Back to April 1977 (27th April 1977)

First stop is The Peacemaker, an episode from the third and final series of Survivors. Written by Roger Parkes it was the first of three scripts he contributed to series three (having already penned two episodes the year before). Parkes had an interestingly varied career – beginning with ITC series like The Prisoner and Man in a Suitcase before plying his trade during the seventies with the likes of Doomwatch, Crown Court, The Onedin Line, Blakes 7 and Z Cars (amongst others).

The M*A*S*H boxset has been sitting on my shelf for a number of years, so I might as well dust it down in order to enjoy a repeat of Check-Up.

Over on ITV there’s a repeat of Bless This House. The Frozen Limit is the episode in question (in which Sid and Jean buy a fridge freezer with the inevitable hilarious consequences).

For more light relief there’s Coronation Street. In today’s episode Alf, Fred, Renee and Mavis go fishing and have a day to remember. Renee ends up in the river (the stuntperson performing an athletic forward roll) and Mavis gamely jumps in to save her.

Back to April 1977 (26th April 1977)

First up today is Z Cars. Transit is an episode from the series’ penultimate run and like a fair number of the seventies episodes I’ve sampled, it’s reasonable enough fare (although far less compelling than the series’ early sixties heyday).

Having caught up with the Play for Today repeat yesterday, tonight it’s the sequel – The Country Party. Again written by Brian Clark and starring Peter Barkworth, this one isn’t as memorable as The Saturday Party, but there’s plenty of familiar faces in the cast (such as Tom Georgeson, Donald Pickering and Malcolm Terris). Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson share the screen together, possibly the first time they did so (they had earlier both appeared in several episodes of You Must Be Joking! but I’m not sure if they were on screen at the same time).

Following the recent announcement of Eric Chappell’s death, I’ve been dipping into his back catalogue during the last few days, so tonight’s series three episode of Rising Damp is just the ticket. Rigsby takes Miss Jones for a spin in his new sports car (with the inevitable hilarious consequences).  Tonight’s episode features a nice guest turn from the always reliable Derek Francis.

Back to April 1977 (25th April 1977)

I’ve fired up the Randomiser, which has taken me back to 1977 to spend a week riffling through the television schedules. Hope there’s some good programmes to watch ….

There’s something pleasing about Monty Python and Q6 sitting next to each other on BBC2 (especially since the Pythons were always quick to acknowledge the debt they owed to Spike). Today’s edition of Python hails from the first series (Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century) which is fine by me, as it’s probably the run of episodes I return to the most.

Given the lengthy gap between Q5 and Q6, Milligan was on top form throughout most of Q6 (later series tended to crop up more regularly and were much more bitty).

I’ve just started rewatching Don’t Forget to Write! so that’s going on the list. This programme always has a slightly odd feel for me – it could easily have fitted into a 30 minute sitcom slot, but instead was a 50 minute non-audience drama/comedy. George Cole, Gwen Watford with Francis Matthews head the cast.

The BBC schedules are stuffed with repeats today. Apart from Python and Q6 on BBC2 there’s also Poldark and Play for Today on BBC1. The Play for Today repeat makes sense as the sequel to this play will be broadcast tomorrow, so I’ll be tuning in for both of them (anything with Peter Barkworth is worth a look).

All of this means that I won’t have much time over on ITV, although if I’ve a spare half hour then there’s always Coronation Street.

Back to April 1979 (4th April 1979)

During the next seven days I’ll be sampling April’s schedules between 1979 and 1985. As before, I’m only going to choose programmes that I can actually source from my archive, so anything which looks intriguing but I don’t have will have to be sadly passed over. Let’s dive in ….

BBC1 offers a repeat of Happy Ever After which is followed by a repeat of Accident (no doubt the high preponderance of repeats was irritating certain viewers).

Accident has reached episode two, Take Your Partners. It’s an interesting series, which focuses on the ramifications of the same event (a multi vehicle accident) from different perspectives. This gives it a similar feel to Villains (LWT, 1972). There’s no shortage of good actors across the series’ eight episodes and this was one of three directed by the always reliable Douglas Camfield.

Over on ITV, there’s chicken issues in Coronation Street (a short-lived but nevertheless amusing plotline which sees an initially reluctant Hilda transformed into a doting fowl lover). Later I’ll be crossing over to BBC2 for the start of a new series – Q8. By this point, Spike Milligan’s idiosyncratic sketch show defies any sort of description – but, if you’re in the right mood, there’s usually some nuggets of gold still to be found.

On this day (8th January)

1937: The Removals Person, the first episode of Six Dates With Barker, was broadcast on ITV in 1971.

Although Six Dates With Barker doesn’t look to have been set up as a breeding ground for subsequent television series or film projects, three episodes did go on to have a life outside the series.

Spike Milligan’s The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town was revised and expanded for The Two Ronnies, The Odd Job by Bernard McKenna was developed into a film (with David Jason reprising his role and Graham Chapman replacing Ronnie Barker) and The Removals Person by Hugh Leonard was rehashed in 1988 by Ronnie Barker as Clarence.

A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots, the first episode of When The Boat Comes In, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1976.

Created by James Mitchell (and as far removed from Callan as you could imagine) When The Boat Comes In is one of those period programmes that’s aged very well.  Possibly series four (which aired in 1981, some three years after the series had apparently come to a conclusion) doesn’t quite match the earlier runs, but overall my impression is that it was always pretty consistent. Another one that I think I’ll add to the 2022 rewatch pile.

Horse Sense, the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1978.

Perfect Sunday evening viewing (even though it began on Saturdays) this first television incarnation of All Creatures was as well cast as you could have possibly hoped for. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them all, so I’m tempted to consider a rewatch – although considering it’s only the 7th of January and I’ve already got a tottering rewatch pile, maybe I’ll hold off for a while ….

Hail the Conquering Hero, the first episode of Shine On Harvey Moon, was broadcast on ITV in 1982.

Something of a neglected gem, Shine On Harvey Moon was a series which featured a fine ensemble cast headed by Kenneth Cranham as Harvey.  Nicky Henson made a decent fist of the role when he replaced Cranham in the 1990’s revival, but he never displayed the same sparkle that Cranham always had.

The immediate post WW2 setting is an interesting one – a Britain of shortages and economies provides plenty of scope for both drama and comedy. In some ways this opening episode has a feel of When The Boat Comes In‘s debut, albeit with a much lighter tone.

It’s a pity that the DVD release of the early series was very comprised – originally airing in 25 minute episodes, they were re-edited into 50 minute form for the DVD release (losing large chunks of various episodes along the way).

A decent DVD re-release or another television rescreening (it turned up on the Yesterday channel a while back) would be very welcome.

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, the first episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, was broadcast on ITV in 1989.

It’s a funny thing, but back in 1989 I was impatient for the series to start tackling the novels and found these early adaptations of the short stories rather flimsy. Thirty years on, my opinion’s totally switched around (mainly because some of the tv versions of key novels – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with the chase ending, say – rather tried my patience).

Many of the stories adapted for the first few series were originally published in the 1920’s in magazine form and were fairly brisk in terms of word count. That means that the adaptors have plenty of room to add incidental colour (mostly this works pretty well).

David Suchet is, of course, excellent as Poirot. In 1989 he might have been a little too young (and a little too slim, even with padding) but in all other respects he had the character of the little Belgian dandy nailed right from the start.

On this day (4th January)

The first episode of Ivanhoe was broadcast on BBC1 in 1970.

Adapted by Alexander Baron in ten parts, this Classic Serial was directed by David Maloney, so you can expect to see plenty of familiar faces (such as Graham Weston, John Franklyn-Robbins, Hugh Walters, Tim Preece, Bernard Horsfall and Noel Coleman) filling out the cast.

Eric Flynn cuts a dash as Ivanhoe with the always dependable Anthony Bate as his nemesis, Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert. Vivian Brooks and Clare Jenkins supply the female interest.

Released on DVD by Simply Media in 2017, I reviewed it at the time and it’s still an enjoyable watch – albeit with the usual strengths and weaknesses of the Classic Serial from this era.

The Prisoner of Spenda, the first episode of Carry on Laughing, was broadcast on ITV in 1975.

Hmm, I wonder what novel this could be based on?

There’s a good reason why the television incarnation of the Carry On franchise doesn’t receive the same number of rescreenings as its big screen counterpart (they’re not very good) but approached in the right mood it’s still possible to derive some enjoyment from most of them.

This one features most of the main Carry On players (one notable absentee was Kenneth Williams, who loathed the whole idea) and at 22 minutes it’s brisk enough.

The first episode of The Prince and the Pauper was broadcast on BBC1 in 1976.

Another Classic Serial debuting on this day, The Prince and the Pauper boasts an impressive duel performance from Nicholas Lyndhurst as well as the usual strong supporting cast. With Barry Letts directing, it’s no surprise that CSO comes into play – the meeting between Prince Edward and Tom Canty is excellently done (the mirror shot still looks very good today).

Another Classic Serial released by Simply Media, you can read my full review here.

The first episode of Clarence was broadcast on BBC1 in 1988.

Ronnie Barker’s sitcom farewell is a series that I’ve never warmed to – the single joke premise (Clarence is a short-sighted removals man) wore pretty thin when the character (with a different name though) appeared back in 1971, so a whole series based around this concept has never seemed inviting to me. Still, Barker and Josephine Tewson are always worth watching, so maybe I’ll give it another go this year.

Iain Cuthbertson, born in 1930.

I’ve chosen Mutiny, an episode from The Onedin Line‘s first series, as my anniversary Cuthbertson programme. It sounds promising – Cuthbertson plays the dangerously unstable Captain Kirkwood with the likes of Kevin Stoney and John Thaw also making appearances. It’s written by Ian Kennedy Martin (his sole script for the series).

On this day (2nd January)

Four of a Kind, the first episode of Z Cars, was originally broadcast on BBC Television in 1962.

So it’s the sixtieth anniversary of Z Cars (looks in vain for BBC4 documentary and extensive repeat season. Ho hum).

This opening episode hits the ground running by deftly establishing the differing personas of the four policeman selected for the new crime patrols (Lynch, Steele, Smith, Weir) and their two bosses (Barlow, Watt).

It’s true that broad brushstrokes are used though – Lynch is a garrulous Irishman, Steele might knock his wife about but we’re assured he’s a good chap really, Fancy is a ridiculously confident Teddy Boy and Jock … ah poor Jock (he very much gets the short end of the stick in this debut episode, only being called upon to mumble a few incoherent words).

Fare Forward Voyagers, the first episode of Manhunt, was originally broadcast on ITV in 1970.

The premise of the series is simple – Nina (Cyd Hayman) has vital information about the French resistance networks. The Germans desperately want it, but so do the British – which means that Jimmy (Alfred Lynch) and Vincent (Peter Barkworth) have to somehow spirit her out of occupied France and back to London.

Rewatching this opener, it’s impossible not to nitpick a little – how did Nina escape after the Germans gunned down every other member of the Paris resistance cell? We’re never told (and given how hysterical she is for most of the episode, it’s difficult to see how she could have gone more than a few paces).

And why are the Germans so trigger happy? If they hadn’t massacred everyone, then Nina wouldn’t be such a valuable property.

All of the three regulars have a tricky time in this episode, as their characters are so extreme – Jimmy’s a wisecracking RAF pilot, Vincent’s a cold-hearted killer and Nina’s little more than a bundle of nerves. Putting the three of them together seems like a recipe for disaster, but hopefully they’ll settle down over the course of the next 25 (!) episodes. Given that Secret Army tended to spirit British airmen out of Belgium in a single episode, 26 episodes to get Nina over to Britain seems rather generous ….

The fine guest performances of Peter Copley, Andrew Keir and Yootha Joyce are one of the saving graces of Fare Forward Voyagers. Keir is especially impressive as the doomed Robespierre, a radio operator who sacrifices himself in order to allow Jimmy, Nina and Vincent the chance to escape.

Ringer, the first episode of The Sweeney, was broadcast on ITV in 1975.

Following the Armchair Cinema ‘pilot’ in 1974, The Sweeney burst onto our screens with this effort. Subtle it isn’t (the closing punch up is so ridiculously over the top that I’ve never been sure if it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek or not) but overall the episode is still rather bracing.

Brian Blessed (with a stick on beard) and Ian Hendry are the main guest stars whilst there’s plenty of familiar faces (Ray Mort, June Brown, Alan Lake, Angus Mackay) also present and correct.

The Way Back, the first episode of Blakes 7, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1978.

This dystopian tale of thought control and (thankfully trumped up) charges of child abuse had a surprisingly early evening slot. Fair to say that The Way Back is very much a one-off as the following 51 episodes never recaptured the tone of this opening installment.

Writing (or at least credited for) all 13 episodes of the first series, it’s not surprising that Terry Nation’s at his sharpest here. As time wore on and inspiration began to dry up, his scripts became rather more perfunctory.

All Memories Great and Small – Expanded Edition by Oliver Crocker (Book Review)

With one notable exception (Doctor Who) the production histories of many British television programmes aren’t terribly well documented. There are exceptions of course (the sterling work carried out by Andrew Pixley for a variety of series, David Brunt’s painstaking Z Cars tomes and recent books about programmes as diverse as Star Cops and The Brothers have all been more than welcome).

Until the original edition of All Memories Great and Small in 2016, the BBC version of All Creatures was one of those neglected series, but Oliver Crocker’s wonderfully exhaustive book certainly rectified that. Now reissued with additional interviews and fascinating production information for 35 of the series’ 90 episodes, it’s better than ever.

Since the original publication, several of the interviewees (such as Bill Sellars and Robert Hardy) have sadly passed away, which makes the book even more of a valuable resource as there’s no substitute for first hand recollections. The roster of those who agreed to be interviewed is impressive – not only key regulars such as Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, Carol Drinkwater and Peter Davison, but also a plethora of guest stars and behind the scenes crew who are able to share many stories about the series’ production.

The icing on this particularly succulent cake has to be a slew of wonderful production photographs with the odd studio floor plan thrown in for good measure,

The format of All Memories Great And Small is straightforward and effective. Each episode (from Horse Sense in 1978 to the final Christmas Special in 1990) is given its own chapter. All have reminiscences from a variety of contributors (some specific to that episode, some more general) whilst selected episodes also contain production info (handy if you’re looking to pinpoint specific locations used, for example).

Clocking in at just over 400 pages, it’s plain that this book was a real labour of love. If you’ve got the original edition then it’s still worth an upgrade for the additional material. But if you’ve yet to buy it and have any interest in the BBC series, then All Memories Great and Small is an essential purchase. An absolute treasure trove of a resource, I know that it’ll be something I’ll return to again and again in the future.

All Memories Great and Small can be ordered directly from Devonfire Books via this link or from them via this Amazon link.

Secret Army – A Matter of Life and Death (6th December 1978)

Poor hapless Francois (Nigel Williams) bites the dust ….

Hardly the most rounded or interesting character, at least he’s given a starring role in his final episode.

The fact he and Natalie are especially lovey-dovey today is an early hint that something rather nasty will happen to him. This bad feeling is then compounded by his refusal to seek the advice of Albert – he’s keen to go it alone and speak to the Communists, who have located two British airmen (even though Francois is warned that they play by their own barsh rules and don’t work well with outsiders).

Max and the Communist leader, Phillipe (Michael Graham Cox), have been planning the takeover of Lifeline, with Albert and Monique to be liquidated. So the cheery Francois turning up on their doorstep is the last thing they need.

Max’s next move (anonymously informing on Francois to Kessler) carries a certain punch, especially since earlier in the episode they had seemed to be on friendly terms (Francois giving Max some materials which would prove more than useful in his forging activities). Although by now it’s plain that Max is more than capable of appearing affable on the surface whilst remaining cold and calculating underneath.

The two airmen holed up with the Communists remain shadowy characters. Much more time is spent with another pair – Tommy Miller (John Flanagan) and Joseph Walden (Leonard Preston) – who have been wandering the countryside looking for help.

Having been turned away from a church by a frightened priest, they land on their feet when an affable baker called Victor Herve (Duncan Lamont) takes them under his wing. Lamont gives, as you’d expect, an excellent guest turn in what would turn out to be one of his final television credits.

Anyone who has worked their through the series up to this point has to marvel at the way so many British airmen manage to latch onto someone who has direct contact to Lifeline. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but you just have to accept it.

With Miller and Walden being straightforward, affable chaps there’s not a great deal of drama to be found in their part of the story (although we’re left hanging for a short while before it’s finally confirmed whether Victor is a friend or foe – the casting of Lamont was a canny move in this respect, as he was equally adept at playing both).

As has been his lot for most of series two, Bernard Hepton doesn’t have a great deal to do as Albert remains firmly stuck inside the Candide and somewhat buffeted along by events outside. This works in story terms though – Albert’s complacency and inactivity convinces Max that takIng control of Lifeline will be easy.

Francois gets a dramatic death – shot on a railway platform whilst a helpless Natalie looks on in distress (it’s a peach of a reaction moment for Juliet Hammond-Hill). The third of four SA scripts by Robert Barr, A Matter of Life and Death never drags, even if the outcome of events seems inevitable from early on.

But it’s what’s going to happen now with Max and Lifeline that’s the more intriguing question.

Blakes 7 coming to Forces TV – September 2021

Blakes 7 will be teleporting to Forces TV (Sky 181, Freeview 96, Freesat 165, Virgin 274) from next month.

For us old sweats who have the series on DVD (and before that VHS) this won’t be news to get the pulse racing, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that most people have never really assembled DVD archives of any size, so this will be their first opportunity to see the series for a few decades (and it might even pick up a few new fans along the way).

Forces TV have made some interesting digs into the BBC archives recently (such as No Place Like Home, which was only ever partly commercially available) and hopefully they will continue in this vein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colditz – The Undefeated (19th October 1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Army – Guests at God’s Table (29th November 1978)

A badly wounded airman has been found and hidden by a group of street children. Desperate for food and clothing, they attempt to sell him for a handful of Christmas treats ….

Given that a sense of repetition is unavoidable (oh look, it’s another important airman who has to be returned to Britain as quickly as possible) it’s always good when the series does something a little different.

The Group Captain (played by Mark Taylor) remains mute throughout – only occasionally opening his eyes and managing a smile before slumping back into unconsciousness.  So since the focus isn’t on him (we don’t even learn his name) it can instead be directed towards the four grubby children who’ve found him.

They’re led by Wim (Keith Jayne). Easily the most experienced actor of the four, by this point Jayne had already racked up credits in a number of popular series (Upstairs Downstairs, Survivors, Angels, Rumpole of the Bailey, etc).  Marie-Clare (Rachel Beasley) is his trusted lieutenant, with both taking it in turns to look after the two younger children – Bobo and Gaby (John Nani and Natasha Green).

Throughout the story there are numerous reminders that winter is really biting – with things made especially hard by the reduced rations and lack of fuel (Albert has secured a coal supply, but only because he was willing to pay way over the odds). Even the Germans aren’t immune to these cutbacks, with Kessler doing his best to eke some warmth out of his office fire.

Despite this, Monique and Natalie remain in a festive mood – even more so when the demands of the children reaches them. The items they request – clothing, jelly, a doll, etc – are piffling (in total, about the cost of a bottle of wine). So once the reluctant Albert gives the go-ahead, they begin to assemble the box of goodies with glee (Monique even going so far as to raid the till to give them a little extra cash!).

Throughout these scenes, Albert finds himself in the role of a stern father (with Monique and Natalie as a couple of unruly children) but there’s a sign that his bark is worse than his bite.When no-one is looking, he takes some notes from his wallet and adds it to the cash already pilfered from the till.

All this is quite low-key and touching, and that’s how the first half of the episode plays out (as a nice character piece, bereft of tension). But as we reach the conclusion of the story a sense of danger and anxiety begins to build.

Key scene of the episode, in terms of character development amongst the regulars, occurs between Kessler and Brandt. Kessler is concerned about Brandt’s excessive intake of alcohol, but Brandt is more concerned about the rumours he’s heard regarding German atrocities in the East. That the pair choose to have a row in the middle of the Candide only adds a little extra spice – as does the fact that after Kessler leaves, Monique (with Albert’s blessing) shares a drink with Brandt. Albert’s smug expression makes it plain that there could be a weakness to be exploited here.

Max continues to be a mild topic of conversation, with the others wondering what he gets up to when he’s not with them. The audience has long known about his Communist sympathies, but the other Lifeline members remain ignorant – for now.

Max keeps a watching brief on the children – even after they’ve handed over the airman – much to Albert’s puzzlement. Although when it’s revealed that Max was an orphan himself, things become clearer.  The episode’s conclusion – a snow-covered Max gives the children some money before being forced by the Germans to move on – means that things end on a slightly hopeful note. Although with food and fuel becoming scarcer and scarcer, the situation still looks bleak for them.

Guests at God’s Table is a totally studio-bound story, but a well designed street set helps to give the “outdoor” scenes some depth. It’s another strong script from John Brason, SA‘s most prolific writer.

Secret Army – Little Old Lady (22nd November 1978)

Wing Commander Kelso (Andrew Robertson) is required back in Britain as soon as possible. But it won’t be easy to move him – as he sustained severe facial burns when his plane crashed. There are ways though, but will Kelso agree?

The second series of Secret Army has already suffered from some melodramatic music cues, but there’s several in today’s episode which take the biscuit (especially the one during the opening few minutes). Rather than helping to create tension, their over the top nature somewhat dissipates the mood.

Although Albert briefly escapes from the Candide to meet Kelso, he otherwise remains pretty much rooted to the spot. But Hepton does have some decent scenes today, which makes a nice change (he’s been somewhat underused so far during this second series). Albert’s love for the Candide is displayed after someone drops a bomb into the middle of the dining room (luckily it doesn’t go off). More than helping the airmen to escape, more than his relationship with Monique, you do get the sense that Albert’s first love is the Candide – mainly because of the money it makes him.

Albert’s close fraternisation with the likes of Kessler hasn’t gone unnoticed, hence the bomb. We never discover if it was a dummy or whether it had a faulty fuse. But in story terms that doesn’t really matter as it serves to shake everyone up – especially Madeline, who is feeling isolated during Kessler’s absence.  She latches onto Monique and the pair strike up a hesitant friendship – encouraged by Albert (who can see the benefits) and despised by Max (who has no love for collaborators).

One running theme throughout the episode is Madeline’s fur coat, which she gives to Monique. She decides to wear it when taking Kelso down the line and gifts it to him as a parting present (he later throws it away). Amazingly it’s found by a German soldier and Brandt mentions it to Kessler. Could this be a clue that leads Kessler a step closer to discovering that the Candide is the headquarters of Lifeline? Presumably not, but you never know ….

Andrew Robertson gives a solid performance as Kelso. Despite notching up over fifty flying missions, Kelso eschews the aura of a hero – maintaining that he’s simply been lucky. His abrasive nature means that initially he clashes with Monique, but in a not terribly surprising plot twist they part on much better terms.

Things get a little odd mid way through the episode when Kelso decides, for no good reason, to hop off the train he and Natalie are travelling on. Partly this seems to have been done so that Kelso (a locomotive expert) can pinch another train and go chugging down the track. Commandeering a steam engine is not exactly the thing do to if you’re trying to keep a low profile.

Later safely ensconced with Sophie and Madeline (two old ladies who we’ve met before), Kelso is then introduced to Louis-Victor Condé (David King). An experienced actor, he uses his knowledge to instruct Kelso how to masquerade as a woman (as a female he’ll be able to use heavy make up which will disguise his scars). The scene where Louis-Victor fashions a tablecloth into a baby and proceeds to demonstrate the art of the actor is another of those odd moments. It’s certainly an unusual scene for SA.

Francois pops up again. He continues to be Lifeline’s least interesting member as either he’s fretting that Natalie’s in danger or he’s embracing her heartily once she returns.  Max doesn’t have a great deal to do, but Stephen Yardley’s aura of simmering danger is put to good use – particularly when Albert is carted off by the Gestapo. Albert returns later – shaken, but unharmed – although Max continues to brood.

Angela Richards probably comes off best, script wise. Not only does she share a fascinating two-hander with Hazel McBride which helps to bulk up both their characters, but later there’s a handful of strong scenes between Monique and Kelso (who by now is thawing somewhat).

Little Old Lady lacks many moments of real tension, but David Crane’s script is a good character piece and, apart from a few minor plot niggles, works well.

Secret Army – The Big One (15th November 1978)

The RAF mount a massive raid over Berlin – the big one. But things go awry after bombs are dropped short, destroying a residential suburb on the outskirts of the city. Amongst the dead are Brandt’s wife and son ….

The Big One is an episode that could easily have centered totally around the Germans as Lifeline’s contribution is pretty negligible.  Opening with the bombing raid (stock footage mixed in with newly shot material and somewhat melodramatic music cues) we then cross to the Candide, where Brandt is dining with Oberst Neidlinger (Mark Jones).  Neidlinger is the latest oficer attempting to draw Brandt into the conspiracy to kill Hitler, but Brandt still refuses to commit himself.

The conflict between the aristocratic military (as represented by Neidlinger) and the thuggish Gestapo (as represented by Kessler) is given another airing today. Kessler, dining with Madeline, repeats his views on the subject (he’s still fuming about the way the Gestapo is treated with arrogant comtempt by the military elite). The cliché of the good German hovers in the background of this episode, but by the end the lines between Kessler and Brandt have been somewhat blurred.

Brandt travels to Berlin in order to arrange the transfer of his family to a safer location – ironically on the same day that the bombs hit. There’s some more stock footage patched in, along with a small rubble strewn set which is the only bit of desolated Berlin we see. Brandt’s collapse (after he learns of his loss) is nicely underplayed by Michael Culver.

The relationship between Kessler and Madeline inches forward (he gives her a chaste kiss).

I like the way we switch from Lifeline (listening to the BBC radio broadcast stating that 22 RAF aircraft failed to return) to Kessler and Madeline (German wireless reported 45 aircraft shot down). Both Max and Albert have a suspicion that the German figures are more likely to be correct.

Lifeline pick up one airman, Flight Sgt. Bert Lewis (Daniel Hill), but they don’t hold onto him for very long. Frankly it’s not surprising as their interrogation of him is brutal and hectoring. Plot-wise the reason for this is obvious – Lewis, believing they were German spies, later makes a run for it – but given the experience Lifeline have, it’s hard to believe that Monique and Alain would be quite so clumsy.

And this is Lifeline’s major contribution to the story. Whilst a little tension is generated (will Lewis betray any of Lifeline’s secrets?) this falls flat as Lewis doesn’t really know anything about them. So this part of the plot would have played out just the same had Lewis spent a couple of days wandering around the countryside before getting picked up by a German patrol.

Brandt returns to Brussels and is treated to a meal by Kessler. This is a fascinating scene, not least for the way that Brandt behaves (in a very jolly and hyperactive manner). Seemingly shrugging off the death of his wife and son as matters of no consequence, he then playfully begins to mock Kessler’s liaison with Madeline. The reason for doing so is obvious – it’s Brandt’s way of telling Kessler that whilst others may gossip about his totally innocent relationship, he doesn’t (and hopes in turn that Kessler doesn’t read anything into the meetings he’s had with known anti-Hitler officers).

Given that Brandt earlier confessed to being somewhat wary of Kessler, it’s strange that he decided to be quite so blunt. But maybe it’s a sign that he’s not thinking clearly.

Matters come to a head for him during his interrogation (or debriefing, as he calls it) of Lewis. It begins amicably enough, in his trademark friendly style (something which Kessler has long derided). But a still grieving Brandt eventually loses control and takes out his frustration on Lewis. The few minutes leading up to his sudden outburst of violence are mesmerising – it’s framed as a tight two-shot of Brandt and Lewis, which slowly closes in on Brandt as his anger increases.

The Big One is Michael Culver’s episode and he doesn’t disappoint.

Secret Army – Weekend (8th November 1978)

Kessler is taken hostage by two desperate American airmen whilst Lifeline are keen to get their hands on three priceless paintings by Rubens ….

Even those with only a rough working knowledge of ‘Allo! ‘Allo! will be able to spot that this episode was used as the inspiration for the long-running saga of the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies (by Van Klomp).  And whilst the later parody by ‘Allo! ‘Allo! means that the paintings subplot raises a titter (as it were), events later in this episode take a rather grim turn.

I’ve previously raised an eyebrow at some of the series’ plotting and I’ll do so again here. Kessler knows that three paintings by Rubens are stored in a convent somewhere in the country, but he doesn’t know their location. Then up pops Oberleutnant Horst (Christian Roberts) who helpfully tells him exactly where they are. Well, that’s lucky.

Not only that, Lifeline are preparing to take possession of the paintings with the full consent of the Mother Superior (Sylvia Barter) and plan to leave expert forgeries in their place. What were the odds that Kessler and Lifeline would suddenly both decide to take a great interest in art?

For Albert the paintings mean security – at least for a little while. With no money currently coming in from London, once the paintings are sold they will allow the escape route to carry on (although not indefinitely). The shifting objectives of the war are touched upon here, with Albert unhappy at the way London are attempting to take more control (insisting that Communist spies are weeded out from the line). Although given that Albert’s first love has always been money (others in Lifeline may be patriots, Albert is much more mercenary) I’m not quite sure why he doesn’t just go with the flow.

It’s interesting to ponder what Kessler’s motives are. He tells the Mother Superior that the paintings are being taken into protective custody, bemoaning the fact that other art treasures have been looted. Is he telling or truth or does he plan to squirrel them away for his own use?

Christian Roberts gives a nice performance as the hapless Horst. Keen to impress Kessler at every turn, he nevertheless ends up a fellow prisoner after the pair are captured by Peter Harris (Paul Wagar) and Charles McGee (Vincent Marzello). The series has presented us with unpleasant airmen before, but McGee is in a class of his own.

Whilst Harris is mild-mannered and conciliatory, McGee is arrogant and reckless. Both are lucky to stumble across a friend of Lifeline who takes them in for the night – but McGee isn’t prepared to wait around to be collected the following day. Instead he ambushes a car (containing Horst and Kessler) and puts his masterplan into operation. Actually I don’t really think he’s got a plan, so it’s rather fortunate that he happens to stumble across the barge owned by Hans Van Broecken (this seems a tad contrived).

Kessler, now a prisoner on the barge, seems to be deriving a certain pleasure from the situation, confiding to Horst that he rarely has had the chance to study evaders at such close quarters. Clifford Rose, yet again, is on top form – contrast Kessler’s early (and quite informal) conversations with Horst to his later business-like persona.

Another plot oddity concerns the three Rubens. They’re in the boot of Kessler’s abandoned car which is located quite easily by Monique and Max (they swop the originals for the forgeries). How did they know where the car was, especially since it was moved off the main road and hidden?

The episode really springs into life towards the end.  When McGee and Harris finally end up with Lifeline, McGee’s sexist banter doesn’t go down well with either Natalie or Monique. Angela Richards has a mesmerising moment as Monique spells out the facts of life to McGee at gunpoint.

And for those thinking that everything has gone just a little too smoothly, there’s a late sting in the tail – Hans and his wife Lena are taken away by Kessler for questioning. Kessler is at his most chilling when he tells them that they have nothing to worry about – provided they have nothing to hide.

Lena – unable to face the prospect of interrogation – commits suicide by stepping out into the path of an oncoming car. The bitter irony is that Kessler’s questioning was (or so he says) purely routine. Hans tells him that he doesn’t realise the fear he instills in people. Kessler replies that he does ….

It’s a slight surprise that we don’t see Natalie’s reaction to the news that her aunt has died.

Weekend was written and directed by Paul Annett. It’s an unusual double for this era of British television (Annett was much more prolific as a director, his only other television writing credits being a couple of episodes of Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime).  Apart from a few plot niggles, it’s a decent episode. Not the best the series has to offer, but still very watchable.

Secret Army – Scorpion (1st November 1978)

Major Brandt’s wife, Erika (Brigitte Kahn), is in Brussels for a brief visit. Their interactions later provide the spur which kicks the plot into gear, but before that there’s plenty of nice character development on offer.

Brandt is clearly delighted to see her (something she reciprocates, although in a rather cooler way). This is partially explained by the fact that, as a General’s daughter, she suffers from something of a superiority complex – for example, she has no wish to meet Kessler. A member of the SS is plainly a much lower form of life.

Plot-threads which pay off later in the year are established here. Erika now finds living in Berlin, which is suffering heavy bombing raids on a regular basis, intolerable. Fearful for her own life (and that of their children) she begs Brandt to move them to Brussels. This he declines to do, although he concedes that they should leave the city.

There’s an intriguing moment when she finds a photograph of an attractive young woman in his wardrobe. His mistress? Since we know that he’s a workaholic it would seem not and his protestations of innocence do appear to be sincere. And yet ….

You have to say that his explanation for its presence (the cleaning woman could have left it there) is a bit feeble.

Brandt has already tried and failed several times to infiltrate the escape line with one of his officers. Indeed, during series one it seemed like he was doing it every other week.

He hasn’t attempted it for a while, so I suppose it was bound to happen again. The way that the audience (and Lifeline) learn about it today is a touch contrived though. Brandt and Erika are having an argument in bed and he tells her the whole story (an infiltrator – accepted as genuine by London – will shortly be going down the line). But at that precise moment his cleaning lady happens to overhear the whole thing.

That’s hard to swallow moment number one. Hard to swallow moment number two is the fact she knows that Albert is the person who needs to be told about this straight away. Slightly clumsy plotting then.

Hans Van Broecken (Gunner Moller), Natalie’s uncle (and no friend of Albert), returns. As a German himself, he’s the ideal man to try and identify the spy, but given his loathing for Albert, will he agree? Yes of course, otherwise the plot would have floundered somewhat.

If he’s unsuccessful then there will be some difficult decisions to be made. With nineteen British airman in Brussels, one way out would be to shoot them all. It seems cold-blooded, but it might be necessary in order to protect the line.

Some familiar faces can be found amongst the motley collection of airmen. James Wynn (later to play Sooty Sutcliffe in Grange Hill) is one whilst Harry Fielder (someone with a list of credits longer than several arms) is another. The spy isn’t either of these though – but he’s eventually dealt with by Max, with a horrified Hans looking on.

Hans’ disgust that Max resorts to murder is a little difficult to credit. Did he think they’d just let him walk away? He might not have discovered too much about the escape route, but he still would have been able to identify a number of people (Max and Hans, for two).

As touched upon eadlier, the plotting of the episode feels a little suspect in places. We’re told several times that various airmen have been cleared of suspicion, but it’s not explained how this is done. Considering that the infiltrator appears to be, until the very last minute, a perfectly normal British officer it’s hard to work this out.

Kessler only features briefly, but his scene – a meal with Madeleine (Hazel McBride) – is still a fascinating one. There’s some light shone onto Kessler the private man (he admits to being lonely at times, which is why he’s sought the company of Madeline – he’s decided she’s a kindred spirit). And he almost (but not quite) declares that Brandt is his friend, explaining to Madeline that normally he’d be irritated by the superior attitude of Erika, but given his respect for Brandt he’s content not to make a scene.

Angels

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I’ve just dug out series one of Angels for another watch. Whilst it’s a shame that only the first two series made it to DVD, that shouldn’t dissuade you from picking them up as these early episodes are first rate.

Along with the colour Dixon of Dock Greens, Angels is probably the series I’ve found myself reassessing the most.  Based on hazy memories of the later, twice-weekly soap format, I’d long held the opinion that it was a rather cosy, pedestrian show. Maybe it did later lose its spark, but to begin with Angels is rich in interest in all areas – acting, writing and directing.

That a core group of female writers were assembled (and each assigned one of the main characters to write for) is noteworthy. Others also made valuable contributions, such as P.J, Hammond (who provides a typically disorientating offering later in the first series). I’d previously written about the first two series episode by episode here.

Given that Simply now seem to be out of the DVD game, it might be that their various BBC licensed titles will slowly begin to drift out of print. If so, you may want to pick up their Angels releases (and indeed anything else of interest) sooner rather than later.

The 1970’s Angels fan was well served with merchandise. There were the obligatory tie-in novels as well as annuals and (most eye-opening of all) a range of dolls. That most of the merchandising was aimed at the child market – even though the series wasn’t always child-friendly – is slightly odd, but it was common at the time (various post watershed programmmes like The Professionals and The Sweeney did something similar).

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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