Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mogul, AKA The Troubleshooters (1965)

The Troubleshooters was one of the BBC’s more successful drama series, running from 1965 to 1972. The first season was in fact entitled Mogul. It was moderately successful but it was decided to make some drastic changes for the second season which was also given the slightly more exciting title The Troubleshooters.

The series deals with the Mogul oil company, a large concern with international interests. The oil business is not for the faint-hearted and Mogul conducts its business efficiently but rather ruthlessly. Managing director Brian Stead (Geoffrey Keen) is determined and very competent, with somewhat flexible ethics.

There is virtually no limit to the number of things that can go wrong in this business and it’s up to troubleshooters like Peter Thornton (Ray Barrett) to sort out these problems, wherever in the world they may occur.

Only five of the thirteen first season episodes survive.

The very first episode, Kelly’s Eye, does survive. Information has leaked to the press about the progress being made at one of Mogul’s exploration platforms in the North Sea. The company regards this very seriously indeed. Any information gained in the process of oil exploration has been gained at considerable expense to the company and even information of a negative nature could give Mogul an advantage over its rivals. As a result the company goes to great lengths to ensure that leaks of information from drilling crews just don’t happen. Every member of every drilling crew has to sign a confidentiality agreement before being employed. But now a leak has occurred and it’s up to the company’s top troubleshooter, Peter Thornton (Ray Barrett), to find out how this information got out.

It’s almost like a private eye story, as Thornton not only has to interview every member of the crew he has to do quite a lot of detective work as well. An excellent episode.

Young Turk takes place in a small sheikhdom in the Middle East where Mogul are seeking oil exploration rights. Things haven’t gone too well. In fact a Mogul employee has been killed. Young Bob Driscoll (Barry Foster) is sent out to take charge of the negotiating team. The negotiations will be delicate and Driscoll is not the most subtle man in the world. Have Mogul made an error of judgment here? Another fine episode.

Tosh and Nora is an odd episode, more a kitchen sink drama kind of story, about an ageing seamen on one of Mogul’s oil tankers. Tosh Brinkwater has never been much of a seaman and he’s never been much of a husband to Nora. I suppose we’re expected to regard him as a loveable rogue but he’s actually a rather unpleasant old fool, the sort of person who is too stupid and too stubborn to realise that people are trying to do him a favour. The only positive thing about his episode is that we get to see another, slightly more human, side to Brian Stead. This is really a very dull episode.

Out of Range involves a geological survey in the Sahara. This is the first time in the desert for young geologist David Izard, the son of company secretary Willy Izard (Philip Latham). The head of the survey team, Chris Darnley (Percy Herbert), goes to extraordinary lengths to explain the hazards of the desert, and the rules that have to be followed if you wish to stay alive in such an environment. Of course trying to persuade a young Oxford graduate to listen to good advice was always likely to be a futile task. Meanwhile Peter Thornton has decided the whole survey is a waste of time anyway and the party is called back. They’ll be back at the coast in a day - surely nothing can go wrong now? This is a truly excellent story.

Stoneface takes place in the icy wastes of northern Canada. Bob Driscoll has been despatched to interview Mojida, an Iroquois working for Mogulo as an oil exploration rig boss. Mogul has been considering promoting him to the ranks of their troubleshooters and Driscoll’s job is to make sure he’d be capable of handling the pressures of the job. As it happens disaster is threatening to strike the oil exploration rig and there are serious tensions between Mojida and his French-Canadian number two man Godin. They’re both very competent but Godin believes in taking risks while Mojida believes in playing it safe. It’s a good episode with a dramatic action finale.

This series doesn’t quite fit into conventional genre categories. It borrows from the action adventure genre but there are boardroom struggles, there’s international intrigue, and there’s human drama. In this first season it’s obvious that the intention was to focus not just on the glamour and excitement of the oil industry but to show the human faces of some of the ordinary Mogul employees as well. It’s years since I’ve seen any of the episodes from the later seasons so I can’t really comment on the extent of the format change after season one, although I suspect that it was probably felt that a greater focus on the glamour and excitement would be desirable.

Unusually for a BBC series Mogul isn’t overly heavy-handed in its treatment of the political aspects of the oil business. Mogul is a company competing in a cut-throat business and they play the game hard but they’re not depicted as being evil incarnate. Brian Stead’s ethics may be somewhat flexible but he’s not a crook and although he can be a hard man he’s no monster. Willy Izard is a company man who has devoted his life to Mogul but while he’s paid a price for this he’s not portrayed as being stupid or wrong. He’s made his choices and he’s prepared to live with them.

Peter Thornton’s job sometimes involves stepping on people’s toes and he accepts that but he isn’t a man to throw his weight around just for the sake of it. He can be tough but he can be conciliatory as well. At times Bob Driscoll’s job can involve deception and while he is prepared to do what is necessary he doesn’t always enjoy it (just as Peter Thornton doesn’t always enjoy having to make tough decisions). In other words all the characters have some depth and nuance to them. They’re not heroes but they’re not evil capitalist lackeys, they’re just realists who accept the world as it is.

It’s tragic that only five episodes of this first season survive - it’s not quite enough to get more than a vague impression of what the series set out to achieve. It’s to be hoped that this DVD release will be successful enough to lead to a DVD release for the fifteen surviving episodes of season two. Danann’s Region 2 release of the first season boasts transfers that are quite acceptable. Some episodes are in better shape than others but we’re lucky that any of them survive in any form.

Mogul is fine television. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 (1981)

I reviewed Assignments 1 to 4 of the excellent British science fiction series Sapphire and Steel here a while back.  

Assignment 5 went to air in 1981. It was written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read - this was the only one of the six Sapphire and Steel serials not written by series creator P.J. Hammond.

Sapphire and Steel, an ATV production which aired between 1979 and 1982, can be seen as a more sophisticated and more grown-up version of Doctor Who. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are agents whose job it is to prevent any person, or any entity, from interfering with the smooth and regular progress of time. Sapphire and Steel are clearly not human. What exactly they are is one of the many things the series never really explains. That’s actually one of the strengths of the series - it doesn’t try to over-explain things. It’s content to leave some ambiguities. Sapphire and Steel seem to be a bit more than just very advanced aliens. They may even qualify as gods of a lesser type, albeit gods of a science fiction type.

The casting of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley was inspired. They don’t overdo things but they do manage to convey the slightly disquieting impression of non-humanness. They have absolutely nothing against humans and often try to help them but we’re always aware that they don’t actually care about humans. They have more important priorities. Interference with time could have catastrophic consequences for the entire universe, compared to which human concerns are not terribly important. Sapphire and Steel are not callous but they have an almost complete emotional detachment. They do have some concern for the fate of human civilisation, but they’re prepared to sacrifice individual humans. This makes them unusual but interesting heroes.

Assignment 5 concerns a party thrown by Lord Mullrine (Davy Kaye). The party is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his company, Mullrine International. Since the company was founded in 1930 Mullrine decides it would be fun to give the party a 1930 feel. In fact he takes this to obsessive lengths. Everything in his palatial home is authentically of the period. He insists that his guests wear the fashions of 1930. He has a 50-year-old radio set and when one of the guests switches it on to find out how the Test Match is going he hears a broadcast of the First Test at Trent Bridge in 1930.

This is all a harmless whim, or is it? It soon becomes apparent that somehow the party really is taking place in 1930. Not an re-enactment of 1930 but the actual year 1930.

Sapphire and Steel were already aware that something odd was going to happen in Lord Mullrine’s house and they managed to get themselves invitations.

This episode has the perfect setup, and the perfect setting, for a traditional English country house murder mystery. And indeed murder soon follows. Murder however is the least of the problems that Sapphire and Steel have to face. The year 1930 was not chosen randomly. Something significant happened in June 1930. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that something significant is going to happen in June 1930.

While it makes use of the classic murder mystery tropes the murders are not really what the story is all about. Or then again, looked at another way, maybe murder really is the key to the mystery.

The mixing of past and present, with the same actors playing the same characters fifty years ago and in the present, and in some cases playing a character and the character’s own father, is nicely disorienting.

Compared to Doctor Who this series takes interference with time much more seriously. Any disruption of time is a potential disaster; in fact any disruption of time is almost certainly going to be an actual disaster. Playing around with time is not a game. While the scientific explanations are obviously totally invented they at least sound fairly convincing.

While Sapphire and Steel was far from being a big-budget production the period setting is done very well. It should also be added that David McCallum looks rather dashing in a 1930s suit while Joanna Lumley looks even more glamorous than usual with her 1930 hairstyle and a very fetching evening gown.

As usual in this series the special effects are of the most basic kind, which does not matter at all since the stories rely on ideas not special effects. 

Sapphire and Steel has its own very distinctive feel. It’s a science fiction series in which mood is more important than gadgetry, and ideas are much more important than action. It also has an odd tone of emotional distance since we’re seeing everything from the point of view of the very non-human title characters. We’re not encouraged to engage to any great degree to the human characters but this is a strength rather than a weakness of the series. It helps us to understand the motivations of Sapphire and Steel. They might superficially appear callous but they aren’t, they are totally lacking in malice or cruelty and what they do is vital and necessary even if it can occasionally seem harsh. They have a kind of god-like perspective.

Sapphire and Steel are among the most convincingly alien-like of alien characters in television science fiction, and Lumley and McCallum achieve this effect with commendable subtlety.

This series appears to be readily available on DVD just about everywhere.

This is slightly cerebral but still very entertaining television. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents - Bat Out of Hell (1966)

Francis Durbridge was a novelist but is better known as one of the great mystery writers for radio and television. He wrote eight serials broadcast between 1952 and 1959 under the umbrella title The Francis Durbridge Serial but unfortunately all are now lost. Happily all but one of the eleven serials screened between 1960 and 1980 under the title Francis Durbridge Presents do survive in their entirety. These survivors include Bat Out of Hell which first went to air in 1966.

Bat Out of Hell comprises five half-hour episodes.

Geoffrey Stewart (Noel Johnson) is a wealthy real estate agent. He has a luxurious home and an Aston Martin and a beautiful but much younger wife, Diana (Sylvia Syms). The marriage does not seem to be a great success. Geoffrey thinks his wife is foolish and extravagant; Diana thinks her husband is tight-fisted and bad-tempered. Mark Paxton (played by a 24-year-old John Thaw) works for Stewart. Given that the Stewarts’ marriage is shaky you might think there’s the potential there for a romantic triangle to develop, and you’d be right.

You might also think that such a situation could lead to murder. Again you’d be right. This is however a rather puzzling murder. No-one is quite sure who has murdered whom. Even the murderer doesn’t know!

Things get steadily more puzzling, with dead people making telephone calls and people telling obvious lies for no obvious purpose. Fortunately Inspector Clay (Dudley Foster) is an unflappable sort of fellow and he’s a more formidable policeman than you might take him for at first.

Despite his youthfulness John Thaw was already a fairly experienced television actor. He doesn’t yet have the intensity that one associates with him but he handles his role quite adeptly.

Sylvia Syms does well as the young wife who has landed herself in a nightmare of her own making. She’s certainly scheming but mostly she really just doesn’t seem to appreciate the consequences of her actions.

For my money Dudley Foster steals the show as the quietly relentless detective who patiently assembles the pieces of the puzzle.

Emrys Jones is a lot of fun as the downtrodden but cheerful husband of Diana Stewart’s friend Thelma Bowen. Walter Bowen is one of those people who has never managed to be quite a important or significant as he feels he ought to have been but he’s still sure that if he keeps trying people will take him seriously. It’s not exactly a comic relief role but it does provide a few moments of gentle humour in an otherwise rather grim tale.

Francis Durbridge’s script is what you expect from such a distinguished television writer. It has the necessary twists and turns and he provides a decent cliffhanger ending for each episode. 

Alan Bromly directed all five episodes of Bat Out of Hell and in fact he directed a very large proportion of the various Francis Durbridge television serials.

There’s just a touch of the creakiness you sometimes get in these mostly studio-bound shot-on-videotape productions. By 1966 BBC standards (which are admittedly rather low) the production values aren’t really too bad and there is at least some location shooting.

The semi-rural setting (apparently about an hour-and-a-half from London) and the lack of anything in the way of graphic violence gives this production something of the feel of a “cosy” mystery although without the cutesiness often associated with that sub-genre.

Pay attention to the music in the first episode - at one point you’ll hear the famous theme music for Callan (which began its run a year later).

An outfit called Danann in the UK have released Bat Out of Hell on an all-region DVD. It’s also available in the very good value Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 2 boxed set from Madman in Australia. The set also includes no less than four other Francis Durbridge serials. I have the Madman set and while there are no extras the transfers are pretty good.

Bat Out of Hell is a fine old-fashioned and rather unassuming murder mystery that provides harmless enjoyment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Z Cars (1962-65)

Z Cars is one of the most famous and influential of all British television police shows. It was produced from 1962 to 1965. The BBC later revived the series in an ill-advised soap opera format and after several further format changes it finally ended in 1978. It is however the original 1962-65 series that changed the fact of British cop shows. 

Troy Kennedy-Martin came up with the original concept for the series, which was to be set in Lancashire rather than (like most police series) London. The intention was to create a more modern and more gritty police series in contrast to the cosy and comfortable world of series like Dixon of Dock Green

Z Cars reflected significant changes in British society, with people being moved from overcrowded slums into new housing estates (which quickly became new slums). Z Cars is set in the fictional town of Newtown.

The series also reflected the major changes in policing policies that were being enacted at the time. The premise of the series is that the Chief Constable has agreed that the old-style bobby-on-the-beat methods are antiquated and ineffective. What they need is young fit hard men in high-powered cars. While Z Cars reflects these changes the series was so influential that it could be argued that it actually influenced the spread of these new American-style policing approaches in Britain. This was a new, more aggressive policing method and for the purposes of television it made police work more exciting and more glamorous.

It’s interesting that the first episode, Four of a Kind (written by Troy Kennedy-Martin), not only illustrates the older bobby-on-the-beat policing approach - it actually demonstrates just how effective that approach was.

In this debut episode Detective Chief Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Detective Sergeant Watt (Frank Windsor) are selecting the four officers for the new car patrols for Z Division. Incidentally this is why the series is called Z Cars - it’s not because the cars used are Ford Zephyrs. The two new patrol cars are code-named ZV1 and ZV2. The four officers include PC ‘Fancy’ Smith played by the legendary Brian Blessed.

Most British TV shows of this era have that characteristic look that comes from being shot on videotape in the studio but Z Cars used an even older production method (already disappearing by 1962) - it was transmitted live. 

While Z Cars marked the beginning of the trend towards a gritty realistic approach in British TV cop shows it has to be emphasised that this means gritty and realistic by the standards of 1962. By 1970s standards it’s very tame. This is not The Sweeney. The violence is very mild and there’s a complete (and welcome) lack of the sleaze that characterised so much 70s UK TV. It does however try to depict realistic police methods, it does show the grim reality of life for the poor and it’s pretty frank about the sordid nature of the criminal underclass.

It’s perhaps surprising that any episodes at all survive, but quite a few do.

Handle with Care, a very early episode, features a guest appearance by Arthur Lowe as a seedy housebreaker. ZV2 is called to a quarry where there’s been an explosion - someone has been stealing gelignite but they haven’t stored it properly and now it’s become unstable and the whole lot could explode at any moment. Meanwhile ZV1 has found an abandoned van which may have been used in the robbery of a toy shop. Toys and gelignite may not seem to have much connection but in this case they are indeed connected.

In Contraband PCs Smith and Jock Weir deal with a girl caught shoplifting and someone tries to sell Smith a watch. It’s a very good watch, and very cheap. Too cheap to be legitimate. PC Smith sees a chance to impress Chief Inspector Barlow who happens to be investigating a case involving watches smuggled into the country.

People’s Property tackles the issue of juvenile crime. PCs Smith and Weir catch two small boys breaking into a warehouse. It seems that both boys are already well advanced on the path to a life of crime. One in particular is a very troublesome specimen indeed. The two boys embark on as miniature crime wave. Actually it’s more of a large-scale crime wave. This story does depict fairly well the utter futility of the juvenile justice system.

The fine cast is a major asset. Stratford Johns, who went on to play the same character in three subsequent TV series (Softly Softly, Softly Softly: Taskforce and Barlow at Large), is in splendidly ebullient form. Frank Windsor is excellent as the harassed but dedicated Sergeant Watt. Brian Blessed of course steals every scene he’s in.

Compared to later crime series Z Cars is fairly light on action, but then it’s intended as a realistic portrayal of police work and in 1962 British policemen didn’t spend much time having shoot-outs or car chases. The cases are mostly the sorts of everyday cases that made up a policeman’s life in a society in which crime was still mercifully relatively rare. While the officers who man the crime patrol cars are tough they’re also good-natured and patient. Even though this represents a different style of policing from the era of Dixon of Dock Green there are still touches of the halcyon days when policemen were generally friendly and easy-going. And there are plenty of light-hearted and humourous moments.

When watching Z Cars you have to take into account the limited BBC budgets and the fact that being transmitted live make it at times a little rough around the edges. This being 1962 the pacing is relatively leisurely although this turns out to be an asset rather than a liability. Without constant car chases and fist fights there’s time to develop the characters of the people the Newtown Police encounter. The writing and acting are of course vastly superior to anything you’ll see on British TV today.

Sadly it seems that none of the episodes from the original 1962-65 series are available on DVD although the later (and very much inferior) series from the 70s have been released. You can however find some episodes online.

Z Cars is quality television and it’s intelligent entertainment. And it has Brian Blessed! Highly recommended.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, season 2 (1981)

Writer-producer Glen A. Larson had achieved modest success with the Battlestar Galactica TV series in 1978. It only lasted one season but that was mostly because in those days American network executives hated science fiction. It was horribly expensive and seemed like a crazy risk when you could just as easily make yet another western or cop show for half the cost. Battlestar Galactica was one of many sci-fi series that got the axe even though their ratings were quite respectable. A year later Larson went on to develop another science fiction TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. While Battlestar Galactica was ambitious and fairly serious in tone Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was to be pure lighthearted fun.

The first season worked pretty well. Gil Gerard was not the world’s most dynamic actor but he made a perfectly adequate action hero as Buck Rogers. Erin Gray was pretty good as Colonel Wilma Deering. The support cast was solid, headed by Tim O’Connor as Dr Huer of the Earth Defense Directorate. Naturally there had to be a cute robot and Twiki is about as cute as robots get. Twiki also carries around Dr Theopolis, an artificial intelligence who has the answer to just about everything. There was plenty of action, plenty of fun and lots of delightful 70s kitsch.

It was a wonderful formula and it worked. So naturally at the end of season one the network decided to change the whole format. Instead of Buck, frozen in time for 500 years, helping to defend Earth against its enemies we now have Buck, Wilma and Twiki on the giant spaceship Searcher, their mission being to find the lost tribes of Earth. It sounds terribly familiar but Glen A. Larson can’t be blamed for turning the show into a poor man’s Battlestar Galactica - by this time he was no longer associated with the series (I don’t know if he quit or was forced out). What the new format adds up to is less action, less fun and no delightful 70s kitsch. It all starts to take it itself too seriously.

The second season also saw the departure of all the most interesting supporting characters - Dr Huer and Dr Theopolis are both gone. Twiki has been made less cute. And, for no logical reason whatsoever, it was decided the series needed a second cute robot. The trouble is that the robot Crichton isn’t cute and isn’t funny - he’s painfully annoying and totally unnecessary.

Added to the cast are the rather dull Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) and Dr Goodfellow (Wilfred Hyde-White). Now Wilfred Hyde-White is one of my favourite English character actors but he was always at his best playing characters with a slight edge to them. Here he’s trying too hard to be loveable and doddering. The other major new character is Hawk (Thom Christopher), of whom more below.

The amazing thing is that the network managed to eliminate just about everything that made season one so enjoyable, and to add elements that are totally unnecessary and  extremely irritating.

The series might still have been salvageable if the scripts had been of sufficiently high quality but sadly the quality of the writing is noticeable lower than in season one.

The second season gets off to a bad start with a two-part story, Time of the Hawk. Norman Hudis’s script might have worked as a single episode but there just isn’t enough plot, enough action or enough interest to justify a two-parter. Even worse, it’s padded out by a great deal of incredibly tedious speechifying. Hawk is a kind of part man-part bird who has a grudge against humans. Buck’s mission is to stop Hawk’s rampages through the galaxy. Most of the story consists of Hawk and Buck carrying Hawk’s injured wife across the desert whilst talking incessantly. All this is bad enough but then they reach the great healer and we get some excruciatingly embarrassing hippie-dippie new age waffle. And then it gets worse with lots of boring and very banal speeches.

Episode two, Robert and Esther Mitchell’s two-parter Journey to Oasis, starts out like a very bad Star Trek episode. Buck has to escort an alien ambassador to a peace conference. If the ambassador doesn’t arrive on time it will mean war, and naturally Buck’s spaceship crashes. Then it gets worse, and once again we have Buck and friends walking across mile after tedious mile of desert. And once again we have talk, talk, talk. As a single episode it would still have been pretty dull; as a two-parter it’s sheer torture.

The third episode, The Guardians, is a huge improvement. Being a single-episode story the pacing is much much tighter. There are also some reasonable ideas here. Buck encounters a dying old man on a planet believed to be uninhabited. The old man gives Buck a mission, to deliver a box, but to whom does the box have to be delivered? And what strange powers does this box have over space and time? The ending lets it down a bit but at least it isn’t dull.

Mark of the Saurian is a reasonably entertaining episode as well. The Saurian lizard-men have somehow been able to take on human form to penetrate Earth’s defences and only Buck, with his 20th century biochemistry, can see them in their true form.

You expect a certain amount of scientific silliness in a TV sci-fi series but the episode The Golden Man defies all reasonable expectations. We have a spaceship that runs aground on an asteroid, and the only way it can be freed is by lightening it! And it just so happens there are a couple of aliens that the Searcher has picked up and they just happen to have the ability to lighten metals! The golden-skinned aliens can in fact turn any metal into any other kind of metal, including turning iron into gold. But first Buck has to rescue them from a penal planet. Apart from the extreme scientific silliness it’s generally a pretty lame episode.

The Crystals is another story that feels too much like second-rate Star Trek. Buck, Wilma and Hawk are searching for some crystals (without which the Searcher is apparently doomed) when they discover a mummy and an attractive blonde girl who seems to have no memories. The story features one or two moderately interesting ideas but they’re not developed and the whole thing is a bit too bland and a bit too feel-good.

One of the things that the second season seemed to be attempting was to work various ancient myths into the science fiction story lines. Time of the Hawk and The Golden Man both try to do this, with mixed success. The Satyr is a much more successful attempt. An Earth colony has been all but wiped out by figures from Greek mythology, but how do satyrs come to be on the planet? And why are the survivors of the colony so unwilling to discuss the matter? This is actually a pretty decent episode.

Shgoratchx! is quite ridiculous but it’s also great fun - it’s the kind of inspired silliness that characterised the better season one episodes. A derelict spacecraft crewed by six generals and one private, none of them more than three feet tall, and all possessing rather disturbing powers. Or at least their powers would be disturbing except for the fact that these diminutive aliens, while exasperatingly mischievous, are also friendly and good-natured. The second season includes lots of stories inspired by mythology. In this case the inspiration is a fairy tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with Colonel Deering being less than thrilled about being Snow White. It’s genuinely amusing, good-natured and reasonably clever.

The Hand of the Goral is OK. It’s totally unoriginal but the plot, involving a planet where nothing is as it seems to be, is executed fairly well.

Testimony of a Traitor on the other hand is deadly dull. Buck is accused of starting the nuclear war that devastated Earth in the 20th century. The courtroom scenes are tedious and contrived.

The final episode, The Dorian Secret, isn’t too bad. Buck rescues a Dorian girl fleeing from the implacable justice of her people. The Dorians also wear masks, all the time, to hide a terrible secret which Buck will force them to reveal.

Hawk represents a bit of a lost opportunity. Given his history he could have been an intriguingly edgy character. After all he is an alien and he has spent his whole life hating humans and now he’s working and fighting side-by-side with them - you’d expect a bit of tension but in fact after the first episode he becomes just a generic hero character. The series didn’t need another action hero character. It already had Buck and it had Colonel Deering. If they weren’t going to do anything interesting with the Hawk character why bother including him in the regular cast?

It surprises me that so many people dislike Gil Gerard. To me he seems like a perfectly fine space opera action hero. The trouble is that in season two he’s not given enough action hero stuff to do. He doesn’t even get to fly a fighter - he’s reduced to piloting a shuttle! He does seem to be trying a bit harder in season two to do a bit more serious acting stuff but he also doesn’t seem to having quite as much fun. On the whole though I don’t have any real problems with his performance.

Erin Gray also gets less action heroine stuff to do. Mention has to be made of the uniform worn by Colonel Wilma Deering in many episodes - it’s a cute little sailor suit that makes her look adorable but I’m not really sure that colonels are supposed to look adorable!

On the whole season two is very uneven and mostly disappointing. In season one Buck Rogers in the 25th Century had established its own distinctive style - fun, breezy, action-filled, a bit silly but thoroughly entertaining. Season two by comparison is too much a generic science fiction TV series, trying too hard and modeling itself too much on Star Trek.

It was probably the two rather dreary two-part stories that kicked off the second season that doomed the series. Overall season two isn’t a complete loss. There are some good episodes and some dud episodes but then you could say the same about Star Trek. Mostly it’s just disappointing that the fun and the over-the-top ultra-70s style of the first season is lacking. The first season is definitely worth buying. The second season is worth a rental.

Friday, 13 January 2017

four more Thrillers (1961)

A few more episodes of NBC’s Boris Karloff-hosted anthology series Thriller that I’ve watched recently.

These episodes are excellent examples of one of the greatest strengths of the series - it’s not just visually impressive by the standards of early 1960s television, it’s visually impressive by any standards. Production values are extremely high. The series was made at Revue Studios in Hollywood and Revue was basically the television arm of Universal at that time, which of course meant that television series made there had the resources of a major film studio to call on (including some great sets built for big-budget movies and of course the studio backlot). 

Thriller is also outstanding for the very cinematic quality that was achieved. The lighting is as good as you’d see in a top-of-the-range major studio B-movie or even in many cases the equal of lower-budgeted A-features. Despite the very tight shooting schedules the directors and the cinematographers made the extra effort and it paid handsome dividends.

Mr. George was based on a short story by August Derleth and directed by Ida Lupino. A little girl has been left a large fortune. Young Priscilla is cared for by her three middle-aged cousins, all of whom feel that the money should rightly be theirs. If only an accident were to befall the little girl they would have that money. Accidents do happen. Sometimes they can even be made to happen. The difficulty is that the girl has a protector, Mr George. Mr George is dead, but he still protects her.

Ida Lupino does a wonderful job here, with clever use of camera angles and framing but without these techniques ever appearing intrusive or gimmicky.

The cast is superb. Nine-year-old Gina Gillespie manages to be sympathetic without being  irritating as Priscilla.

Mr. George is a very fine episode that skillfully avoids the obvious pitfall of excessive sentimentality.

Parasite Mansion initially gives the impression that it’s yet another story about an innocent city-dweller discovering that all country people are psychotic knuckle-dragging rednecks but mercifully it’s really not that sort of story at all.

Marcia (Pippa Scott) is a young schoolteacher driving down a deserted country road at night in the rain when someone starts shooting at her. She then finds herself in a spooky old decayed mansion inhabited by a very scary family. The Harrod family has fallen on very evil times due to a family curse. In order to keep the curse a secret they are prepared to kill any strangers unwise enough to venture onto their property. 

Marcia thinks she’s figured out the nature of the curse but she’s way off beam and she’s in an increasingly desperate situation. It appears that her only hope of survival is to somehow discover what the curse really is and then persuade the Harrods to confront it.

Jeanette Nolan is outrageously over-the-top as the terrifying Granny. James Griffith gives a very complex and subtle performance as the tortured elder son Victor. Beverly Washburn  is terrific as the troubled but possibly very dangerous younger sister Lollie.

Parasite Mansion is pleasing atmospheric and it thankfully doesn’t go in the obvious direction. An excellent story and particularly well executed.

Dark Legacy, written by John Tomerlin, is lots of fun, with a stage magician whose dabblings in the occult became very serious. All his relatives seem to be magicians as well (although second-rate ones) and they’re all hoping that when he dies he’ll leave them the secrets to his most famous illusions. He does leave his secrets to one of them but they’re not quite what was expected. They might be somewhat dangerous.

This story is not played too seriously. In fact it’s deliberately outrageous but it works and stage magic combined with the occult is usually a winning formula.

Thriller began as basically a crime mystery series but after somewhat disappointing early ratings it moved more in the direction of supernatural horror (and the ratings improved dramatically). A Good Imagination, written by Robert Bloch, is a twisted murder story very much in the style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and represents a kind of throwback to the early style of the series but in this case executed with real panache and some delicious black comedy. Edward Andrews gives a delightful performance as Frank Logan, a jovial and imaginative murderer. He’s a somewhat fussy book dealer while his wife detests books. She has other interests, principally men.

This is a hugely entertaining story. It can be seen as an homage to Edgar Allan Poe and indeed the whole point of this story is that Frank Logan uses books as an inspiration for his murders.

So four episodes here, and all four are very good indeed.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Man of the World, season 1 (1962)

After the success of the original 1960 version of Danger Man it was obvious to ITC that action adventure series set in exotic locales in the contemporary world and with glamorous heroes were going to be reliable money-spinners. Man of the World, which aired from 1962 to 1963, was a typical example and a reasonably good one.

At this time Lew Grade had convinced himself that importing American actors was the only way to crack the US market. It was a silly idea - the British series that enjoyed the most success in the US (The Avengers and The Saint) were the ones without American actors. There was however no reasoning with Lew Grade on this point and so Man of the World has an American lead. Craig Stevens was a little unusual though, being an established star on American television as a result of the hit series Peter Gunn

Stevens plays globe-trotting photojournalist Michael Strait. It was the perfect setup for a series of this type - a hero with a glamorous occupation that paid enough to finance the jet-set lifestyle that heroes of action adventure series were expected to have plus it gave him entirely plausible reasons to be in exotic places hobnobbing with the rich, the powerful and the beautiful.

He has an equally glamorous sidekick in the person of Maggie Warren (Tracy Reed). I assume she’s supposed to be his secretary and/or assistant but what’s important is that she fulfills the role of good-looking female sidekick. 

The setup for Man of the World is clearly very similar to that of The Saint. The Saint had been so successful that ITC made repeated attempts to copy the formula, without a great deal of joy. Neither Man of the World nor The Baron were able to emulate the enormous success of The Saint. It’s not difficult to see why. Roger Moore had charm, wit, style and most of all charisma. It made him a very hard act to follow. Craig Stevens was a capable actor and he’s actually pretty good but he just doesn’t have the charisma of a Roger Moore or a Patrick McGoohan.

ITC had already realised that the future of television was colour and as early as 1956 several episodes of their adventure series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot were shot in colour. The pilot for Man of the World, Masquerade in Spain, was also shot in colour. It’s the kind of story that was a staple of the kinds of series but writer Lindsay Hardy adds enough twists to make it interesting. A beautiful heiress is kidnapped in Spain and MIchael Strait is caught in the middle and has a strong feeling he’s been set up. He’s just not sure why. 

Highland Story has a prologue in Australia (we know it’s Australia because we get some stock footage of kangaroos), The action then moves to the Scottish Highlands (we know it’s Scotland because we get some stock footage of Scotsmen in kilts tossing cabers). Something suspicious is going on at the Castle MacGillie and it has something to do with Australia. We get John Laurie as a guest star, which is always a treat, plus Ray Barrett putting on the most cringe-inducing exaggerated Australian accent I can ever recall hearing. British television has over the years given us some remarkably terrible attempts at Australian accents but this one is particularly embarrassing given that Ray Barrett was in fact an Australian.

Death of a Conference deals with the war in Algeria (a very topical issue indeed in 1962). Jet-setting international reporter/photographer Michael Strait (Craig Stevens) has been assigned to cover the peace conference. The day before the conference is due to start Algerian leader Dalguib is assassinated. A member of the French terrorist Secret Army (OAS), Thiboeuf (Patrick Troughton) is suspected. The assassination is rather convenient for Dalguib’s head of security Said (John Carson) who is now able to manoeuvre himself into leadership of the Algerian delegation. Said does not want peace. Strait suspects that this assassination is by no means as simple as it appears and he and Maggie, with some help from a cab driver who claims to be a Bulgarian prince (played by Warren Mitchell who must have played more guest roles in 60s action adventure series than any other actor), start digging for the truth.

Nature of Justice takes Michael Strait to Iraq where an archaeological expedition has just made a major find. Two members of the expedition set off for Kuwait by jeep. They never arrive and the following day a body is found. But only one body. Michael is determined to unravel this mystery and in the process he will learn a good deal about the nature of justice.

The main difference between this series and series like The Saint is that most of the stories in The Saint involve some kind of actual crime while this is not always the case with Man of the World. Some of the stories are simply the kinds of things that a photojournalist would get mixed up in - mysteries without actual criminal elements. 

The Runaways is such an episode, a lightweight but amusing story of a girl with an amazing tendency to fall in love with men who rescue her. And she seems to get rescued rather a lot. After her latest rescue she has decided to elope with a dashing but apparently penniless army officer. Since the girl is an heiress the elopement is the kind of story magazines pay good money for and thus Michael is reluctantly drawn into the affair. What he doesn’t realise is that you have to be very careful about rescuing young ladies with a penchant for falling in love with their rescuers.

Blaze of Glory is pretty lightweight also, a motor racing melodrama that is mostly an excuse for including lots of (admittedly extremely good) motor racing sequences. 

Portrait of a Girl is very lightweight indeed with a certain amusing charm to it although one can’t help thinking it would have worked even better as an episode of The Saint.

The Mindreader is quite a charming tale. A young woman, Carla, appears to have the ability to read minds. All the usual scientific tests seem to confirm that her ability really is genuine, that she is not a fake. Carla believes her own powers are genuine although she would actually have been much happier to discover that she was a fake - she has a horror of being thought to be some kind of freak. Despite the results of the tests Michael is convinced that he can give what she wants most - the knowledge that she has no psychic powers after all. Along the way we learn some interesting things about the mind-reading game. 

Specialist for the Kill on the other hand is a full-blown spy story about an unusual assassin. Strait’s photographs are the only leads that the CIA has. It’s an offbeat spy tale with a hint of the surrealism that would feature in other 60s British spy series like The Avengers although in this case the surrealism is played for grotesquerie rather than humour.

A Family Affair is another very serious (and reasonably good) episode involving a terrorist bombing in Paris.

Shadow of the Wall is yet another rather dark spy story. An old friend of Michael’s from West Berlin is accused of being a spy. Michael is convinced of his friend’s innocence but someone is certainly selling secrets to the East. The solution is all too realistic as well as being emotionally devastating. A very effective episode even if the major plot twist is unlikely to come as a great surprise.

Man of the World was successful enough to spawn a spin-off series. The season one episode The Sentimental Agent introduced a not entirely reputable Argentinian import-export agent named Borella, played by Carlos Thompson. The character had such obvious potential that he was given his own series, called (naturally) The Sentimental Agent although the character was made less disreputable and had his name changed slightly to Carlos Varela.  He’s still basically the same character - he’s a man who likes money but he likes adventure as well and rather enjoys playing the hero and enjoys it even more if he can do someone a good turn and make a profit as well. He’s the kind of character who would obviously be ideally suited to  feature in his own action adventure series so the spin-off was a very sound idea (and in fact The Sentimental Agent is even more fun than Man of the World). In this episode Michael Strait is left very much in the background but Carlos Thompson has more than enough good-natured charisma to carry the story on his own. While a typical Man of the World story involves Michael Strait rescuing someone from a dangerous situation in this episode he’s the one who needs to be rescued after being arrested by the new Cuban revolutionary government for espionage. Luckily Borella is just the man to do the rescuing, having some very useful connections with some very corrupt Cuban officials. 

Man of the World ran for 13 episodes in 1962 followed by an abbreviated second season of a further seven episodes the following year. This is generally decent undemanding entertainment with a few more serious moments. Recommended.