Currently Watching (6/10/20) – Special Branch and The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder

Special Branch – A New Face (22nd October 1969)

Today’s episode sees Tom Chadbon and Nicola Pagett play a couple of student revolutionaries. Sean (Chadbon) is the type to crack heads, smash windows and apologise (or not) later whilst Margot (Pagett) is a more peace-loving type, but equally keen that the voice of youth should be heard on the streets.

To begin with, it looks like the episode will revolve around Special Branch’s attempts to keep them under control, but the plot soon changes direction after it’s revealed that a new recruit to the cause, Peter Harris (Andrew Bradford), is the son of a senior Special Branch detective ….

As usual, Det. Supt. Eden (Wensley Pithey) stomps about the office in a thoroughly bad mood whilst Det. Chief Insp. Jordan (Derren Nesbitt) entertains himself by giving the hapless Det. Con. Morrissey (Keith Washington) a hard time. And Morrisey is being particularly hapless today, faffing around with a typewriter much to Jordan’s disdain.

Today Morrisey seems to be mainly used for comic relief, for example later on he gets into a discussion with Eden about pipes and tobacco (ending when Eden pinches some of Morrisey’s tobacco!)

Elsewhere, Morris Perry is his usual polite and deadly self as Charles Moxon, the liaison between Special Branch and the security forces, whilst the likes of John Levene and Frances Tomelty can be seen lurking in the background.

Was Harris genuinely interested in student power or was he simply along for the ride (and a relationship with Margot?). His true motivations aren’t made clear, although by the end of the episode he’s become estranged not only from his parents (decent types, keen to maintain the status quo) but also from his new revolutionary pals (who are convinced that he’s a police informer).

The actions of the Special Branch (raiding Margot’s home and forcing her and her friends to submit to humiliating personal searches) convinces both Margot and Sean that the innocent Harris has sold them out. Since Morrisey and Det. Sgt. Helen Webb (Jennifer Wilson) don’t seem to find anything, was the whole exercise designed simply to create this impression?

If so, it worked – although the unfortunate side-effect is that the students, already convinced that all police are fascist pigs, now have their prejudices confirmed ….

The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder – The Green Mamba (7th May 1969)

Mr Reeder crosses swords with crime kingpin Mo Liski (Joe Melia) ….

Complete with a flower in his buttonhole and a spiv moustache, Liski attempts to radiate menace, but you know (even though we’re just three episodes in) that the mild-mannered Mr Reeder will be more than a match for him.

Melia, as you might expect, gives an entertaining performance as does Hugh Burden (their sparring relationship is the episode’s highlight). A number of familiar faces pass through – including Harry Towb, Hildegard Neil and Pauline Delaney. Towb has a cough and a spit role as Sullivan, a low friend of Liski, whilst Hildegard Neil has the slightly more substantial part of Marylou Plessy. Neil is delightfully vampy as the wife of a forger sent to prison by Reeder. She vows vengeance, but ends up in the clink herself, once again thanks to Reeder.

Pauline Delaney sports an outrageous French accent as Madame Lemaire, although there’s a reason for this (she’s only a faux Frenchwoman). She attempts – on Liski’s instructions – to lure Reeder into an illegal drinking and gambling den, but Reeder (of course) remains several steps ahead. I do like the fact that the gambling club only seems to play one record  (the theme to The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder).

All the threads of the convoluted plot tie themselves together in the end, with the result that the unfortunate Liski will be out of action for a considerable amount of time, thanks to the mamba-like Mr Reeder.

One rather odd thing about the episode is that several times a newspaper story (concerning a jewel robbery) is prominently displayed on screen long enough to make it clear that all the words, apart from the headline, are gibberish. Hard to believe it was a genuine mistake, so presumably it was some sort of obscure in-joke.

Currently watching (5/10/20) – Secret Army and The Caesars

Recently I’ve attempted to put a little more order into my archive television viewing by selecting ten programmes and watching an episode from them once a week, between Monday and Friday.

Currently they are –

Monday – Secret Army S2 and The Caesars

Tuesday – Special Branch S1 and The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder

Wednesday – The Main Chance S1 and Undermind

Thursday – Upstairs Downstairs S1 and The Brothers S1

Friday – Public Eye S4 and The Biederbecke Affair

Every so often I’ll record a few brief impressions of the episodes I’ve recently watched, and possibly in the future I might want to revisit one or more of these series and examine them in more depth. So to begin ….

Secret Army – Not According To Plan (25th October 1978)

We’re five episodes into the second series, which means that  the reformatting of the series (moving Lifeline’s base of operations from a dingy café to a rather plush restaurant where Albert can conveniently overhear Nazi bigwigs chatting about important matters) is now complete.

It’s rather jarring that Natalie seems to have obtained a boyfriend, Francois (Nigel Williams), out of thin air. Surely this could have been worked into the continuing plotline a little less clumsily?

Performances are key to this episode. Jonathan Newth (one of those actors who turns up in virtually every drama series of this era) is typically solid as Jean Barsacq, a blind aristocrat who is also a member of the escape line. This might seem a little unlikely, but – as highlighted by a scene with Kessler – it’s also convenient, as he’s obviously unable to identify a suspect for the Sturmbannführer.

Valentine Dyall receives a rare character scene (Dr Keldermans is usually called upon to do nothing more than advance the plot) whilst Michael Byrne gives all he’s got (and then just a little bit more) as the hot under the collar Communist Paul Vercors.

I’ve never quite been convinced by the way that Vercors so readily decides to betray Lifeline. In exchange, Kessler agrees not to execute twenty Communist prisoners, held after a train – coincidentally carrying Natalie and Francois – is blown up.  Since the Communists are supposed to have been carrying out a lengthy reign of terror, why hasn’t Vercors crumbled under this sort of threat before?

Emma Williams catches the eye as the doomed Danielle, sacrificed – in part – to save Kessler’s reputation. It’s fascinating to see Kessler squirming under the intimidating gaze of Oberst Bruch (Leon Eagles). Bruch expresses amazement that Kessler hasn’t been able to smash Lifeline, and suggests he moves to a new position (on the Eastern front maybe).

Capturing Barsacq and shooting Danielle therefore allows Kessler to claim that he’s smashed a key part of the escape route, even if we – and Brandt – know that he’s lying. By this point in the series, Clifford Rose has really become SA‘s main performer – certainly Kessler looks to be the character with the most potential for future development.

The Caesars – Tiberius (6th October 1968)

Whilst The Caesars will always have to live in the imposing shadow of I, Claudius (1976), Philip Mackie’s six-part serial has many strengths of its own. Chief amongst these is André Morell’s wonderfully weary performance as Tiberius. It’s a world away, both in terms of writing and performance, from George Baker’s later turn.  This Tiberius is no deviant – instead he’s an icy-cold administrator, thrust unwillingly into the role of emperor.

Today’s episode (the third) chronicles the downfall of Germanicus (Eric Flynn). It plays out pretty closely to the later I, Claudius episode, with John Phillips offering a similar performance (as Piso) to that of Stratford Johns.

One notable aspect of this serial is how downplayed Livia has been – to date, she’s only had a handful of scenes although today Sonia Dresdel is allowed to bare her teeth (previously, you might be forgiven for thinking that Livia was little more than a nice old lady).

There’s plenty of strength in depth amongst the rest of the cast – Freddie Jones, as Claudius, might not be the central character but he still has a few notable moments. Caroline Blakiston glowers wonderfully as Agripinna, the widow of the unfortunate Germanicus whilst John Woodvine steps up to deliver a few lines in his trademark imposing fashion.

You could always mention the war …

The only thing that surprised me about the recent Fawlty Towers storm in a tea cup is that UK Play hadn’t already been using the edited version of The Germans (snipped – apparently with John Cleese’s approval in 2013 – for BBC repeat showings).

Now this “banned” episode will be back, albeit with a disclaimer at the beginning, which seems fair enougb. And despite what some people think, the issue was never anything to do with insulting the Germans. That’s still perfectly okay …

My preference would always be to have things complete, but in the world of UK daytime cable and satellite re-runs that’s rarely so (although the pitchfork-wielding mob on Twitter yesterday didn’t seem to realise this. Which is probably just as well).

It’s no surprise that programmes originally made for a post watershed slot, like The Sweeney and The Professionals, will be cut for a 9.00 am repeat showing. But it seems that the cheapskates at ITV4 don’t bother to run the unedited version in their late night schedules – it’s far easier just to stick on the edited master again.

Mind you, given the rotten picture quality of both series on ITV4 (they’re also cropped into widescreen as the final indignity) I remain slightly amazed that anyone actually bothers with them.

Other tweaks are more amusing (to me at least). Fletcher might have enjoyed ogling the Page Three girls of The Sun during the seventies, but Porridge watchers today on UK Play are denied this treat – the offending breasts have been pixelated.

Television edits are nothing new. Galton and Simpson approved trims to a number of Hancock’s Half Hour episodes back in the 1980’s for VHS and repeat broadcasting (trimming frames here and there to tighten up the epjsodes). David Croft also oversaw the editing of selected Are You Being Served? episodes for a daytime repeat slot. Alas, these ended up being released in error on the R2 DVDs.

Rewinding back even further, 1976 episodes of Doctor Who (The Deadly Assassin) and I, Claudius (Zeus, By Jove!) were both trimmed for repeat showings. The Doctor Who episode was subsequently recovered and restored, but I, Claudius remains only in its edited state.

That’s incredibly annoying, but it does highlight the fact that content edits are nothing new.

For me, if the originals are available (on DVD, say) then I can’t get too worked up about what the umpteenth re-run on television looks like. Not too many DVDs have been edited for content (The Goodies for example – packed with contentious moments – sailed through unedited when Network released the complete series a while back).

Most edited DVDs fall into the AYBS? camp, cut television masters used because the bods at 2 Entertain (it was almost always 2 Entertain) couldn’t be bothered to find the original versions.

And we haven’t even got into the terrority of actors blacking/yellowing up yet (either for drama or comedy). John Bennett’s turn in The Talons of Weng Chiang continues to infuriate a vocal minority of Doctor Who fans. And a minority of that minority believe that because they dislike it, nobody should ever watch the story again – which is where the fun really begins.

Personally I take each archive programme as it comes. There’s plenty of moments which make me wince or tut, but there’s so many more which still enthral and entertain. And the more you watch from a certain era, the better an understanding of that time you’ll get. Taking the odd moment out of context is where the trouble tends to begin.

I have been watching ….

Taking a quick look at some of the programmes I’ve been watching over the last week or so.

Are You Being Served? – The Old Order Changes (17th March 1977)

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As you might have gathered from the above screencap, this is one of the (many) episodes where the staff of Grace Brothers are required – for a very flimsy reason – to indulge in a spot of dress up.  But by the start of the next episode all of the changes we see have been completely forgotten ….

Doctor Who – The War Games (April – June 1969)

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Continuing my rewatch tribute to Terrance Dicks (following Horror of Fang Rock) with this large slab of 1960’s Who. I’m taking it nice and easy (I’m sure some people have watched all four hours in one go, but that would several steps too far for me). I’m still finding that the story is as good as ever.  Yes it’s pretty leisurely, but every episode or so there’s a notable new arrival (some of whom only stick around for a short time) who ensure that the interest levels are kept up.

As always, I do slightly boggle at the performance James Bree. Possibly both he and Edward Brayshaw (who also delights in chewing the psychedelic scenery) deliberately decided to play things very broad.  Their performances certainly contrast sharply with the more naturalistic playing of most of the human soldiers (such as Graham Weston).

Blankety Blank (1st February 1985)

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Some more Dawson-era Blankety Blank. This edition sees the above lucky contestant walking away with a toolkit (she puts a brave face on it).  What’s notable about the Dawson episodes I’ve seen recently is the fact that the female contestants are all young and personable (in contrast to Wogan times, when you’d also see a few oldsters).  Les doesn’t seem too disappointed though, as it’s fair to say he’s rather tactile with all the lady contestants.

Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? – Strangers On A Train (9th January 1973)

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Okay, it’s slightly contrived that the lights go out just as Bob happens to stumble into Terry’s compartment (and also that they come back on at exactly at right dramatic time) but I think we can cut Clement and La Frenais some slack on this. Especially since the dialogue and interplay between the pair is so sharp right from the off.

I love poor Terry’s lament (he’s still in his thirties at this point remember) about everything that’s passed him by during the last five years (due to his army service). “I missed it all. Swinging Britain was just heresay to me. The death of censorship, the new morality, Oh Calcutta!, topless waitresses and see-through knickers …”

Callan: The Richmond File – Call Me Enemy (10th May 1972)

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Dug this one out for another watch on the anniversary of T.P. McKenna’s birth. Every scene between Woodward and McKenna is excellent (George Markstein’s script gives them so much to work with). A pity Markstein didn’t write any other Callan episodes but some of his other work (especially Mr Palfrey of Westminster) has a very similar feel and is well worth seeking out.

You can read my previous thoughts on Call Me Enemy here.

Shelley – Of Cabbages and Kings (15th December 1983)

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Thanks to Forces TV, I’ve seen a few episodes of Shelley over the last week or so. Odd that they cut out the musical stings on the adcaps (and the picture quality is pretty mushy) so it does make me rather keen to dig out my DVDs for a more concerted rewatch.

Of Cabbages and Kings is an episode that’s always stuck in my memory – possibly this is down to the second half appearance of Fulton Mackay. He plays a friendly down-and-out who obviously sees two fellow souls in Shelley and Malcolm (Bruce Bould).  Shelley tends to work best when the plot is minimal – like this one. Cabbages is simply 25 minutes of three people chatting – a mini-play which works nicely as a snapshot of the depressed eighties (and sadly still seems relevant in today’s depressed times).

European Superstars – 1975

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I’m continuing to chug my way merrily through the available Superstars shows on YouTube. In this one, David Hemery and Malcolm Macdonald are the plucky Brits, hoping to uphold the honour of the nation.

It may not be as well known as Kevin Keegan’s bike incident, but Hemery’s nasty tumble in the steeplechase is an edge of the seat moment (well slightly).  Having watched a fair few of these now, because Hemery often pops up it’s easy to be invested in his fate.  As ever, the dips and squat thrusts make for compelling viewing.