Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Callan - The Richmond File (1972)

Multi-episode story arcs were relatively unusual in television series in the 1960s and 70s but they were certainly not unknown. Callan (1967-72) featured several, including The Richmond File which occupied the final three episodes of the fourth season.

In the first installment of the Richmond File, Call Me Enemy (written by George Markstein), Callan has to debrief a Soviet defector at a safe house out in the countryside. The defector is Richmond, a colonel in the KGB. Rather unusually Callan is assigned to the job on a completely solo basis. He has no other agents to back him up. It’s just the two of them. Considering that Richmond’s KGB career includes a number of killings it seems like a very risky procedure but Callan’s boss Hunter has his reasons for doing it this way.

Partly the idea is that Callan and Richmond are in a way equals. Callan is the top operative for the ultra-secret British counter-intelligence agency known as the Section and he has more than a few killings to his credit. He’s a very experienced and very senior operative. Richmond is equally experienced and equally senior. There are even some uncanny similarities in their backgrounds. With someone as experienced and as tough as Richmond  a conventional interrogation might succeed. If Dr Snell (the Section’s specialist in such things) were put in charge of the interrogation it would certainly succeed but Snell’s methods have an unfortunate tendency to leave the subject permanently damaged. Callan on his own might well have a better chance of finding out what Richmond is really up to.

And Hunter strongly suspects that Richmond is up to something. The possibility that his defection is genuine cannot be ignored but Hunter is inclined to think it’s a setup. 

The stage is set for a battle of wills between two men who are both hardened professionals and both exceptionally strong and devious personalities. Callan’s task is to find a weakness or spot some tiny error that will tell him whether or not Richmond is a genuine defector; Richmond for his part is equally keen to break down Callan’s resistance, either to persuade the Section that he should be given political asylum or to achieve some unknown objective for his KGB masters.

While other series regulars make brief appearances this story is mostly played out by Callan and Richmond. This puts considerable pressure on the two actors involved. Fortunately both Edward Woodward and T.P. McKenna (as Richmond) are equal to the task.

Do You Recognise the Woman? (scripted by Bill Craig) forms the second part of this story arc. Hunter has come up with a typically devious plan to use a Soviet agent currently serving a long sentence in a British prison as a means of trapping Richmond. Since there in no chance that the agent in question, Flo Mayhew (Sarah Lawson), will co-operate voluntarily she will have to be tricked into doing so. Callan always gets the dirtiest jobs so it’s not surprising that he lands this one. He has a bit of a personal interest this time - Flo Mayhew was captured while carrying out an operation for the KGB, the purpose of the operation being to kill Callan.

Despite this he discovers that spies have quite a lot in common. There’s a certain strange camaraderie. He also discovers that even KGB killers have human weaknesses and emotional lives. Even KGB killers as ruthless as Richmond.

In the third installment, A Man Like Me (written by James Mitchell), the net is closing on Richmond but that merely makes him more dangerous. 

The Section is so determined to get him that Hunter is even prepared to resort to using a computer. The computer does provide some leads but Callan’s much more old-fashioned methods provide the vital break.

Of course the climax is going to be a final duel between Callan and Richmond but it manages to provide an ending that is both slightly unexpected and totally satisfying, both dramatically and emotionally.

In The Richmond File Callan finds himself having to confront several Soviet spies as individuals rather than as mere enemies. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Callan is always uncomfortable when he may have to kill someone after getting to know them (that’s part of the business of counter-espionage) but he’s never had to confront the problem with actual KGB officers before. It’s particularly disturbing when he finds himself not only understanding them but liking them.

T.P. McKenna was a very fine character actor and he does a superb job as Richmond. He makes him believable and sympathetic without sentimentalising him. We never forget that while Richmond is intelligent and charming he is also a killer. Just as Callan is a killer. McKenna and Edward Woodward really do work together magnificently in these three episodes. With two actors so perfectly cast and with such very strong scripts you really can’t go wrong.

The Richmond File provided a top-notch finale for the fourth season, which turned out to be the finale for the series as a whole. Callan certainly went out on a very high note indeed. Essential viewing. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Owl Service (1969)

The Owl Service is a 1969 mini-series from Britain’s Granada Television. It’s a children’s program although it’s obviously aimed at what would probably today be described as the young adult market. In fact it deals with a few concepts that very definitely qualify as adult themes. It’s a fantasy series in a contemporary setting although the supernatural elements are subtle and ambiguous. 

Alan Garner wrote all eight half-hour episodes. He adapted the series from his own novel.

Clive (Edwin Richfield )and his new wife Margaret are holidaying in a remote very rural Welsh valley. Both had been married before. Clive has a teenage son, Roger (Francis Wallis), from his previous marriage while Margaret also has a teenager, Alison (Gillian Hills), from her previous marriage.  Their housekeeper Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and Nancy’s son Gwyn (Michael Holden) complete the household, apart from a gardener named Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), a strange character who may be a bit touched in the head.

Investigating odd scratching noises coming from the attic Alison and Gwyn discover an old dinner service (this is the owl service of the title). The pattern on the plates is a little puzzling but after tracing the design Alison finds that it comprises flowers and that when put together the flowers make an owl. She starts, rather obsessively, to make paper owls from the tracings. The paper owl models seem to have a rather disturbing effect on Alison.

The plates have some kind of connection to a local legend involving a romantic triangle that ended in a strange double murder, one of the murders being committed by a dead man. There’s also a mysterious stone near the house with a hole through it, allegedly made by a spear cast and also connected with the legend. This legend also tells of a woman made from flowers who turns into an owl.

The plates have a surprising property. After Alison copies the design on one of the plates the design disappears from the plate.

There’s a good deal of tension between the various characters, at least some of this tension being emotional or sexual in nature. There’s an obvious attraction between Alison and Gwyn while the relationships between Alison and some of the other characters are slightly unsettling (I did say this series touched on some adult themes).

There are other complications with roots in both the distant and the recent past.

The pacing is leisurely, which is a polite way of saying that it’s slow. I’m inclined to think this story might have worked better as a six-part rather than an eight-part series. There’s not quite enough plot to sustain eight episodes and while it’s useful to develop the characters and the atmosphere of unease at a deliberate pace it really is unnecessarily slow.

Of course a potential problem with a series in which the key characters are children or teenagers is that it makes heavy demands on inexperienced actors. The big problem here is Francis Wallis who fails completely to get a handle on his performance as Roger. Roger ends up being not only a character the viewer doesn’t care about - we also can’t imagine any of the other characters caring about him or even bothering to notice his existence. Michael Holden gets the brooding intensity right as Gwyn. Gillian Hills (who at 25 should have been much too old to be playing a teenager) does pretty well in what is a formidably demanding role.

In some ways The Owl Service strikes me as the kind of series that adults would imagine that teenagers would like. I suspect that actual teenagers might have preferred a bit more spookiness or a bit more excitement, and possibly just a touch of humour. As it stands the series has at times a bit of a dour kitchen-sink drama feel to it. There’s a teen romance angle that would obviously appeal to girls but I can’t imagine most teenage boys lasting beyond the first couple of episodes. That’s not to say that this is a bad series. It’s just terribly serious and intense, and slow.

At the time there were those who felt that the series was quite unsuitable for children and I have to say I agree with them. It’s wildly unsuitable material. Alan Garner’s original novel was apparently not actually intended as a children’s novel although it ended up being labelled as such. It’s probably better (and less disturbing) not to regard The Owl Service as a children’s series at all.

It also has a feature that is, alas, rather common in British television of its era - it pits cruel snobby wicked upper-class people against a noble long-suffering working-class hero. This is always tiresome and in this case it also seems like an unnecessary distraction from the main story.

The inspiration for both the novel and the TV series was a Welsh legend from The Mabinogion. A wizard creates a woman named Blodeuwedd out of flowers, and as a punishment for betraying her husband (and causing two murders) she is turned into an owl. The central premise of The Owl Service is that the tragic romantic triangle of the legend is destined to repeat itself over and over again.

Rather surprisingly for the period this series was shot mostly on location in Wales. It was also shot in colour at a time when this was still unusual for British television. Unfortunately it went to air in December 1969 in black-and-white and was not seen in colour until 1978.

Network’s DVD release contains all eight episodes and image quality is pretty good. There are some worthwhile extras as well. There’s a documentary film on Alan Garner which left me determined not to read any of his books. More interestingly is the accompanying booklet which includes an incredibly detailed essay on the production of the series, interviews with Gillian Hills and Raymond Llewellyn and a brief but enthusiastic appreciation by Kim Newman.

The Owl Service was a wildly ambitious project. Not surprisingly it’s not always a complete success. Producer-director Peter Plummer approaches the series more in the spirit of an art film than a popular television series and on occasion he gets a little carried away (the surreal touches in the final episode seem out of place). At times it’s heavy going and it has severe pacing problems but it’s still a fascinating if somewhat pretentious attempt to do something different in the field of television fantasy. If you have a higher tolerance than I have for artiness and you can overlook some clumsy “social commentary” then it’s worth a look.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Dangerous Knowledge (1976)

Dangerous Knowledge is a fairly gritty six-part mystery thriller serial made by Britain’s Southern Television and originally broadcast in 1976.

Bill Kirby (John Gregson) has been in France on business and is returning to England. He wants to leave the car ferry unobtrusively and attaches himself to Laura Marshall (Prunella Ransome). He attaches himself in a rather obvious way but Laura is more amused than concerned.

Kirby is trying to avoid two men. He claims they have been following him. In fact it’s pretty obvious that they are following him. He also claims that they mean to do him harm.

Kirby’s later explanations to Laura, after they reach her luxurious cabin cruiser (although it’s actually Daddy’s cabin cruiser), are evasive to say the least. He tells her that he is an insurance salesman but he was in France for unspecified private business - all he tells her is that there are different kinds of insurance and that he has obtained some information that may be valuable. The viewer is entitled to suspect at this point that Kirby’s business in France may not have been entirely kosher. As Laura remarks, it could be anything from industrial espionage to blackmail. And Bill Kirby might be a crook, or an undercover cop, or a spy or possibly even an insurance salesman who has stumbled across something lucrative but dangerous.

This is a series that takes its time letting us know what is going on. We find out a little bit about Kirby in the second episode. He is divorced, the divorce was amicable, he is staying at his ex-wife’s house and he has money troubles. He also drinks rather a lot. 

Kirby’s problem (or at least one of his several problems) is that he’s short of reliable allies. In fact it looks like Laura Marshall might be the only ally he has but it’s doubtful whether he can trust her either. Laura’s stepfather, Roger Fane (Patrick Allen), is a senior civil servant. It’s not entirely clear what he does but it seems to have something to do with security or counter-espionage. Fane seems to be rather interested in Bill Kirby.

By episode five we’re still not sure what is really going on, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and what the motivations of the major characters might be. The mystery is maintained without resorting to willful obscurity. We’re not actually misled, we’re merely handed one piece of the jugsaw puzzle at a time. 

The emphasis is on atmosphere and tension, and a considerable degree of 1970s paranoia, rather than action. 

John Gregson had a reasonably successful film career in the 50s. By the 60s he was working mostly in television, with considerable success. He starred in the hit cop show Gideon’s Way. Tragically he died suddenly at 56 shortly after filming Dangerous Knowledge. Gregson was perhaps getting a bit old, and a bit portly, to be starring in thrillers by this time but then that’s really the point of the series - Kirby really is too old to be getting mixed up in these sorts of activities but he needs money badly and he had no idea it would turn out to be this dangerous. Gregson does an effective job. He’s gruff and grizzled and cynical but sympathetic as well. At the same time we’re not entirely confident that he’s an honourable man. We like him but he could be a hero or a rogue, or even an out-and-out villain.

Prunella Ransome is very good as Laura. Laura is a woman who is not sure where her sympathies should lie or where they actually do lie. Ransome doesn’t try to play her as a femme fatale. She’s simply a reasonably intelligent woman thrust into a situation where she’s out of her depth.

Patrick Allen is perfectly cast. He could play smooth villains or trusted authority figures with equal assurance and he’s suitably enigmatic here in his portrayal of Roger Fane.

Ralph Bates (best remembered for his appearances in some extremely interesting early 70s Hammer films) as Sanders makes a surprisingly good heavy. He gets virtually no dialogue. Mostly he just looks menacing but in an ambiguous way, as if he could be a cold-blooded hitman or an equally cold-blooded spy or undercover cop. He does the menacing part extremely well. 

Producer-director Alan Gibson did a great deal of television work but also directed a couple of Hammer horror films - the notorious Dracula A.D. 1972 and the underrated The Satanic Rites of Dracula. He also directed the obscure but interesting Goodbye Gemini.

N.J. Crisp’s career as a television writer was prolific and varied. He wrote all six half-hour episodes and his scripts are literate and cunningly contrived to keep us guessing. What’s particularly impressive is that he does this without over-complicating the plot. The main plot outline is quite straightforward, if only we could be sure who is betraying whom and why.

Simply Home Entertainment’s Region 2 DVD release is a single disc without any extras. The transfers are however very good. There's also a Region 1 DVD, from VCI.

Dangerous Knowledge is typical of the best British television of its type of the 60s and 70s, fairly low-key and slow-burning but tense and absorbing. It’s well-written and extremely well-acted. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1979 BBC adaptation (made in association with Paramount) of John le Carré’s celebrated 1974 spy novel of the same name. Alec Guinness stars as the masterspy George Smiley.

Things are not going well for the Circus. The Circus (so-called because it has its headquarters in Cambridge Circus) is le Carré’s fictionalised version of Britain Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes known as MI6. An operation in Czechoslovakia went horribly wrong with a British spy ending up with to bullets in his back. Eighteen months later another disaster followed with the defection of two high-ranking KGB officers ending in another fiasco. The Circus officer involved, Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), spent six months on the run but now he’s surfaced in London and he has a disturbing tale to tell. Tarr’s story makes it clear that there is a Soviet mole (code-named Gerald) in the Circus. Worse than that, the mole must be one of the five top-ranking men in the Circus. That means that an internal investigation would be completely pointless. The investigation will have to be carried out by someone who is both an insider and an outsider. Someone like George Smiley, formerly the number two man at the Circus and now retired.

The former chief of the Circus (known only as Control) had had strong suspicions and Smiley had shared those suspicions. Control had narrowed the field down to five suspects. The first is Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), a man whose skills at political manoeuvring are vastly more impressive than his skills as an intelligence officer. For the purposes of his ow investigation Control has given Alleline the code name Tinker. The second is the brilliant and urbane Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson); Control has dubbed him Tailor. The third suspect is the boisterous and somewhat unstable Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); he has been given the code name Soldier. Number four is the ambitious Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) - he is Poor Man. Control’s final suspect is George Smiley - Beggarman.

Control is now dead and the new chief is Alleline. George Smiley is no longer a possible suspect - he was forced into retirement and it is clear that the mole is still in the top echelons of the Circus. 

Smiley’s investigation is official but it has to be undertaken without the knowledge of any of the four remaining suspects or anyone else in the Circus who might alert the mole.

Smiley’s greatest assets are his patience and his thoroughness, and most of all his remarkable memory. His memories are crucial since his investigation is in fact a journey into the past. At times the distant past. The mole might well have been working for the KGB for decades. Smiley’s memories of Karla may be important as well, Karla (Patrick Stewart) being the KGB spymaster who recruited Gerald. Smiley had encountered Karla twenty years earlier - in fact he’d tried (with a striking lack of success) to recruit Karla as a double agent.

Memory is also important in the sense that the Circus is in a sense living in the past, trying to recapture the glory days of the Second World when Britain was a great power. Those glory days are long gone. To many in the Circus this seems like a kind of betrayal. They started their careers with high hopes and high ideals but now they are simply a rather unsuccessful intelligence agency of a third-rate power.

Betrayal is of course the other major theme. The original novel was obviously partly inspired by the spectacular real-life act of betrayal by Kim Philby, the senior MI6 officer who was a Soviet spy for the whole of his lengthy career. In fact one of the many MI6 operatives whose cover was blown by Philby was John le Carré, who worked as a real-life spy for MI5 and later MI6 until the early 1960s. Betrayal was something le Carré experienced at first hand and this doubtless goes a long way to explain George Smiley’s relentless pursuit of the mole in the novel. 

The book deals with betrayals on multiple levels - not just actual treason but betrayals of hopes and ideals and also personal betrayals. The TV adaptation is surprisingly successful in translating these complex interlocking themes to the small screen. This is a very cerebral spy drama with very little action. The lack of action could have been a problem in a seven-part TV serial but the psychological tension and the suspense are sufficient compensation and on the whole it works very well. The one criticism that could be made is that the final episode, much of which is a kind of epilogue, drags a little. This doesn’t matter so much in the novel but for TV I think it should have been tightened up a little. On the other hand it does offer the opportunity to make Gerald’s motivations much clearer.

The adaptation is remarkably faithful to the novel, both in terms of plot and characterisation. 

I was not entirely convinced by Terence Rigby’s slightly caricatured performance as Roy Bland and I thought that Bernard Hepton made Toby Esterhase much too English (he’s supposed to be Hungarian). On the whole though the acting is fine. Alec Guinness is physically not quite right as Smiley but he captures Smiley’s quirks of character so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Michael Aldridge (who was so delightful in the 60s spy series The Man in Room 17) is perfect as the rather oily Percy Alleline. Ian Richardson plays Haydon with an admirable sense of style and self-assurance. Anthony Bate is excellent as the Circus’s political master Sir Oliver Lacon, a typical politician  whose main concern is to limit the political damage to the government.

The co-production deal with Paramount meant that the BBC had plenty of money to throw around on location shooting and the result is a very handsome production.

The only real weaknesses are in fact reflections of weaknesses in the source novel - the identity of the mole is a little too obvious and the emphasis on Smiley’s train wreck of a private life is such that there is at times a danger that the viewer will start to regard with contempt rather than sympathy.

The DVD includes a fine documentary on John le Carré in which the author takes at length about his own experiences as a spy. The documentary also includes some fascinating comments from a former very senior KGB officer and also from the former head of the East German secret police (who spent his leisure hours in the 1960s reading John le Carré spy novels).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is engrossing television. Highly recommended.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Alfred Hitchcock Presents - And So Died Riabouchinska (1956)

And So Died Riabouchinska was broadcast in 1956 as the twentieth episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s based on a Ray Bradbury story and boasts an interesting cast headlined by Claude Rains and a young Charles Bronson.

I’m particularly fond of horror and mystery stories featuring ventriloquists’ dummies -they always make for lots of creepiness.

Claude Rains plays Fabian, a vaudeville performer at a time when vaudeville was not exactly booming. A man is found murdered in the theatre where he is appearing. The man had apparently been trying to get to see Fabian, for some important but unknown purpose.  Detective Krovitch (Charles Bronson) is the investigating officer and he finds that interviewing Fabian is a slightly odd process since Fabian’s doll Riabouchinska insists on being part of the conversation. Krovitch is doubtful as to whether Fabian is being entirely truthful but he suspects that the doll is telling the truth.

The doll was modeled after a real woman, a young and very beautiful woman with whom Fabian was acquainted. Possible quite well acquainted although this was more than twenty years earlier so what connection could it have with the murder of the stranger in the theatre?

Mel Dinelli adapted Bradbury’s story for the small screen. Dinelli was not a prolific screen writer but he did have a few rather impressive credits including the suspense classic The Spiral Staircase. As for Bradbury I’ve always had mixed feelings about him as a writer although I do admit that at his best he could be very atmospheric and very subtle. 

And So Died Riabouchinska is the kind of story that Bradbury did very well and the television adaptation works pretty effectively. It’s typical Bradbury in that it suggests something supernatural but it remains only a suggestion.

Claude Rains gives a very fine performance, managing to be quite disturbing without being too excessive about it. Charles Bronson hadn’t yet found his feet as an actor although there are signs of his later minimalist acting style. In this TV play he’s at his best when he tones his performance right down.

There are better television and movie ventriloquists’ dummy stories but And So Died Riabouchinska is still a worthy example of an odd little sub-genre. It’s certainly worth seeing for the terrific and surprisingly restrained performance by Claude Rains. Highly recommended.

The first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is of course easily obtainable on DVD in all markets.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Sandbaggers, season two (1980)

The Sandbaggers, made by Britain’s Yorkshire Television, ran for three seasons from 1978 to 1980. This series took the gritty realistic and cynical spy drama further than it had ever been taken before, and in fact it took that approach about as far as it could be taken.

Ian Mackintosh created the series and wrote all of the episodes of the first two seasons and some season three episodes before his tragic death at the age of 39 in 1979. Mackintosh had earlier created the successful Warship series while still serving in the Royal Navy. There have been persistent rumours that Mackintosh had actually been a serving member of the Secret Intelligence Service or had at least been seconded to the SIS at some point during his naval career. The accuracy of his knowledge of the inner workings of the intelligence community has fueled these rumours although it’s also possible that he simply did his research very very thoroughly. Mackintosh himself was non-committal on the subject.

Either way the series presents a remarkably accurate picture of how real-life spies actually operate and how the intelligence community interacts, sometimes catastrophically, with government. Of course some liberties were taken for dramatic effect - even a hyper-realistic spy series has to have a bit more action than a real-life spy would normally encounter.

Mackintosh wanted the series to be accurate but with the focus largely on the internal politics of the SIS and its interactions with its political masters and with the CIA.

The result is a series that is fascinating but also unremittingly bleak and horrifyingly cynical. I watched the first season a while back and at times I found it to be just a little too nihilistic and despairing. You really have to be in the mood to watch this series. If you do happen to be in the mood it can be riveting television.

The Sandbaggers are a very small and specialised team department of the SIS. They handle the really dirty and dangerous jobs. There are never more than three Sandbaggers, working under Neil Burnside (Roy Marden). Burnside had been a Sandbagger and is now  the SIS Director of Operations, responsible for all operations involving field agents. His relations with his superiors are uneasy.

Season two opens with At All Costs. A year after a disastrous operation in Berlin the SIS receives an offer that is almost too good to be true. The head of the Bulgarian secret service has offered to provide the SIS with extraordinarily valuable information. The offer is so good that it surely has to be a set-up. And yet it could be real, and if it is real it’s an offer that cannot be passed up. The Bulgarian secret service chief will only had the information over to Sandbagger Two. This in itself is suspicious, but then again there could be a valid reason. Burnside is full of misgivings but “C” (the head of the SIS, played by the wonderful Richard Vernon) is keen. The SIS is about to have its already meagre budget slashed and they need a major success. The operation goes ahead. 

This episode encapsulates most of the major themes of the series - the impossibility of knowing whether you’re going to be double-crossed or not, the necessity to go ahead with insanely high-risk operations for political reasons, and most of all the all-pervasive sense of fear when operating alone in a hostile country knowing you may be walking straight into a trap. 

In Enough of Ghosts the Sandbaggers have to deal with terrorism and they find out that not all the fanatics are on the terrorists’ side.

In Decision by Committee an aircraft is hijacked. Two very senior British military men are aboard and they are the principal targets of the terrorists. What the terrorists don’t know is that there are two other notable passengers - a Sandbagger and a CIA operative. The British government in the manner one would expect from a government - they do a great deal of discussing but are desperate to avoid making any actual decision. Neil Burnside however is determined to do something. It is an unwritten law in the Secret Intelligence Service that if a Sandbagger is in trouble some attempt must be made to get him out of it. This puts Burnside at odds with his superiors. A very tense episode and a very good one.

A Question of Loyalty presents Burnside with multiple problems - a failed operation in Warsaw and a possible double agent in Stockholm. It’s a complex web of deceptions in which, as so often in this series, the biggest problems are posed by friends and allies rather than enemies. 

It Couldn't Happen Here is an exceptionally provocative episode. A Cabinet Minister is involved in a car accident in Germany. A woman is killed and she happens to have been a Secret Intelligence Service officer. The Cabinet Minister’s behaviour after the accident was questionable to say the least and Burnside decides to do some digging. The results are alarming. MI5 and the CIA have been digging into the Minister’s past as well, with equally alarming results. While this is happening the American Secret Service has borrowed both Sandbaggers to protect an American senator. Neil finds out that his old friend at the CIA, Jeff Ross, has some rather colourful conspiracy theories about political assassinations. Of course such things could never happen in Britain, except that maybe they could if the circumstances were extraordinary enough. And those extraordinary circumstances may have already arisen.

Lots of fascinating and breathtakingly cynical political machinations in this excellent episode. 

Operation Kingmaker has something you definitely don’t expect in an episode of The Sandbaggers - humour. Low-key understated cynical humour but moments of humour nonetheless. Neil Burnside is playing a dangerous internal political game for very high stakes.

I’m not sure whether the second season was actually better than the first or whether I’m just a bit more in tune with the intentions behind it but I did enjoy season two. It’s still pretty bleak although the good guys do sometimes win. That of course is assuming we’re meant to see the SIS as the good guys. In fact we really don’t see much of the KGB at all. They’re more like a constant background noise but there’s very little focus on actual active KGB operations.

The acting is a major strength. Roy Marsden is terrific as Neil Burnside, a man for who we feel some sympathy and some admiration while at the same time his personal flaws, his recklessness, his cold-blooded cynicism and his often poor judgment appall us. He’s a very flawed hero indeed. He combines ruthless ambition with an extraordinary ability to sabotage his own career.

Richard Vernon (who happens to be one of my favourite English actors of this era) is superb as “C” - a bit crusty and pompous but shrewd and flexible and very confident.

Ray Lonnen has one of the more sympathetic roles this series has to offer as Sandbagger One Willie Caine. Willie is a complex man who detests violence but has spent six years in the Special Operations Section in which violence is all part of the job. He’s also the closest thing to a friend that Neil Burnside has.

Bob Sherman is the CIA’s station chief in London, a cheerful slightly amoral character who has established a very close and amicable working relationship with Burnside.

Each episode is basically a standalone drama although there is certainly some degree of character development (Burnside for example becomes steadily more obsessive and his judgment becomes increasingly erratic). While there are no real multi-episode story arcs actions do have consequences for the characters and those consequences are evident in later episodes.

The Sandbaggers is not exactly light entertainment. It’s an ambitious and very cerebral spy drama with the focus on motivations and political consequences rather than action. Highly recommended.

The Sandbaggers is available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Out of This World - Little Lost Robot (1962)

Out of This World is a science fiction anthology series made by Britain’s ABC Television in 1962, hosted by Boris Karloff. The series began with a one-off episode produced by the renowned Sydney Newman as part of the Armchair Theatre series. The series proper was produced by Leonard White with Irene Shubik as story editor. Irene Shubik went on to produce the rather similar BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown. Sadly only one episode of Out of This World has survived, Little Lost Robot, with a screenplay by Leo Lehmann based on an Isaac Asimov short story.

Perhaps unfortunately Little Lost Robot is a very atypical episode of the series, according to Leonard White, differing markedly in both tone and style from the other episodes.

Little Lost Robot deals with Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics. The First Law of Robotics is that a robot cannot harm a human being, or allow any harm to come to a human being. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, the commanders of a space station in the vicinity have decided to alter the First Law slightly. They have modified several Nestor robots. These robots are still forbidden to do active harm to a human but they can allow a human to be harmed. Even more unfortunately one of the modified robots has become lost. The chief engineer, in a moment of irritation, rather unwisely lost his temper and told the robot to get lost. The robot, being very literal-minded and being compelled by one of the other Laws of Robotics to obey any order given by a human, proceeded to get lost.

The missing robot has not been found but it has been located. A shipment of twenty (unmodified) Nestors has just arrived from Earth but there are now twenty-one robots in the group rather than twenty. The lost robot has concealed itself among the other twenty. And there is absolutely no way of telling which of these robots is the modified version.

The top robot psychologist in the solar system, Dr Susan Calvin (Maxine Audley), has been sent from Earth to sort out the problem and identify the rogue robot. She devises a series of clever tests to fool the modified robot into revealing itself but the robot seems to be able to stay one jump ahead of her.

The situation is increasingly critical. The modified Nestor has been communicating with the twenty unmodified robots and there is a danger that all twenty may adopt the same changed version of the First Law. The end result may be a robot mutiny, or even a robot rebellion.

These are robots that are quite unlike anything we would think of today as robots. They are not mere machines. They have personalities and they have emotions. They are perhaps more like mechanical slaves (and indeed the slave analogy is made explicit at one point in the story).

If you are prepared to accept the idea of robots with feelings than can be hurt then the story is reasonably engaging and clever.

Maxine Audley as Dr Calvin and Clifford Evans as the space station commander Major-General Kallner both give fairly good performances. Gerald Flood plays the chief engineer and he’s the villain of the piece. He detests robots. Flood plays him as a sort of wicked slave-owner who both fears and hates his slaves.

The robots themselves are what you would expect from early 1960s television - they’re crude mechanical men and look much too obviously like guys in tin suits. A bigger problem is that it’s difficult to accept that these painfully slow-moving tin men could be potentially dangerous. The robots are as bad as anything you will find in 1960s Doctor Who.

Even worse the script really doesn’t do anything to make us feel any sense of potential menace. There are rare moments when we might feel some anxiety for the safety of one of the characters but these moments fall flat. 

Luckily things finally come together with the very effective ending.

Several Out of This World episodes were remade for the BBC’s Out of the Unknown series, the bad news being that most episodes of that series have been lost as well. 

The BFI have done an admirable job with their DVD release. The highlight is the audio commentary which features producer Leonard White. White makes some interesting and provocative points, noting that television drama as a distinctive format that took advantage of the unique characteristics of the medium (such as the fact that early 1960s television was done more or less live) is something that sadly no longer exists. The liner notes include a couple of essays on the production history of the series. Image quality is pretty good. The DVD also includes audio-only versions of two of the lost episodes.

Little Lost Robot has enormous historical interest and despite its flaws it’s worth a look.