The Champions – Nutcracker

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After a visit to the dentist, Lord Mauncey (David Langton) almost steals a file containing vital defence secrets from a secure Goverment facility. Although unsuccessful, the attempt raises several immediate concerns – such as why the previously upright Mauncey did something so out of character as well as the need for added security.

Major Duncan (William Squire), head of M7, enlists the Champions – asking them to steal the file, thereby proving that the current defence procedures are inadequate. Richard doesn’t take it out of the building, instead he memorises its contents. This then makes him a target ….

As so often, the ultra secret defence establishment we see today is hidden inside an apparently innocuous building – in this case a clothing store (Mauncey gains admittance by purchasing the correct tie!). Luckily, security is more watertight after that – he has to input a complex code on a keypad and then plays a nifty little tune on a keyboard before finally gaining access to the vault.

All of this, plus the fact that after he’s got the file in his hands the shutters come down and he’s gassed, do suggest that security’s fine as it is. But had that been so then we wouldn’t have had much of a story.

Post credits, Craig is a togged up as a cowboy and demonstrates his sharp-shooting skills. He of course comes out on top and can’t help but display a certain air of smugness.

William Squire would later have a lengthy stint in security (as the fourth ‘Hunter’ in Callan).  Duncan is therefore good training for him (the offhand way he says that Mauncey is undergoing interrogation and eventually will tell them the truth hints at the ruthless way the Section also operates).

Given that Mauncey was one of a select group of people to have the correct security clearance to enable him to access the file, asking the Champions – who don’t have this knowledge – to break in does seem slightly pointless. While Richard and Craig glumly discuss how they’re going to break the bank (neither are keen on the job) Sharron nips off to speak to Mauncey. He seems rather taken with her (no doubt the fact that she possesses a very pretty face is the reason why she was chosen for this mission).

Security at M7 doesn’t seem to be that good – considering that Mauncey is later murdered in his cell. Perhaps Duncan needs to stop worrying about the security of his top files and instead concentrate on a root and branch review of the entire department ….

The boys toss a coin to decide who will break into the vault (Richard loses and has to do the job). Sharron is excluded from this, much to her disgust, but you can sort of understand why – given that the ‘password’ involves purchasing a tie.  The break-in scene is a fairly tense one, although it can’t help but feel slightly like padding – now it’s been established that someone is keen to get their hands on these secrets, the story won’t advance until we meet them.

Richard is lifted immediately after leaving the vault. How did the black hats know where he was and what he was doing? Given that we’ve only met one member of M7, this particular mystery doesn’t seem that taxing (Nutcracker is a spy story told in a very linear way).

Right from the pre-credits, it looks obvious that the dentist – Warre (John Franklyn Robbins) – is decidedly dodgy, and although this isn’t confirmed until the close of the story, the reveal therefore won’t come as a surprise.  Warre’s brain-washing techniques are a story element that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in The Avengers.

It’s always nice to see David Langton and William Squire, but both are slightly underused. Nutcracker has all the elements for a top episode but something doesn’t quite click for me – a touch more mystery and a few red herrings might have helped.  The climatic fight is also something of a damp squib as it’s over almost as soon as it begins. And the fact we don’t have a tag scene means that the episode ends rather abruptly after this brief punch-up.

Having said all that though, Nutcracker moves at a decent pace throughout so I’m happy to give it a score of three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Gun-Runners

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A cache of Japanese weapons from WW2 are discovered in a Burmese jungle. They’re intercepted by a group of gun-runners who plan to sell them to international arms dealer Hartington (William Franklin). The Champions follow a winding trail which eventually leads them to Africa ….

For once we aren’t using the regular teeny-tiny jungle studio set to stand in for the Burmese jungle. This makes all the difference – being able to see natural light helps to create the illusion that the series has actually gone abroad. Anthony Chinn once again gets a few lines of dialogue but goes uncredited as one of the unfortunate Burmese soldiers machine gunned to death by the gun-runners. There’s no blood though, which makes this sudden orgy of violence a little more palatable.

Sharron (“Intelligent, beautiful”) is the star of this week’s post credits superpowers demonstration. Dressed to kill after a night on the tiles, she moves a car for a couple of drunk chaps. The fact she’s alone hints at her independent nature (although when she turns up at Nemesis HQ, Craig can’t resist leering in her direction).

Our three heroes head out to Burma. Sharron and Richard keep tabs on Hartington, who has a meeting with Nadkarni (a delightfully sweaty Wolfe Morris).  I do rather like Richard’s disguise (a pair of dark glasses) which is nicely inconspicuous when you’re sitting in a restaurant.

Meanwhile Craig talks to the police captain in charge of the case (a slightly hysterical Ric Young). These scenes chug along with a fairly low level of excitement, although William Franklin and David Lodge (as Hartington’s number two, Filmer) are always watchable, if rather underused.

Half way through the story I was still waiting for it to click into gear. More good actors (Guy Deghy, Paul Stassino) pop up, but the plot seems rather small beer.  Surely there must be arms shipments happening all the time, why is this one so special?

So you have to take your entertainment where you can – such as a few nice comic moments for William Gaunt or a highly unconvincing shot of Stuart Damon matted into some Burmese street footage. Things start to pick up when Craig meets Hartington – Craig getting squashed by a packing case directed at him by Filmer is nicely done (as is his athletic escape from the warehouse cellar).

If the audience might possibly be suffering from a faint case of boredom as the episode wears on, then this seems to be mirrored by the Champions (who are now back at Nemesis HQ). When the most exciting thing to happen for a while is the way they all manage to throw their Styrofoam cups into the waste paper bin, you know you’re in trouble ….

Thankfully things are slightly more energised once they head out to Africa. We may be back in the teeny-tiny studio jungle set, but there are compensations – such as a chimpanzee waking across shot or Sharron’s rather attractive jungle-wear.  I’ll dock them a point for another less than impressive matte shot though – those giraffes seem to be wobbling about a bit.

Hartington and his associates have also travelled to Africa but are less fortunate. Their plane crashes, although luckily the weapons are safe (as is Hartington). Mind you it’s impossible not to raise an eyebrow at his massive head bandage which looks rather silly.

Overall this is a fairly undistinguished effort from Dennis Spooner and is worth only a middling two and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Mission

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Winthrop House Mission, located in deepest Surrey, seems to be just a refuge for vagrants and others down on their luck. Run by Dr Peterson (Anthony Bate), it’s actually the cover for a well oiled organisation – giving criminals a new life via the wonders of plastic surgery. Craig and Sharron masquerade as a couple of crooks requiring new faces but soon Craig learns that Peterson has a horrifying Nazi past …

The pre-credits sequence features nice turns from Harry Towb and Dermot Kelly as a couple of tramps seeking succour at the Misssion. Towb doesn’t last long though as he hits the dust before the credits roll (after poking around in a room where he shouldn’t have gone). His murderers are suitably off-putting – both bandaged up like Invisible Men – which serves as an intriguing teaser.

The three Champions are involved in the post credits superpowers demonstration. All recycled footage alas – Sharron fending off a couple of lecherous hitch-hikers, Richard going athletic in The Dark Island and Craig chasing a runaway van.

Craig – with the aid of a moustache and some faked newspaper reports – poses as an American gangster with Sharron as his suitably attractive bit of stuff. There’s a rare comic moment for Alexandra Bastedo during the scene where Craig speaks to a gaggle of reporters at the airport – as Craig pours out his story, Sharron is preening like a glamour model in the background!

This episode gives all three regulars a chance to ramp up the comedy. Bastedo is great fun as a glamourous gum-chewing moll, Damon slips into gangster mode very easily whilst Gaunt later amuses himself as a tramp (pairing up with Dermot Kelly). Richard’s inadvertent shower soaking also amuses.

I like the way the tone of the episode suddenly darkens after Craig recognises Peterson as a top ranking Nazi from the Dachau concentration camp. It’s a slight shame that this revelation comes to Craig via his superpowers though (possibly he’s memorised the pictures of every Nazi war criminal in the world on the off-chance he might run into them).

It just feels a little too contrived though, maybe discovering Peterson’s past through research would have been the better option. But if you begin to pick holes in the plot then you’d never end – the Champions stumble across Peterson’s operation with embarrassing ease, it’s difficult to believe that watertight gangster covers for Craig and Sharron could be set up so quickly, etc, etc.

Craig’s anger at Peterson’s past dissipates very quickly (his initial response is to forget the mission and simply act as executioner). A little more angst and conflict between Craig and Sharron about whether Peterson should live or die would have ramped up the drama of the episode quite nicely, but since the revelation is glossed over so quickly you wonder why it was raised at all.

Richard poses as a tramp and befriends Hogan (Kelly). Kelly’s excellent comic value even though his part is fairly small. Oh, and it’s remarkable that Richard stumbled across a vagrant who was able to take him back to Winthrop House.

On the plus side, we learn a little about the Champions’ biological makeup. Craig, Sharron and Richard all now share the same rare bloodgroup – which is presented as a major revelation.

Anthony Bate never gave a bad performance and is suitably icy and detached as Peterson. As touched upon before, many Champions villains tend to be fairly two-dimensional, but Bate is able to add a touch of light and shade to what could otherwise have been a rather cliche character.

The tag scene is rather silly – the Champions bring Tremayne back a present (a bottle of Hogan’s incredibly powerful hooch). By the way they all nip off pretty smartish you know exactly what’s going to happen (he’s going to try a sip and spit it out with an expression of disgust). And that’s exactly what happens. Poor Tremayne, his underlings really have no respect for him.

Another very competent script from Donald James, The Mission is worth a score of three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Body Snatchers

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Two journalists stumble across a bizarre research facility in Wales, run by a man called Squires (Bernard Lee). One of the journalists is killed on the spot but the other – Frank Nicholls (J.G. Devlin) – escapes and contacts his friend Richard Barrett. Richard investigates and quickly finds himself in deep trouble ….

We open with yet another highly unconvincing day for night shot (given the vagaries of the British weather, it’s a shame these scenes always seemed to be filmed when the sun was especially bright).

Frank’s a bit of a cold fish. After breaking in, he hears someone approaching but doesn’t think to warn his pal (Frank just nips off a bit sharpish). And isn’t he a bit old for this cloak and dagger stuff anyway?

Post credits, Craig uses his superpowers to free a child who’s got his head trapped in some railings. A handy skill.

The early part of the episode revolves around the mystery of General Patterson who may or may not be dead, but whose body has disappeared (it’s ended up in suspended animation in Squire’s establishment). At first it seems like Patterson will be an important part of the story but it turns out he’s nothing more than a Macguffin.

Why has Richard gone it alone in Wales? It seems pretty pointless, since he leaves an obvious trail which Craig and Sharron follow at Tremayne’s behest.

I was looking forward to the hotel receptionist sporting a nice Welsh accent but no such luck. We later see an uncredited Talfryn Thomas as a garage mechanic though, so that’s some consolation ….

And apparently the only trains running in Wales are steam ones. Well they do look nice.

Devlin gives a good turn as the doomed Frank. Even better is Bernard Lee as Squires (Squires kills Frank in a particularly nasty way – with petrol and some matches). Lee was always an imposing sort of actor and easily dominates every scene he appears in. He might have been battling demons at this point (his issues with alcohol are fairly well known) but was professional enough not to let it interfere with his performance.

Given this is a Terry Nation script it’s possibly not surprising it has some science fiction overtones. But construction wise it’s a slow burn – Richard spends the first half of the episode lurking about whilst Craig and Sharron are several steps behind him. We really want to see Richard and Squires face off, but it takes a long time before that happens.

On the plus side, William Gaunt gets to act mean and moody in a leather jacket before getting frozen for his pains, whilst the presence of Ann Lynn and Philip Locke helps to bolster the cast. I also never say no to a touch of Sharron in fighting mode. It’s also nice to see her cosplaying as the Fifth Doctor.

The plot’s a bit thin but there’s enough going on to award The Body Snatchers three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Survivors

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The death of three students in Austria catches the interest of Nemesis.  The locals believe that a nearby lake contains plundered Nazi loot, but when Richard and Craig investigate they find that the trail leads them to a cave and a madman intent on reversing the outcome of WW2 ….

Uh oh, the curse of the dodgy dubbing strikes again. In the opening scene my heart lifted when two very familiar faces – Donald Houston and Bernard Kay – appeared, but once Houston opened his mouth the spell was broken. Clearly it was felt that a German accent was beyond him, so he was given a little “assistance”.

Luckily a young Stephen Yardley was able to manage a credible Austrian accent (he plays one of the three students combing the lake for treasure) although he didn’t make it past the opening credits as Ritcher (Houston) machine-guns him and his two pals to a very sudden death.

Post credits, Sharron demonstrates her skills with a dart at a local village pub. It’s a rather strange little scene though, as it has a set up but then stops before any sort of pay off.

Our three heroes head out to Austria where they run into a shifty hotel keeper, Emil (Kay), who reacts with a start when he spies Sharron’s flippers (she wasn’t wearing them though, just carrying them). Thankfully Kay – always such a watchable actor – was allowed to keep his own voice. He doesn’t have much to do except cast shifty glances at Sharron, Craig and Richard but he still does that rather well.

Donald Houston was an actor I found it slightly harder to warm to. His performances could be quite variable (subtlety was never one of his strengths) so even undubbed he might have come across as a touch hammy (as he does throughout the episode when speaking with another actors voice).

Anyway, since only the boys go scuba diving, why was Sharron carrying their flippers? I have to confess that it would have been nice to see Sharron in a wetsuit ….

Ritchter and Emil are out hunting Richard and Craig by the lake. When Emil reacts in wonder at Richard’s gymnastic abilities (“he must have jumped at least thirty feet”) some suspension of belief is required, as what we see on-screen isn’t quite as impressive. Poor Emil then hits the dust (farewell Bernard Kay, it wasn’t much of a part but it was nice to see you).

A little over sixteen minutes in, there’s a lovely gag which tends to pop up in series of this era from time to time (it also occurred in an episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes). The scene opens with a static shot of a snowy mountain range, only for the camera to pull away and reveal that it’s just a photograph at the entrance of the local mines! This has to be a deliberate tease (no doubt the audience would have both noted and appreciated this moment).

You have a love a story featuring ex-Nazis desperately longing to revive their golden years. It was a staple for many years (as late as 1988, the Doctor Who story Silver Nemesis was riffing on this theme) and The Survivors is a textbook example. Today’s prominent guest star, Clifford Evans, has a dual role – the nasty Nazi (Hans Reitz) and his mad brother (Colonel Reitz).

Sharron is sidelined for the early part of the story but springs into action when she karate chops Hans Reitz unconscious. It’s impossible not to notice the way she flings her coat over his head – that’s a handy trick to hide the fact that a stunt double has taken Evans’ place (fair enough though, you can’t really expect a senior actor to go flinging himself around).

Midway through the story it becomes obvious that something is hidden in the caves (which makes the red herring of the murdered students by the lake all the more baffling).  Mind you, that plot point seems quite sensible compared to the revelation that Colonel Reitz has been buried alive in the caves since 1945, growing madder and madder. Although since his uniform is spick and span and he’s clean shaven, he must have very decent washing and laundry facilities down there ….

This is a totally loopy concept, but you can’t help but love Evans’ full-throttle performance (just don’t think about the plot specifics too much). And just when you’re reeling from the revelations contained in a lengthy scene between Sharron and Colonel Reitz, we learn that the Colonel is the “good” German, buried alive by his evil Nazi brother who’s been waiting twenty five years for him and all the other troops also trapped with him to die off, so he can utilise the cache of weapons buried with them.

Crumbs. For the sheer chutzpah it took to create such a plot you have to tip your hat to Donald James. Utterly bonkers it may be, but I’ll give The Survivors an indulgent four out of five.

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The Champions – Project Zero

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A scientist called Dr Travis is shot and killed by the postmaster in a remote Scottish village. Travis was one of a number of notable scientists recruited for the mysterious Project Zero. Run by Dr Voss (Rupert Davies), its ultimate aim seems to be less than friendly – so Richard is ordered to infiltrate the group.  As you might expect, it’s not long before his cover is blown and his life put in great danger ….

My heart skipped a beat when the Nemesis map zoomed in on Scotland, but luckily we didn’t end up in Holy Loch. Deep breath, I don’t think they’ll be any submarines today.

Tony Williamson’s script is another one which seems to be riffing on familiar themes previously seen in The Avengers.  The hapless Travis (John Moore), fleeing from an unseen assailant, reaches the sanctuary of the village post office.  But the seemingly affable postmaster (Nicholas Smith) calmly guns him down in cold blood without a second’s hesitation. This concept of the deadly hiding behind the everyday and mundane is just so Avengers-ish.

Project Zero is an excellent story for spotting familiar faces – beginning with the very familiar face of Nicholas Smith. His Scottish accent is fairly passable, but then he only had a few lines of dialogue.

The post credits superpowers demonstration scene sees Sharron sampling a selection of wines (she’s instantly able to tell which year each wine comes from). Hard to imagine that the old folks in Tibet would have found that skill to be terribly useful, but they passed it on anyway.

Once we get past this spot of fun and games, Geoffrey Chater is the next very recognisable actor to make an appearance. He interrogates a man to death (who was primed with false information about Richard’s scientific qualifications).  I wonder if Nemesis knew that Voss and his associates were quite so ruthless? If they did then it helps to make Nemesis seem quite a sinister organisation (as per The Interrogation).

I like Richard’s disguise – a pair of thick glasses. He has a meeting with Forster (Chater) who recruits him to work on Project Zero. Their organisation is quite smooth – easily able to convince the scientists that it’s a Government sponsored project. Presumably some of them (like Travis) later learn the truth, although it’s not made clear what he discovered.

Nor do we know why Travis’ body was taken back to London and dumped in the street. Surely it would have made more sense (and been much less trouble) to drop it in the nearest Scottish loch?

Chater’s always good value when playing Government types (even faux ones) and a quick appearance by John Horsley doesn’t hurt either as he also always had an instant air of authority.  Jill Curzon (Doctor Who’s niece, Louise) pops up as a stewardess on Richard’s plane to Scotland – when she looms into the frame wearing a gasmask it’s a pleasingly jolting moment.

The big-name guest star was Rupert Davies (forever to be known as Maigret).  He’s pretty good as Voss – seemingly affable, but given what we know about Project Zero the audience is content to wait for the moment when he unveils his true colours (although Voss – like many other Champions baddies – isn’t the most complex of characters).

Project Zero doesn’t really feel like a Champions story to begin with. When Richard is in the process of being recruited by Forster, Craig and Sharron are in a car outside the building, listening in to their conversation via a bug. Why aren’t they using their superpowers?

And when Richard is swallowed up by Project Zero, Tremayne’s only answer is to set Craig and Sharron up as another couple of scientists and send them in after him.  Many other stories would have seen Richard using his powers to contact them first.

I’m also disappointed that when posing as scientists, neither Craig or Sharron pop on a pair of thick glasses. Oh, and the fact that all three succumb to the plane gassing is another oddity – previously we’ve seen them able to shrug off that sort of thing.

But when Richard is rumbled by Voss his special skills do start to come into play. There’s a good moment when Voss – attempting to force Richard to speak by the application of extreme noise – is discomforted to find that he’s not affected at all. The faint smirk given by William Gaunt at this point is a nice touch.

Richard, tagged with an explosive collar, is placed in a tight spot but luckily Craig and Sharron come riding to the rescue.  Sharron gets to retrace Dr Travis’ dash for freedom – right down to meeting the gun-toting postmaster. This time of course, things end rather differently and it’s very pleasing to see her indulging in a spot of fisticuffs for once.

Project Zero does have a few plot loose ends, but they aren’t too serious. Overall, the excellent guest cast (Peter Copley is another strong addition) helps to make the episode a cut above the norm. I’ll give it four out of five.

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The Champions – Reply Box 666

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An GPU agent called Semekin (George Roubieck) is murdered in his Jamaican hotel room. His pocket contains a curious newspaper clipping which reads ‘Wanted: A parrot that speaks Greek. Reply box 666’. Even more curious is the fact that the sixes have been changed to eights. Deciding that this must be a code, Craig travels to Jamaica in order to replace Semekin. And that’s when the trouble really begins ….

I do love the fact that if the brief stock footage clippage of Jamaica at the start of the episode wasn’t quite enough, the incidentals then decide to go into steel band mode – after all, every little helps. A real steel band pops along later just to hammer the point home.

Poor Semekin only manages to lock lips with the very winsome Cleo (Imogen Hassell) for a few seconds before her boyfriend breaks into Semekin’s hotel room and chucks a knife straight at his back. It’s a remarkable piece of marksmanship, although maybe that’s just because the camera angles were slightly askew.

Craig handles today’s superpowers demonstration scene. He’s out in the countryside with a blonde, leggy lovely (who doesn’t look too dissimilar to Sharron – hmm) and proves that finding a wristwatch dropped in the middle of a field is no problem when you’re a Champion.

The newspaper clipping leads Craig to a shop in Jamaica run by Nikko (George Murcell). I don’t know what Murcell’s had slapped on his face (some kind of orange boot polish maybe) but it doesn’t really help to convince that this British actor is actually Greek. Ah well, that sort of thing was par for the course with this era of television (the acting pool being somewhat limited).

If the sight of an orange Nikko is a little off-putting, then Jules (Anton Rodgers) is slightly more palatable – although his moustache can’t help but catch the eye. His silly accent is a bit of a problem too, but then this is a story with several silly accents ….

When I get to the middle of an episode, my thoughts often turn to plotting.  I can accept that Craig’s been sent in to pose as Semekin’s replacement, but why has no thought been given to stopping Semekin’s actual replacement turning up? Because this isn’t done, Craig’s quickly rumbled (and chucked out of an aircraft by Jules for his pains).

What’s rather nice (and unusual) is the fact that Jules is working with Corinne (Nike Arrighi), who proves to be rather more resourceful and cool in a crisis than he is. She’s the one who shoots Craig, takes over control of the plane and orders Jules to dump Craig with immediate effect.  Females in the Champions-verse are rarely so proactive.

This may be an episode which features Craig heavily, but Richard and Sharron aren’t totally ignored. Sharron’s the one who’s able to establish that Craig is somewhere out in the ocean (Richard’s not picking anything up at all – so it was lucky Sharron came along for the ride).

Sharron also proves her worth by pumping Jules for information. Although first Richard tells her to go back to her hotel room and change into something extra slinky before unleashing her feminine wiles on him. Jules is obviously instantly smitten (well, who wouldn’t be?). Their scenes together are slightly torpedoed by Rodger’s French accent though – the more he speaks, the harder it is not to think of Inspector Clouseau.

It takes a long time before the mystery at the heart of the episode (what is Jules searching for?) is revealed. And to be honest it’s not really that interesting or exciting, so we’re left with a faint feeling of anti-climax when the beans are spilled.

But the episode’s not a total write-off.  Sharron’s seduction of Jules is something of a highlight – especially when he gets her back to his hotel room and decides that a kiss would be nice.  As he moves in (and Sharron decides to lay back and think of Nemesis) we cut to a shot of Nikko shovelling food into his mouth.  We then go back to find that Sharron has hypnotised Jules.  Rodgers plays dazed and almost unconscious very well (as we’d see later in his career, he was a fine comic performer).

The irony is that even after all that effort, Jules didn’t tell her anything. So what have we achieved? Absolutely nothing. Still, as padding goes it was rather entertaining.

Craig washes ashore on an island and is discovered by Clive (Linbert Spencer).  Clive then just happens to lead him to the plane which Jules has been searching for. This is a spot of dodgy plotting that’s hard to beat whilst the tiny studio island also requires the viewer to be in a forgiving mode. Clearly Reply Box 666 was something of a cheapie – no location filming and presumably most of the sets taken from stock.

This isn’t the series at its best then, but it’s still entertaining enough, so I’ll give it three and a half out of five.

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