having come into a large inheritance, has taken early retirement and bought himself a comfortable country house in which he proposes to write his memoirs. It’s a kind of running joke that although he talks constantly about the writing of those memoirs he never seems to get any actual writing done.

Season two brings a number of significant changes. Somehow Rose has managed not only to complete his memoirs but to have them published, and the book has been quite a hit with both critics and the book-buying public. In fact its success has been so considerable that Chief Inspector Rose, anticipating that he will be finding himself in great demand for television interviews, has decided to forego the bucolic delights of Rose Cottage and take a luxury flat in London.

The flat is in a building designed by an avant-garde Swedish architect and it is not quite the sort of thing that Charles Rose is used to. Rose might be an ex-policeman but he has the manners, and the prejudices, of an English country gentleman.

He still has the services of the remarkably versatile John Halifax (Donald Webster) who acts as chauffeur, housekeeper and valet and also as a most useful assistant in Rose’s crime-solving activities which he now pursues on an amateur basis.

Unfortunately Gillian Lewis, who played Rose’s secretary Drusilla Lamb, departed after season one. In season two Rose has decidedly mixed fortunes in attempting to find an adequate replacement for the admirable Miss Lamb. This is a kind of running gag through this season, with each new secretary proving to be a different kind of headache for Mr Rose. He desperately needs a new secretary as he has decided to exploit his new-found literary celebrity by writing a second book.

When he retired Charles Rose had no intention of devoting his life to amateur sleuthing. In season one it seemed that the writing of his memoirs had the effect of forcing him to confront various pieces of unfinished detective business. Now in season two it seems that, although he hopes to devote himself to being a literary celebrity, crime still follows him about.

In the season opener, The Frozen Swede, crime follows him right into the kitchen of his new luxury apartment. The discovery of a dead body in the walk-in deep freeze is naturally disconcerting, although Rose is actually far more concerned about the fact that he has not yet had his breakfast. Charles Rose is not the sort of man who is overly given to displays of sentimentality. Some clever plot twists make this a fine episode and a great start to the new season.

The second episode, The Fifth Estate, does not deal with an actual crime. It deals with something far more serious - a threat to one of Britain’s greatest institutions. Someone is trying to ruin the reputation of Chief Inspector Rose’s London club. The plot is delightfully convoluted. Crime has its hazards for a detective but intrigues in clubland can be even more challenging. A fine and satisfyingly quirky episode.

Episode three is The Golden Frame and Rose finds himself in a very tight spot. Once again it’s an old case that has returned to haunt him. Years earlier he arrested a known villain for a robbery that ended in murder but the man refused to name his partner in crime. This was very odd since this particular criminal was usually rather keen to turn on an accomplice if he thought it would earn him a reduced sentence. The man died in prison and now his daughter claims to have new evidence in the form of a diary. This is also odd, for reasons which will eventually become apparent. In the meantime Mr Rose is facing a murder charge himself. A well-written and engaging story.

The Unlucky Dip is a very old idea given a fresh and amusing twist. Mr Rose has encounter with a pickpocket but to his surprise he finds that far from having robed him the pickpocket has deposited fifteen pounds into his overcoat pocket. Even more intriguing to Rose is the fact that all over London pickpockets are doing the same thing - secretly giving people money. In fact the explanation turns out to be not quite so extraordinary after all but it’s a story that is executed with style and wit and it entertains.

In The Dead Commercial ex-Chief Inspector Rose is offered a considerable sum of money to appear in a television commercial advertising mints. These mints should come with a government health warning. Charles Rose finds himself dealing not only with the world of advertising but also the film world. In the film world there is a great deal of ambition, much of it revolving around aspiring actresses of dubious talent but undeniable physical charms. This is not to be honest one of the better episodes of the season. The plot has its twists but doesn’t quite hold together. It does however afford ex-Chief Inspector Rose an unexpected opportunity to display his skills as a thespian.

A strangler is on the loose in The Heralds of Death. The killer is presumed to be one of a motley group of men and women who call themselves the Outsiders. They see themselves as bold existentialist nihilists but they’re really a rather unpleasant bunch of losers. Mr Rose is prevailed upon by his publisher to take an interest in the case. Also taking an interest (a rather unwise interest) in the case is Mr Rose’s newest secretary Georgina. She might be a foolish girl but Mr Rose does feel that he has a responsibility to keep her out of trouble. It all comes down to alibis and alibis can be treacherously unreliable things. This is a somewhat darker but still highly diverting episode to conclude the second season.

I’m not convinced that the setup for this season was a complete success. In the first season Rose’s attempts at gracious living in the country were wonderfully engaging and the three principal characters balanced each other perfectly. With Charles Rose transplanted to London the series loses just a tiny bit of its charm. Fortunately the writing is still of a very high order and William Mervyn is in absolutely splendid form.

Highly recommended.

Here's my review of the first season.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

four Thrillers from Brian Clemens (1974-5)

ITC had a major success in the 1970s with their Thriller anthology series, created by Brian Clemens (who wrote all forty-three episodes). Each episode was feature length allowing for multiple plot twists. What you expect from Clemens are stories that are not necessarily very original but he generally manages to make even old plot ideas seem reasonably fresh and entertaining.

The production values are standard for early 70s British television - shot on videotape, very studio-bound and looking generally very cheap. By the mid-70s the style of British television changed dramatically in the wake of the success of The Sweeney which made Thriller look a bit old-fashioned and even at times just a little shoddy as far as sets were concerned. It doesn’t really matter. Clemens’ stories have enough going for them to maintain the viewer’s interest.

The fourth season aired from late 1974 and on into 1975.

The acting is variable, sometimes very good and sometimes very bad.

Of course there’s the bonus of some amazingly kitsch 70s clothing. And 70s wallpaper and suchlike things which in my view add to the charm of the series.

Screamer opens season four. A young American woman working for the US Embassy is heading off to the country by train to stay with friends. She is a bit nervous since several women have recently been raped near the railway station where her friends live. It turns out her fears were justified. A man follows her home from the station and brutally rapes her.

Nicola (Pamela Franklin) recovers from the attack after spending several months in a mental hospital. She is now cured. Well, almost cured. She still has nightmares. And she still thinks she sees the man who raped her. She still has screaming episodes even in broad daylight. But she is getting better. And the police have caught the man who raped her. So everything will be OK now. Except that everything is not OK. It’s not OK at all.

Pamela Franklin does a pretty fair job as the understandably disturbed Nicola. Derek Smith is fun as the perpetually exasperated, short-tempered but dogged Inspector Charles.

This is an episode for connoisseurs of 70s kitsch clothing. Frances White as Nicola’s friend Vima wears some extraordinary dresses, the most bizarre of which makes her look like a demented milk maid.

The problem with this episode is that you’re going to figure out what’s going on very quickly and the plot twists are all too predictable. The level of political incorrectness is almost off the scale in this episode, political incorrectness being one of the great delights of 70s British television.

Nurse Will Make It Better is one of the rare supernatural horror episodes and it really is unequivocal supernatural horror. An American diplomat’s daughter, Charley (Linda Liles), is crippled in a riding accident. She now needs full-time nursing but to say that she’s a difficult patient would be an understatement. No nurse lasts more than a week, until the arrival of Bessy Morne (Diana Dors). Bessy is more than equal to the task. Bessy is not just a nurse. She promises Charley that she will be able to walk again. Bessy can deliver on her promise but her methods owe more to black magic than medical science.

Charley’s sister Ruth (Andrea Marcovicci) becomes more and more worried, especially when the third sister, sixteen-year-old Susy, starts behaving oddly. Ruth realises her whole family is in danger but knowing this is one thing, doing anything effective about it is another, given Bessy Morne’s formidable satanic powers. The only hope may lie in a burnt-out drunken wreck of a priest named Lyall (Patrick Troughton).

If Thriller has a flaw it’s that it sometimes veers too close to out-and-out melodrama. In this episode this flaw becomes a major asset. Diana Dors is at her outrageous best. Bessy is one of the great horror villainesses. Patrick Troughton, in the minor but crucial role as the gin-soaked Lyall, decides to see if he can match Diana Dors in the overacting stakes. He can’t, but he gives it his best shot. Linda Liles, Andrea Marcovicci and Ed Bishop (as the diplomat’s faithful and rather amiable bodyguard) are all very solid. 

This episode is a real treat with Diana Dors making it an absolute must-watch.

A Killer in Every Corner was episode 5 of season 4 and originally aired in 1974. This is a psychological horror story. Literally - it’s a horror story about psychologists. 

The brilliant but possibly eccentric Professor Marcus Carnaby (Patrick Magee) has invited three psychology students to his home for the weekend - Tim Hunter (Peter Settelen), Helga Muller (Petra Markham) and Sylvia Dee (Joanna Pettet). Since Carnaby is one of the world’s foremost psychologists the students are naturally honoured and excited. The weekend will certainly be exciting, but not in the way they expected.

What the students would of course really love to see is one of Professor Carnaby’s actual experiments. They will certainly get their wish.

It certainly isn’t long before we realise that the professor’s experiments would get him into a good deal of trouble with an ethics committee. In fact he’s quite mad. Possibly crazier than some of the people he’s experimenting on, and they’re very crazy and very dangerous indeed. And at least two of his patients are living in his house, but they’ve been cured by the professor. At least the professor believes he’s cured them.

We can foresee some of the mayhem that is going to follow but writer Brian Clemens has a few tricks up his sleeve.

If ever an actor was born to play a mad scientist it was Patrick Magee. And he’s in splendid form. He gets great support from Don Henderson as his butler Boz and Max Wall as another of his servants - both characters who may or may not turn out to be sinister but both are distinctly disturbing. Joanna Pettet, an actress whose career was already on the downslide, adds some glamour and makes an adequate endangered heroine.

A Killer in Every Corner is fairly typical of this series - nicely dark and twisted and very well executed. Worth it for Patrick Magee’s performance.

Where the Action Is was the final episode of the fourth season. This particular episode went to air in 1975.

Gambler Eddie Valence (Edd Byrnes) has just lost a lot of money at the roulette tables when he meets Ilse (Ingrid Pitt). If he’d won he’d have been suspicious about a beautiful woman inviting him to her hotel room but since he lost he figures he’s safe - no-one is going to rob him of his winnings since he doesn’t have any. 

Nonetheless he should have been suspicious. He is drugged and he wakes up in the country house of ‘Daddy’ Burns (James Berwick). Burns is a gambler as well. He likes to play for very high stakes. The highest stakes of all. And he never loses. Eddie is going to have to do some serious gambling and if he can’t figure out a way to win he is not going to be leaving alive.

Refusing to play is not an option. Burns’ country house is a fortress, or more accurately perhaps a prison, and escape is impossible.

The episode works because the gambling isn’t just the background to the story - absolutely everything in this tale hinges on gambling of one sort or another.

The plot twists are not going to come as great surprises. They have all been used before. Brian Clemens does however fit them together with a fair amount of skill.

It’s really the acting that carries the episode. Edd Byrnes makes a convincingly cool professional gambler. James Berwick as Burns is suitably obsessive and gleefully malevolent. Ingrid Pitt is glamorous and deliciously treacherous.

Nurse Will Make It Better, A Killer in Every Corner and Where the Action Is are among the most entertaining of the entire series. Screamer has its problems but it’s still worth a look.

 I’ve reviewed the third episode (Night Is the Time for Killing AKA Murder on the Midnight Express) separately elsewhere.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Space: 1999, Year 2

Space: 1999 was both the most ambitious and most expensive of all Gerry Anderson’s science fiction TV series. The first season did pretty well and in normal circumstances a second season would have followed automatically. Unfortunately there were dark clouds on the horizon for the series. Lew Grade was losing interest in television and was all set to embark on his disastrous foray into feature films, a misadventure that would quickly swallow up all of ITC’s money and resources. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s marriage was falling apart. Barry Morse refused point-blank to even consider returning for a second season. And the first season had run into major budgetary problems.

The second season finally got the green light but there would be noticeable changes, and it’s those changes that tend to divide fans.

American Fred Freiberger was brought in as producer to replace Sylvia Anderson (her marriage to Gerry Anderson having come to an end by this point). Freiberger wanted a more action-oriented feel with more emphasis on humour and on the emotions of the character in place of what he felt was the excessively cosmic and philosophical preoccupations of the first season. His new approach was not welcomed by either the cast or the crew. Martin Landau was particularly unhappy with the scripts for Year 2.

The second season definitely saw a move towards more melodramatic plots. While some episodes are very entertaining in general the second season seems to have fewer genuinely interesting science fictional ideas than the first. 

To replace Barry Morse as the show’s resident science expert a new character was introduced, Maya, played by Catherine Schell. Maya is a shape-shifting alien, and her presence in the series pushed the series into fantasy territory and away from the at least vaguely plausible science fiction that had characterised all of Anderson’s earlier series. The necessity to make use of Maya’s shape-shifting abilities also weakens some of the stories. An alien with the ability to take the form of any living creature provided a temptation to writers to use her as a magical means of getting out of plot difficulties (a bit like the over-use of the dreaded sonic screwdriver in some season of Doctor Who).

It’s not that there’s anything actually wrong with Catherine Schell’s performance but her character just seems out of place. Barbara Bain was apparently not very pleased by the inclusion of another major female character, especially one played by an actress as glamorous as Catherine Schell. It has to be said that the episode which introduces Maya, The Metamorph, is pretty good (and it does feature a wonderful guest starring performance by the great Brian Blessed).

The departure of Sylvia Anderson also caused difficulties. Her contribution towards the success of the couple’s earlier series has often been underestimated and after the divorce Gerry Anderson seemed to lose some of his creative spark. He was great with ideas and he was very good on the business and organisational side but not so comfortable with people. Sylvia was great with people and could be counted on to smooth over any personnel problems that arose. That’s why they were a great team. They were equally essential to the success of their programs.

The absence of Sylvia Anderson in Year 2 may also have explained why some opportunities were missed. Maya was potentially a fascinating character - the last survivor of her race now living among beings who were friendly and welcoming but who were, to her, aliens. Star Trek had made the most of Spock’s alienness but at least Spock’s species still existed. Maya had nobody left. This could have led to all sorts of emotional dramas and turmoils and misunderstandings. Instead of which Maya is treated as just another member of the crew, who just happens to have super-powers. One can’t help suspecting that Sylvia Anderson would have seen the potential there and pushed the writers to exploit it.

There were changes in the look of the series in Year 2 as well. The huge and very impressive Command Centre set was replaced by a much smaller and much more claustrophobic set; in fact the sets in general were smaller and more cramped. Budgetary constraints were partly to blame as the first season had proved to be very expensive indeed. More claustrophobic sets are not necessarily a problem but in this case they were since so much of the appeal of the show derived from its lavish visuals and extremely high production values. Year 2 unfortunately does look rather cheaper.

The first episode, The Metamorph, introduces Maya and it features Brian Blessed and it’s actually a pretty strong start for the season. After that there are episodes with interesting ideas, like The Seance Spectre. And a few very entertaining episodes, like The Devil's Planet which is yet another variation on Richard Connell’s classic story The Most Dangerous Game but Michael Winder’s script adds some genuinely new and effective twists. 

The Immunity Syndrome is an episode that sums up the problems that afflict this second season. It starts with a very good idea. The crew of Moonbase Alpha find a planet that seems absolutely perfect as a new and permanent home for them. It seems to have everything they could possibly need. And then, for no apparent reason, the planet itself suddenly turns on them. This episode offers a reasonably effective blend of excitement and suspense. It’s all going so well and then we get to the ending which is uninspired and sentimental and generally disappointing.

The Dorcons also has potential. Aliens wanting to steal Maya’s brain is a silly idea but writer Johnny Byrne does add some more substantial stuff. There’s an ethical dilemma - one person’s life to be measured against the possibility of great harm coming to millions. And the sub-plot of the depraved Caligula-like heir to the throne plotting against the wise old emperor is handled with a certain amount of nuance - the kindly wise old emperor (a very restrained and dignified performance by Patrick Troughton) isn’t really either very wise or very kindly, at best he’s the lesser of two evils. Gerry Sundquist gives a deliciously over-ripe performance as the depraved heir. Ann Firbank is also good as the imperial functionary Varda trying to do her best in difficult circumstances. Varda is another complex character, ruthless but honourable.

There’s almost enough good in this episode to compensate for the silly central idea but as so often in season two the script, potentially very good, doesn’t quite come together and the ending is a bit contrived.

When you get stories like this, that could have been excellent television but don’t quite make it because the script needed a bit more work, you start to suspect that maybe the producer isn’t getting the best out of his writers. Given that not everyone was happy with the job Fred Freiberger was doing as producer it’s tempting to conclude that he really wasn’t the right man for the job.

With all its faults the second season of Space: 1999 is not a complete loss. It has impressive visuals and it has plenty of action. Unfortunately it’s nowhere near up to the standards of the first season and it has much more of a conventional Monster of the Week kind of feel. Lew Grade’s fatal obsession with making movies doomed the show and the second season would be the last.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents The Desperate People (1963)

The Desperate People is the earliest of the many serials written by Francis Durbridge for the BBC to have survived (although a couple of episodes of one earlier serial, The World of Tim Fraser, also survive. It was made in 1963 and was one of the serials screened under the umbrella title Francis Durbridge Presents.

The Desperate People has a typical Durbridge beginning. A perfectly ordinary chap suddenly encounters an unexpected event that propels him into a world of mystery and murder. In this case the ordinary chap is photographer Larry Martin (Denis Quilley). His brother Phil, serving in the British Army in Germany, arrives to spend his leave in London. Firstly though Phil  has to dash off briefly to Dublin in connection with a car accident that claimed the life of a fellow soldier.

Phil never does go to Ireland. Instead he goes off to a hotel somewhere in England and then sudden death intervenes. It is a clear case of suicide, but Larry refuses to accept the verdict of the coroner’s court. This again is a typical Durbridge device - a man is sure that murder has taken place but he can’t prove it and the police don’t believe him and he ends up doing some investigating on his own.

Larry soon discovers some very curious things. Everything that seemed clear-cut about the case now turns out to have been a series of deceptions. There are photographs that suddenly turn up and just as suddenly vanish, there’s the mystery of a book of poetry read incessantly by a man who has never in his whole life been known to read poetry, there’s a mysterious key that everyone wants, there are accidents that are almost certainly no accidents, and there are more murders. 

Detective Inspector Hyde is investigating the case and he also has his suspicions that there’s more here than meets the eye. Larry co-operates with him, up to a point, although it’s obvious he’d like to solve the case and it’s also obvious that Inspector Hyde has mixed feelings about amateurs trying to play detective. Larry also gets assistance from his faithful secretary Ruth (Renny Lister). 

As the story progresses Larry finds that there are even more things that he didn’t know about his brother.

Durbridge was never much interested in ingenious murder methods. What matters is not the how, but the who and the why. And it is the why that is most important. In The Desperate People there aren’t many suspects to choose from but we can’t guess the murderer’s identity until we figure out exactly what kind of crime (and what kind of criminal) is actually behind it all. The murder (or murders) is incidental to the real crime. 

Denis Quilley is a pretty good hero, full of steely determination if not always showing the soundest judgment. Hugh Cross makes a fine police inspector, businesslike and a man who gives very little away.

Plus you get Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister) as a heavy!

Francis Durbridge was a great television mystery writer whose scripts were enjoyably tangled and yet perfectly plausible.

It’s typical early 60s British television, mostly shot on videotape with a bit of location shooting. Production values are reasonable by BBC standards (in other words they're really rather basic). 

Considering that it dates from 1963 this serial is still in reasonably good condition. Picture quality is variable but generally quite acceptable (no 1963 British television show shot on videotape is going to look spectacular). 

The slightly later A Game of Murder (from 1966) and the much later (1975) The Doll are other Francis Durbridge Presents serials that are well worth catching. 

The Desperate People is one of four Durbridge serials included in Madman’s Australian Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 DVD boxed set. A set well worth getting.

The Desperate People is fine entertainment. HIghly recommended.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Smiley’s People (BBC TV, 1982)

The BBC had a success  with their 1979 television adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. They followed this up with a sequel, Smiley’s People, three years later, with Alec Guinness reprising his role as British master-spy George Smiley.

It should be explained that the novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People form part of le Carré’s celebrated Karla trilogy. The BBC chose not to adapt the second installment, The Honourable Schoolboy. This was understandable. The nature of this novel would have required a very expensive project and was probably beyond the scope of a television production. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Honourable Schoolboy before reading Smiley’s People. On the other hand it is absolutely essential to have read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before Smiley’s People and it’s equally essential to have watched the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before watching Smiley’s People. If you don’t you won’t have any understanding of Smiley’s motivations, or the motivations of any of the other characters for that matter. 

I’ll keep this review a bit vague in plot terms so as to avoid revealing any spoilers either for this series or for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Smiley’s People deals with George Smiley after his final retirement from the Circus (a thinly disguised version of MI6). Smiley might be on the scrap heap but the Circus itself is in even worse shape. Since his retirement ill-advised political interference has pretty much destroyed the Circus’s capabilities as an espionage agency. Morale is at rock bottom. And now the Circus is faced with a problem that could become a scandal sufficient to destroy it. 

An ex-agent is murdered. He had been one of Smiley’s agents and now the Circus needs Smiley to sort out the mess and if possible to cover up the whole incident. Unfortunately they’ve picked the wrong man to organise a cover-up. Smiley intends to find out why his ex-agent was murdered and he intends to follow the trail as far as it goes. It goes a long way and Smiley has a suspicion that ultimately it will lead him to Karla. Karla is his Soviet counterpart, the most feared and most ruthless of all Soviet spy-masters, and the duel between Smiley and Karla goes back more than a quarter of a century.

This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book. This is probably not altogether surprising since le Carré co-wrote the script.

This is a six-part mini-series. It’s not a very long novel but the plotting is intricate enough that the mini-series has no problems holding the viewer’s interest.

George Smiley really should be a fat man but apart from that one tiny quibble it has to be said that Alec Guinness is magnificent in the role. He was nearly 70 at the time but that’s roughly the age that Smiley would have been. Guinness of course was no action hero but Smiley is not supposed to be an action hero. He’s a spy-master not a spy - he’s the man who pulls the strings while his puppets handle any rough stuff that has to be done. In this story Smiley finds himself having to go back into the field, something for which he is too old, but that’s the whole point - only the chance to strike at Karla could have persuaded him to do so and only the depth of his obsession could have driven him on. So Guinness’s age is really no problem at all.

The superb supporting cast includes some real favourites of mine. There’s Michael Gough as the crafty and possibly duplicitous Mikhel, there’s Vladek Sheybal as the sleazy but oddly charismatic Otto Leipzig and as a bonus for cult movie fans there’s Hammer scream queen Ingrid Pitt in a small part as well. Dudley Sutton is an amazingly creepy Karla  henchman. There are also a number of familiar faces from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - notably Patrick Stewart, Anthony Bate and Bernard Hepton (the latter giving an extremely memorable performance).

The one blemish, and it’s a matter of personal taste, is that I thought the scenes in The Blue Diamond were unnecessarily distasteful. Yes I know the night club is actually a brothel but that could be made perfectly clear without rubbing the viewer’s nose in depravity. This was at the time becoming an all too common feature of British television, a wallowing in sleaze in the mistaken belief that this made television more grown-up when in fact it made merely more adolescent. It’s only one scene though so it’s a minor blemish.

Smiley’s People was a co-production with Paramount so the BBC had a fair amount of money to play with. There’s a lot of location shooting and the production captures the jaded, sordid and cynical atmosphere of the novel extremely well.

Smiley’s People is, like its source novel, a rather cerebral spy thriller. There’s virtually no action with the focus instead being on the suspense and on the painstaking methods used by Smiley in both his investigation and his subsequent operation. A treat for fans of gritty realistic spy tales. Highly recommended.

This mini-series seems to be available on DVD just about everywhere and I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release. The only extra on the DVD features John le Carré and others reminiscing about Alec Guinness.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Flashing Blade (Le chevalier Tempête, 1967)

Le chevalier Tempête was a 1967 French historical adventure TV serial. It was dubbed into English by the BBC and screened, with some success, as The Flashing Blade.

It is set in 1630, during the Thirty Years War. The French garrison of Casal has been besieged by a large Spanish army. The garrison is hopelessly outnumbered, food and ammunition are running very short, the surviving soldiers are exhausted and on the verge of demoralisation. Only the steely determination, and the harsh discipline, of the French commanding officer, Thoiras, has allowed the French to hold out this long but the end is certainly approaching.

There is a buzz of excitement when a French officer penetrates the Spanish lines (leaving mayhem behind him) and makes it into the fortress of Casal. Perhaps he is a messenger bringing news that a relieving force is on its way. Alas it turns out that it is merely the young, hot-headed and totally undisciplined Chevalier Recci (Robert Etcheverry) who has decided it would be a fine adventure to join in the heroic defence of Casal. He was is a little taken aback when Thoiras does not seem to be terribly delighted by his grand gesture.

Within hours of his arrival the impetuous young chevalier has taken it into his head to start waging his own one-man war against the Spanish. He leads a daring sortie and returns to Casal with a wagon loaded with food and ammunition. Unfortunately he neglected to ask Thoiras for permission to conduct his raid and instead of being congratulated he faces a court-martial and is condemned to death. There is however one way in which he can escape execution - by undertaking an almost impossible and breathtakingly dangerous secret mission. He must escape from the fortress, slip through the Spanish lines, traverse two hundred miles of Spanish-occupied territory, make contact with a series of French agents and finally reach the commander of the main French army and persuade him to send a force to the relief of Casal. In the unlikely event that Recci succeeds in this bold venture Casal might be saved. 

This serial is therefore not just an historical adventure but a kind of spy thriller as well, with Recci having to hide his identity while carrying out his secret mission deep behind enemy lines, accompanied by his faithful valet.

That mission turns out to be even more difficult than he’d anticipated. There’s a Spanish officer who has discovered Recci’s secret and he’s on his trail, and he has the remorselessness of a hunting dog.

There is of course time for some romance. At one point Recci manages to get himself captured by bandits. The bandits have also captured the Duke of Sospel and the duke’s proud, imperious but extremely courageous daughter Isabelle (Geneviève Casile). The dashing young chevalier and the young noblewoman do not hit it off at first but they slowly come to develop a certain mutual respect, and a certain mutual affection that we have reason to suspect will blossom into romance.

Of course it’s always difficult to judge the acting in a dubbed movie or TV series but the performances are certainly energetic. Robert Etcheverry certainly looks the part as the hero. 

One of the more pleasing surprises to this series is that the BBC really did a fine job with the English dubbing. The voice actors (who sadly don’t get any onscreen credits) are well cast and they approach their task with real zest. 

The Chevalier Recci is a fine storybook hero, headstrong to the point of foolhardiness but outrageously brave and with an old-fashioned sense of honour. He is impetuous without coming across merely as a young idiot. Isabelle de Sospel is, for a 1967 TV series, a delightfully old-fashioned heroine. She is accustomed to being obeyed without question and to being treated with a very high degree of obsequiousness. Her courage and her usefulness in a crisis come from her arrogance. She simply refuses to admit the possibility that anyone would dare to place an obstacle in her way. She’s a far cry from the average action adventure series heroine of that era, but she demands our respect. 

The most entertaining character is Mazarin, at this time an Italian diplomat in the service of the Pope although he would of course go on to gain a cardinal’s hat and be chief minister of France for many years. In this series Mazarin’s ambition, cunning and complete lack of scruples provide a good many moments of light comedy we also sense that despite his foppish and slightly foolish exterior he is a man whom it would be very foolish to underrate.

There's a fine villain in the person of the scheming and perfidious Don Alonzo (Mario Pilar) and he has an even more ruthless henchman, the evil Don Ricardo (Franck Estange). The Spanish are of course very much the villains. Don Alonzo might be unscrupulous but it has to be admitted that he is also a very brave man.

While this was intended as a kids’ adventure series it has a slightly more adult feel when compared to British TV adventure series like The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. It’s very much in the style of the classic French adventure novels of Dumas such as The Three Musketeers.

One odd aspect of the British version is that every time they tried to transmit the final episode they encountered such severe technical problems that the broadcasts had to be abandoned. As a result the final episode on the DVD release is the original French version with English sub-titles. This is interesting because it does give us a better chance to judge the quality of the acting. The final episode is a kind of epilogue - the main story actually concludes at the end of episode eleven.

By the standards of children’s television this is a fairly lavish production with some fine location shooting and some excellent action sequences. The siege scenes are impressive and there’s a pretty impressive full-scale battle scene.

Mention must be made of the rollicking theme song for the English-dubbed version.

Network’s DVD release offers reasonably good transfers without any extras.

If you’re a fan of adventure tales in the spirit of The Three Musketeers then this series will be right up your alley. It really is great action-filled fun with a strong romantic sub-plot and a nice leavening of humour. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Avengers Cybernauts trilogy

The Cybernauts, written by Philip Levene, was a very popular and highly acclaimed episode from the 1965 black-and-white season of The Avengers. The idea obviously had further potential and Levene wrote a sequel for the 1967 colour season, The Return of the Cybernauts. Nine years later Brian Clemens penned a further sequel, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? for The New Avengers. I thought it might be quite fun to take a fresh look at all three of the Cybernaut adventures.

The Cybernauts has a rather complex plot involving attempts to secure some kind of electronics contract but the real story is centred on a scientific genius, Dr Armstrong (Michael Gough), who has a grudge against the government and now plans to make all government obsolete, by means of an incredibly compact super computer and a race cybernetic servants. In the hands of a full-blown mad scientist these cybernetic servants could be used as high tech unstoppable assassins and Dr Armstrong is very definitely well on the way to full-blown mad scientist status.

Michael Gough is always a delight to watch and he’s in fine form. Rather than just chewing the scenery Gough makes him very sincere and very idealistic and really very sympathetic, his evil being the sort of misguided and deluded evil that idealism so often leads to. The guest cast also includes an entertaining turn by Bert Kwouk as a Japanese electronics mogul.

The cybernauts look creepy and menacing even though the costumes are obviously very simple and very cheap. In fact the whole episode is a fine demonstration of the principle that a modest amount of money well spent will always produce better results than a lot of money ill spent.

A major plus is the cybernaut vs cybernaut fight.

This episode seems to be very highly regarded indeed by most aficionados of the series but while I did enjoy it I don’t see it as one of the great episodes. It’s all very well executed but it’s let down by the meandering and rather incoherent script.

The Return of the Cybernauts on the other hand has a rather poor reputation among hardcore fans. I seem to be very much in a minority here but I actually thought it was somewhat better than The Cybernauts.

The plot is a standard revenge story but this time Philip Levene comes up with a taut and very witty script. The urbane Paul Beresford (Peter Cushing) has become very friendly with both Steed and Mrs Peel but what they don’t know is that he is the brother of the inventor of the cybernauts, Dr Armstrong, and he wants revenge. He doesn’t just want to kill Steed and Mrs Peel, he wants them to suffer as much as possible. He could probably come up with a method of doing this himself but he is determined to make his revenge suitably high tech so he kidnaps scientists and forces them to devise the most fiendish torture possible.

A major bonus is that the minor characters all serve a purpose and all have actual personalities. Each one of the four kidnapped scientists has a different response to the difficult situation in which they find themselves, reflecting their own character flaws and their own strengths. Levene really put some effort into this teleplay.

Another clever and amusing touch is that Steed is clearly jealous of Paul’s attentions to Mrs Peel, and she is aware of his jealousy. It makes for some sparkling dialogue moments, and it makes Paul a more interesting villain.

Peter Cushing was a fine actor but he was always especially good playing a mad scientist. In this case Levene’s script gives the character enough depth and Cushing really sinks his teeth into the part.

He is almost overshadowed by Fulton McKay’s deliciously twisted performance as one of the kidnapped scientists who turns out to be just as evil in his own way as the chief villain.

Mention must also be made of Aimi MacDonald as the gloriously ditzy secretary Rosie. This is an episode in which every single character pulls his or her weight.

If there’s a fault to this episode it is perhaps that the cybernauts themselves are not quite as central to the story as one might have wished but this is a minor quibble. I really loved The Return of the Cybernauts

Now we turn to The New Avengers, and to the final installment of the cybernaut saga, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? This time Brian Clemens is the scriptwriter. The New Avengers did have a different feel compared to its predecessor, but then The Avengers had reinvented itself just as radically on several previous occasions. It’s the nature of the transformation that puts some people off. By the mid-70s British television had changed, and not for the better. In order to be commercially viable The New Avengers had to do conform to the new era which meant a lot more action and a lot more violence. The challenge was to incorporate these unfortunate requirements whilst still retaining at least some of the flavour of the original. In my view the first season of The New Avengers manages to do this with reasonable success.

Initially it seems that The Last of the Cybernauts...?? has little connection to its predecessors. A double agent has been uncovered and when Steed, Gambit and Purdey move in to make the arrest the traitor, Kane, dies in a fiery car smash.

Except that Kane didn’t quite die. He lives, but he is less than half a man, confined to a wheelchair and hiding horrible facial injuries behind a mask. All this has nothing to do with cybernauts, except that by various devious means Kane has been able to find the secret storehouse where Dr Armstrong had concealed a small army of cybernauts. Kane has also  found a man, one of Dr Armstrong’s assistants, who knows how to operate the cybernauts. Kane intends to use the cybernauts to take his revenge on Steed, Gambit and Purdey.

While the connections between the various plot elements seems tenuous at first the plot gyrations are necessary. Gambit and Purdey played no part in the previous cybernaut adventures but somehow the villain has to be given a reason for having a grudge against them as well as against Steed and somehow this has to be connected with the cybernauts. Clemens ends up tying these disparate elements together quite successfully.

The Last of the Cybernauts...?? still has some authentic and characteristic Avengers flavour. Kane is a typical Avengers villain, megalomaniacal and insane and inclined to come up with ludicrously but entertainingly complicated means of trying to achieve his objectives. Robert Lang as Kane is masked for the entire episode but he has no trouble persuading us of Kane’s malevolence and very palpable menace. Having multiple masks is a fine idea and makes the performance even more disturbing.

Kane is supplied with a very amusing henchman in the person of the polite but ruthless Malov (Oscar Quitak). 

The action sequences are mostly extremely good. The fight against the cybernaut on the staircase is superb. There’s plenty of humour and it works (the scene in the lab with the lady in the cupboard is particularly amusing) and the banter between Gambit and Purdey is cleverer than usual.

The main set representing Kane’s lair is excellent, conveying very effectively a sense of his obsessive madness.

The ending doesn’t quite come off. It’s too whimsical for a final confrontation with a villain as menacing as Kane.

There’s a great deal to enjoy here. A great villain, plenty of well-executed action, witty dialogue.

I hadn’t seen any of the three episodes for some years and I’m pleased to say that they all turned out to be very much worth seeing again.