The Adventure Game – 24th May 1980

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Series One, Show One.  Originally broadcast BBC1, 24th May 1980, 09:30 am.

Contestants

Elizabeth Estensen.  Estensen first came to prominence via Wily Russell’s Beatles musical John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert in the mid seventies.  A leading role in The Liver Birds, as Carol Boswell, would follow between 1975 and 1979.  Since 1999 she’s been a regular on Emmerdale.

Fred Harris.  A Play School stalwart between 1973 and 1988, Harris was also one of the Chokablokes in Chockablock, a regular on End of Part One (which had spun out of the Radio 4 series The Burkiss Way) and would become one of the BBC’s main IT faces during the 1980’s, presenting series such as Me and My Micro, Micro Live and Electric Avenue.

Mark Dugdale.  He’s got a red jumper and a beard.  Sorry, there’s not a great deal more biographical information I can share with you.

Argonds

Gandor (Christopher Leaver), Gnoard (Charmian Gradwell), Darong (Moria Stewart) and the Rangdo of Arg (Ian Messiter).

I know you shouldn’t really think about these things in too much detail, but it’s always puzzled me as to why Moria Stewart is credited as Darong but always introduces herself as Moria Stewart.  Maybe it’s because some Argonds, when they take on human form, actually believe they’re the person they’ve “borrowed” their shape from.  Or perhaps it’s just a continuity error.  After all, Gandor does refer to Gnoard as Charmian at one point …

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This show gives us a rare opportunity to see what Christopher Leaver looks like before he puts on the white wig.  Would it have been clear at the time that this young chap was also the old butler?  Possibly not.  Again, thinking about this logically – if the Argonds can assume any shape, why does Gandor take on the form of a young man and then nip off to apply some make-up in order to make himself look older?  It surely would have made much more sense just to turn into an older chap to begin with.

The Games

We begin at the entrance hall.  Identifying the correct combination of colours and shapes will allow them to pass from one side of the room to the other and this same combination will open the door to allow them to gain them access to the next room.

There’s two very different ways of tackling this.  Methodical, logical thinking or step and hope.  They start well (Elizabeth is quick to spot that you can’t jump across two squares – something which Fred is slower to pick up on).  It’s interesting that after a few minutes we cut away to Gandor and Gnoard, busy setting up the puzzles for the next stage.  This cut handily covers the fact that when we return to the entrance hall they’re all in a different place (presumably this edit has removed a few minutes worth of faffing about).

Mark sounds like he knows what’s he’s talking about (muttering about geometric patterns) but eventually it seems that they get to the other side more by luck than judgement.  When faced with the door lock they’re somewhat baffled, so have to be rescued from this impasse by Gnoard, who skips across the board and opens the door in front of their eyes.  They simply have to repeat her door combination and they’re through, although Fred’s not happy.  “But why?” he says, as they enter – it’s not enough that the combination worked, he wants to know why it worked.  And he’s still chuntering about it a minute later (hopefully somebody set him straight off camera).

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Before the contestants enter the next room, Gandor and Gnoard explain some of the tricks and traps they will be encountering for the benefit of the viewers.  Everything in this room – a bolt, the clock, a cupboard, a corkscrew, etc – is left-handed.  And how do they unlock the door?  “Ping-pong balls!”  This involves a blower, and three people positioned in exactly the right place in order to bring the ping-pong ball to the top of the tube.  Variations on this puzzle would feature regularly during the first couple of series.

Fred’s quick to pick up on the fact that everything’s left-handed whilst one of my favourite unforeseen solutions to a problem comes when Elizabeth is able to reach down the tube and pick up the corkscrew.  It was supposed to be inaccessible, so clearly she has very thin arms!  Mark’s a bit quiet whilst Fred and Elizabeth are brainstorming – several sudden fade-to-blacks suggest that a fair amount of time where nothing much was happening have been excised.

Gandor, now looking older (although not as old as he’d appear in later shows – his look today is obviously something of a work in progress), returns to give them some blatant help.  Given that they’d worked out about the general left-handed nature of the room, it’s a little surprising they didn’t twig that the corkscrew had to be turned the opposite way from a normal one.

Elizabeth is the one to work out that they all have to stand at certain points in order to make the ping-pong ball rise.  But how can they grab it?  As soon as one of them moves the ball sinks down again.  Fred works out that they need a weight to simulate one of their positions and Elizabeth realises that it’s the weight from the clock they need, whilst Mark again doesn’t contribute a great deal.

More fade to black moments suggests that a considerable amount of editing had to be done in order to get something transmittable.  The varying durations of series one – this show lasts just under twenty seven minutes whilst the final show is a little over forty five – suggests that this might have been so.  No doubt all series one episodes could have filled a forty five minute slot, but if the contestants were slow at solving the puzzles then it wouldn’t have been much fun to watch.

The Vortex wouldn’t debut until series two, but the first series has a kind of forerunner – our trio have to cross back over the entrance hall floor.  If they remember how they got across in the first place then they’ve nothing to worry about.  If not, then they’re vaporised.  They work out that any green square or any triangle is safe.  Hurrah! Well done Mark, you came through in the end.

Overall, they was a pretty harmonious team – Mark may have been a little subdued but both Fred and Elizabeth pitched in with plenty of ideas and they all seemed to get on well.  Which, as we’ll see in later shows, didn’t always happen ….

 

Angels – Concert (18th May 1976)

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The second of Susan Pleat’s two scripts set in and around the geriatric ward, Concert, like Day Hospital before it, is an OB VT production shot on location.  As previously touched upon, this helps to make the story seem just that bit more real.  Sylvia Coleridge and Irene Handl return (the ranks of familiar senior actors is supplemented with the appearance of Leslie Dwyer) but it’s some of the background elderly players who, along with the location, are key to the documentary-like feel of the production.

They clearly are infirm and so don’t have to act the part.  We see Shirley attend to them via a series of brief vignettes – fulsomely praising one lady after she walks a handful of steps to the table, gently cajoling another into taking a bite of food – and these moments spark mixed emotions.  Shirley’s ever-growing connection to all her regulars is plain which makes her quick to react with anger when quizzed about the futility of looking after people who are clearly never going to get better.

This theme is developed when Jo, curious about the regular musical concerts organised in the hospital, decides to drop by and lend a hand.  Jo’s reluctance to get involved with the geriatric side of nursing has been mentioned in previous episodes and is put into words today by another character. “Feed ’em and clean ’em and that’s your lot. They’ll addle your brains and break your back”.

That seems to be a commonly held view and it’s the reason why many nurses elect to give geriatrics a miss.  Concert, aiming to challenge this opinion, is helped by the fact that both Annie (Handl) and Patrick (Dwyer) are still mentally sharp, even if physically they’re beginning to fail.  Their quick wits ensures that the viewer isn’t always dwelling on the frailer and more hopeless-looking cases.

But a feeling of melancholy is never far from the surface. At the same time that most of the old folks are having a jolly singalong at the concert (My Old Man being amongst the highlights) Ailsa, back in the ward, is being told by her son that they simply couldn’t cope with her at home.  She, naturally enough, descends into bitter tears whilst elsewhere Jim Murphy (Colin Higgins) lectures Jo about the growing population of old people and the issues with caring for them.

The series didn’t often take the opportunity to revisit one-off characters.  They do today though, with Gordon Massey (Colin Higgins) making a return (he’d previously featured in the series one episode Saturday Night). He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this episode (and there’s no particular link back to his previous appearance) but it’s still a nice touch.  Like Shirley, he’s passionate about his work on the geriatric ward – for him it’s because he knows what it’s like to be abandoned and therefore is adamant that it’s not going to happen to any of his charges.

No doubt Shirley would have loved to have been at the concert as well, but instead she’s sharing an evening from hell with the drippy Roland (Norman Tipton). Quite what their previous relationship has been isn’t too clear, but Roland – shortly to depart for a lengthy trip abroad – is keen to demonstrate to Shirley just how much he cares for her.  However it’s pretty obvious that the sooner he packs his bags and leaves, the better off she’ll be.  Shirley may usually be bereft of male company, but you have to draw the line somewhere ….

It’s bad enough when he’s attempting to force wine on her at the restaurant, but things get even more toe-curling when he decides that playing a deep and meaningful record on her Dansette is the way to go.  Not a good move. He may feel unfulfilled due to a lack of personal contact, but Shirley doesn’t.  She has her work, and that is her life.

When they can’t talk very much, or even talk at all, they can’t hear you, well then you really have to look at them. Because people’s eyes are really where they are. And if I have to talk to them in that way, then I can. But, say with you or my mother then I can’t do that at all. Or with a lot of people. But there I just get on with things. It’s me and it’s right somehow.

This is a nicely delivered monologue by Clare Clifford, which sees Derek Martinus flicking back between close-ups of her and Norman Tipton (an ironic touch, given Shirley’s comment about people’s eyes).

Concert may have a lecturing tone, but it isn’t done in a heavy-handed way. Jo, like the audience, is pitched into a strange new world and by the end she seems to have learnt something, although there’s still a sense that she’s reluctant to get too involved, unlike Shirley.  The episode doesn’t offer any pat solutions (given how complex the issues are, how could it?) but plenty of food for thought is generated.

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The Love School (BBC, 1975) – Simply Media DVD Review

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It is 1848.  Seven young men active in various artistic fields form a secret group, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  All are bound together by common aims – chiefly a desire to innovate and so break free from the stifling constraints of conventional artistic thinking.  Critical and public acclaim for their work is sparse to begin with though, whilst their unity as a cohesive collective is threatened by their egos and conflicting desires …..

Broadcast in January and February 1975 (comprising six 75 minute episodes) The Love School boasts a cast chock full of talent.  Peter Egan, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Quinn, David Collings, David Burke, Kenneth Colley and Sheila White are just some of the leading players.

The opening episode – The Brotherhood – introduces us to several main characters.  In these early stages it’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Ben Kingsley) who makes the strongest impression. Resplendent in a flowing wig, Kingsley certainly has plenty to work with. Rossetti might be a genius (he certainly believes so) but he’s also capricious and manipulative.

After persuading Ford Madox Brown (Malcolm Tierney) to take him on as a pupil, he then promptly dumps his mentor in favour of Holman Hunt (Bernard Lloyd). And whilst Rossetti and Hunt may later be the prime movers in founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the opportunistic Rossetti is always happy to drop his friends at the drop of a hat if it means advancing his career

And yet to begin with Hunt is always prepared to forgive his friend his sins.  Lloyd, like Kingsley, shines in this first episide – bringing to life the engaging and sensitive Hunt.  Peter Egan (as John Everett Millais) has less to work with initially, but his natural charm still comes to the fore.  Millais is a gifted artist, and has been since he was a child, but recent rejections by the Royal Academy are beginning to sting.

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David Troughton (Frederic Stephens), Gareth Hunt (Thomas Woolner), John Quentin (James Collinson) and Nicholas Grace (William Rossetti) skirt around the perimeters of several episodes whilst Patricia Quinn, as the haunting Lizzie Siddal, and Sheila White (the gloriously common Annie Miller) both make instant impressions.

The already strong cast is further enhanced when David Collings and Anne Kidd (as John and Effie Ruskin) appear. An influential critic, Ruskin champions Millais’ work, but the artist becomes besotted with his wife …

Collings teases out Ruskin’s icy detachment with skill. At times Ruskin treats Effie with casual indifference and cruelty, but on other occasions their bond seems very strong. Into this strange and dysfunctional marriage comes Millais, as open and eager as ever.

Given the lion’s share of episode two, Egan is excellent – showing us how the always indulged and spoilt Millais becomes increasingly confused by the signals he’s receiving from Effie (they eventually marry following her acrimonious divorce).

One way of marking the passing of time is to keep an eye on the false beards and moustaches which suddenly appear. Hunt, for example, after travelling abroad for several years returns with an impressive beard and then reaffirms his intention to marry Annie. He’s paid for the guttersnipe to receive the best education possible, but has this turned her into a lady fit for polite society?

Speaking of false beards, there’s an excellent example courtesy of Desmond Llewellyn as Mr Coombe. Elsewhere in this third episode, Seeking The Bubbles, Egan sports a bald cap as Milliais grows older. Acting under heavy make-up was something Egan did a lot of during the 1970’s (see also The Prince Regent).

It’s slightly disconcerting the way Millais and Hunt age so rapidly. One minute they’re in hale and hearty middle age and the next they’ve been transformed into doddery old men. It’s a shame to see them go so soon, but on the plus side it means that Rossetti then reappears to dominate the second half of the serial.

Two notable actors, Kenneth Colley and David Burke, make their first appearances in the fourth episode (Remember Me). As Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris (who is usually referred to as Topsy) they may come across as two of the oldest undergraduates ever seen, but in their early scenes both manage to convey an appropriate degree of youthful enthusiasm when meeting their idol Rossetti for the first time.

Some delightful comic scenes then develop. The pair may be obsessive admirers of Rossetti, but Topsy especially finds it easy to pick holes in some of his more recent work.

Rossetti’s tender relationship with the physically ailing Lizzie generates some compelling moments. Despite his numerous sexual conquests elsewhere, he does seem to be genuinely in love with her. Although the fact he’s content to leave her alone all day, suffering silently, whilst he’s out and about enjoying himself tells its own story.  After being absent in episode three, Kingsley comes roaring back to life in this one.

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Writing credits for the serial were shared between Ray Lawler, John Pebble, Robin Chapman and John Hale (one apiece from Lawler and Pebble, two each from Chapman and Hale). Chapman’s two episodes – four and five – are especially interesting. Depicting the rise and fall of Rossetti, both are compelling (although once again, the ever-growing false beards sported by several key characters can be a tad distracting).

Despite being largely studio bound, the milieu of Victorian England is very efficiently brought to life. The way the production uses ambient noise (such as horses and carriages clopping past outside) is an effective way of creating an immersive atmosphere.

There are several eye-catching directorial flourishes. At one point the picture is speeded up to suggest a frantic burst of activity from several of the artists – although this isn’t entirely convincing (it rather brings to mind Benny Hill). Rather more memorable is the moment when Patricia Quinn’s mouth is overlaid on a painting of Lizzie.  This is a traumatic scene for the hallucinating Rossetti, convinced that his dead love has returned from the grave to taunt him.

Even with the lengthy running time, some stories feel slightly undeveloped (we hurtle very quickly through Milliais’ life, for example). But with multiple colourful characters jostling for position it’s not really surprising that some fare better than others.  Ben Kingsley’s Rossetti (who appears in five of the six episodes) emerges as the first amongst equals.

The Love School is deftly able to impart an appreciation for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whilst at the same time not shying away from the multiple personality flaws which infected its leading lights (this makes for excellent drama of course).

Something of a neglected gem from the mid seventies, it’s yet another quality title that’s been brought back into circulation thanks to Simply.  An absorbing experience from start to finish, The Love School is worthy of your time.

The Love School is available now from Simply Media, RRP £24.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here, quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

 

Angels – Weekend (11th May 1976)

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Three separate plotlines run throughout Weekend. Pat and Maureen (but especially Pat) are tired of living in at the hospital and so decide to go flat hunting, Miss Windrup makes a new friend whom she invites around for tea and Jo takes decisive action in order to convince Mr Paton (Duncan Lamont) that he should visit his hospital-bound sister.

The Pat/Maureen relationship has always seemed a slightly uneasy one, given their totally different backgrounds and outlooks.  Pat’s privileged and pampered life prior to becoming a nurse is touched upon during the scene where she’s ticked off about the untidy state of her room.  Being told that the cleaners are giving it a wide berth until it’s more presentable clearly doesn’t please her – the notion of Pat tidying up her own mess a little bit is plainly anathema to the girl (surely that’s what the cleaners are employed for).

This is the sort of petty rule which makes her very keen to find her own space.  The placid Maureen is perfectly content with her lot, but (as always) is happy to go along with her friend.  At this point the Pat/Maureen dynamic is operating along previously defined lines (Pat dominant, Maureen submissive) although later on the roles are switched around somewhat.

Maureen, her puritanical Irish upbringing brought to the fore, is shocked to discover that one potential flat share would see them thrown together with three men.  Pat’s quite unruffled (and indeed pleasantly curious) about this but Maureen dismisses the notion straight away. What would her mammy say? This scene might be played for laughs but it still helps to reiterate that they live in very different worlds.

The comic tone continues when they meet a representative (Carolyn Hudson) from the gloriously named ‘Fix A Pad’.  Pat and Maureen are now finding it difficult to agree on anything – for example, Pat wants to live far away from the hospital whilst Maureen would prefer to be close. And when Pat mentions that she’d like two bedrooms, Maureen is surprised since she’d assumed they’d be sharing.  Pat reacts to this with scorn (“what happens to my love life?”). Mind you, Maureen does bat this back quite effectively with “what love life?”

Following this awkward meeting, Pat decides that “the only thing we really had in common was that we were new together” and the pair then go their seperater ways. But although it looks for a while as if their friendship has indeed come to an end, it’s not too surprising to learn that by the end of the episode they’re pals once again. They may have many different interests but Pat comes to realise (thanks to a third party) that this is precisely why their friendship works. Maureen’s opinion on this goes unrecorded (which does tend to reinforce the notion that she’s very much the junior partner here).

It’s interesting how Miss Windrup manages to laser in on Nora Eden (Nancie Jackson). It’s true that she was sitting by herself in the canteen, but it does imply that Miss Windrup has a sixth sense which allows her to sniff out lonely souls like herself.  Of a similar age to Miss Windrup, Nora has come back into medical teaching after her offspring moved abroad.

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Their initial conversation is quite revealing, not least for the way in which it restates the hollowness of Miss Windrup’s existence away from the hospital.  She may bravely agree that her job keeps her busy and fulfilled, but we’re still left with the sense that she really doesn’t have much of a life (later she admits this herself).  Her air of sadness and melancholy is reinforced when we see her out shopping, picking up some choice delicacies for her visitor.  These establishing scenes leave us with a question – will there be a sting in the tale when Miss Windrup and Nora take afternoon tea?

The answer to that is yes, but it’s a fairly mild one. Nora doesn’t appear at the appointed time, leaving a crestfallen Miss Windrup to clear away the uneaten food. But there’s recompense the next day when Nora shows up with profuse apologies for having missed the date.  We then see a pathetically eager Miss Windrup invite her in for a cup of coffee and another heart-to-heart.

As for Jo’s plotline, Elsie Clegg (Maggie Flint) isn’t seriously ill but she becomes increasingly depressed about the fact that her brother never visits her.  He’s not too far away, but claims – via a letter – that he simply can’t spare the time to pop in.

This excuse isn’t good enough for Jo and she decides to pay him a visit.  Everybody else – Sita, Sandra – thinks this is a bad idea, but she’s adamant.  After a bit of a lull, this plotline gives Julie Dawn Cole something to get her teeth into.  She plays Jo’s apprehension (when she’s invited into Mr Paton’s house) very nicely.  Of course, having Duncan Lamont in the role of Len Paton doesn’t hurt.  Always the most solid of actors, the first scene between Jo and Len is quite absorbing.  A mystery is also established here.  Is Len really too busy to visit the hospital or is there another reason why he can’t bring himself to see his sister?

The knife is twisted just a little more after he finally makes an appearance at St Angela’s, only to promptly vanish before seeing Elsie (leaving behind a pot-plant flower as the only proof that he’d been there at all).  Elsie’s already burst into tears several times and when she does so again (after her puppy-like joy at learning that Len has finally come to visit her is dashed) it feels rather affecting.  Jo continues to dig away at this puzzle, despite the fact that it’s really nothing to do with her (it’s true that visiting Len late at night to demand answers does feel somewhat unwise).

The resolution to this mystery is an excellent showcase for Lamont and is the dramatic highpoint of an episode that overall still feels quite low-key. But possibly Weekend isn’t the worse for that, as even in a hospital it can’t always be a matter of life and death.

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Angels – Day Hospital (4th May 1976)

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The fact that Day Hospital was shot on OB VT in real locations helps to give the episode a totally different feel to what we’ve seen before.  As good as the studio sets always were, there’s just something more immersive and satisfying about the fact that you can look out of a window and see real life outside.

Set in a geriatric ward and attached day care unit, the episode manages to strike a good balance as it’s neither too maudlin (although there’s bleakness towards the end) or too superficial.  Shirley had mentioned previously that the infirm and elderly are similar in many ways to children – today it’s Ailsa (Sylvia Coleridge) who fits that description the closest.

If you wanted someone to play an eccentric, then you couldn’t really do better than Coleridge. Petulant and deeply irritating at times, Ailsa exists in part to try Shirley’s patience through a series of wheezes (smashing plates, pouring water from a vase onto the floor to try and fool Shirley into believing that one of the other patients has wet themselves, etc).  But she’s also given a few moments of pain and anguish, which enables the viewer to see the more complex person hiding beneath the dotty surface.

Dodi (Aimée Delamain) and Annie (Irene Handl) enjoy the best of the script though. Dodi is initially presented as an autocratic and imposing individual.  Living alone (albeit with nursing support) in a big house, she views the prospect of making regular trips to the day hospital with dismay and disdain.  But after one visit she’s quite won over.

Annie is a salt of the earth, speak as you find, type of person.  A hospital regular, along with Ailsa (whom she has a love/hate relationship with), she also finds the idea of going to the day hospital daunting (although at least she only has to travel down the corridor to reach it). Like Dodi though, she becomes a firm fan very quickly.

At first, Dodi seems to be a rather broadly drawn character, but as the episode wears on she’s shaded in very effectively.  The scene with Dodi and Annie in the day centre is beautifully played by both Delamain and Handl.  Dodi’s lonely, spinsterish existence, allied to the early deaths of her brothers (due to WW1 and its aftermath), is teased out in a heartbreaking way. Derek Martinus, as he does elsewhere, elects for close-ups during these dramatic moments, which is a simple but effective touch.

Even though Annie’s tale is also shot through with suffering (she lay undiscovered in her house for three days after suffering a stroke) there’s something about Handl’s delivery of these lines which still manages to create a sense of warmth.  No doubt residual affection from her long comic career is playing a part here.

With the guest actors featured heavily, the regulars are slightly pushed into the background, but those featured – Shirley, Maureen, Pat – still benefit from some decent character development throughout Susan Pleat’s script.  After suffering run-ins with both Ailsa and Annie, Shirley has to work hard to retain her self control (even more so after another patient suffers a broken leg and Shirley finds herself accused of negligence by her relatives).

Shirley’s slightly stunted personal development may be the reason why she finds all one-on-one interactions to be somewhat trying, although nobody could blame her for getting a little irritated with either Annie or (especially) Ailsa.  But by the end of the episode she’s definitely gone through something of a learning curve, leaving us with the impression that piece by piece she’s becoming more of a rounded person.

Although Shirley is having a trying time in the ward, Maureen (working in the day unit) appears to be having a much easier experience.  Maybe this is just down to the luck of the draw, or possibly Maureen’s more placid nature just fits in well with the atmosphere of the place.

Pat’s place in this story is very interesting.  She’s someone who we haven’t really explored in any great depth for a while, which makes this episode a very welcome one.  With Pat’s mother being a friend of Dodi, Pat is instantly drawn to her – she may be occasionally tetchy, but Dodi also has the aura of a wise sage.

Pat finds herself telling Dodi things – about her strained relationship with her mother and her doubts about nursing as a vocation – which she claims she’s never shared with her friends.  Given how close Pat and Maureen seem to be, this is a little surprising, but on reflection maybe not.  It’s a nice character beat either way though, as it helps to show that the outwardly confident Pat is just as riddled with insecurities as, say, the socially awkward Shirley.

Dodi’s death at the end of the episode therefore comes as a jarring blow, not only to the audience (who no doubt would have grown to appreciate her as the story wore on) but also to Pat, who tells Maureen that she’s lost her new-found confidant.  This seems to be a slightly selfish point of view, but it also feels quite truthful. Pat’s final visit to Dodi’s house – now covered in dustsheets and empty of all life – is nicely played, especially the moment when she picks up the small bell that Dodi was fond of ringing whenever she required attention.

The fact that Dodi died in a late-night fall down the stairs is a bleakly ironic twist.  Previously pretty much bed-bound, the strong inference is that her new-found confidence after attending the day hospital was a contributory factor in her death.  Maureen is quick to scotch Pat’s suggestion, but this lingering notion is left hanging in the air.

It’s pleasing to know that we’ll encounter Ailsa and Annie in another episode shortly.  Thanks to the nuanced performances of all three senior actresses, Day Hospital is a thought-provoking and memorable episode.

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The Phoenix And The Carpet (BBC, 1976/77) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When four children persuade their parents to buy them a rather shabby second hand carpet they have no idea what lies ahead for them.  For the carpet is a magic one, containing an egg which – when accidentally tossed into the fire – hatches a Phoenix who has been asleep for some considerable time.  With the wise Phoenix as their guide, the children embark on a series of amazing adventures ….

Published in 1904, The Phoenix and the Carpet was the second book in Edith Nesbit’s trilogy (beginning with Five Children and It and concluding with The Story of the Amulet). This 1976/77 adaptation by John Tully was retooled as a stand-alone tale, meaning that no knowledge of the previous story is required (the Psammead, from Five Children and It, appears briefly in the novel of The Phoenix And The Carpet but is omitted from this adaptation).

Given the technical limitations of the era, this was an incredibly ambitious production.  It’s not going to be to everybody’s tastes (there’s lashings of CSO and various other special effects which require considerable suspension of belief) but if you’re prepared to go with the flow then an utterly charming tale lies ahead.

Director Clive Doig had cut his teeth as a vision mixer on numerous 1960’s episodes of Doctor Who. Given this (as well as his work on Vision On and later Jigsaw) no doubt he wouldn’t have been phased by the taxing requirements of this eight-part serial.

I have to confess that within the first five minutes I was won over. Yes, the Phoenix may be a rather immobile puppet – but he’s brought to life by Robert Warner’s wonderful voice work.  Thanks to Warner, the Phoenix quickly becomes a character in his own right – knowledgeable and sage-like, but also possessed of an overweening sense of his own importance.

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And although the children – Cyril (Gary Russell), Anthea (Tamzin Neville), Robert (Max Harris) and Jane (Jane Forster) – all have the slightly mannered stage-school delivery familiar from countless other period dramas of this era, there’s plenty of good one-liners and sly gags for them scattered throughout the script.

During the serial there are also some fine comic performances from the elder players. Robert Dorning as the carpet seller in the first episode for example, whilst Susan Field (as the children’s bad-tempered Cook) is a joy in episode two. Immediately after the Cook stumbles across the smooth-talking Phoenix she’s whisked away with the others to a desert island …

Clearly the serial had a decent budget as the island (whilst resolutely studio-bound) is shot on film rather than videotape. It doesn’t convince as a real location, but since the whole production has a heightened, theatrical feel this isn’t really a problem.

The island natives (browned up British actors with curly wigs and plenty of “ooga booga” mumblings) are slightly eyebrow raising, but these scenes only reflect the original novel, which sees the Cook carried off by the natives (who are so taken with her that they decide to make her their Queen).

The children’s colourful trips continue when they head out to India – we go back on film for a sumptuous palace based sequence which introduces us to The Ranee (Surya Kumai), someone who has every material benefit but still feels desperately unhappy. Luckily for her, the four plucky English children are able to cheer her up. Cyril launches into a lengthy explanation about how they acquired the carpet (delightfully causing the others to roll their eyes!)

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Back in London, the imperious Mrs Biddle (Hilary Mason) is helping to organise a church bazaar with an Indian theme. She’s proud of her contribution, but is trumped by the knick-knacks acquired by the children during their recent jaunt.  This contrast between the exotic adventuring of the children and their return to a more mundane life in London gives the serial a very appealing feel (even though the adventures are high on charm but low on jeopardy).

There are several other highlights scattered throughout the remainder of the serial. I was particularly taken with the Phoenix’s tour of London. It’s a lovely opportunity to ramp up the comedy as the Phoenix demands to be taken to one of the many temples established in the capital to worship him (he has a little trouble in understanding that the Phoenix Insurance Company is a different sort of beast altogether …)

Monica Sims, head of BBC children’s programmes, told The Stage and Television Today that “the production has all the difficulties of children, animals, magic and the technical tricks required for a magic carpet. Not to mention a haughty bird as the leading artist” (30th September 1976).

All these hurdles were successfully overcome and by the time the eighth and final episode concludes there’s a definite sense of poignancy in the air.  The Phoenix And The Carpet certainly seems to have left an indelible impression on those who saw it at the time and it’s pleasing to report that the decades haven’t diminished its magic.  Other bigger-budgeted adaptations are also available, but this one is very special indeed. It’s well worth checking out.

The Phoenix And The Carpet is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

Angels – Legacies (27th April 1976)

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Legacies is another episode which places Shirley front and centre.  It was established in the first series that she has an awkward relationship with her parents and this theme is developed during the early part of the episode.  It seems that Mr and Mrs Brent (Lloyd Lamble and Peggy Ann Wood) have given Shirley everything she could have asked for, apart from love.  They’re polite enough to their daughter but also emotionally closed-off, which strongly implies that Shirley’s repressed nature is a direct result of her upbringing.

The way that Mr and Mrs Brent display polite interest at the news that Shirley will be involved in the forthcoming celebrations at St Angela’s (to mark twenty five years as a teaching hospital) but firmly decline to attend is very cutting.  The thought that this might disappoint their daughter doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds.  Mind you, it’s also true that their own relationship seems just as superficial (polite on the surface but lacking any sort of emotional depth).

Intercut with these scenes are a number of gritty location shots following Diana (Mary Maude) as she makes her way back home to her squat. In story terms there’s no particular need to have them in the episode (it would have been just as easy to open with Diana being brought into the hospital) but they do add a little bit of grimy mid seventies colour to the episode.

A self-destructive drug addict, Diana’s a regular at St Angela’s and viewed with weary resignation by the staff.  Shirley begins by professing bafflement – since she can’t understand her, she has difficulty in treating her.  Sandra is on hand to dish out a dollop of common sense – personal feelings don’t matter, everyone deserves the same duty of care

Shirley’s psychological war of nerves with Diana is the dominant theme of today’s story.  It ebbs and flows, but eventually Shirley comes out on top, telling Diana that “we’re both losers, but you don’t even know it”.  Diana’s background is revealed to be similar to Shirley’s – well-off parents who gave her every material benefit but nothing else. That they’re two sides of the same coin is then explicitly stated, which is a slight shame (given how oblique some of Diana’s monologues are, it probably would have been better not to have spelled out this obvious point).

Legacies is a very verbose script. We do have an explanation as to why Diana is such an articulate junkie, but there are times when she does feel like an artificial character. Although if one were being generous it may be that this was intentional. Shirley does pick up on the fact that Diana is an arch-manipulator – always playing a role, she finds it easy to push people’s buttons in order to create the effect she requires.

The fact she causes Shirley to lose her temper pleases her – but not in a malicious way.  Rather, Shirley has now passed the test and can be treated as almost an equal (the way they smile at each other at the end of the episode feels encouraging but also faintly sinister).

If Shirley is the angel who has received by far the most character development during the series to date, then some of the others – such as Maureen – are rather lagging behind.  Maureen doesn’t feature very heavily today, but her scenes (mainly pouring scorn at the parasitic way Diana leeches from the state system) don’t quite ring true.  Nothing we’ve seen of her previously would suggest that she would react in this way, which leaves me with the impression that her character has been refashioned just to service this particular plot point.  If so, then it might have been better to create a one-off nurse for the role.

Shirley’s early interactions with Diana are quite awkward and unpleasant (although you are left with the strong sense – based on previous stories – that this will change).  Her relationship with the elderly Miss Buckle (Jean Kent) is quite different, although the attentive viewer would probably have been able to quickly work out the sting in this tale.

Miss Buckle is polite and thankful for all the attention she’s receiving, but she seems just a little too nice, meaning that the revelation she has munchausen syndrome doesn’t come as a total shock.  In her way she’s just as much of a drain on the resources of the hospital as Diana is, but the script has much more sympathy with her than it does with Diana. It’s not a particularly large role, but Kent (a British film regular during the 1940’s and 1950’s) is spot on.  The way Miss Buckle reacts when she realises that Shirley knows her secret is beautifully played.

With some familiar faces – Don Henderson as a drunk, Phil Davis as Diana’s friend, Christopher Coll as a doctor – popping up, there’s plenty of incidental interest in this one, although the Shirley/Diana relationship dominates.

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