Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Three – Conspiracy


Conspiracy opens with another clandestine scene between the Doctor and Tavius.  The obvious joke is that the Doctor still has no idea what Tavius is talking about.  Tavius imparts the following vital information “I haven’t got long, so listen carefully. I’ve managed to get rid of that body and I don’t think anyone suspects. But if you delay your action, it will be safer.”

Every time that Tavius appears he hisses in a most unsubtle manner (in order to catch the Doctor’s attention).  It’s interesting that this bit of business wasn’t present in the script, so presumably Hartnell and Michael Peake worked it out in rehearsals.  Much later, Tom Baker’s willingness to treat the rehearsal script as simply a jumping off point for his own improvisations and suggestions would become legendary, but there’s no doubt that the four days rehearsal each episode was given during this period did allow for a certain leeway which sometimes benefited the story.

This episode sees the farce quotient ramped up another couple of notches as Barbara is presented to Nero’s wife Poppaea (Kay Patrick).  Poppaea’s not terribly impressed with Barbara, no doubt because she’s witnessed Nero’s instant attraction to her.  This wasn’t the first time that Barbara had found herself the object of male lust, although the others – Vasor in The Keys of Marinus and El Akir in The Crusade – weren’t played for laughs like Nero’s pursuit is here.

There’s a level of innuendo in the script for those who want to look for it (for example, Nero tells Barbara to “close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise”) and the farce element is at its most obvious as Nero pursues Barbara through the palace (she just avoids bumping into the Doctor or Vicki each time).  That Barbara remains unaware that the Doctor and Vicki are at court (and vice-versa) hardly seems credible – but that’s the whole joke and it’s delightful to see how the actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into the swing of things.

Derek Francis is a joy to behold in these scenes, he plays Nero as a little boy who’s anxious not to be found out.  But his other, more ruthless side, is demonstrated at the end of the episode as he watches Delos and Ian fight as gladiators.  Delos gains the upper hand and Nero has no hesitation in ordering Ian’s head to be cut off.  Whilst this seems at odds with the amiable, befuddled ruler we’ve previously seen, it actually fits in very well – Nero (like most Emperors) had lived so long with the gift of absolute power that he could be either cruel or compassionate, depending on his mood.  That so much power could be in the hands of such an unbalanced individual seems remarkable – but for all the comic stylings of the script, that part of The Romans is probably historically accurate.

Ian’s rather sidelined in this episode.  Locked up with Delos for most of the duration, he faces an uncertain future as a gladiator.  These scenes are most notable for the shots of two gladiators practising – unfortunately the way they fight is so feeble that it’s hard to imagine either would be capable of punching their way out of a paper bag …

Back at court, Vicki confesses to the Doctor that she might have poisoned Nero(!) which leads into another scene which is comic and dark at the same time.  The Doctor warns Nero and he passes his cup to the unfortunate Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot).  Tigilinus drinks and plummets to the floor, dead.  “He was right” deadpans Nero as he shrugs and moves off.  What’s remarkable is that Vicki nevers seem to realise or indeed care that her actions cost the life of the court poisoner Locusta (Ann Tirard).

It’s finally time for the Doctor to demonstrate his non-existent skills as a lyre player.  “I would like to play my new composition in honour of this occasion. The music is so soft, so delicate, that only those with keen perceptive hearing, will be able to distinguish this melodious charm of music.”  Delightfully, he then proceed to play not a single note aloud, but since nobody wishes to admit that they lack the perceptive hearing required, everybody (including Nero) pretend to be entranced.  “He’s all right, but he’s not all that good” mutters Nero testily.  Brilliant!

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Two – All Roads Lead To Rome

Although the main plot of The Romans is straightforward enough, the various palace intrigues which bubble below the surface are slightly more opaque.  At the start of this episode it’s confirmed that the Centurion we met in the previous episode wanted Maximus Pettulian dead and he’d commissioned a mute assassin called Ascaris (Barry Jackson) to do the deed.  The joke being of course that Ascaris is unable to tell him that he’s already killed Pettulian once!

So he has to kill him again (in the shape of the Doctor) but the Doctor offers more evidence that he’s handy in a scrap.  The fight scene between Ascaris and the Doctor is a comic highlight of the episode and although it was designed to put as little stress onto Hartnell’s shoulders as possible, it still works very well.  When Vicki enters the room, Ascaris has clearly had enough and heads for the nearest window.  The Doctor’s rather disgruntled.  “Young lady, why did you have to come in and interrupt? Just as I’d got him all softened up and ready for the old one, two.”  Lovely stuff.

And what of Ian and Barbara?  Ian’s been sold as a galley-slave and quickly strikes up a friendship with Delos (Peter Diamond).  Although Diamond was a bit-part actor, he spent most of his time working as a stuntman/arranger (amongst his numerous film credits was the first Star Wars movie).  Delos performs much the same function as Larry did in The Dalek Invasion of Earth – he’s someone for Ian to talk to as he searches for the others.  Diamond’s a solid presence though and manages to be something more than just a line-feed.

Barbara’s landed on her feet as she’s been bought by Tavius (Michael Peake) and brought to the court of Caesar Nero.  Tavius is an interesting character – he’s someone who has an agenda of his own (which is connected to Maximus Pettulian) although his ultimate aims remain nebulous for a while.  And is he Barbara’s friend or foe?  Peake had an imposing physical presence and would clearly have found no difficulty playing the heavy, but we’ll see that there’s more to Tavius than meets the eye.

Nero (Derek Francis) makes an impressive entrance (he belches loudly).  “Royal felicitations” murmurs the Doctor.  Amongst a host of sparkling performances, Francis’ is the jewel in the crown and his byplay with Hartnell is delightful.  From their first meeting, the running gag of Maximus Pettulian’s skill (and the Doctor’s total lack of skill) as a lyre player is established.  Nero is keen to hear Pettulian play, but the Doctor manages to cleverly sidestep this potentially awkward moment by asking Nero to go first.  Another nice comic moment occurs when Nero calls for a stool – the Doctor begins to sit down on it, but it quickly becomes clear that Nero wanted it to balance his leg upon, causing the Doctor to rise again with a disgruntled expression!

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode One – The Slave Traders

The literal cliffhanger from the previous episode (which saw a lovely model TARDIS falling down a ravine) is negated here in the most offhand way – although this very much fits in with the tone of the episode.  We open on a close-up of Ian, apparently unconscious, but it then becomes clear that he’s simply closed his eyes for a moment – he’s relaxing on a couch and is decadently maneuvering a whole bunch of grapes towards his mouth.

The Doctor has shamelessly moved into a villa on the outskirts on Imperial Rome (luckily for them, the owners are away).  It’s clear they’ve spent a few months here, doing nothing but overindulging in both food and drink (quite where all this comes from is a mystery that’s never solved – either the unfortunate householder had an extensive larder and wine-cellar which they’ve ruthlessly plundered or the Doctor has a large supply of Roman currency aboard the TARDIS).

Although Ian and Barbara are enjoying this unexpected lull, Vicki is bored. Vicki’s written here as rather more childlike than she’d later become – for example, she’s so keen to get to the market she tugs Barbara along and later reacts with glee when the Doctor agrees to take her to Rome – but as she’s such a novice time-traveller, that’s reasonable enough.

As for the Doctor, he also seems to be tiring of this inactive life and, with Vicki in tow, heads for Rome.  The Romans was Doctor Who‘s first overtly comic script and it’s clear that Hartnell’s in his element.  It would have been a story that demanded even more concentration from him than usual – the interplay between characters only works if the dialogue is delivered accurately (something that he sometimes had trouble with) but there’s no real problems in this episode.

After the Doctor and Vicki depart for Rome, Ian and Barbara remain behind at the villa.  William Russell has the chance to essay a few lines of Julius Caesar and narcissistically preen at his appearance, whilst Barbara is able to get in a few decent gags (like asking him to get some ice from the non-existent fridge).  As per the rest of the episode this chugs along comedically but events soon take a darker turn.

Two slave-traders, Sevcheria (Derek Francis) and Didius (Nicholas Evans), capture Ian and Barbara and intend to make a healthy profit out of them.  The fight scene is a comic one – Barbara accidentally knocks out Ian, rather than Sevcheria – but after that the reality of their situation hits home.  Chained up together, then separated, Ian and Barbara face an uncertain future.

Meanwhile the Doctor and Vicki find a murdered man in the bushes at the side of the road leading to Rome.  It clearly wasn’t robbery as his lyre wasn’t taken, so it remains a mystery (for a while at least) what the motive could have been.  The man was Maximus Pettulian from Corinth, whose skill as a musician was talked about even in Rome.  As luck would have it, he bore a certain resemblance to the Doctor and so the Doctor decides to assume his identity – since Pettulian was en-route to play for Nero, it’s a golden opportunity to meet the emperor.

Amongst the many nice little touches peppered throughout this episode, watch for the look between Hartnell and O’Brien after the Doctor confides to the Centurion (who’s appeared to escort Pettulian to Rome) that Vicki “keeps her eye on all the lyres”!

Until Nero appears in episode two the story never quite kicks into first gear, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in The Slave Traders.

Adam Adamant Lives! – The Sweet Smell of Disaster

Benjamin Kinthly (Charles Tingwell) has a dream. He plans to take over the country with the help of some addictively perfumed plastic flowers (which are given away free with his washing powder Cloud 7). Only one man – and his sometimes annoying female sidekick – stands in his way ….

This is rather more like it. Robert Banks Stewart’s script is ploughing a very definite Avengers furrow, but that’s a plus for me rather than a minus. And given that plastic flowers are key to the story (although these are beguiling rather than killers) I wonder if Robert Holmes happened to tune in? Holmes’ later Doctor Who story Terror of the Autons also had a key role for plastic flowers.

For once, Adam has to face a male protagonist, although a wily female – Shani Matherson (Adrienne Corri) – operates as his sidekick. Once again, it’s best not to study the plot in too much detail – Kinthly is convinced that his scented flowers have now contaminated the whole country. So when he suddenly withholds supply, the nation (by now nothing more than hopeless addicts) will agree to his every demand. Everybody in the country? That’s a bit difficult to swallow.

The Sweet Smell of Disaster works on one level as a sly satire of the advertising world. Kinthly’s buzztalk and the advert we see at the end (which Adam and Georgina watch on a television screen) are good examples of this. Mind you, given how addictive the flowers are, I’m not quite sure why Kinthly’s wasting his time with such an extensive advertising campaign.

The series’ low budget means that we’re denied the vision of the whole country in turmoil, so we have to rely on the sight of Georgina and Simms – both, unlike Adam, affected – to sell the notion that the flowers really are addictive. Of course once Georgina is cured then she can assist Adam (something which the long-suffering Adamant is less than delighted about). However, since this allows her to dress up as a flower girl in a rather brief costume I was quite content. Adam himself seems to be a quick learner about the ways of the 1960’s as her attire seems to pass him by. A couple of episodes ago he probably would have been horrified.

When the episode moves onto film it’s possible to guess that a set-piece scene is coming. Given all the detergent lying around, Adam’s decision to mix it with water and then stage a foamy fight with Kinthly was an inspired one. The foamy catfight between Georgina and Shani was quite eye-opening too ….

An assured effort, the series now seems to be finding its feet.

Adam Adamant Lives! – More Deadly Than The Sword

Adam (with Georgina tagging along of course) heads off to Tokyo to deal with an evil blackmailer who spells trouble for the British government ….

Oh dear. After two pretty entertaining episodes we hit something of a speed bump with the third. Terence Frisby’s other writing credits include a couple of (wiped) episodes of Public Eye but he’s easily best known for penning the play There’s A Girl In My Soup. His sole contribution to AAL! is a curious thing, although the major problem is one key casting decision.

Things start sprightly enough. Sir Ernest Hampton (Maurice Hedley) is an important government official who’s been unwise to find himself ensnared in a honey trap. But rather than do the decent thing and resign, he wants Adam to find the blackmailer and kill him! Another series might have made more of the notion of a Government sponsored killer, but the breezy comic-strip nature of AAL! means that it’s not something that’s dwelt on for more than a moment.

It seems odd for the blackmailer to be out in Tokyo and unlike Blackpool last time, we’re denied any scene-setting. I wouldn’t have expected the production team to jump on a plane to the East, but at least a few stock shots might have sold the illusion. As it is, we simply travel from one studio set to the next (most of the action taking place in a Geisha house) which just as easily could have been anywhere in the world.

Some comedy is extracted from Adam’s horror at being asked to consort with Geisha girls, although he quickly adjusts. He’s a fast learner that boy. There’s no room for Simms in this adventure (although possibly it was written before Death Has A Thousand Faces). There should really be no place for Georgina either, but she rather improbably manages to shoe-horn herself in. The moment when – dressed as a Geisha – she confronts Adam is rather nicely played though.

Given the dearth of ethnic actors in the UK during the sixties and seventies it was common to see British actors playing a variety of nationalities (blacking up as and when required). On the plus side, More Deadly Than The Sword does boast many ethnic supporting actors, it’s just a great pity that the major role of Madame Nagata was played by the very English Mary Webster.

Her cod Japanese accent becomes wearisome very quickly and it’s this one performance which really torpedoes the episode, although Barry Linehan as McLennon doesn’t help either. He was a familiar television face, but I have to confess that his performances often seemed a little off-key. Margaret Nolan (as Sadie) provides one bright spot. Probably best known for playing Dink in Goldfinger, she doesn’t have to do anything except play a dumb blonde, but she livens up proceedings for a few minutes.

Easily the least engaging of the surviving episodes, let’s hope that the next is somewhat better.

Adam Adamant Lives! – Death Has A Thousand Faces

Adam and Georgina head off to Blackpool in order to foil a deadly scheme to blow up the Golden Mile ….

After the lovely picture quality of the first episode, the murky gloom of Death Has A Thousand Faces comes as an unpleasant surprise. Unlike A Vintage Year For Scoundrels, it doesn’t appear that the film inserts for this one still exist – a shame, as it would have been nice to see the Blackpool travelogue scenes in better clarity.

They’re still good fun though – the incongruous sight of Adam and Georgina strolling down the Golden Mile doesn’t advance the plot at all, but it generates a spot of local colour and gives us a breather before the main plot kicks in. As for the story, it’s probably best not to ask why a vital clue was contained within the middle of a stick of Blackpool rock which was then taken to London. This seems a very strange way of going about things.

Once Adam has dispatched the two Hells Angels (one played by the distinctly unthreatening Geoffrey Hinsliff) who were pursuing Georgina (who just happened to have come into contact with the mysterious rock) the pair head off to Blackpool. It might be a big place, but it isn’t long before they stumble across the villains – Madame Delvario (Stephanie Bidmead) and her henchmen Jeffreys (Michael Robbins) and Danny (Patrick O’Connell).

As with the previous story, we see how a female villain causes problems for Adam (his Edwardian mindset makes it difficult for him to process the concept that a lady could be evil). This would be a theme that would run and run throughout the series. Bidmead (who had played the villainous Maaga in Lambert’s last Doctor Who story as producer – Galaxy Four) offers a subtler performance than the scenery-chewing of Freda Jackson and she’s given strong support from both Robbins and O’Connell.

Apart from those already mentioned, another familiar face – Sheila Fearn – appears as Susie, an apparently sympathetic character, but another who turns out to be on the side of the ungodly. Poor Adam, if this goes on he’s going to develop a complex about the female of the species.

The most important new arrival is, of course, Jack May as William E. Simms. Simms is currently plying his trade as a Punch and Judy performer but by the end of the episode he will have wangled himself a new position as Adam’s valet. May’s performance across the series is idiosyncratic – sometimes cultured, sometimes crude – but never, ever dull.

There’s another round of fisticuffs (plus Georgina nearly gets stretched on the rack) before order is restored. Madame Delvario’s plan – blowing up the Golden Mile with black lightbulbs filled with explosives in order that a rival area can take over – is one that you’re not likely to see anywhere else.

A step up from the debut episode, although the series is still on somewhat shaky ground. Alas, the next episode doesn’t mark an upswing in quality ….

Adam Adamant Lives! – A Vintage Year For Scoundrels

Having worked on Doctor Who, Verity Lambert was already well versed in the difficulties of bringing a television concept to the screen. Like Who, Adam Adamant Lives! had a “pilot” episode which was reshot, but in the case of AAL!, the changes were rather more dramatic ….

Donald Cotton’s original script was deemed to be unworkable, so the majority of his work was binned (only the opening ten minutes – set in 1902 – were retained). Also deemed surplus to requirements was the original Georgina (Ann Holloway). With only a handful of production photographs existing to document her brief association with the show, it’s impossible to know for sure why she didn’t work out. Lambert’s assertion that Holloway simply wasn’t sixties enough has always seemed a little odd to me.

But with a new script and a fresh Georgina (Juliet Harmer) the series could try again. Cotton’s surviving material (all shot on film) is rather entertaining – it firmly establishes the 1902 Adam, a man who tends to throw his assailants off high balconies at Windsor Castle and then ask questions later. But his sense of honour is obvious – an adversary can be respected if they play the game, but a traitor is beyond the pale.

So when his one true love – Louise (Veronica Strong) – turns out to be in cahoots with the evil Face (Peter Ducrow) poor Adam is rather distraught. Never raising his voice above a whisper (as well as being shot out of focus) the Face makes the most of his limited screentime. His masterplan (encasing Adam in a solid block of ice, thereby ensuring he exists forever in a living hell) does beg a few questions mind you, such as how the ice never melts.

This question was still bothering me some sixty years later when a group of workmen uncovered Adam – still perfectly frozen. Oh well, you have to accept that plot vagaries are part and parcel of AAL! Now we’re in 1966, there’s one more notable film sequence – this occurs  as Adam wanders dazedly around the West End of London, encountering Georgina for the first time – before the series largely switches over to videotape.

Contemporary reviews noted that Adam’s disorientated stumbling went on a bit (which it does) but it’s still an interesting spot of guerrilla filming. Lambert and Gerald Harper had different recollections about it – Lambert was sure that they had permission before shooting, whilst Harper remembered dashing from one location to the next in order to keep out of the clutches of the police. Certainly most of the passers-by seem to be simply ordinary members of the public, unaware they’ve briefly become television stars, rather than extras.

The comic possibilities between the upright Adam and the groovy Georgina are successfully mined. Adam’s shock at being left with an unattended Georgina in her flat (not to mention his amazement that she wasn’t – as he first thought – a boy) are entertaining. Although the entertainment ratchets down a notch when the main plot comes into play.

If the story of the villainous Margo Kane (Freda Kane) and her dopey henchman was really a step up from the storyline in the pilot then goodness knows how feeble that must have been. The shock of switching from film to videotape is most obvious during the fight sequence in Georgina’s flat. Even though the VT sequences were transferred later to film to allow for tighter editing, there’s only so much than could be done – so they end up looking a little rough round the edges.

But overall it’s not a bad debut and given the production difficulties it’s possibly surprising that it turned out as well as it did.