Doctor Who – Day of Reckoning (5th December 1964)

I’ve recently been treating myself to another watch of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Despite owning the story for 31 years (this was one that I didn’t have a pirate copy of, so first saw it when the official VHS came out in 1990) it’s still hard not to compare and contrast it with the movie. Clearly those childhood screenings buried themselves very deep.

Even for a story like this, where I’m very familiar with the material (having watched it far too many times through the decades) I still find myself ruminating over various points. Such as ….

After the unsuccessful attack on the saucer, David tells Jenny to take Barbara and Susan back to the underground base. Susan goes with Jenny, but Barbara remains behind, briefly catching sight of Ian. We’re obviously missing a later scene as within a few minutes Jenny and Barbara are now together and Susan and David have teamed up.

It’s been said before, but Richard Martin really wasn’t suited to directing action sequences in the studio. Given the lack of time and resources I’m sure most would have struggled (although you suspect Douglas Camfield would have made something of it) but the attack on the saucer is a remarkably sedate affair. Or maybe I’m just subconsciously expecting it to have the thrills that it did in the movie.

I know that everybody criticises the Day of the Daleks Dalek voices, but I find them preferable to some of the strangled efforts in this story (although it was still early days here).

The flight of Barbara, Jenny and Dortmun across London doesn’t achieve anything in story terms, but the sight of the Daleks lounging by various London landmarks does help to create the impression that they really are the masters of Earth (Francis Chagrin’s drum heavy incidentals help to add a touch of urgency).

Dortmun’s death is an interesting moment. Given that he leaves his notes behind, presumably he knew he was going to his death. In story terms, death is a quick way of removing a character who’s fulfilled his usefulness (a favourite trick of Eric Saward) but there’s still something slightly affecting about this moment. Possibly it’s got something to do with the fact he was convinced he’d now perfected the bomb (or was he lying about this to Barbara?).

It’s always irritated me that Richard Martin chooses simply to move the camera up from Ian and Larry’s hiding place in the Dalek saucer to the next level as it clearly reveals that the floor above just stops (it’s a wonder that the Daleks and Robomen didn’t keep falling over the edge). Maybe they felt they could get away with it as happened so quickly, but a cutaway (a Dalek cutaway maybe) would have been a wiser choice.

The Adventures of The Scarlet Pimpernel – The Hostage

Swashbuckling series were a staple part of ITV’s early schedules. The undoubted king of the genre was Richard Greene’s Robin Hood, whIch notched up an impressive 144 episodes between 1955 and 1960.

Marius Goring’s Scarlet Pimpernel began his adventuring just two days after Robin Hood’s debut (both made their first appearances shortly after ITV launched in September 1955) but the elusive Pimpernel would turn out to have a much shorter run with just 19 episodes.

Possibly this was because the basic parameters of the series – Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing guillotine bound aristocrats – was narrower than some of the other swashbucklers.

But although the 25 minute running time would be a bit restricting in terms of character development (a problem with all series of this type) The Scarlet Pimpernel still breezes along quite effectively, as even the most routine tale tends to be enlivened by some familiar faces making fleeting appearances (today it was Robert Shaw with Yvonne Furneaux as the damsel in distress).

Stanley Van Beers plays it straight as Chauvelin, the Pimpernel’s nemesis, who is set to be a forbidding presence throughout the series. Given that the series format was set in stone from the start – the Pimpernel will always triumph and Chauvelin will always be frustrated – it’ll be interesting to see how the pair interact as the episodes wear on,

And although he’s not present in this one, the fact that Patrick Troughton appears in 15 episodes is another good reason for watching.

The plot of The Hostage is pretty straightforward. The Pimpernel rescues Suzanne de Fleury (Furneaux) without breaking a sweat, but she refuses to depart for England and safety until her young son (held by Chauvelin as a hostage) is also freed.

Unsurprisingly, the Pimpernel also manages this – but along the way Marius Goring drops in a number of deft touches (the Pimpernel’s chaste appreciation of Suzanne, for example) that helps to enliven Ralph Gilbert Bettison’s teleplay. Bettison, an American refugee, would end up penning the majority of the series.

For the curious who are interested in investigating the series, it’s available via Network from this link.

Full House – First Time Buyers (7th January 1985)

Full House has done the rounds a few times on Forces TV (Sky 181, Freeview 96, Freesat 165, Virgin 274) but this time I’m hopping on board. It’s not available on DVD which raises the interest level a little for me, as does the cast list.

Running for three series (20 episodes) between 1985 and 1986, Full House features actors familiar from previous sitcoms, such as Christopher Strauli (Only When I Laugh) and Sabina Franklyn (Keep It In The Family), who presumably were recruited in the hope that comedy lightning would strike twice.

Paul and Marsha Hatfield (Strauli and Franklyn) are a young married couple, desperate to escape from the clutches of Paul’s ever-complaining mother. They find a house that seems ideal, but the asking price of £70.000 (this was a long time ago, remember) is too much for them.

But Marsha’s old friend, Diana (Natalie Forbes), and her partner Murray (Brian Capron) are also looking for somewhere to live. So the four decide to jointly buy the house and share it. With, it’s hoped, hilarious consequences ….

Strauli, best known for playing the rather wet Norman Binns in Only When I Laugh, has to tackle a very similar role here. Paul is pernickety to the nth degree, which makes you wonder exactly what the lovely Marsha ever saw in him.

Murray, a freewheeling artist, is completely the opposite and it’s their clash of personalities which dominate this opening episode (Franklyn and Forbes take something of a back seat).

Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke had plenty of sitcom hits on their cv (Man About The House, George and Mildred, Robin’s Nest) but you get the sense that their careers were winding down by this point. This debut episode of Full House was competent enough to make me return for the next one, but I’m not expecting anything especially innovative.

But that no doubt would also have been the case for the audience back when the series was originally broadcast. It can be accepted for what it is (an undemanding 25 minutes enlivened by the regular cast and the occasional guest – today it was Milton Johns as a pushy estate agent).

 

David Suchet, Poirot and More – A Retrospective (New Theatre Cardiff, 30th October 2021)

David Suchet certainly knows how to work a stage. From the moment he makes his first appearance it’s plain that he’s got the audience in the palm of his hand.

Wryly self-deprecating, he delights in recalling some of his youthful theatrical disasters (such as his debut at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where his dramatic entrance was somewhat spoiled after he tripped over and broke his sword!).

His friend Geoffrey Wansell (who co-wrote the book Poirot and Me with him) is on hand to guide him through the milestones of his career. The first half is roughly chronological, briefly touching upon Poirot but concentrating more on the roles that preceded him.

Suchet remains convinced that his earlier brush with Agatha Christie (playing Chief Inspector Japp opposite Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in the American TVM Thirteen at Dinner) was an absolute disaster, but I feel he’s being far too harsh on himself there. It’s an interesting curio though, one which every Christie fan should track down.

A famously analytical actor, at one point he provides a fascinating insight into the way he thought himself into characters like Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali and Robert Maxwell.

A decent chunk of the second half is taken up with a Shakespeare masterclass. Easily the highlight of the afternoon for me, Suchet delivers a series of monologues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. Along he way he stops to analyse each one – his comments on Shylock (a character who’s been problematic for many decades) are especially insightful.

We close, as you’d expect, with Poirot. David Suchet is quick to acknowledge the debt he owes to that funny little Belgian – commenting that without him he probably wouldn’t have been offered many of the plum stage roles that have come his way over the last thirty years (and also that he wouldn’t have been able to pull together much of an audience for this talk!)

There’s not a great deal of time for him to go into specifics about episodes, etc. Instead he takes us step by step through the way he assembled the character – from poring through Christie’s original stories, to finding the walk (using an old Laurence Olivier trick) and then the voice. It’s a magical end to a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical treat.

Poirot and More continues to tour the UK until the end of the year and will be playing a limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London next January. If it turns up anywhere near you then I can heartily recommend it.

Doctor Who – The Massacre. Part Four – Bell of Doom

History continues to proceed in an inexorable fashion, with Steven and the Doctor caught in its flow. To begin with though, Steven is convinced that the Doctor is dead – so his sudden reappearance comes as something of a shock.

He doesn’t explain where he’s been, only mentioning that he was unavoidably delayed. This is something of a plot-flaw – bad enough that the Doctor decided to head off on his own, but it’s even worse that he now swans back without a care in the world.

It’s only when he realises the date and the year that it suddenly becomes clear to him just how much trouble they’re in (and also for those at home with a decent knowledge of French history). Was it assumed that the audience watching in 1966 would have been easily able to put two and two together? If so it implies that the (largely) child viewership must have been very historically literate.

The Doctor is keen to pack Anne off as soon as possible, but the girl has nowhere to go.

DOCTOR:  Now, my dear, there must be somewhere you can stay in Paris.
ANNE:  No, there’s only my aunt’s place, and they’ll kill me there.
DOCTOR:  Oh, nonsense. Tonight, you will be quite safe. Now you go carefully through the streets, hmm?

And that’s the last we see of her. When Steven later learns that thousands of Hugenots were massacred that day he’s convinced that she too must have died and that the Doctor was culpable. “You just sent her back to her aunt’s house where the guards were waiting to catch her. I tell you this much, Doctor, wherever this machine of yours lands next I’m getting off. If your researches have so little regard for human life then I want no part.”

Could the Doctor have saved her? Of course and they could all have left in the TARDIS together. We’ve seen the Doctor pluck people from many different periods of history, so it’s hard to see why Anne would have been any different. Indeed, it’s possible to believe earlier in the story that she was being groomed as possible companion material, but the events of The Daleks Master Plan should have taught us to take nothing for granted ….

If Hartnell’s been taking it easy for the last few weeks, then this episode gives him one of his signature moments. After Steven storms out of the TARDIS, the Doctor is left all alone. “Even after all this time he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history. Well, at least I taught him to take some precautions. He did remember to look at the scanner before he opened the doors. Now they’re all gone. All gone. None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan, or Vicki. Yes. And there’s Barbara and Chatterton… Chesterton! They were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now Steven. Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t”

It’s a lovely moment, although given Hartnell’s reluctance to learn lengthy speeches it can’t have been easy for him. Interesting that the Doctor here still seems wedded to the S1 concept of not interfering in history. This ties in with Lucarotti’s previous stories (notably The Aztecs) but the series, notably under the influence of Dennis Spooner, had somewhat moved on since then.

What’s disappointing is the way that the power of this scene is negated by what happens next. A young girl, Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) bursts into the TARDIS, followed by Steven, and the Doctor is forced to take off immediately. This therefore not only cancels out Steven’s anger with the Doctor, it also provides us with the most perfunctory introduction possible for Dodo, the new companion.

That the Doctor tries to pour oil on troubled waters by pointing out that Dodo’s surname is similar to Anne’s, which maybe suggests than Anne survived after all, feels like little more than an exercise in straw-clutching.

This whole section seems rather bolted on (and was surely contributed by Donald Tosh, rather than John Lucarotti). But even allowing for the way that The Massacre rather dribbles to a halt, the bulk of the story is so strong that this isn’t really an issue.

It might not always feel like Doctor Who, but it’s still excellent drama. Let’s close with a line from Tavannes, a chilling proclamation that sums up the serial perfectly. “Tomorrow this city will weep tears of blood.”

Doctor Who – The Massacre. Part Three – Priest of Death

As has often been observed, The Massacre doesn’t really feel like a Doctor Who story. The sidelining of the Doctor is one reason – but it could also have something to do with the way that Lucarotti’s script harks back to the style of earlier stories (like The Crusade). In The Crusade, the Doctor was content to be an impartial observer, unable (or unwilling) to influence events.

And even allowing for Hartnell’s turn as the Abbot and Purves’ increasingly frantic efforts to prove that the Abbot is the Doctor, all the real drama in Priest of Death comes from the interaction of the guest cast.

de Coligny and Tavannes continue to cross swords, but now they do so in the presence of the King (Barry Justice) and his mother, Catherine de Medici (Joan Young). These scenes crackle with a theatrical intensity, thanks to the fine playing, but you can’t help but feel they’d work equally well in a one-off non-Doctor Who drama.

Justice’s Charles IX is a capricious, easily distracted ruler. At one point he tells de Coligny that “war is so tedious” and shows a desire to move onto other, more frivolous matters. His love and respect for de Coligny is honest and unforced though, a far cry from both his mother and Tavannes, who are plotting to kill him.

Quick to rise to anger, Charles is shown to be easily manipulated (especially by his mother). He does attempt to emphasise his dominance, but the Queen Mother (a calm, restrained performance by Young) remains uncowed.

QUEEN MOTHER:  You summoned the council?
CHARLES IX:  I gave orders I was to be left alone.
QUEEN MOTHER:  Without my knowledge or consent?
CHARLES IX:  I asked to be left alone, mother.
QUEEN MOTHER:  The threat over your friend, the Admiral? You are the King.
CHARLES IX:  Yes, I am the King – and to be obeyed! Now keep out of my sight unless you care to end your days in a convent.
QUEEN MOTHER:  I would wish you have the courage, my son.
CHARLES IX:  I have but to give the order.
QUEEN MOTHER:  Summon your guards, have me arrested. But you had better have a good reason for the council- and for the people.
CHARLES IX:  The attempted assassination of my Admiral, by you and Tavannes. Do you deny it, Madame?
QUEEN MOTHER:  No.
CHARLES IX:  Have a care. I mean what I say. I shall send Tavannes to the block!
QUEEN MOTHER:  You would execute the Marshall of France for doing his duty?
CHARLES IX:  Duty? He’s an assassin!
QUEEN MOTHER:  He tried to rid you of a dangerous enemy.
CHARLES IX:  de Coligny is my friend. You, Madame, are my enemy.

And so we come to Hartnell’s appearance as the Abbot. Apart from a few words at the end of the first episode, it’s little more than a cameo (two scenes lasting only a few minutes). Hartnell doesn’t change his speech patterns (despite some fan claims to the contrary) which makes it easier for Steven to believe that it’s just the Doctor pretending.

The reluctance by Lucarotti to confirm or deny the true state of affairs leads us into a classic cliff-hanger. Steven finds the Abbot’s dead body (murdered on the orders of Tavannes) in the street and is still convinced that it’s the Doctor. Logic tells us that it can’t be him, but (if we could be see it) I’m sure it would be a striking image.

Morecambe & Wise at Thames

The news that Network look to be releasing all of Morecambe and Wise’s Thames shows soon (DVD covers have appeared on Amazon) fills me with a certain amount of joy. I took to Twitter to express my delight but Twitter being Twitter it wasn’t long before somebody stopped by to tell me that the Thames era was a bit rubbish really ….

This is a widely held view, but hopefully after all the shows become accessible we might see something of a reassessment. It’s true that Morecambe and Wise’s Thames twilight years don’t match their BBC peak – but then both performers were older and slower (especially Eric, who had suffered his second heart attack in the late seventies). And no matter how good Eddie Braben was, after more than a decade writing for Eric and Ernie it’s not a surprise that sometimes things seem rather familiar.

But one thing you realise when working through the BBC era is that not everything is gold. The hit rate is pretty good, but there’s a fair bit of chaff too. For me, it’s Little Ern’s plays which are the main sticking point – had they been tight, ten minute skits then they’d pass by very agreeably (but many tend to be twice that length and are more of a trial than a treasure).

Since the regular Thames shows were only twenty five minutes, this sort of indulgence was no longer possible. Possibly the shows were shorter in order not to put too much pressure on Eric, but whatever the reason it was a positive move.

Although I watch a considerable amount of archive television (a self evident statement I know) I’m very rarely motivated by nostalgia. I’m prepared to make an exception for E & E at Thames though.

I don’t have any clear memories of their first run BBC performances (and in the late seventies, early eighties their BBC shows didn’t get repeated very often) so I really hopped on board at the start of their Thames transfer. So little things (“here they are now, Morecambe & Wise” sung to the Thames jingle and Eric walking off at the end of each show to catch the bus) still give me a little nostalgic frisson.

Fingers crossed that these DVDs don’t go into limbo like certain other Network titles (Biggles, Hollywood). Time will tell ….

Doctor Who – The Massacre. Part Two – The Sea Beggar

The Sea Beggar offers Peter Purves further chances to flex his acting muscles as Steven –  and of course the audience – puzzles over the mystery of the Abbot of Amboise.  When Steven spies him out of a window, he immediately believes the man he can see is the Doctor (which isn’t a surprise as they look identical).

But his innocent exclamation raises Nicholas’ suspicions, who decides that Steven must serve the Abbot and is therefore his enemy.  Steven later suggests that the Doctor is impersonating the Abbot, although Lucarotti is content to take his time before revealing the truth. But Steven’s theory seems have some weight after it’s revealed that Colbert only met the Abbot the day before (and nobody else in Paris knows him by sight).

Why would the Doctor be masquerading as the Abbot?  Who knows, but it’s exactly the sort of thing he would do and it would also explains his disappearance.  Everything seems to be chugging along to the conclusion that the Abbot is the Doctor, but we’ll have to wait for quite a while before Lucarotti reveals the truth ….

Popular fan-lore maintains that Hartnell’s performance as the Abbot was something of a tour-de-force, allowing the actor to show his versatility in a role that was poles apart from the Doctor.  The reality is a little different – the Abbot is a surprisingly minor character with only a handful of lines (and none of them in this episode). If the recon is to be believed then Hartnell was briefly glimpsed as the Abbot in this episode. Of course it’s always possible that he was absent during this recording and Steven only pretended to see him. That seems likely, as it would be odd to have Hartnell around just to act as a walk-on (unless his appearance was a pre-filmed insert).

The Sea Beggar sees the introduction of two heavyweight performers, André Morell as Marshal Gaspard de Saux-Tavannes and Leonard Sachs as Admiral de Coligny.  It’s very aggravating that the only Doctor Who story to feature Morell (a favourite actor of mine – if you haven’t seen it then you should certainly check out Quatermass and the Pit) was wiped, but it’s still possible to get a feel for the quality of his performance from the audio.  Sachs would later return in Arc of Infinity, but we can’t blame him for that.

These Catholics are terrible at keeping secrets. Steven learns that their target is code-named the Sea Beggar. Nobody knows who this might be, until de Coligny reveals that the King has given him this very nickname. Needless to say he’s totally unaware that this signifies he’s been marked for death ….

Doctor Who – The Massacre. Part One – War of God

John Wiles never made any secret of the fact that The Daleks Master Plan was rather imposed on him, which means that The Massacre offers us a much better chance to understand what his vision of Doctor Who was.  Bleak and uncompromising would seem to be the answer.

This serial presents the viewer with the first “straight” historical since The Crusade.  Following that story, lighter fare such as The Time Meddler had been the order of the day, but John Lucarotti’s third and final script for the series (albeit heavily rewritten by Donald Tosh) returns firmly to the themes of season one.

Most notably, the Doctor’s insistence that he’s unable to change history (also a key part of Lucarotti’s The Aztecs).  This was later blithely ignored on numerous occasions, so it’s tempting to wonder whether Lucarotti, who hadn’t contributed to the series for several years, was simply unaware of this.

Paris, 1572.  The Doctor is keen to meet Charles Preslin (Erik Chitty) and discuss the latest scientific developments.  For a story that’ll turn very dark, it’s a little odd that Hartnell’s in his default setting of hyperactive at the start of the episode, bumbling around with a very casual air.  Given that he must have been aware that this period in time was rather dangerous, it slightly beggars belief that he decides to go and meet Preslin alone, leaving Steven to kick his heels until his return.

In story terms it makes perfect sense, as Hartnell doesn’t return as the Doctor until episode four (in episodes two and three he plays the Abbot) so they had to be split up somehow – it’s just a pity it couldn’t have been done in a more subtle way.  But no matter – as it allows Peter Purves to play the leading man for the majority of the serial.  Purves remains something of an unsung hero of this era, probably because of the paucity of existing episodes, but he’s rock solid in whatever he’s given to do.

Here, he plays the innocent aboard.  Steven doesn’t arouse suspicion in those he meets because his story – an Englishman who’s only recently arrived in Paris – is the truth.  He also mentions he’s recently been to Egypt, but he wisely doesn’t add when!

Given the obscurity of this period of history, there’s an awful lot of info-dumping which has to take place – but it’s scripted well enough to not make this terribly obvious.  We’re introduced to Nicholas Muss (David Weston) and Gaston (Eric Thompson).  Both are Protestants (Huguenots) and are seen to clash with the ruling Catholics, represented by Simon Duval (John Tillinger).

Nicholas and Gaston are quickly defined as very different characters.  Nicholas refuses to rise to Duval’s bait and attempts to keep the peace, whilst Gaston delights in taunting his Catholic opponent at every opportunity.  At this early point it’s difficult to know which side is “good” or “bad” (both Gaston and Duval are as arrogant as each other) but Nicholas’ friendly manner (he spies that Steven is a stranger and is welcoming and hospitable) suggests that our sympathies should lie with the Huguenots.

The sudden arrival of a serving wench from the Abbot of Amboise’s kitchen with a strange tale throws Gaston and Nicholas into consternation.  She tells them that the Catholics are planning to crack down on the Huguenot problem – which leads Nicholas to believe that they intend to murder Henri of Navarre, the Protestant prince.   The girl, Anne Chaplet (Annette Robinson), immediately catches Steven’s sympathy, although Gaston – as befits his class and status – treats her with barely disguised contempt.  It’s a pity that Anne has a West County accent (did France have a West Country?!) but there you go.

So within the space of twenty five minutes Lucarotti has deftly established that the Huguenot minority are in danger from the Catholic majority.  The Doctor has, not for the first time, disappeared – but the major shock is reserved for the cliffhanger.  One of the Abbot’s staff, Roger Colbert (Christopher Tranchell) is nervously making his report to him.  Admitting that they have been unable to recapture Anne, the camera tracks up to reveal that the Abbot of Amboise is played by William Hartnell …..

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) – My Late Lamented Friend and Partner (21st September 1969)

Few ITC series have seen their fortunes rise quite so dramatically over the years as R & H (D). Today it’s a beloved example of the ITC adventure show genre but when the series was first broadcast it was a very different story.

The critical response was muted (but that was par for the course with most ITC series, which tended to be viewed with a mixture of contempt and irritation at their transatlantic aspirations). But there’s no real evidence that the series found an appreciative audience either, although the fact the show wasn’t networked didn’t help. It was very quickly packed off into off peak slots in many of the regions – either late night or morning/afternoon.

Two repeat runs (on ITV in the eighties and BBC2 in the nineties) were key to introducing the series to a new audience (and possibly reminding some of those who had caught it first time round that it wasn’t all bad).

Ralph Smart’s My Late Lamented Friend and Partner is an affective opener, in that the premise of the series is established quickly and efficiently. Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope) is murdered, leaving his business partner Jeff Randall (Mike Pratt) and his wife Jeannie Hopkirk (Annette Andre) both bereft.

But Marty can’t rest easy until his murderer is brought to justice and so decides to return to Earth to help Jeff, who’s the only one who can see or hear him (although this rule is broken before a few episodes are out).

The series would always tread a line between drama and comedy, as Cope’s penchant for humour was never far from the surface. Mind you, Pratt deadpans very nicely, so it’s not quite a case of a comic and straight man.

This first case is played pretty straight though. John Sorrensen (Frank Windsor) has paid a fat fee to have his wife murdered and when Marty appears to guess the truth he has to die as well. Casting Windsor, an actor best known for working on the other side of the law, was a good move, even if he’s not called upon to do a great deal more than glower menacingly.

Several other familiar faces breeze through the story – notably Ronald Lacey as a beardy beatnik (given the once over by R&H) and Dolores Mantez.

The undoubted highlight of the episode is Jeff’s first meeting with the ghostly Marty. This is built up slowly, with the grieving Jeff receiving several disturbing phone calls from a beyond the grave Marty. Eventually he’s drawn to a wonderfully misty graveyard in the dead of night in order to meet his spectral friend.

Immediately after this scene ends we cut to Jeff waking up in bed, which poses the possibility that maybe it was all a dream. That’s quickly negated though, so the mystery of whether Jeff is really being haunted or is just hallucinating isn’t a major part of the episode. Which is a slight shame as there was some dramatic potential there.

The shadowy murder organisation is run to ground in a rather perfunctory fashion, but then the episode’s not really about the crime, it’s much more concerned with setting up the series’ format. And there’s no real problems on that score (although it takes a few episodes before Cope’s wig settles down).

Special Branch – Depart in Peace (25th August 1970)

Edward Kirk (David Langton), an ex-colonial policeman, has been invited to return to Kenya in order to give evidence at the trial of a notable Mau Mau terrorist. Despite the best efforts of both Jordan and Inman he flatly refuses, but Moxon isn’t prepared to let the matter rest there ….

Alun Falconer’s sole script for the series, Depart in Peace is something of a slow burn. We eventually learn the reason for Kirk’s reluctance to leave the country, but the episode is in no rush to get there.

Before that point, there’s several entertaining confrontational scenes between Moxon and Inman to enjoy. The friendly relationship between Kirk and Inman is something that Moxon attempts to use to his advantage – indeed, this is an episode where he’s at his most silkily manipulative.

When even Inman can’t make any headway with Kirk, Moxon speaks to a journalist called Sullivan (Brian Marshall). Whilst not mentioning Kirk by name, Moxon drops enough hints to link him to a massacre in a Kenyan village – old history maybe, but possibly it’s the sort of lever that will galvanise the inactive Kirk.

David Langton plays to type as the patrician Kirk (Pauline Letts compliments him as Mary, Kirk’s wife). It seems that their idyllic life – running an antique shop in Surrey – is due to be disrupted by ghosts from their Kenyan past, but the truth is a little more complex.

Their current surface happiness is something of a sham, as it’s finally revealed that Mary is suffering from leukemia and may only have months to live (hence the reason why Kirk doesn’t want to leave the country). What’s remarkable is that she’s totally unaware there’s anything wrong with her. No doubt Kirk thinks he’s doing the right thing by keeping her in the dark, but it’s hard to sympathise with this point of view.

Although Jordan takes something of a back seat today, he does have a few memorable scenes. My favourite is when he partakes of lunch and drinks at Moxon’s club (Moxon asks him if he has a club, Jordan replies “only ones with bunnies”). Inman doesn’t take the news that his DCI has been chumming it up with Moxon very well, although eventually he calms down.

By the end of the episode everything’s been neatly wrapped up – Kirk agrees to go to Kenya and Moxon tries to plant another story with Sullivan (singing Kirk’s praises).  All in all it’s rather a low-stakes sort of story, but the guest playing of Langton and Letts certainly gives the script a lift.

All Memories Great and Small – Expanded Edition by Oliver Crocker (Book Review)

With one notable exception (Doctor Who) the production histories of many British television programmes aren’t terribly well documented. There are exceptions of course (the sterling work carried out by Andrew Pixley for a variety of series, David Brunt’s painstaking Z Cars tomes and recent books about programmes as diverse as Star Cops and The Brothers have all been more than welcome).

Until the original edition of All Memories Great and Small in 2016, the BBC version of All Creatures was one of those neglected series, but Oliver Crocker’s wonderfully exhaustive book certainly rectified that. Now reissued with additional interviews and fascinating production information for 35 of the series’ 90 episodes, it’s better than ever.

Since the original publication, several of the interviewees (such as Bill Sellars and Robert Hardy) have sadly passed away, which makes the book even more of a valuable resource as there’s no substitute for first hand recollections. The roster of those who agreed to be interviewed is impressive – not only key regulars such as Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, Carol Drinkwater and Peter Davison, but also a plethora of guest stars and behind the scenes crew who are able to share many stories about the series’ production.

The icing on this particularly succulent cake has to be a slew of wonderful production photographs with the odd studio floor plan thrown in for good measure,

The format of All Memories Great And Small is straightforward and effective. Each episode (from Horse Sense in 1978 to the final Christmas Special in 1990) is given its own chapter. All have reminiscences from a variety of contributors (some specific to that episode, some more general) whilst selected episodes also contain production info (handy if you’re looking to pinpoint specific locations used, for example).

Clocking in at just over 400 pages, it’s plain that this book was a real labour of love. If you’ve got the original edition then it’s still worth an upgrade for the additional material. But if you’ve yet to buy it and have any interest in the BBC series, then All Memories Great and Small is an essential purchase. An absolute treasure trove of a resource, I know that it’ll be something I’ll return to again and again in the future.

All Memories Great and Small can be ordered directly from Devonfire Books via this link or from them via this Amazon link.

Special Branch – Dinner Date (18th August 1970)

Jordan and Morrissey travel to Frankfurt. They’ve come to collect Selby (John Rolfe), a British national who went missing in East Germany three years ago and has just resurfaced in the West. It seems like a straightforward job, but appearances can be deceptive ….

The return of George Markstein to scripting duties also heralds the reappearance of Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant). Since all of her six SB episodes were scripted by Markstein he clearly felt that the continuing relationship between Christine (now confirmed as a senior KGB officer) and Jordan was something that had legs.

Her sudden return initiates a sharp story shift – before that it seemed that Morris would be the focal point of the episode. Instead he turns out to be something of a MacGuffin, existing purely as an excuse to bring Jordan and Christine back together.

Their first meeting – in Jordan’s hotel room – is an early sign that she holds the upper hand. Having booked the room next to his, she then orders a slap up meal for two and champagne. Although he’s initially reluctant, he drinks the champagne with her and we’re told later that they enjoyed the meal.

The action deliberately cuts from their champagne sipping to Jordan waking up the next morning, so it’s never make explicit what (if anything) happened during the night. But when he picks up Christine’s cigarette lighter from his bedside table the inference is plain.

Today’s DCI Jordan fashion-watch. He sports a rather natty pink shirt and tie combination. And when Christine breaks into his hotel room to take photos of any interesting documents lying about, she pauses to admire his collection of ties hanging up in the wardrobe.

Since this is a Markstein script, you’re never quite sure who to trust. Are the hotel staff colluding with Christine? And then there’s the West German police authorities, represented by Otto Pohl (Frederick Jaeger) and Bauer (John Bailey). Pohl is relentlessly jolly whilst Bauer is clipped and abrupt. Neither play a central role, but both provide some local colour (and it’s always a pleasure to see both actors).

If this was an ITC series then we’d have started off with some stock footage location shots of Frankfurt. There’s no such window dressing here – we just have to accept that the series of studio sets are real German locations.

With Jordan and Morrissey abroad, Inman complains that he’s somewhat short staffed. And indeed, at present Special Branch does seem to be comprised of just those three (along with the occasional silent, leggy female secretary). Morrissey contributes little to the investigation, but seems to enjoy himself offscreen by spending an agreeable evening with an obliging fräulein.

As for the specifics of the plot, was Christine sent to stop Selby returning to Britain or did she have some other purpose? Jordan’s decision to not tell Inman about her sudden appearance is a telling one, as is his reluctance to confirm whether he saw her again (all he will say is that everything will be in his report).

From a few hard looks Inman gives Jordan, it’s obvious that the friendly relationship between him and Christine is a cause of concern. And as she’s due to return later in the series there’s time for this story-thread to be developed further.

Special Branch – Inside (11th August 1970)

Inside (the first episode of Special Branch‘s second series) features another new title sequence (the series’ third) and a new theme tune. The first title sequence was quite stark and downbeat whilst this one is very different (Inman and Jordan strike heroic poses whilst looking intently through their binoculars).  It never fails to raise a smile, although I’m not sure that was the intention.

The episode has quite a straightforward story to tell – Jordan finds himself banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, placed in the same cell as Gillard (Michael Goodliffe), a spy who’s due shortly to be released. Gillard knows the identity of another traitor high up in the British Establishment, but isn’t talking. So if Jordan can gain his confidence, maybe he’ll be able to learn something.

There’s a certain attraction in seeing the dapper Jordan dressed dowdily for once (although he’s allowed to keep his sideburns intact). Don’t worry, the neckerchiefs make a comeback later this series.

Goodliffe’s presence raises expectations, as he was always an actor who caught the eye. Gillard’s a rather taciturn sort of character though, so Goodliffe doesn’t have a great deal to play with (not until the end, when Gillard’s fears for the safety of his daughter opens up some cracks in his previously iron character).

That’s something of a story weakness. Gillard’s daughter, Sarah (Wendy Gifford), is the only thing in the world he cares about and it’s pressure applied to her which eventually forces him to speak to Inman. So Jordan’s undercover prison stay turns out to be fairly incidental, although it’s good fun seeing him pretending to be an irritating wide-boy.

We don’t get to see much of the prison, although at one point Jordan gets his hand scalded by a pre-Gan David Jackson. Although it’s hard to believe that he received that much of an injury as his hand was only plonked in a basin full of hot water (just how hot is the water in prison?).

And remaining in picky mode, we’re told that Sarah is a rather dowdy, unattractive sort. But as she’s played by Wendy Gifford there’s something not quite right there ….

One of those rare stories where Moxon doesn’t spring a last minute surprise on our SB boys, Inside is competent enough but I’d have expected a little more from a Trevor Preston script.

Secret Army – A Matter of Life and Death (6th December 1978)

Poor hapless Francois (Nigel Williams) bites the dust ….

Hardly the most rounded or interesting character, at least he’s given a starring role in his final episode.

The fact he and Natalie are especially lovey-dovey today is an early hint that something rather nasty will happen to him. This bad feeling is then compounded by his refusal to seek the advice of Albert – he’s keen to go it alone and speak to the Communists, who have located two British airmen (even though Francois is warned that they play by their own barsh rules and don’t work well with outsiders).

Max and the Communist leader, Phillipe (Michael Graham Cox), have been planning the takeover of Lifeline, with Albert and Monique to be liquidated. So the cheery Francois turning up on their doorstep is the last thing they need.

Max’s next move (anonymously informing on Francois to Kessler) carries a certain punch, especially since earlier in the episode they had seemed to be on friendly terms (Francois giving Max some materials which would prove more than useful in his forging activities). Although by now it’s plain that Max is more than capable of appearing affable on the surface whilst remaining cold and calculating underneath.

The two airmen holed up with the Communists remain shadowy characters. Much more time is spent with another pair – Tommy Miller (John Flanagan) and Joseph Walden (Leonard Preston) – who have been wandering the countryside looking for help.

Having been turned away from a church by a frightened priest, they land on their feet when an affable baker called Victor Herve (Duncan Lamont) takes them under his wing. Lamont gives, as you’d expect, an excellent guest turn in what would turn out to be one of his final television credits.

Anyone who has worked their through the series up to this point has to marvel at the way so many British airmen manage to latch onto someone who has direct contact to Lifeline. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but you just have to accept it.

With Miller and Walden being straightforward, affable chaps there’s not a great deal of drama to be found in their part of the story (although we’re left hanging for a short while before it’s finally confirmed whether Victor is a friend or foe – the casting of Lamont was a canny move in this respect, as he was equally adept at playing both).

As has been his lot for most of series two, Bernard Hepton doesn’t have a great deal to do as Albert remains firmly stuck inside the Candide and somewhat buffeted along by events outside. This works in story terms though – Albert’s complacency and inactivity convinces Max that takIng control of Lifeline will be easy.

Francois gets a dramatic death – shot on a railway platform whilst a helpless Natalie looks on in distress (it’s a peach of a reaction moment for Juliet Hammond-Hill). The third of four SA scripts by Robert Barr, A Matter of Life and Death never drags, even if the outcome of events seems inevitable from early on.

But it’s what’s going to happen now with Max and Lifeline that’s the more intriguing question.

Blakes 7 coming to Forces TV – September 2021

Blakes 7 will be teleporting to Forces TV (Sky 181, Freeview 96, Freesat 165, Virgin 274) from next month.

For us old sweats who have the series on DVD (and before that VHS) this won’t be news to get the pulse racing, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that most people have never really assembled DVD archives of any size, so this will be their first opportunity to see the series for a few decades (and it might even pick up a few new fans along the way).

Forces TV have made some interesting digs into the BBC archives recently (such as No Place Like Home, which was only ever partly commercially available) and hopefully they will continue in this vein.

My Life Is Murder – Series One. Acorn DVD review

Alexa Crowe (Lucy Lawless), happily retired from the police force, is looking forward to filling her days with nothing more stressful than baking bread. But when a former colleague, Detective Inspector Kieran Hussey (Bernard Curry), asks her to investigate a previously unsolved crime everything changes ….

With series two of My Life Is Murder due to air shortly, it’s the ideal time to become reacquainted with series one (which was broadcast in 2019, running for ten episodes). An Australian series which takes full advantage of its Melbourne locations, it’s a bright and breezy watch which slips by very easily.

It’s true that there’s nothing particularly original here, which especially struck home for me as I’ve recently been rewatching New Tricks (ex-detectives investigating cold cases) but there’s no need for every new series to reinvent the wheel – sometimes you just want to be entertained.

Lawless dominates proceedings as Alexa Crowe, a fifty something who lives a contented single life. The first episode teases out the probability that she had a partner at one point, but the series doesn’t spell out the details for a few episodes (and Lawless was insistent that Alexa shouldn’t be one of those tortured former detectives haunted by ghosts from her past).

An unashamedly formula show, My Life Is Murder quickly ticks all the expected boxes. Alexa has an affable police contact in Hussey, who can always be guaranteed to drop another interesting case in her lap just when she needs it (as well as being handily round the corner whenever backup is needed) whilst info-dumping is provided by a young whip-smart computer genius called Madison Feliciano (Ebony Vagulans).

Madison acts as Alexa’s confidant and sidekick and it’s their evolving relationship which helps to keep the stories moving along. Madison is eager to become a cop, deciding that Alexa would be an ideal mentor. Alexa, fiercely independent, tries (but usually fails) to keep her at arms length ….

My Life Is Murder keeps itself fresh by employing a variety of locales for its mysteries (such as the plush apartment of a male escort, an ultra competitive cooking school or the exclusive girls school where Alexa spent her formative years) whilst it also tackles a crime story staple – the locked room mystery. Alexa also entertains herself by slipping into some lycra and joining the members of an exclusive cycling club (which she does very easily – by just asking nicely).

There’s a fair few series of this type out there, but My Life is Murder is still worth your time with Lawless’ turn as the wisecracking but also vulnerable Alexa being the show’s main strength. The mysteries don’t tend to be baffling whodunnits (the question is rarely who, but rather how and why) but the overall package is still an appealing one. Recommended.

My Life Is Murder – Series One is released on the 16th of August 2021 by Acorn Media. It has a running time of approx 430 minutes across two discs (five episodes per disc). Disc two also contains a 16 minute making of featurette and a photo gallery. All episodes are subtitled.

The Losers – A Star Is Born (12th November 1978)

Any sitcom starring Leonard Rossiter is going to be worth a look (even Tripper’s Day, although only the strong or foolhardy will probably be able to watch all six episodes of that one).

The Losers has plenty going for it – the series was scripted by Alan Coren and featured Alfred Molina (making his television debut) as Rossiter’s co-star.  It’s pretty tough going though, for several reasons.

Firstly the picture quality isn’t great. The videotape masters were wiped, so we’re left with off airs of the first five episodes (the final episode has presumably disappeared for good) which can be headache inducing. This is particularly noticeable during the series’ debut episode – A Star Is Born – where at certain points the picture keeps going to black every few seconds.

Set in the world of pro-wrestling, The Losers reinforced the widely held belief about the rigged nature of British wrestling (the sport was still a Saturday afternoon staple on ITV but its days were numbered). Sydney Foskitt (Rossiter) is a manager in desperate need of a fighter to lose convincingly in a big match. All seems doomed for Sydney, until he stumbles across the monosyllabic Nigel (Molina).

Good points about this first episode. Rossiter is his usual immaculate self and plays comfortably to type – he’s on decent form when the increasingly hysterical Sydney finds himself backed into a corner by the sport’s Mr Big, Max Snow (Peter Cleal). Joe Gladwin, as a cynical old trainer, is also good value as is Paul Luty, who throws himself around the ring with reckless abandon.

Possibly the best part of the episode takes place at a fairground where Sydney is hiding out (he’s attempting to dodge the wrath of Mr Snow). Sydney, as befits a WW2 veteran, breezily demonstrates his skill at the shooting range – only to miss the target and fill the top prize (a teddy bear) full of holes.

The stallholder and his wife (John Cater and Stella Tanner) are both dismayed about this, as is their son Nigel.  Things are about to turn nasty, when Sydney realises that Nigel (by a wonderful coincidence) is a wrestler. He may be a rubbish one, but that’s exactly what Sydney needs, someone who’ll lose when instructed.

There’s a harshness throughout A Star Is Born. Nigel’s father is more than happy to offload his son onto Sydney (“his mother and me always wanted a dwarf, there’s midgets on her side”) whilst the manipulation by Sydney of the simple and trusting Nigel does leave you with a nasty taste in the mouth.

Critical reaction to the series was muted at best. The Stage and Television Today reported that “there wasn’t much to say – except perhaps to express regret that it was written by Alan Coren” (16th November 1978). Meanwhile the Daily Mirror’s postbag contained this missive from R. Jackson of London. “Oh dear! What has that wonderful actor Leonard Rossiter done, getting mixed up in The Losers?” (25th November 1978).

The fact that the third and final series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin began airing in late November 1978 did The Losers no favours, as it clearly came off second best when compared to Perrin.  Presumably ATV agreed and decided that the series had little or no repeat value, wiping the tapes sometime after transmission.

Although there were later archive loses (the erasure of BBC children’s programmes like Rentaghost and Animal Magic not to mention the accidental destruction of most of Granada’s Lift Off With Ayshea) The Losers has to be one of the last British dramas or sitcoms to have been deliberately wiped in its entirety.

The fact that most of it has been recovered is a cause for celebration, but the first episode suggests that it’s no lost classic (to put it mildly). No doubt I’ll brave the rest of the series in due course, but I’ll probably take it nice and slowly.

Doctor Who – The Pirate Years

I’ve recently been rewatching the documentary Cheques, Lies and Videotape on the Revenge of the Cybermen DVD, which sparked off a few reminisces about my own dabblings in the Doctor Who pirate VHS era.

For those who weren’t there – until the mid nineties, watching old Doctor Who episodes in the UK was no easy task. There were very few repeats and only a small handful of stories had been commercially released on VHS. But virtually everything still in existence could be obtained on pirate tapes, provided you had a contact (and the patience to sit through nth generation copies which could be a trial on the eyes).

Throughout 1990 I quickly built up a collection of every existing episode from the sixties and seventies. Having been starved of access for so long, this meant I spent twelve months gorging myself silly on everything and anything I could get my hands on (yes, even The Mutants and Underworld).

With The Daleks having only recently come out on official VHS, I was keen for more Hartnell and so the first tape I asked for contained The Aztecs, The Rescue and The Tenth Planet 1-3. That was an exciting day ….

Pretty much all of the sixties episodes were sourced from copies of the telerecordings. These could sometimes be quite watchable (I only retired my pirate copy of the first three episodes of The Tenth Planet when it came out on official VHS many years later) but not always (I did sit all the way through a very muffled and blurry copy of The Gunfighters, but it wasn’t until the story showed up on UK Gold that I actually understood the plot).

Most of the seventies episodes freely swopped were taken from off-air Australian recordings, as our Antipodean cousins were fortunate enough to have the Pertwee and Baker T episodes repeated on a seemingly endless loop. I was pretty lucky here, as a fair number of the stories I received must have been only one or two generations down, as they were very watchable.

They did have their odd quirks though – sometimes two episodes would be edited together and occasionally stories would receive the omnibus treatment so beloved of Margot Eavis. One such omnibus story I had was The Power of Kroll, which I did watch in a single sitting – but even though it was quite short (around 80 minutes) it isn’t something I’d recommend.

Some episodes were edited for content (Leela’s knife-throwing in The Invisible Enemy, for example, was trimmed down).

There were a number of Pertwee stories (such as The Silurians, Terror of the Autons and The Daemons) which I first experienced, via these bootleg tapes, in black and white. And every now and again I like to drop the colour down and view them again in monochrome. Hopefully I’m not the only one mad enough to do that.

The days of tape swapping came to an end with the launch of UK Gold’s in 1992.  With better quality versions of most of the series’ surviving episodes receiving regular television screenings, there was less need to refer back to the old pirate tapes.

For a new generation, these UK Gold repeats were their Doctor Who gateway. But that’s another story ….

Coronation Street in the Seventies

I’ve recently been watching a fair amount of late seventies Coronation Street (currently up to August 1978, which sees Hilda having problems with her muriel).

As mentioned in previous posts, thanks to the Granada Plus repeats it’s not too difficult to locate most episodes from early 1976 onwards. And when you get into the groove of watching consecutive episode after consecutive episode you find there’s something very moreish about this era of the show.

Unlike modern soaps, it’s not because of a constant stream of high octane storylines. 1970’s Corrie is a gentle thing – true, there is drama (the recent strike at Baldwin’s Casuals, say) but it’s usually always leavened with humour.

Deaths of regulars were kept to a minimum during this period, and usually they occurred either because the actor decided to leave (like Anne Reid) or they were let go (such as Stephen Hancock, fired after he complained about the series’ wage structure). The notion of killing off a long-running regular just to get a bump in the ratings wasn’t really a thing.

Affairs were also a rarity. Yes, Ray Langton is shortly due to depart Weatherfield after a short fling, but this storyline only came about because Neville Buswell decided to leave the series.

So given that the stakes were often low, why is the show so enjoyable at this point in time? Maybe that’s the reason why. 1970’s Coronation Street isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s just a slice of gently comic life.

No, it’s not an accurate reflection of life in a big Northern city during the late seventies (although the series can often surprise you with the occasional sharp topical barb) but then there’s no reason why it has to be.

Instead, the Street was content to play to its strengths, particularly when it came to servicing the series’ long running regulars. When they started to depart the stage in the eighties (for a number of reasons) the show began to lose something of its sparkle.

So I think that when my rewatch reaches the mid eighties I’ll just loop back to the first episode in 1960 and begin again ….