Blakes 40 – Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch: Series One, Episodes Eleven to Thirteen

Bounty

b11

Terry Nation’s draft of Bounty was one of his shortest (running to around 25 minutes) which meant that it had to be considerably bulked out. This probably explains why the story proceeds at such a leisurely pace (it takes Blake fifteen minutes to reach Sarkoff – in another episode he might have teleported to him straight away).

But the early part of the episode has some nice film work, which is a small recompense. The Federation guards – remarkably inept – are good for a chuckle as well.

T.P. McKenna is a class act. As soon as he appears the story moves up several gears (he’s perfect as a defeated, tortured politician, surrounded by trinkets of a vanished age) and it’s fair to say that without him Bounty would be much weaker. Carinthia West is really rather lovely, so that’s another good reason why I can’t dislike this one too much.

The other plotline – the Liberator’s been captured by space pirates! – is less involving. If you see a mysterious vessel floating in space, for goodness sake leave it alone ….

But no, they can’t do this. Gan pops over for a look and reports back that everything’s fine. Except, of course, it’s painfully obvious from the tone of his voice that something’s badly wrong. That nobody – not even Avon – picked up on this is difficult to credit.

Blake and the others returning to an apparently deserted Liberator is nicely done, but things wobble downhill after that. Gareth Thomas’ funny faces following his gassing by the Amagons is memorable in one way though.

From the later part of the story, it’s – yet again – the interactions between the regulars which provides the best moments. For example, Gan and Cally declaring how they’d like to revenge themselves against the Amagons (“companions for our death”) which causes Vila to mutter that the conversation’s suddenly turned rather morbid.

Pretty average, but perfectly watchable.

Deliverance

b12

Deliverance is quite dull. From our first sight of the primitives on Cephlon, it’s plain they’re not going to be great conversationalists (it’s poor Jenna’s fate to be mauled by them). At least it gets her off the Liberator, but it’s not really much of a storyline.

Avon, naturally, has a better time of it (although it doesn’t quite ring true that he’d be so keen to teleport down to Cephlon in order to lead the rescue party). His interaction with Meegat (a nice performance from Suzan Farmer) is easily the highlight of the episode – the feeling of ambivalence at being cast in the role of “Lord Avon” for example.

For once, Travis is isolated from the main storyline. His contribution is quite small but both Greif and Pearce play off each other very well, as they always do. During their scenes there’s some unusual incidentals playing – it doesn’t appear to be in the style of Dudley’s usual score, so presumably Servalan likes a bit of ambient music when she’s working.

Fair to say that Servalan’s plan doesn’t make a lick of sense. Given that Maryatt was a not unimportant figure, he seems to have been sacrificed for no good reason. Why didn’t Servalan detain or kill Ensor Jr after he’d offered her Orac? That way she could have simply waited for Ensor Sr to die and then stroll in and pick up Orac.

That’s pretty much her plan anyway, so there was no reason to faff around with bombs, etc. Also, it’s a tad convenient that Blake and the others just happen to stumble across Ensor Jr’s distressed ship.

Probably my least favourite S1 episode, this one’s sadly a bit of a chore.

Orac

b13

An air of lassitude and despair permeates this episode. And that’s just the script ….

It’s pretty clear by now that Terry Nation was running on empty, since he falls back on some old favourites (radiation sickness!). But it’s a plot thread that doesn’t really work – not only is it hard to believe that the Liberator is out of radiation drugs in the first place, it’s also pretty obvious that Ensor will have a supply, hence the tension generated by this story point (will Avon and the others live or die?) isn’t very effective.

It’s interesting that Servalan shows fear when groped by the Phibian (incredibly silly though the scene is). Seeing her out of her comfort zone is one of the memorable parts of the episode. When Servalan asked Travis what it was and Stephen Greif deadpans “some kind of lizard” you do get the sense that Greif was counting down the days before he’d be free of the series. A pity that he wasn’t able to get his teeth into the meaty Travis stories of S2, like Trial, but he would also have had to trawl through some rubbish too (Hostage) so you can’t blame him for jumping ship.

Travis’ series arc concludes with a bit of whimper here. The fact that Greif wasn’t available for the studio session didn’t help (nor did his flat-footed stand in) but even had he been present I doubt it would have been that much more effective.

Derek Farr’s good, but the plot of Orac is little more than Blake paying a visit to an elderly man. Amazing they managed to spin it out to fifty minutes really.

At this point it’s clear that the series needs a varied mix of writers. Luckily series two was just around the corner …..

Blakes 40 – Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch: Series One, Episodes Eight to Ten

Duel

b8

This is a good episode for Travis – especially since for once he doesn’t have to run around after Servalan. Although even this early on it’s easy to see just how limited a character he is (something which Greif had quickly picked up on – pondering just how credibility could be maintained if every time Travis and Blake met, Blake ended up winning). The answer, of course, is that it couldn’t – but we’ll leave that topic until series two ….

Although the duel part of the story was clearly designed to be the showpiece, I prefer the earlier dogfight in space scenes. With Dudley absent (although not, as long assumed, because of his feud with Camfield) the selection of discordant stock music helps to raise the tension nicely. A number of simple visual effects – slowing the camera down, coloured lights – are cheap but effective ways of showing the ships – post intervention by Sinofar and Giroc – stuck in space.

Given Camfield’s skill with a film camera, it’s maybe a little surprising that there’s not a great deal from the woodland scenes that’s terribly memorable. It’s also a shame that the climatic fight between Travis and Blake is a little rushed (and Travis’ grand plan to ensnare Blake – a spiky trap – looks a little feeble too).

Avon might be playing second fiddle today, but he still gets some very decent moments. His “nuts” speech (cut from the original compilation VHS) is one and I also love his brief smile and headshake when he realises that Blake won’t be able to kill Travis. The fact that Vila, Gan and Cally were all urging Blake on at this moment is another example of Avon’s self-imposed distance from the others.

Solid, but it’s possible that Douglas Camfield helped to cover a few cracks. With a more run-of-the-mill director it may have been rather more forgettable.

Project Avalon

b9

Although the plot is a bit thin, as so often with B7 the performances make up for it. Stephen Greif continues to impress, especially when he’s teamed up with Glynis Barber’s icy Mutoid. Barber doesn’t have anything much, dialogue-wise, to work with, which means she has to work extra hard to make an impression. A pity she didn’t return as a Mutoid, since she and Greif made a good double-act.

Less impressive is Julia Vidler’s Avalon. I’m not sure when she’s more wooden – during the scenes when she’s playing Avalon, or later when she’s Robot-Killer Avalon. True, her one big showdown scene with Travis is somewhat compromised by the fact she’s been reduced to her underwear and strapped to an operating table, but even had she been fully clothed I’ve a feeling her delivery would still have been as stilted as it is.

Wookey Hole, as ever, is a good-looking location and Stuart Fell falls very nicely. The late twist – Chevner (a slightly underused David Bailie) is moved into position for a few seconds as the baddy – doesn’t really work as it needed more of a build up or a tense hunt through the corridors to sell it. And the way that poor old Travis is humiliated again at the end seems to have been the point when Greif decided he wouldn’t have a long term future with the series.

Breakdown

b10

Breakdown is something of a bottle show (and a cheap one). Largely set onboard the Liberator, when they do reach their destination (XK-72) it’s nothing more than a few studio flats, populated by a couple of actors. The Federation ships are represented by reused footage, which makes it all the more surprising that they decided to splash out on some filming (the scenes in the medical wing could just have easily have been shot in the studio).

This sort of budget scrimping isn’t necessarily a problem though, since it enables the regulars to have more screentime than usual. But it’s ironic for a story where Gan is the plot motivator that he spends most of it either unconscious or dangerously feral. Poor Gan never got a decent crack of the whip.

He does have one standout scene though – the moment when he gleefully throttles Cally in the medical centre. His sudden switch, from the apparently recovered Gan to an implacable killer, is more than a little disturbing.

Gan’s fight with Blake in the first few minutes is also good – thanks to the hand-held camerawork. Although whenever Blake is thrown against the Liberator’s controls it’s impossible not to worry that they’ll break ….

Avon, as always, shines. His continuing distance from the others (markedly telling Blake that “you” rather than “we” are running out of time to save Gan) is thrown into sharp relief later on when he elects not to hide away on XK-72 but take his chances with Blake instead. Blake and Avon continue to clash entertainingly, this following exchange being one of my favourites –

AVON: Blake, in the unlikely event that we survive this ….
BLAKE: Yes?
AVON: I’m finished. Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable.
BLAKE: Now you’re just being modest.

Julian Glover adds a touch of class as Kayn. I love the face-off between Kayn and Blake where our hero threatens to destroy Kayn’s hands if he doesn’t operate on Gan.

Breakdown is a little slow but, as noted in some of the previous episode summaries, the interactions between the regulars always helps to shore up an average episode. A few points off for the chucklesome ending though – considering that XK-72 had just been blown to smithereens it hardly seemed the right time.

Blakes 40 – Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch: Series One, Episodes Five to Seven

The Web

The Web has a rather creepy opening – albeit somewhat negated by the sight of Saymon. Poor Richard Beale has a pretty thankless role to play during this story – but although visually Saymon is a bit of a disaster, Beale (always a very decent voice actor) impresses whenever we don’t see too much of the silly body in the tank (as above, close-ups are quite effective though).

Odd that Michael E. Briant chose to reveal Saymon so early on. Presumably he felt that it was best to get it out of the way ….

The first half of the story is Liberator bound. There’s a healthy dose of bickering and character conflict which, as always, is rather entertaining. Gan and Avon briefly team up (Avon is very sarcastic towards Gan) whilst Jenna seems to relish bringing Cally to her senses via a good hard slap! The controlled Cally’s gleeful smile as she advances on an unsuspecting Vila is another nice touch.

It feels slightly contrived that Cally’s only been onboard the Liberator for a short time before mystical legends from her past start calling to her. But on the plus side, it does raise the possibility (quickly negated, though) that Blake’s judgement was flawed when he asked her to join the crew. Having Cally as an unpredictable character for a few episodes could have been the spur for some decent character development – but it wasn’t to be.

The Decimas may, like Saymon, look rather silly, but elsewhere Miles Fothergill and Ania Marson (as the emotionless Novara and Geela) are both rather good. Even though Fothergill was masked when he appeared in Doctor Who, it’s easy to work out the Who role he played. Did he specialise in emotionless roles?

Odd and faintly disturbing, The Web has its moments although it’s never been a top tier S1 episode for me.

Seek-Locate-Destroy

Seek-Locate-Destroy opens with our first sight of the very silly-looking security robot. Complete with a fixed grin and flappy arms, it’s fair to say it was never going to rival the Daleks ….

Blake and Vila make for an interesting combination (a shame we didn’t see them team up more regularly). The first fifteen minutes are similar to the events seen in Time Squad – Blake and the others penetrate a Federation top security establishment with embarrassing ease – but at least there’s a wrinkle here (Cally is overpowered and left behind when the others teleport back).

Minus points for the others not realising at first that Cally was missing. It’s also a pity that Cally (presented to us only two episodes ago as a fanatical freedom fighter) now seems to have regressed somewhat – she really does fight like a girl (her tussle with a Federation trooper isn’t one of B7‘s greatest ever action scenes). But she partially redeems herself with some nice taunting of Travis at the end of the episode.

One moment which has stuck in my memory since the original transmission is when the Federation trooper removes his helmet to reveal …. a very ordinary looking man. Whether this was intentional or not, I don’t know, but it’s always resonated with me. With their helmets on, the troopers are faceless goons who can be mown down with impunity by Blake and the others. But when we can see their faces, they become people.

The introduction of Servalan and Travis helps to raise the stakes as now Blake has tangible opponents to fight against. Both Jacqueline Pearce and Stephen Greif make strong first impressions and they help to turn what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward run-around into something much more satisfying. Travis is a paper-thin character but Greif – right from his wonderfully camp, hands on hips, introduction – certainly catches the eye. Pearce’s silkily smooth delivery is equally as compelling. Over time both would become overused, but we’ll leave those debates for another time. One of my favourite S1 episodes.

Mission to Destiny

Mission to Destiny boasts an impressive guest cast of familiar faces. No stars names, but a good selection of decent actors – although it’s a slight shame that their characters are all very thinly drawn. Terry Nation ladles on the murder mystery cliches (the dying man writing a clue in his own blood) but as most of the crew are pretty unlikable it’s hard to be too concerned about whodunnit.

After sharing a few knowing looks in The Web (although Cally was under the influence back then) Avon and Cally team up for the first time. Avon’s in his element playing detective (“we all know that one of you is the murderer”) and he and Cally share some lovely moments together. The look he gives her when she blithely tells the crew that they should consider them to be hostages is one …

This exchange is another:

Cally: My people have a saying. A man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken.

Avon: Life expectancy must be fairly short among your people.

It’s never been a favourite (the plot is rather loose) but there are worse episodes.

Blakes 40 – Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch: Series One, Episodes One to Four

b1

Since 2018 marks the fortieth anniversary of Blakes 7, it seems like the ideal time for a complete series rewatch (and as there are 52 episodes in total, it fits nicely into a one-a-week watching pattern). I’ve been logging very brief capsule reviews elsewhere on the Internet with fellow travellers since January, but I thought it would be handy to re-publish them all here – with possibly the odd tweak or two along the way.

The Way Back

b2

A nicely twisted dystopian opener, even if there are a few plot points which have always niggled. Clearly the Federation’s brainwashing process isn’t terribly effective (Blake quickly regains all his forbidden memories shortly after his meeting with Foster). And since the children have had false impressions planted, why not do the same with Blake – thereby convincing him that he did assault them?

The child abuse angle is rather jarring and it’d be interesting to know whether it was originally intended to reference it in later episodes. Blake attempting to clear his name would have been a decent running theme, but the matter is quietly forgotten after this episode.

Being generous, you could take it as an early example that the Federation aren’t terribly efficient at smearing their political opponents (clearly they don’t know how to work the media). As the series progresses, Blake quickly builds a legend – but it’s for all the right reasons (striking a blow against his oppressive Federation overlords) rather than the wrong ones (nobody ever asks him if he’s Blake the convicted paedophile).

Wonky logic aside, The Way Back boasts some impressive modelwork (the Dome) which helps to balance out some of the more threadbare studio sets. Gareth Thomas is suitably impassioned whilst Michael Keating and Sally Knyvette – with their limited screentime – both catch the eye. A pity that the borderline psychotic Vila we see here didn’t last long.

Space Fall

b3

Leylan is an interesting character. At heart he seems like a decent man, but he allows his subordinate – the sadistic Raiker – free reign across the ship. The moment when Leylan tells Raiker to be “discreet” with their female prisoner is an oft quoted one. It’s easy to see parallels between the Federation and the Nazis (with Nation scripting, possibly not a surprise).

Leylan is positioned in the narrative as the complicit German/Federation type. Not intrinsically evil himself, but willing to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of others. What strikes me most about this sort of character is that whilst Blake seems to believe that the Federation is a monolithic entity with a single voice or heart (“I intend to see that heart ripped out!”) people like Leylan suggest that Federation society is much more complex than the black and white picture painted by Blake. So every time he goes on a killing spree, Blake might be mowing down careerists such as Leylan and Artix.

When we first see the prisoners on the flight deck, it’s not surprising that our eyes are drawn to those we’ve met before – Blake, Jenna and Vila. Apart from these three, Gan is prominent in the frame (the camera very much favouring him) whilst we don’t see Avon at all to begin with. It can’t be a coincidence that he’s disconnected from the others, even when he’s only sitting in his flight seat …

Once Blake and Avon meet, the series begins to pick up momentum. Was it scripted or an acting choice that Avon didn’t look at Blake during their first conversation? Either way it’s a nice touch which – right from the start – tells us that their relationship is fated to be an uneasy one.

Cygnus Alpha

b4

Cygnus Alpha has two main plot threads – Blake, Avon and Jenna getting to grips with life aboard the newly christened Liberator and the power struggle down on Cygnus Alpha.

It’s the former which is by far the most engaging. The continuing bubbling conflict between Blake and Avon – with Jenna caught in the middle – is nicely done. It’s interesting that both Blake and Avon discover they worked on the same project (a teleport system) which implies that they’re more similar than either would like to admit.

The timescale of this episode and the previous one makes no sense. In total, it takes the London eight months to reach Cygnus Alpha, yet it seems like Blake and the others have only been onboard the Liberator for a few hours. Are we to believe that Blake waited nearly eight months before inciting the others to take over the London? That seems barely credible, but neither does the notion that Blake’s spent months kicking his heels in the Liberator whilst following the London at a snail’s pace ….

Cygnus Alpha may be a quarry, but the night filming – and the well executed glass shots – ensures that it’s a memorable location (the model shots are excellent too – plain to see that a fair chunk of the budget was spent on these early episodes). It’s notable that once the prisoners are released from the London, Gan is easily the most proactive. He’d rarely get the opportunity again to be quite so front and centre.

With Blake looking for his “people” down on the surface, that leaves Avon and Jenna alone on the ship. The scenes where they debate whether to cut and run are amongst the most memorable of the episode. Easy to believe that Avon would, but Jenna already seems to be hero-worshiping (at the very least) Blake so it’s just as easy to understand why she wouldn’t.

It’s a pity that – although we didn’t know it at the time – Jenna’s character had already peaked. When Vila comes aboard, the pecking order of Blake/Avon/Vila with Jenna and Cally jostling for position lower down and Gan a very distant last was pretty much established. Given this, it’s not surprising to learn that Sally Knyvette was keen to leave at the end of the first series.

Once Brian Blessed begins ranting and raving then my interest begins to dip a little, but overall this is a pretty decent episode. Especially when compared to the next two ….

Time Squad

b5

Time Squad has two separate plotlines, neither of which are completely successful. The first five minutes or so, which takes place on the Liberator flight deck, might be mostly info-dumping but the dialogue is nicely sparky.

The communications centre on Saurian Major is rather like a proto Star One. Destroy it, says Blake, and the Federation will be crippled. The problem is that when they do this, life in the Federation goes on as normal. This is either sloppy scripting from Nation or it’s an early example that Blake really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I prefer to think it’s the latter.

The Saurian sequences are mainly memorable for Cally’s debut and the location filming at Oldbury. A pity that Cally is fooled by Blake’s look over there trick, but the arrival of a fanatical, obsessive freedom fighter (happy to die for her cause) promises to shake things up. Sadly her character loses this early aggressive spark very quickly.

Security at the base isn’t very good is it? Blake and the others just swan in and reach their destination with embarrassing ease. This rather beggars belief and helps to blunt the effectiveness of the Saurian subplot.

But Blake’s adventures do rather play second fiddle to the saga of a space capsule which contains a number of deep-frozen homicidal warriors, who – once they’ve been thawed out – jerkily spring into life and menace Jenna and Gan. This is the first – but by no means the last – time our heroes come across a derelict object floating in space. You’d have thought that the hard lesson they learn here would make them more cautious in future – but no, every time they spot a piece of space flotsam they can’t help but poke their noses in (always with disastrous results).

Jenna, unusually, gets to drive the action. With Gan fainting all over the place she has to step up to the mark and demonstrate her unarmed combat skills. Thanks to a few decent camera moves and Dudley laying on the tense music, these scenes are, at times, quite good. No classic then, but decent enough fare.

The Eagle of the Ninth – Simply Media DVD Review

eagle.jpg

The year is 119 AD.  Former Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Anthony Higgins) is haunted by the fate of his father’s legion, the Ninth.  Four thousand men had been dispatched to fight the Caledonian tribes in Northern England, but they all vanished without trace.  Adopting the disguise of a Greek oculist and accompanied by the faithful Esca (Christian Rodska), Marcus is determined to locate the Ninth’s Golden Eagle, which symbolises the honour of the legion, and bring it back home.

Originally published in 1955, The Eagle of the Ninth was a children’s historical adventure novel written by Rosemary Sutcliff.  A prolific author, The Eagle of the Ninth has to rank as one of her most enduring works.  And although the bulk of her output was written for a juvenile audience, Sutcliff once stated that she wrote “for children of all ages, from nine to ninety”.

That her stories had universal appeal is demonstrated by this adaptation, which ran for six episodes during 1977.  Broadcast in the Sunday Classic Serials slot, there’s no sense that it was specifically tailored for a younger audience.  As was usual for adaptations from this era, it sticks pretty closely to the original source material (whereas the recent film – The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum – took more liberties and therefore rather diluted the impact of Sutcliff’s tale).

Episode one opens twelve years after the disappearance of the Ninth.  Marcus arrives in Britain to take up charge of an isolated garrison.  He’s still a little touchy about his father’s fate, but the rebellious Britons massing outside the fort might be more of an immediate problem.

eagle 01
Anthony Higgins

There’s some familiar faces lurking inside the garrison, such as the blunt Drusillus (played by Bernard Gallagher).  Gallagher, probably best known for appearing in the first few series of Casualty, gives Drusillus an entertaining dose of weary cynicism – he’s an older and a much more experienced soldier than Marcus, but it’s Marcus who’s in charge.

This first episode – Frontier – also boasts an early television appearance from Patrick Malahide, as Cradoc.  You may have to look twice to find him though, as he’s almost unrecognisable thanks to an impressive wig and beard.  Marcus attempts to foster good relations with Cradoc, a notable local, but his friendly entreaties are in vain.

Anthony Higgins impresses right from the start.  Marcus might be young and inexperienced, but he’s also honest and heroic, so it therefore seems natural that we immediately side with him against the influx of hairy tribesmen.  The episode has a generous film allocation, although the scenes of the tribesmen attacking the fort do look slightly comic (and tight camera angles have to be used in order to hide how few extras were available).  The hand to hand fighting is nicely directed though.

The injuries suffered by Marcus during the attack have left him unable to walk which means that his time as a soldier has come to an end.  Whilst recuperating at his uncle’s farm, they both elect to visit the local amphitheatre.  It’s not the coliseum, but it does introduce us to two important characters –  Esca and Cottia (Gillian Bailey).

eagle 02
Gillian Bailey

Esca is toiling in the pit – locked into a fight to the death with another slave – whilst Cottia, like Marcus, is a slightly queasy spectator (both were perturbed by the sight of a bear being gored to death).  When Esca is beaten, the crowd – overcome by bloodlust – all place their thumbs downwards, signifying that Esca should be put to death.  We can forgive this anachronstic moment – since it was widely believed to be accurate at the time – although quite how Marcus was able to persuade the crowd en-masse to spare Esca is a bit of a mystery.

Marcus needs a body slave and buys Esca.  Their relationship is a key part of the story and the interaction between Higgins and Rodska works well throughout the serial.  Esca is initially reserved and bitter, but it isn’t long before the pair form a tight bond.  Gillian Bailey also impresses as the proud Cottia.  She rails against being forced to act like a Roman maiden, rather than the Iceni tribeswoman she actually is.  There’s a lovely moment when, anxious to see the ill Marcus, she bites the arm of a slave blocking her way!

The second half of the serial sees Marcus and Esca set out to find the Eagle of the Ninth.  This quest results in Marcus suddenly gaining a rather unconvincing beard (but then fake face fungus can be found in most classic serials of this era).  He’s also haunted in his dreams by the long-dead soldiers of the Ninth – in his imaginings they’re a legion of walking skeletons (a brief, but quite effective nightmarish scene).

The Eagle of the Ninth was made in the usual way for a production of this era – film for the exteriors and videotape for the interiors.  Picture quality is as you’d expect for something that’s forty years old – some of the early film inserts are a little grubby and the studio scenes are a little soft – but overall it’s quite watchable.  Production design is very sound throughout, especially the studio farmhouse which features in several episodes (nicely designed by Campbell Gordon).

Although the serial features a number of battle scenes, this isn’t an action story – it’s more of a reflective, character-driven drama.  According to this webpage, Rosemary Sutcliff not only loved the adaptation, but was so taken with Higgins’ performance that she kept a photograph of him on her writing desk for decades afterwards.

It may be true that some of the tribal antics (and beards) are a little unconvincing, but overall this is a literate and well acted production which transcends its limited budget.  Running for six 30 minute episodes (spread across two discs) it’s released by Simply Media on the 16th of January 2018 and can be ordered directly from them here.  RRP £19.99.

eagle 03
Christian Rodska

Ivanhoe – Production Stills

A collection of production stills from Ivanhoe.

Ivanhoe – Simply Media DVD Review

The year is 1194.  Sir William of Ivanhoe (Eric Flynn) has returned home to England following the disastrous Third Crusade in Palestine.  Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric (Peter Dyneley), one of the few remaining Saxon nobles in an England now dominated by the Normans, has broken off relations with his son due to Ivanhoe’s support for King Richard.

The young Ivanhoe doesn’t seem too disheartened by this familial disapproval though, as he has scores to settle – most notably with Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert (Anthony Bate), a member of the Knights Templar.  They will not only clash on the tournament field but also off it and two desirable young women – the Lady Rowena (Clare Jenkins) and Rebecca (Vivian Brooks) – will both have parts to play in their bitter feud.

Meanwhile, King Richard and Prince John find themselves locked in a grim battle for control of the English throne ….

Published in 1820 across three volumes, Ivanhoe – A Romance has proven to be one of Sir Walter Scott’s most enduring works.  Its mixture of Medieval derring-do and romance is an intoxicating one, with numerous film and television adaptations serving as a testament to the timelessness of the story.

Possibly one of the most notable things about Ivanhoe is how Scott’s novel helped to solidify the modern myth of Robin Hood.  Robin (referred to as Locksley for most of the serial) appears throughout and his characterisation here – a freedom fighter first, an outlaw second – chimes with how we view Robin today (the Robin Hood of the earlier ballads was a much less likeable and noble chap).

Scott wasn’t the first writer to set the struggles of Robin Hood during the reign of Richard I, but this story undeniably helped to create the template which many in the future would emulate.  Certain aspects of the Robin Hood myth are established here – most notably the way that Robin splits the arrow of his challenger during a test of skill.  It’s also interesting how subsequent writers took aspects of Ivanhoe’s character – his return to England from the Crusades, for example – and grafted them onto Robin.

The opening episode wastes no time in creating a sense of place and time. With the rightful King of England, Richard, believed to be languishing in a foreign jail, his brother John sees an opportunity to sieze power. The downtrodden Saxons find themselves suffering under the rule of the Normans, whilst Sir Brian casts a baleful shadow over proceedings.

hi014546802-e1504956112893.jpg
Anthony Bate

Right from his first appearance, Anthony Bate impresses as Sir Brian. Although Bate tended to play establishment types and professional men, he throws himself into this role – a black-hearted villain, albeit one with his own code of honour – with gusto.  Eric Flynn, as Ivanhoe, is perfectly cast as the square-jawed hero. Whilst it’s true that Bate, as befits a baddy, has the more interesting role to play, Flynn has a boyish charm which suits the character.

Ivanhoe’s first acknowledged appearance is held back until the end of the opening instalment (although it’s rather obvious that the mysterious hooded pilgrim who makes several enigmatic comments throughout the episode is Ivanhoe). That he and Sir Brian (bitter rivals from the Holy Land) happen to run into each other at the castle of Ivanhoe’s estranged father is something of a coincidence ….

Clare Jenkins, as Rowena, makes for a very appealing herione (coincidentally she and Flynn had appeared together a few years earlier in the Doctor Who story The Wheel In Space). Rowena and Ivanhoe are in love but he has a challenger for Rowena’s affections, the arrogant de Bracy (David Brizley), a Norman lord.

Rebecca (Vivian Brooks), daughter of the despised Jewish moneylender Isaac of York (John Franklyn-Robbins), is somewhat taken with Ivanhoe (she nurses him back to health after Sir Brian gains the upper hand during Prince John’s tourney) but she’s doomed to be unsuccessful as Ivanhoe only has eyes for Rowena.  Sir Brian later attempts to woo Rebecca, but she shuns his advances.

Ivanhoe was Vivian Brooks’ third and final television job (following appearances in Thirty Minute Theatre and Z Cars).  It’s a slight mystery why she didn’t go on to have a longer career as she’s really rather good here, especially when she and Bate cross verbal swords. Brooks may have been very inexperienced compared to Bate, but she more than holds her own during the scenes where Sir Brian and Rebecca warily circle each other.  Vivian Brooks certainly has the meatier of the two main female roles (Clare Jenkins’ Rowena doesn’t have a great deal to do except pine for Ivanhoe).

Vivian Brooks

Although Vivian Brooks only racked up a handful of credits, most of the other main roles were filled by very familiar faces.  That Ivanhoe was directed by David Maloney should be fairly obvious by taking a quick glance at the cast list.  The likes of Graham Weston, John Franklyn-Robbins, Tim Preece, Michael Napier Brown, Bernard Horsfall, Noel Coleman and Hugh Walters had already appeared or would later appear in other productions directed by Maloney.  David Maloney, like many other directors, tended to use a “rep” of actors – dependable people he knew would deliver the performances required.

The strength in depth of the cast is one of the reasons why this serial works as well as it does.  Tim Preece entertains as the capacious and vain Prince John, Hugh Walters is pleasingly off-kilter as Cedric’s fool Wamba, Bernard Horsfall is suitably imposing as the Black Knight, John Franklyn-Robbins impresses as the persecuted Isaac and Noel Coleman is characterically strong as Fitzsurse, one of John’s advisors.  Clive Graham, as Locksley, also offers a vivid performance and it’s always a pleasure to see Michael Craze, here as one of Lockley’s men (Thomas).

Graham Weston, clearly one of David Maloney’s favourite actors (apart from Ivanhoe, Maloney cast him in two Doctor Who stories – The War Games and Planet of Evil), gets a chance to display his skills with a quarterstaff when his character – Ivanhoe’s loyal servant, Gurth – tangles with the outlaws. It’s not a badly directed sequence, although like all fight scenes taped in the studio it pretty much had to be done in a single take (had it been shot on film then it could have been edited much more tightly).

Graham Weston

With Ivanhoe injured and insensible during the middle part of the serial, other characters move to the forefront of the action. Bernard Horsfall’s mysterious Black Knight (a vision in blond wig and beard) has an entertaining tustle with Barry Linehan’s disolute Friar. The Friar, living the life of a hermit deep within the forest, may claim to exist on a diet of peas and water but the truth is rather different!

When Ivanhoe, Cedric, Isaac, Rebecca and Rowena are captured by a group of Norman knights led by Sir Brian, they find themselves the prisoners of Godfrey Front de Boeuf (Francis de Wolff). Godfrey has usurped Ivanhoe’s lands and now seeks his death in order to secure his position. de Wolff cackles with evil intent (like Peter Dyneley he’s somewhat of a stranger to subtlety).

Rebecca is later denounced as a witch by the leader of the Templars – angered by Sir Brian’s infatuation with her – and is sentenced to death. She claims the right of trial by combat and nominates Ivanhoe to be her champion. And with Sir Brian in the opposite corner it seems that the final reckoning between them is now at hand ….

Although the Classic Serials had just moved into colour, this ten part adaptation (broadcast during January, February and March 1970) maintained the same production model from the black and white days.  Therefore the bulk of each episode was recorded on videotape in the studio, with film inserts used to open out the narrative.  Whilst this means that it isn’t as glossy or filmic as some of the later television versions, the quality of the performances are more than adequate compensation for the occasional production shortcomings (such as the unconvincing beards and the way some battles largely take place off screen).

Although some of the turns are rather on the ripe side (there are times when it’s impossible not to be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) there are subtler pleasures to be found elsewhere – Anthony Bate, for example, is excellent throughout. Overall, this is a strong and faithful adaptation of a sprawling epic and certainly deserves a place in your collection.

Ivanhoe is released by Simply Media on the 18th of September 2017.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Eric Flynn