Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Time Tunnel (1966-67), part one

The Time Tunnel was less successful than Irwin Allen’s other 1960s TV sci-fi series, running for a single season on the American ABC network from 1966 to 1967.

I wrote about The Time Tunnel a few years back but I’ve now had the opportunity to watch a lot more episodes and my views on this series have changed somewhat so I think it’s appropriate to take another look at it, and in a bit more depth.

The premise is a good one - a top-secret U.S. government time-travel project. Although the technology is very advanced in theory in practice it doesn’t work so well and our two unfortunate time-travellers are hopelessly lost in time, shuffled from one historical era to another but with no way of returning to the present. So it’s a bit like Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space but with the heroes lost in time. It is however notably lacking in the high camp excesses of Lost in Space. In fact as time-travel series go it takes its subject more seriously than you might expect. There is for example a much greater awareness of time paradoxes and the inherent limitations of time travel that you don’t find in Doctor Who.

One of the things for which The Time Tunnel is sometimes criticised is the very extensive use of footage from various 20th Century-Fox historical movies. I don’t really see this as too much of a problem. It’s done quite skilfully and in any case a series in which every episode takes place in a different historical period and always at a time when major historical events are unfolding would have been astronomically expensive to make without the use of existing footage.

Of course this technique means that the series is limited to dealing with historical events for which 20th Century-Fox had suitable colour footage from their movies but since the studio had made a lot of movies by 1966 this was not a major constraint.

All American science fiction television programs of the 50s, 60s and 70s had budgetary problems. Science fiction television is expensive to make and there’s really no way to avoid spending a lot of money if you want decent results. This tended to make the networks very nervous, and tended to make them fairly hostile to science fiction. Network execs figured that if cop shows and westerns could be made dirt cheap then why risk big money on science fiction shows? Most American TV sci-fi series in this era had limited runs, not necessarily because of poor ratings but simply because the bean-counters were unwilling to continue spending money on series they considered to be risky to begin with.

The usual pattern was for the first one or two seasons to be fairly visually impressive and then the producers would find themselves having to deal with sharply reduced budgets in later seasons. The most successful of all Irwin Allen’s series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, suffered rather grievously in this respect in its third and fourth seasons. The use of existing footage helped to keep The Time Tunnel’s budget within reasonable limits but it was still inevitably a lot more costly to make than a cop show. It’s therefore not entirely surprising that the series was cancelled after a single season despite very good ratings.

Doug and Tony, the two heroes of the series, always seem to arrive at a particular time and place in which something incredibly historic is about to happen. It’s a bit unrealistic but after all the aim is to provide entertainment so it’s forgivable.

Science fiction writers tend to agonise over the dangers of time paradoxes and to take two different approaches to the question. One approach stress that time travellers would have to be very careful not to change history as this could have disastrous consequences in the present. The alternative point of view is that even if you tried to change history the Universe would not allow it to happen and history would stubbornly follow its allotted course. The Time Tunnel seems mostly to adopt the latter approach. Doug and Tony do on many occasions try to change history but they seem doomed always to fail. In some episodes they seem oblivious to the problem while in others they seem to be very aware indeed of the impossibility of changing history.

There is one curious unexplained aspect of this series. What exactly is the purpose of the Time Tunnel? Obviously it’s time travel, but for what purpose? It’s established very early on that any attempt to change the course of history is doomed to fail. So why is the U.S. government spending billions on the project? We do get a tantalising hint in the episode Secret Weapon that the CIA might have an interest in the project.

It’s also interesting to compare this series with another Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which began its run two years earlier in 1964. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a celebration of American scientific and technological prowess, with the Seaview being a shining achievement. The technology in The Time Tunnel on the other hand is ambitious but it’s a fiasco. The tunnel is supposed to be able to send people to a specified time period but it doesn’t work properly and can send them anywhere. It’s supposed to be able to bring them back again but it can’t. There’s supposed to be a mechanism that will allow the controllers to contact the time travellers but it doesn’t work. The controllers are supposed to be able to pinpoint the time travellers’ exact position in time and space but it only works intermittently. This is a seriously unsuccessful piece of technology!

Rendezvous with Yesterday was the pilot episode. The DVD release of the series includes the unaired extended version of this episode. Irwin Allen himself directed it and shares the writing credit as well.

An ultra-secret US government project is getting very close to unlocking the secrets of time itself and making time travel possible, but when the pesky Senator Leroy Clark (played by Gary Merrill)  turns up to find out exactly how the many billions of dollars poured into the vast project have been spent they have to admit that they haven’t done any actual time travel yet. They’re sent mice back in time, or at least they think they have but they can’t be sure because they’ve never been able to get the mice back to the present. Senators being annoying creatures Clark wants to close the whole project down unless they can demonstrate some real results right now. As in today.

Horrified by the thought of seeing the project shut down the young and headstrong Dr Tony Newman (James Darren) volunteers to be the guinea pig. He is told that such a thing is out of the question. It is much too dangerous. He goes into the time tunnel anyway.

He ends up in 1912. That’s not so bad, especially when he meets a charming and friendly young Englishwoman, Althea Hall (Susan Hampshire). And he’s on a passenger liner and it’s a sunny day and the sea is calm. This is not bad at all. He doesn’t start to worry until he sees the name of the ship. It’s the Titanic.

The project is supposed to have a way of keeping track of time travellers but despite ten years of work and billions of dollars the whole time tunnel thing still has a lot of bugs in it. They do locate Tony but his buddy and close associate on the project Dr Doug Philips (Robert Colbert) realises that the only way to rescue him is to go into the time tunnel itself to bring him back.

So we now have two scientists hopelessly lost in time.

In One Way to the Moon Doug and Tony are transported ten years into the future, onto a spaceship bound for Mars. The difficulty is that with two extra passengers the spaceship is now dangerously overloaded. There’s plenty of action and excitement and there’s the neat twist of an important character in 1968 watching his future self in 1978.

End of the World is a clever idea. Doug and Tony are in the middle of a mine disaster in 1910 but no-one wants to help rescue the trapped miners because there’s no point - Halley’s Comet is about to hit the Earth and everyone is doomed anyway. Doug and Tony have to find a way to convince the townspeople the world isn’t going to end, which means they have to convince the great Professor Ainsley that his prediction is wrong and that the comet is not going to hit.

Crack of Doom takes our intrepid time travellers to the year 1883, to a little island named Krakatoa where a volcano is about to erupt. In fact the whole island will blow up, the explosion making the most powerful H-bomb seem like a toy. The explosion was heard 3,000 miles away. And the Time Tunnel has dropped Doug and Tony onto the island the day before the eruption. Apart from trying to save themselves they also hope to save a curmudgeonly vulcanologist and his daughter.

In Massacre the two time travellers find themselves at the Little Big Horn just in time to see Custer lead his men to disaster. This episode gets a bit heavy handed at times.

Devil's Island takes Doug and Tony to the infamous French penal colony in French Guiana. Naturally they arrive right at the time that the prison’s most famous prisoner, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, arrives. Doug and Tony are mistaken for prisoners and have to endure various horrors at the hands of the sadistic French commandant and the brutal French sergeant of the guards. There is an escape plan afoot but could it be a ploy by the evil French government to kill Dreyfus? The writers of this episode seem to have a few issues with the French! Not a great episode.

In Reign of Terror those dastardly French are up to evilness again! This time it’s the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette is about to have her head chopped off and Doug and Tony are drawn into a plan to save her (which of course they know is impossible). In any case they have enough trouble trying to keep their own heads on their shoulders. Quite a good episode.

Secret Weapon is a spy thriller episode set in eastern Europe in 1956 and Doug and Tony find out that the time tunnel is not as unique as they’d thought. This is the first episode that really plays around with the time travel concept in a creative way rather than just as an excuse for adventures in other historical period. It’s also the first episode that gives us a hint as the actual purpose of the Time Tunnel. It’s intended as a weapon. It’s a weapon that both sides in the Cold War are trying to develop. This is the best and most interesting episode so far.

The Death Trap has quite an amusing setup. There’s a plot to assassinate Lincoln, in 1861, and the would-be assassins are Abolitionists!

As far as The Alamo is concerned the title pretty much explains it. The trick for Doug and Tony is to get out of the Alamo alive. A reasonably good episode.

Night of the Long Knives takes Doug and Tony to India, to the North West Frontier, in 1886. Naturally they run into Kipling, and they get mixed up in a planned rebellion. Lots of stock footage in this episode (from King of the Khyber Rifles) but there’s also plenty of action and excitement even if the plot is totally unoriginal. I happen to be fascinated by this area of history so I loved this story.

It’s rather surprising that we get to episode fifteen, Invasion, before we get our first conformed Nazi sighting. Nazis were everywhere in 1960s action adventure TV series. In this story Doug and Tony are in Cherbourg, two days before D-Day, and the Gestapo is convinced they are spies. Doug gets brainwashed into believing he’s a Nazi. This is an OK episode.

That takes us up to the halfway point in the series. There’ll be another post at a later date covering the rest of the episodes.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

It’s a bit of a challenge trying to find anything new to say about Thunderbirds. It’s one of the truly iconic 60s TV shows, has maintained a loyal cult following for half a century and has been endlessly written about. All I can do is offer a few personal impressions, plus I’m going to talk about a few episodes that I’ve watched recently that have some interesting aspects to them.

One of the secrets to the success of the Gerry Anderson series of the 60s was that both Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had major input into the formats. Gerry knew all the stuff that boys were going to like (gadgets and action) and Sylvia knew what girls would like (a beautiful glamorous female secret agent). They had all bases covered.

And with Thunderbirds they really went all out to make sure they had all those bases thoroughly covered. It truly was a remarkably clever idea. The exploits of a rescue organisation had obvious potential for proving action and suspense. But this was to be an ultra-secret rescue organisation, so immediately you have the potential for some spy series-type intrigue. Add the aforementioned lady secret agent and you have even more excitement plus some glamour. To make this ingenious formula work they needed scripts that would provide the right mix of science fiction, spy thriller and crime thriller elements (with occasional dashes of humour and romance) and that’s what the writers came up with.

There was also Gerry Anderson’s determination to make each new series look more impressive than the preceding one. Thunderbirds is definitely a major step forward from Stingray. It’s visually more ambitious and it has a much more lavish and at the same time more realistic look. The action sequences are bigger and better. The miniatures are better. The puppets have been improved.

Compared to Stingray Thunderbirds definitely has more of an epic big-budget feel, it’s more cinematic. The hour-long format also of course lends itself to a more expansive and complex approach to plotting.

Stingray could be very exciting but there were many episodes that had a very whimsical feel. Which is fine, since it was essentially a kids’ show. Thunderbirds still has moments of whimsicality but overall it has a more sophisticated more grown-up tone. The whimsicality is kept strictly within limits.

While it was the spectacular rescues that were the series’ main selling point the spy/crime/ international intrigue angles actually dominate quite a few of the stories. In Brink of Disaster Lady Penelope, while out driving in her Rolls-Royce (unusually she is driving herself and is alone) is menaced by a couple of hoods. They take a few shots at her car with a submachine gun. At this point she decides the two men are a problem that needs to be disposed. So she kills them, ruthlessly and efficiently and without fuss. There’s no moral problem here. She is clearly acting in self-defence. It is however quite clear that Lady Penelope accepts that her job as a secret agent will sometimes require her to kill people, and it is clear that she has absolutely no problem with this. It’s a slightly surprising attitude to find in a kids’ show. What’s even more noteworthy is that in this case the violence is fairly realistic and not cartoonish.

There’s a definite attempt to avoid giving Jeff Tracy and his sons too much of a bleeding heart vibe. Obviously they are dedicated to saving lives and to doing good but they’re hard-headed and realistic about it. It’s also interesting that a rescue organisation employs a secret agent (Lady Penelope) and that it’s taken for granted that her duties will from time to time involve killing people. Jeff Tracy clearly understands how the real world works and that an overly sentimental or naïve approach won’t get you very far. It’s a remarkably clear-sighted and realistic view to come across in a children’s television program.

Brink of Disaster is an interesting episode not just for its insights into Lady Penelope’s ruthlessness. A major challenge for the writers was that Thunderbirds has a large cast of regular characters. There are ten major characters and a couple of other recurring characters. They all need to be given something useful to do. So in this episode there are two interconnected plot strands, one of which gives Jeff Tracy, Brains and Tin-Tin the rare opportunity to be personally involved in a rescue while the other puts Lady Penelope and Parker at centre stage.

Attack of the Alligators! is another interesting one. While Thunderbirds is science fiction the science fictional elements are generally quite restrained. Most of the technology consists of what would have seemed like fairly conservative extrapolations on the technology of the mid-60s. Space stations, hypersonic aircraft like Thunderbird 1, high-speed monorails, supersonic airliners, advanced cargo ships requiring only a skeleton crew, all these things would have seemed very plausible indeed. Attack of the Alligators! is a rare example of a Thunderbirds episode that involves rather fanciful science fiction elements (alligators grown to several times their normal size by a new miracle drug). In fact this story has the feel of a 1950s monster movie.

We also make a surprising discovery in this episode. International Rescue’s hoverbikes are missile-armed! And Thunderbird 4 carries missiles as well.

Martian Invasion involves not an alien invasion but a movie about an alien invasion. An accident on the set leaves two actors trapped in a cave that is rapidly filling with water. But that’s only part of the story, the real story being that it is all part of a plan by the nefarious super-spy The Hood to steal International Rescue’s secrets. And International Rescue does not take kindly to any threats to its security. It turns out that Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 2 are also very well-armed and Scott and Virgil are quite willing to resort to extreme measures to keep the organisation’s secrets. The combination of a race against time to rescue the trapped actors with some remarkably well-filmed action scenes (the chase scene involving Thunderbird 1 is particularly impressive) makes this a very entertaining episode.

The Duchess Assignment is a crime thriller episode with a rescue thrown in at the end. This one could easily have been an episode of The Saint, with Lady Penelope trying to extricate an old friend from the clutches of crooked gamblers and trying to foil art thieves.

The Cham-Cham is a spy thriller, with Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin going undercover to investigate a possible link between a pop group and the mysterious loss of several military transport aircraft. This episode demonstrates the growing confidence of Anderson’s team of puppeteers - we see puppets playing musical instruments, skiing and dancing and doing so fairly convincingly. They even do stunts! So far as puppeteering is concerned this may be the most ambitious episode yet. And with a bit of a Bond movie feel to it (not surprising in 1966) it’s also great fun.

Operation Crash-Dive is a more conventional rescue-oriented episode. The loss of one of the highly advanced Fireflash supersonic jetliners was bad enough but now a second Fireflash has crashed, in almost the same location. International Rescue are on the scene but there seems that there is little they can do until Brains comes to a startling conclusion. The Fireflash may have crashed into the sea and it’s possible that the flight crew could be still alive, trapped deep beneath the sea.

International Rescue do a bit more than just carry out a rescue though. For the next Fireflash test flight they take over the whole process of investigating the cause of the air disasters. There's plenty of excitement to come in this story.

In Edge of Impact that villainous super-spy The Hood is sabotaging the test flights of the advanced new fighter the Red Arrow. There’s also the matter of two men trapped atop a television transmitting tower, and that’s due to The Hood as well. The rescue method is certainly different and it involves a bizarre gadget, so all in all a good episode.

Cry Wolf is an episode that threatens to get a bit too warm-hearted. A couple of boys in the Australian Outback are playing at being International Rescue but their radio message is treated as genuine by the real International Rescue and Scott sets off in Thunderbird 1 to rescue them. When he discovers it was all a game Scott decides to take them back to the secret base on Tracy Island, hoping that this will persuade them not to send out any more fake distress calls. But what happens when soon afterwards the boys really need rescuing?

Dennis Spooner throws in some spy thriller elements, with the boys’ father being involved in an ultra-secret government satellite tracking project and masterspy The Hood determined to steal the project’s secrets. After a slow start things pick up and there’s a double race against time as the climax. It gets a bit whimsical at times and it’s not a classic but it’s an OK episode.

Thunderbirds really is great entertainment. There’s the occasional dud episode but the good episodes (and there are plenty of good ones) are significantly better than anything Anderson had done before. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Sweeney, season 2 (1975)

Season two of The Sweeney first went to air in late 1975 and easily maintained the first season’s reputation as the most exciting police drama TV series of the decade.

There’s not much to be said about this series that hasn’t already been said so I’ll just touch on a few less obvious aspects. While John Thaw and Dennis Waterman get most of the attention (and they are superb) the contribution of the third regular cast member Garfield Morgan, who plays DCI Frank Haskins, should not be underestimated. It’s a good example of the way the series tries to avoid being too obvious. Haskins should be the type of copper that Regan despises. Haskins is clearly upper-class, he’s a stickler for the rules and he’s always got one eye on his pension. But even though Haskins is a policeman of a radically different type to the rules-bending working-class risk-taking Jack Regan, Haskins is still in his own way a good copper. And that’s what matters to Regan. On the other hand Regan does have his doubts as to whether Haskins has the mental toughness for the job. So while the obvious move would have been to set up an antagonistic relationship between these two men what we actually get is more complicated and more uneasy, with Regan regarding Haskins with an odd mixture of respect tinged with contempt.

At the same time the differences in approach are profound, and not just a matter of differing personalities. Regan believes in coming down hard on criminals and never giving them an inch because he understands that anything less will be seen by the criminals as weakness, with disastrous consequences. Haskins is by nature a conciliator, a compromiser. This tends to make for a successful career but whether it’s the right approach for a policeman is debatable. These differences in approach will come to a head in spectacular fashion late in season two.

The Regan-Carter relationship is also somewhat complex. There would have been two obvious ways to play this, either as a buddy movie-style equal partnership or as a junior officer learning the ropes from an old hand. But neither of those options really describes this particular relationship. George Carter is a sergeant in the Flying Squad which means he has at least a few years’ service behind him - he’s no wet-behind-the-ears youngster straight out of Police College. He doesn’t need Jack Regan to teach him his job. On the other hand it’s not quite an equal relationship - Regan is Carter’s senior officer and Carter has to go along with Regan’s methods even though in many cases he thinks they’re reckless and even potentially irresponsible. The two men are definitely close friends but it’s  a complex relationship. And that’s the kind of cop show The Sweeney is. The relationships between characters are complicated grown-up relationships, just as the situations they face on the job are complicated and messy.

The secret to The Sweeney’s success is that it manages to be a grown-up cop series that is still enormous fun. The serious, gritty, brutally realistic and morally complex side is balanced by healthy doses of humour and even playfulness and it’s all done with breathtaking energy and style.

The Sweeney seems as fresh today as it seemed in 1975. In fact in some ways more fresh. It’s notorious lack of political correctness means that it has an honesty that you just don’t get in television today.

Chalk and Cheese is the story of a mismatched pair of young hoodlums, one lower-class and one decidedly upper-class. Both need money, although for very different reasons. Armed robbery seems to be an easy answer to their problem, but armed robbery that is a bit more imaginative than robbing banks. George Carter has a personal stake in this case which becomes a race against time since sooner or later one of these robberies will inevitably end with someone getting shot.

In Faces a gang of armed robbers have pulled three big jobs in two days, a rather surprising circumstance since villains generally lie low after a big job. In fact these are a bit more than just armed robbers and it appears that the Security Service (MI5) have some interest in this case. Which makes things nicely complicated for DI Regan.

Supersnout is one of those episodes that is played at least partly for comedy. Regan’s boss Chief Inspector Haskins is out of the country and DCI Quirk has taken over temporarily. Quirk is a bit of a Colonel Blimp type and his best years are behind him but he still dreams of breaking one big case that will gain him promotion, and a bigger pension. Quirk’s objective at the moment is to catch the infamous Post Office Gang. Quirk has an informant, and Jack Regan has an informant as well, and Jack starts to suspect that maybe the two informants are one and the same man.

Meanwhile Quirk has devised a very elaborate plan to catch the Post Office Gang in the act. It all turns into a comedy of errors although there’s a serious and even slightly sad side to it as well.

In Big Brother a young suspect collapses while being questioned by Regan and is rushed to hospital. Given Regan’s reputation for being a bit free with his fists it’s not surprising that just about everyone suspects that he gave the lad a beating. The really bad news is that the young man is the kid brother of Phil Deacon, a very big time criminal with a reputation for being a very hard case indeed. Phil Deacon is the sort of guy who’s quite capable of having someone murdered, especially if he thinks that someone has beaten up his kid brother.

Hit and Run involves a woman who has been conned by her boyfriend into a diamond smuggling racket. She wants out but she knows too much. A case of mistaken identity has consequences for George Carter.

In Trap two very nasty hoodlums just out of prison have concocted an elaborate plan to frame Regan for corruption. Regan should immediately report the matter to his superior but of course he doesn’t - he has to do it his way. This episode certainly shows journalists in a very bad light, not that that’s hard to do. A good tough two-fisted episode.

The Golden Fleece is another partly tongue-in-cheek episode with two flash Australians carrying out a series of remarkably successful armed robberies, while DCI Haskins has major problems after a phony corruption allegation. The corruption sub-plot is played straight while the sub-plot with the two Aussie wild colonial boys is played mostly for humour. Oddly enough it all works and it’s a fine episode although it has to be said the Australian accents of Patrick Mower are absolutely excruciating.

In Poppy an armed robber who’s been hiding out on the Continent returns to Britain to reclaim the loot from his last robbery. He has plans to do a deal with the bank from whom the money was stolen. Lots of double-crosses follow. An excellent episode.

In Stay Lucky Eh? a couple of young tearaways pull off a safe-cracking job only to be relieved of the loot at gunpoint. They’re going to have some explaining to do to Mr Kirby, who financed their safe-cracking activities, and Mr Kirby is going to be very anxious to have a word with this gunman. Another excellent episode.

Trojan Bus is Jack Regan’s worst nightmare come to life - those Australian super-criminals Colin and Ray are back in town. This time they’ve taken an interest in the world of art. As usual they’re aiming high - nothing less than stealing a Goya. Their plan is typically outrageous - first they will steal a double-decker bus, then the Goya. Regan has become totally obsessed with these terrors from Down Under. This is a wildly exuberant and wonderfully entertaining episode, with some obvious nods to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In I Want the Man Regan knows there’s a big job, a very big job, about to be pulled. He doesn’t know who the main players are or what the job actually is, and his informant has disappeared. All he has is Frankie Little, and although Frankie is willing to co-operate he doesn’t know the details either. A fine gritty episode enlivened by strong performances by Roy Kinnear as Frankie and Russell Hunter as the hapless informant Popeye.

In Thou Shalt Not Kill a bank robbery becomes a hostage drama. This is an incredibly tense episode. A tough decision will have to be made - do the police negotiate with hostage-takers or not? Needless to say Regan believes the answer is no. A superb episode.

The Country Boy of the episode so titled is young Detective Sergeant David Keel from Bristol who is temporarily attached to the Flying Squad to help out with his specialised knowledge of alarm systems and telecommunications. Regan distrusts Keel immediately - Keel is too educated, too cultured, too arty, too upper middle class and most of all he is a technical specialist, something of which Jack strongly disapproves.

Cop shows really don’t get any better than The Sweeney and the second season is as good as the first season (which I reviewed here a couple of years ago). Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Alfred Hitchcock Presents season 3 (1958), three episodes

Three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all from 1958 and from the third season.

In Flight to the East American foreign correspondent Ted Franklin (Gary Merrill) tells his story in a series of flashbacks while on a flight from Nairobi to Cairo. He tells the story to a woman, and she seems to be remarkably interested in it. It’s all about a news story he covered that attracted a lot of attention but also caused him a lot of trouble. Sasha Ismael, a French Arab, had been accused of gun-running during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya. As his trial progressed Ted Franklin had become more and more convinced that Sasha was innocent and was the victim of a conspiracy.

Franklin gets permission to speak to Sasha alone and what he is told convinces him that an injustice is about to occur.

Initially it’s rather puzzling that the story is told in flashback but the reason will eventually become clear. The key to the puzzle is that interview with Sasha Ismael. What exactly did Sasha tell him?

I get the feeling that writers Joel Murcott and Bevil Charles don’t really understand the English legal system. They seem to assume that a prosecutor in an English court is a bit like a District Attorney in the United States, which of course is not the case at all. As a result they make the mistake of thinking that the prosecutor plays a part in the investigation before the case goes to trial. It’s an unfortunate weakness in the story.

Apart from that it’s not a bad story. The necessary major plot twist is nicely complex and ambiguous.

Listen, Listen…..! is definitely one of the weaker episodes. Bernard C. Schoenfeld wrote the teleplay from a story by R.E. Kendall. An old man goes to the police. He has a theory about a murder case. The police are not interested. As far as they are concerned the Stocking Murder Case is all wrapped up and the man who killed three young women is safely behind bars awaiting trial. The old man tries to convince them that a mistake may have been made - the third murder may have been a copycat crime.

He tries more than one policeman. Then he tries to convince a hardbitten reporter. Finally in desperation he goes to a Catholic priest - he must find someone who will listen to him.

Unfortunately the twist ending is rather too obvious and in fact the whole story is rather too obvious right from the start. This episode just falls rather flat.

Post Mortem was written by Robert C. Dennis and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story.  Woolrich’s stories were the basis for countless movies including some of the finest examples of the film noir and psychological thriller genres so my expectations for this episode were very high indeed.

Winning the Irish Sweepstakes is always good news. And Judy Archer (Joanna Morre) has just discovered that that’s exactly what she’s done. Judy is now married to Steve Archer and they’re comfortable enough since Judy collected on a very large insurance policy when Harry died. Now they’re very very rich.

Except for one slight problem. The ticket was bought by her late husband, Harry. And the problem is, she has no idea where Harry put the ticket.

A frantic search ensues. The trouble with searching for something is that sometimes you find more than you bargained for.

This is a delicious story and it has all the ingredients of the best Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes - it has the black comedy and the vicious little plot twists and most of all it has the seemingly innocuous situations that become unexpectedly nasty. It also has a delightful performance by Joanna Moore.

Dip in the Pool, based on a story by Roald Dahl, was directed by Hitchcock himself. Inveterate gambler William Botibol (Keenan Wynn) convinces himself that he has found a surefire way to win the ship’s pool (a kind of sweepstakes based on the number of miles the ship travels each day). If he doesn’t win he’s in very big trouble - he’s lost all the money that is to pay for his wife’s holiday in Europe. He may have to consider drastic measures to make sure he wins.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Prisoner (1967-68)

There’s probably no British television series of the 60s more highly regarded than The Prisoner, at least among fans of action/adventure/spy/science fiction series. Certainly no British series has ever engendered such fierce debates about its meaning.

A British spy resigns, for reasons that he refuses to reveal. Upon arriving home he is drugged. He wakes up in The Village. The Village is remarkably picturesque and could be regarded as a perfectly charming place in which to live, apart from one thing - it is a prison. There are no walls or fences surrounding The Village and nobody is locked in a cell and life is extremely comfortable and even pleasant but it is still a prison.

The problem for the British spy (whose name is never revealed), or at least the most perplexing problem, is that he has no idea whose prisoner he is. It might be the Soviets. It might be another foreign power. It might even be the British Secret Service. He has no idea where The Village is.

He does know what is wanted of him. Information is wanted, and more specifically his captors want to know the reasons for his resignation. Partly because he doesn’t know the identity of his captors, and partly out of sheer stubbornness, he has no intention of telling them. It quickly becomes apparent that he is a man who does not deal well with authority figures and who does not like having his rights or his privacy infringed (which is rather ironic given that he is a spy and spies are not renowned for respecting other people’s privacy).

All the residents of The Village are spies. No names are used. Everyone has a number. The new arrival is informed that he is Number Six. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes him even more stubborn. He does not like being a mere number.

The first episode, Arrival, sets up the basic premise (and does it very well). It also introduces Number Two. There must logically be a Number One but this mysterious personage is not in evidence. Number Two has the task of getting the vital information out of Number Six.

In fact there will be numerous different Number Twos over the course of the series. Number Twos who fail to persuade Number Six to talk get replaced and it seems quite possible that the fate of an ex-Number Two is not a happy one.

The Chimes of Big Ben introduces the most celebrated Number Two of them all, the great Leo McKern. McKern will be seen again later in the series. Number Six has planned an elaborate escape attempt with another resident.

In A. B. and C. Number Two has formed the strong suspicion that the reason for Number Six’s resignation was that he was intending to turn traitor. But to whom was he going to sell out? Number Two has narrowed it down to three possibilities. The interactive dream idea is quite cool.

Free for All was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan. An election is to be held for the position of Number Two and Number Six decides to run. He discovers that democracy in The Village does not quite live up to the propaganda. Of course that may well be true of democracy in general (which may have been McGoohan’s point).

The idea of the double, having the spy hero encounter a perfect doppelganger, was perhaps the most over-used cliché in 1960s spy television. The Schizoid Man is one of the better examples. In fact it may be the cleverest ever use of the double idea. There are now two Number Sixes but even Number Six doesn’t know if he’s the real Number Six or not. An excellent episode.

The General is one of the weaker episodes. Speed Learn is the latest craze sweeping The Village. It offers a three-year course in modern history in just three minutes. Unfortunately the two surprise twists at the end are much too predictable.

I must confess that I have no idea what the point was of Many Happy Returns although It’s clever enough in its own way. Number Six wakes up one morning to find The Village deserted. Now surely nothing can prevent his escape but of course it’s not going to be quite so simple.

Dance of the Dead involves a dead body washed ashore that may give Number Six a chance of escape. He also encounters an old intelligence agency colleague who is not coping well with life in The Village. Like other episodes written by Anthony Skene (such as A. B. and C. and Many Happy Returns) it has good ideas but doesn’t make much sense. Of course The Prisoner is supposed to be a series that is puzzling and ambiguous but it works best when the stories at least have some internal logic.

Checkmate sees Number Six trying to escape again. The escape method is a bit too reminiscent of the methods he used unsuccessfully in an earlier episode. This one has the feel of more or less a straight spy thriller and it has a nice twist at the end.

In my personal opinion the episodes that focus on the battle of wills between Number Six and Number 2 (and the unseen forces that are really controlling things) are far more interesting than the episodes that focus on Number Six’s escape attempts. An excellent example of the former is Hammer Into Anvil. This is more than just the usual battle of wills. It’s a duel and it might well be a duel to the death. Number Six blames the new Number Two for the death of a prisoner and this time he is determined to strike back. One of the strengths of this series is that the ongoing battle of wills and wits between Number Six and the various incarnations of Number Two is fairly evenly balanced. Sometimes Number Six loses, but sometimes he wins. Patrick Cargill gets to demonstrate his acting chops as a nasty but perhaps slightly unhinged Number Two and Patrick McGoohan gets the chance to show us a side to Number Six that we haven’t seen before. A superb episode.

It's Your Funeral involves an assassination which Number Six has to prevent although he’s not really sure if he believes it’s a real plan or another elaborate mind game cooked up by Number Two.

In A Change of Mind it’s Number Six’s mind that is going to be changed, permanently. He has been declared unmutual and disharmonious. Fortunately there’s a cure for these faults but the cure is rather drastic.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is unusual in that it’s pure science fiction - transferring personalities from one body to another. It’s not exactly an original science fiction idea but it has a nice twist at the end. Since identity and individuality are major themes of the series as a whole it’s an idea that was worth exploring but this episode is less than a complete success.

In Living in Harmony Number Six finds himself in the Wild West, and Harmony is a violent town and he’s the sheriff. Of course it’s not hard to figure out what is really going on. This episode is an interesting anticipation of what would later become a standard science fiction trope. This one is a lot of fun.

It was probably a mistake scheduling The Girl Who Was Death straight after Living in Harmony. It’s a bit too similar in the basic premise. This episode tries to be a light-hearted spoof combined with a surrealist dreamscape feel. It’s visually quite impressive and inventive and Kenneth Griffith is a delight as Napoleon (!) but it doesn’t quite work and the ending is infuriating. Despite some amusing moments I’d pick this as the weakest episode of the entire series. It’s the sort of thing The Avengers could  get away with (Patrick Macnee would have had a wonderful time with this script) but it seems out of place here.

This series reaches an emotional crescendo with Once Upon a Time. Leo McKern returns to the role of Number Two and this time he’s decided that extreme measures are called for. His plan is exceptionally risky. Using drugs and hypnosis he will regress Number Six to childhood. He will act as father figure and psychoanalyst. It will be a psychological roller-coaster ride for both men with the probability that only one of them will survive.

McGoohan wrote and directed this episode and he achieves an extraordinary dreamlike intensity. It’s quite disturbing at times. McGoohan and McKern pull out all the stops and give superb performances (which apparently took their toll on the actors). Getting into the realms of psychoanalysis in movies and TV can be risky. The results can easily turn out to be embarrassing but McGoohan knows what he’s doing and it’s a great episode.

Then we get to the final episode, Fall Out, also written and directed by McGoohan. Don’t worry, I’m not going to offer any hints at all as to what actually happens. It was always going to be a tricky series to write an ending for and it’s probably fair to say that no ending would have satisfied everyone. I’m not overly fond of Fall Out, partly because stylistically it’s everything I like least about the 60s.

The Prisoner is unique in television history. It was entirely Patrick McGoohan’s baby. He came up with the original idea. No-one, no star and no producer, has ever had the degree of creative control that McGoohan had over The Prisoner. In fact he had too much control and in some ways the series was an act of self-destruction. The series was a huge hit but he burned himself out and gained a reputation for being impossible to work with, and his career never recovered.

So what is The Prisoner actually about? What does it all mean? The good thing about this question is that you can discuss it quite openly without spoiling the series since no two viewers have ever agreed on the matter. It was always McGoohan’s intention to make the series open to multiple interpretations.
It could be a political allegory. Interesting enough it can be interpreted equally convincingly from either a liberal or a conservative perspective. Or a left-wing or a right-wing, a libertarian or an authoritarian, or a democratic or anti-democratic perspective. McGoohan seems to have regarded all political ideologies and systems with a certain scepticism, and to have both the loss of freedom and the consequences of too much freedom. Most of all he was profoundly suspicious of the 60s and the simplistic utopian visions that were so popular at the time.

It could also of course have a purely psychological meaning. The Village could be his own mind.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that McGoohan was a devout Catholic, and presumably viewed questions of freedom through the lens of Catholic doctrines on free will. Most critics  seem to overlook the possibility of religious meanings in the series, which may be a mistake.

I suspect that the key is that Number Six is a spy. His whole life has been based on deception, on living a lie. The perfect spy is a man with no identity. Number Six famously declaims that, “I am not a number, I am a free man.” The irony is that being a spy he has always been a number, he has never been an individual, he has never been a free man. In a way, he has always lived in The Village, and always will live in The Village. Even if he escapes he can’t really escape. We never do learn his real name, because he’s a spy and a spy doesn’t have a real name. He is trying to discover his own identity only to find that he doesn’t have one.

Which of course could apply to all of us, not just to spies. We’re told we’re free but are we really? Is The Village a vision of a nightmare totalitarian future or is it just the world we already live in?

But that’s just my theory, there are countless others!

And is Number Six really John Drake, the spy from Danger Man? Again it hardly matters. After all, John Drake is a spy and his real name is probably not John Drake anyway. There are a couple of Danger Man episodes that do anticipate some of the themes of The PrisonerThe Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove and even more especially the superb Colony Three.

The Prisoner is exasperating, often incoherent, wildly uneven, always fascinating and despite its flaws undeniably brilliant.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove (Danger Man, 1965)

A commenter recently suggested that The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove, a 1965 Danger Man episode, could be seen as another precursor to Patrick McGoohan’s celebrated series The Prisoner.

Having just watched this episode I think it is a valid point. Certainly the tone is reminiscent of The Prisoner, and the blurring of reality and illusion, and the very subtle hints of surrealism, all do tend to confirm the point. There’s even an odd hand signal, rather like the one in The Prisoner.

John Drake finds himself in trouble with his boss, Mr Lovegrove, for owing a large amount of money to a gambling club. Gambling is a weakness that cannot be tolerated in an agent, making him far too vulnerable to blackmail. The only problem is that Drake has never even been inside the gambling club in question.

Drake decides it might be a very good idea to pay a visit to this club. It’s obvious that something is going on there - it’s certainly no innocent gambling den. Drake is puzzled, and he’s even more puzzled when he sees Mr Lovegrove there. In fact Mr Lovegrove seems to be everywhere.

Drake seems to be getting further and further into Mr Lovegrove’s bad books plus he finds himself being blackmailed and to cap it all off he’s getting drawn into the web of a somewhat annoying predatory (if good-natured) widow.

The ending will annoy some viewers while others will be infuriated (which is of course the effect that the final episode of The Prisoner had). To be fair though the ending should not come as a surprise - it is pretty thoroughly foreshadowed.

Another link to The Prisoner is that this story also deals with identity.

Along with Colony Three (a brilliant episode) The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove does seem to suggest that in some ways The Prisoner was a logical offshoot of Danger Man. Both episodes are just a little on the experimental side and both have a disturbing quality to them. They give the impression of being attempts to push the edge of the envelope as far as television spy fiction was concerned.

The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove is quite amusing with McGoohan’s oddly detached  performance working rather well. Worth a look.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Maverick season 2 (1958)

The late 1950s was the beginning of the brief golden age of the American television western. One of the most admired, and quirky, of these westerns was Maverick which debuted in 1957. It’s blend of good-natured humour and action made it a major hit and it made James Garner a star.

Despite its success Maverick was a rather troubled production. The production schedule was so grueling that it was necessary to split the series between two lead actors. James Garner (as Bret Maverick) and Jack Kelly (as his brother Bart Maverick) starred in alternate episodes. This caused some tension, especially given that Garner was by far the more popular star. In later seasons Roger Moore was introduced to the cast as a third brother, the English-educated Beau Maverick. Garner was unhappy with various aspects of the series and departed while Moore, feeling that the quality of the scripts was declining precipitately, later became equally anxious to leave. 

In spite of these problems Maverick in its prime was great television. The second season is usually regarded as the high point of the series.

The various Maverick brothers were all professional gamblers. They were basically honest and decent even if they were prepared to do just about anything that was within the law to make a fast buck.

It’s interesting to compare Garner’s performance here with his rather similar performance some years later in the equally successful and equally celebrated The Rockford Files. It’s a valid comparison since both series were created by Roy Huggins. Both series combined action with style and wit. Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford have a lot in common. They’re likeable and charming, they have perennial troubles with the law despite being basically honest and they rely more on their wits than on their fists or their guns. There are a few differences. Maverick is actually pretty good with a gun while Rockford is terrified of firearms, and while Rockford is not quite a coward he’s much less willing to risk his neck than Bret Maverick. The differences really say a lot about the differences between 1950s and 1970s TV and, arguably, the differences between America in the 50s and America in the 70s. Rockford is a nice guy but he’s almost an anti-hero. America in the 50s wasn’t yet cynical enough to embrace anti-heroes. Rockford is a slightly more complex character but both Bret Maverick and Rockford have more depth than you expect in a character in a TV series.

Season two kicks off with The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick, and sure enough Bret does get hanged. Well, sort of. A bank robber and murderer is on the run. His escape is successful because Maverick is mistakenly identified as the bandit. Bret finds himself tried and convicted and is due to be hanged. The sheriff is anxious to persuade him to reveal the location of the stolen money. Bret of course has no idea where the money is but his one chance of staying alive is to convince the none-too-honest sheriff that he does know where it is. The sheriff cooks up a clever scheme to get his hands on the money and Bret plays along but he still has that appointment with the hangman. A further complication is the arrival of Bret’s grieving widow, her existence coming as a complete surprise to Bret. It’s a very convoluted but very clever story and it has all the hallmarks of the series at its best, with wit and style and genuinely unexpected plot twists.

Next up is The Lonesome Reunion and Bret is in gaol once again, and again the charge is murder. This time he’s on the trail of $120,000 in stolen money. He has no intention of keeping the money but he does have hopes of getting his hands on the very tempting reward being offered. There are three ruthless outlaws also after the money but an even bigger problem is a hardbitten lady deputy sheriff who is not only an expert shot but can also trade wisecracks with Maverick on even terms. Once again the script is inventive and original.

The main problem with the series becomes immediately apparent in the third episode, Alias Bart Maverick. That problem is Jack Kelly. It’s not that Kelly is a terrible actor. He’s reasonably competent. But he’s not James Garner. He doesn’t have Garner’s effortless charm, he doesn’t have Garner’s charisma and he doesn’t have Garner’s ability to make the dialogue sparkle. People watched the series for James Garner so there’s a real danger the Jack Kelly episodes are going to come across as filler. To make matters worse there’s Richard Long’s performance as charming swindler and card sharp Gentleman Jack Darby. Long overshadows Kelly completely. In fact Long does the Maverick thing far better than Kelly does in this instalment. 

The script, by Douglas Heyes (who also directs and whose television work was always impressive), is quite good. Gentleman Jack swindles everybody he encounters, including Maverick, and to add insult to injury he causes Bart to be arrested. Bart is determined to get his money back but he doesn’t want revenge. Gentleman Jack is an incorrigible crook but he’s just so darned charming. It’s a problem for the series that Gentleman Jack is a much more entertaining character than Bart Maverick but Long’s delightful performance makes Alias Bart Maverick worth watching. 

The Belcastle Brand opens with Bret Maverick lost in the desert. He is rescued by an eccentric family of English aristocrats. He finds himself leading a safari (in Wyoming!) and he ends up lost in the desert again, with the aforesaid English aristocrats in tow. Not just lost, but facing death unless they can reclaim their stolen gear from a large gang of very well-armed bandits. The script makes the Marquis of Belcastle and his family the butt of many jokes but we discover that the courage and fighting spirit that the Belcastles were displaying back in the days before the Norman Conquest are still present in the current generation. 

High Card Hangs is the fifth episode of the season and it’s the third time we’ve seen one of the Mavericks about to be hanged for murder. This idea is getting real old real fast. It’s lazy writing and this script has other problems as well - a contrived cringe-inducing ending in which the audience gets a little lecture on what to think. This is a tiresome episode and it’s a Jack Kelly episode as well. Garner can just about carry a weak episode but Kelly can’t.

Escape to Tampico gets things back on track with Bret Maverick playing bounty hunter, but then he decides he isn’t sure if he wants to bring this particular killer to justice. This is one of the more serious episodes with complications involving friendship and loyalty. And it’s a great story.

The Judas Mask benefits from its colourful Mexican setting and it’s one of the better Bart Maverick stories. Bart is robbed but is assured by a nice young lady that it’s for his own good.

The Jail at Junction Flats is pure whimsy and delightfully done, with Bret having to match wits with Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr). Bart and Dandy Jim are in and out of the Junction Flats Jail, which is more of a fortress than a jail.

The Thirty-Ninth Star sees Bart Maverick involved in a chase for something extremely valuable that was carried in a certain suitcase. Nobody seems to know what the item was but there are several groups of people who want it badly enough to go to very extreme lengths. A reasonably well scripted episode.

Shady Deal at Sunny Acres features both Maverick brothers. Bret has been defrauded of a very large amount of money by a crooked banker. There seems to be no way he can get his money back but Bret is not leaving the town of Sunny Acres without it. This is a sort of all-star episode with not just both Garner and Kelly but also both Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Dandy Jim Buckley and Richard Long as Gentleman Jack Darby plus a number of other great character actors including John Dehner and Regis Toomey. This is an outstanding episode. The story is a very elaborate long con which is even more enjoyable since the victim is a crook. You can’t cheat an honest man but you can certainly cheat a cheat.

Island in the Swamp has the virtue of being fairy original and it’s also quite charming. Bret is held prisoner on an island in the swamp in the bayou country. The inhabitants of the island have a secret that they are obsessively determined to keep from the outside world, and if they have to keep Bret there indefinitely they’re prepared to do so. It’s not that the islanders are particularly vicious, in fact they’re most quite affable, they just really want to keep that secret.

Prey of the Cat isn’t a terrible story but it’s not really a Maverick story. It has none of the wit and quirkiness that a good Maverick story should have. It’s a routine western tale with Bart   getting tangled up in a domestic intrigue that leads to murder, with Bart seemingly trapped by a woman’s machinations. Jack Kelly plays it very straight, as he usually did, and the result is a bit on the dull side.

The Spanish Dancer has one rather clever idea and it has a terrific guest starring appearance by Slim Pickens, and it has Richard Long once again as Gentleman Jack Darby. Unfortunately Jack Kelly is particularly dull in this episode and it just doesn’t have the sparkle it should have.

Holiday at Hollow Rock is a decent Bret Maverick story about crooked gamblers, corrupt sheriffs and a horse race which may or may not be honestly run but the happiness of two young people depends on the outcome.

Game of Chance features a priceless string of pearls that might be fake, and a fake countess who might be real. Both Maverick brothers get conned by the countess, and they’re out to return the favour. The plot twists are predictable but it’s reasonably well executed.

Gun-Shy, scripted by Marion Hargrove, is a very clever parody of what was at the time the most famous of all TV westerns, Gunsmoke. It works because as well as the very funny parody aspect the episode also has a fine classic Maverick plot with an assortment of shady characters (including a certain Bret Maverick) trying to find a buried hoard of Confederate gold. Absolutely superb performances by the entire cast which also helps. There are those who consider this to be the greatest Maverick episode of all. Maybe they’re right but what is certain is that Gun-Shy is one the two best episodes of the second season, the other being Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.

Two Beggars on Horseback is quite enjoyable. For complicated reasons Bart and Bret have to get Deadwood before the riverboat gets there, or they’ll be down $10,000 each. But getting there isn’t easy - they have to face hostile Indians, crooked traders, crazy retired Confederate generals and worst of all the beautiful, clever but not very trustworthy Jessamy Longacre.

The Rivals is another Marion Hargrove script that is not what you expect in a western. The story is lifted from Sheridan’s 1775 play of the same name. The play is one of the most celebrated examples in the English language of the comedy of manners. Adapting a comedy of manners would be a ludicrous move for the average western but as a Maverick episode it works just fine. In fact it’s a delight, even with guest star Roger Moore attempting a Texan accent.

Duel at Sundown is notable for a guest starring appearance by a pre-stardom Clint Eastwood. He plays Red Hartigan, the best gunslinger in the territory but at heart a coward and a bully. Red is hoping to marry Carrie, the daughter of Bret Maverick’s old friend Jed Christianson. Jed has a plan to use Maverick to prevent the marriage from taking place but Jed’s plan could just get Bret killed. A solid episode.

Yellow River is another routine Bart Maverick story. Bart ends up being trail boss on a cattle drive and it’s a fatal cattle drive for some. Unfortunately I thought the twist ending was much too obvious.

The second season is usually considered to be Maverick at its creative peak. Producer Roy Huggins understood exactly how to make the show work and writers like Marion Hargrove provided the witty and adventurous scripts that made the show at its best so unconventional and so charming. Combine that with James Garner and you have television magic.