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

Take Me Home – Simply Media DVD Review

Tom (Keith Barron) is eking out a living as a cab driver in the Midlands town of Woodsleigh Abbots.  It’s something of a comedown for a skilled man, but since all the traditional trades have disappeared he has little choice. Life with his wife Liz (Annette Crosbie) is settled but rather humdrum.

However, when he meets Kathy (Maggie O’Neill) everything changes. Kathy, half his age, is a newlywed who has recently moved to the area. Having had an argument with her husband, Martin (Reece Dinsdale), she scrambles into Tom’s cab in a highly distressed state. He initially treats her with fatherly concern, but over time this transforms into a dangerous passion which begins to eat away at him ….

Originally broadcast in 1989, Tony Marchant’s three part drama stands as a document of the dying days of the Thatcher era.  Previously an industrial town, the arrival of Chinese computer firm InfoCo has transformed Woodsleigh Abbots, bringing in an influx of upwardly mobile white collar workers like Martin.

Martin and his friends are the winners at present leaving Tom, having seen the industry he spent his life working in evaporate, very much on the debit side of the ledger. As for Liz, she’s embraced InfoCo and enjoys working in their canteen, even if the rank and file staff members – such as Martin – treat her with indifference or mild contempt.

The company offers nothing for Tom though, so armed with his favourite Dusty Springfield cassette he’s chosen the job of cabbie.  But the recent regeneration has transformed the town to such an extent that he sometimes struggles to find his way. The irony in this is quite clear.

The contrast between Martin and Kathy, with their badminton and dinner parties, and the humbler pleasures of Tom and Liz is marked.  Clearly Martin and Kathy are on their way up whilst Tom feels that he’s being left behind.  His bitterness at the way that technological progress has halted his career, allied to his suspicion about the ever-encroaching InfoCo, positions him as a skilled man who has come to realise that his skills are no longer needed.

Keith Barron was one of those actors who could convey a whole range of emotions with just a single look. There’s an excellent example at the beginning of the first episode as Tom drops a couple (older man, younger woman) off at a motel. The waves of disapproval emanating from Tom (the man’s old enough to be the girl’s father for goodness sake) is palpable. But that was before he’d met Kathy of course ..

The clash of opposites is one of the things which makes Take Me Home so compelling.  Tom and Kathy have little in common – the age gap is just one example whilst their divergent musical tastes (he favours Dusty whilst she loves Deacon Blue) is another. 

Reece Dinsdale has a difficult role to play since Martin, initially at least, is portrayed as a wholly unlikeable type. Forcing Kathy to have an abortion (telling her that he wouldn’t be able to love their child and would also end up hating her) sets the tone. As befits a computer operator (or at least the 1980’s vision of one) Martin is coldly logical. They can’t afford a baby at the moment, so the “mistake” has to be dealt with.

The relationship between Tom and Kathy is a slow burn. But once they do connect, everything happens in a rush. Subtitled “a love story” in the Radio Times, it’s probably best not to expect a happy ending – it’s plain that when the affair is revealed the fallout will be dramatic.

It’s hard to fault any of the main performers. Barron is perfect as the essentially decent, but utterly conflicted Tom (a man unable to tear himself away from Kathy, even though he’s well aware that he’s destroying his marriage). Crosbie’s slowly dawning comprehension that something is badly wrong is also skilfully played.

O’Neill has to tread a difficult path, but she ensures that Kathy is more than simply an attractive piece of totty (or a helpless victim of either of the men in her life). And although Martin is initially portrayed in a deeply unsympathetic light, as time goes on the script (and Dinsdale) teases out his damaged, fragile side.

By the final episode the truth is out and events spiral further and further out of control before some sort of compromise is reached (although it’s debatable who the winners and losers are).  Barron and Crosbie share several pulsating scenes early in the episode.  Crosbie is never better than here – displaying a mix of emotions (denial, anger, forgiveness) in quick succession. The sight of a glammed-up Liz (maybe partly done to genuinely tempt Tom, but mainly to taunt him) is a haunting and faintly disturbing one.

Uncompromising and skilfully acted, Take Me Home still has considerable impact, nearly thirty years down the line. Recommended.

Comprising three episodes each of approximately sixty minutes duration, Take Me Home comes on a single disc. There are no special features but – as per all BBC titles – it’s subtitled.  The picture quality is fine (albeit a little grainy) with no noticeable issues.

Take Me Home is available now from Simply Media. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Series Three, Episodes Eleven to Thirteen

Moloch

Any clues that this is a Ben Stead script? Well, one or two ….

Sardos is a planet where the gross Section Leader Grose (John Hartley) rules with an iron hand although the unseen Moloch seems to be pulling most of the strings. Moloch doesn’t do much though, apart from occasionally piping up off-screen to advise that any miscreant female should be handed over to Grose’s men. It hardly needs to be spelled out what their fate will be.

Servalan later sums up the state of affairs on Sardos. “Well, Section Leader, the records were accurate. Women, food, and inflicting pain – in no particular order”. At least with Power, Stead would subvert expectations from time to time – sadly there’s no examples of that here. When Grose slaps a serving wench on the bottom and suggests that she’d look better with a “bit of dressing, and an apple between her teeth” we have to take his comments at face value.

The expectation is that one of the downtrodden females, such as Chesil (Sabina Franklyn), will be the one to strike the killer blow and bring Grose’s misogynistic empire crashing to the ground. That would have been something, but it wasn’t to be.

Vila later makes friends with Doran (Davyd Harris), an initially affable rogue who later turns out to be far less affable (that fact he hates women shouldn’t really come as any surprise – even though he’s not one of Grose’s men). Michael Keating is a little better served by this script than the previous one. His best moment comes when Vila runs into Servalan and the pair form an uneasy (and very brief) alliance. A whole episode featuring a team-up between Vila and Servalan would have been delicious, a pity it never happened.

The fortunes of the Federation have fluctuated during series three, mainly depending on who was writing the script. In Moloch, things seem so bad that Servalan has traipsed across the galaxy in order to retrieve Grose’s legion of ships. That doesn’t exactly chime with what we’ve seen previously, but that’s the least of this episode’s problems …

As we lurch towards the conclusion, things get more and more lunatic. The appearance of Colonel Astrid, Grose’s former commander, is bad enough but then we finally get to see Moloch himself. If you’re going to hold something back for a shock reveal at the end, you need to make sure that it’s worth waiting for. Oh dear.

Mind-boggling stuff. What were Chris Boucher and David Maloney thinking?

Death Watch

Armed with nothing more than a bad wig, Steven Pacey very credibly manages to make Deeta Tarrant seem like a very different character from his younger brother Del. The Deeta scenes give Pacey better material to work with than he’s had for most of series three and it’s one of the obvious highlights of the episode.

Vila’s amazing range of drinks and snacks is another and I also like the rare example of playful banter between Vila and Cally – which ends when the pair, acting like a couple of children, chase each other off the flight deck!

There’s some nice self-referential touches in this story. The commentator (David Sibley) serves a dual purpose – not only does he info-dump a considerable amount of detail about the upcoming combat, but when that’s over there’s time for a few sly digs at the artifice of television broadcasting (“it was your usual delicate mixture of enthusiasm and dignified cliché”). The portentous voice-over (“Space, the final frontier”) is another obvious bit of mockery.

Servalan does very little, but her scene with Avon is worth the price of admission alone. Paul Darrow manages to overcome the handicap of looking ridiculous (that jacket isn’t the best thing he’s ever worn) as he spits out his dialogue in trademark fashion. You just knew that another snog was around the corner and he didn’t disappoint on that score. Two other moments are especially delightful – the way Avon holds Servalan in an embrace whilst at the same time calling the Liberator for teleport as well as Servalan’s smile after he departs.

The POV shots during the Deeta/Vinny battle are nicely done, as are Deeta’s final moments which the audience are invited to share. A pity that the space suits are all a bit glam rock though.

Overall, there’s not a lot wrong with this one. It’s certainly rich in small character moments which means that it’s a rewarding story to revisit.

Terminal

Terminal offers us a preview of the irrational Avon we’d see in series four. The destruction of the Liberator is a direct consequence of his overweening hubris – had he taken the advice of the others and steered the ship around the unidentified particles then the Liberator would have lived to tell the tale. But Avon knew best, or thought he did …..

“Well, you certainly took your time finding me”. It’s the briefest of scenes, but even this small dose of Gareth Thomas is a sharp reminder of what the series has lacked this year. Although a few half-hearted attempts had been made to strike up a rivalry between Avon and Tarrant, it never sprung into life. Had – as originally intended – an older actor been cast as Tarrant then possibly their spats might have been more impressive. But Steven Pacey always seemed like a lightweight when lined up alongside Paul Darrow.

The plot’s a little loose in places. Did Avon really just track Blake down in order to take part in his get-rich plan? We’ve previously been told that the Liberator contains untold wealth, so this seems unlikely. Or did Avon – even after all their squabbles – really want to reconnect with his former ship-mate? Again, this is slightly hard to swallow but it seems the more likely reason of the two.

But I do like the way that Avon’s motives are rather cloaked – when Servalan (shock, horror) makes an appearance, she wonders if Avon teleported down alone because he didn’t want to share Blake’s spoils with the others (Avon maintained it was because he didn’t want to put them in danger). The brief smile on his face after Servalan’s comment leaves this point moot.

Of course, there was no Blake, it was all an illusion conjured up by Servalan in order to (yawn) capture the Liberator. The only good thing about the destruction of the ship in this story is that we’ll be spared any more of these Servalan-hatches-a-crazy-plan-to-steal-the-Liberator plotlines in the future.

Best not to question why neither Servalan nor her minions notice that the Liberator’s not exactly looking in tip top shape. She’s been onboard before, so surely all the gloopy pustules on the walls should have started the alarm bells ringing.

Terminal’s ominous and constant heartbeat (which only increases the closer that Avon gets to his prey) works well and it’s nice to see Vila take charge for once. Left on the ailing Liberator with Dayna, he hatches a plan to hopefully buy them some more time.

The death of Zen (“I have failed you. I am sorry”) has always been more upsetting to me than the death of Gan. Sorry David.

Terminal does sag in parts (it takes an awfully long time for Avon to reach faux-Blake and the less said about the links the better) but it’s still a good’un.

So that’s that. The final end. At least until there was a last minute reprieve ….

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Series Three, Episodes Eight to Ten

Rumours of Death

I love the cold opening – a pity that the show didn’t do more of this. Unshaven and in pain, we share Avon’s disorientation as he’s visited in his cell by Shrinker (John Bryans). The prison cell is a simple set, but off-camera screams from other, less fortunate, inmates helps to create a sense both of scale and oppression. Fiona Cumming’s direction here, and throughout the episode, has some nice choices – with Shrinker standing and Avon sitting, the low camera angle reinforces the Federation man’s dominance (at least initially).

Avon’s ruthlessness is perfectly demonstrated in this episode (as well as his single-minded desire to withstand anything – even days of torture – to achieve his ultimate goal). Whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable – it’s easy to argue that the seeds of his eventual downfall were sown here. After killing the most important woman in his life (who betrayed him) it surely would make killing the most important man in his life (whom he believed had betrayed him) much easier.

After some of the more pulpy sci-fi stories of series three, Rumours of Death is a pleasingly straightforward thriller/spy yarn. And whilst the palace revolution – and Servalan’s temporary dethroning – was achieved rather easily, this could be taken as an illustration of just how tenuous her grip on power was at this point.

Jacqueline Pearce doesn’t have a great of screentime, but her scenes with Avon are pulsating (especially “It’s an old wall, Avon, it waits. I hope you don’t die before you reach it.”). Although once again it’s remarkable that Avon and Servalan keep on running into each other when they’ve the whole galaxy to play with.

Greenlee (Donald Douglas) and Forres (David Haig) are a couple of interesting characters – Federation types who also seem like fairly ordinary people. The fact they’re a likeable double-act helps to blur the lines between the “good” and “bad” sides. Sula (Lorna Helibron) is another example of this – is she a pure rebel, keen to restore democracy with a People’s Council, or does she just have her eye on replacing Servalan?

The revelation that Sula was Anna (and therefore everything Avon thought he knew was wrong) means that he has – in his own mind – no choice but to kill her. Whether she did really love him (as her dying words suggest) is another of those moments that’s open to interpretation. And that’s one of the reasons why Rumours of Death is such a good episode – few B7’s have this level of nuance. Who do you trust and who do you disbelieve?

Although the episode Blake wasn’t even a gleam in Chris Boucher’s eye when he scripted this one, in retrospect it’s easy to see how even at this point Avon was firmly set on the road to Gauda Prime.

Sarcophagus

You can’t help but love and respect a story which begins in such an oblique and bewildering fashion. Sarcophagus‘ first five minutes pass by with no explanation, although the roles of the masked servitors will become clearer later on (when we see the Liberator crew occupying the same positions).

As with most of S3, there’s a definite feeling of ennui hanging over the crew. With no particular goal in sight, they spend their time doing relatively little (you know things are desperate when Vila and Avon are indulging in a game of space draughts). Tarrant’s asteroid (“something else to chase” as Cally says) is the latest example of a mission which seems to be designed more to keep them busy, than for any other pressing reason.

Largely set aboard the Liberator and (apart from some non-speaking extras) solely centered around the regulars, Sarcophagus may have been designed as a cheap show, but Tanith Lee was able to work with these limitations and unlike, say Breakdown (another Liberator heavy story), ensure that everybody was well served by the script. Avon and Cally top and tail the story (with other intriguing scenes scattered throughout), Tarrant might be his usual annoying self when interrogating Cally early on, but he gets a decent scene with the alien later (although largely it feels like he’s just softening her up for Avon’s killer blow). Dayna gets to warble a tune(!) whilst Vila’s conjuring tricks (with a dose of non-diegetic sound) ends up as a decidedly creepy moment.

Easy to see why this is a slightly marmite story, since it’s almost totally a tale of dialogue and concepts with little or no action. But I’m glad that Boucher took a chance on a television novice like Tanith Lee, as both of her B7 stories are ones which repay multiple viewings.

Ultraworld

Vila seems to have had a nervous breakdown, that’s the only possible explanation I can find for his behaviour in this episode (chuckling with Orac at a series of lame riddles and gags). One sample will suffice – “Where do space pilots leave their ships? At parking meteors”. True, in the end this becomes an important plot point, but it’s still incredibly lame (you can’t blame Michael Keating, he could only work with the material he had, but the script gives him little scope to portray Vila as anything over than a childish buffoon).

Jan Chappell, who spends most of the episode unconscious, also has limited room to shine. So with Vila out to lunch and Cally asleep, that leaves the trio of Avon, Tarrant and Dayna. This does have its compensations – especially as we’re treated to some typical Avon jibes (when Tarrant declares that he takes calculated risks, Avon counters “calculated on what? Your fingers?”). And with Avon sitting most of the second part of the episode out, this leaves Tarrant and Dayna at the forefront – it’s notable how Tarrant takes control (even if you sense he really doesn’t know what he’s doing).

Although Ultraworld had a fairly small guest cast, it doesn’t seem to have been a particularly cheap show. The modelwork is impressive (the huge pulsating brain is gloriously icky whilst the capture of the Liberator is another nice sequence – albeit a bit wobbly). Location filming at the Camden Town shelter also helped to create a sense of space.

Of course the story is a very silly run-around (Trevor Hoyle, like Tanith Lee, was a science-fiction novelist and a television novice, but their two S3 stories couldn’t be further apart – one was lyrical and layered, and the other was called Ultraworld). This is a story that you sense Hoyle wasn’t taking terribly seriously.

Especially played for laughs is the scene where the Ultras decide that Tarrant and Dayna should demonstrate the human bonding ceremony. Dayna seems up for it (“kiss me. Come on. I can’t be all that repulsive”) as she, ahem, sets to work on Tarrant. The way the Ultras are looking in (“has the bonding ceremony begun?”) sets the tone of this sequence.

Everything’s sorted out with embarrassing ease – Cally and Avon might have had their memories stolen but luckily Tarrant was able to find their data stores just lying about. A pity they weren’t swopped around, as an episode with Avon stuck in Cally’s body (and vice-versa) would have been very interesting.

It’s silly, but it’s fun.