Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary rewatch – Stardrive

Nobody loves Stardrive. The reason’s pretty obvious – the Space Rats look very, very silly (things don’t improve when they open their mouths either). Their leader, Atlan (Damian Thomas), is briefly given a moment of character development when it’s revealed that he’s not actually a Space Rat. But since this revelation isn’t developed it proves to be something of a dead end.

Another issue with the Space Rats is the fact that Vila was given a few minutes to big them up – so after you’ve been told that they’re the baddest of the bad, the reality can’t help but be a disappointment ….

It’s nice to see Barbara Shelley, just a pity she’s wasted in a nothing sort of role. Doctor Plaxton is a very pallidly drawn character – we never really learn anything about her (especially why she’s so obsessed about perfecting the stardrive).

But if the guest cast are a little thin, at least the regulars are well catered for. Avon continues to blunder about (his wonderful plan to hitch a lift on an asteroid nearly kills them all). Quite why the others are still content to follow him after his recent string of command disasters is a bit of a mystery.

I love Vila’s drunk act – it’s an excellent demonstration of his natural cunning. Teaming Vila and Dayna up is another good move, even if Vila does revert to his more usual persona of a clumsy coward during these scenes.

The fact that Avon’s quite happy to use Vila and Dayna as a diversion is a telling moment (whether they live or die doesn’t seem to matter to him). Ditto poor old Doctor Plaxton, whose only reward for developing the stardrive is a painful death. The way that Avon comments “who?” after being asked about her, post-death, is a fascinating character touch – has he already blocked her death from his mind, or is he just attempting to?

Stardrive feels like a cheap story. Most of the new modelwork is pretty basic whilst the location (yet another quarry) doesn’t add any visual flair to the episode. But although it’s by means the series at its best, it’s not an absolute disaster either. The Space Rats thankfully aren’t on the screen for very long and the regulars (apart from Tarrant, who doesn’t do much at all) get a decent crack of the whip.

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Rescue 

The first ten minutes or so are fascinating. Dayna and Tarrant – two people who you’d assume would both be good in a crisis – somewhat go to pieces. Dayna has to be rescued several times (first by Avon and then Dorian) whilst Tarrant seems to have turned into a drunk, wallowing face down in the snow. I might be doing him a disservice though, possibly the canister contained nothing stronger than water and he’s simply feeling the side-effects from their Terminal adventures.

Even more unexpected (although welcome) is the way that Vila’s temporarily recast as the hero – not only rescuing Tarrant (“If I’ve broken my back hauling a corpse about, I’ll never forgive you”) but also saving the day at the end of the episode.

As for Avon, well he’s still Avon, although given their reduced circumstances it’s maybe not surprising that he’s even more ruthless than usual. Although Dorian is later revealed to have unfriendly plans for them all, Avon wasn’t to know that at first – so the casual way he cheerfully hijacks Dorian’s ship is a reminder that he isn’t a very nice person at all ….

There’s not a great deal of plot in the episode, but I don’t have too much of a problem with this. Since there’s only six speaking parts everyone is given a good share of the action (although it’s ironic that Soolin – later to become a regular – comes off the worst). Geoffrey Burridge is more than memorable as Dorian, although things do go slightly awry around the thirty minute mark (when he starts to age). It’s then that all pretence at subtlety goes out of the window.

When Dorian tells Avon that “you really are most welcome here, my friend” it’s possible to read considerable subtext into those simple words. An acting choice or as scripted? I wonder.

I do like the way that once Dorian reveals the truth about his secret room he suddenly starts speaking like a character in a florid 19th century melodrama (“all the madness and rotting corruption which would have been mine”). There’s an obvious reason for that, but it’s nice that the script doesn’t feel the need to hammer the point home. Had this been a contemporary Doctor Who story it’s easy to imagine the Doctor muttering something about Oscar Wilde just before the TARDIS left the scene.

The plot isn’t exactly watertight. How fortunate that Dorian – who has been searching for Avon and the others for a while – happens to find them immediately after the Liberator has been destroyed (and therefore at a point when they’re at their most vulnerable. The reason why he needs them, rather than any other group, is a little puzzling too. Dorian requires people who are close to each other (“You care for each other. After what you’ve been through together, you couldn’t fail to care for each other. Even you, Avon”.). Only Avon and co fit this bill? Hmm, okay.

The cut price monster at the end is a bit of a disappointment and it’s a pity that Soolin isn’t given more to do, but all in all this is a solid season opener.

Pinter at the BBC – Landscape (4th February 1983)

 

Written for BBC radio in 1968 and performed on stage a year later, Landscape is a one-act play with decidedly Beckett-like overtones. A couple – Duff (Colin Blakely) and Beth (Dorothy Tutin) – sit at opposite ends of a long table, each indulging in lengthy monologues (they are either unable or unwilling to register the other’s conversation).

Duff does at least acknowledge that Beth is there, whereas she seems totally unaware of his presence. There is no plot as such, Beth recounts a story about a previous romantic interlude (possibly with Duff, possibly with somebody else) whilst Duff concerns himself with more practical matters.

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

The passage of time is illustrated by the diminishing light. At the start it’s a fairly bright day, but by the end of the play the pair are in virtual darkness. This lack of light generates a feeling of oppression and enclosure (director Kenneth Ives reinforces the mood at this point by focussing on close-ups of either Tutin or Blakely rather than cutting away to wide shots of the pair).

Dorothy Tutin remains wonderfully dialled-down and reflective throughout whilst Colin Blakely is given the chance for some expressive fireworks in the last few minutes. The way that Beth never for a moment acknowledges Duff’s histrionics (she simply continues with her tender tale) is a compelling moment.

Regularly punctuated by John Williams’ guitar interludes (the music was composed by Carl Davis) Landscape exercises a subtle, but strong, grip.

Pinter at the BBC – The Hothouse (27th March 1982)

Written in 1958, between The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, The Hothouse was then put aside by Pinter for more than twenty years. It wasn’t until 1979 that he picked it up again – it was staged in 1980 at the Hampstead Theatre and transferred to television two years later.

The most striking thing about the play at first glance is just how funny it is. Pinter’s other works aren’t always devoid of humour, but for long stretches The Hothouse plays like a farce (albeit one with a very dark heart).

The setting – a nameless Government run rest home which (it’s strongly implied) uses any means necessary to “cure” those unfortunates who’ve found themselves within its walls – is a sombre one. The dehumanising nature of the place is reinforced when it’s revealed that the patients are never referred to by their names – only numbers.

The momentary spasm of disquiet this generates is then negated when Roote (Derek Newark) launches into a lengthy argument with his second-in command, Gibbs (James Grant), about whether 6457 is alive or dead. This is an early example of Roote’s inability to grasp the simplest of arguments and as Derek Newark attacks the lines with gusto there’s little you can do but sit back and enjoy the ride.

Featuring seven speaking parts (five major, two minor) it’s the character of Roote who dominates throughout. Newark was always one of those actors who could be guaranteed to add a certain something to any production, but I can’t recall a better performance from him than this one. Raising the roof on more than one occasion, Newark delivers a sparkling comic turn. Roote presents himself as an expert of virtually any topic, but the reality appears to always contradict this (mind you, it’s possible that he’s more perceptive than his outwardly blimpish persona might suggest).

Although the plot is a good deal more straightforward than many of Pinter’s other plays, there are still points which are open to interpretation. Roote is shocked to learn that 6459 has given birth (and also that the majority of the staff had – at one time or another – taken advantage of her) but there’s strong evidence to suggest that he’s actually the father. And we never learn exactly who organised the revolution which – offscreen – slaughtered all but one of the senior staff towards the end of the play.

As a character, Roote will only work if he has equally strong personalities to bounce off. James Grant deadpans throughout as Gibbs, his passive and methodical nature contrasting nicely with Roote’s hysterical outbursts. Robert East (Lush) is a totally different character type from Gibbs (Lush is outspoken and arrogant) but again he’s another who interacts delightfully with Roote. In possibly the play’s funniest scene, an incensed Roote throws several glasses of whisky into Lush’s face before Lush decides it might be more sensible to hide the glass until he’s delivered his latest contentious comment.

Given the era it was written in, it’s possibly not surprising that The Hothouse only features one female character, Miss Cutts (Angela Pleasence) and also that she somewhat skirts the environs of the piece. The lover of both Roote and Gibbs, she may be somewhat indistinctly defined but Pleasence is able to bring her into sharp focus.

Roger Davidson as the hapless Lamb, also has limited screentime but leaves a lingering impression. The least experienced of the senior staff, Lush finds himself wired up with electrodes and tortured by Gibbs and Miss Cutts (Gibbs is looking for someone to take the blame for 6459’s pregnancy and the ingenious Lamb fits the bill nicely).

His name seems apt, since he really is a lamb to the slaughter (before, during and after his ordeal he doesn’t really seem to understand what’s happening). His blithe co-operation, even when being tortured, is played for laughs, but is undercut by the pain he suffers when the electricity is turned on. With the patients remaining off-screen throughout, this scene gives us an inkling about what could be occurring throughout the building.

Deftly juggling light and dark themes, The Hothouse doesn’t feel like a relic of more than sixty years ago. Indeed, maybe it’s even more relevant today than it was back then.

Blakes 7 – In Praise of Series A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinter at the BBC – BFI DVD Review

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

Disc One

Leo McKern in Tea Party

Tea Party (25th May 1966). 76 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

The Basement (20th February 1967). 54 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Special Feature

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

Disc Two

Hazel Hughes and Maurice Denham in A Slight Ache

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disc Three  

Henry Woolf in Monologue

Monologue (13th April 1973). 20 minutes

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

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

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

Old Times (22nd October 1975). 75 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Landscape (4th February 1983). 45 minutes

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

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

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

Special Feature

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

Disc Four

Derek Newark in The Hothouse

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

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

Although a dark undertone is always present (indeed, the play concludes with the offscreen deaths of all but one of the senior staff) there’s also a playful use of dialogue and even the odd slapstick moment.  Derek Newark as Roote, the hopelessly out of his depth manager, steamrollers his way through scene after scene quite wonderfully.  A man constantly losing a running battle to keep his anger in check, Roote seems incapable of understanding even the simplest of thing. Although he might not be quite as dense as he appears (and his culpability in the death of one patient and the pregnancy of another is also open to interpretation).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disc Five

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

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

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

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

Special Features

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

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

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

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

Harold Pinter, 1997