Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Two

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A certain nursery rhyme – ring a ring of roses – was the trigger that allowed time to break through and steal Rob and Helen’s parents.  After Steel ripped the page out of the book he seemed to have assumed the danger was over, but hadn’t reckoned on Helen reciting the rhyme from memory.

This is a good indicator that Steel lacks any understanding of basic human behaviour.  As he later says to Sapphire, that’s why she’s here – he doesn’t see himself as a diplomat or as someone who needs to have any more interaction with people than is strictly necessary, it’s Sapphire’s job to reassure people like Rob.

She’s not doing very well though, as Rob now doesn’t entirely trust either of them.  He decides to tell the whole story to the police, who in the form of the local constable (played by Charles Pemberton) is due to arrive shortly.  As Rob unlocks the door to wait for his arrival, Sapphire and Steel appear at the top of the stairs.

They cast a sinister air, immobile and silent.  They make no direct attempt to stop him, but it’s plain that they hold the upper hand.  This feeling is strengthened when Sapphire innocently asks him if he speaks for both himself and Helen.  He says he does, but Sapphire is easily able to induce the girl to join her, which fractures their unity.  And when Sapphire puts the policeman into a time loop, Rob has to admit defeat.

Sapphire asks him to “please stop fighting us, and try to believe in us for once. We’re all you’ve got on your side! First a wall, then a room. What then? The house? A road… a village… a town. What next?” This seems to do the trick and even Steel – a flicker of a smile crosses his face when he enters the room – seems to be impressed by her powers of oratory.

We’ve already learnt that time can be destructive and capricious, but now we learn that it can also be intelligent and cunning.  It speaks to Rob, using the voice of his mother, pleading with him to open the barricaded door at the top of the house.  He’s persuaded by his “mother” to recite another nursery rhyme – goosey goosey gander.  This rhyme has long been linked to the English Civil War and the sight of Cromwellian-era soldiers, who suddenly appear on the stairs from nowhere, confirms that S&S is using this familiar interpretation.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode One

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All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

Sapphire & Steel was originally created as a children’s series, something which is most evident in the opening story, as two children, Rob (Steven O’Shea) and Helen (Tamasin Bridge), are the people in need of help from the mysterious “time detectives”.

Production limitations (an incredibly low budget) helped to shape the tone of all S&S‘s serials.  Small casts (with usually only a handful of main speaking roles), a handful of sets (only one of the six serials featured any location filming) and very limited special effects tended to be the order of the day.

The unsettling feel of this opening story is quickly established.  The location is a large, comfortable and old-fashioned house.  Whilst Rob is downstairs doing his homework, his mother and father are upstairs, reading nursery rhymes to their young daughter Helen.

The snatches of nursery rhymes used as incidental music is an indicator that the rhymes are designed to have a sinister, rather than comforting, air.  The feeling of unease can also be seen on Rob’s face downstairs – he doesn’t know why he feels his way, he just does.

The fact that we don’t see the faces of Rob and Helen’s parents is a deliberate move, it helps to make their brief appearance another discordant element.  When they vanish – after reading a nursery rhyme – Robert attempts to take charge (phoning for the police) although his constant reassurances to Helen that everything will be all right seems to be as much for his benefit as hers.

Shaun O’Riordan’s direction has a few notable moments, especially a long tracking shot – which moves from Helen, alone and frightened in the kitchen, down the corridor and to the front door.

The events so far have primed us for the arrival of Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) and their first appearance is a memorable one.  They adopt patterns of behaviour which will become familiar – Steel is brusque and business-like, whilst Sapphire is friendly and amusing.

The mystery of their arrival, as well as the fact that Steel knows Rob’s full name, is never answered – rightly so, since part of the tone of S&S depends on the fact that the title characters are inscrutable and unknowable.  But although Steel regards the presence of Rob and Helen as little more than an irritation, Sapphire attempts to explain what’s happened and why they’re here.

There is a corridor and the corridor is time. It surrounds all things and it passes through all things. Oh you can’t see it. Only sometimes, and it’s dangerous. You cannot enter into time, but sometimes … time can try to enter into the present. Break in. Burst through and take things. Take people. The corridor is very strong; it has to be. But sometimes, in some places, it becomes weakened. Like fabric, worn fabric. And when there is pressure put upon the fabric….

Sapphire is rather more playful and frivolous in this episode than she’d later become. She changes dresses and hairstyles in the wink of an eye several times, something which impresses Rob no end (who’s already a little in love with her).  But Steel’s on hand to bring the conversation down, telling Rob about the dangers in the house. “There are things – creatures, if you like – from the very beginnings of time, and the very end of time. And these creatures have access to the corridor. They’re forever… moving along it. Searching… looking… trying to find a way in. They’re always searching, always looking …”

Laurence Olivier Presents – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Written by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered in 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the same year. The play is set in a sumptuous mansion owned by Big Daddy, a Mississippi plantation owner. It’s his birthday and all his family plan to make it a memorable one. But what are their motives for appeasing the tyrannical Big Daddy?

His eldest son, Gooper, and his wife Mae, clearly want to ensure they are first in line for a share of the spoils once Big Daddy dies. His other son, Brick, isn’t interested in money – he seems more concerned with drinking himself into an alcoholic stupor. But Brick’s wife, Maggie, has been poor and doesn’t want to be again. If only she could produce a child (Gooper and Mae have an ever increasing brood) then she’s sure that Big Daddy would look kindly on them. But since Brick won’t sleep with her (and indeed barely seems to tolerate her) the chances of this seem slim.

Deceit and lies are the major themes of this play. It’s at the heart of Brick and Maggie’s relationship and it’s also reflected in the way Big Daddy is handled by his family. Big Daddy has terminal cancer, but for some (fairly unfathomable reason) it’s been decided to shield the truth from him and his wife, Big Mamma, at least for this evening. So that he can enjoy one last happy birthday?

Since he’s something of a monster (witness the way he speaks to Big Mamma immediately after he believes he’s been given the all-clear by the doctors) maybe not. Possibly Gooper and Mae decided that it would give them a better chance of maneuvering events to their best advantage – it’s plain they want to control the plantation and cut Brick and Maggie out completely.

Given the lies we hear throughout the piece, it becomes increasingly difficult to parse the truth from the untruths (no doubt what Williams intended). When Maggie makes a late shock announcement that she’s pregnant, it’s something which is hard to accept (especially given what we know about the state of their marriage) although both Big Daddy and Big Mamma do – or at least say they do. Once Maggie and Brick are alone she tells him they now have to make the lie come true. She also tells him that she loves him, a statement which Brick seems to doubt.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has two stand-out characters – Maggie and Big Daddy – although the others are far from ciphers. Act one mainly features Maggie and Brick and it’s clearly been designed as a tour-de-force for the actress playing her. Brick remains a passive, inactive character for most of the act, only sparking into life when Maggie suggests that his relationship with his late best friend, Skipper, was – on Skipper’s side at least – something more than friendship.

Real-life husband and wife Robert Wagner (Brick) and Natalie Wood (Maggie) were ideal casting, even if Wagner was probably a little too old to play an ex-football star a few years after his retirement.  But Wood is more than capable of taking Maggie’s lengthy monologues and breathing life into them – revealing Maggie in all her insecure glory – whilst Wagner looks on in a suitably immobile fashion. As the play progresses, Brick begins to spark into life a little more, but Wagner rarely breaks a sweat in the scenes he shares with his wife. Not really a criticism, since that’s how the part’s written, but it’s very much the case that he finds himself totally overshadowed by Wood. Although the two-handed scenes between Wagner and Olivier do give Wagner more of a chance to indulge in some dramatic fireworks.

Big Daddy is relentless in his goading of Big Mamma, finally causing her to tearfully tell him that she’s always loved him (“even your hate”) which gives him pause for thought. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”

Olivier, complete with a white wig and moustache, seems to be enjoying himself as Big Daddy. It offers him the chance to take a character on an emotional ride from elation to despair and there’s plenty of show-boating moments which he no doubt would have relished. Maureen Stapleton (who won an Oscar in 1981 for her role in Reds) is memorable in the small, but key, part of Big Mamma.

Gooper and Mae have less to do (they mainly exist to contrast with Brick and Maggie) but Jack Hedley and Mary Peach still manage to wring what they can from the roles, especially during the climatic scenes as the truth is eventually revealed.

Running just under 100 minutes, the adaptation sticks very close to the original. Although the play is wholly set in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, here the action is opened up a little by moving around the house. There’s a few interesting camera angles (a low shot from Brick’s POV on the floor showing the impressive ceiling, for example) but in the main it’s content to remain a studio-bound, static and faithful recording of the original theatrical production.

Callan: This Man Alone – Network DVD Review

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Callan: This Man Alone is a three disc set released in 2015 by Network.  The feature attraction, This Man Alone, is an exhaustive 130 minute documentary which covers every aspect of the character – from the Armchair Theatre pilot, the four series, the spin-off short stories and novels, the 1974 film and the not terribly well received one-off revival in 1981.

A host of key personnel who worked on the series (both in front of and behind the cameras) – Reginald Collin, Mike Vardy, James Goddard, Piers Haggard, Patrick Mower, Trevor Preston, Clifford Rose, Robert Banks Stewart, Ray Jenkins – were interviewed for the documentary, whilst Dick Fiddy is on hand to set Callan in its cultural and historical context.  Another very enlightening interviewee is Peter Mitchell, the son of Callan‘s creator, James Mitchell.  The pride he feels in his father’s legacy is palpable and, like the others, he has plenty to contribute.

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Although a number of people, including James Mitchell, Edward Woodward, William Squire and Russell Hunter, are no longer with us, they are represented via archive material.  This is mainly derived from a series of audio interviews conducted in 1987.  Presumably these were intended for transcribing purposes and not for broadcast as they’re a little indistinct in places.  Although Woodward sadly passed away before the documentary came to fruition, there’s still a family connection as This Man Alone is narrated by Peter Woodward, Edward Woodward’s son.

All of the key parts of the production – developing a series from the pilot, casting the regulars (and in the case of Hunter, numerous re-castings), moving from ABC to Thames, from black and white into colour, the public’s reception of the show and the decision to bring it to an end – are all covered.  Possibly the only aspect that I was surprised wasn’t discussed concerns the reasons for writing out Cross, Patrick Mower’s character, in series four (I’ve always assumed it was done in order to facilitate the return of Meres, played by Anthony Valentine).

Although the pair do have a brief cross-over period, it seems that once Valentine was available again (he’d declined to appear in series three) it was decided to write out Mower.  It would have been interesting to hear from Mower as to whether he thought that was the case, or if he was happy to leave on a high (his final story certainly was a dramatic one).

Unlike some series, Callan seems to have been a very harmonious production, so there aren’t too many story of back-stage bust ups.  The second Hunter, Michael Goodliffe, found the role not to his liking and was quickly written out, whilst Woodward wasn’t entirely sure that promoting Callan to Hunter in series four was a good idea, but that’s about it.

With an additional twenty five minutes of interview footage that didn’t fit into the documentary, disc one is as comprehensive as you’d might hope.

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Disc two has new transfers of two episodes, the Armchair Theatre pilot  A Magnum for Schneider and the first story of series one, The Good Ones Are All Dead.  The previously issued version of A Magnum for Schneider came from the transmission tape, but since the story was transferred to film prior to transmission (a not uncommon practice for VT programmes at the time, as it offered more flexibility for editing) Network were able to locate the original film recording and have produced a new transfer from it.  Both episodes offer a considerable upgrade on the previous versions issued on DVD.

Also on disc two is the complete studio tape for The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw.  Running to 78 minutes, this offers the viewer a unique chance to see how an episode of Callan was recorded, as all the takes and re-takes are included.  To be honest it sounds more interesting than it actually is, but it’s obviously nice to have.

Disc three has a real curio – the only surviving episode of The Edward Woodward Hour.  It’s taken from a domestic recording, so the picture quality isn’t quite broadcast standard, but that’s no problem.  It offers us a chance to see Woodward flex his singing muscles and the unforgettable comedy sketch in which Callan and Lonely meet the cast of Father Dear Father!  This bizarre encounter is touched upon in the documentary, with both Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter (especially Hunter) remembering it with a distinct lack of fondness.  Amusing or toe-curling?  I think that’s up to personal taste.

Semi-mute rushes of James Mitchell from 1969, recorded for A World of My Own, are also featured on disc three, but the main attraction is the extensive PDF archive.  All the scripts for the series are included (many of the early ones have both rehearsal and camera versions) whilst there’s also the original series outline, publicity material, audience research, etc.  There’s certainly a wealth of reading here and most importantly it’s lovely to be able to read the scripts for those episodes which are missing from the archives.

Whilst Callan: This Man Alone might feel like a three disc set of special features, if you have all of Network’s previous Callan releases (the monochrome series, the colour series, Wet Job, Andrew Pixley’s book) then it’s the perfect companion piece.  Quite why all these individual elements haven’t been collected into a boxset is a slight mystery, but no matter – if you love the series then it’s a very worthwhile purchase.

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The Organization now available from Network

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It’s very welcome (and unexpected) news that The Organization is now available to buy direct from Network.  This seven part series, broadcast on ITV in 1971, was originally due to be released last year, but when the release date slipped several times it made me wonder if it would follow the likes of Biggles (another Network title which is missing in action).

Written by Philip Mackie, whose work I’ve previously covered in posts on An Englishman’s Castle and The Cleopatras, The Organization centres around a faceless company where backstabbing is the order of the day.

Starring Peter Egan, Anton Rodgers, Donald Sinden and Bernard Hepton, and with the likes of Gretchen Franklin, Jon Laurimore and Norman Bird in supporting roles, it has the sort of cast to die for.

Not seen in the UK since the C4 repeats back in the 1980’s, I look forward to becoming reacquainted with the series very shortly.

General Hospital – Series One

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Network’s General Hospital – Series One has all the existing episodes from the first incarnation of this early seventies soap (which in this format was transmitted twice-weekly on ITV daytime between 1972 and 1975).  The fact that it contains just thirty eight episodes (and the last existing one is no. 258) is a clear indication just how much has been lost.

Indeed, since a number of editions are black and white film prints made for overseas sales, had they not been recovered then the survival rate would have been ever more desperate.  But looking on the bright side, if hundreds of episodes did exist then the chances of them all reaching DVD would probably have been quite slim, so at least the collectors urge in all of us can be satisfied that we’ve got everything from the twice-weekly version of the series that we can possibly have.

General Hospital, like many Network titles, was a blind buy but after a few episodes I’m already enjoying it greatly.  True, episode one is a touch stodgy but after that things get much more interesting.  For example, there’s comic relief from Patsy Rowlands as hypochondriac Peggy Finch, a woman who spends her time spreading doom and gloom amongst her fellow patients (usually by telling them that they’re seriously ill!)

She makes quite an impression on Albert Unsworth (Peter Hill) who instantly leaps to her defence.  Hill will be familiar to Doctor Who fans, thanks to his appearance in Day of the Daleks (which aired earlier that same year, 1972).  And there’s something of a Day of the Daleks cast reunion as elsewhere in the hospital we find Anna Barry.  She plays Mrs Sylvia Tate, whose young son is facing a kidney transplant (the son is played with such deathly earnestness that it takes your breath away).  Mrs Tate doesn’t want her husband to donate his kidney and hers isn’t suitable, so we leave her at the end of episode three on the horns of a dilemma.

The most entertaining storyline of these early episodes concerns GP Dr Robert Thorne (Ronald Leigh-Hunt).  One of the patients is convinced that he knew Thorne in Salisbury, but back then he wasn’t called Thorne and he wasn’t a doctor.  Could the respectable Dr Thorne really be an imposter?  Dr Martin Baxter (James Kerry) and Dr Peter Ridge (Ian White) certainly think so.

Baxter and Ridge are clearly the alpha-males of the hospital and even this early on it seems plain that hearts will be broken (although hopefully only in love!)  Elsewhere in the hospital, David Garth plays consultant Dr Matthew Armstrong.  It’s always one of those strange quirks of archive television watching that you can pick two totally random series and find the same actors in both.

Garth had played Charles I in The Further Adventures of the Musketeers (which had also featured Anna Barry) and brings the same detached air to Armstrong.  He’s not exactly an actor brimming with charisma but he does have a certain solid presence.  As does Lynda Bellingham as Nurse Hilda Price, who provides a sensible, capable and seemingly unflappable presence around the ward.  Quite different is Judy Buxton as Student Nurse Katy Shaw.  Shaw is just as efficient, but Buxton has a breathless, wide-eyed and innocent persona which has already won me over.

A word about the theme music.  You couldn’t hope to have a theme less suited to a medical drama than Derek Scott’s effort.  It’s pleasant enough, but its rinky, tinkly nature doesn’t really suggest drama.  Possibly they might change it later on, so I await further developments with interest.

The pictures on the back of the DVD sleeve promise later appearances by both Tony Adams and Joanna Lumley and since I’m sure that there will be other familiar faces popping up, no doubt I’ll be posting again about this series in the future.

Coronation Street – 24th December 1975

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Broadcast on the 24th of December 1975, this episode sees the residents of Coronation Street putting on a pantomime to entertain the children.  The chief pleasure is in seeing familiar faces playing dress-up.  Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) is the Prince, Len Fairclough (Peter Adamson) is Buttons, Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley) and Hilda are the Ugly Sisters whilst Deirdre Langton (Anne Kirkbride) is Dandini.  Tricia Hopkins (Kathy Jones) is Cinderella, although she’s fretting about the black eye which was given to her by Deirdre.

The panto takes up the bulk of the episode but it lacks much of an atmosphere, mainly because the child audience are very quiet – only coming to life on a few occasions.  It doesn’t seem to be because they’re bored (at the end they give the cast a rousing reception) so maybe they weren’t efficiently directed.  There was also plenty of comic potential to be gained from on-stage disasters, so it’s a little surprising they didn’t go down this route.

The closest we come to this is when Bet mimes to Rita’s (Barbara Knox) off-stage singing.  Rita, with a glass of wine and a cigarette in hand, is effortlessly able to belt the tune out and amuses herself by changing the tempo of the song mid way through, much to Bet’s obvious annoyance.   Afterwards, through gritted, smiling teeth, Bet tells Rita that “if you ever do anything like that to me again, darling, I will walk straight off and extract your vocal chords with a blunt knife, darling.”

A few random observations – Len’s wearing rather a lot of makeup as Buttons, Deidre has a fine pair of legs and why was Hilda playing one of the Ugly Sisters?  Couldn’t they find two men in the street prepared to drag up?

The inexorable passage of time is highlighted by Ena’s brief appearance.  She seems to be a shadow of her previous self – there’s no sharp retorts or acid observations, instead she’s restricted to looking after a child from the audience and wishing another of the characters well.  Although Violet Carson would remain with the series until 1980, a stroke in 1974 had kept her off the screen for a while and her later appearances would be fairly sporadic.

Away from the panto, the return of Trevor Ogden (Don Hawkins) is the main news.  It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Ogdens first came to the street with several children (mainly because they seemed to fade away quite quickly).  When the Ogdens moved to Coronation Street in 1964, Trevor was fifteen.  He spent the rest of the year getting into various scrapes before running away to London.  Trevor resurfaced for a couple of episode in 1973 before returning again in 1975 for two episodes (this one and the previous one).

Trevor is married, with a young son, and his wife is expecting again.  Although he’s rarely been in contact with Hilda over the last ten years, the news of another child pleases her, as does the fact he’s come all the way down to Weatherfield to see her.  He does have an ulterior motive though – his wife isn’t well and has to go into hospital for a while, so he wonders if Hilda could come down and look after her grandson.  This request is like a blow to the heart for Hilda, and despite the fact that she’s still dressed as an Ugly Sister you can see the pain on Jean Alexander’s face.

The realisation that Trevor wants her to act as a skivvy rankles, as does the fact that he’s never asked her to visit before – only now, when he needs something from her.  It’s a downbeat moment to end the episode on and the strains of the music from the hall (“happy days are here again”) strikes a a very ironic note.