A Foreign Field – Simply Media DVD Review

foreign.jpg

Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two British D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy fifty years on in order to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. Whilst in the area, Cyril is determined to track down the alluring Angelique (Jeanne Moreau) who helped to keep the morale of the troops up during their stay back in 1944. The only problem is that he’s got competition – an abrasive American veteran, Waldo (John Randolph), has arrived on the same mission.

Roy Clarke might be best known for writing several comedy juggernauts (such as Last of the Summer Wine and Open/Still Open All Hours) but there are many less well known nuggets buried within his cv such as this Screen One, originally broadcast in September 1993. The ninety minute screenplay wastes no time in setting up the basics of the story – before we’ve reached the fifth minute we already understand that Amos is a shell of a man (possessing the mind of a child and a very limited vocabulary) with Cyril cast in the role of his exasperated carer. Meanwhile, Waldo is depicted as a short-tempered Limey-hating Yank ….

Amos is a gift of a role and Guinness milks it for all that it’s worth. With more than a touch of Stan Laurel, Amos breezes through the story with an air of benign innocence. As we proceed there are hints of hidden depths though – his skill with the mouth organ, say – whilst various mysteries (such as why he brought an empty jam jar all the way from Britain) are answered.

If Guinness’ screen presence is one reason why A Foreign Field is so compelling, then Leo McKern’s wonderfully judged performance as Cyril is another. Best known, of course, for Rumpole of the Bailey, there’s something of a Horace Rumpole feel about Cyril. They both might be abrasive on the surface but they contain hidden depths when you dig a little deeper. McKern was always a favourite actor of mine and this role – one of his final screen credits – only served to cement my respect for him. Cyril’s late monologue (where he explains to the others exactly why he’s so protective of Amos) is simply spine-tingling.

foreign 1

John Randolph has a slightly less well defined role. Waldo and Cyril might both be grumpy, but there’s no doubt that we’re meant to side with Cyril and find Waldo to be somewhat insufferable. The introduction of Angelique strikes the only off-key note in the story – it’s barely credible that Cyril and Waldo would be so shocked to discover that fifty years on she’s not exactly the same beautiful young girl she once was (and their desperate attempts to get out of the date they’d both arranged with her leaves a slightly bitter taste). Luckily this only lasts a fleeting moment and soon Angelique joins their ever-growing party.

Along with Guinness, McKern and Jeanne Moreau, Lauren Bacall is another incredibly strong addition to the cast. Forever linked to Humphrey Bogart – both on screen and by marriage – there’s no doubt that her casting was something of a coup. Her character, Lisa, has one of the most intriguing roles to play. Like the others she’s come to pay her respects to a fallen war hero (in her case, her husband) but there’s a late twist which you may or may not have seen coming. This is resolved in a beautifully understated way which fits perfectly with the rest of the story.

If Cyril and Amos exist without family ties (except the bond between them) then Waldo is luckier on this score (or unlucky, depending on how you view things). He’s arrived in France with his strident daughter, Beverley (Geraldine Chaplin), and her put-upon husband Ralph (Edward Herrmann). They enjoy a decent share of the narrative and both end the story in different places from where they started – Beverley is more relaxed (thanks to the influence of Lisa and Angelique) whilst Ralph emerges as a more assertive type. As with the others, Roy Clarke is skilful at drawing out various nuances and character moments.

Whilst A Foreign Field is a sentimental piece, it never feels mawkish or false. Roy Clarke’s screenplay, and the efforts of the cast, combine to produce something quite special. I’ve come back to it on numerous occasions down the years and I’m sure that I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’ve never seen it, then I would very strongly recommend picking up a copy.

Originally released in the UK on DVD by Acorn, it’s now been brought back into print by Simply. Picture quality (4:3 full frame) looks fine with no significant issues (subtitles are included).

A Foreign Field is released by Simply Media today, RRP £14.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

foreign 2

Howards’ Way – Series Four, Episode Thirteen

howards s04e13-01.jpg

If the final episode of series four has a theme then it seems to be shattered/shifting allegiances.  Sir John Stevens is up first, telling Sir Edward that he’s managed to hang onto his position at the bank (although he forgot to mention that he’ll have to resign in six months time).  So although it’s something of a hollow victory, it’s a victory nonetheless – but no thanks to Sir Edward, who threw him to the wolves without a second thought.  But his partial triumph does allow Sir John to waggle his eyebrows in trademark fashion whilst telling Sir Edward that they probably won’t meet again.

The swooping camera movement, as Sir John’s car moves away, helps to isolate Sir Edward (who’s still reeling from Jan’s absolutely final refusal).  But maybe he spies a kindred spirit in Polly.  Or is their relationship purely business-related?  Hmm, a little of both maybe.  Polly might appear to primarily motivated by a desire to help William and Abby, but it’s plain that she’s also interested in helping herself.  The last we see of them, they’re heading off to America in Sir Edward’s jet (with Polly looking very chic, compete with a stylish little hat).

But whilst Polly and Sir Edward are a new pairing, Polly and Jan have finally split up.  They have a cracking little ding-dong, with Jan taking great pleasure in firing her.  With Sir Edward as her new backer though, she’s probably not going to be down for long though ….

Ken’s on the up and up.  Not even another visit from the menacing Roy (a wonderfully melodramatic scene) can dampen his enthusiasm for long.  He’s got his eye on Sir Edward’s country pile (Sir Edward seems to want to sell – thereby excising his ghosts maybe) and (now that she’s free again) possibly Jan too.  I’ve said it before, but surely Jan’s not silly enough to fall for his feckless charm?  Maybe or maybe not.  She certainly enjoys his company, so it seems that the fire still burns between them.

But the fire between Charles and Avril has long gone out.  I think we’re meant to identify with Avril, but there’s not much to choose between them.  Avril’s certainly gone on a journey since the start of series one – over time she’s changed from an idealist into a hard-bitten businesswoman, virtually Charles’ mirror image.  He makes this observation to her – she’s just as much addicted to power as he is – and it’s telling that she doesn’t deny it.  They have one last meal – at Tarrant’s ever popular eatery – where she delights in telling him that (via some share juggling) she’s now gained control of Relton Marine.

So Charles has been bested in business.  But he’s not downhearted – Avril may have a majority shareholding, but she doesn’t have complete control.  Expect this plotline to pick up again during series five.

Charles and Avril are history, but what about Abby and Leo?  Prior to the big race in Guernsey, they have a quiet lock of the lips, but it does seem that once again Abby sees her future in America (where the saga of William continues to rumble on).  As for Leo, he seems to be something of a loose cannon.  Avril’s concerned that he’s being unduly reckless during his powerboat trials, although she isn’t able to convince him of this (not that she tries too hard).  Avril and Leo do have a nice pouting scene as he glowers at the suggestion he’s pushing too hard.

Or maybe Avril’s simply mistaken.  Jan doesn’t notice that anything’s wrong with him (although this could just be another example of Jan’s lack of interest/empathy in her son).  Maybe Leo’s trying to prove something to Abby.  Or does he just want to win the big race?

We’re in Guernsey.  There’s a host of boats on the start line, but it quickly boils down to a head-to-head between Ken and Leo.  Things drag on a bit, but eventually Ken crosses the line first.  And then it’s revealed that this is only the first race, so we’ll have to go through the whole rigmarole again.  Boo!

But the second race is rather more dramatic as Leo’s boat overturns and Abby – snapping from a helicopter – reacts with horror.  It doesn’t look good for Leo’s co-pilot (taken away in a bodybag) whilst Leo himself is conscious, but immobile.  This means that we’re in cliff-hanger territory – will Leo walk again?  Tune in next series to find out.

Gerald’s problems also look set to run and run.  I thought it was out of character for him to indulge in a spot of insider dealing – mainly because he’s (for a businessman anyway) so transparently honest. When the police come a calling, poor Gerald folds like a pack of cards.  And they’re interested in Charles too!

The final scene is one of the most celebrated HW‘s moments.  Ken, having won the race after Leo self destructed, finds himself alone on the quayside.  Alone, that is, apart from Avril.  His opening gambit (“why, Miss Avril Rolfe”) merely softens us up for an amazing scene from Stephen Yardley as Ken boasts that he’s beaten them all (ha, ha, ha).  The sight of Ken, now all alone after Avril flounces off, toasting his success is a sublime touch and, like all the other dangling plot threads, sets us up nicely for series five.

howards s04e13-02.jpg

Out of the Blue – Series Two, Episode Six

blue s02e06

The team investigate the death of a fourteen year old prostitute called Justine Painton (Caroline O’Hara) ….

We’re pitched straight into the action. It’s late at night and in a run down part of town, Justine’s body is discovered. With a plastic bag over her head and rope marks on her wrists it seems that natural causes can be ruled out.

The officers stand around cracking weak jokes in the time honoured fashion (anything to take their minds off the actuality of the present situation). A brief moment of levity is provided when Becky sets the record straght about her night of limited passion with Lew (she knows that he would have already spun them his version of events). The only problem is that he hasn’t said a word ….

Justine’s mother, Fran (Siobhan Finneran), maitains a shrine to her daughter at home. Numerous school photos and beauty pagent trophies act as reminders of the girl she was, not what she’d become. Wasted potential (Becky and Warren view the cleaned up girl on the mortuary slab and Warren mentions how beautiful she was) is a theme of the story.

Family-man Ron finds the case a little hard to deal with. It’s not dificult to understand why (girls the same age as his daughter leading a dissolute life). One of Justine’s friends, Kirsty (Sarah Jane-Potts), tells him and Marty that Justine embraced life on the streets wholeheartedly. Is this the truth or simply an obfuscation? And what precisely did her mother know about her daughter’s new life?

One very striking moment occurs when Kirsty is speaking about Justine. The scene is overlaid with photographs of a younger Caroline O’Hara, which serves as an effective counterpoint between the past and the present.

It’s a remarkable coincidence that Richard Shaw (Pip Donaghy), the father of Warren’s ex-girlfriend Lucy, knew Justine intimately (he took bondage photographs of her). He offers to share his information, provided the police can arrange a meeting with his estranged daughter. Warren knows precisely where she is, because he’s been keeping tabs on her (mmm, a touch obsessive).

Local celebrity, boxer Vinnie Harper (Adam Kotz), was involved with Fran. But was he also intimate with Justine? The big guns (DI Temple and Lew) are wheeled out for a pulsating interrogation as we see Vinnie hauled over the coals.

Although Caroline O’Hara (making her screen debut) has very limited screentime (after all, her character is dead when we first see her) Justine still permeates every part of the story. Her death means that she’s robbed of her own voice, so others have to ascribe her with motivations and fill in her character for us.

Although answers are provided, justice is harder to come by. This was one of the strengths of Out of the Blue, a series which never felt obligated to pretend that life was fair. One of the final scenes – in which a distraught Lew makes this point to a resigned Temple – could be seen as a setup for the third series which never came. Would series three have finally been the point where Lew went too far?

We’ll never know, but while Out of the Blue never became a mainstream success, twenty years on it stands up as a flawed – but fascinating – series.

Out of the Blue – Series Two, Episode Five

blue s02e05

Three homeless people (one of them played by the highly recognisable Andy Devine – who would later appear as Shadrach in Emmerdale) are poisoned after a seemingly good Samaritan offers them a drink of champagne laced with prescription tranquillisers.

Temple’s mildly curious, but doesn’t regard it as much more than a sick joke.  It’s a sign of the times that the office only seems to have one computer and – as the victims use it to put together an identikit picture of their well-heeled poisoner – Temple gripes about the expense.  “Have you any idea how much that computer takes out of my budget? It’d be cheaper to hire Walt Disney”.

Temple’s given some good lines in this one.  A few minutes later he asks Becky and Warren exactly what they’re going to do.  “Put out an All Points Alert for Burlington Bertie?”  That’s a rather obscure reference which – back in the pre-internet nineties – would probably have perplexed a section of the audience.

Elsewhere, Bruce, Lew, Marty and Ron go in mob-handed to tackle Gibbs (Peter Jonfield), who appears to have a shop full of stolen goods – although annoyingly none of his stock appears to be on the stolen property register.  By racially taunting Bruce, Gibbs successfully manages to get under his skin – making him all the keener to nail him, although it also might serve to make him more reckless.

This subplot somewhat moves into the background once it’s discovered that Jackson (Devine) has been attacked again, only this time he’s dead.  Is it connected to the previous poisoning?  The descriptions of the suspects indicate not and the fact that one of them had red hair gives Marty the chance for a droll comeback.  “That’s handy, I’ve been looking for an excuse to arrest Mick Hucknall”.

They trawl the drug rehabilitation centres for clues, which sees Lew and Tony take diametrically opposing views on their usefulness.  It’s no surprise that the humanitarian Tony believes they help to prevent crime as well as getting people back on the straight and narrow whilst the more cynical Lew begrudges the fact that his taxes are used on such people.

Bruce has been operating on a tight-fuse for a while.  And after Warren makes an offhand remark (wondering if his obsessive nature is a family trait) Bruce takes it as a dig directed at his father and fisticuffs ensue.  This creates a nice sense of tension which, together with Lew’s off-kilter personality, means that the team have never been more dysfunctional.

Another soap favourite, Maggie Jones (Blance Hunt from Coronation Street) makes a brief appearance as Joan Palmer.  Bruce wants Joan to identify the property from Gibbs’ shop as hers, but when she’s unable to do so Bruce is once again frustrated.  Emma Bird, who also would have been a familiar face at the time (she’d played Maxine during the 1992/93 run of Casualty) makes an impression as Nikki, another of the poisoned down and outs.  She’s an actor who seems to have slipped off the radar, as her last screen credit (an episode of Liverpool 1) was all the way back in 1999.  And the eagle-eyed might spot a young Benedict Wong making a brief appearance as a wages clerk.

The team arrest a suspect, Eamon Timmer (Simon Tyrell), for Jackson’s murder.  He’s very talkative before the tape starts rolling (“I killed Jackson Hanley! I did it. And I’ll kill every tosser in this room”) but doesn’t say a word after the red light goes on.

Although none of the plots really engage, the interactions between the team (especially the continually wise-cracking Marty) helps to keep the interest levels up.  The final scene is especially intriguing. After Becky’s attempt to console Warren (still smarting over the end of his relationship with Lucy) comes to nothing, she winds up in bed with Lew.  Her post-coital expression makes it plain that she realises what a terrible mistake it was ….

Out of the Blue – Series Two, Episode Four

blue s02e04

Danny Caswell (David Prosho) makes a stand against local drug dealer Tommy Defty (Neil Stuke). But when Danny’s house is trashed and his car is torched he wonders if talking to the police was the best option. Meanwhile, Tommy continues to taunt the police, convinced that he’s untouchable.

This episode’s cold open is very effective. A typically bleak, run-down estate is the venue as Lew and Bruce rush over to Danny’s house. It’s not just the damage that’s disturbing as the imagery (stickmen hanging) is plainly designed to intimidate. But although Danny’s not scared off, the CPS, in the form of Barbara, decide that they haven’t good enough evidence to proceed.

Warren caustically refers to the CPS as “Couldn’t Prosecute Satan” whilst Marty has his own unique take on how they might deal with Tommy. “I could take me Black and Decker round his house and drill his arse”.

Danny and his wife, Diane (Kate Rutter), cooperated with the police and got nothing for their pains – except a burnt car, a trashed house and the enmity of Tommy’s crew. It’s not really a great advert for working with the police. A frustrated Danny later vandalizes Barbara’s house and when questioned by Temple angrily tells him why. “You’ve given up on us. You’ve pulled the ladder up after you”.

Lew’s off-kilter personality comes to the fore when he and Bruce question Tommy’s mother, Mrs Defty (Barbara Ewing). He fingers her drying underwear and lays a delicate hand on her shoulder. Later, he breaks into her bedroom for a chat ….

Lew’s mind games are effective, if unconventional (and no doubt illegal). He knows that Tommy’s mother, just like everybody else, lives in fear of him – so needling both her and him might be the way to chip away at his hard shell. Ewing (best known for Brass) is effective whilst Stuke (who has gone on to enjoy a considerable career) is excellent value as the cocky drug-lord.

The loose cannon that is Lew is the motor which drives this episode along. Mrs Defty sums it up well. “Tommy scares me right enough, but you scare me more”.

Warren’s relationship with Lucy seems to have hit an impasse after she starts chatting to Tommy at a nightclub (despite Warren telling her not to). This might be good news for Becky, who seemed a little perturbed that Lucy and Warren were becoming serious. It’s doubtful that Lucy and Becky will ever be friends though, especially after Lucy spits in her face.

When Lucy – an unstable person if ever there was one – declares that she’s heading off to be with Tommy it adds another complication to the story. Warren and Becky go riding to the rescue, which involves them planting drugs on Lucy so they can extract her without making Tommy suspicious.

Another strong story which features a victory of sorts, although the collateral damage also has to be taken into account.

Out of the Blue – Series Two, Episode Three

blue s02e03

Terry Forrest (Thomas Craig) is the victim of a male rape. Chris Mannings (Fine Time Fontayne), a gay man who lives on Terry’s estate, becomes a suspect ….

An unusual topic to cover, the episode isn’t graphic but the aftermath of the assault resonates throughout. Unsurprisingly there’s some unreconstructed views offered by the team, notably Marty. When Temple tells him and Ron to hit the gay clubs to look for leads, he mutters “better get that frock ironed Ron”. Ron seems to find the case particularly distasteful. Becky tells him to think of it as an assault, rather than a rape, but this doesn’t seem to help.

Ron later explains his problems to Temple. “It’s just that if it’s a lass who’s been raped, then I can tell her that she’s safe, that I’m there to protect her. I looked at Terry Forrest today. What can I say to him. What can I offer him?”

When Mannings’ naked, battered body is dumped outside the police station, it’s obvious that the locals have dished out their own brand of summary justice. One of Forrest’s friends, Kevin Ryan (Karl Draper), seems to be implicated in the attack, but he denies it.

There are plenty of parallels to be found in real life with this sort of knee-jerk vigilante action, but the question here is whether Mannings is actually guilty. The wonderfully-named Fine Time Fontayne (unsurprisingly not the name he was christened with) impresses as Mannings as does Thomas Craig as Forrest.

As the story continues, there are varying degrees of empathy to be found. Lew, on hearing the news of Mannings’ beating, decides there’s little they can do to help the gay community ward off further attacks unless they “supply an armed guard for everybody on the estate with a Judy Garland album”.

It’s also an interesting wrinkle that Becky is the one who voices the opinion that Forrest might not have been raped after all – possibly it was consensual sex which then turned violent. It wouldn’t have been surprising, had this been a female rape, to hear the male officers express a similar viewpoint, so there’s an obvious irony at work here.

We eventually learn the identity of Forrest’s attacker. Given that the story had only given us a few possibilities it doesn’t come as a complete surprise, but the scene where the rapist offers his plea of self-justification is another nicely done moment.

Although the various personal traumas of the regulars – Marty’s marriage problems, Warren’s tense relationship with Lucy – are still bubbling away, for once they’re reduced to background noise as the policework dominates.

Out of the Blue – Series Two, Episode Two

blue s02e02

Zamwa Sidikki, owner of a minicab business, is discovered bludgeoned to death, a blood-covered baseball bat nearby. Racial or personal? That’s what Temple and the others have to discover.

Since Sadikki wasn’t the most popular of men there’s no shortage of suspects, such as his estranged son – Rafi (Raji James) – who had a falling out with his father several months ago. Gareth Chester (Neil Boorman), the only white driver employed by Sadikki, also seems to be a strong suspect. But possibly Sadikki’s daughter, Yasmin (Rina Mahoney), might hold the key.

Warren continues to let his lower regions rule his head as his relationship with Lucy continues. He thinks nothing of nipping away during the middle of the day for a moment of passion with his attractive, if flaky girlfriend. This flakiness is on show after she flashes him (and a delighted elderly passer-by) from her bedroom window.

It’s fair to say that his colleagues aren’t terribly sympathetic about Warren’s conquest. Bruce succinctly sums up their mood. “He’s been going off at us for years about respecting womankind. And then it turns out that kid Warren is just another copper who can’t keep his toolbox in his trousers”.

He’s not the only one with personal concerns though. Marty and his wife have decided to adopt (a storyline which bubbles away in the background for the remainder of the series) whilst Bruce’s father, Andy (Oscar James), suffers a paranoid attack.

James, instantly recognisable thanks to his three year stint on EastEnders, makes an immediate impact here. Andy, currently living with his daughter, comprehensively smashes up her kitchen, although it’s clear that he’s not responsible for his actions.

The tricky subject of mental health would have been a fruitful one to tackle over the course of the series, but it’s somewhat glossed over since this episode is the only time we meet Andy. But even given this, Lennie James has a couple of decent scenes as Bruce attempts to come to terms with his father’s illness.

Although Sidikki’s murder is never that engrossing a mystery, the script still clips along at a nice pace, helped no end by the dialogue. One of my favourite moments occurs when Marty, who can always be relied upon, loses his patience with a suspect. “I can always tell when you’re lying ‘cos your lips move. We are not being paid to stand around here listening to you feeding us your tripe and bollocks. Do we look like Richard and Judy?”

Out of the Blue – Series Two, Episode One

blue s02e01

A baby is snatched from the bus station and a major incident is launched.  But things turn out to be more complicated than they first appear ….

After a new title sequence we’re thrust straight into the action via a cold opening.  The reason for all the rushing about quickly becomes obvious, but despite the best efforts of everybody there’s no sign of the child.  It’s interesting that Jim ‘Lew’ Llewyn (David Morrissey) isn’t given a proper introduction (Lew has obviously been a member of the team for some time) but this probably works to the series’ benefit.  Showing Lew finding his feet might have worked dramatically, but it also would have slowed the main story down.

But although Lew seems to have fitted in well, bantering easily with the likes of Marty, a slightly discordant note is struck by Temple.  A brief throwaway comment from him makes it plain that he has little love for his latest recruit.  The reason will become a little clearer as we work through the second series.

Joanne Player (Keeley Forsyth) and Matt Pearson (Paul Nicholls) play the young couple who may not be telling the whole truth.  Both Forsyth and Nicholls were at the start of their careers with only a handful of credits prior to this (both of them had appeared in The Biz, for example).

When a witness later suggests that when they saw Joanne and Matt the baby wasn’t with them, the story veers off into a different direction.  Temple orders the floorboards at their flat to be lifted up, although Marty comments that if they were organised enough to concoct a fake story of abduction, it’s unlikely they’d be stupid enough to shove the child under their floorboards.

Love is in the air.  Tony is going out with a widow, a fellow member at his local church.  Since Bruce has decided that Tony may be a little out of practice with women, he decides to give him the benefit of his advice – although it seems that Bruce is more concerned with winding the anxious Tony up.

Meanwhile, Warren meets Lucy Shaw (Nicola Stephenson) for the first time.  To begin with it doesn’t appear that a relationship is on the cards, since she’s simply a witness in an investigation.  Her father, Richard Shaw (Pip Donaghy), is accused of taking bondage photographs.  Although he strenuously denies it, as time goes on his true colours are revealed.

Donaghy gives a chilling performance as a seemingly innocent family man.  But his one-on-one interview with Becky provides us with clear evidence that there’s more to him than meets the eye (although since he’s done nothing illegal he can’t be charged).  Shaw will return in the final episode, whilst his daughter features throughout.  When Warren learns that a distraught Lucy doesn’t want to return home, he takes her under his wing.  I have to say that the sight of Darrell D’Silva’s naked backside, as Warren and Lucy become intimately acquainted, was something of a surprise.

Even this early on it seems obvious that their relationship is doomed.  She seems to be vulnerable and unstable, which suggests that Warren’s simply taking advantage of her.  The sensible thing would be for both of them to walk away, but since both are flawed characters it’s not that simple.

Marty remains in fine form.  On spying a teenager defacing a Missing Persons poster with a marker-pen, he gives the young lad a taste of his own medicine by drawing a pair of glasses and a beard on his face!  Quite how Marty manages to get away with these sort of things is anybody’s guess, but I daresay a certain section of the audience would have approved of his brand of rough justice.

Although the main story is pretty bleak, there’s the odd moment of levity.  Lew stops a man, Phil Draper (Jim Millea), who’s acting suspiciously.  After Lew asks him to open the boot of his car, he reacts in horror as a sheep jumps out and beats a hasty retreat down the road.  Phil coolly suggests that the sheep must have already been there when he bought the car.

The ending might not come as too much of a surprise, but Nicholls and Forsyth are both effective.  Overall, another strong episode and  it provides a more than decent opening to the second series.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Six

blue s01e06

The hunt for Franky’s killer begins in earnest ….

There’s a certain amount of dramatic licence at play here, since it seems more than a little unlikely that the close colleagues of a dead officer would be the ones leading the investigation to find his killer. Surely the fact they’d be emotionally involved would have ruled them out?

The opening plays as you’d expect – the team are shellshocked (Bruce is the one we follow into the station as – disorientated – he reels from the buzz and bustle of the crime scene) whilst Franky’s widow, Lorraine (Denise Stephenson), blames Temple and just about any other copper she can find for Franky’s death.

Although Temple later warns the others not to cut any corners, Marty – when questioning a suspect – spells out precisely what Franky’s death signifies. “Do you know what a dead copper means? It means the sky falls in on every little arsewipe who might know anything”.

Assistant Chief Constable Friel (Trevor Cooper) makes a small, but telling, contribtion. He informs Temple that he doesn’t want any of Franky’s dirty linen washed in public. They have to tell the truth about Franky’s activities, but anything unsavoury needs to be hidden from public consumption. The conflict between the need for truth (the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth) and police politics is clearly delineated here.

It’s hard not to feel that the unstable Victor was pushed into a corner by Franky. Temple later makes that point to the team, although most of them – especially Marty – don’t really want to hear. Even though Temple then goes on to say that he’s making the potential case of Victor’s defence laywers, there’s more than a kernel of truth in his statement.

Apart from a voice on the phone, we don’t see Victor until we’re well into the episode. The stake-out nature of the middle part of the story, as the team wait for him to surface, enables there’s a little time for various personal problems to be given an airing. Warren still hasn’t given up hope that he and Becky might become an item whilst Ron gives Marty some sage advice about children (Marty and his wife have been unable to conceive).

The tension that hangs over the episode, indeed the whole series, concerning Franky continues here. His colleagues have always been loyal and – toasting his memory in the pub – they continue to be. All except the newcomer Tony. “When everything else comes second best to your ambition. Your mates, your wife, your kids …”

Victor confesses but there’s little sense of celebration. The mood is best summed up by Marty in a short speech which could easily serve as the series’ raison d’etre. “Where’s the blame? I’ve been searching in me head for where the blame is. All day. Thinking and looking. Asking and asking. No, it’s kids going mad, but its not. Who teaches you to be stupid? Where does greedy start from? You know what I’ve decided? I can’t find it”.

The last scene – Franky entertains the others from beyond the grave via the power of VHS – proves to be something of a cathartic experience. If some questions about his character will remain unanswered for ever, at least this provides them with the opportunity of remembering his better side.  The truth then, but not the whole truth ….

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Five

blue s01e05

A woman called Anna Cornish is shot. Who did it and why was her body moved across town?

Although Mrs Cornish is a respected member of the local community (a black lawyer and a noted anti-drugs campaigner) the team can’t expect to receive much in the way of cooperation. Temple sums the mood up when he mentions that the community despises the police only slightly more than they hate each other.

The bleakness and hopelessness of mid nineties inner-city Britain is a running theme of Out of the Blue and gets developed in this episode. Mr Megson (Tony Barton) was the publican who wheeled Anna from away from his pub and he doesn’t waste any time in explaining why.  Anna was “a colonial cousin” and, according to him, a member of a race that doesn’t have a great respect for human life.

Megson believes that all of the estate’s problems can be dated to the arrival of the black community, which leaves us with the strong impression that he regarded Anna as little more than a piece of rubbish to be removed. It’s striking that Megson doesn’t seem to understand that he’s done anything wrong although when Bruce tells him that he may end up charged with manslaughter he starts to take attention.

A tip-offf leads them to three suspects, Shaun Hayley (Tim Evans), Bunny (John Muir) and Daniel Gelder (Taurean Mulholland). They’re only fifteen though. Could a group of fifteen year-olds really be responsible for this shooting? It’s a telling moment that nobody dismisses this out of hand. It clearly wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened.

On the plus side, the episode doesn’t feature Franky whining about his epilepsy. Instead we see just how far he’ll go in order to get a result. Convinced that the shooting has a drug connection, he infiltrates a gang of low-lifes. First he shares their drugs and then he asks to buy a gun (because, he says, he wants to shoot a copper). By acting alone and without backup he’s taking an incredible risk – this seems to demonstrate he’s got something of a death-wish.  He’s remarkably convincing as an unstable psychopath ….

Nobody wins in this one since the shooters can be said to have been just as much victims as Anna was. Moments of levity are therefore few, although the spat between Marty and Ron is good fun (Ron’s aggrieved that Marty let slip about his philandering ways to the others).

The episode ends with Franky being confronted by Victor (Gary Sefton). Victor’s a drug dealer as well as Franky’s informant. Although Victor seems upset and a little unstable, Franky’s the sort of person you always imagine will win through, so when he’s stabbed and collapses in a large pool of his own blood on the office floor it’s a considerable jolt.

That the action then switches to the pub, where we see the others unwinding after another long day.  We’ve seen during the course of the first series how Franky has isolated himself from the others – declining to join them in the pub or for bowling nights on previous occasions – so the fact he dies alone whilst the others are together is clearly an intentional bitter irony.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Four

blue s01e04

A women is found dead in a bus shelter located just outside her house. It looks as if she was sleeping there, but why? A baker, Mr Flood (Kenneth Cope), is once again sweeping up broken glass from his shattered shop windows. Convinced that no-one is taking him seriously he resorts to drastic action to make himself heard. Meanwhile, Franky has disappeared. He had been working unofficially on a cold case, so the team follow it up ….

Dave Norman, playing Ray Chaplin, has an easy time of it. Ray, a pimp, previously had his tongue cut out, so Norman didn’t have to go to the trouble of learning any lines. All he had to do was look moody and scribble down his answers to Becky and Warren.

This was the cold case Franky was working on, so it serves a dual purpose in the narrative – not only is there a mystery to be solved, but finding the answer might allow the team to discover Franky’s location.

Ron’s dalliances with his ex-wife become public knowledge around the office (although his curent wife remains in the dark). He’s yet to discover that Marty let this secret slip though, but I’ve a feeling he’s going to find out soon …

Bruce and Tony visit Mr Flood. Their different reactions speak volumes about their characters. Bruce wants to be out looking for Franky, so dealing with a case of broken windows seems completely trivial (he caustically refers to Mr Flood as Mr Pastry).  But Tony instantly emphasises with the victim – he can see that Mr Flood is living a life of quiet desperation (his life made a misery due to abuse and vandalism) and wants to help. So Tony is idealistic, Bruce realistic.

Tony later confides that as a uniformed officer he felt part of the community, but now he’s in plain clothes there’s more of a sense of isolation. The fact that we never actually see any of the tearaways who abuse Mr Flood is an interesting touch – as making the threat abstract means it becomes more problematic and insoluble.

Kenneth Cope nicely underplays as a man driven to the edge by antisocial behaviour.  The way he finally gets a little attention is a wrong-footing moment (although due to the way the camera coyly doesn’t focus on the action, it’s possibly not as impactful as it could have been).  No matter though, Cope still deftly sketches the character of Mr Flood – a man who doesn’t want to be labelled a victim, but urgently needs help.

The dead woman at the bus stop, Angela Grainger, was also a victim of antisocial behaviour.  In her case, she was driven to distraction by pounding music played at all hours by her next door neighbours. But did one of them attack her in the days before she died of a heart attack?

It can’t be a coincidence that Kenneth Cope’s daughter, Martha, appears as Marilyn Jowett, Angela Grainger’s neighbour. Another familiar face, Sheila Ruskin, pops up as Margot Gillespie, the doctor who tells Franky that his epilepsy isn’t operable.

Alternating between these two storylines as well as the search for Ray’s attacker and Franky’s continuing tantrums, it’s a packed episode. At one point, Ron confides that there’s no justice and by the time the credits roll it’s hard to disagree with him.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Three

blue s01e03

When Ron’s daughter is discovered with a computer disc containing violent pornography, the team spring into action to track the perpetrator down …

This episode is of particular interest due to the computer porn angle. Given it was the mid nineties when computers – and the internet – were just beginning to establish themselves, it has to be a pretty early example of this type of storyline.

Bruce is puzzled by this brave new computer world (no doubt a section of the audience would have been just as perplexed as he was) but luckily there’s a young schoolboy on hand to explain the world of networks, notice boards, DOS and floppy discs.  We must be pretty much pre-internet for most people, since the images were distributed on 3.5″ discs, which helps to date the programme.

John Hannah’s been boiling away nicely for the last few episodes but now Franky’s been suspended Hannah takes the opportunity to ramp up the intensity level several notches. Franky blames Bruce for shopping him, but he’s blameless (it was Franky’s wife, Lorraine, who informed DI Temple).  When Franky later learns the truth, does he apologise to Bruce? Nope. Which provides more evidence that Franky’s a charmless, self-centered, self-pitying sort of chap. Possibly he’s a good thief-taker, but his social skills need more than a spot of work.

Poor Warren’s lack of success with the opposite sex leads the others, notably Ron and Marty, to offer him some well-meaning words of advice. Bruce is more caustic, he opines that Warren’s problem is due to the fact he dresses off the peg (at the Salvation Army!)

There’s a nice mid-episode change of pace as Ron, Marty and Becky attempt to track down a suspect in the computer porn case, Gary Lowell. They encounter Craig Page (Andrew Dunn) at Lowell’s house, who looks more than a little shifty. The fact that Lowell’s dead body is stuffed in a cardboard box might have something to do with that ….

The episode also features a back-street strip club which employs disabled performers. Warren, at the club in surveillance mode, is appalled. The camera coyly doesn’t show us the stripper, but we get a good insight into Warren’s distressed state of mind by the way the camera starts to weave and lose focus.

The mystery of who killed Gary isn’t much of a mystery after all, but it’s still a strong enough episode with a pre-dinnerladies Andrew Dunn making the most of his limited screentime.

Love on a Branch Line – Second Sight DVD Review

7457The year is 1957 and civil servant Jasper Pye (Michael Maloney) is stuck in a rut.  When his girlfriend mentions to a fellow party guest that he’s something of a bore, Jasper decides to take immediate action.  But his initial plan – to move to France and become a painter – is shelved after his superiors send him deep into the English countryside.

Since 1940, a small outpost of the Ministry of Information (Output Statistics) has been in residence at Arcady Hall.  Jasper is sent with the express mission of discovering a reason to close it down, but he finds himself constantly distracted.

The delightfully eccentric Lord Flamborough (Leslie Phillips), owner of Arcady Hall, is happy with the status quo – especially since the upkeep of his house depends on the subsidies he receives from a benevolent government.   Lady Flamborough (Maria Aitken) intrigues Jasper, but it’s Flamborough’s three daughters – Belinda (Abigail Cruttenden), Chloe (Cathryn Harrison) and Matilda (Charlotte Williams) – who all manage to bewitch him at different times …..

Based on John Hadfield’s 1957 novel, Love on a Branch Line is a serial which simply oozes class.  Adapted by David Nobbs (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) it has the sort of cast to die for.  Leslie Phillips looks to be enjoying himself enormously as Lord Flamborough, an idiosyncratic aristrocrat who, along with his wife, lives on a train at the defunct local station. He bought the station, track and train and he now indulges himself by travelling backwards and forwards.  That he never actually goes anywhere might be a not-so-subtle metaphor.

There’s no doubt that the serial’s appeal rests with the quintessentially English atmosphere it generates even if, as with the best examples of the genre (such as PG Wodehouse), events are clearly taking place in an idealised and stylised England that never was.  Therefore steam trains, cricket matches and village fetes are all very much to the fore.

7540
Charlotte Williams, Michael Maloney, Cathryn Harrison and (front) Abigail Cruttenden

When Jasper arrives he suspects that the team at the Statistics outpost, having been left to their own devices for so long, might be somewhat behind with their work.  Both the statistician Professor Pollux (Graham Crowden) and the data collector Quirk (Stephen Moore) have found numerous distractions over the years – Pollux has been researching the history of Arcady whilst cricket is Quirk’s passion.  Luckily for both of them, they have the efficient Miss Mounsey (Amanda Root) on hand to keep them in some sort of order.  Crowden and Moore are great value with Crowden (arch scene-stealer that he was) never failing to entertain every time he sidles onto screen.

Belinda (“the wicked one”) is the first of Lord Flamborough’s daughters encountered by Jasper. Within a few minutes she’s already kissed him, although this unexpected moment of pleasure is short-lived after Lady Flamborough interrupts them. As so often throughout the serial Michael Maloney’s comic timing is spot on (he delightfully leaps back in horror after Lady Flamborough calls out).

Matilda, the youngest daughter, is neatly summed up by her mother. “Funny girl. She spends all her time reading old-fashioned thrillers and wating to be seduced by a sinister monk. She’ll grow out of it”. Chole, the eldest, is plainly the apple of her father’s eye (“she’s a damn good engine driver”).  A later encounter at the pub with the drunken Lionel Virley (David Haig), husband to Chole, puts another piece of the jigsaw in place. Also there is railway enthusiast Mr Jones (the always entertaining Joe Melia).

7545
Charlotte Williams

Jasper quickly becomes a part of the local cricket team and is also drafted onto the local fete’s organising committee. That the fete is in aid of fallen women is something which has endless comic potential. Lord Flamborough declines to be chairman.  “I never could be trusted with fallen women”.  This line is delivered in the trademark Leslie Philips style.

By the end of the first episode Jasper’s been kissed by all three daughters and is somewhat perplexed by his experiences. He continues to ping between them like a pinball as the rest of the serial plays out.

A lovely comic moment occurs in episode two after Belinda decides that Jasper’s proposed painting of the Hall doesn’t sound terribly interesting. Surely he’d much prefer to paint her in the nude? Belinda’s very keen and Jasper doesn’t take too much persuading either (although he valiantly attempts to keep his mind on his art). Although he does wonder if they should ask Lady Flamborough’s permission so Belinda, stripped to the waist, casually leans out of the window and shouts down to her!

Further complications ensue when Pollux turns up with Miss Tidy (Gillian Rayne). Pollux is giving her a guided tour of the Hall and his desire to show her every nook and cranny means that Belinda is forced to beat a hasty retreat. The vision of a fully-frontal nude Abigail Cruttenden, albiet in long shot, was a slight surprise (I wonder what the original Sunday evening audience made of it?)

The sight of a desperate Jasper – convinced that Lord Flamborough knows about his dalliances with his daughters – dancing the Charleston whilst his Lordship tunelessly bashes away on the drums is another stand-out scene. Maloney cuts some impressive moves whilst Phillips is his usual louche self.

7546
Leslie Phillips, Abigail Cruttenden, Maria Aitken, Michael Maloney & Cathryn Harrison

The big cricket match occurs in the third episode. Unfortunately, Jasper and Lionel are locked in one of Arcady’s wine cellars with only several thousand bottles for company. Few actors can resist a spot of drunk acting and Michael Maloney and David Haig are certainly no exception as Jasper and Lionel take solace in some of the more obscure vintages.  Carrot whisky anyone?

Things look grim for the village since their two best batsman have failed to appear but – improbable as it may sound – Jasper and Lionel do eventually stagger up to the crease. But will they be able to save the day? The cricket match is another entertaining setpiece sequence, as is the aftermath (everybody crowds into the pub for a hearty rendition of Yes, We Have No Bananas).

Love on a Branch Line has a delicate path to tread regarding tone.  It would be easy for Jasper to appear as little more than a letch  – after all, he’s already seduced (or been seduced by) Belinda and Chloe and when the sweetly virginal Matilda comes crashing down his bedroom chimney it seems that his cup runneth over.  Luckily, the unreal tone of the serial – and Michael Maloney’s skilful playing – ensures this is never too much of a problem.

The concluding episode promises to bring a dash of reality to the Shangri La of Arcady.  Jasper’s recommendation that the Statistical Unit be closed down forthwith doesn’t please either Lord Flamborough or Pollux and the arrival of jazz musician Ozzie Tipton (Simon Gregor) seems to turn Belinda’s head.  But Jasper – pressganged into becoming a judge at the Fallen Women fete – might just have secured his own future after he awards first prize in the prettiest ankle contest to Miss Mounsey.

In the end everything turns out fine for everybody and as the credits roll you can be assured that the sun at Arcady will always continue to shine (just as it will at Blandings Castle).

With an experienced cast of comic hands, beautiful locations and a sharp script from David Nobbs, Love on a Branch Line is a treat from start to finish.  Abigail Cruttenden, Cathryn Harrison and Charlotte Williams all catch the eye (although it’s Abigail Cruttenden that we definitely see the most of) whilst Michael Maloney, as the lucky Jasper, reels from one unlikely encounter to the next with aplomb.

Originally released on DVD by Acorn back in 2006, it’s now been brought back into print by Second Sight.  It comprises of four 50 minute episodes and whilst there are no additional features, the episodes are subtitled.

Something of a forgotten gem, this really is something that any devotee of British archive television should have in their collection.  Highly recommended.

Love on a Branch Line is released by Second Sight on the 17th of July 2017.  RRP £15.99.

7541
Michael Maloney

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Two

blue s01e02

Ron and Marty are pursuing Neil Chettle (Matthew Wait). They’re convinced that he’s responsible for robbing a series of pensioners of their life savings, but there’s no solid evidence. Chettle’s clever, as by selecting only the elderly and infirm, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to pick him out of an identity parade ….

This second episode continues to put more meat on the bones of the regular characters. Becky’s fledgling relationship with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) seems to have put Warren’s nose slightly out of joint whilst Tony’s casual statement that he believes in God somewhat nonplusses Marty (who then can’t resist questioning him on his beliefs).

This is a strong episode for Neil Dudgeon. Although the story isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen countless times before in other shows – Marty doggedly pursusing a cocky suspect who believes he’s untouchable – Dudgeon and Wait are still on top form. When the tables are turned and Chettle begins to target Marty’s wife, the pressure gets ramped up a notch, although this part of the plot is never really developed as much as it could have been.

Bruce continues to glower at Franky. Franky claims that he’s now perfectly fine but Bruce – he is a detective after all – doesn’t believe a word of it. This is confirmed later on by Franky’s retching and pained staring into the toilet mirror.

There’s a later oblique conversation between Bruce and DI Temple in which the senior officer seems to be warning Bruce against doing anything about Franky. Although this is contradicted towards the end when Temple spells out Franky’s options to him – none of which seem to appeal.

Broken marriages are a common sight in police series and Marty helps to explain why. He may still be married, but the job has plainly had a toxic effect. “I went home to Judy one time and I had to tell her that I’d been tying labels onto the toes of a kiddie who’d been strangled, and you know what she said to me? Do you know what my own wife said to me? Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me”.

Although the episode juggles several other plotlines – the mystery of how a man, dead for several months, has continued to open his mail and a potential robbery at a pub – it’s the feud between Marty and Chettle which dominates. Marty may be satisfied with the eventual outcome, but Ron isn’t. “Racing around like the caped crusader, you’ve turned this into a schoolroom brawl between you and him”.

Whilst the others enjoy an evening’s bowling, Franky – as befits a flawed hero – broods alone in the office, with only a cigarette for company.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode One

blue s01e01.jpg

Hugh Evans was sixty seven years old and dying of cancer. So why would somebody shoot him four times as he lay in his hospital bed? Meanwhile, as the only female detective, DS Rebecca Bennett is called upon to interview a traumatised rape victim.

Out of the Blue hits in ground runnng. In the opening few minutes as – somewhat oddly – all the detectives hot-foot it over to the hospital, the regulars’ characters are deftly sketched.

DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for an entertaining double-act. Marty is clearly the iconoclast of the team (thinking nothing of giving a man who spat in the street a hard time). Also making an early impression is Orla Brady as DS Rebecca ‘Becky’ Bennett (partly because she’s the only female detective in an all-male enclave).

DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) and DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James) chase down a suspect in the shooting case, but it’s what happens afterwards which will haunt the remainder of the first series. Franky suffers an epileptic fit in the pub and refuses to report it to the medical officer. This not only puts his own career in jeopardy but swearing Bruce to secrecy only serves to complicate matters even further (as well as creating a simmering sense of tension).

Becky and DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) make up the third team and putting them together on the rape case helps to generate a certain amount of debate between them which defines both their characters, although at this point Becky is the one who’s received the most screentime.

DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh) has been newly transferred to the team and, as an outsider, serves as the audience identification figure. As he begins to understand how his new colleagues tick, so do we. Rounding off the squad is DI Temple (John Duttine). By far the most familiar television face, Duttine doesn’t have a great deal to do here (the harrased boss is a long-standing police series cliche) but having a quality actor in the role gives Temple the gravitas he needs.

Juggling two strong storylines, this opening episode is a solid one. The visual style (shaky camerawork and the occasional loss of focus as the camera – effectively acting as an unseen member of the team – moves from person to person) helps to give the story a little impetus.

Out of the Blue – Simply Media DVD Review

Running for two series and twelve episodes between 1995 and 1996, Out of the Blue is a somewhat overlooked police series.  Filmed in Sheffield, it’s a bleak and unsettling show which doesn’t attempt to wrap each episode up with a happy ending (or at times a definite conclusion).  The frenetic hand-held camerawork gives the series a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere at times (seemingly inspired by the likes of Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street).

If Out of the Blue has a flaw then it’s probably that there’s few surprises – many of the regulars are character types we’ve seen so often before (the unorthodox maverick, the woman making her way in a man’s world, etc).

But the fact that Out of the Blue didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel shouldn’t count too strongly against it.  One plus point is the fact that all twelve episodes were scripted by Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher (often together, sometimes apart). This gives the series a feeling of unity whilst the strong cast (a mixture of experienced hands and younger talent) is also something to be counted in its favour.

With a large cast of regulars and only six episodes to play with, the first episode of series one has to hit the ground running.  Several cases (the murder of a man already dying of cancer, the rape of a middle-aged woman) help to bring the motely group of detectives into sharp focus.

(L-R, Back Row) DC Bruce Hannaford (LENNIE JAMES), DC Tony Bromley (ANDY RASHLEIGH), DC Ron Ludlow (PETER WIGHT) and DC Marty Brazil (NEIL DUDGEON)
(L-R, Front Row) DS Frank ‘Franky’ Drinkall (JOHN HANNAH) DI Eric Temple (JOHN DUTTINE) DC Warren Allen (DARRELL D’SILVA) and DS Becky Bennett (ORLA BRADY)

DI Eric Temple (John Duttine) has the job of keeping them in order. He generally isn’t called on to do a great deal except bark some gruff orders, but having a familiar television face (and a good actor, of course) like Duttine helps to bring Temple to life.

DS Becky Bennett (Orla Brady) is the lone female detective, meaning that she’s a source of fascination for her unreconstructed male colleagues. Her decision during series one to conduct a clandestine affair with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) will no doubt set tongues wagging …

DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) carries something of a torch for Becky, but his general persona – the nice guy who never gets the girl – suggests that he’s going to end up disappointed.

DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for a classic team. Marty is a wisecracking, unpredictable loose cannon (Dudgeon making the strongest impression during these early episodes) whilst Ron is the more dependable, solid type. Ron’s a devoted family man, although the fact that he’s still involved with his divorced ex-wife suggests he’s been taking his family duties rather too far (especially since his current wife has been kept totally in the dark).

Neil Dudgeon & Peter Wight

DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) is a high-flier, tipped for the top – although his epilepsy looks set to put paid to that. His long-suffering partner, DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James), has to take the brunt of his moody outbursts.

Although Hannah had been acting since the late eighties, Out of the Blue was his first regular television role. Almost immediately afterwards he would star as the unorthodox McCallum, which was just a slight change from playing the unorthodox Franky.  Since Franky is such a monumentally unlikeable character it’s to Hannah’s credit that he never attempts to soften his playing, instead he allows us to plainly see just what a monster DS Drinkall is.

Franky’s epilepsy and the fall-out from it, would be a running thread throughout the first series.  It’s just a pity that, due to the fact there were only six episodes, it isn’t a plotline that has much room to breathe (we learn about it in episode one, everyone else does in episode two, etc).  A longer episode count would have enabled it to be spread out a little more, which would have worked to the series’ benefit.

Rounding off the team is DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh).  Newly transferred, he spends much of the first episode as a silent observer, but he later makes his presence felt.  A former teacher (and a devout believer in God) he makes for an unlikely copper, but his character – a patient, non-judgemental listener – will prove to be useful on occasions.

Most of the episodes tend to juggle several storylines, with many of the crimes having clear consequences for both the victims and perpetrators. One of the most striking things about the series is how the lines are blurred between the law-breakers and the law-makers. We also see that a number of serious crimes weren’t triggered by evil intent, instead the criminals were motivated by fear or boredom.

This is more disturbing than plain malice and although Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher don’t hammer the point home, it’s plainly suggested that both the system and the environment has its part to play in shaping the actions of those who operate on the wrong side of the law.

Following a dramatic conclusion to the first series, Out of the Blue returned for a second and final run of six episodes in late 1996.  The cast pretty much remained the same, although Becky’s love interest had departed.  The major change saw David Morrissey fill the gap left by the departed John Hannah.  Morrissey played DS Jim “Lew” Lewyn, a maverick copper with secrets.  Mmm, not at all like Franky then ….

David Morrissey

Although Lew’s not a terribly original character, he helps to shake up the established team.  Temple might have been aware of some of Franky’s less admirable traits, but there was no doubt that he respected him.  But Lew arrives with considerable baggage and Temple isn’t prepared to cut him the same sort of slack.

Whilst Lew is treating suspects to his own unique brand of policing, the others have various personal problems to overcome.  Warren’s run of bad luck on the emotional front seems to be over after he snags a new girlfriend – Lucy Shaw (Nicola Stephenson).  But she turns out to be somewhat unstable, so Warren’s soon back to square one and not even the solicitous Becky can cheer him up (he decides he doesn’t want her pity).

Bruce is also feeling the pressure.  He’s always been tightly wound, but there are times when even an innocent remark can set him off – on one notable occasion he and Warren come to blows at the pub.

The storylines continue to be as uncompromising as ever.  Episode three, which concerns a male rape, attracted a certain amount of attention at the time whilst the fourth – featuring Neil Stuke as Tommy Defty, a seemingly untouchable drug-dealer – is a particular highlight.  The final episode (revolving around the death of a fourteen-year old prostitute) is yet another strongly-scripted and well-played story.

Out of the Blue failed to be renewed for a third series.  Possibly this was because, as previously touched upon, it wasn’t doing anything we hadn’t seen before.  This was a pity because there was potential there – maybe an increased episode count would have helped to strengthen and broaden both the format and the characters.

Shot on 16mm film, Out of the Blue looks somewhat gritty and grainy.  This no doubt chimes with the series’ aesthetic – bright colours and sunshine wouldn’t have been the correct tone – but the picture quality probably also reflects the age of the masters (although what we have is perfectly watchable).

Although it never made a great deal of impact at the time, Out of the Blue is still of considerable interest.  Not only for the strong cast, but also for the way that it generates a snapshot of the seedier end of mid nineties Britain.  Warmly recommended.

Out of the Blue is released by Simply Media on the 10th of July 2017.  RRP £34.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

David Morrissey, Orla Brady & Neil Dudgeon

All Good Things – Simply Media DVD Review

good

Broadcast in six episodes during May and June 1991, All Good Things by Lesley Bruce is a rather obscure piece of archive television, which given its cast-list – Brenda Blethyn, Warren Clarke, Ceila Imrie, Ron Pember, Jemma Redgrave, Ken Stott and Barbara Young amongst others – is a little surprising.

Lesley Bruce’s television credits aren’t too extensive (although she did contribute to popular drama strands such as Play for Today, Screenplay, Screen Two and Theatre Night).  We open with a married couple, Shirley Frame (Blethyn) and Phil (Clarke), who are seen arguing as they drive towards an unknown destination.  The reason for this isn’t made clear until Shirley opens the car door and we observe that she’s heavily pregnant.

Phil’s not keen about the baby’s impending arrival (their other children are now in their teens and he was looking forward to a little bit of peace and quiet – and possibly taking up a hobby, like the saxophone).  Shirley, en-route to the ante-natal class, admits – presumably for the first time – that she also doesn’t want the child (although they’ve left it far too late to do anything about this).

A sharp gear-change from comedy (Shirley’s rant is observed by all the other attendees of the ante-natal class who stare silently at her) to potential tragedy occurs when she suddenly collapses.  Is she going to lose the baby?  Well no, everything turns out fine – meaning that the scene feels a little forced and manipulative.  In drama there’s a sense that you have to “earn” moments like this, by developing your characters and the way they interact with each other.  If you just drop events casually into the narrative with no preparation it just doesn’t feel right.

But after this slightly shaky start, the opening episode – The Blessing – develops well.  Both Blethyn (b. 1946) and Clarke (1947 – 2014) were well established actors at the time and this is possibly why they’re able to quickly make Shirley and Phil seem like a real couple.  Although possibly the method of recording (All Good Things was an all-videotape production) also helped.  This was a style of television drama that (soaps apart) would vanish a few years later (from then on, drama tended to be shot either on film or tape processed to look like film) but it’s not a handicap here – videotape has an immediacy which film lacks, thereby giving the series something of a documentary “real” feel.

good-01

With a gorgeous new baby, Shirley should be the happiest woman in the world, but she’s not.  “Sometimes I feel so lonely, and bored, and bad-tempered, I could scream and yell and tear my hair out in great huge hulking handfuls!”  So Shirley needs a new direction in her life, but what?

After a little consideration she decides to go and help people – there must be plenty who need help she reasons, they just have to be found.  Naturally she begins close to home, but things don’t go well after she makes a start with her mother, Hetty Snr (Barbara Young).  Hetty, still smarting from a painful divorce, is brought to tears after Shirley loses her temper and shouts at her.  Shirley’s attempts to help her sister-in-law Elaine (Jemma Redgrave) ends in much the same way, with Elaine left a sobbing mess.

Some people might possibly decide after this that being a Good Samaritan isn’t the wisest career move but Phil – always one to attempt to put a helpful spin on matters – suggests that maybe they didn’t respond because they were family.  He’s clearly only saying this to make her feel better, but she takes it to heart and it sets up the premise for the remaining episodes – Shirley will venture out into the world, meeting total strangers and attempting to fix their lives.  But given her lack of success so far (and the fact that her own life is far from perfect) what are her chances of success?

In The Suicide, Shirley prevents a young man, Vincent Gibney (John Lynch), from committing suicide. She wants to prove to Vincent that there’s still good in the world (something he doubts) and to this end she gives him her phone number, telling him that he can call on her anytime. The inevitable happens of course, Vincent arrives and makes himself at home (much to Phil’s growing exasperation). Once again there’s a sharp disconnect between Shirley’s hopes and the reality of the situation. Lynch is entertaining as Vincent, but once again it’s Blethyn who receives all the best lines. Here, she’s finally reached the end of her tether. “My God, I can see now why everyone else gave up on you! You’ve got to be the blindest, most self-regarding, insensitive wimp anyone’s ever dragged back from the edge of the parapet.”

good-02

It might be expected that Vincent would vanish after this episode, to be replaced by a new poor soul for Shirley to look after next time. But that’s not the case as he’s present for the remainder of the series, as is Karen (Liza Hayden), who features in the next episode, Reading Lessons. This interconnectivity is a definite strength as it allows the narrative to become denser as the episodes tick by.  Karen’s another lost sheep who Shirley scoops up, but once again her good intentions seem to bring nothing but discord and discontent.

If Warren Clarke has been a little overshadowed so far, then that’s redressed somewhat in The Flat. Phil’s irritation that, thanks to Vincent and Karen, he can no longer call his house his own finally bubbles over. Clarke and Blethyn excel towards the end as they both consider the state of their marriage. Earlier, Jemma Redgrave and Ken Stott impress again as Elaine and Lawrence’s marriage continues to buckle under the strain.

In The Trip North, Shirley heads off for a bonding weekend with one of her sons (which, unsurprisingly has some rocky moments) leaving Phil at home holding the baby, literally.  I love the scene where Phil’s shaving, crooning Teddy Bear whilst holding baby Hetty at the same time. The baby clearly finds this fascinating! This leads onto a more dramatic scene where baby Hett’s facial expressions ensure that she remains the centre of attention. Never work with children or animals ….

The series concluded with Marriage Guidance. Whilst Shirley has expended all her energies into helping others, her own life has fractured (a bitter, if obvious, irony – something which is also spelled out visually in the opening credits). Phil’s relationship with Doll (Deborah Findlay) offers him peace and security – two things which are now in short supply at home. Doll and Phil are work colleagues and their affair has slowly developed over the course of the series as Shirley’s drive to help others has also increased.  Finally he elects to tell Shirley that he’s leaving her, but when it comes to the crunch will he have the guts to come right out and say it?

It’s a disquieting and bleak conclusion, which leaves the viewer free to decide what happened next. There was certainly scope for a second series to pick up where this one left off, but despite the excellent cast and generally strong writing, this was the end of the line for All Good Things.

Headed by Blethyn and Clarke, this is a series that certainly doesn’t lack on the acting front. The layered developing narrative is another plus and although it’s not always an easy watch, it is a rewarding one. With the emphasis more on drama than comedy, All Good Things is an interesting archive curio which I’m glad Simply have brought blinking out into the light.

All Good Things is released by Simply Media on the 28th of November 2016.

good-03

All Good Things to be released by Simply Media – 28th November 2016

good

All Good Things, originally broadcast in 1991, will be released by Simply Media on the 28th of November 2016.  Review here.

A marriage and home can be made complete with the arrival of a new baby, but Shirley Frame (Brenda Blethyn) feels a need to share her good fortune by going out into the world and helping others – driving husband Phil (Warren Clarke) up the wall.

Shirley Frame (39) gives birth to her third child and is over the moon. Intent on sharing her delight with the world she embarks on a plan to make life a better place for as many people as possible. Husband Phil and their two teenagers aren’t easily convinced.

Very quickly Shirley learns that it’s not easy being a Good Samaritan, especially in a world of tower blocks, drug abuse and homelessness, even if your own life is rosy. Shirley identifies a string of potential good causes, leaving Phil holding the baby as she tries and fails to fix the lives of others.

Whether coaxing a potential suicide from a watery grave, giving reading lessons to an illiterate young mum with an abusive husband, or trying her hand at marriage guidance, Shirley puts her foot in it at every good turn – and invariably brings other people’s problems too close to home for comfort.

Joining double Oscar nominee, BAFTA and Golden Globe winner Blethyn (Secrets & Lies, Little Voice) and the ever-dependable Clarke (Dalziel & Pascoe, Nice Work) in this 1991 BBC six-parter are Celia Imrie, Jemma Redgrave and Ken Stott, who were all on track to become equally well-loved household names.

Screenwriter Lesley Bruce’s TV credits also include Doctor Finlay, Lizzie’s Pictures, The Practice and Home Video.

Now on DVD for the first time, this is a wry comedy of errors about losing the plot while attempting to mend the ways of life’s ne’er-do-wells and no-hopers.

Sleepers – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Back in the mid 1960’s, Russian spymaster Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) sent two Soviet moles to Britain.  As “sleeper” agents, their mission was to assimilate themselves into British society and await further orders.  But those orders never came ….

Fast-forward twenty five years and the two agents, Sergei Rublev (Nigel Havers) and Vladimir Zelenski (Warren Clarke), have gone native so successfully that they’re now indistinguishable from the real thing.  Both have flourished in the capitalist West  – Rublev, today known as Jeremy Coward, is a successful investment banker whilst Zelenski, now going under the name of Albert Robinson, is a happily married man with three children, holding down a job in a Manchester brewery.

The last thing they want to be reminded of is their murky Soviet past, but when Albert’s secret Soviet radio suddenly starts transmitting it seems to spell the end of their British adventure.  Albert contacts Jeremy (the pair hadn’t met since parting shortly after their arrival in the UK) and together they ponder their next move.  But the arrival of the hardline Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanska) spells further trouble for our two hapless heroes …

Broadcast across four episodes during April and May 1991, Sleepers is a fondly remembered comedy drama by John Flanagan and Andrew McCullough.  Flanagan and McCullough continue today to hold down dual jobs as actors and writers (both took the opportunity to act in Sleepers).  Their first joint writing credit was the 1980 Doctor Who story Meglos and they would go on to contribute to a number of popular series such as Robin of Sherwood, Boon, Pie in the Sky and Peak Practice..

Much of the appeal of Sleepers rests upon the performances of Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke.  Havers (b. 1949) had built up a solid list of credits throughout the 1970’s, but it would be during the 1980’s – with films such as Chariots of Fire and diverse television series like Don’t Wait Up and The Charmer – that he’d really become established as a leading actor.

Clarke (1947 – 2014) was incredibly busy during the 1970’s and 1980’s, racking up an impressive list of appearances in both films and television series (A Clockwork Orange,  The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, Minder, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Reilly: Ace of Spies, The Jewel in the Crown, etc etc) without ever really becoming a leading man – that would come later with Dalziel and Pascoe (1996 – 2007).

sleepers 01.jpg

It’s the contrast between Rublev/Coward and Zelenski/Robinson which really appeals.  One was sent up North and the other established himself in the South.  There’s the lovely possibility that if Jeremy had gone to Manchester then he’d be speaking like Albert now and vice-versa.  That might have been interesting to hear, but it was probably safer that both actors played to type!

Back in 1991, the Cold War was definitely thawing, which meant that many spy stories began to look backwards to the good old days of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This sense of past glories is touched upon in the opening episode, The Awakening, after a secret room beneath the Kremlin is found to contain a replica of an English town. Covered in cobwebs, it’s a perfect time capsule of the mid sixties. As the power is restored, a record player springs back into life with She Loves You by The Beatles playing, whilst Adam Adamant Lives! flickers into life on a tiny black and white television.

Such a construction may seem far-fetched, but there’s evidence to suggest that such places existed and were invaluable in training agents (plenty of examples can be found in fiction, from the Danger Man episode Colony Three to the Jack Higgins novel Confessional).

Quite how this ghost town was suddenly discovered or why Nina and Oleg PetrovskI (Christopher Rozycki) are so interested in it is a bit of a mystery. If it was a training ground for an operation decades ago, why should it be important now? Nina visits Zorin, but he’s nothing more than the shell of a man – babbling about 1960’s popular culture (quoting from A Hard Day’s Night and the Billy Cotton Band Show).

The gorgeous Joanna Kanska is suitably intimidating as the ice-cold KGB Major Nina Grishina . Arriving in Britain, she heads off to speak to Victor Chekhov (David Calder), their man in London. Calder essays a fairly broad performance as possibly not the most convincing Russian ever. For some reason he seems to have more of an American accent than a Russian one.

sleepers 02a.jpg

Nina and Victor couldn’t be more different. Victor considers that the Cold War is well and truly over and so asks both the CIA and MI5 for their assistance. Nina is horrified (to her, both are still the enemy) but involving both the Americans and British helps to ramp up the comedy. This is particularly evident with the cash-strapped MI5, where even fairly low-key expenses (a meal at Burger King) are examined very closely. In future the agent is advised to “stick to coffee. I want a bit less of these flame-grilled Whoppers.”

Once Albert and Jeremy meet up, the story can really start. Albert doesn’t want to return to Russia since he can’t bear the thought of being parted from his wife and children. Jeremy might not be married but he’s got plenty of good reasons to want to stay as well. “I’m on 300 grand a year. I’ve got a flat in town, a cottage in the country, a string of girlfriends and half a bloody racehorse. Think I’m going to give it all up for a bowl of red cabbage and a bedsit in Vladivostok?”

It’s undeniable that the plot is a little contrived in places, this is never more evident than when Albert and Jeremy decide to chuck the radio transmitter in the river and then do a Cossack dance to celebrate. After they’re arrested by the police, Jeremy tells the constable that they’re the Moscow State Circus (!). It’s difficult to believe that two trained (albiet very rusty) agents would behave so rashly, especially by mentioning Russia.

Sleepers sets up various mysteries, such as why Albert and Jeremy were in the crowd at the 1966 World Cup final. It’s amusing that the Russian archive film shows the disputed England goal at quite a different angle, something which Chekhov decides he can turn to his advantage. But British Intelligence, who are monitoring him, get quite the wrong end of the stick and decide that it’s all part of a Moscow plan to destabilise British society with the help of football hooligans!

As might be expected with a spy story, not everything in Sleepers is quite as it first appears, something which becomes very apparent in the closing episodes, whilst various running gags – such as Boris, a toy monkey owned by Albert’s daughter – also help to enliven proceedings. And whilst the serial may have a comic feel, there’s also various dramatic beats scattered throughout the four episodes – these are used to break down the facades that Albert and Jeremy have built around themselves.

Ironically, Albert’s not good at keeping secrets. His wife instantly senses that something is wrong, although she jumps to the conclusion that he’s having an affair. Clarke is excellent as the conflicted Albert, as is Havers as the apparently more confident Jeremy. But Jeremy too is racked by doubts as his past returns to haunt him.

Sleepers is a confident comedy thriller which features British, American and Russian intelligence agents all chasing different agendas, some of which are completly illusionary. With the luxury of four episodes it has the time to develop character and incident at a leisurely pace, although it never feels drawn out.

Sleepers is released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016. RRP £19.99.

sleepers 03.jpg

The Justice Game – Simply Media DVD Review

7019

Dominic Rossi (Denis Lawson) is a Glasgow-based criminal lawyer with a thriving practice.  At present his attention is scattered in several different directions – the stabbing of an elderly man at a bus stop, an ex-soldier accused of multiple murders and the death of a private investigator whom he’d recently employed.  But he finds that all of these disparate crimes lead to Tim Forsythe (Michael Kitchen), a merchant banker who’s keen that Rossi should cease his investigations.  And since Forsythe has the intimidating Glen (James Cosmo) on his books, it seems that his silence will be rather permanent.

Airing on BBC1 during April 1989, The Justice Game is an efficient four-part thriller from the pen of John Brown (1944 – 2006).  The previous year Brown had written the well-remembered ITV serial The One Game, which featured Patrick Malahide as a manipulative games player.  Brown would go on to contribute scripts to a number of popular series such as Bergerac, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Inspector Morse and Taggart.

Denis Lawson (b. 1947) made his television debut in a 1969 episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook and during the 1970’s was busy working across film, television and theatre.  One of his early film roles, in the original Star Wars (and then its two sequels), would ensure he would always maintain a certain cult status but it would be two very different 1980’s television roles that would establish him more firmly with the British public.  Dead Head (1986) was a BBC serial which attracted a huge amount of newspaper notoriety at the time, although thirty years on it seems rather tame.  The Kit Curran Radio Show featured Lawson as the eponymous radio presenter and whilst not a huge ratings-winner, ran for two well-received seasons.

In addition to Lawson, Kitchen and Cosmo, there’s a host of other quality actors who appear across the four episodes (Diana Quick, Iain Cuthbertson, Russell Hunter, Joss Ackland, Michael Culver and Ceila Imrie).

The first episode quickly establishes Rossi’s character.  He’s a man of contradictions – after a session working out on a treadmill his first thought is to reach for a pack of cigarettes.  We also observe his skills as a lawyer (he manages to get two prominent footballers off an assault charge).  The Amnesty poster on his office wall and his desire to take low-profile cases connected to social justice issues are clear pointers to his values and mindset.  Rossi is in a relationship with Kate Fielding (Diana Quick).  Like him she’s a professional (Kate’s a doctor).

It’s a pity that an actor as good as Russell Hunter exits the story relatively quickly.  He played Sandy Sadowski, a man who had information for Rossi but was brutally stabbed multiple times before he could pass it over.  John Brown is in no hurry to connect all the pieces of the puzzles he sets up, as with four episodes to play with there’s plenty of time to establish these various plotlines.  The well-dressed Tim Forsythe is a man of few words, but several are directed in the direction of Glen who organised the gang that killed Sadowski.

justice-01

Throughout the serial Denis Lawson impresses.  Dominic Rossi’s clearly something of a renaissance man, he’s not only a hot-shot, fast-talking lawyer but he can also belt out a mean rock ‘n’ roll tune (as witnessed at his parents wedding anniversary party).  The choice of Glasgow as the battleground was a good one.  Although the Glasgow-based Taggart had been running for a number of years, the location still offers a less familiar milieu than London. The last episode also makes a quick trip to New York as Rossi trails the money men behind Forsythe. Lurking in New York is Sir James Crichton (Joss Ackland). Ackland is characteristically still and sinister as the spider in the middle of the web.

The late eighties setting, deep in the dying days of Thatcherism, helps to inform the tone of the serial.  At the time Glasgow, like many other cities, was undergoing considerable redevelopment and renovation.  The first episode opens with Rossi taking Kate on a tour of his old house, located in one of the most run-down areas of the city.  But since the house has been demolished, Rossi contents himself with pointing at the bare ground where the various rooms had been.  Displaying a tinge of romanticism shared by many self-made men and women, he regrets the loss.

It’s hoped that something better will take the place of these levelled slums, but the likes of Tim Forsythe seem more interested in generating the maximum amount of profit for the company he works for.  Despite the fact that Forsythe remains a fairly nebulous figure (henchmen such as Glen do all the strong-arm stuff, leaving him distanced from the action) there’s a clear delineation between Rossi and Forsythe.  Rossi is concerned with people and justice whilst Forsythe is concerned only with profit.  Certain reminders of the era – mobile phones as big as housebricks, Forsythe’s cocaine habit – help to make it the perfect story for the consumerist eighties.

Roger Limb’s score sometimes eschews the familiar radiophonic soundscape he was well-known for. But it’s still atmospheric and the more sinister cues help to create a vague sense of unease which compliments the sometimes bleak and violent world presented across the four episodes.

The Justice Game is probably an episode too long and rather wastes good actors such as Iain Cuthbertson in small roles, but it still chugs along nicely to its inevitably bloody conclusion. As might be expected from the cynical worldview it presents, we find that “justice” is in very short supply.

The following year, the three-part Justice Game 2 was broadcast on BBC1 during March 1990.  The serial opens with Rossi in Italy, enjoying a holiday romance with the lovely Francesca (Anita Zagaria).  Rossi’s considering a career change – from lawyer to advocate – and this holiday was supposed to help him make up his mind, although he remains noncommittal by the end of it. I like the way the first scene has a number of quick cuts, showing Rossi and Francesca enjoying themselves in various different ways (driving an open-top car, him rubbing suncream into her back, riding a pedalo, riding bikes, eating icecream). It’s slightly corny, but it works.

Rossi returns to Glasgow and Francesca quickly becomes a fading memory, so he’s surprised (but pleased) when she unexpedically turns up. She’s a woman with a secret though. Back in Italy several of her friends have met violent deaths and the killings don’t stop when she travels to Scotland – meaning that Rossi’s right in the firing line.

There have been a few changes since the first story. Rossi’s moved into an impressive, if crumbling house (complete with a leaky roof) and has gained a new colleague, Eleanor Goodchild (Barbara Flynn). Flynn, as ever, is wonderfully watchable as the powerful Eleanor. She may only be Rossi’s junior partner but is she part of the reason why he’s considering a career change? Some have dubbed her “a female Dominic Rossi” which amuses him. He certainly seems to be going through something of a mid-life crisis (he picks up a prostitute in a bar, although it appears he wasn’t charged for her services).

Even though this serial is an episode shorter than the first, it still takes its time to get started. There’s action in the first episode – several bloody deaths – but these take place in Italy whilst Rossi’s back in Glasgow and yet to connect to this main plot. But the death of a young man (a potential client for Rossi) in a suspicious hit-and-run accident adds another layer to the narrative and also reconnects Rossi to the seamier side of life (something rather alien to the upwardly mobile lifestyle he’s been recently enjoying).

Justice Game 2 is slightly less satisfying than the first serial. Barbara Flynn and Denis Lawson have a good combative relationship, but this could have been developed a little more. Anita Zagaria works well as the lady with a dark secret, it’s just a shame this part of the story is rather stretched out.

But although it’s slightly inferior when compared to The Justice Game, it’s still a stylish thriller, held together by Lawson’s central performance. Both serials have a nice period feel (late eighties, early nineties) and if there’s the odd lull from time to time, you can be sure that another shock or twist is just round the corner to spice things up.

The Justice Game (containing both series) is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  The picture quality is a little grainy, which isn’t too surprising considering that the source materials are unrestored 16mm film prints which are nearly thirty years old, but there’s no particular issues.  RRP is £19.99.

justice-02