Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Four – The Traitors

Katarina’s death is a bit of a shocker.  The last few episodes have suggested that she’s now firmly a regular, so her sudden demise (sucked out of the airlock with Kirksen) certainly helps to reinforce the impression that the stakes in this story are higher than usual (as we’ll see, other allies will also perish before we reach episode twelve).

But the nature of this type of adventure serial means that it’s impossible to dwell on her fate for too long.  Steven sounds upset and the Doctor delivers a nice little tribute (“She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. She wanted to save our lives and perhaps the lives of all the other beings of the Solar System. I hope she’s found her Perfection. Oh, how I shall always remember her as one of the Daughters of the Gods. Yes, as one of the Daughters of the Gods”) but once that’s done they press on and she’s only mentioned again at the end of the final episode as Steven counts the human cost of their victory.

Although the story seems set to be a re-run of The Chase (the Dalek pursuit ship wasn’t able to intercept the Doctor on Desperus, so you assume it’ll carry on following them) at present it takes a different tack.  The Black Dalek orders the pursuit ship to be destroyed as he doesn’t tolerate failure (another sign that the Daleks are back to their ruthless, single-minded best) and then contacts Chen – telling him that he’ll be the one to regain the core and exterminate the Doctor and his friends.  This is another sign that the Daleks are thinking – it would have been impossible for them to travel to Earth and not attract attention, so using their human agents is the logical course of action.

Every good megalomaniac needs a confidant and Chen has Karlton (Maurice Browning).  Browning is wonderfully smooth and his performance gives us the impression that Karlton is well aware of his worth.  It’s a pity that he doesn’t stick around longer as he would have served as a good sounding board for Chen’s various plots and dreams.

The Traitors has an increasing vice-like feel, as the Doctor, Steven and Bret (now back on Earth) find it difficult to know who they can trust.  Bret contacts Daxtar (Roger Avon) but he’s part of the conspiracy and Bret shoots him dead.  The Doctor is appalled by this, but as he was powerless to intercede it’s another sign that the Doctor isn’t in control – at present he’s being buffeted along by events whilst others (both enemies and allies) hold the upper hand.

This episode introduces us to Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh).  Chen initially refers to her by her surname and sums up her character.  “Ruthless, hard, efficient. And does exactly as ordered.”  This scene is another mis-direct, as no doubt the audience is supposed to be surprised when this top agent is revealed not to be a man but a woman.  Sara, like the troopers later seen in Blakes 7, is a product of her training.  Once she has her orders then she’ll carry them out without question.  It’s not difficult to imagine that Terry Nation was again drawing on his memories of WW2 when crafting this character.

If Katarina’s death at the start of this episode was a jolt, then so is Bret’s demise at the end.  He’s shot dead by Sara which spells trouble for the Doctor and Steven as she’ll now be gunning for them …..

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Three – Devil’s Planet

After being little more than comic relief during The Chase, it’s good to see the Daleks regaining their ruthless streak – highlighted when they question the hapless Zephon.

Zephon’s arrogance won’t permit him to admit he was in any way culpable for the Doctor’s theft of the taranium core (although you do have to agree with him that the Daleks’ security was rather lax).  When the Black Dalek tells him it’s been agreed that he’s guilty of negligence, it’s not clear who’s agreed this.  The Black Dalek by himself maybe?  This would seem to be the most likely option and if so it’s a clear demonstration to the other delegates that the Daleks can and will operate unilaterally.

Dalek technology is shown to be rather advanced, as they’re able to remote land Chen’s craft (carrying the Doctor, Steven, Katarina and Bret) onto the prison planet Desperus.  They then launch a pursuit craft to intercept them and regain the core – although you have to wonder why they didn’t launch the pursuit ship earlier (that way it could have maintained a watching brief a safe distance behind).

It may not surprise you to know that Desperus is an inhospitable prison planet.  There’s no guards and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves (echos of Cygnus Alpha from Blakes 7).  Alas we never find out if Desperus was named after it became a prison planet or if it always had that name and someone decided it sounded just the gloomy sort of place to establish a penal colony!

It’s another jungle planet, no doubt reusing the Kembel sets.  We’re quickly introduced to three very hairy convicts, Bors (Dallas Cavell), Garge (Geoffrey Cheshire) and Kirksen (Douglas Sheldon).  The pecking order is established during their first scene – Bors is leader, Garge wants to be the leader but Bors (at present) is too strong which leaves Kirksen as the third wheel.

Terry Nation seems to be deliberately wrong-footing us, since everything suggests that Bors will be the main threat.  But after the Doctor is able to repair the ship and they take off again, it’s Kirksen who sneaks aboard and grabs Katarina …..

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Two – Day of Armageddon

Moving pictures!  It’s nice to be able to watch Day of Armageddon for several reasons, not least because it gives us an opportunity to see Nicholas Courtney (Bret Vyon) and Adrienne Hill (Katarina) in action.

We open with the Doctor skulking around the jungle.  At one point he’s on his hands and knees, which is a tad unusual (and undignified) for this Doctor.  A little later he meets up with Steven, Katarina and Bret and is forced to admit that Bret is a decent sort after all.

The Doctor, naturally enough, takes control of the situation (or at least attempts to).  But both Steven and Bret also have their points of view and it’s fair to say that the exchanges between the three of them are frank.  Bret doesn’t hold back when attempting to bring the Doctor into line. “Sir! Will you shut up!” It’s a lovely scene which helps to strengthen Steven’s character (he’s had previous experience of the Daleks and so isn’t prepared to blindly follow the Doctor’s lead) as well as Bret’s.

Rather oddly, the Doctor tells Bret that the Daleks can be defeated if they look at their history books. “You must tell Earth to look back in the history of the year 2157, and that the Daleks are going to attack again. History will show how to deal with them.” Eh? Unless the Daleks plan to steal the Earth’s Core for a second time I’m not sure how that’s going to work.

Another plus point about having this episode back in the archives is that it’s a good showcase for Mavic Chen.  Douglas Camfield obviously knew a good actor when he saw one, as he later cast Kevin Stoney as the not totally dissimilar Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion.

Indeed, there’s not a lot to choose between the two characters – both ally themselves with one of the Doctor’s bitterest enemies and both fail to spot all the warning signs that they’re becoming surplus to requirements.  Also, both Chen and Vaughn have a mocking, sardonic sense of humour which marks them out from your run-of-the-mill villains.  Chen wears a lot more make-up than Vaughn though ….

We get a good insight into Chen’s character during his discussion with one of the delegates, Zephon (Julian Sherrier).  We’ve already seen the Daleks vow to dispose of all their allies as soon as their usefulness is at an end, but both Chen and Zephon obviously don’t believe this could happen to them.

When Chen suggests they join the meeting, Zephon retorts that “they will not start the meeting without me.” Chen’s insincere bowing and his amused attitude gives the very strong impression that he considers Zephon to be nothing more than a pawn in the game (Chen clearly views himself as something very different).  Let’s check back in about ten episodes time to see how that works out for him.

The Doctor suggests that Bret steals Chen’s ship – with it, they could make their way back to Earth and warn the authorities. But first the Doctor elects to take Zephon’s place in the meeting (luckily, Zephon wears a big cloak, so after knocking him out it’s a simple disguise).  All the delegates gather, but annoyingly we’re not told most of their names (which has been the cue for more than fifty years of debate!) Only one of them (apart from Chen) has a speaking role, Trantis (Roy Evans). It doesn’t seem right for Roy Evans not to be playing in a miner if he’s in Doctor Who ….

When the delegates arrive, each walks into the conference room in a very strange way – let’s be kind and say none of them were used to that level of gravity.  As they don’t speak, they have to show their approval by banging on the table – each has a different way of banging, which is rather sweet.  Chen has to be different of course, when the others are thumping the table he elects to clap his hands.  Another sign that he sets himself apart from the others.

Chen proudly displays the core of the Time Destructor.  It’s taken fifty years to mine enough taranium to make it work, so it’s precious beyond belief.  When Zephon manages to escape and sound the alarm it’s a little surprising that neither the Daleks or the delegates bother to pick the Time Destructor up.  Instead, all the delegates run around like headless chickens whilst the crafty old Doctor grabs it and makes his escape.  This is another clumsy piece of plotting – the Daleks’ scheme depends on a device which the Doctor has very fortunately managed to acquire.

As the episode draws to a close, Bret is keen to take off.  The Doctor hasn’t turned up, so Bret tells Steven and Katarina he’ll have to go without him.  Will the Doctor make it in time?  Hmm, I wonder.

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part One – The Nightmare Begins

The Daleks’ Master Plan has often been described as a sprawling epic, which is a reasonable enough summation.  But in truth it’s not really one story – rather it’s several different ones bolted together.

The early episodes have a nice downbeat feel (at times it feels like Nation was writing Blakes 7 a decade early).  It then turns (god forbid) into The Chase II, although we can take comfort from the fact that Douglas Camfield is directing rather than Richard Martin.  But after the mid-story comedy high-jinks the tone once again turns dark – not least in the final few moments of part twelve.

Rewiding back to The Nightmare Begins, one moment which impresses me is the scene between Roald (Philip Anthony) and Lizan (Pamela Greer).  Their job is to monitor Kembel for news of Bret Vyon (Nicholas Courtney) and Kert Gantrey (Brian Cant), who are investigating Marc Cory’s disappearance  (viewers with fairly long memories will remember that he met rather a sticky fate).

What I especially like about this moment is the way Nation uses the pair to pass judgement on Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), the Guardian of the Solar System.  Some twenty years later we’d see Arak and Etta in Vengeance on Varos perform a similar function as they debated the merits of the Governor.  This aspect of Philip Martin’s script was applauded as rather post-modern and picked up some praise.  Alas, Terry Nation did pretty much the same thing twenty years earlier and it seemed to have gone unnoticed.  Possibly this was because it’s in an episode that’s missing, or maybe it’s just that you don’t expect post-modernism in a Terry Nation script …

Like the pair on Varos, Roald and Lizan have sharply opposing views about the man in charge – Lizan likes him, Roald doesn’t.  It’s slightly disturbing that they both decide to watch television rather than keep an eye out for Bret’s distress signal, but this seems to be another satirical Nation touch.  It also helps to make them more rounded as characters – in plot terms they’re not terribly important, but their interaction with each other lets the viewer quickly know what the man and woman on the street thinks about the Guardian of the Solar System.

Bret and Kert are in rather dire straights on Kembel.  Kert (an impressively bearded Cant) doesn’t last long as he loses his nerve, rushes off into the jungle and is exterminated by a Dalek (for once a Dalek appears well before the end of part one cliffhanger).  This sequence was shot on film and it’s one of a number of film clips to have been preserved.  It’s only short, but it shows how adept Camfield was at ramping up the tension.

Up until this point in the series’ history, most stories have been written from the Doctor’s viewpoint.  So part one would open with the TARDIS landing somewhere, the Doctor and his friends then leave the ship, explore and are drawn into the story.  The Nightmare Begins takes a different tack (one which be used time and again in the future).

The world-building begins before the Doctor becomes involved in the plot properly – we see Bret and Kert on Kembel, are introduced to Chen, etc.  One side-effect of this form of storytelling is that it inevitably diminishes the central role that up until now the Doctor has tended to enjoy.  When a story’s ticking over so nicely with the guest characters, if the writer isn’t careful then the Doctor can be rather sidelined (see Eric Saward’s scripts for some good examples of this).

Steven, still suffering from the injuries sustained at the end of the last story, needs urgent medical help.  Rather surprisingly, the Doctor has nothing aboard the TARDIS which will do the trick so he’s forced to seek help elsewhere.  And so he lands on Kembel.

Quite why he’d think that the dense jungle planet of Kembel would be the place to visit is a bit of a mystery (one look and most people would have tried somewhere else!)  In plot terms, Steven’s injuries are nothing more than an excuse to get the Doctor on Kembel at the same time as the Daleks and Mavic Chen.

This is an undeniably crude piece of plotting – the Doctor spots some Daleks, decides to follow them and overhears Mavic Chen and the Daleks eagerly planning to take over the Earth and the rest of the Solar System.  With twelve episodes to play with it would have been nice to integrate the Doctor into the plot a little more subtly.

The Nightmare Begins sees the Doctor Who debut of Nicholas Courtney, or at least it would if we could actually see him.  We can hear him though and despite the fact that Bret’s painted rather broadly here as a single-minded man of action, Courtney still manages to make him seem fairly likeable.

Colditz – Name, Rank and Number (2nd November 1972)

The third of three pre-Colditz episodes, this one centres around the travails of Lt. Dick Player (Christopher Neame). Having already followed an army officer (Pat) and a member of the air force (Simon) it makes sense not to leave the navy out, which is where Lt Player comes in.

Washed ashore in France, Player is taken to a nearby hospital. The French doctor who deals with him is either on his side or rather incompetent (he tells a keen as mustard German officer that Player won’t be in a fit state to be interviewed for at least two days – but as soon as the pair leave, Player opens his eyes and begins to plan his escape).

As Player moves through the hospital, there’s a vague element of farce to his frantic attempts to pinch some clothes (rather reminiscent of Jon Pertwee’s debut Doctor Who story). For example, he steals some trousers (much to the indignant chagrin of their owner) and, when looking for shoes, initially comes across a nice ladies pair.

The episode boasts some well played cameo performances. The first comes from Alistair Meldrum as a chatty German soldier who runs into the absconding Player. Next up is David Garfield as Diels (he’s the sort of actor – rather like Michael Sheard – who portrays cold German officers with casual ease).

Recaptured and forced to admit his identity, Player is interrogated by two Gestapo officers (played by Nigel Stock and Terrence Hardiman). Their scenes together are a highlight of the episode – Stock’s character (the senior of the two) appears to be full of bluster whilst the other (Hardiman) is seemingly more friendly. But you must always be wary of a friendly Gestapo officer ….

Hardiman, of course, would later appear in another Glaister series (Secret Army) playing a not totally dissimilar character. Neame would also be a Secret Army regular for a while (his character was written out at the end of series one).

Player is then released into the care of an old friend, Paul Von Eissinger (John Quentin). That Player has German friends (and indeed, can speak the language like a native) might explain why he’s not immediately slung into a prison camp.

Von Eissinger, like his friend, enjoys a privileged background and professes to be no friend of the Nazis. He paints a compelling picture – Hitler removed from power and an alliance forged between the new Germany and Britain (together they could rule the world). Quentin’s clipped, mannered performance is a slightly odd one, but his dueling dialogue scenes with Neame are still absorbing.

The viewer knows that Player’s brief stint of luxurious living with Von Eissinger will only be transitory, as the price on offer for his freedom is just too great for him to pay. The episode ends with his arrival at Colditz, where he meets some familiar faces (Pat, Simon) and some others that the viewer will get to know during the next few weeks.

These first three episodes have been much more than just padding, but it’s hard to deny that the pulse quickens just a little when we pass through the gates of Oflag IV-C for the first time …

Colditz – Missing, Presumed Dead (26th October 1972)

Like the first episode, Missing, Presumed Dead introduces us to a single character – today it’s Flt. Lt. Simon Carter (David McCallum). But unlike Pat, we get to see something of Simon’s home life before he becomes a prisoner of the Germans.

Simon seems to enjoy giving everyone a hard time. If he’s not bawling out the ground crew then he’s crossing swords with his boss, Wing Commander Cannock (Peter Halliday). Simon might have a point – sloppy maintenance work could endanger the whole crew – but equally he may just be a perfectionist asking for the impossible.

Things are also sticky on the domestic front. Recently married to Cathy (Joanna David), he’s very icy with her (employing emotional blackmail with no compunction). About the only person he’s civil to is her father, Devenish (Noel Johnson). Devenish is clearly very well off (his well stocked wine cellar is testament to that).

Simon’s blunt working-class attitude should grate against Devenish’s upper-class sensibility, but they seem to have a relationship of perfect equanimity (although the pair only share a brief few moments of screentime). It’s a nice turn from Johnson though, managing to suggest that there’s a lot more to Devenish than his surface persona of a distracted wine snob.

Later that day Simon is shot down over Germany. His attempts to evade capture are reasonably interesting, but this section is mostly enlivened by the people he meets along the way, such as a friendly priest (played by Joe Dunlop) and a decidedly unfriendly Gestapo officer (Michael Wynne).

Eventually he winds up at a prisoner of war camp run by Kommandant Esslin (Oscar Quitak). It’s always entertaining, when watching a series produced by Gerard Glaister, to spot the actors who had either appeared in a previous production of his or would go on to work with him in the future. For example, Quitak later played Joseph Mengele in Kessler, the Secret Army spin-off, as well as Richard Shellet in Howards’ Way.

Today, Quitak is shaven-headed and like Michael Sheard in the previous episode has no trouble in playing an implacable German Kommandant.

Another good cameo performance comes from the always dependable John Ringham as Major Dalby. The Senior British Officer at Simon’s current camp, whilst he may initially appear to be a little Blimpish, he’s actually quite happy to assist Simon in escaping. The only problem is that Simon will have to wait his turn (no half-baked attempts which only lead to instant recapture will be tolerated).

When everybody ends up at Colditz this sort of rule is understood and (generally) obeyed. But Simon simply can’t stomach the fact that he may have to remain at the camp for a year or so until his name goes to the top of the list. So it won’t surprise you to learn what happens ….

Recaptured after an opportunistic escape attempt, there’s a sense of deja vu when Kommandant Esslin delights in telling Simon that he’s being sent to a very special camp – Colditz.

Colditz – The Undefeated (19th October 1972)

Like The Colditz Story by Pat Reid (the book which the television series drew liberally from) the television series also didn’t begin at Castle Colditz. We had to wait a little while before entering the imposing edifice of Oflag IV-C.

The opening few minutes of this debut episode are interesting. It features a selection of black and white archive footage, over which is dubbed Churchill’s defiant post Dunkirk speeches. Only slowly (when Edward Hardwicke is spotted amongst the throng of captured British soldiers) does it become apparent that the original footage has been mixed with newly shot material, degraded into flickering black and white.

You have to tip the hat to a number of extras who gamely agreed to have their heads shaven (all part of the process for prisoners of the German system). Understandable that Hardwicke didn’t go through this, but it’s a shame that his bald cap is so incredibly unconvincing. Luckily he only has to wear it for a short time – the fact he swiftly regains a full head of hair serves as a handy indication that his time spent in this camp can be measured in months.

Michael Sheard was born to play nasty Nazis, meaning that it’s no stretch for him to take on the mantle of the Kommandant. It’s just a shame that he didn’t have more to do.

Pat Grant (Hardwicke) quickly falls in with a group of fellow prisoners who are equally dedicated to escaping as he is. Mark McManus (as Lt. Cameron) is instantly recognisable but it took me a little longer to pin down where I knew Julian Fox (playing Capt. Freddy Townsend) from. Eventually the penny dropped – a late era Jon Pertwee Dalek story ….

John Golightly (Capt. Ian Masters) gives a nice performance. Pat’s first point of contact in the camp, Masters initially seems to be resigned to his fate – content simply to sit and play cards whilst the news of the war from the Allied side goes from bad to worse. But once Pat mentions that he plans to escape, Masters springs into action with considerable zeal.

There’s a lot packed into this episode – it features multiple escape plans, which culminate with Pat and some of the others tasting freedom (albeit only briefly). Pat’s recapture means that he’s earned entry to a very special prison camp, one which is supposed to be escape proof. Colditz ….

Blue Peter Christmas makes

The bbc.co.uk/archive pages are always worth skimming through as they contain plenty of interesting clips. Today I think I’ll be entertaining myself with Blue Peter’s makes through the ages – from 1963 to 1999.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/blue_peter_christmas_makes/zf82jhv

Last of the Summer Wine – And a Dewhurst Up a Fir Tree (27th December 1979)

There’s no reason why Christmas specials have to be set at Christmas – even though most of them are. Roy Clarke, who established a mild anti-festive tone in his previous LOTSW festive special, has his (Christmas) cake and eats it in this one – there’s plenty of Christmas talk, even though the setting is late summer.

It’s always a little jarring to revisit these early episodes and witness our three heroes doing their own stunts. The sight of Sallis, Owen and Wilde indulging in a spot of plastic bag sledging is a joy though – especially since even the normally reserved Foggy seems to be enjoying himself for once.

It’s not long before Foggy’s normal character clicks back into gear though. Back at Clegg’s house he – with typically military precision – inflicts a slide-show on the other two. Neither are exactly delighted. Compo hopes that it’s not Foggy’s holiday snaps again whilst Clegg is slightly anxious, re his curtains (“I hate drawing my curtains during the daytime. Suppose the neighbours start sending flowers”).

Foggy’s pictures reveal a dismal picture of last Christmas – after taking Compo’s advice all their Christmas shopping was carried out on the 24th of December, with the result that they had no trimmings and a rather paltry Christmas dinner (a fish finger and a chip). But the attentive viewer will know that their previous Christmas as transmitted on television wasn’t like this at all, so clearly time in LOTSW land runs in a different way to the rest of the country.

Determined not to be caught napping a second time, Foggy decides the time is right to start their Christmas shopping (but finds that festive cards and treats are thin on the ground in August). Things get no better later on after he buys himself a bargain (100 Christmas trees for just £10). The Forestry Commission are having a summer sale you see.

It slowly dawns on Foggy that he’s been had (but then if you exchange money in the pub with someone called Big Eric, what do you expect?). Poor Foggy is eventually brought back to reality when the three trek over to see his purchases – since each tree is 100 ft high, they’re going to be a tad tricky to cut down ….

Brian Wilde rather drives this episode. I love Foggy’s wistful shake of the head when Compo asks him whether MI5 had attempted to recruit him. “I dropped hints that I was available when me time was up in the army. I watched for the postman every morning since, but nothing”. The final scene – which plays over the end credits – of Foggy left alone also rather tugs at the heartstrings.

Elsewhere, Ivy and Nora enjoy a cup of tea and swop notes about the sex-pest in their lives – Compo. Over the years, as the regular female cast grew, these interludes would become a regular fixture. This one, despite being a two-hander, is still good though – Ivy advising Nora to take a spoonful of sugar occasionally (“you might find it might relax you. Keep your hands off your airing cupboard”). The mundanity of their conversation (“troublesome as men are, their old vests make for lovely dusters”) is delightful.

They then plot to stop Compo in his tracks. Nora advises Ivy to drop the chip pan down his trousers (“the sooner it gets covered in batter the safer it’s going to be”). Ouch! In the end they elect to just forcibly remove his trousers, but maybe – for the moment – it may have done the trick.

Last of the Summer Wine – Small Tune On a Penny Wassail (26th December 1978)

Small Tune On a Penny Wassail opens with Wally – still dressed in his pyjama top – briefly tasting a moment of freedom before being dragged back into the house by Nora to continue his festive obligations. A reflective Compo, observing this domestic fracas, sighs before walking down the deserted streets. This is an early sign that Roy Clarke won’t be bashing you over the head with false Christmas sentiment – that’s simply not his way.

A moment of levity then occurs when Compo spies a lad with a new skateboard. Ever the child at heart, he can’t resist having a go (as you might expect, he falls off rather abruptly). This isn’t a big set-piece moment, but it does set things up for the episode climax.

The others are also given their solo moments. Foggy, after attending church, manages to accidentally hit the vicar in a very delicate place with his stick. It’s a typical Foggy moment – for a brief moment he’s given an air of authority and respectability, which is then abruptly punctured.

Meanwhile Clegg, never one to be overflowing with Christmas cheer, has nevertheless stirred himself and wandered off to the phonebox to ring up his friend, Gordon (Larry Noble). Gordon’s not in the mood to receive yuletide greetings though, due to the fact a fire’s broken out in his shed. What caused the fire remains an unresolved mystery ….

Eventually all three meet up at Clegg’s house for Christmas dinner. Compo’s assistance in the kitchen is clearly not called for, so he stalks around the house like a bored child whilst the other two reflect on the time of the year. Clegg: “Christmas comes but once a year, it just seems longer.”

The cynical Clegg gets most of the best lines during these scenes. “I gave up smoking so that I could live longer. It’s at times like this you wonder if you’re doing the right thing”. At least the meal prepared by Clegg looks like it was worth eating – which almost makes up for the air of melancholy that’s descended over them. Although when we drop in on some conventional family units later on it’s plain they’re not having a particularly sparkling time either.

Foggy suggests they pop down the hospital to visit poor old Edgar (Teddy Turner), who there all on his own. But of course it’s revealed that Edgar’s got everything he could wish for – all the food he can eat and plenty of attention from the nurses. Compo acidly mentions later that even the man dying in the next ward is having a better time than they are.

We’re then given a little vignette showing Ivy and Sid at home in their kitchen. They’re busy feeding the hordes of (unseen) relatives who have descended on them – Ivy with an air of duty, Sid with an ever increasing sense of exasperation. There’s a matching moment with Nora and Wally, where Wally is given a killer putdown. “Why don’t you go sit down, Nora? You’ve been on your mouth all day”.

Back at Clegg’s house it’s finally time for the presents. It’s always seemed slightly odd to me that Clegg and Foggy wrapped their presents for Compo in the same type of wrapping paper (plus their presents to each other were also in identical paper, albeit different from Compo’s). If you see what I mean. It’s probably easier to understand when you watch the scene but there’s something not quite right there.

They all seem quite chuffed with their gifts, as does Ivy when she receives an unexpected present from Sid. Sid and Ivy’s café based warfare can be vicious at times but there’s clearly still a frisson of love between them, even if it’s buried very deep. Her look of pleasure at the black negligee gifted to her by her husband suggests that his luck might be in later. Or not, depending on your point of view ….

We’re heading into the era when stunts (and stunt doubles) would dominate. This episode has been much more reflective and downbeat, but I suppose you can’t blame Roy Clarke for wanting to end things on a high – so an irresistible force (Compo on a skateboard) manages to navigate his way through a seemingly immovable object (the Dodworth Colliery Brass Band).

I’ve still yet to work out how the episode title ties back to the episode itself though. Answers on a postcard please.

Top of the Pops – 1979 Christmas Special

The 1979 TOTP Xmas Special has an unusual opening. There’s no cheery greetings from that year’s R1 jocks, instead we go straight to Boney M – a vision in furry white – who give us Mary’s Boy Child. An odd way to kick off proceedings, especially since the song was a hit from the previous year.

No matter, once they’ve departed up pop David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Peter Powell to get things started for 1979. Like previous years, the songs are a selection of some of the top-selling Number 1s and 2s of the year. Will that mean that some of this new-fangled New Wave music will start to appear? Let’s see ….

Hurrah! Up first are Ian Dury and the Blockheads (who’ve clearly come straight from the building site) to entertain us with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Christmas trimmings for this first performance are fairly modest (a smallish tree popped on the piano). Let’s see if things pick up later.

Next is Janet Kay with Silly Games. Christmas trimming watch – there’s a few sad looking Christmas tree twigs dotted about the stage (complete with a handful of baubles). As Janet does her thing, it becomes clear this is another of those audience free shows. Although since Peter and the ‘Kid’ are lurking rather noticeably in the background (looking down upon Janet from on high) it means she has a small (but appreciative) audience.

The good songs keep on coming with Gary Numan and Cars (performing on a tinsel free stage). He makes way for Roxy Music with Dance Away. This is a little smoother than I generally like my Roxy, but it’s always fun watching Bryan Ferry, who’s come dressed for the occasion (as has Gary Tibbs). On the other hand Phil Manzanera looks like he’s just rolled out of bed and grabbed the first clothes that came to hand.

Ding Ding! Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell is danced to by Legs & Co. They have plenty of small bells to ring, so make something of a racket as they cavort on top of six chimney pots.

The ‘Kid’ is particularly pleased to see this next song – The Buggles with Video Killed The Radio Star. Christmas trimming watch – Camera 7 is covered in tinsel, the stage less so. This song, their debut single, did pretty well for them – topping the charts in sixteen countries. Their debut album – The Age of Plastic – is also jolly good, an ideal Christmas present in fact.

We’re getting into this Christmas spirit now as B.A. Robertson (Bang Bang) has turned up. He’s wearing a Father Christmas coat (although he clearly drew the line at the beard) and is accompanied by two attractive young ladies who bang big drums at regular intervals. Pity the rest of the band though, who must have been deemed less photogenic than the two drum ladies and were shuffled off to an adjoining stage.

TOTP certainly seem to be getting into the New Wave swing as Blondie give us Sunday Girl and M (“New York, London, Paris, Munich”) then appear with … Pop Muzik (what else?).

After all this excitement it’s time to relax with one of my favourite Legs & Co performances (they’re dancing to Tragedy dressed as sad-faced clowns).

Disappointingly, Elvis Costello hasn’t come dressed as Santa Claus (and the stage is a Christmas free zone), but he and the Attractions are performing Oliver’s Army, so I’ll let them off.

For those who have been missing their middle of the road musical entertainment (compare this show with Christmas 1977 and 1978 for example) there’s salvation at hand with Lena Martell and Once Day At A Time.  I always thought she was American, so it came as something of a shock to learn she actually hails from Glasgow. She’s put her glad rags on – a glittery jacket and dress – which fits in nicely with the Christmas tree stuck at the back of the stage.

First live vocal of the show comes courtesy of Chris Difford (nice cap, sir) as Squeeze gives us Cool for Cats. It’s a rather truncated performance though (even by TOTP standards) clocking in at under two minutes.

Dr Hook (When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman) are the next act. It’s obvious who the star turn is – the eyepatch wearing, maraca shaking Ray Sawyer. No matter that the maracas must be empty (as no sound comes from them) he shakes them like there’s no tomorrow whilst mugging at the camera like a good ‘un. Now that’s entertainment.

There’s a quick return for Blondie. Debbie’s taken off her sunglasses as the tinsel comes pouring down (hopefully she didn’t swallow too much of it). Dreaming is the pop platter they serve up. Gary Numan also returns for an encore. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that nobody dared to release the tinsel on him – which is fair enough as it wouldn’t have fitted in with the moody tone of Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Racey entertain Peter and the ‘Kid’ with Some Girls. Throughout their performance a barrage of clips featuring Legs & Co down the ages are spliced in (which allows the viewer to boggle yet again at some of their more interesting costumes).

Sir Cliff of Richard closes the show with We Don’t Talk Anymore. Sporting a natty pink jacket and a sprig of tinsel in his buttonhole, Cliff – always the trouper – gives a typically polished performance.

Musically, TOTP Xmas 1979 was very strong. A pity that there wasn’t an audience yet again, but then a surprising number of seventies TOTP Christmas shows suffered the same fate. Unlike previous years there were no performances played in from promo films – which helped to make the show feel just a little more special.

Top of the Pops – 1978 Christmas Special

TOTP Christmas 78 is somewhat running on reduced power. Due to strike action, Noel Edmonds is forced to link the show all on his lonesome from a fairly cheerless office (although the Christmas tree looks nice). With the music pre-recorded there’s not a great deal that’s festive about this one, but let’s press on anyway.

Darts open the show with The Boy From New York City. It’s jaunty retro fun. Equally jaunty is the next song, Rasputin (who was Russia’s greatest love machine, you know) sung by Boney M. This performance is, of course, all about Bobby Farrell, who flings himself about with wild abandon. He’s going to do himself a mischief if he carries on like that.

Legs & Co (and some male friends) dance to Summer Nights and then the tempo slows down a little with Wings and Mull Of Kintyre. Until Band Aid, it was the UK’s top selling single (the first to exceed two million). Like last year, we have the video rather than a studio performance (so expect to see once again an unconvincing grassy knoll, plenty of mist and the Campbeltown Pipe Band wandering through the shot at exactly the right time).

Next up are the Brotherhood of Man with Figaro. Looking very coordinated (gleaming white trousers and red jackets) the foursome give their all. Like most of the studio performers they don’t have an audience to bounce off (but given that TOTP‘s audience members could sometimes border on the apathetic, this isn’t too much of a problem). I can understand why some find this sort of middle-of-the-road fare unpalatable (when I mentioned on Twitter that I’d be covering TOTP Christmas 76 there were grumblings that the punk era was long overdue) but personally I love it. Well most of it ….

Father Abraham and the Smurfs with The Smurf Song is a step too far, even for me (but it does have a strange hypnotic quality after a while). Following the Smurfs, there’s Legs & Co in shorty nighties, dancing to Night Fever. Hang on, nighties = Night Fever? If the decision to deck out Legs & Co in nighties was due to a fairly poor play on words, then I for one won’t complain too much.

Cloth caps are to the fore as Brian and Michael give us their one and only hit (Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs). A number of songs featured in last year’s Christmas show (including the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band with The Floral Dance) were given another airing in 1978. It’s another of those tracks which won’t earn me any street cred if I admit to liking it (but then I daresay my street cred days are long over).

We then briefly dip our toe into current musical trends with Kate Bush and Wuthering Heights (although this track does have a sort of novelty disc element which makes it fit in nicely with the rest of the show). After that, Showaddywaddy (a group who surfed the fifties nostalgia wave better than most) make an appearance, and they give way to Boney M with Rivers of Babylon. This song gives far less opportunity for Bobby to fling himself around like a madman, which is a mark against it.

Legs & Co go all classy next, with The Commodores’ Three Times A Lady. Then it’s ABBA on video with Take A Chance On Me. Noel Tidybeard, still marooned in his office, introduces the next song (Rose Royce – Love Don’t Live Here Anymore) with a sad sniff, telling the audience that no doubt its tragic tone caused an awful lot of problems this year. Not quite the vibe you want for a (hopefully) jolly Christmas afternoon.

Never mind, the tempo soon picks up as Legs & Co (working hard today) and their male chums give us another song from Grease – this time it’s You’re the One That I Want. By this point I’m reeling in a slightly punchdrunk fashion from all these festive treats, but let’s crack on as we’re nearly at the end.

Returning for a third(!) time are Boney M with Mary’s Boy Child. And that’s your lot, apart from James Galway who is heard but not seen as Annie’s Song plays out over the end credits. Studying these credits, it looks as if the recent BBC4 repeat has been jiggered about with a bit (replacing the clips from Grease with performances by Legs & Co) but apart from that everything seems to be intact.

As touched upon before, TOTP Xmas ’78 is going to disappoint those who find it difficult to stomach seventies LE, but I found it slipped by rather nicely. However, the winds of change were blowing and even TOTP eventually began to reflect that.  Next time, we’ll see those changes in TOTP Xmas ’79 ….

Top of the Pops – 1977 Boxing Day Special

Stuck in between Holiday on Ice and It’s A Christmas Knockout, part two of the 1977 TOTP festive retrospective was hosted by DLT (don’t expect to see this on BBC4 anytime soon then) and Tony Blackburn.

We open with Boney M and Ma Baker. Good news, we have an audience and even better news – the M are singing live. Considering that Bobby Farrell apparently never sung on any of the records, how does he do? Hmm, well his performance is interesting to say the least (plus DLT pops up as the mid song radio reporter). The curious can check it out here.

Rod Stewart tackles The First Cut Is The Deepest (the clip lifted from a television special, it seems) before making way for Heatwave and Boogie Nights. It’s a playback performance, which given the amount of jigging about the lead singer – Keith Wilder – does is probably just as well.

Legs & Co dance to David Soul’s Silver Lady. They’re dressed in silver (which is one of the more logical costume/song interpretations). After they’ve shimmied off, we get Joe Tex on video with Ain’t Gonna Bump No More. This leaves me with the feeling that we’re being fobbed off with post Christmas leftovers. What we need are a few more memorable TOTP studio performances.

Ah, here come The Brotherhood of Man riding to the rescue with Angelo. Even though I find it difficult not to substitute their lyrics with the Barron Knights’ pastiche version, this is still good fun. The group have been provided with some simple Christmas staging – a tree and balloons – whilst a few members of the audience are wearing party hats. And as ever, the TOTP audience are always entertaining even when the song isn’t (in this case, it’s the chap in the front row who spends part of the song turned away from the stage and gawping into the camera who naturally catches the eye).

There’s a touch of class next with Billy Ocean and Red Light Spells Danger. Possibly played in from an earlier edition, since I can’t see any Christmas trimmings, it’s nevertheless top notch – thanks to his live vocals and the TOTP orchestra going for broke.

Billy gives way to Julie Covington and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. With no Julie in the studio, the song plays out over a series of photographs of Eva Perón. Film again for the next clip – The Floaters with Float On. This is one of those songs that I’ve attempted to block, but once you hear it again the memories just come flooding back. Those suits! Those spoken word lyrics!

Legs & Co return, dancing to I Feel Love by Donna Summer. Their choreography choice mainly consists of them twirling around and shaking their long skirts. Frankly all their energy is beginning to tire me out.

Back to film with Queen and We Are The Champions and ABBA with The Name of the Game. For a change we then go onto tape with The Jacksons (Show You the Way to Go). Not surprising that they couldn’t be bothered to fly over to London (well it was Christmas) but this recycled clip (along with all the others) does give the show something of a half-hearted feel. Maybe it would have been better to just have had the one ninety minute show this year, mainly sticking to new studio performances.

At least Elvis Presley had a good reason for not turning up in person. The montage of photographs and film clips set to Way Down was a little bit touching I have to say.

Showaddywaddy have ditched their glow in the dark suits for something more subdued (white jackets and trousers, brown shirts).  They treat us to Under The Moon Of Love, which seems to go down well with the audience – well they’re vaguely clapping in time and looking at the stage, which are both good signs.

And that’s it – apart from watching DLT in his horrible cardigan attempting to punch balloons away whilst the end credits roll. Not a classic then, since most of the best stuff had already been included in the Christmas Day show (Boney M, Brotherhood of Man and Billy Ocean are the ones unlucky enough to have been relegated to this division two fixture).

Top of the Pops – 1977 Christmas Special

Sandwiched in between a repeat of Are You Being Served? (The Father Christmas Affair) and HM The Queen was the 1977 TOTP Christmas shindig. As with some previous years it was split into two (the second installment popping up on Boxing Day). Since I’m a glutton for punishment I’ll be watching both (wish me luck). Let’s tackle the 25th first though ….

David ‘Kid’ Jensen (velvet suit, ruffled shirt, dicky bow) and Noel Edmonds (blue suit, stripy wide tie) are your hosts today. But they’ve barely time to exchange yuletide felicitations before up pop Showaddywaddy with You Got What It Takes. The sort of group designed for colour television (pity those still watching in black and white as they’re denied the full glory of the Showadd’s stage outfits) the group do their retro rock’n’roll shtick as well as ever. And not only do they manage to sing and play, they also pull a few crackers and tuck into some Christmas nosh.

Denice Williams, with Free, is next. Sorely lacking in Christmas trimmings, she has to get by with just the power of her song. Luckily it’s a good one and – singing live – manages to hit the warbly high notes without embarrassing herself.

1977 has seen lots of new names in the charts, the ‘Kid’ tells us. The ears prick up at that – could this be, at long last, one of those new-fangled punky bands? Things seem promising when he goes on to say that the next act were one of the most outrageous. Hurrah! Who could these anti-establishment types be?

Ah it’s the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

I’m not too disappointed though, as I do love this version of The Floral Dance (so much so, it’s one of the tracks on my ‘favourites’ playlist in Spotify). In fact, I love it so much I think I’ll listen to it again. Excuse me a moment ….

Noel and the ‘Kid’ are reunited for some torturous banter, which is their way of introducing Legs & Co dancing to Fanfare for the Common Man by ELP. Legs & Co are looking mighty fine today it has to be said. There’s plenty of Christmas trees and dry ice too (for those who like that sort of thing).

Leo Sayer, presumably wearing the jumper his mum bought him for Christmas, is next on with When I Need You. Unfortunately no-one seems to have needed him, as the audience are conspicuous by their absence. Keeping the ambiance at a fairly soporific level are the Manhattan Transfer with Chanson D’Amour (rat de dat de dah). It’s almost like I’ve switched on to an episode of The Two Ronnies.

Hot Chocolate and You Win Again are wheeled on next. Not a very jolly song for Christmas Day, but Errol attempts to leaven the tone of the lyrics by smiling throughout – which sort of works. The set decoration (balloons) also helps to raise the party atmosphere a smidge, although by now the absence of a studio audience is becoming rather noticeable.

David Soul (Don’t Give Up On Us) and ABBA (Knowing Me, Knowing Me) are both on film and both continue the downbeat relationship feel of the show. At least David seems hopeful that things might work out (he’s probably deluding himself though) whilst ABBA are certain it’s the end. Hey ho. Let’s hope for something cheerful next.

Ah, that’s better – it’s Space with Magic Fly. Things then settle down again with Johnny Mathis and When A Child Is Born (one for the mums I think). Sitting amongst a pile of greenery in a director’s chair, it’s one of the odder TOTP staging decisions. Couldn’t they have popped a few baubles on the trees to make them look just a little Christmassy?

Legs & Co (dressed as Reindeers) are joined by a black Father Christmas, no doubt to reflect the fact that they’re all dancing to Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. Yes it’s as bonkers as it sounds, thank goodness.

The maudlin tone of the show returns with Kenny Rogers and Lucille on film. Fair to say that if you’re feeling a bit down this isn’t the TOTP Christmas show to lift your spirits. Luckily Baccara jolly things up with Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.

We close with the UK No 1 – Wings and Mull of Kintyre. Paul, Linda and Denny were already booked for The Mike Yarwood Show, so appear here in video form (complete with an unconvicting grassy knoll, plenty of mist and the Campbeltown Pipe Band walking through the shot at exactly the right time).

Would things cheer up for the Boxing Day show? Give me a few days and I’ll let you know.

Top of the Pops – 1976 Christmas Special

DLT and Noel Edmonds are your hosts for this year’s Christmas show. They wish the viewers at home seasonal greetings in a short CSO-tinged pre-credits sequence, most notable for the way Edmonds stumbles over his few words. Couldn’t they have afforded a take two? And as the show wears on it’s noticeable that the pair seem to be marooned in a CSO bubble, well away from the audience ….

Slik are on first with Forever and Ever. It starts moodily enough but once the lights come up the song transforms into more of a chugging sub-Bay City Rollers sort of track (understandable really since the song had originally been written for the Rollers). It’s cheesy fun, with little Midge giving his all.

Elton John & Kiki Dee then pop up on video with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart before Legs & Co entertain with Dancing Queen (which judging by the way DLT starts to froth at the mouth, gained his approval).

It was a canny piece of scheduling for J.J. Barrie (No Charge) to appear next. All those dads (and DLT) who had got just a little hot under the collar watching the six young ladies of Legs & Co jigging around could now cool down with J.J. Somebody (well many bodies) obviously loved this as it made the UK Number 1 (J.J.’s only Top 40 hit).  Alas, his 1981 collaboration with Brian Clough (You Can’t Win Them All) failed to trouble the scorers. As for No Charge, it’s a bit grim really ….

Let’s raise the tempo with Laurel & Hardy who (obviously enough) are appearing on film with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. A surprise hit this year, there’s some interesting background to the song’s re-release here.

Tina Charles, wearing a nice scarf, belts out Love to Love (a live vocal!). That’s quite exciting, but even more exciting is the fact she performs the song from a gantry high above the studio floor (which means we get a rare birds-eye view of the studio). It’s a bit grim and grimy up there, but that all adds to the charm.

I love The Wurzels (in a totally non-ironic way). The Adge Cutler era is obviously closest to my heart, but post Adge they still came up with a few gems (such as today’s Combine Harvester song). Another performance featuring a live vocal, it’s ideal Christmas Day fare. The audience (some of whom have been given pieces of straw to chew) seem to be enjoying themselves.

Tip top Cliff Richard with Devil Woman. It’s easy to mock Cliff, but give him the song and he could deliver. Decked out in a nice pinkish shirt (which is cut quite low to show off his medallion collection) he gives full value during this performance – pointing dramatically throughout whilst half-hearted flame effects are overlaid onto the screen.

ABBA entertain a handful of audience members with Mamma Mia. The ABBA foursome are decked out in silky blue suits, although clearly they couldn’t afford to buy stage clothes for their two additional guitarists and drummer, who are forced to wear their normal clothes.

Most of the performances in this show have been pretty basic, but the boat’s pushed out when Hank Mizell turns up with Jungle Rock. We get a jungle set (of course), Hank stuck in a cooking pot, Legs & Co gyrating around and a load of extras dressed as elephants, crocodiles, etc. With so much going on it’s no surprise that the camera rarely focuses on Hank (who nevertheless would have been pleased to see Jungle Rock finally becoming a hit – some eighteen years after it was first released).

Pussycat (live vocals!) do Mississippi. The instrumental backing is a little off, so it’s one of those instances when playback might have been the better option. But they gave it a go, so deserve a thumbs up for that.

We’re coming towards the end of the show, but first there’s the substantial hurdle of Demis Roussos to leap over. If I was watching the show for pleasure no doubt I would have skipped this – but since I’m in review mode I felt it was only fair not to take the easy way out. But since I’ve made the sacrifice, if you wish to wind him on then I quite understand.

Queen close proceedings with Bohemian Rhapsody. Given that it first hit Number 1 at the end of 1975 (although it held the top spot until early 1976) the song probably would have seemed a little old-hat by December 1976. It would have been nice to see them in the studio, but they no doubt had better things to do, so sent the video instead.

And that’s it for 1976. Punk may have begun exploding, but it had yet to reach the Christmas TOTP studio ….

Random Who – The Web of Fear

Recently I’ve been using the random number generator at random.org to select a number of Doctor Who stories to revisit. The latest choice of the randomiser was The Web of Fear ….

You have to say that the story is gossamer thin. Apart from puzzling over the Great Intelligence’s somewhat over complicated scheme to snare the Doctor, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have nabbed him at some point during the first few episodes (although this would have made for a very short tale). But since there’s six episodes to fill, a great deal of running on the spot has to be done.

Mind you, since Douglas Camfield is directing, this running on the spot is never less than very entertaining. For example, the Covent Garden battle in episode four adds absolutely nothing to the story, but it’s a wonderfully directed and edited sequence (for once, the Yeti – usually at their best lurking in the shadows – don’t look too bad in broad daylight either).

The guest cast are top notch. Well, there is one slightly annoying performance – can you guess who it is, boyo? Jack Watling gives a nice line in blustering comic relief, but otherwise Travers Snr doesn’t do a great deal. Indeed, things probably would have worked as well with just Travers Jnr (Tina Packer), who operates rather like a proto Liz. Anne does fade a little as the story progresses, regressing from an independent and practical young woman into more of a damsel in distress, but then some of the male characters do the same thing ….

One thing, I’ve never quite worked out is why (and when) she decides to change out of her miniskirt and into a trouser suit. With everyone facing multiple Yeti attacks, it seems an odd time to change your clothing.

The early episodes feature a selection of soldiers – such as Corporal Blake (Richardson Morgan), Corporal Lane (Rod Beacham) and Craftsman Weams (Stephen Whittaker) – who all bite the dust. But before each one is killed they’ve been invested with enough character to ensure their deaths mean something (they all seem a good deal more real than many of the faceless UNIT soldiers later mown down in the course of duty).

Jack Woolgar’s performance as the level-headed Staff Sgt. Arnold is an especially memorable one, which means his death comes as a particularly hard blow (although this part of the story makes little sense). We’re told that Arnold has been dead for some time and the Intelligence had reanimated his lifeless corpse (which is a horrifying concept). But since Arnold behaved so naturally throughout, it’s difficult to believe the Intelligence could have given quite so nuanced a performance (possibly Haisman and Lincoln, running out of time, simply closed their eyes and picked a traitor at random).

Elsewhere, Jon Rollason is suitably slimy as the David Frost-a-like Harold Chorley, whilst Ralph Watson impresses as the doomed Captain Knight. Poor Knight – treated with playful disdain by Anne and later clubbed down by a Yeti, he didn’t have much luck.

This six-parter, of course, also saw the debut of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart. The character arrived pretty much fully formed, although he does have a fairly untrustworthy air at times (but only because the story had to keep suggesting that he might be the traitor).

There’s a fascinating scene where Lethbridge-Stewart issues Evans (Derek Pollitt) with a direct order, which Evans fails to obey. It’s impossible to imagine the Brig ever taking that sort of lip from one of his soldiers, but then Lethbridge-Stewart never had to face this type of scenario again – a mission where virtually all the men under his command are killed, leaving him as one of the few survivors (and a slightly hysterical one at that).

The Troughton era raised the Base Under Siege story concept to a high art form (which is fair enough as they had plenty of practice at it). Few stories have quite the same claustrophobic feel as The Web of Fear though – as the web slowly increases and people keep dying, there really does seem to be no way out.

After a number of episodes where the plot only advances a few inches, we reach episode six. The conclusion … isn’t great (which docks the story a point or two). Overall, The Web of Fear is a triumph of style over content – but what style. It’s one where you have to ignore the niggles and go with the flow.

The Main Chance – The Walls of Jericho (12th October 1970)

Abdul Naji (Aly Ben Ayed) alleges that his brother was murdered and a precious artifact – one of the Dead Sea Scrolls – was stolen from him. David Main is sympathetic, but doesn’t believe Naji has much of a case – unless he can force a libel action (by penning a thinly disguised novel about these events). The book is swiftly published and a libel action is forthcoming, but not in the way Main was expecting ….

The first of two Main Chance scripts by Louis Marks, The Walls of Jericho features an increased role for Anna Palk (as Sarah Courtney), who has a little more to do for once than just take messages and look at Main in a worried and/or affectionate way (Sarah’s the one who befriends Naji and brings his case to Main’s attention). As per usual, Main begins by telling her (and later him) that there’s absolutely nothing to be done. But since that would make for a rather dull fifty minutes, by now the attentive viewer will be well aware that he’s bound to have a trick or two up his sleeve.

There’s a similar trick to be pulled in the episode’s ‘b’ plot (Main’s car is severely damaged when a lorry sheds its load of oil drums right onto it).  The company who owns the lorry aren’t admitting liability and both Margaret and Henry Castleton are convinced there’s nothing to be done, but wily old David Main pulls something out of the bag.

It’s something of a story contrivance that the scroll is put up for auction at exactly the same time Naji’s book is published. The name of the auction house – Christaby’s – rather tickles me (an obvious amalgamation of Christie’s and Sotherby’s).

The seller of the scroll – Professor Ian Allardyce (Freddie Jones) – isn’t the man Naji alleges murdered his brother (Allardyce bought the scroll off this apparent murderer). But the problem for Main is that, as the current owner of the scroll, Allardyce is the one who’s been libeled and he’s been convinced to sue.

As you’d expect, Jones gives his usual polished performance. Allardyce might be the walking cliché of an academic (hard-working, distracted) but Jones manages to tease out some decent moments from this fairly stock character. Jones’ best scene occurs when Naji confronts Allardyce. It’s also good for Aly Ben Ayed, who elsewhere tends to overact a little.

Allardyce maintains that he bought the scroll in good faith, although it’s left hanging about whether or not he’s telling the truth. What isn’t in doubt is his belief that the scroll belongs in expert hands (otherwise it risks damage or destruction). That’s laudable enough, although it’s odd that he’s selling it now for a large profit (why not donate it to a museum?)

Although Main appears to have won the day, there’s a late twist in the tail regarding the scroll’s ownership. This isn’t really a surprise though – indeed, it’s odd that no-one mentioned the possibility earlier.

The Walls of Jericho  isn’t top tier MC, but it clips along very nicely. Cynthia Grenville (as Allardyce’s wife, Mary) and Peter Cellier (as Braintree, a man who crosses swords with Main and fails badly) both catch the eye with small, but well-played roles.

Special Branch – Exit A Diplomat (26th November 1969)

Mira Kobylnova (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), the wife of a Czech diplomat, is arrested on a shoplifting charge. Since she carries diplomatic status, no charges can be brought – so why did she do it? Jordan discovers that she’s seeking asylum for herself and her husband ….

Exit A Diplomat is a slow-burner of a story. To begin with it’s difficult to feel too invested in Mira’s travails, but over time – as Jordan continues to question her – she begins to earn a little more sympathy. Since we don’t meet her husband until more than half way through the episode, we’re wholly dependent on her portrait of him until then. Does he really face censure (albeit not prison) when he returns home? And if so, does he actually want asylum or is Mira the one pushing him?

When Jan Kobylnova finally turns up, he’s played by the always reassuring George Pravda.  Pravda was an actor rarely out of work during the sixties and seventies, due to his ability to play characters from numerous Eastern European countries. He adds a touch of class to the story, despite having considerably less screen-time than Barbara Leigh-Hunt (who also gives a solid performance throughout).

Jordan drives this story, with Inman largely sitting it out (although he does enjoy a decent scene where he gives Jordan a hard time). There’s also a surprising moment towards the end of the episode as we drop in on Inman enjoying a sauna (luckily a towel covers his modesty). Moxon – fully clothed – pays him a visit, advising that any attempt by Special Branch to contact Kobylnova before he boards the plane home should be discouraged.

The reason for this is a neat one – Moxon has already recruited Jan Kobylna as a spy for the British, so any interference by Special Branch could jeopardise months of planning.  This is therefore another of those stories which would have been a lot shorter had Moxon decided to be less stringent about who needs to know what ….

Exit A Diplomat feels pretty low key but there are some definite highlights. For example, Jordan’s interrogation of Mira (despite Derren Nesbitt stumbling over his lines a little). The private meeting between Mira and Jan at the police station (well sort of private, since Jordan’s standing very close by) is nicely played by both Leigh-Hunt and Pravda. Moxon’s meeting with Bilak (Gary Watson) also catches the eye – a big wheel at the Czech embassy, he seems to be one of the few people to ever discomfort Moxon (although by that point, all the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t fallen into place).

There’s also an early screen credit for Cheryl Hall. Despite the fact it’s a blink and you’ll miss it part, she makes an impression as a shrill young shoplifter (who’s afforded far less courtesy than Mira).

Once again the episode ends in a downbeat fashion, with Jordan unaware why the mission to shadow Kobylnova has been aborted. He confides to Morrisey that they’ll probably never know, suggesting that Inman – like Moxon – knows how to keep a secret.

An interview with Anneke Wills

Beginning her career as a child actress in the mid fifties, Anneke Wills worked solidly for the next few decades – appearing on stage, in films as well as numerous television programmes. In 1960 she was cast as ‘Girl on Airfield’ in two episodes of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, starring Anthony Newley. It was a job which changed her life ….

Anneke didn’t have to attend a formal audition. “All I remember is an agent calling you up and saying ‘okay’. Later on I heard that he (Newley) chose me out of Spotlight and they showed me the picture he liked. Apparently he said ‘I’ll have her’ (chuckles).”

“I climbed on the coach and there was Tony Newley, surrounded by his crew. I was very shy and after a brief hello we were driving up to the airfield. I do know that standing on that airfield and looking into his eyes I fell instantly in love with the man. He was utterly charming and captivating and sweet.”

Anneke’s affection for Anthony Newley still shines through very clearly today. She went on to make the point that although he may be better known now as a singer, his grounding was very much as an actor. “Although he would go on to become a great singer, he was basically an actor. And a very, very talented one. It was lovely, it was always lovely to work with a very talented actor. The focus is there and it’s very energising.”

It’s always been assumed that Newley was heavily involved with Gurney Slade, both on the writing and directing side. This is confirmed by Anneke. “Oh he was completely involved. Sid Green and Dick Hills were a little group with him and they got this baby together and there would be lots of hilarious falling about and shuffling of scripts and organising.”

Anneke’s main memory of her brief association with Gurney Slade remains the morning spent on the airfield. “I didn’t know I came back for the final one until about three or four weeks ago when I sat down to watch it”. This at last solved the mystery for her about why there was a picture in existence of her sitting on Bernie Winters’ lap.

Watching the episodes did spark the odd memory though. She recalled being less than impressed with the clothes she was given to wear. “Why have they put me in a baggy old mackintosh? And then I was told he wanted you to look like a French film star. And they all wore gaberdine mackintoshes.”

Anneke then explained a little about Anthony Newley’s inspirations. “When I moved in with him we used to fall about with laughter listening to the Goons. Both of us were fans of the Goons and Gurney Slade had a similar kind of surrealistic humour that he found fascinating.  He made Gurney Slade into a sort of magic thing with off the wall humour and his own incredible charm. But it also was his own story, he was basically saying ‘stop the world, I want to get off’. He wanted to walk off the set and talk to ants and dogs and have a completely difference experience from the one that everyone else was following. And that was his uniqueness.

“In the next thing he did (Stop The World – I Want To Get Off) it was the same sort of story – the little chap trying to find his way in the world, trying to make sense of the madness. It was a sort of ongoing quest for him.”

Touching again upon Newley’s grounding as an actor, Anneke feels that it informed his unique singing style. “His voice in a way was like an actor being a singer. And so it was absolutely unique, he didn’t train, he just sung naturally. And I think that’s what it was which inspired the likes of David Bowie.”

The discussion then moved onto Doctor Who, something which – judging by her enthusiastic response – remains very close to her heart. “This year, during the Lockdown, when it was my birthday I had lovely cards from all the Doctor Who women. We are such a family and I really have missed them this year because we always got to meet up, doing gigs and things, and it’s got me thinking about what extraordinary women were cast as the companions of Doctor Who. Each one a totally unique human being and a wonderful woman and my friend.”

In recent years, Anneke’s Doctor Who association has continued apace with both Big Finish and BBC Audiobooks. But during Lockdown that’s come to a temporary halt. “A lot of them are continuing to do recordings but I don’t have a mobile phone, I don’t have a computer. I only have this small television, on which I only really watch Channel 81 (Talking Pictures TV).”

But Anneke seems to have adjusted to Lockdown life pretty well. “I’m very lucky because I’ve got a garden so it’s given me guilt free, obsessional gardening. And I’m also a happy hermit, so in fact it’s been quite nice for me.”

Out of her audio work, it’s the Target novelisations which are closest to her heart. “I really enjoy it. The last thing I did before Lockdown was The Smugglers and I just absolutely adored doing that. I love reading the Target books, I love doing all the characters.  To be able to still be performing is a treat.”

Leading on from that, I wondered if there was one of her Doctor Who stories which she’d particularly like to see returned. I’d assumed Anneke’s answer might have been along the lines of, say, The Power of the Daleks, so her response came as something of a surprise. “I’d love to see The Smugglers. Mainly because it was Michael Craze’s and my favourite one. We went to Cornwall! That was such a treat! If we went filming it was usually in a drafty old quarry.”

I’ve always had a fondness for The Smugglers as well, so I’m happy to second this suggestion. It’s one of those forgotten stories which nobody ever seems to talk about – but with extensive location filming and an intriguing guest cast, it must have something going for it.

I wrapped up our chat by touching upon the proposed second series of Strange Report. “At the end of doing the sixteen episodes, they came to Tony (Quayle) and me, cos Kaz (Garas) of course would have been happy to film in America, and they said ‘look, we’ll do another lot but we want to do them in Hollywood’. We went off to Tony’s dressing room and he didn’t really want to do it, but he said he would agree to it if I wanted to. I told him that it was impossible. I had two young children and my marriage wouldn’t cope with it, and anyway I don’t like Hollywood. So we went back to the American producers and told them no – they were so disappointed.”

A lively and engaging personality, it was a real pleasure to spend some time chatting with Anneke Wills about just a small section of her fascinating career.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade on Blu Ray can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Strange Report on DVD can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

More information about Anneke Wills can be found on her website annekewills.com. She’s also on Twitter – @AnnekeWills

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Network BD review

A little over sixty years ago (on the 22nd of October 1960 to be precise) the first episode of a short-lived series starring Anthony Newley was broadcast. The Strange World of Gurney Slade arrived with something of a bang but departed with much more of a whimper. Tumbling ratings and the lukewarm reception it received from a baffled audience were two reasons why it was swiftly demoted from peak-time and into a graveyard slot.

And yet there’s no denying that the series had its fans. A young David Jones (later to rechristen himself David Bowie) was certainly enthralled – his mid to late sixties persona borrowed heavily from the Newley image.

The initial critical response was mixed, but the series did garner some good notices. The Coventry Evening Telegraph (5th November 1960) called it the bright spot of their Saturday evening (and bemoaned that it was now on so late – having been shunted off in favour of 77 Sunset Strip). Kenneth Bailey, writing in The People (18th November 1960) made the point that whilst Gurney Slade‘s ratings weren’t spectacular, this type of experimental programme should be applauded (a letter writer to The Stage and Television Today made the same point).

A repeat run in 1963 was an early sign that the critical tide was turning in Gurney’s favour. Marjorie Norris, writing in The Stage and Television Today (12th September 1963), declared that she “enjoyed it even better than before. It is still as much a break-through in comedy as it was then”. Newley was clearly pleased by her comments, as he penned a thank you letter to The Stage (3rd October 1963), commenting that “the Newley ego took a bit of a dive after the pasting he received on its first outing, and it’s rather heart-warming that Gurney has been given a second chance”.

The cult of Gurney Slade was slowly building momentum then, but it wasn’t until Network released the series on DVD in 2011 that it could really be appreciated and reassessed. What’s especially striking for those of us who came to the series via DVD is how contemporary it felt. That’s no doubt because it’s easy to identify later programmes (The Prisoner, say) who were influenced – either directly or indirectly – by the show. But as the 1960 audience would have had none of these later reference points, coming to it cold must have been a bewildering experience for many.

British television comedy (indeed British television in general) was still in its infancy back in 1960. The BBC may have begun broadcasting in 1936, but the Second World War (and the slow roll out of transmitters) meant that only by the mid fifties was television establishing itself as a dominant force (helped along by the arrival of ITV). The pre-eminent sitcom of the time would have been Hancock’s Half Hour over on the BBC.

ITV also had a crop of popular programmes – such as The Army Game and The Larkins – but they tended to be somewhat broader in tone. When Gurney walks out of a middle of the road television sitcom at the start of the first episode (demolishing the fourth wall even before the credits have rolled) he seems to be turning his back on a series not dissimilar to The Larkins.

This pre-credits faux sitcom is everything that Gurney Slade isn’t – comfortable, cosy and predictable. By thumbing his nose at it, Newley (and his writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills) were taking a broad satirical swipe at this sort of show. The only problem with this is that it risks alienating that section of the audience who likes their sitcoms to be cosy and predictable. Annoying the audience within the first few minutes of the opening episode has to be a record ….

Recording wise the series was split – the first three episodes were shot mainly on location and the last three were studio bound. Heading into episode two, we find Gurney musing about the nature of relationships. He arrives at a deserted airfield – well, deserted apart from a young woman (Anneke Wills).  In their imaginations only, the airfield transforms itself into a dance hall and the pair enjoy a dance, after much hesitancy. It’s a remarkable sequence – not least for the fact that both engage in lengthy internal monologues.

In real life, their relationship was far less tranquil – Wills became pregnant by him twice (he persuaded her to abort the first baby, but she was determined to keep the second child – Polly, born in 1962). Given all we know about Newley’s notorious philandering – even after their relationship ended so he could pursue Joan Collins, he still couldn’t keep away from Wills – it gives this episode a subtext which would have been totally absent on its original broadcast.

Episode three was probably the one which snapped the patience of many casual viewers back in 1960. Even more fragmentary than the previous two, Gurney spends most of this episode either musing to himself or talking to the animals (such as a cow, seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding). He does bump into the odd human being, such as  Napoleon (John Bennett), who happens to be standing in a field.

Things get really interesting when we move into the studio episodes. Show four finds Gurney on trial. “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”

That Newley, Green and Hills could accurately foresee the way the series would be received is fascinating. The arguments and counter-arguments brought into play (an average member of the audience found the series clever – not funny, but clever) no doubt mirrored real life discussions generated by the series.  Another broad satirical dig occurs when the jury is revealed – twelve men all dressed identically in cloth caps and scarves. Throw in Douglas Wilmer as the judge and you’ve got an episode which is possibly my favourite – for sheer nerve alone.

The recursive nature of Gurney Slade is developed during episode five. Gurney is telling a group of children a story (all about a magical place called Gurneyland). When he later asks them why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television, they tell him that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.” A later trip to Gurney’s subconscious (which is invaded by the children and their families) offers plenty of food for thought about the dividing line between fantasy and reality. The invisible elephant is impressive as well.

By now it was clear that just about anything could happen, so how would the series be brought to a conclusion? The final episode sees a group of executives brought to the studio to watch a recording of Gurney Slade. So despite the fact that Gurney believed he was breaking free at the start of episode one, it’s made clear again today that he – like all the other characters – is a fictional construct. Born in the studio six weeks ago, his time is nearly up.

It’s nice to see most of the characters from previous episodes turn up for a final bow. They’re all given new jobs – Wilmer’s prosecutor lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at the prospect of having to take her clothes off in a French film.

Gurney’s fate is somewhat startling, but for those coming to the series fresh I won’t spoil the ending.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is something that deserves to be cherished. Network’s DVD has been played a number of times and it’s lovely to now have the series on a sparkling BD, packed with a number of new special features.

Three Saturday Spectaculars from 1960 are the pick for me – not only do the likes of Shirley Bassey and Peter Sellers make appearances, but there’s also the chance to see Newley try out the character that would eventually turn into Gurney Slade.

The Small World of Sammy Lee was released on BD back in 2016, but I won’t begrudge its inclusion here, Newley is on top form in this 1963 film, set in a sleazy Soho world where Sammy (Newley) is attempting to stay one step ahead of a Mr Big who’s intent on causing him serious damage. Newly discovered material (an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley) are intriguing additions.

Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts have all contributed essays to a 44 page booket. Pixley’s is the lengthiest and packed with the sort of painstaking detail he’s known and loved for (production information on the series was clearly a little hard to come by, but everything else – even down to how many different cover versions of Max Harris’ theme were issued – is detailed). The essays by Fiddy and Roberts are also well worth reading, although possibly not one after the other as there’s some duplication of information and quotes.

For those who own the DVD, then this BD set offers a considerable upgrade – the picture quality (which was good on the DVD) has received a substantial boost. This, along with the new special features, makes for a very nice package. And if you’re new to the world of Gurney Slade, the BD should be snapped up straight away ….

The Strange World Of Gurney Slade can be ordered directly from Network via this link.