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).

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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