Thursday, 29 December 2016

Lost In Space, season 1 (1965) - the beginnings

I’ve been watching some of the early first season episodes of Lost In Space. I have very fond memories of this series but revisiting the first few episodes has provided a few surprises.

Lost In Space was originally envisaged as a serious (or at least semi-serious) science fiction adventure series rather than the campfest it quickly became. The original concept can be seen pretty clearly in the first episode, The Reluctant Stowaway. The preparations for the launch of the Jupiter II are handled in a straightforward manner. Dr Zachary Smith is introduced to us as a US Air Force officer who has turned traitor and plans to sabotage the mission. His sabotage plans encounter one hitch - he had intended to be well clear of the spacecraft before its launch but he miscalculates the timing and ends up still aboard when the spaceship lifts off.

This is a Dr Smith who is certain scheming and cowardly but he’s not a mere figure of fun. He is a genuinely sinister villain. The role is not really played for laughs at all in The Reluctant Stowaway. The robot also has a sinister aspect, being the tool Dr Smith has chosen to wreck the spacecraft (and thereby cause the deaths of all its crew members). 

This opening episode actually works quite well as science fiction. In fact in some ways it’s more realistic than most television science fiction programs. The Jupiter II’s destination is the closest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri, just over four light years away. We are told that the Robinsons will be in suspended animation for five years, which means the spacecraft will be traveling at something below light speed. So far the series scores surprisingly high for scientific plausibility. The assumption that spacecraft in 1997 would be powered by atomic motors must have seemed well within the bounds of probability in 1965. OK, towards the end it enters the world of television sci-fi pseudoscience but it’s remarkable that it maintains at least a degree of scientific plausibility for most of the first episode - that’s more than can be said for many other sci-fi series.

Most importantly, The Reluctant Stowaway is very exciting. It manages to give us the background information we need while still giving us plenty of plot and plenty of thrills.

Episode two, The Derelict, has a similar feel. Dr Smith remains sinister and menacing. The Jupiter II continues on its journey through space, narrowly dodging a comet and then encountering a very large and very strange spacecraft. Dr Smith has his own ideas about the origins of this spacecraft and is rather taken aback to discover that it really is an alien spaceship. The set design is quite imaginative and the aliens and much more interesting and more truly alien than most of the aliens we will encounter in later episodes. And they look rather cool. The Derelict, like The Reluctant Stowaway, is a pretty decent space adventure. 

In episode three, Island in the Sky, we can see the formula starting to fall into place. The Jupiter II crash lands on an unknown planet which brings the spaceflight adventure element of the series to an abrupt halt. For the first time we see the relationship between Dr Smith and the robot start to take on the comedic aspect that would come to dominate more and more. On the other hand Dr Smith (who is still referred to at times as Colonel Smith) is still pretty villainous in a fairly straightforwardly murderous way, and the robot is still more frightening than amusing. At this stage in the series it could have gone either way, either continuing as a relatively serious space adventure or making the switch to high camp comedy. We all know which way the series did in fact go.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no real complaints about the subsequent course taken by Lost in Space. It was a deliciously entertaining series and as far as high camp goes it doesn’t get much better than this. The byplay between Dr Smith and the robot was genuinely funny and Dr Smith remains quite justifiably one of the most beloved characters in television history. I’m very much a Lost in Space fan. It is however fascinating to get a glimpse of the alternative course the series could have charted. Would it have been as successful? There is of course no way of knowing.

What we can be fairly sure of is that sooner or later there would have been pressure from the network to lighten things up and play the situations for comedy rather than thrills. That seems to have been the almost inescapable pattern in 1960s American network television. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are notable examples of series that changed midway through their runs as a result of network interference and the obsession of the networks with treating science fiction and action adventure themes as lightheartedly as possibly. It was not a great strategy but no-one was able to convince the suits at the networks but maybe they were wrong.

By episode four, There Were Giants in the Earth, the formula has been pretty much locked in. Jonathan Harris is playing Dr Smith more for laughs than menace. The robot is becoming a comic relief character rather than a deadly menace. It’s becoming obvious that there’s going to be a monster in just about every episode and that the monsters will be somewhat on the silly side. There would still be the occasional more ambitious episode that tried to deal with relatively serious science fictional themes but the emphasis was going to be on light-hearted fun and monsters. Fortunately it would be a great deal of fun indeed and there’s no point in regretting the slightly more serious Lost in Space that was never to be.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Thriller, two musical episodes (1960-61)

The late 50s and early 60s was the great age of American television mystery/suspense anthology series and the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller is one of my favourites. Today I want to talk about two episodes that both deal with music and musicians, in very different ways and with varying levels of success. The episodes are The Terror in Teakwood and Papa Benjamin, both from the first season.

Both are stories about the price that a musician will pay for his art, a price that turns out to be much too high.

The Terror in Teakwood was written by Alan Caillou from a story by Harold Lawlor. It opens, in classic gothic style, in a graveyard. A man has bribed the caretaker to allow him to enter the mausoleum. What did this man want in the mausoleum? We don’t know but it certainly horrified the caretaker.

This is a story of two musicians, both great pianists, and bitter rivals. Carnowitz is now dead, but for the survivor, Vladimir Vicek (Guy Rolfe), the rivalry is far from over. Before he died his hated rival had composed a sonata that he alone could play - no-one else but Carnowitz was physically capable of playing it.

Vicek’s wife Leonie (Hazel Court) has become increasingly concerned about her husband. She suspects that someone is trying to kill him. She persuades her old flame Jerry Welch to take a job as Vicek’s manager in order to keep an eye on him. After an encounter with the creepy graveyard caretaker Gafke (Reggie Nalder) Welch knows that something is certainly going on and that it might have something to do with the teakwood box that seems to be so important to Vicek.

The plot borrows from a couple of classic 1930s horror movies but I won’t tell you which ones for fear of spoilers.

This episode was directed by Paul Henreid who had been a successful actor (best-known perhaps for Casablanca and Now, Voyager) before becoming a prolific television director. He does a fine job here. 

There’s an abundance of gothic atmosphere on display. The special effects work well. Guy Rolfe is terrific as the disturbingly obsessed Vicek. Hazel Court was one of the great cinematic scream queens appearing in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and several of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies including the superb Masque of the Red Death. Reggie Nalder is wonderfully sinister as the sly Gafke.

Papa Benjamin was written by John Kneubuhl from a Cornell Woolrich short story. An American band leader, Eddie Wilson (John Ireland), in search of the musical inspiration which he feels has deserted him, thinks he has found the answer in voodoo. He does find his inspiration, but at a terrible cost. His choice then seems to be to kill or be killed.

Ted Post directed this episode and in the audio commentary he recorded for the Image Entertainment DVD set he has some very harsh things to say about it. He felt at the time that Kneubuhl’s script was incoherent and badly needed extra work and (with each episode having to be completed in just five days) there was no time to do this. He was also deeply unhappy with the casting (which was forced upon him) of John Ireland in the lead role. He felt that Ireland’s performance was one-note and failed to get to grips with the character. Post was also scathing about producer Maxwell Shane.

It has to be admitted that Post’s criticisms are perfectly valid. While Papa Benjamin is beautifully shot and very atmospheric the story never really engages our interest or our sympathy. It is impossible to care what happens to Eddie Wilson. He’s a flat and uninteresting character.

The voodoo scenes work extremely well and there are some very nice film noir-influenced shots.

Despite the insane pace at which Thriller was made, with constant pressures to keep within the shooting schedule and the budget, production values were always high and it was always a visually impressive series. Sometimes, as in The Terror in Teakwood, the results exceeded all expectations - the best Thriller episodes such as this one are among the most outstanding television achievement of their era. Sometimes, as was the case with Papa Benjamin, it didn’t quite work.

The Image Entertainment Thriller boxed set is superb and includes a wealth of audio commentaries. The transfers are excellent. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Search for the Nile (1971)

It’s a rather different sort of program compared to most of those that I discuss here but The Search for the Nile is in its own way an astonishing television achievement. This is not a spy series or a science fiction series but a documentary-style historical drama about exploration. A mini-series centred on African exploration might sound dull but The Search for the Nile is anything but.

This was a very ambitious (and clearly very expensive) project for the BBC featuring a good deal of location shooting. The results are certainly impressive.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the hot topic in geographical circles was the source of the River Nile. In fact it had been a hot topic in geographical circles for around two thousand years and no-one was any closer to finding the answer.

This is more than just a story of exploration. It is a race. The rivalry between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke for the honour of making the great discovery is an epic in itself. Burton and Speke undertook joint expeditions as well as solo expeditions and the relationship between the two men was uneasy and complex. It is difficult to imagine two men less suited to work together in harness and Burton’s decision to choose Speke to accompany him on his first major attempt to find the source of the Nile in 1856 is at first sight surprising. The one thing they had in common was the obsession to unravel this greatest of all geographical mysteries.

There was also another potential runner in this race. Scottish missionary David Livingstone  was rumoured to have an interest in finding the source of the Nile as well and the depth of Livingstone’s knowledge of Africa made him a formidable rival. There would be others joining the race later, most notably Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century (a century that produced more than its share of remarkable men). He initially gained fame as the first European non-Muslim to visit Mecca, an incredibly foolish and dangerous undertaking  as the city was absolutely off limits to non-Muslims. Burton mastered countless languages and gained as much fame as a translator of eastern classics as he did from his journeys of exploration. His interest in eastern erotica scandalised Victorian England. He immersed himself in non-European cultures to an extent that raised eyebrows. He was wildly eccentric and unconventional and nothing pleased him more than to shock English society.

Speke was more of an enigma, a man driven by burning ambition that led him to make great discoveries and tragic errors of judgment. Speke was rather straitlaced and while Burton was fascinated by other cultures Speke hated everything about Africa and its people. Their joint expedition would prove that they were disastrously ill-suited to the task of working together. 

The TV series deals not just with this one epic journey of exploration but with a whole series of expeditions led by an assortment of extraordinary larger-than-life and often eccentric characters - Burton, Speke, Livingstone, Samuel and Florence Baker and Henry Morton Stanley. The search for the source of the Nile proved to be elusive and frustrating. Each of the various expeditions filled in some of the missing pieces but it seemed that the final solution to the puzzle was always just out of reach.

The journeys of exploration make fascinating viewing and the personal dramas of these remarkable human beings provide even greater interest. 

The excellent cast is a major asset. Kenneth Haigh is splendidly extravagant and outrageous as Burton. Michael Gough is equally good as the obsessive, saintly but amiable Dr Livingstone. John Quentin landed the most challenging and potentially most thankless role as Speke. Speke’s motivations remain mysterious and although he gave the impression of being something of a straight arrow his conduct on several crucial occasions is difficult to explain except as the actions of a man whose excessive ambition drove him to behave selfishly and dishonourably. It isn’t easy to make Speke sympathetic but Quentin does manage to make him a tragic figure.

James Mason adds a touch of further class as the narrator.

The location shooting is stunning and by the standards of 1971 British television it’s really quite spectacular. 

This being 1971 the material is handled in a pretty even-handed manner with surprisingly little preachiness. The viewer is assumed to be capable of making his own judgments. It’s actually a little surprising that the BBC has finally allowed this series to be released on DVD - this is an historical series for grown-ups who do not require everything to be filtered through a lens of political correctness.

The Victorian era produced an immense number of colourful larger-than-life heroic figures like Richard Burton and (albeit in a very different way) David Livingstone. These were men whose achievements and virtues were on the grand scale, and at times their vices were on an equally grand scale. They were complex men and this series takes them seriously and generally speaking it takes them on their own terms without trying to judge them by late 20th century standards. The courageous and indomitable Florence Baker, who accompanied her husband Samuel on his expedition down the Nile, showed that Victorian women could be just as remarkable and just as heroic.

The Search for the Nile is intelligent literate television and it’s also immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended and it looks great on DVD.

Friday, 2 December 2016

A Game of Murder (1966)

Francis Durbridge wrote some very successful mystery novels (such as Send for Paul Temple) but his fame rested to a much greater extent on his prolific output of radio and television scripts. As a writer for these media he had few peers. 

He wrote no less than seventeen mystery serials for the BBC. The eight serials broadcast between 1952 and 1959 under the umbrella title The Francis Durbridge Serial are all lost. Fortunately ten of the eleven serials that went to air between 1960 and 1980 the title Francis Durbridge Presents survive in their entirety. Happily most are now available on DVD. The surviving episodes of the BBC's excellent 1969-71 Paul Temple TV series are also available on DVD.

A Game of Murder was screened in 1966 and stars Gerald Harper (who was also being seen in the BBC’s delightful adventure series Adam Adamant Lives! at about the same time).

A Game of Murder gets off to an excellent start with the first of its six 30-minute episodes. Bob Kerry, a once famous golfer who now runs a sporting goods store, is killed in a tragic accident on the golf course. His son, Detective Inspector Jack Kerry (Gerald Harper), cannot bring himself to accept the verdict of accidental death. He has no evidence to the contrary, just a feeling that something is not quite right. 

The first indication that his suspicions may be justified comes from his father’s housekeeper’s dog. The dog had been missing for a week. Finally someone answers the advertisement that Jack Kerry had placed in the newspaper. Jack goes to collect the dog and that’s when things begin to get puzzling. 

And this is when Durbridge’s plot really starts to throw some delightfully odd twists and turns at the viewer. A freak golfing accident, a blonde in a car, a collection of photographs, a missing dog, a missing dog collar, a man in a wheelchair and a small donation to a charity - how on earth can so many odd little details possibly be connected? Nonetheless Inspector Jack Kerry is convinced they are connected. And all this is just in the first half-hour episode!

With his experience writing for radio Durbridge understood the serial format very well. Each episode has to have a cliffhanger ending and he does a fine job in providing them.

I was pretty confident I knew the identity of the chief bad guy very early on but I turned out to be totally wrong. Beware of red herrings! 

Jack Kerry is actually on leave at the time of his father’s death so the investigating officer is Detective Inspector Ed Royce (David Burke). Jack is draw into the case anyway and his relationship with Ed Royce becomes slightly uneasy as he starts to feel that Ed doesn’t believe him. Jack’s relationship with his boss, Chief Superintendent Bromford (Conrad Phillips), is even more uneasy since some of Jack’s actions could be, and are, misinterpreted.

Jack is going to need some help from the blonde in the car mentioned earlier, Kathy White (June Barry), but the difficulty is that he can’t be sure how far he can trust her and she can’t be sure how much she trusts him. The man in the wheelchair is a problem too, as is his wife, as is the pet shop owner who sold the mysterious vanishing dog collar, and then there’s the man who accidently killed Jack’s father in that golfing accident. Not to mention his housekeeper and her very smooth nephew, and even the mild-mannered manager of Jack’s father’s sporting goods store. Any one of these people could be mixed up in the conspiracy and Jack doesn’t even know the nature of the conspiracy.

It’s 1966 so naturally it’s all very studio-bound but it’s a story that relies on good writing and acting rather than spectacle so that’s not a problem.

The late 60s was a period of transition for British television crime dramas, with a move away from the dedicated and loveable bobbies of Dixon of Dock Green towards a harder-edged more self-consciously realistic style that in the 70s would eventually lead to The Sweeney. A Game of Murder marks an early stage in this transition. There are hints of the seamy underside of life but it’s still relatively genteel (very genteel indeed compared to The Sweeney) and there’s no graphic violence whatsoever. 

There’s also just about no action. Durbridge was still content to rely on the classic techniques of the mystery/suspense story and he happened to be very adept at those techniques.

Gerald Harper gives a very fine performance as Jack Kerry, certainly much more restrained than his delightfully bravura turn in Adam Adamant Lives! but he’s sympathetic and convincing. David Burke and Conrad Phillips are equally impressive.

Danann have released A Game of Murder on an all-region DVD in the UK but it’s rather pricey. Much much better value is the Australian Region 4 release from Madman - their Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 boxed set is substantially cheaper and includes A Game of Murder and three other serials. The transfer is also slightly better on Madman’s Region 4 release. 

A Game of Murder is a fine old-fashioned mystery tale and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

You might also be interested in my review of the 1975 Francis Durbridge Presents serial The Doll.