Adam Adamant Lives! – To Set A Deadly Fashion

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Adam pops along to an Embassy ball and falls into conversation with Oretta (Nancy Nevinson), the wife of the Italian Vice Consul. And after she falls dead into his arms, he instantly turns detective ….

There’s no mystery about Oretta’s death as her conversation with Adam is intercut with shots of two eavesdroppers (Howarth and Watkins) who are able to hear every word that’s spoken. She’s wearing a bugged dress then, that’s different. And not only is it bugged, when it’s decided that Oretta has said too much they’re able to kill her by remote control.

The dress has been designed by Roger Clair (Colin Jeavons), a fashion designer who has plenty of connections in high society. Where do you start with Jeavons’ performance? Calling it camp just doesn’t do it justice – Jeavons is clearly enjoying himself tremendously, periodically winding himself up into explosive paroxysms of petulance.

Howarth (Alister Williamson) is his stolid number two. A much less showy turn, but then there’s only room in the story for one Jeavons-sized character.  Given how prima-donnish Clair is, it’s difficult to credit that he’s responsible for creating such an intricate espionage network – but it seem to be so.

Tony Williamson’s script also seems a little unclear in other places too. We’re told that a number of other society matrons have died in a similar way to Oretta (all apparently from heart attacks) but Clair was deeply upset when Howarth decided to terminate Oretta (Howarth was worried that Adam was getting too close to discovering their operation). So why did the others die? Oh well, possibly you’re not supposed to dig too deeply into the specifics of the story.

Adam toddles along to Clair’s latest fashion show, but is appalled when the models – dressed in bathing costumes – begin to parade themselves. Poor Adam, given a front-row seat, can’t bring himself to look whilst Georgina (it won’t shock you to discover) has signed on as Clair’s latest model.

This turns out to be a godsend for Clair as he’s able to pop the unsuspecting Georgina into a bugged dress. There’s a lovely spot of dialogue from Clair as he first recoils at the notion of Adam living in a car park, before approving of the notion of his flat (“what a ducky idea”).

Another episode highlight occurs when Adam, safely back with Georgina at his flat, suddenly twigs that her dress might be dangerous. He writes her a note (“take off your dress”) only for her to counter with a note of her own (“get lost”). Given she’s been panting over him since the start of the series, I’d have thought she’d have been quite keen to get undressed for him ….

Towards the end of the episode Adam has the chance to indulge in his usual spot of fisticuffs before facing the possibility of a grisly death at the hands of Clair’s wicked invention. Fear not though, the ever resourceful Adam can take just about anything that’s thrown at him and then throw it back with maximum vengeance.

Another solid episode, this one benefits enormously from the performance of Colin Jeavons.

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Adam Adamant Lives! – The Terribly Happy Embalmers

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The opening of this episode is AAL! at its most Avengerish (not really surprising of course since Brian Clemens wrote the script). Sir John Marston (John Scott) bids his friends and colleagues a cheerful goodbye before stepping into a comfortable coffin – immediately afterwards he is pronounced dead by Wilson (Jeremy Young).

The coffin is delivered to an undertakers run by Mr Percy (Arthur Brough – glass of water for Mr Grainger please) and is opened to reveal a happy Marston, declaring that it’s good to be alive again. Unfortunately Mr Percy then shoots him dead ….

Now that’s how you write a teaser!

Clemens’ script sparkles throughout. Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that it boasts fine performances from some experienced players. Such as Deryck Guyler as Grantham, the snuff-taking Man from the Ministry who calls in Adamant to solve the mystery of why a number of financiers (including Marston) died immediately before they were due to face charges of tax evasion.

The common link is a psychiatrist called Velmer (John Le Mesurier). His profession serves as a cue for Adam and Georgina to discuss the merits of psychiatry in another comic scene. Georgina’s abuse of Adam’s priceless tea service also raises a smile.

The presence of John Le Mesurier is another major plus point in the episode’s favour. Although for a bright man, Velmer seems to be a little dense (even after learning about Adam’s past life, he doesn’t twig that his subject is actually the celebrated Adam Adamant). This is even odder when it’s later revealed that Velmer knows all about Adam.

Hamilton Dyce, as Mr Percy’s second in command, and Ilona Rogers (Susan) help to fill out the cast.  I have to admit that she looks rather fine in her nurses uniform (which seems to have been designed to maximise her cleavage).

Velmer has sent Adam to a very strange nursing home where Susan is on hand to attend to his every need – although the buttoned up Adam draws the line at being undressed by her! The early dialogue exchanges between Harper and Rogers are a gift for both for them.

It’s nice to see Harper given some good material to get his teeth into – unlike some of the previous episodes Adam isn’t just portrayed as an uptight innocent, he seems to be a more rounded character today (quick witted and easy able to feign madness – Velmer is convinced that Adam’s Edwardian remembrances are simply delusions and Adam is happy to string him along).

Georgina has been sidelined for most of this episode – stuck in the flat with Simms who’s been entertaining her by reciting several of his hair-raising limericks – but eventually she pushes herself into the story by skulking around the offices of the health club. She encounters a strange-looking man rising from a coffin in a shock moment that seems designed to lead into an ad break (before you remember this was a BBC show).

Georgina and Susan later have a brief catfight which is the cue for Georgina to steal her clothes and for Susan to emerge a moment later in a state of undress. The conclusion – with the undertakers perishing in a barrage of friendly fire and Adam and Wilson fencing to the death – is a bit of a cracker.

The Very Happy Embalmers has a rather thin story but since it’s assembled and performed so well I’m not complaining. After a few false starts, this episode pointed a possible way ahead for the series, albeit as an Avengers clone.  If AAL! was going to have a long term future then it would need to find its own voice, but for now this episode is simply content to be nothing less than first rate entertainment.

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Adam Adamant Lives! – Allah Is Not Always With You

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Allah Is Not Always With You opens in eyebrow raising fashion –  an attractive young woman called Linda (Miranda Hampton) is tied to a bed and offered the prospect of torture unless she does as she’s instructed. Golly. The attentive viewer will probably notice that she’s dressed in fishnets and a fluffy upper costume, which raises the kink factor an extra notch.

You have to say though that maybe the baddies’ hearts weren’t in it, as once Linda is left alone she unties herself with embarrassing ease and manages to dodge past the tough guarding the door.  If this is slightly hard to swallow, then more swallowing is required when (fleeing down a long corridor) she’s knifed in the back.  Had the distance between Linda and the knife thrower not been so great then possibly this wouldn’t have come across as such a superhuman feat.

Mortally wounded though she is, Linda still manages to pop on a coat (sorry, I’ll try and stop nitpicking soon) and takes a cab (driven by George Tovey, who always did a very nice line in cabbies) to Adam’s flat.  Her arrival in Adam’s sitting room (her barely conscious form carried over the threshold by Simms) is an amusing moment. It’s also significant, as this caused the original Simms (played by John Dawson) a great deal of trouble – sent off to hospital with a bad back, Dawson was quickly replaced by Jack May.

Everything seems to centre on The Fluffy Club which is a joint where the hostesses are dressed in a fluffy fashion (nothing to do with the Playboy Club, honest). It’s the sort of decadent gambling den you know Adam will find totally abhorrent, even if by today’s standards it looks amusingly tame.  And if it’s somewhat predictable that Adam’s ended up in such a place, then it’s even more predictable that Georgina – having ignored Adam’s order not to get involved – has enrolled at the club as a Fluffy Girl in order to be his inside woman.

She has all the attributes to be a Fluffy Girl, her legs seem to go on forever ….

Kevin Brennan oozes melodramatic menace as Vargos, the club owner who intends to ensnare Ahmed (David Spenser), a wealthy Middle Eastern playboy. Whilst Ahmed heads off to be fleeced in the big card game, Adam is lurking about the corridors. At this point it’s hard to see how he’ll fit into the narrative (he can hardly gatecrash the game) but luckily there’s another damsel in distress close at hand and a few toughs for Adam to duff up.

Adam’s new damsel, Helen (Jennifer Jayne), is – of course – an associate of Vargos (poor Adam always seems to hone straight in on the bad women). So clever, but oh so vulnerable. She manages to snatch a quick kiss with him and he doesn’t pull away. Perhaps Adam is slowly moving into the sixties …..

Fictitious Middle Eastern states were an ever-present staple of sixties adventure series and today’s example is a fairly common one. Ahmed is the headstrong young heir to the Sheikdom who’s been assimilated into – or corrupted by – Western culture whereas his father is much more of a traditionalist.  The Sheik is played by a browned-up John Woodnutt, which is the sort of casting that may look a little odd today but was perfectly common back then.

It’s interesting that whilst Adam finds himself sidetracked by Helen, Georgina is the one who’s doing all the hard graft – taking Ahmed out for a bun in order to find out what Vargos is up to. And once she’s got the info, Georgina scooters off to Adam’s pad to share the news – almost running into Helen who’s just been enjoying an intimate tête-à-tête with Mr Adamant. Frosty stares are exchanged between the two females.

Eventually Georgina is able to persuade Adam that the Sheik’s life may be in danger (in London for a routine operation, if he dies then Vargos will be able to pull Ahmed’s strings and rule by proxy).

Allah Is Not Always With You chugs along quite nicely with all the familiar story beats of the series – easily duped Adam, plucky Georgina, fisticuffs ahoy – firmly in place. It never quite kicks into top gear though since Vargos is too nebulous a villain whilst Ahmed is also quite sketchily portrayed (given this, it’s hard to feel any particular sympathy for him).

The identical pleasures – a horrified Adam meeting the sedate fleshpots of the Fluffy Club, say – are the moments which really stand out. Not bad then, but hopefully more substantial fare will be just round the corner.

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Helen Shingler – Madame Maigret

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Friend of the blog Berthold Deutschmann has written this interesting article (in addition to supplying an impressive piece of artwork) about Helen Shingler, who played Madame Maigret in the classic 1960’s BBC series

According to the latest dates on the Internet, Helen Shingler (“Madame Maigret”) recently celebrated her 100th birthday, on August 29th, 2019. I have found just one birthday greeting. Actually, I read somewhere that she would belong to a list of “forgotten actors”. I was taken aback by that. And Rupert Davies would be a “forgotten actor”, too. I don’t believe it! At least in Germany both are still known as the ideal tv Maigret couple. In fact, from the DVDs you might get the impression, the Maigrets are still in deep love, even after many years of marriage. This is played so convincingly, that a friend of mine believes there could have been a real relationship between the two actors. I do not agree with her, because I think, both were absolutely loyal to their own familiy.

As for the Maigret tv series, Mrs. Shingler’s desire was to have a bit more influence on the solution of the murder cases of her tv husband, Chief Inspector Maigret. I know of just one case in which she really can help him, shown in the episode “The White Hat” (German version: “Madame Maigret als Detektiv”). Gererally, she remains the housewife in the Maigret flat at Richard Lenoir Boulevard in Paris, but still she is absolutely essential for “Monsieur Maigret”. He would not be the successful Sureté commissaire without her at his side, or in the background, at home. On the writing desk in the commissioner’s office at Quai des Orfèvres there is put up, quite obviously, her framed picture.

For my comic-style illustration I had a scene in mind, in which Madame, for the time being, happens to know more than Monsieur, perhaps some fine detail that could be helpful to solve the current crime mystery. I hope you will like my work.

Below is an interview with Helen Shingler, conducted by Sheila Purcell, from 1962.

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Terrance Dicks (1935 – 2019)

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Growing up, Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who novelisations were my staple reading diet. The Target range had other writers of course, but some of their books (like the two by David Whitaker) seemed a bit intimidating (especially the dense Crusaders).

Terrance may sometimes have been criticised for being a plain, straight-ahead sort of writer, but it’s undeniable that his books were perfectly pitched for his young readership. When I was slightly older I had the confidence to tackle The Crusaders, but had Terrance not been there first then maybe I wouldn’t have made the leap.

It’s a common refrain to hear people say that Terrance Dicks taught them to read, but it’s also true in so many cases ….

His contribution to Doctor Who in general was immense.  He wrote and co-wrote some excellent stories, but his work as possibly the series’ most efficient script editor really stands out. Having witnessed the script chaos which bedevilled the series during the late Troughton era, Dicks (with Barry Letts as a strong and supportive producer) brought stability back to the production office.

Dicks’ formula was simple – find a small group of writers you could depend on (Robert Holmes, Brian Hayles, Terry Nation, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Sloman, Bob Baker & Dave Martin) and then keep on recommissioning them. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Outside of Doctor Who, his work as first script editor and then later producer on the Classic Serials is worthy of further investigation. Like Doctor Who they had to get by on fairly small budgets and this might be one of the reasons why eventually they fell out of favour. By the mid eighties, glossy all-film productions of classic novels were the way forward and the humbler Classic Serial began to look second best by comparison. But many have stood the test of time well and still entertain today (such as the 1984 Invisible Man).

I’m also prepared to fight the corner of Moonbase 3, a series which I have a great deal of love for. It’s far from perfect (indeed Letts and Dicks’ series opener is especially stodgy) but it’s something I find myself drawn back to again and again. Although I’m not quite sure why ….

This evening I’ll be spinning Horror of Fang Rock in tribute. Not only is it a great story, it’s also a perfect example of Dicks’ no-nonsense style. Forced at the eleventh hour to cobble together a new story (after his previous submission was vetoed) Dicks didn’t panic – he simply rolled up his sleeves and got on with it.

Fang Rock is archetypical Doctor Who – take a group of bickering characters, trap them in an enclosed space with no hope of escape and then kill them off one by one.  It’s hard to go wrong with such a formula and Dicks didn’t disappoint.

He was inadvertently helped by Tom Baker who was in an even more stroppier mood than usual – but his disdain for the script, his co-star, Pebble Mill studios, director Paddy Russell and just about everybody and everything else actually seemed to work in Fang Rock‘s favour. Tom’s Doctor was never more alien and foreboding than he was in this story – and even if this was something to do with the fact that Tom was missing his regular Soho drinking haunts, no matter.

The Fang Rock DVD also boasts a lovely Terrance Dicks documentary and a lively commentary track where Dicks, Louise Jameson and John Abbott swop stories (often about Tom of course).

Judging by the way Terrance is trending on Twitter at the moment I’m sure I won’t be alone in paying tribute tonight. RIP sir and thank you.

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Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – The Basement (20th February 1967)

Law (Derek Godfrey) finds his cosy basement flat invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Whilst initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused when the pair begin to take ruthless charge of his surroundings ….

Although the third and final Pinter play from his Theatre 625 trilogy may initially seems to be on familiar ground (a mysterious individual indulging in oblique power games) The Basement quickly evolves into something much more interesting than might have been expected from the opening ten minutes.

Based on the first few scenes, the television viewer of 1967 would no doubt have expected a linear development of the opening theme. We have three central protagonists – the ebullient Law, the monosyllabic and slightly threatening Stott and the unfathomable Jane – and a well designed basement flat for them to co-exist in. With a running time of just under an hour, there seems ample scope for the three of them to clash.

And so they do, just not in the way that was probably expected. Whilst Tea Party featured some jarring cuts and fantasy sequences, these are much more pronounced in The Basement. Indeed, it’s possible to have some debate as to where reality ends and fantasy takes over (the final scene – delightfully circular in nature – floats the possibility that everything we’ve witnessed has been untrue).

The first jarring reality shift comes ten minutes in, as the action abruptly switches to a beach. Whilst Jane makes an elaborate sandcastle, the ever-voluble Law does his best to stake his claim as Stott’s true friend and soul-mate. Stott meanwhile, is somewhat distanced from this action. And then we quickly cut back to the flat – and in such a way which suggests that the whole beach scene was just Law’s fantasy.

Is it a good rule of thumb that any scene set outside the environs of the flat is fake? That could be so, but then some inside also have the same dreamlike quality. Time certainly seems to pass in a non-linear fashion (one minute there’s snow on the ground, the next moment it’s summer) whilst the décor of the flat also changes from scene to scene.

The final few scenes, although flat based, are clearly fantasy (Law and Stott, each stripped to the waist, attack each other with broken bottles) although whilst the men are scrapping, Jane is shown to be working in the kitchen, which appears to anchor her – if not them – in reality. This switch between the unreal and real is fascinating.

Although The Basement was staged several times (the London production of 1970 with Donald Pleasence as Law, Barry Foster as Stott and Stephanie Beacham as Jane sounds particularly intriguing) the strength of the piece is definitely its ability to rapidly change from one reality to another. Something that was simple to achieve on television (provided you had the time and the budget) but much more difficult to achieve on stage. I’d certainly be intrigued to see a staged production of the play, but I think it probably works best as a television entity.

Critical reception was mixed, but most writers had positive things to say, even if some had to confess that they didn’t understand it all. Kenneth Eastaugh, writing in the Daily Mirror, decided that it was “a unique master course for everybody who ever aspired to write” although this was qualified by some criticism of Pinter’s performance whilst he felt that Markham was merely “adequate” in her role.

J.D.S. Halworth in The Stage and Television Today also found some fault with Pinter’s Stott, although he/she was much more positive about Markham (both critics agreed that Derek Godfrey indulged in some skilful playing).

Max Wilkinson in the Coventry Herald declared that although “I am not certain what the play was about or what it was saying … I will confidently assert it was masterly”.

The Basement might be on familiar Pinter ground (unsettling and oblique) but it’s enlivened by some humorous moments. His final original work for television, it’s yet another which has aged rather well.

 

Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – A Night Out (13th February 1967)

Albert Stokes (Tony Selby), a shy young man, lives with his emotionally suffocating widowed mother (Anna Wing). His big night out – a works party – turns sour after he’s falsely accused of groping one of his female colleagues. After this bad start, his night just get worse and worse ….

A Night Out was Harold Pinter’s first substantial success. It debuted on the BBC Third Programme in March 1960 before transferring to television a month later as part of ABC’s Armchair Theatre strand. This version, starring Tom Bell, Madge Ryan and Pinter himself, can be seen on volume three of Network’s Armchair Theatre releases.

The opening scene establishes the strained relationship between Albert and Mrs Stokes. She reacts with surprise to the news that he’s planning on going out, despite the fact that he’s already told her several times. Her cheerful manner doesn’t waver – even when she’s bemoaning the fact that he’ll miss their regular Friday night game of Rummy – but it’s plain that in her non-confrontational way she’s keen to prevent his departure (not revealing the location of his precious tie, for example).

Anna Wing offers a well judged performance, pitched just right. When Mrs Stokes enquires whether her son isn’t “leading an unclean life, are you? … You’re not messing about with girls tonight, are you?” it lays bare her central concern (with her husband dead, Albert is all she has left and clearly can’t bear the thought of losing him). Is it just a coincidence that these themes would be deeply mined just a few years later by Galton and Simpson in Steptoe & Son? Even down to the name Albert?

Meanwhile, Tony Selby – as the softly-spoken, down-trodden Albert – is equally impressive. Although he’s treated with contempt by some of his colleagues – such as the arrogant Gidney (Patrick Cato) – Albert also has his supporters, notably Seeley (John Castle). Seeley and Kedge (Richard Moore) form an entertaining duo, enlivening the early part of the play with their inconsequential chatter. And once both reach the party they prove to be an instant hit with the ladies – indeed, they’re everything that the awkward Albert isn’t.

Albert’s humiliation at the party sends him back home, but as he finds no succour there he heads out again, only to be picked up by a prostitute (Avril Elgar). Her lengthy, rambling monologue is deliberately wearying (it’s Albert’s misfortune to have stumbled into the company of somebody who, in their own way, is as controlling as his mother). Given this, it’s plain that their encounter won’t end well.

Although Albert has found himself unable to express his true feelings to his mother (when he finally returns home again their uneasy status quo is maintained) he can at least vent his frustrations on the unfortunate chattering prostitute. If Selby has been cast in a submissive role for most of the play, then this climatic scene allows Albert’s tightly-wound persona free reign to explode. It’s nicely played by both Selby and Elgar.

A Night Out, given the fact it was the most straightforward of the Pinter Theatre 625 trilogy, attracted the most critical acclaim. But whilst it has the most linear and comprehensible storyline of the three, like the other two it’s replete with disturbing and memorable dialogue.

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.

Pinter at the BBC – Tea Party (25th March 1966)

 

Disson (Leo McKern) seems to have a perfect life. A self-made millionaire, he has a beautiful new wife, Diana (Jennifer Wright), has welcomed his brother-in-law, Willy (Charles Gray), into the business and has engaged a bright and efficient new secretary, Wendy (Vivien Merchant). And yet ….

Broadcast in March 1965, Tea Party was a prestigious commission for Pinter. Part of a Eurovision project, entitled The Largest Theatre In The World, it saw the play performed in thirteen separate counties over the course of a single week (with each county either tackling their own translated version or broadcasting a subtitled copy of the UK transmission).

Disson is a ruthlessly efficient man, beginning the play by proudly informing Wendy about the various products his company produces. That they’re all bathroom related strikes a humorous tone (reinforcing this point, on the way to his office she passes several prominent displays of toilets and baths). As you might expect, this light tone simply softens us up for the darkness to follow.

Disson might react in shock to the revelation that Wendy was forced to leave her last job because her previous employer wouldn’t stop touching her, but the way that director Charles Jarrett has already begun to focus on Wendy as a sexual object (foregrounding her legs whilst relegating Disson to the background) provides us with a clear pointer about one of the play’s key themes.

Considering the period (this was a time when television cameras were bulky and difficult to handle) Jarrett’s direction has a surprising fluidity. Interesting shot compositions abound – from this first scene (with POV shots from Wendy’s perspective) to later in the play (several sweeping tracking shots catch the eye).

Pinter remarked on the way that Disson was a marked man right from his first appearance. This is very much the case, which means it doesn’t take long before he starts to unravel before our eyes. And as the play progresses there’s a definite blurring of reality – some of what we see is the truth, whilst the remainder is no more than Disson’s fevered imaginings. How to differentiate between the two? As so often with Pinter the individual viewer is left to draw their own conclusions.

 

This means that we’re left with some intriguing mysteries. Diana and Willy have a very close bond – is this simply a natural connection between brother and sister, the hint of something incestuous or are we being invited to consider the possibility that Willy is no relation at all? Also, Disson’s two children, Tom and John (Peter and Robert Barlett) possess an uncomfortable stillness at times. Again, the reason for this is opaque – a sign of malevolence or are they simply ordinary children viewed through a confusing prism by the increasingly befuddled Disson?

Pinter seemed quite confident that the audience wouldn’t have any problems following the play. Talking to the Daily Mirror (who dubbed him one of Britain’s most controversial playwrights) on the day of transmisson, he stated it was simply a story about the relationship between a man and his new secretary, albeit one “with a strong sex theme”. The same article offered up a few more nuggets of interest, chiefly that it took Pinter a month to write and that it was extensively edited by Jarrett (understandable, given the scope of the production).

Performances, as you’d expect, are very strong. McKern – always a favourite actor of mine – doesn’t disappoint as Disson. His final collapse (by the end of the play he’s reduced to a catatonic state) is deeply disturbing, but then so are numerous smaller moments along the way which suggests a crisis is looming.

McKern’s scenes with Vivien Merchant crackle with an uneasy sexual tension. Given Merchant’s familiarity both with Pinter and his work (she was his first wife) it’s possibly not surprising that she seems so connected to the material. Although they didn’t divorce until the late seventies, their marriage (due to Pinter’s extra-marital affairs) had already begun to flounder by the time of Tea Party, which only serves to give her scenes a little extra frisson.

Jennifer Wright has the less rewarding female role, although it’s not totally without merit. Like all the people closest to Disson, it’s possible to take Diana’s actions at face value (she appears to be a totally supportive wife) or conversely to consider the possibility that some of Disson’s suspicions may be grounded in reality.

Charles Gray offers a typically rich performance as Willy. Gray’s penchant for playing sinister types ensures that he invests Willy with a pleasing duality. He’s perfectly charming on the surface, but there’s also the sense of hidden manipulative depths (although this could simply be a reading based on his wider career).

Disson has been complaining of eye trouble for some time. Wendy has attempted to ease his discomfort on several occasions by blindfolding him with a piece of chiffon. However it’s notable that he seems most emboldened to grope her when his eyes are covered. Are we to assume that Disson’s “illness” has been induced by his feelings for Wendy and that his jealousy of the close relationship shared by Diana and Willy is simply his way of covering his own conflicted feelings?

The final scene is an extraordinary one. Disson, now with his eyes firmly bandaged by Disley (a somewhat underused John Le Mesurier), has his clearest hallucinations yet. Ending the play in a vegative state, Disson’s unhappy journey therefore seems complete.

Contemporary critical reaction was generally very positive. Clifford Davis, writing in the Daily Mirror on the 26th of March, said that the story was “skilfully told, in a succession of short, penetrating scenes” and “provided a masterly study of one man’s obsession and final disintegration” concluding that “it was a play which was just right for its players and just right for television too”.

But if Davis found everything was explained to his satisfaction, then W.D.A. from the Liverpool Echo began his review by stating that since Pinter “conventialy declines to explain his plays, it is up to the poor critics to do the interpreting”.

The Stage declared that Tea Party was a work which enables you to “go on thinking and surmising, discovering further depths and weights of thought”. That’s certainly true. More than fifty years after its original broadcast, the play has lost none of its power to intrigue and discomfort.

Pinter at the BBC – BFI DVD Review

This is an incredibly welcome release, as it brings together a very healthy chunk of Harold Pinter’s BBC output (none of which has been commercially available before). Indeed, Pinter’s television work on DVD has, until now, been rather sparse (a few isolated offerings from Network – the Armchair Theatre production of A Night Out and the Laurence Olivier Presents staging of The Collection – have been the highlights so far).

Disc One

Leo McKern in Tea Party

Tea Party (25th May 1966). 76 minutes

Tea Party was commissioned for a prestigious Eurovision project, entitled The Largest Theatre In The World, which saw the play performed in thirteen separate counties over the course of a single week (some took a subtitled version of the BBC original whilst others staged their own adaptation).

It’s a layered and uncompromising piece, with Leo McKern mesmerising as a self-made businessman who begins to lose his sense of reason (and also his sight). Has he been destabilised by inviting his brother-in-law Willy (Charles Gray) into his business or has his infatuation with his new secretary, Wendy (Vivien Merchant), pushed him over the edge? Do his two young sons from his first marriage really harbour evil intentions towards him or does his new wife, Diana (Jennifer Wright), possesses secrets of her own?

So there are plenty of questions, but as so often with Pinter the answers are less forthcoming. The final scene is extraordinary. Disson (McKern) – his eyes firmly bandaged – sits immobile in the middle of a party held in his honour. Although Disson plainly can’t see, we’re privy to his thoughts (he imagines a three way intimate exchange between his wife, brother-in-law and secretary) as he slowly regresses into a catatonic state.

All of the principals offer polished performances, with Merchant – Pinter’s first wife – especially eye-catching. Given the subject matter and the already rocky relationship she was enjoying with Pinter, it’s fascinating to ponder just what she made of the material. Tea Party is fluidly directed by Charles Jarrott and given that the cameras of this era were bulky and not terribly manoeuvrable, some of his shot choices are quite notable.

It’s a shame that the telerecording isn’t of the highest quality (a new 2K transfer was struck for this release, but given the issues with the original recording the benefit of this was probably minimal). A pity, but at least the worst of the print damage occurs early on.

The Basement (20th February 1967). 54 minutes

Harold Pinter contributed three plays to the Theatre 625 strand in 1967. For some reason the third of these plays appears on the first disc whilst the first two are featured on the second. That’s slightly odd, but since all three aren’t linked in any way it doesn’t matter which order they’re watched in.

We’re in absolutely classic Pinter territory here as Law (Derek Godfrey) discovers his cosy basement flat has been invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused – at first – about Jane ….

The arrival of an outsider into a settled domestic setting is a dramatic device that Pinter would use time and again, but The Basement – the only one of his three Theatre 625 plays to be an original work – is notable since it plays with the artifice and techniques of television.

Even more so than Tea Party, the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred as the play continues. Some scenes (such as when Law and Stott, both stripped to the waist, fight each other with broken bottles) seem obviously fantastical, but what of the others? Time certainly seems to move in a disjointed fashion (one moment it’s winter, the next summer) whilst the final scene posits the possibility that everything we’ve seen has been a fantasy.

Pinter is menacing and monosyllabic as Stott but not as monosyllabic as Markham’s Jane, who is passive throughout whilst Godfrey has most of the dialogue and seems to be the most decipherable character of the three. A tight three-hander, The Basement has aged well.

Special Feature

Writers in Conversation – Harold Pinter. A 1984 interview with Pinter, running for 47 minutes.

Disc Two

Hazel Hughes and Maurice Denham in A Slight Ache

A Slight Ache (6th February 1967). 58 minutes

Another three-handed play which also pivots on the arrival of an disruptive outsider, A Slight Ache boasts remarkable turns from both Maurice Denham and Hazel Hughes. Husband and wife – Edward and Flora – they seem reasonably content in their country cottage, but when they invite a nameless and mute matchseller (Gordon Richardson) into their home everything changes.

Denham’s fussy, pernickety Edward is slowly destroyed by the matchseller’s ominous silence whilst Flora finds that her long-dormant sexuality has been reignited by his presence. Some contemporary reviewers found this a little hard to swallow, but realism isn’t the chief component of this play. The matchseller simply serves as a catalyst for Edward and Flora to indulge in several powerful monologues.

Despite its radio origins, A Slight Ache has a much more of a theatrical feel than The Basement. Barry Newbery’s sets (especially the lush garden) are a highlight of the production.

A Night Out (13th February 1967). 60 minutes

It’s interesting to be able to compare and contrast this production of A Night Out to the 1960 Armchair Theatre presentation. Honours are pretty much even, with Tony Selby here proving to be equally effective as the repressed mummy’s boy as Tom Bell was back in 1960.

Anna Wing, as the mother in question, makes for an imposing harridan – although wisely she doesn’t overplay her domineering nature. Albert (Selby) is all she has left, but she ensures that her psychological games comprise honeyed words and pitiful entreaties rather than abuse.

Albert’s humiliation at an office party eventually leads him to a prostitute (Avril Elgar). That she, in her own way, is just as controlling as his own mother unleashes his ugly side. All the pent-up emotions he can’t express at home are unloaded on this poor unfortunate.

Well-cast throughout (John Castle and Peter Pratt catch the eye) A Night Out is the most straightforward of the three Pinter Theatre 625 productions, but is no less fascinating.

Disc Three  

Henry Woolf in Monologue

Monologue (13th April 1973). 20 minutes

We’re now in colour for the fifth play in the Pinter set. At just twenty minutes it’s one of the shortest and only features a single actor – Henry Woolf, but it still packs plenty of content into its brief running time though.  An unnamed man (Woolf) addresses an empty chair, which is standing in for his absent friend.  Or does he believe that his friend is actually sitting there? Or is his friend simply a figment of his imagination?

As so often, several readings can be made, each one equally valid.  The story which unfolds – male friendship disrupted by the arrival of a female – echoes back to the likes of The Basement and is skilfully delivered by Woolf.  One of Pinter’s oldest friends (the pair enjoyed a relationship for more than fifty years) Woolf doesn’t really put a foot wrong (he later reprised this piece at the National in 2002).

This might be a Pinter in miniature, but is certainly deserving of attention.  Something of a neglected piece (there’s no listing on IMDB for example) hopefully this DVD release will shine a little more light on it.

Old Times (22nd October 1975). 75 minutes

Old Times has a very theatrical feel.  This form of television staging would eventually fall out of fashion – for some it was simply electronic theatre (a bad thing apparently).  But it’s always been a style that I’ve enjoyed – when there’s no location filming or clever camera angles, the piece has to stand or fall on the quality of the writing and acting.  

It’s another triangle story – married couple Deeley (Barry Foster) and Kate (Anna Cropper) find their status quo disturbed by the arrival of Kate’s old schoolfriend Anna (Mary Miller).  With Kate remaining passive for most of the play she becomes an object that both Deeley and Anna seek to claim as their own.

Several theories have been propounded to explain the meaning of the play. When Anthony Hopkins tackled the role of Deeley in 1984 he asked Pinter for some pointers. The playwright’s advice? “I don’t know, just do it”.  

Anna’s presence at the start of the play (standing at the back of the living room in darkness and immobile) is a early indictor that the production isn’t striving for realism.  She shouldn’t be there – the dialogue between Deeley and Kate makes it clear she’s yet to arrive – so her presence ensures that a tone of oddness and disconnection is set.  Foster and Cropper duel very effectively (a lengthy scene where Deeley and Anna discuss the best ways to dry a dripping wet Kate is just one highlight).

Puzzling in places (has everything we’ve witnessed simply been Deeley’s imaginings?) Old Times is nevertheless so densely scripted as to make it a rewarding one to rewatch.

Landscape (4th February 1983). 45 minutes

Landscape is a two-hander shared between husband and wife Duff (Colin Blakely) and Beth (Dorothy Tutin).  Both indulge in separate monologues which never connect to the other person’s conversation.  Beth in fact never acknowledges Duff’s presence, although he does appear to know that she’s there (or at least that someone is).

The Lord Chamberlain’s office, back in 1967, found itself unimpressed with Landscape. “The nearer to Beckett, the more portentous Pinter gets. This is a long one-act play without any plot or development … a lot of useless information about the treatment of beer … And of course, there have to be the ornamental indecencies”.

A little harsh maybe. Landscape is plotless but leaves a lingering impression. The music, composed by Carl Davis and played by John Williams, helps with this.

Special Feature

Pinter’s People – four animated short films (each around five minutes) from 1969.  A pity that a fifth – Last To Go – couldn’t be included for rights reasons, but the ones we do have are interesting little curios (Richard Briers, Kathleen Harrison, Vivien Merchant and Dandy Nichols provide the voices, so there’s no shortage of talent there).

Disc Four

Derek Newark in The Hothouse

The Hothouse (27th March 1982). 112 minutes.

Watching these plays in sequence, what’s especially striking about The Hothouse is just how funny it is.  There have been moments of levity in some of the previous plays, but the farcical tone seen here is something quite different.  Originally written in the late fifties and then shelved for twenty years, The Hothouse is set in a government rest home which, it’s strongly implied, uses any methods necessary to “cure” its unfortunate patients (who we can take to be political dissidents).

Although a dark undertone is always present (indeed, the play concludes with the offscreen deaths of all but one of the senior staff) there’s also a playful use of dialogue and even the odd slapstick moment.  Derek Newark as Roote, the hopelessly out of his depth manager, steamrollers his way through scene after scene quite wonderfully.

A man constantly losing a running battle to keep his anger in check, Roote seems incapable of understanding even the simplest of things. Although he may not be quite as dense as he appears (his culpability in the death of one patient and the pregnancy of another is certainly open to interpretation).

With a strong supporting cast, The Hothouse was certainly the most surprising of the main features.

Mountain Language (11th December 1988). 21 minutes.

A one-act play which was first performed at the National Theatre in late 1988, it swiftly transferred to television just a few months later with Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson reprising their stage roles. One of Pinter’s more political pieces, Gambon and Richardson (along with Julian Wadham and Eileen Atkins) all offer nuanced performances.

Gambdon and Wadham are soldiers, facing down a group of prisoners who include Richardson and Atkins. Language, so often key in Pinter’s works, is once again pushed to the forefront.

“Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists. Any questions?”

Mountain Language is another prime example of the way Pinter could make an impact in a very short space of time.

Disc Five

Colin Blakely, Kenneth Cranham and Harold Pinter in The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party (21st June 1987). 107 minutes.

Written in 1957, when Pinter was touring in a production of Doctor In The House, The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full length play.  Revived thirty years later for this Theatre Night production, it’s plain that time hadn’t diminished its impact.

Kenneth Cranham is mesmerising as Stanley, a man haunted by vague ghosts from his past.  Treated with stifling maternal love by his landlady Meg (Joan Plowright), the arrival of two mysterious strangers – Goldberg (Pinter) and McCann (Colin Blakely) – marks the beginning of a nightmarish twenty four hours.  Also featuring Julie Walters and Robert Lang, The Birthday Party baffled many critics back in the late fifties – the reason why Goldberg and McCann have decided to target Stanley and the others is just one puzzle – but in retrospect it’s fascinating to see how key Pinter themes, such as the reliability of memory, were already firmly in place.

Special Features

Face To Face: Harold Pinter. Sir Jeremy Isaacs is the out of vision interviewer since – as per the style of all the programmes in this series – the camera remains firmly fixed on Pinter throughout.  Some decent ground is covered across the forty minutes of this 1997 interview.

Harold Pinter: Guardian Interview. Audio only, 73 minutes. This is selectable as an additional audio track on The Birthday Party, even though it doesn’t directly refer to that play (or run for its whole length). 

It might only be January, but this looks set to be one of the archive television releases of the year. Highly recommended.

Pinter at the BBC is released by the BFI on the 28th of January 2019.  

Harold Pinter, 1997

Adam Adamant Lives! – The Sweet Smell of Disaster

Benjamin Kinthly (Charles Tingwell) has a dream. He plans to take over the country with the help of some addictively perfumed plastic flowers (which are given away free with his washing powder Cloud 7). Only one man – and his sometimes annoying female sidekick – stands in his way ….

This is rather more like it. Robert Banks Stewart’s script is ploughing a very definite Avengers furrow, but that’s a plus for me rather than a minus. And given that plastic flowers are key to the story (although these are beguiling rather than killers) I wonder if Robert Holmes happened to tune in? Holmes’ later Doctor Who story Terror of the Autons also had a key role for plastic flowers.

For once, Adam has to face a male protagonist, although a wily female – Shani Matherson (Adrienne Corri) – operates as his sidekick. Once again, it’s best not to study the plot in too much detail – Kinthly is convinced that his scented flowers have now contaminated the whole country. So when he suddenly withholds supply, the nation (by now nothing more than hopeless addicts) will agree to his every demand. Everybody in the country? That’s a bit difficult to swallow.

The Sweet Smell of Disaster works on one level as a sly satire of the advertising world. Kinthly’s buzztalk and the advert we see at the end (which Adam and Georgina watch on a television screen) are good examples of this. Mind you, given how addictive the flowers are, I’m not quite sure why Kinthly’s wasting his time with such an extensive advertising campaign.

The series’ low budget means that we’re denied the vision of the whole country in turmoil, so we have to rely on the sight of Georgina and Simms – both, unlike Adam, affected – to sell the notion that the flowers really are addictive. Of course once Georgina is cured then she can assist Adam (something which the long-suffering Adamant is less than delighted about). However, since this allows her to dress up as a flower girl in a rather brief costume I was quite content. Adam himself seems to be a quick learner about the ways of the 1960’s as her attire seems to pass him by. A couple of episodes ago he probably would have been horrified.

When the episode moves onto film it’s possible to guess that a set-piece scene is coming. Given all the detergent lying around, Adam’s decision to mix it with water and then stage a foamy fight with Kinthly was an inspired one. The foamy catfight between Georgina and Shani was quite eye-opening too ….

An assured effort, the series now seems to be finding its feet.

Adam Adamant Lives! – More Deadly Than The Sword

Adam (with Georgina tagging along of course) heads off to Tokyo to deal with an evil blackmailer who spells trouble for the British government ….

Oh dear. After two pretty entertaining episodes we hit something of a speed bump with the third. Terence Frisby’s other writing credits include a couple of (wiped) episodes of Public Eye but he’s easily best known for penning the play There’s A Girl In My Soup. His sole contribution to AAL! is a curious thing, although the major problem is one key casting decision.

Things start sprightly enough. Sir Ernest Hampton (Maurice Hedley) is an important government official who’s been unwise to find himself ensnared in a honey trap. But rather than do the decent thing and resign, he wants Adam to find the blackmailer and kill him! Another series might have made more of the notion of a Government sponsored killer, but the breezy comic-strip nature of AAL! means that it’s not something that’s dwelt on for more than a moment.

It seems odd for the blackmailer to be out in Tokyo and unlike Blackpool last time, we’re denied any scene-setting. I wouldn’t have expected the production team to jump on a plane to the East, but at least a few stock shots might have sold the illusion. As it is, we simply travel from one studio set to the next (most of the action taking place in a Geisha house) which just as easily could have been anywhere in the world.

Some comedy is extracted from Adam’s horror at being asked to consort with Geisha girls, although he quickly adjusts. He’s a fast learner that boy. There’s no room for Simms in this adventure (although possibly it was written before Death Has A Thousand Faces). There should really be no place for Georgina either, but she rather improbably manages to shoe-horn herself in. The moment when – dressed as a Geisha – she confronts Adam is rather nicely played though.

Given the dearth of ethnic actors in the UK during the sixties and seventies it was common to see British actors playing a variety of nationalities (blacking up as and when required). On the plus side, More Deadly Than The Sword does boast many ethnic supporting actors, it’s just a great pity that the major role of Madame Nagata was played by the very English Mary Webster.

Her cod Japanese accent becomes wearisome very quickly and it’s this one performance which really torpedoes the episode, although Barry Linehan as McLennon doesn’t help either. He was a familiar television face, but I have to confess that his performances often seemed a little off-key. Margaret Nolan (as Sadie) provides one bright spot. Probably best known for playing Dink in Goldfinger, she doesn’t have to do anything except play a dumb blonde, but she livens up proceedings for a few minutes.

Easily the least engaging of the surviving episodes, let’s hope that the next is somewhat better.

Adam Adamant Lives! – Death Has A Thousand Faces

Adam and Georgina head off to Blackpool in order to foil a deadly scheme to blow up the Golden Mile ….

After the lovely picture quality of the first episode, the murky gloom of Death Has A Thousand Faces comes as an unpleasant surprise. Unlike A Vintage Year For Scoundrels, it doesn’t appear that the film inserts for this one still exist – a shame, as it would have been nice to see the Blackpool travelogue scenes in better clarity.

They’re still good fun though – the incongruous sight of Adam and Georgina strolling down the Golden Mile doesn’t advance the plot at all, but it generates a spot of local colour and gives us a breather before the main plot kicks in. As for the story, it’s probably best not to ask why a vital clue was contained within the middle of a stick of Blackpool rock which was then taken to London. This seems a very strange way of going about things.

Once Adam has dispatched the two Hells Angels (one played by the distinctly unthreatening Geoffrey Hinsliff) who were pursuing Georgina (who just happened to have come into contact with the mysterious rock) the pair head off to Blackpool. It might be a big place, but it isn’t long before they stumble across the villains – Madame Delvario (Stephanie Bidmead) and her henchmen Jeffreys (Michael Robbins) and Danny (Patrick O’Connell).

As with the previous story, we see how a female villain causes problems for Adam (his Edwardian mindset makes it difficult for him to process the concept that a lady could be evil). This would be a theme that would run and run throughout the series. Bidmead (who had played the villainous Maaga in Lambert’s last Doctor Who story as producer – Galaxy Four) offers a subtler performance than the scenery-chewing of Freda Jackson and she’s given strong support from both Robbins and O’Connell.

Apart from those already mentioned, another familiar face – Sheila Fearn – appears as Susie, an apparently sympathetic character, but another who turns out to be on the side of the ungodly. Poor Adam, if this goes on he’s going to develop a complex about the female of the species.

The most important new arrival is, of course, Jack May as William E. Simms. Simms is currently plying his trade as a Punch and Judy performer but by the end of the episode he will have wangled himself a new position as Adam’s valet. May’s performance across the series is idiosyncratic – sometimes cultured, sometimes crude – but never, ever dull.

There’s another round of fisticuffs (plus Georgina nearly gets stretched on the rack) before order is restored. Madame Delvario’s plan – blowing up the Golden Mile with black lightbulbs filled with explosives in order that a rival area can take over – is one that you’re not likely to see anywhere else.

A step up from the debut episode, although the series is still on somewhat shaky ground. Alas, the next episode doesn’t mark an upswing in quality ….

Adam Adamant Lives! – A Vintage Year For Scoundrels

Having worked on Doctor Who, Verity Lambert was already well versed in the difficulties of bringing a television concept to the screen. Like Who, Adam Adamant Lives! had a “pilot” episode which was reshot, but in the case of AAL!, the changes were rather more dramatic ….

Donald Cotton’s original script was deemed to be unworkable, so the majority of his work was binned (only the opening ten minutes – set in 1902 – were retained). Also deemed surplus to requirements was the original Georgina (Ann Holloway). With only a handful of production photographs existing to document her brief association with the show, it’s impossible to know for sure why she didn’t work out. Lambert’s assertion that Holloway simply wasn’t sixties enough has always seemed a little odd to me.

But with a new script and a fresh Georgina (Juliet Harmer) the series could try again. Cotton’s surviving material (all shot on film) is rather entertaining – it firmly establishes the 1902 Adam, a man who tends to throw his assailants off high balconies at Windsor Castle and then ask questions later. But his sense of honour is obvious – an adversary can be respected if they play the game, but a traitor is beyond the pale.

So when his one true love – Louise (Veronica Strong) – turns out to be in cahoots with the evil Face (Peter Ducrow) poor Adam is rather distraught. Never raising his voice above a whisper (as well as being shot out of focus) the Face makes the most of his limited screentime. His masterplan (encasing Adam in a solid block of ice, thereby ensuring he exists forever in a living hell) does beg a few questions mind you, such as how the ice never melts.

This question was still bothering me some sixty years later when a group of workmen uncovered Adam – still perfectly frozen. Oh well, you have to accept that plot vagaries are part and parcel of AAL! Now we’re in 1966, there’s one more notable film sequence – this occurs  as Adam wanders dazedly around the West End of London, encountering Georgina for the first time – before the series largely switches over to videotape.

Contemporary reviews noted that Adam’s disorientated stumbling went on a bit (which it does) but it’s still an interesting spot of guerrilla filming. Lambert and Gerald Harper had different recollections about it – Lambert was sure that they had permission before shooting, whilst Harper remembered dashing from one location to the next in order to keep out of the clutches of the police. Certainly most of the passers-by seem to be simply ordinary members of the public, unaware they’ve briefly become television stars, rather than extras.

The comic possibilities between the upright Adam and the groovy Georgina are successfully mined. Adam’s shock at being left with an unattended Georgina in her flat (not to mention his amazement that she wasn’t – as he first thought – a boy) are entertaining. Although the entertainment ratchets down a notch when the main plot comes into play.

If the story of the villainous Margo Kane (Freda Kane) and her dopey henchman was really a step up from the storyline in the pilot then goodness knows how feeble that must have been. The shock of switching from film to videotape is most obvious during the fight sequence in Georgina’s flat. Even though the VT sequences were transferred later to film to allow for tighter editing, there’s only so much than could be done – so they end up looking a little rough round the edges.

But overall it’s not a bad debut and given the production difficulties it’s possibly surprising that it turned out as well as it did.

Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror. Episode One – A Land of Fear

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The Doctor’s in a right old strop at the start of this episode (his bad mood carries over from the previous cliffhanger).  This feels a touch artificial and seems to have been done for two reasons – not only does it create a good hook into A Land of Fear (otherwise the last episode might have ended with the Doctor saying “oh look, a forest”) it also gives the regulars, especially Hartnell, some nice character moments in the opening few minutes of the story.

William Russell has spoken in the past about how the arrival of Dennis Spooner was greeted with enthusiasm by the main cast.  Spooner had a good ear for naturalistic dialogue and also liked to pepper his stories with humour.  And following the earnest and rather stilted dialogue which sometimes cropped up in The SensoritesThe Reign of Terror does come as a breath of fresh air.  However, it’s notable that Spooner’s scripts do feature various Americanisms, which feel strange coming from the mouths of the TARDIS crew, simply because they’ve never spoken like this before (Hartnell, for example, says “you don’t say” later this episode.  This feels jarring after watching the series in order).

The Doctor is convinced that he’s landed Ian and Barbara back in England 1963 and is keen drop them off and move on.  Not surprisingly, Ian and Barbara aren’t prepared just to take the Doctor’s word for it.  This infuriates the Doctor.  “I’m rather tired of your insinuations that I am not master of this craft. Oh, I admit, it did develop a fault, a minor fault on one occasion, perhaps twice, but nothing I couldn’t control.”

This is lovely stuff and Hartnell plays it to the hilt.  As we’ll see time and time again over the years, the joke’s on the Doctor since his confidence does turn out to be entirely misplaced.  They’re in France, not England, and a couple of hundred years back in time.  The TARDIS has set them down during the French Revolution (“the reign of terror”) which according to Susan is the Doctor’s favourite period in Earth history.  I wonder why. Does he enjoy the sight of all those French aristocrats being sent to the guillotine?  The Doctor never explains why he enjoys this time so much, so we’re left guessing.

The TARDIS crew meet Rouvray (Laidlaw Dalling) and D’Argenson (Neville Smith) at an abandoned farmhouse.  Both Frenchmen are on the run from the authorities and it seems  probable that they’ll be significant figures in the story.  Whilst D’Argenson is nervous and apprehensive, Rouvray is calm and still in total command.  He may be a hunted man but possesses an unbelieving belief in his own authority.  He bluntly tells Ian and Barbara that “in France now there are only two sides. You’re either with us or against us. Our sympathies are obvious. We want to know yours.”

The arrival of a group of soldiers immediately darkens the tone.  They’re depicted as a barely controllable rabble, with the common soldiers openly contemptuous of the Sergeant’s authority. The Sergeant (Robert Hunter) cleverly doesn’t attempt to browbeat his men into obeying his orders, instead he suggests that if they watch the back of the house they might have a chance to kill some royalists.  This meets with their approval and they move into position.

Whilst Robespierre might later claim this is a glorious and just revolution, the behavour of the soldiers is clearly designed to indicate otherwise.   And when Rouvray and D’Argenson are both brutally murdered it helps to reinforce the concept that life is now very cheap.  Since both characters seemed to have been set up to play a major part in the narrative, their sudden deaths are quite shocking.  It also serves as an early demonstration that the Doctor and his friends could also face death at any time.

Rouvray’s death is a noteworthy moment. He disarms one of the soldiers just by asking for his rifle and then comments that “you can give them uniforms, Lieutenant, but they remain peasants underneath.”  This is another example of Rouvray’s unshakable belief in his own authority, but it’s also a demonstration of the ruling elite’s unspoken arrogance.  Did this exchange led directly to his death?  It seems more than likely.

With the Doctor unconscious in the upstairs part of the house, the soldiers decide to take Ian, Barbara and Susan to Paris. Their motivation is not out of a sense of duty though – they believe there might be a reward and are keen to collect.  They torch the house before they depart, which means we conclude with a strong cliffhanger – the Doctor awakes to find himself trapped in a raging inferno ….

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Z Cars – Appearance in Court. 10th July 1962

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Given the episode title, the opening few minutes (which finds PC Lynch in court as a chief prosecution witness) appears to be something of an exercise in misdirection. Lynch (James Ellis) has been called upon to give evidence against a man accused of stealing a bottle of milk – not exactly the crime of the century (nor one that you would assume would be sufficient to maintain fifty minutes of drama).

But in one way it does turn out to have a later significance. The case is quickly proved, with the magistrate (played by John Gabriel) commenting that although Lynch was accused of planting this bottle of milk, he can find no reason why he would have done so. A modern audience might possibly look slightly askance at this seemingly automatic assumption that the police would be incapable of speaking nothing but the whole truth, but they’d be well advised to watch the remainder of John Hopkins’ script before jumping to any conclusions.

The bulk of the story revolves around a series of fairly petty thefts of foodstuffs organised by Trevor Kiernan (Richard Leech). Kiernan runs a small supermarket, frequented by the likes of Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed), and has taken to pilfering from his competitors in order to increase his profit margins.

But the dogged Detective Inspector Dunn (Dudley Foster) is on his case. Foster didn’t appear in that many episodes of Z Cars, which is a slight shame as Dunn’s incredibly phlegmatic and passionless officer is quite compelling. It’s plain though that he’s never going to be the sort of person to make many friends (at one point he tells a weary Lynch to grab some sleep before returning to duty but – as Lynch says – always manages to make a friendly remark sound like an insult).

Fancy and Jock Weir (Joe Brady) seem to have created a watertight case against Kiernan (thanks to a marked box) but this all comes to naught after they’re both destroyed in the witness box by Kiernan’s smooth-talking barrister, Garston (Jerome Willis).

This last ten minutes or so is easily the most compelling section of the episode. Willis’ character is able to effortlessly run rings around both Fancy and Jock, casting just enough doubt on their evidence without ever stepping over the boundary to accuse them of outright corruption. Thanks to this, he’s able to secure an acquittal for his client. Therefore the same magistrate who earlier found in favour of the police – Lynch – now finds against them.

Dunn’s reaction to the hapless Fancy and Jock afterwards is interesting. You might have expected him to be more than a little ticked off, but instead he’s fairly sanguine about the whole affair. No, they didn’t gain a conviction, but he’s convinced that Kiernan would have found the whole trial and subsequent publicity to be so off-putting that from now on he’ll stick to the straight and narrow. Other, later, police shows might regard the conviction as the be all and end all – but for this era of Z Cars that’s not the case.

Brief appearances by Barlow and Watt help to enhance a fairly routine instalment, although Jerome Willis’ appearance (and the always solid performances from the regulars) helps to keep the interest ticking along.

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Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of his mother in childbirth, the young Oliver Twist (Bruce Prochnik) is placed in the indifferent care of the state.  His childhood is a miserable one and eventually he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he encounters the devious Fagin (Max Adrian) who has no compunction in manipulating the trusting and naïve Oliver to serve his own ends ….

Published between February 1837 and April 1839, Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel and remains one of his evergreen tales, evidenced by the numerous film, television and stage adaptations it has inspired.  David Lean’s 1948 film and the stage/film musical by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) are possibly the most memorable, although there have also been multiple television adaptations as well.

This one, broadcast between January and April 1962, was the first BBC version and as might be expected remained very faithful to the original novel.  Constance Cox had already adapted Bleak House and would go on to tackle several other classic Dickens novels during the 1960’s (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewitt, A Tale of Two Cities) although sadly out of those three only a few episodes from A Tale of Two Cities currently exist.

Bruce Prochnik, playing the eponymous Olivier, had a pretty short television career (1961 – 1965) with Olivier Twist by far his most substantial role (he had a handful of later credits in series such as Taxi! and Emergency Ward-10).  It’s interesting to note that post-Olivier he popped up a couple of times on Juke Box Jury.  Clearly this serial had been successful enough to turn him into a household name for a short time.

An early signature moment occurs when Olivier, by this point a starving inmate of the workhouse, timorously asks for another bowl of gruel. There’s a grimy hopelessness about these early episodes. Workhouse life is shown to be hard and unrelenting (with a piece of bread, once a week on Sundays, about the only thing the boys have to look forward to).

Bruce Prochnik

Mr Bumble (Willoughby Goddard), the Parish Beadle, is shocked by Oliver’s behaviour. It’s hard to imagine anybody could have been better cast as Bumble than the corpulant Goddard, who’s always a pleasure to watch.

Olivier’s insurrectionist behaviour makes him an embarrasment to the workhouse board, so they decide to remove the problem. He’s apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry (Donald Eccles), although it’s debatable whether he’s better off here than he was in the workhouse. Mrs Sowerberry (Barbara Hicks) certainly has little time for the boy (Oliver’s first meal are the cold scraps which had been left out for the dog). Hicks, who had gone way over the top in Barnaby Rudge, is thankfully more restrained in her brief appearance here.

Once this section of the story is completed, the action moves to London where the innocent Olivier falls in with the worst crowd impossible.  Two very familiar actors (Melvyn Hayes and Alan Rothwell) appear as the Artful Dodger and his wise-cracking sidekick Charley Bates. Both Hayes and Rothwell make for appealing rogues, although their roles in the story are fairly slight.

It’s the grotesque Fagin (Max Adrian) and the intimidating Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughan) who will come to dominate the narrative.  Adrian was a noted classical stage actor who also managed to carve out an impressive film and television career. Across the decades Peter Vaughan would rack up some memorable appearances in Charles Dickens serials and his portrayal of Bill Sikes is a typically impressive one – from the moment we first meet him there’s an air of menace and simmering violence in the air.

The corruption of the green Oliver (Prochnik continues to radiate a sense of wide-eyed innocence) by Fagin, Dodger and Charley is another horrifying and distubing scene. Far removed from the chirpy cockney sing-alongs of Oliver!, this adaptation accurately reflects the bleakness of Dickens’ original novel.

Max Adrian & Bruce Prochnik

As the serial progreases, the plot-threads deepen. Why does a gentleman like Monks (John Carson) consort with the likes of Fagin and why is Monks so insistent that Fagin keeps a tight grip on Oliver? Carson, later to take the lead in Dombey & Son, was one of those actors who enhanced any production he appeared in (his tortured, conflicted Monks is no exception to this rule).

Everybody we’ve met so far has either mistreated Oliver or desired to use him for their own ends, so it’s therefore jolting when he finally runs into somebody who treats him with kindness. Mr Brownlow (George Curzon) initially accused the blameless Oliver of picking his pocket (Dodger and Charley were responsible). The contrite Brownlow takes him home and nurses the emaciated boy back to health.

Now that Oliver has a benevolent benefactor, his luck finally seems to have changed. But Fagin and Sikes, convinced that Oliver intends to inform on them, are determined to snatch him back ….

Bill Sikes’ relationship with the prostitute Nancy (Carmel McSharry) runs through the middle part of the serial with Nancy’s most famous scene – her murder at the hands of a vicious Sikes – proving to be a shocking moment. Although it’s not graphically violent, Vaughan and McSharry manage to give the scene considerable resonance by their performances alone.  Sikes’ clubbing to death of the unfortunate Nancy was deemed to be so disturbing that it was later edited down before the serial was offered for sale (the prints we have here were recovered from overseas, hence the reason why they’re slightly edited at this point).

Poor Olivier is again ensnared in Fagin’s web of crime although it’s not too long before he finds himself free once more.  It slightly stretches credibility that Olivier would stumble across another well-to-do family who elect to take him in, although this sort of plotting (and remarkable coincidences regarding Olivier’s parentage) are par for the course with early Dickens.

The production – as with the other Dickens serials recently released by Simply – is very studio-based. Photographic blow-ups of buildings are used to give a sense of depth (these work pretty well, although there’s no doubt that on the lower-definition television sets of the 1960’s the illusion would have been even more convincing). Sound-effects are utilized to generate a sense of hustle and bustle whilst Ron Grainer’s incidental music is used sparingly at key moments.

If Bruce Prochnik begins to irritate after a while (his Olivier is rather squeaky and a little too clean-cut) then there’s substantial acting compensations to be found elsewhere. Apart from those already mentioned, Peggy Thorpe-Bates and the always entertaining William Mervyn help to enliven proceedings.

The telerecordings were restored by Peter Crocker at SVS (Crocker, well known in archive television circles for his work on the Doctor Who DVDs, is the very definition of a safe pair of hands). VidFIRE seemed to be out of the question (presumably because the telerecordings weren’t of a sufficent standard) but the restoration helps to make the serial a more pleasant viewing experience than it would have been before.

Whilst there’s numerous adaptations of Olivier Twist to choose from, this one – thanks to the fidelity it displays to Dickens’ original novel and the performances (especially Peter Vaughan’s rampaging Bill Sikes) – is certainly worth checking out.  Recommended.

Olivier Twist is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Melvyn Hayes, Carmel McSharry & Peter Vaughan

Barnaby Rudge (BBC, 1960) – Simply Media DVD Review

Barnaby Rudge was the first of Charles Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being The Tale of Two Cities).  Set during the late eighteenth century, it climaxed at the Gordon Riots of 1780.  Largely forgotten today, the Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest which quickly spiralled out of control.  A group of between 40,000 and 60,000 protestors nursing various grievances – including the increasing Catholic influence sweeping the country, high taxes, overcrowded cities and repressive laws – ran amok on the streets of London.  The riots raged on for several days until the army were eventually able to brutally restore order.  But by this point some 285 people had been shot dead with several hundred more wounded.

If the Gordon Riots are forgotten today, then a similar fate has befallen Barnaby Rudge.  Easily Dickens’ most obscure novel, this is evidenced by the fact that this 1960 serial remains the only television adaptation.   Published between February and November 1841, it came quite early in his career – which explains why it feels a little episodic and unfocused at times.

Barnaby Rudge himself (played by John Wood) is a simple-minded chap, buffeted along by events rather than directly influencing them.  It’s a difficult part to play – there’s no malice in Barnaby – but Wood is generally pretty effective as the easily-manipulated innocent. But whilst he may be the title character he’s not the central one – Barnaby drifts in and out of the narrative, appearing and disappearing as required.

John Wood & Isabel Dean

Episode one opens with a stranger (played by Nigel Arkwright) asking the local innkeeper about the nearby grand house owned by Geoffrey Haredale (Peter Williams). It’s a dark and stormy night outside – achieved via sound effects and camera trickery (simple but effective).

Arthur Brough, later best known as Mr Grainger in Are You Being Served?, here plays John Willet, the innkeeper. Puffing on a long pipe he helps to tease out a strange story which much will later become significant. The mysterious murders twenty two years ago of Geoffrey’s brother, Reuben, and Reuben’s loyal servant Rudge (Barnaby’s father) are mysteries which are still debated by the locals to this day.

Arkwright doesn’t offer a subtle performance, but it’s a menacing one as he brings out the simmering violence which powers his character. Joan Hickson, as Mrs Varden, also isn’t holding back, but this broad playing suits the shrewish character she plays.

The remainder of the Varden household are also deftly sketched out. Head of the household, Gabriel (Newton Blick), is an affable sort who’s often to be found allied with his attractive young daughter Dolly (Jennifer Daniel) against their wife and mother.

Rellgious dogma will later become the central theme of the story, although to begin with it’s teased out in a casual manner – Mrs Varden’s constant quoting from the bible or the way that John Chester (Raymond Huntley) regards Emma Haredale (Eira Heath) as an unsuitable wife for his son due to her religion – but as the serial progresses the conflict between Catholics and Protestants will become more marked. Huntley, playing to type as the austere and flinty Chester, offers a standout performance. Some others may essay broad, comic performances during the serial, but Huntley is agreeably more naturalistic.

Gabriel Varden, a locksmith by trade, has an apprentice, Simon Tappertit (Timothy Bateson), who has set his cap at Dolly (although she regards him with casual indifference). As in Bleak House, Bateson delivers a lovely comic performance, although there’s a harder edge to this character. Like many others, he possesses a simmering discontent (although with him it’s not relgious concerns, instead his ire is directed towards those he regards as his wealthy oppressors).

As the first half of the serial progresses, various plotlines are developed. Simon’s links with a group of dissident apprentices who meet in secret and dream of violent disobedience against their oppressive masters, the curious link between Barnaby’s mother and the mysterious stranger, Joe Willit’s (Alan Haywood) longing for the flitish Dolly and the forbidden love between Edward Chester (Bernard Brown) and Emma Haredale are all teased out.

Eira Heath & Jennifer Daniel

Mid way through the serial, several major new characters – such as anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon (Anthony Sharp) – are introduced as we proceed on the path to the Gordon Riots. Gordon is a fanatic, whose cry of “No Popery” quickly becomes a popular sentiment amongst the masses.

Geoffrey Haredale, a staunch Catholic, spells out what precisely what these two simple words could mean. “I have, tonight, seen an ignorant and unhappy people roused. They know nothing of what the repeal of the act means, but ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to right all their wrongs. ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to give them food, shelter, clothes, work and drink”.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it …..

The production design is very sound. Real horses (never easy to control in a studio) occasionally appear and the outside of Geoffrey Haredale’s house is depicted via a painted backdrop. This is a very theatrical way of generating a sense of depth and scale, but it works. More backdrops are in evidence when the action moves to the streets of London, whilst the later episodes are also opened out thanks to a judicious use of filmed inserts. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the riots was far beyond the means of the production, but director Morris Barry marshalled his resources well. Even with the limited number of extras at his disposal, Barry was effectively able to show the ugliness of mob violence.

It’s fair to say that some parts of the story work better than others. Edward and Emma’s romance never really sparks into life – not really the fault of the actors though, it’s simply that the two characters are never sharply defined. Barbara Hicks, as the Varden’s maid Miggs, gives a performance that can best be described as “broad”. It’s a typically comic Dickens character, but Hicks’ shrieking does become wearying after a while.

But on the credit side there are many fine performances, most notably that of Raymond Huntley. His timing is spot-on (plus his brief interactions with Timothy Bateson and Joan Hickson are rather delightful).

The introduction of Lord George Gordon is the point at which the story rapidly changes direction. This is a little jarring, but the influx of new characters does help to give the serial a fresh impetus. One notable new arrival is Esmond Knight (previously he had memorably played Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend) .  Here he appears as Dennis the Hangman, one of a number of individuals who encapsulate the baser end of society.

Like other surviving drama of this era, the source materials are telerecordings taken from the original 405 line broadcasts. The recordings may exhibit the occasional spot of damage or dirt, but overall the picture quality is more than watchable (although the concluding episode is notably poorer than the others).

Although a handful of performances are less than effective and the story feels somewhat disjointed (it’s essentially two seperate tales bolted together) Barnaby Rudge is still a serial of considerable interest. The theme of the later episodes feels eerily topical, offering a sharp change of pace from the countryside intrigues of the first half.  It’s another well-crafted Classic Serial which, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. Well worth adding to your collection.

Barnaby Rudge is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.