Softly Softly: Task Force – Aberration (27th October 1971)

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There’s a lovely opening scene with Barlow and Watt. Watt’s home alone (his wife – a GP – is away for the week) and has invited Barlow around for a slap up meal (prepared before she left by Mrs Watt – this was the 1970’s after all).

There’s some nice character building here (we see Watt’s vulnerable side for a fleeting moment) but the scene does have a plot purpose – a locum doctor calls round asking for the surgery keys. Watt hands them over, but the next day we learn that the man wasn’t a doctor after all …

We can put this terrible lapse down to the fact that both had clearly imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol. In the cold light of day Barlow is forced to eat humble pie in front of Dr Mancroft (Raymond Huntley). Johns and Huntley share several excellent scenes – there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching two old timers squaring off against each other.

Aberration is the first episode to feature a major role for DC Forest (Julie Hallam). Forest is remarkably cheeky (talking back to both Barlow and Watt) and Hallam’s performance is quite broad. Because the other regulars are all pretty naturalistic, Hallam’s overexuberance is more noticeable.

Apart from the stolen prescription pads, the villain – James (Gary Waldhorn) – has also pinched several patient’s files. That we’re in less enlightened times is demonstrated when homosexuality is classed alongside child molesting as the sort of aberration which would be ideal fodder for a blackmailer. The inoffensive-looking Norman Bird (as Tomkins) is wheeled on as a bondage fetishist (he’s one of the unlucky people being blackmailed by James).

Although Barlow and Watt are clearly having an off-day (plucky young Forest tracks down James all by herself) Aberration is an interesting time capsule of the period.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Floater (20th October 1971)

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Since it’s primarily a water-based story, it’s apt that The Floater has a lazy, meandering feel.  This isn’t a criticism, but it’s certainly an episode that takes its time to get up and running. For example, the first fifteen minutes are concerned with Hawkins and Snow who – thanks to a tip-off from Snow’s informer – are targeting Ian Yellop (Roger Tallon).

They believe he uses the river to ferry drugs (low level stuff like hash) but both he and his girlfriend Rae (Vicki Michelle) appear to be clean.  It takes a third of the episode to establish this fact though (no doubt other series would have dealt with the set up much quicker).

Tallon impresses as the shifty Yellop (his television debut) with Michelle (her second television credit – the first had also been in SS:TF) also catching the eye. At this early stage of her career she was getting typecast playing girls on the wrong side of the law.  With a strong cockney accent, Michelle is delightfully twitchy as someone who may know more than she’s letting on.

With a small guest cast, Neil Wilson (an actor who’ll always be Sam Seeley from the Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space to me) is excellent value as the river copper Inspector Daley.

But it’s really Barlow’s episode. He might enter it late, but as soon as he does the tempo instantly picks up. As ever, Stratford Johns is ridiculously good.  Barlow’s implacable interrogation of Yellop carries a real punch – Barlow’s sudden angry outbursts and his quieter reflective moments are equally riveting.  Tallon – an actor whose later credits seem a little thin – more than holds his own against Johns’ onslaught.

I love the way that the second half of the episode veers off in a different direction from the first.  First rate.

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Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – A Slight Ache (6th February 1967)

Edward (Maurice Denham) and Flora’s (Hazel Hughes) idyllic countryside life is disrupted by the arrival of an elderly matchseller (Gordon Richardson). Despite never speaking a word, the old man strikes fear into the heart of Edward and awakens in Flora long-buried sexual desires ….

The first of three consecutive Theatre 625 plays by Pinter, which aired during February 1967, A Slight Ache was originally broadcast by BBC Radio in 1959 (Denham reprising his original radio role).

The oppressive nature of silence, very much a Pinter trait, is a key theme of the play. Remaining mute and pretty much insensible throughout (although there are occasional indications that he can understand at least some of what Edward and Flora are telling him) the matchseller becomes a blank canvas – enabling Edward and Flora to project their own fears, hopes and insecurities onto him.

Both direct several lengthy monologues towards him – for Edward they’re corrosive meetings, culminating in his total collapse. Denham excels throughout (and despite having to handle some very intricate dialogue rattled off at a high pace never falters). He’s matched by Hughes though, although Flora’s meetings are very different from Edward’s.

Edward rambles around a stream of disconnected topics, finding difficulty in asking any straight questions, whereas Flora is much more forthright. For example, she begins by wondering if he could previously have been a poacher (she confides in him that she was raped by a poacher as a girl). This remembrance awakens a sexual thrill in her, which is designed to be a disconcerting revelation in someone previously presented as a loyal and dutiful wife.

Prior to the arrival of the matchseller, the pair have several lengthy scenes – beginning at the breakfast table – which help to establish their relationship. A running battle with a wasp (eventually trapped by the forceful Edward in the marmalade jar) takes up a good few minutes and manages to be both amusing and oddly disturbing. At this point Edward is the dominant force, but once the matchseller appears, their roles become increasingly reversed.

Apart from the actors, Barry Newbery’s sets are an obvious star of the production (the lush garden is particularly impressive). Christopher Morahan’s direction has some nice flourishes, but with an enclosed location and only three actors it has to be fairly static at times.

Amanda Wrigley’s notes in the BFI booklet reports that contemporary critical reaction to A Slight Ache was poor. That may be, but there was the odd positive notice. Kenneth Eastaugh in the Daily Mirror commented that the play “like all Pinter’s works is for all times and for all mediums. Because it’s all about what goes on inside people – and we never change”.

W.D.A. in the Liverpool Echo was less forgiving though, finding it doubtful that anybody would have given the old matchseller such free reign (“it seemed highly questionable”).

Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with W.D.A.’s point of view, it doesn’t prevent A Slight Ache from being a tightly performed psychological drama. True it does sag a little in the middle, but it may be that future rewatches will prove to be rewarding.

The Dawson Watch – Simply Media DVD Review

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Les Dawson’s road to television stardom was a long and rocky one. Born in Collyhurst, Manchester in 1934, Dawson pursued numerous dead-end jobs whilst attempting to break into the comedy world.  After many false starts, thanks to a spot on Opportunity Knocks his luck slowly began to change.

His own show – Sez Lez – which ran on Yorkshire Televison from 1969 to 1976 was key in establishing his brand of entertaining miserablism.  Whilst some of the early editions were a bit thin comedy-wise, the arrival of a crop of experienced writers such as Barry Cryer and David Nobbs gave the show a considerable boost.  Having John Cleese as a regular co-star for a while didn’t hurt either.

Whilst with Yorkshire, Dawson also appeared in The Loner (scripted by Alan Plater) and Dawson’s Weekly (penned by Galton and Simpson) so he didn’t lack for heavyweight writers. Throw in a number of one-off specials, guest spots on other people’s programmes and appearances on panel shows such as Joker’s Wild and Celebrity Squares and it’s fair to say that by the mid seventies Dawson had well and truly arrived.

His defection to the BBC in 1977 wasn’t a shock on the same level as the departure of Morecambe and Wise to Thames, but it still raised a few eyebrows.  Lacking his familiar group of writers (even though they would have been happy to continue working with him) Dawson’s first BBC starring venture – imaginatively titled The Les Dawson Show – turned out to be something of a damp squib.

The writers – including Eddie Braben and a young David Renwick – were strong, but in some respects it seemed to be little more than a Sez Lez rehash (Les interacting with guest stars – such as Lulu – plus regular spots for singers and dancers).  The time was clearly right for Les to do something a little different next time and so The Dawson Watch (1979 – 1980) was born.

Dawson’s monologues (which he wrote himself, the sketches tended to be penned by other writers) often railed at life’s follies, so a series in which Les examined a different hot topic each week (Housing, Transport, Money, etc) was something which played to his strengths.

Along with a new writing team – Ian Davidson as script editor, Terry Ravenscroft and Andy Hamilton providing the sketches – the show began to take shape.  The Dawson Watch has the air of a consumer programme in which Les introduces sketches illustrating the topic of the week whilst moving around a studio packed with high-tech equipment (well, high-tech for the late seventies) and attractive young ladies pushing buttons.

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It’s fair to say that the first series was a learning experience for all concerned.  Dawson seemed a little ill-at-ease in the first programme, only coming to life when he began to banter with the audience about where they live.  Once he does that – and presumably starts to go off-script – he visibly perks up.  Although there’s plenty of new material in his monologues, several old favourites (“until I was fifteen, I thought that knives and forks were jewellery”) also receive airings.

There are so many gems which can be mined from Dawson’s routines, such as this bleak portrait of Christmas.  Les confided that he could “only remember being given one Christmas present by my father. It was a do-it-yourself electric train set. Turned out to be a roll of fuse wire and a platform ticket”.

Possibly the major failing of the first series is the fact that Dawson doesn’t appear in many of the sketches.  Familiar faces such as Cosmo Smallpiece and Cissie and Ada do pop up, but most of the sketches are handled by others.  There’s certainly some very talented performers on view during these early shows – Sam Kelly, Johnny Ball, Michael Knowles, John Junkin, Patrick Newell, Terence Alexander, David Lodge, Andrew Sachs – but it would have been much more enjoyable had we seen Dawson playing off against them.

However, one of Les’ early sketch appearances (with Roy Barraclough as Cissie) is a Dawson classic.

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.
ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.
CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?
ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.
CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?
ADA: See it? We were never off it.

Clearly lessons had been learned for series two as Dawson takes a much more central role in the sketches whilst Vicki Michelle (as one of the computer girls) proved to be a welcome additon to the line-up. The girls in the first series were rarely called upon to be anything more than mute and attractive – acting simply as fodder for Dawson’s remarks – but Michelle possessed the comic chops to be able to engage in banter with him (which made Les’ lecherous advances seem a little less uncomfortable).

The astonishing roster of familiar faces making guest appearances during series one was reduced for the second and third series.  As was more common with series of this type, a “rep” of performers was used instead – Roy Barraclough headed the list, with Daphne Oxenford and Gordon Peters amongst the other regulars.

The formula remained the same for the third and final series (broadcast in 1980 and culminating with a Christmas Special discussing the obvious topic of Christmas). Vicki Michelle wasn’t featured so prominently, although one of her future Allo, Allo! co-stars, Kirsten Cooke, made a few appearances whilst it was also nice to see the likes of George Sweeney and Michael Keating.

Compared to some of his contemporaries, such as Mike Yarwood and Dick Emery, Les Dawson is very well represented on DVD. Virtually all of his surviving ITV material can be purchased from Network whilst this release from Simply constitutes a welcome chunk of his later BBC work. Hopefully more will surface in the future.

Whilst some aspects of Dawson’s humour haven’t aged well, there’s still so much of interest here – his wonderfully crafted monologues, the impressive parade of supporting actors – to make it easy for me to wholeheartedly recommend this release.

The Dawson Watch consists of nineteen 30 minute episodes spread across three discs (six, six, seven) and is subtitled. It’s released tomorrow (4th March 2019) by Simply Media and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

 

Softly Softly: Task Force – Hostage (13th October 1971)

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Hostage opens with the most sedate bank robbery I’ve ever seen. It’s true that the villains are vaguely dressed as guards – meaning that from a distance they look official – but even when the truth becomes known (they’re taking money out of the bank with guns rather than delivering it) none of the bystanders – ladies with prams, etc – seem terribly concerned.  The Sweeney this isn’t.

With six hundred banks in the area, Watt is faced with a nightmare (especially since the firm doesn’t appear to be local). And since the Task Force can’t identify them, how on earth will they be able to predict where they’ll strike next?  It’s therefore something of a cop-out that in the very next scene Watt, Hawkins and co just happen to stumble across them. Not the tightest bit of plotting I’ve ever seen.

With the four villains – Frank (Leslie Schofield), Eddie (George Sweeney), Dick (Derek Martin) and Steve (John Hartley) – now holed up inside a bank with multiple hostages, another staggering plot development occurs.  Evans and PC Drake (Brian Hall) wander into the bank via the back entrance and offer themselves up as hostages. Since they have no idea just how dangerous the men are, this rather beggars belief.

Leslie Schofield is the sort of actor who plays unstable types very well but it’s a pity that the other three villains don’t get to do much (George Sweeney was a very dependable criminal sort, but he remains largely mute throughout). The bank-based stand off in the second part of the episode is the definite highlight of this one, as Evans – his usual stolid self – faces off against the cocky Frank.

Those expecting an all-guns blazing finale will probably be disappointed, but the sting in the tale orchestrated by wily old Cullen is quite neat.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Once Bitten (6th October 1971)

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With Simply’s Softly Softly: Task Force releases seemingly stalled at series two, I’ve finally taken the plunge and picked up the German releases from Pidax.  Each of the three DVD sets contains eight episodes – all with dual German/English language tracks – although some episodes from this period are skipped (presumably because German language tracks weren’t available).

As ever, the dynamic between Barlow and Watt is fascinating. Barlow, having been away for a while, returns to find that Watt’s been efficiently minding the shop in his absence (although Watt hasn’t been averse to rifling through Barlow’s mail). Has Barlow really been romantically involved with a female informer young enough to be his daughter? The evidence of his mail suggests so but he’s not letting on.

Barlow’s keen to keep the others on their toes, intending to come down hard on any tawdry response times. But Watt rather spoils this plan by tipping the others off ….

WDC Donald has sadly departed, with WDC Forest (Julie Hallam) swiftly slotted in as her replacement. Watt’s assessment of her (“a cracker”) is an eye-opener. A professional or personal opinion? First impressions are that she’s a jolly sort as well as being practical (removing her skirt as she dives into the canal to rescue one of the villains).

A hairy Tom Chadbon (playing Andrews, one of three textile warehouse robbers) and a cravat wearing Michael Sheard (as Dickenson, the keyholder of the warehouse) are the most familiar faces guesting.

Andrews’ main skill is handling dogs (he’s able to deal with the rather vicious guard dogs on site). A tense dog-related stand off then develops when the Task Force turn up.  Andrews and the others are trapped inside the warehouse (the dogs are now released and roaming the yard) with only Harry Hawkins brave enough to chance his arm.

He loses his trousers and his dignity to the vicious canines, but I suppose it could have been worse.

A low-key sort of crime then, but Chadbon’s excellent value and the byplay between the regulars (a nice scene between Snow and Evans, for example) is typically solid.

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Blakes 7 – In Praise of Series A

Last year I treated myself to a fortieth anniversary Blakes 7 rewatch (one episode per week). It was jolly good fun (well, apart from Hostage and a few others) and by the time everybody had bitten the dust on Gauda Prime, I did feel a more than a twinge of regret.

I also came away from the rewatch with a new appreciation for series A, which (if I was the sort of person to bother about rankings) I’d have to claim as my favourite run of B7 episodes.

Partly this is borne out of nostalgia as I acquired ex-rental VHS tapes of The Beginning and Duel back in 1987. With the unedited, episodic releases not beginning until 1991, for a number of years these were the only B7 episodes I had. So I watched them again and again and again ….

Trimmed as they are (The Way Back was reduced to a mere 15 minutes, the others clocked in at around 40 minutes each) there’s still something magical to me about these video presentations. A pity that nobody’s uploaded good quality versions to YouTube. Oh well.

Trevor Hoyle’s first novelisation also helped to stoke my interest in these early episodes (I’ve no idea why I didn’t buy the others at the tine). Roj Blake’s struggles after leaving the security of Dome City (from the publishers of Star Wars no less) certainly fired my imagination.

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Occassionly this question is posed from a B7 newbie – where to start? The Way Back would seem to be the obvious choice, but some say no. That’s baffling to me (I suspect they’re rabid Avon fans, pining for their hero) as whilst The Way Back is totally atypical, you really need to watch it in order to understand just what makes Blake tick.

Playground dispute question, who’s best – Blake or Avon? I’m a confirmed Blake fan (although series C and D weren’t without their moments of interest).  Both characters have plenty of layers which can be unpeeled, but Blake has always fascinated me more.

Series A also boasts strong roles for Jenna and Cally (well, strong-ish). I always got the feeling that Sally Knyvette’s decision not to re-sign for series C was the reason why Jenna was written out of large parts of series B (on more than one occassion the girls were relegated to the job of teleport operators whilst the boys went out to play). Both are certainly better served by Series A, even if they’re not driving any of the plots.

Series A also benefits from the best Travis and only a handful of appearances by Servalan. Of course I love Jacqueline Pearce, but Servalan was hopelessly overused during the next three years. Ideally she should have had strong roles in three or four stories each year. Alas, they couldn’t resist the temptation of shoe-horning her into any old plot, whether she fitted or not ….

Terry Nation may have run out of steam towards the end (Deliverance/Orac and also had to rely heavily on Chris Boucher at times (Nation’s first draft of Bounty was very weedy) but the fact that Series A featured a single authorial voice is something else which appeals. The series had to broaden its writers pool in order to survive, but there’s an undeniable unity to these stories and this helps to compensate for some of the more clunkier or familiar plot devices (radiation sickness! anti-radiation drugs!)

The fairly drab costumes also anchors the series into some sort of reality. Clearly at this point they hadn’t discovered the Liberator wardrobe with the more outlandish clothing creations. We’d have to wait for series B for that.

So there you have it. Series A is really rather good. In fact I think I’m going to go and watch it again.