Monday, 19 June 2017

Smiley’s People (BBC TV, 1982)

The BBC had a success  with their 1979 television adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. They followed this up with a sequel, Smiley’s People, three years later, with Alec Guinness reprising his role as British master-spy George Smiley.

It should be explained that the novels Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People form part of le Carré’s celebrated Karla trilogy. The BBC chose not to adapt the second installment, The Honourable Schoolboy. This was understandable. The nature of this novel would have required a very expensive project and was probably beyond the scope of a television production. It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read The Honourable Schoolboy before reading Smiley’s People. On the other hand it is absolutely essential to have read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before Smiley’s People and it’s equally essential to have watched the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before watching Smiley’s People. If you don’t you won’t have any understanding of Smiley’s motivations, or the motivations of any of the other characters for that matter. 

I’ll keep this review a bit vague in plot terms so as to avoid revealing any spoilers either for this series or for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Smiley’s People deals with George Smiley after his final retirement from the Circus (a thinly disguised version of MI6). Smiley might be on the scrap heap but the Circus itself is in even worse shape. Since his retirement ill-advised political interference has pretty much destroyed the Circus’s capabilities as an espionage agency. Morale is at rock bottom. And now the Circus is faced with a problem that could become a scandal sufficient to destroy it. 

An ex-agent is murdered. He had been one of Smiley’s agents and now the Circus needs Smiley to sort out the mess and if possible to cover up the whole incident. Unfortunately they’ve picked the wrong man to organise a cover-up. Smiley intends to find out why his ex-agent was murdered and he intends to follow the trail as far as it goes. It goes a long way and Smiley has a suspicion that ultimately it will lead him to Karla. Karla is his Soviet counterpart, the most feared and most ruthless of all Soviet spy-masters, and the duel between Smiley and Karla goes back more than a quarter of a century.

This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation. Most of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book. This is probably not altogether surprising since le Carré co-wrote the script.

This is a six-part mini-series. It’s not a very long novel but the plotting is intricate enough that the mini-series has no problems holding the viewer’s interest.

George Smiley really should be a fat man but apart from that one tiny quibble it has to be said that Alec Guinness is magnificent in the role. He was nearly 70 at the time but that’s roughly the age that Smiley would have been. Guinness of course was no action hero but Smiley is not supposed to be an action hero. He’s a spy-master not a spy - he’s the man who pulls the strings while his puppets handle any rough stuff that has to be done. In this story Smiley finds himself having to go back into the field, something for which he is too old, but that’s the whole point - only the chance to strike at Karla could have persuaded him to do so and only the depth of his obsession could have driven him on. So Guinness’s age is really no problem at all.

The superb supporting cast includes some real favourites of mine. There’s Michael Gough as the crafty and possibly duplicitous Mikhel, there’s Vladek Sheybal as the sleazy but oddly charismatic Otto Leipzig and as a bonus for cult movie fans there’s Hammer scream queen Ingrid Pitt in a small part as well. Dudley Sutton is an amazingly creepy Karla  henchman. There are also a number of familiar faces from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - notably Patrick Stewart, Anthony Bate and Bernard Hepton (the latter giving an extremely memorable performance).

The one blemish, and it’s a matter of personal taste, is that I thought the scenes in The Blue Diamond were unnecessarily distasteful. Yes I know the night club is actually a brothel but that could be made perfectly clear without rubbing the viewer’s nose in depravity. This was at the time becoming an all too common feature of British television, a wallowing in sleaze in the mistaken belief that this made television more grown-up when in fact it made merely more adolescent. It’s only one scene though so it’s a minor blemish.

Smiley’s People was a co-production with Paramount so the BBC had a fair amount of money to play with. There’s a lot of location shooting and the production captures the jaded, sordid and cynical atmosphere of the novel extremely well.

Smiley’s People is, like its source novel, a rather cerebral spy thriller. There’s virtually no action with the focus instead being on the suspense and on the painstaking methods used by Smiley in both his investigation and his subsequent operation. A treat for fans of gritty realistic spy tales. Highly recommended.

This mini-series seems to be available on DVD just about everywhere and I believe there’s also been a Blu-Ray release. The only extra on the DVD features John le Carré and others reminiscing about Alec Guinness.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Flashing Blade (Le chevalier Tempête, 1967)

Le chevalier Tempête was a 1967 French historical adventure TV serial. It was dubbed into English by the BBC and screened, with some success, as The Flashing Blade.

It is set in 1630, during the Thirty Years War. The French garrison of Casal has been besieged by a large Spanish army. The garrison is hopelessly outnumbered, food and ammunition are running very short, the surviving soldiers are exhausted and on the verge of demoralisation. Only the steely determination, and the harsh discipline, of the French commanding officer, Thoiras, has allowed the French to hold out this long but the end is certainly approaching.

There is a buzz of excitement when a French officer penetrates the Spanish lines (leaving mayhem behind him) and makes it into the fortress of Casal. Perhaps he is a messenger bringing news that a relieving force is on its way. Alas it turns out that it is merely the young, hot-headed and totally undisciplined Chevalier Recci (Robert Etcheverry) who has decided it would be a fine adventure to join in the heroic defence of Casal. He was is a little taken aback when Thoiras does not seem to be terribly delighted by his grand gesture.

Within hours of his arrival the impetuous young chevalier has taken it into his head to start waging his own one-man war against the Spanish. He leads a daring sortie and returns to Casal with a wagon loaded with food and ammunition. Unfortunately he neglected to ask Thoiras for permission to conduct his raid and instead of being congratulated he faces a court-martial and is condemned to death. There is however one way in which he can escape execution - by undertaking an almost impossible and breathtakingly dangerous secret mission. He must escape from the fortress, slip through the Spanish lines, traverse two hundred miles of Spanish-occupied territory, make contact with a series of French agents and finally reach the commander of the main French army and persuade him to send a force to the relief of Casal. In the unlikely event that Recci succeeds in this bold venture Casal might be saved. 

This serial is therefore not just an historical adventure but a kind of spy thriller as well, with Recci having to hide his identity while carrying out his secret mission deep behind enemy lines, accompanied by his faithful valet.

That mission turns out to be even more difficult than he’d anticipated. There’s a Spanish officer who has discovered Recci’s secret and he’s on his trail, and he has the remorselessness of a hunting dog.

There is of course time for some romance. At one point Recci manages to get himself captured by bandits. The bandits have also captured the Duke of Sospel and the duke’s proud, imperious but extremely courageous daughter Isabelle (Geneviève Casile). The dashing young chevalier and the young noblewoman do not hit it off at first but they slowly come to develop a certain mutual respect, and a certain mutual affection that we have reason to suspect will blossom into romance.

Of course it’s always difficult to judge the acting in a dubbed movie or TV series but the performances are certainly energetic. Robert Etcheverry certainly looks the part as the hero. 

One of the more pleasing surprises to this series is that the BBC really did a fine job with the English dubbing. The voice actors (who sadly don’t get any onscreen credits) are well cast and they approach their task with real zest. 

The Chevalier Recci is a fine storybook hero, headstrong to the point of foolhardiness but outrageously brave and with an old-fashioned sense of honour. He is impetuous without coming across merely as a young idiot. Isabelle de Sospel is, for a 1967 TV series, a delightfully old-fashioned heroine. She is accustomed to being obeyed without question and to being treated with a very high degree of obsequiousness. Her courage and her usefulness in a crisis come from her arrogance. She simply refuses to admit the possibility that anyone would dare to place an obstacle in her way. She’s a far cry from the average action adventure series heroine of that era, but she demands our respect. 

The most entertaining character is Mazarin, at this time an Italian diplomat in the service of the Pope although he would of course go on to gain a cardinal’s hat and be chief minister of France for many years. In this series Mazarin’s ambition, cunning and complete lack of scruples provide a good many moments of light comedy we also sense that despite his foppish and slightly foolish exterior he is a man whom it would be very foolish to underrate.

There's a fine villain in the person of the scheming and perfidious Don Alonzo (Mario Pilar) and he has an even more ruthless henchman, the evil Don Ricardo (Franck Estange). The Spanish are of course very much the villains. Don Alonzo might be unscrupulous but it has to be admitted that he is also a very brave man.

While this was intended as a kids’ adventure series it has a slightly more adult feel when compared to British TV adventure series like The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. It’s very much in the style of the classic French adventure novels of Dumas such as The Three Musketeers.

One odd aspect of the British version is that every time they tried to transmit the final episode they encountered such severe technical problems that the broadcasts had to be abandoned. As a result the final episode on the DVD release is the original French version with English sub-titles. This is interesting because it does give us a better chance to judge the quality of the acting. The final episode is a kind of epilogue - the main story actually concludes at the end of episode eleven.

By the standards of children’s television this is a fairly lavish production with some fine location shooting and some excellent action sequences. The siege scenes are impressive and there’s a pretty impressive full-scale battle scene.

Mention must be made of the rollicking theme song for the English-dubbed version.

Network’s DVD release offers reasonably good transfers without any extras.

If you’re a fan of adventure tales in the spirit of The Three Musketeers then this series will be right up your alley. It really is great action-filled fun with a strong romantic sub-plot and a nice leavening of humour. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Avengers Cybernauts trilogy

The Cybernauts, written by Philip Levene, was a very popular and highly acclaimed episode from the 1965 black-and-white season of The Avengers. The idea obviously had further potential and Levene wrote a sequel for the 1967 colour season, The Return of the Cybernauts. Nine years later Brian Clemens penned a further sequel, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? for The New Avengers. I thought it might be quite fun to take a fresh look at all three of the Cybernaut adventures.

The Cybernauts has a rather complex plot involving attempts to secure some kind of electronics contract but the real story is centred on a scientific genius, Dr Armstrong (Michael Gough), who has a grudge against the government and now plans to make all government obsolete, by means of an incredibly compact super computer and a race cybernetic servants. In the hands of a full-blown mad scientist these cybernetic servants could be used as high tech unstoppable assassins and Dr Armstrong is very definitely well on the way to full-blown mad scientist status.

Michael Gough is always a delight to watch and he’s in fine form. Rather than just chewing the scenery Gough makes him very sincere and very idealistic and really very sympathetic, his evil being the sort of misguided and deluded evil that idealism so often leads to. The guest cast also includes an entertaining turn by Bert Kwouk as a Japanese electronics mogul.

The cybernauts look creepy and menacing even though the costumes are obviously very simple and very cheap. In fact the whole episode is a fine demonstration of the principle that a modest amount of money well spent will always produce better results than a lot of money ill spent.

A major plus is the cybernaut vs cybernaut fight.

This episode seems to be very highly regarded indeed by most aficionados of the series but while I did enjoy it I don’t see it as one of the great episodes. It’s all very well executed but it’s let down by the meandering and rather incoherent script.

The Return of the Cybernauts on the other hand has a rather poor reputation among hardcore fans. I seem to be very much in a minority here but I actually thought it was somewhat better than The Cybernauts.

The plot is a standard revenge story but this time Philip Levene comes up with a taut and very witty script. The urbane Paul Beresford (Peter Cushing) has become very friendly with both Steed and Mrs Peel but what they don’t know is that he is the brother of the inventor of the cybernauts, Dr Armstrong, and he wants revenge. He doesn’t just want to kill Steed and Mrs Peel, he wants them to suffer as much as possible. He could probably come up with a method of doing this himself but he is determined to make his revenge suitably high tech so he kidnaps scientists and forces them to devise the most fiendish torture possible.

A major bonus is that the minor characters all serve a purpose and all have actual personalities. Each one of the four kidnapped scientists has a different response to the difficult situation in which they find themselves, reflecting their own character flaws and their own strengths. Levene really put some effort into this teleplay.

Another clever and amusing touch is that Steed is clearly jealous of Paul’s attentions to Mrs Peel, and she is aware of his jealousy. It makes for some sparkling dialogue moments, and it makes Paul a more interesting villain.

Peter Cushing was a fine actor but he was always especially good playing a mad scientist. In this case Levene’s script gives the character enough depth and Cushing really sinks his teeth into the part.

He is almost overshadowed by Fulton McKay’s deliciously twisted performance as one of the kidnapped scientists who turns out to be just as evil in his own way as the chief villain.

Mention must also be made of Aimi MacDonald as the gloriously ditzy secretary Rosie. This is an episode in which every single character pulls his or her weight.

If there’s a fault to this episode it is perhaps that the cybernauts themselves are not quite as central to the story as one might have wished but this is a minor quibble. I really loved The Return of the Cybernauts

Now we turn to The New Avengers, and to the final installment of the cybernaut saga, The Last of the Cybernauts...?? This time Brian Clemens is the scriptwriter. The New Avengers did have a different feel compared to its predecessor, but then The Avengers had reinvented itself just as radically on several previous occasions. It’s the nature of the transformation that puts some people off. By the mid-70s British television had changed, and not for the better. In order to be commercially viable The New Avengers had to do conform to the new era which meant a lot more action and a lot more violence. The challenge was to incorporate these unfortunate requirements whilst still retaining at least some of the flavour of the original. In my view the first season of The New Avengers manages to do this with reasonable success.

Initially it seems that The Last of the Cybernauts...?? has little connection to its predecessors. A double agent has been uncovered and when Steed, Gambit and Purdey move in to make the arrest the traitor, Kane, dies in a fiery car smash.

Except that Kane didn’t quite die. He lives, but he is less than half a man, confined to a wheelchair and hiding horrible facial injuries behind a mask. All this has nothing to do with cybernauts, except that by various devious means Kane has been able to find the secret storehouse where Dr Armstrong had concealed a small army of cybernauts. Kane has also  found a man, one of Dr Armstrong’s assistants, who knows how to operate the cybernauts. Kane intends to use the cybernauts to take his revenge on Steed, Gambit and Purdey.

While the connections between the various plot elements seems tenuous at first the plot gyrations are necessary. Gambit and Purdey played no part in the previous cybernaut adventures but somehow the villain has to be given a reason for having a grudge against them as well as against Steed and somehow this has to be connected with the cybernauts. Clemens ends up tying these disparate elements together quite successfully.

The Last of the Cybernauts...?? still has some authentic and characteristic Avengers flavour. Kane is a typical Avengers villain, megalomaniacal and insane and inclined to come up with ludicrously but entertainingly complicated means of trying to achieve his objectives. Robert Lang as Kane is masked for the entire episode but he has no trouble persuading us of Kane’s malevolence and very palpable menace. Having multiple masks is a fine idea and makes the performance even more disturbing.

Kane is supplied with a very amusing henchman in the person of the polite but ruthless Malov (Oscar Quitak). 

The action sequences are mostly extremely good. The fight against the cybernaut on the staircase is superb. There’s plenty of humour and it works (the scene in the lab with the lady in the cupboard is particularly amusing) and the banter between Gambit and Purdey is cleverer than usual.

The main set representing Kane’s lair is excellent, conveying very effectively a sense of his obsessive madness.

The ending doesn’t quite come off. It’s too whimsical for a final confrontation with a villain as menacing as Kane.

There’s a great deal to enjoy here. A great villain, plenty of well-executed action, witty dialogue.

I hadn’t seen any of the three episodes for some years and I’m pleased to say that they all turned out to be very much worth seeing again.