Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Twilight Zone - two Charles Beaumont episodes

I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone but I do have fond memories of some of the episodes written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. So I thought I’d take a look at some of the Charles Beaumont episodes.

First up is Static, the twentieth episode of the second season. This was one of six episodes shot on videotape as a cost-cutting measure (The Twilight Zone had turned out to be a very expensive series to make and CBS were getting a little anxious about the budgets). As might have been anticipated the results were very poor and these episodes looked cheap and somewhat tawdry compared to those shot on film. Since the cost savings were minimal anyway the experiment was quickly abandoned.

Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger) is a crusty bachelor who lives in a boarding house. Ed doesn’t have much time for the modern world and he hates television which is unfortunate because all the other boarders watch TV incessantly. Ed thinks television is moronic and he thinks that people who watch TV are moronic and he broadcasts these opinions rather freely. Finally Ed snaps and heads off to the basement to look for his old radio - a huge and very impressive 1930s console model. He brings the radio up to his room and he’s pleasantly surprised to find that it still works. And the programs are wonderful. Who wants to watch TV when you can listen to Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra live on the radio?

The other boarders are quick to point out that this isn’t possible - Tommy Dorsey has been dead for years. Ed insists that it really is Tommy Dorsey live and further insists that he will prove it if they come up to his room to listen. When they get there there’s nothing on the radio but static. It seems that no-one but Ed can hear these programs.

It’s not a very promising premise and sadly it plays out in a very predictable fashion. This was no an original Beaumont script - he adapted it from a story by Oceo Ritch, which might explain why it’s well below his usual standard. Fine performances by Dean Jagger, and by Robert Emhardt as Ed’s friend Professor Ackerkman and Carmen Matthews as Ed’s old girlfriend Vinnie, are the main saving graces here.

Static takes place almost entirely in a couple of rooms in the boarding house. This was obviously very convenient for shooting on videotape but it does have the unfortunate effect of making this episode look even cheaper.

As Buzz Kulik, who directed Static, admits in the accompanying interview on the Blu-Ray disc, the trouble is that it just doesn’t feel like a Twilight Zone episode.

Moving on the episode 21 of season two, The Prime Mover, we find ourselves in more authentically Twilight Zone territory. Ace (Dane Clark) and his pal Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) eke out a living in a crummy diner. Ace is one of the world’s most enthusiastic, and most unlucky, gamblers. Ace just never wins. Not ever. Then one day, quite by accident, he discovers that Jimbo has a rather unusual power. He can move things just by thinking about them. He can move any kind of object. It has never occurred to Jimbo that his telekinetic powers might be useful. Ace can see a very good use for them straight away. Jimbo could use his powers to move things like dice. Or roulette wheels. Ace, with a bit of help from Jimbo, can now transform himself from a gambler who never wins into a gambler who never loses. Of course, this being The Twilight Zone, things don’t turn out quite the way Ace hopes.

The Prime Mover was originally written by George Clayton Johnson. Charles Beaumont rewrote the script and sold it to the producers on the understanding that Johnson would get a screen credit but because of an oversight Johnson did not get the credit.

After seeing the first few minutes of this episode you know how the story is going to unfold and there are no surprises. It’s a typical Twilight Zone morality play. It’s much more interesting as a character study. Both Ace and Jimbo are fairly interesting personalities and Ace in particular has a certain amount of real depth. Superb performances by the very underrated Dane Clark and by Buddy Ebsen are The Prime Mover’s greatest strengths. It’s not an especially memorable episode but it’s OK.

So one rather poor episode and one that’s not too bad. Anthology series are of course inherently uneven so you expect a few disappointments. What these two stories do suggest that Beaumont was a better writer when he stuck to entirely original material.

Friday, 15 September 2017

McMillan and Wife season 2 (1972-73)

McMillan and Wife was one of the big successes among the various mystery series that screened under the umbrella of The NBC Mystery Movie. The second season of seven feature-length episodes went to air in late 1972 and early 1973. The season one cast remained intact, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as the two leads and John Schuck as Detective-Sergeant Enright and Nancy Walker as the McMillans’ maid Mildred.

McMillan and Wife was the television equivalent of the “cozy” detective fiction sub-genre, with no graphic violence or sex and done in a slightly playful manner but with an emphasis on good old-fashioned well-constructed mystery plots.

The season opener, Night of the Wizard, starts in typical McMillan and Wife style with Police Commissioner McMillan (Hudson) pursuing a suspect through the streets of San Francisco. The fact that a Police Commissioner would be incredibly unlikely to be doing such a thing is in fact a sort of running gag. In this instance the chase is rather inspired and quite witty.

Night of the Wizard is by McMillan and Wife standards a semi-serious episode. A woman is terrified when her dead husband appears to her at a séance and accuses her of his murder. The accusation is all the more disturbing since the woman, Evie Kendall, had in fact been charged with the murder but was acquitted.

There are lots of fun Old Dark House elements in this one.

In Blues for Sally M. an attempt is made to murder a composer/pianist. But why does he have a signed photograph of Mrs McMillan in his apartment? Unfortunately this episode suffers from a fatal flaw which makes the solution obvious right from the start. Keir Dullea gives a good performance as the obnoxious self-pitying composer.

Cop of the Year marks two big moments in Sergeant Enright’s life - he gets to collect the Cop of the Year award and he shoots his ex-wife. At least he seems to have shot his ex-wife, it seems like an open-and-shut case, but he denies it. And Commissioner MacMillan believes him. All he has to do now is to prove that Enright didn’t do it despite the overwhelming evidence.

Enright’s ex-wife, Monica, isn’t (or wasn’t) exactly the ideal wife. In fact she was selfish, narcissistic and vicious, so Enright had plenty of motive. This is an episode with a classic film noir setup. It’s based on an Edward D. Hoch short story, Hoch being a noted exponent of the impossible crime story. Robert Michael Lewis emphasis the puzzle aspect by shooting the murder scene from directly overhead.

The mystery here is not whodunit (which is pretty obvious from the beginning), but howdunit. And on the whole it’s a very good locked-room mystery.

Terror Times Two makes use of one of the most hackneyed ideas in television history, the idea of the double. A gangster has found a man who is Commissioner McMillan’s exact double. Rock Hudson does a pretty decent job playing the dual roles but you can’t get away from the fact that it’s an unimaginative idea and the script just doesn’t manage to add any interesting or original twists.

No Hearts, No Flowers is another story which involves one of the hoariest ideas in crime fiction, in which the detective’s wife is the potential victim of a psycho. Sally has her purse snatched. This has unexpected consequences as it becomes apparent that Sally has a stalker. The twist ending might perhaps stretch credibility a bit but this is a detective story, not a documentary. It’s supposed to be entertainment, not reality, and it does entertain. There’s also a car chase. There’s no point in setting a cop show in San Francisco if you don’t have some car chases. It’s a city that seems to have been designed specifically as a venue for car chases.

In The Fine Art of Staying Alive Sally McMillan is once again in danger. Commissioner McMillan has to choose between saving Sally or saving a priceless Rembrandt. This one perhaps doesn’t have quite enough plot to sustain the feature-length running time and the crucial clues are just a bit too convoluted and obscure to be believable. It’s still fairly enjoyable.

Two Dollars on Trouble to Win takes McMillan and Sally to the racetrack. Sally’s Uncle Cyrus (well he’s not really an uncle but rather an old friend) has a horse that’s a sure thing to win a big race. Cyrus is a cantankerous old cheapskate but for some reason Sally thinks he’s wonderful. Cyrus has a bad heart and a series of accidents threatens to make that heart problem critical, or even fatal. Could it be a diabolically clever plot to murder the old boy by indirect means?

McMillan and Wife suffers a little from plots that are, with a few exceptions, rather on the conventional side.

The second season is also pretty uneven. Night of the Wizard and Cop of the Year are the standouts and they're very good indeed. Blues for Sally M. is a fine idea let down by one serious flaw. Terror Times Two is the only episode that could be described as a real dud.

The major strength of McMillan and Wife lies in the two leads. Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James make a convincing married couple. They have the right romantic, and sexual, chemistry. They’re extremely likeable and John Schuck is equally likeable as Enright.

This is definitely crime on the cozy side but it’s thoroughly harmless light entertainment. Not as good as its NBC Mystery Movie stablemates Columbo and Banacek but if you don’t take it too seriously it’s enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Escape Into Night (1972)

Escape Into Night is a 1972 children’s fantasy/horror TV mini-series from Britain’s ITV. It has an interesting premise and it’s quite atmospheric, and decidedly spooky.

It was scripted by Ruth Boswell from a novel by Catherine Storr.

Escape Into Night was shot in colour but only a black-and-white version has survived. Since there’s a definite touch of horror to the series that’s perhaps not entirely a disadvantage. The very studio-bound feel also adds to the stifling and menacing atmosphere.

Marianne is a young girl who has a riding accident. She’s not badly hurt but she is confined to bed for several weeks. She amuses herself by drawing a picture of a house. When she goes to sleep she finds herself in the house in her dream. When she wakes up she draws a boy in the window of the house. Next time she sleeps she’s back in the house, and there’s a boy there, in the upstairs room she drew him. He’s ill and can’t walk. 

Her doctor has arranged for a teacher, Miss Chesterfield, to call regularly so Marianne won’t fall behind with her schoolbook. Oddly enough one of Miss Chesterfield’s other pupils is a boy named Mark, who can’t walk. Even more oddly, the boy in the dream who can’t walk is named Mark and he has a teacher called Miss Chesterfield.

When Marianne adds other details to her drawing they appear in the house in her dream. Unfortunately, in a fit of pique, Marianne draws some stones with eyes. They appear in the dream as well, and they don’t seem to be any too friendly. In fact Marianne and Mark, in her dream, start to feel that they should make plans to escape from the house. This won’t be easy, given that Mark cannot walk at all.

Are Marianne and Mark somehow sharing a dream? Is it really just a dream? Are the two children in actual danger? Is something supernatural or paranormal going on? Why is it that the only drawings that seem to affect the dreams are those done on a particular sketch pad using a particular pencil, a pencil belonging to an art set that had belonged to Marianne’s grandmother. And why is it that every time Marianne sleeps she finds herself back in the same dream?

One of the themes of the series seems to be the way children experience guilt about apparently trivial incidents. Marianne’s annoyance with Mark caused her to draw the stones with eyes and now those stones seem to have a malevolent intent towards Mark. Marianne  of course had no intention of hurting Mark. It was just one of those bursts of childish anger but children can easily be persuaded that they have caused harm to those around them and can end up thinking they are responsible for all kinds of harm. Mark becomes very ill so there is also the issue of how children deal with death and with loss.

Marianne’s father is an engineer and he is out of the country most of the time so Marianne is left without a father figure. Perhaps the dream has something to do with that?

Children of course also don’t always differentiate very well between fantasy and reality.

Marianne is still too young to take a romantic interest in boys but she is approaching the age at which boys will start to become rather interesting. Her odd friendship with Mark is completely innocent but it is a step towards learning to deal with that frightening phenomenon known as the opposite sex. Marianne at times seems to have an almost motherly feeling for the helpless Mark. Independence versus dependency, and the natural human need to want someone who needs us, are other issues that are addressed.

The series was presumably aimed mostly at girls but there’s enough subtle horror to appeal to boys as well, or to adults.

In a program like this the casting of the lead actress is crucial, especially in the case of a child actress. Marianne has to be a fairly ordinary sort of girl and like any normal girl approaching puberty she can be exasperating but somehow the actress has to avoid making her irritating to the viewer, or excessively precocious. At the same time she has to be lively enough, likeable enough and clever enough for girlish viewers to identify with. Young Vikki Chambers does a superb job.

These were innocent days, when a girl would have on her bookshelf a book like The Young Girl’s Guide to Housekeeping. These were also the days when kids still learnt Latin at school.

Given the subject matter, dreams, the big worry was that they’d make a mess of the ending but in fact it works quite well.

The special effects are about what you'd expect from a fairly low-budget children's production but the writing, acting and atmosphere and enough to carry it off pretty effectively.

Network’s DVD release is on a single disc. It’s barebones but the transfer is quite good given the not entirely satisfactory nature of the surviving source material.

Escape Into Night is an intriguing mix of childhood drama, fantasy and gothic horror and it makes thoroughly entertaining viewing. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Man About the House, season 1 (1973)

Man About the House was one of the most popular British comedy series of the 70s. It ran for six seasons from 1973 to 1976. It was so successful that a (very inferior) American clone was produced. It’s the sort of comedy that only the British seemed to be able to pull off - risque without being crass and good-natured but with enough bite to avoid blandness.

The premise is simple. Two girls sharing a flat in London are looking for a third girl to share, but instead of a girl they end up with apprentice chef Robin Tripp who is very much a man. In 1973 the idea of men and women sharing a flat together without sharing a bed was still quite daring and it gave the series a very contemporary feel with enormous potential for sexual humour.

The series succeeds because writers Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke resisted the temptation to rely entirely on sexual humour (although there is plenty of that) and concentrated on making it funny. They also very wisely did not push things too far. It’s risque but it’s never grubby.

Richard O’Sullivan was probably the biggest star in British television comedy of the 1970s with no less than three hit series to his credit. He strikes just the right balance. Robin is obviously very much aware of the physical charms of his two female flatmates but in his own way he’s a gentleman. He admires but he doesn’t leer. Well, not in an excessively vulgar way.

Paula Wilcox as Chrissy and Sally Thomsett as Jo are equally good.

Sally Thomsett had the trickiest role. Jo could easily have been just another dumb blonde but Thomsett makes her slightly eccentric rather than dumb. You get the feeling that Jo isn’t a fool but she just doesn’t quite see the world the way the rest of us see it.

The cast is rounded off by Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce as the landlords, the obviously inadequate Mr Roper and the obviously sex-starved Mrs Roper. In comedic terms it’s a dream cast - all five regulars are thorough professionals who know how to make the most of the material.

The fact that the two girls are quite lovely doesn’t hurt. What I like is that they’re pretty but they still look like the sorts of women you could conceivably meet in real life, or even (if you were very lucky) imagine sharing a flat with. They don’t look like models.

The sexual tension is provided by Robin and Chrissy. It’s clear that Robin would very much like to get Chrissy into bed. She’s obviously somewhat attracted to him as well, but she’s not sure if he’s really Mr Right and she doesn’t want to get involved unless and until she is sure. This is always a good formula for a television series, the “will they or won’t they” dynamic. In this case it not only provides laughs but also some genuine emotional interest. We like these two characters so naturally we’d like to see them get together.

In fact we like all three flatmates and the fact that they are three people who are genuinely fond of one another helps to keep the humour good-natured. We laugh with the characters rather than at them.

Comedy relies a good deal on misunderstandings and this series uses these classic comedic techniques to good effect, as in the episode in which Chrissy is alarmed when she is convinced that Robin is going to try to seduce her and then gets mortally offended when he doesn’t.

Man About the House is startlingly and amusingly politically incorrect. Some of the lines in the series would get a writer lynched today. Over-sensitive modern audiences would have apoplexy at some of the jokes.

On the other hand there’s a certain refreshing innocence to the series. There’s an assumption that it’s quite reasonable for people not to jump into bed with every attractive member of the opposite sex. In that respect it was perhaps just a little behind the times but it’s an attitude that adds to the charm of the series.

Man About the House spawned two spin-off series, George and Mildred (which was a gigantic hit) and Robin’s Nest (which was moderately successful) which followed the further fortunes of Robin Tripp as a restaurateur.

This was the kind of sitcom that by the 1990s with the emergence of the so-called “new comedy” would be reviled as hopelessly old-fashioned. In fact it’s a good deal funnier than most of the new-style comedy, and it's also a good deal less mean-spirited.

Network have released the complete series (all six seasons) in a DVD boxed set. The transfers are pretty good.

While sex does provide much of the humour this is not Benny Hill-style grubby schoolboy humour. It’s also a long way from the cringe-inducing sex comedies that the British film industry was cranking out at the time. This is closer to classic old-school farce.  There was still a limit to what you could get away with on television in 1973 and the series is a good example of why it’s an advantage to have to work within limits. The writers have to work much harder and they have to rely on genuine wit. It’s also a product of an age when comedy writers did not have to live in terror of offending somebody.

Man About the House really is very funny. Highly recommended.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Avengers - Don’t Look Behind You (1963) and The Joker (1967)

Brian Clemens was never troubled by the idea of recycling script ideas that worked but there was one occasion in The Avengers when he not only recycled some ideas, he recycled an entire script. The script in question was Don’t Look Behind You, transmitted originally in 1963 as a Cathy Gale episode. Four years later it was remade, in colour, as the Emma Peel episode The Joker.

The remake is every bit as good as the original, some say it’s even slightly better, and that’s saying something since Don’t Look Behind You was an absolutely superb story.

It’s certainly worth watching these two episodes back-to-back.

Since Don’t Look Behind You was shot live on videotape and The Joker was shot on film there are naturally some major differences in the feel of the two episodes. There are also some changes to the script itself.

Don’t Look Behind You gets off to an extraordinarily creepy start as we see a man, an obviously somewhat deranged man, cutting up a photograph of Mrs Gale from a magazine. 

We know something twisted is on the way but the story then persuades us that everything is all quite innocent. Mrs Gale has written an article on medieval influences on fashion and design and as a result has been invited to the country house of a very eminent elderly medievalist. It’s a wonderfully spooky 16th century house and the set design is truly magnificent.

Of course being shot on videotape gives the episode a very stagey feel but this is one of the episodes in which that staginess works wonderfully well and adds to the menace, to the slowly building terror and the growing sense of weirdness.

The old medievalist’s ward, the deliciously crazy Ola (Janine Gray), seems to be the only one at home and when she is called away Cathy is left alone. Then an eccentric young man, who we assume has read far too much beat literature, appears on the scene. He seems like he could be quite dangerous but is he the one Cathy needs to worry about? She certainly needs to be worried about somebody. There is someone in the house who is stalking her but he appears to be intent on sending her mad first. And he’s succeeding.

Although it falters just a little towards the end this is a slow burning exercise in terror that works admirably. Honor Blackman admits that she had trouble making this episode as she was genuinely creeped out by the whole idea. Steed only appears sporadically in this story so Blackman has to carry things on her own most of the time, which she does to great effect.

Peter Hammond is regarded by many as the finest television director of his era and on the basis of this episode that reputation was well deserved. He uses an incredible number of mirror shots but they suit the feel of the story and genuinely enhance the atmosphere rather appearing gimmicky.

One recurring them in the 1963-64 era of The Avengers is that Mrs Gale does not entirely trust Steed, and she has good reason for her suspicion. The Steed of the early seasons of The Avengers is a much more ruthless and cynical character than the later Steed and he is quite prepared to use people, including Cathy, if it suits his purposes. His personality has a real edge to it (which Patrick Macnee conveys very effectively) that was softened considerably in the later years of the series.

The major change in The Joker is that we know from the start what is going on. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It does convince us that Mrs Peel is in very real danger, but on the other hand the subtle menace in Don’t Look Behind You is in some ways more effective - both the viewer and Mrs Gale are presented with a situation in which we know something twisted is going on but we have no idea what it is.

There are some slight but important differences in the performance. In Don’t Look Behind You the strange young man is more frightening because he really does seem totally out of control. And Janine Gray as Ola seems much more convincingly mad and thus more potentially dangerous than Sally Nisbett in The Joker. Peter Jeffreys in The Joker and Maurice good in Don’t Look Behind You are both excellent villains, terrifying but oddly sympathetic.

In The Joker Emma is invited to the home of a famous bridge player rather than a famous medievalist and the set design is more surreal compared to the Old Dark House of Don’t Look Behind You. Both episodes look terrific in their own ways. 

In The Joker Sidney Hayers throws in a couple of homages to the earlier episodes by using mirror shots, not quite as expertly as Hammond but they’re still effective.

It’s impossible to fault the performances of either Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg.

For my money Don’t Look Behind You is one of the great episodes of the series, probably in the all-time top five. The Joker is not quite as good but it’s still excellent. If you haven’t seen them watch both. If you’ve seen them then both are worth watching again. Both episodes are reminders of just how good The Avengers could be.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Man in Room 17, season 2 (1966)

The Man in Room 17 is an interesting unconventional crime/espionage series made by Granada in 1965-66, dealing with a hush-hush government department that investigates crimes that are too difficult or too sensitive for any other agency to handle. 

In the first season the men in Room 17 were the pompous very upper-class and wildly eccentric former Oxford don Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Dimmock (Michael Aldridge), the equally brilliant and equally eccentric product of one of the new-fangled red-brick universities of which Oldenshaw does not quite approve. The combination worked superbly but unfortunately Michael Aldridge was unable to appear in the second season due to illness. His place was taken be Denholm Elliott as Imlac Defraits.

Considering Elliott’s very high reputation as an actor that should have worked very well but in fact it doesn’t quite come off. Elliott doesn’t have quite the same delightful chemistry with Vernon that Aldridge had and at times seems a little unsure of himself. The problem might be that Defraits as a character is just a bit too similar to Dimmock. Perhaps Elliott would have been more comfortable being able to create an entirely original characterisation but the difficulty with that would have been that the successful formula of the series required that Oldenshaw’s partner be a certain type of personality.

That’s not to say that Denholm Elliott’s performance is poor. Far from it. He just isn’t quite as good as Aldridge, and Defraits isn’t quite as interesting a character as Dimmock.

Elliott’s decision to give Defraits a slight speech impediment can also be a little distracting.

The big gimmick in this series is that Oldenshaw and his partner almost never leave Room 17. They plan the operations but the execution of their plans in the field is left entirely to others. Each episode cuts between Room 17, where Oldenshaw and Defraits pull the strings, and the field operation itself. In fact the two different strands of each episode even had different directors. It might be a gimmick but it’s used with great skill and cleverness.

The Man in Room 17 was obviously made on a very tight budget and is very studio-bound. At its best the fine writing more than compensates.

In First Steal Six Eggs Oldenshaw and Defraits need to find out what a Hungarian spy named Panacek is up to in England. They employ a young female agent named Tracy but while she’s a good agent will she be able to withstand Panacek’s very considerable charm? Peter Wyngarde has a lot of fun as the treacherous but cowardly Hungarian spy. In this episode the main focus is not so much on catching a spy as on Tracy’s possibly doubtful ability to put the job first, and on Oldenshaw’s willingness to gamble on her capacity for getting herself out of trouble. A truly excellent episode.

The Catacombs is enormous fun and another very fine episode. A wealthy businessman with a slightly shady reputation and an archaeologist with an even more shady reputation are looking for a fabulous jewelled casket in the catacombs in Istanbul. Defraits is sceptical but Oldenshaw is convinced that Room 17 should take an interest. He will need an agent on the spot, whom he finds in the person of an Orthodox priest (played with zest by Warren Mitchell) who is neither very Orthodox not very priestly. This episode has a wonderful femme fatale who has her hooks in the archaeologist (in fact she has her hooks in many men).

Where There's a Will re-introduces female secret agent Tracy to the series and she’s plunged into a classic country house murder mystery complete with a crucial will. With Oldenshaw and Defraits trying to pull the strings but someone else is trying to do the same thing. The result is a tremendous amount of fun for the viewer. A great episode.

The Fissile Missile Makers is a complete romp somewhat in the style of the later more surreal period of The Avengers. The story involves an anti-anti-missile missile, Red Chinese spies, a harassed schoolmaster, a milkman, a ruthless female property developer, a boy genius and a mysterious company about which nobody knows anything at all. The results could have been just silly but the tone is exactly right and it works. And works delightfully.

Goddess of Love is one of the less successful episodes. A group of students plan to steal a Greek statue from a London museum and return it to Greece. Oldenshaw and Defraits decide to give them some professional help. This one doesn’t have any real twists to it and the humour is a bit broad and a bit forced.

In Undue Influence the Lord Chancellor is rather worried by the increasingly erratic behaviour or Mr Justice Easterbrook, especially with a case coming up involving a pop singer accused of murder. The case is going to attract enormous publicity. If the judge’s instructions to the jury were to be as eccentric as they have been in other recent cases British justice would be made to look like a laughing stock. The problem that he hands to Oldenshaw and Defraits is to find out what is behind the judge’s wayward courtroom behaviour and to ensure that it does not occur in this case. It’s a clever little story with enough uncertainty about the source of the undue influence over the judge to keep it interesting.

Lady Luck's No Gentleman is interesting. Someone has found a gambling system that actually works and they’re winning huge amounts in London’s gambling clubs. The club owners are not happy and it’s likely they’ll take extreme measures to protect themselves. The men in Room 17 have to find out what this system is, who is behind it and how it works. 

The Standard is a kind of puzzle-plot mystery. Someone is trying to murder an Arab prince who is attending a British military academy. The motive could be political, or it could be sex or money. Or could it be something else? Not one of the better episodes but it’s OK.

Saints Are Safer Dead is a delightfully convoluted tale involving forged Old Masters, American millionaires, Greek surrealist painters and some remarkably depraved fraudsters. It’s one of the several episodes in which Oldenshaw and Defraits make use of the talents of the glamorous if rather immoral female secret agent Tracy. Tracy as always adds a bit of Swinging 60s flavour. Defraits, already uncomfortable with Tracy’s relaxed approach to morality, is even more shocked by Oldenshaw’s willingness to embrace rather underhanded tactics. It’s all ludicrously complicated but very enjoyable.

Never Fall Down plunges Room 17 into a case of official corruption. Their task is to save the career of a promising politician who has become hopelessly enmeshed in a web of blackmail and crooked dealing. The conundrum for Oldenshaw and Defraits is that if they do their job are they conniving in a cover-up?

This series as a whole has a very studio-bound look even by mid-60s standards but in episodes like Lady Luck's No Gentleman (and in quite a few others) this has been deliberately exaggerated. Production designers Michael Grimes and Denis Parkin have created sets that look very stagey (in an avant-garde theatre sort of way) and unapologetically artificial. Given that the core concept of the whole program is that Oldenshaw and Defraits remain in their little room pulling the strings to make their field agents (and the targets of their investigations) dance like puppets the stagey feel works perfectly. It also fits in well with the very subtle but definite touch of surrealism in this series.

The Man in Room 17 isn’t quite a spy series although it involves espionage. It could perhaps be described as a mildly satirical political thriller series. It’s somewhat cerebral, quite witty and refreshingly different and unusual. Highly recommended.

I reviewed season one of The Man in Room 17 a while back.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Mr Rose, season two (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Here's my review of the first season.