The British Home Front At War – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

The British Home Front At War is an engrossing five disc set, collecting over 60 short films which are all linked in one way or another to the travails of the British home front during WW2.

Discs one and two are subtitled The Home Guard and Britain’s Citizen Army. One of the earliest films, Citizen’s Army, is in many ways pure Dad’s Army. Its portrait of a plucky groups of individuals, armed with rudimentary and improvised weapons, could have easily fitted into one of Perry and Croft’s scripts.

Rubbing shoulders with these real-life shorts are dramatised pieces which utilise an impressive roster of talent. For example, Dangerous Comment is an Ealing Studios production, directed by John Paddy Carstairs and starring the likes of Frank Lawton, Ronald Culver and Alec Clunes.  This one has a slightly odd tone it must be said – designed to demonstrate that careless talk costs lives, it features a jokey coda in which one young man (after breathlessly listening to the story recounted in the film) seems not to have learnt any lessons at all ….

Possibly my favourite from the first few discs is Miss Grant Goes to the Door.  Played out like a miniature version of Went The Day Well?, it focuses on two genteel English ladies who are forced to take decisive action against a German paratrooper, disguised as an English officer, who has dropped from the skies.  Luckily the Hun gives himself away (due to his inability to pronounce ‘Jarvis Cross’) and after a tense stand-off, harmony is restored to their quiet English village.

british home front 01.jpg

The Home Guard and Britain’s Citizen Army would be worth the price of admission alone – it features over thirty films, averaging ten minutes duration each – but this set is bolstered by another three discs.  Disc three – London Can Take It! – features that celebrated short film as its centrepiece.

Made by the GPO film unit in 1940 and co-directed by Humphrey Jennings (a documentary film-maker of distinction) it’s a pure slice of propaganda. Narrated by US War correspondent Quentin Reynolds, it serves a duel purpose. Firstly it presents a positive picture of the chirpy and phlegmatic Londoner (keeping calm and carrying on as the Blitz does its worst) whilst also attempting to bring home the plight of Britain to an American audience who at the time seemed to have little interest in the conflict taking place far away from their shores.

Other films – such as Neighbours Under Fire – also reinforce the notion that the whole country was pulling together, keen to help one another during the dark days of the German attacks. It’s another skilfully put together piece – and whilst it may not be telling us the whole truth, there’s no denying the impact that it makes.

Women and Children At War is the theme of disc four. There’s plenty of interest here – such as Jane Brown Changes Her Job, in which Anne Firth (a familiar actress during the 1940’s) plays Jane, a woman keen to do her bit.  So she decides to leave her job as a typist and instead goes to work at an aircraft factory.  As with a number of the other films it might look a little stilted today, but it’s still easy to appreciate just how potent these shorts would have been during wartime.

Whilst factory work is central to a number of films on this disc, there were other vital wartime occupations for women as well and Ladies Only (produced by the Southern Railways Film Unit) makes the case for working on the railways.  Given how British society seemed to reset its gender patterns very quickly following the conclusion of WW2, it’s always slightly eye-opening to see – as here – the cheerful gusto shown by groups of women tackling the sort of manual labour which for decades afterwards was seen as a male-only preserve.

The final disc – Words For Battle, Writers At War – features some big names, pressed into service to help the war effort. The opening film Words For Battle is stirring stuff – Laurence Olivier intones the likes of Jerusalem over carefully selected pieces of footage.

Many notable British writers of the era are also included. J.B. Priestley wrote and narrated Britain At Bay, an inspirational piece which has a similar tone to his BBC wartime broadcasts.  Also of interest is A Diary For Timothy, written by E.M. Forster and narrated by Michael Redgrave.

The only negative with this release is that it doesn’t feature a list of the films included (a booklet would have been nice as well, but a basic listing on the back of the sleeve would have been very useful). That niggle apart, this is an absolute treasure trove of material and comes highly recommended.

The British Home Front At War was released by Simply Media, RRP £29.99.  It can be ordered here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

british home front 02

Royal Marines At War – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Commando: The Story of the Green Beret was a drama documentary produced in late 1945. Sponsored by the Admiralty, it follows the progress of Fusilier Gordon Blake as he undergoes the rigorous training schedule designed to turn him into a Commando (“the soldier of the future”).

After an establishing voice over, we open in a barbers shop where Gordon and his pal, ‘Stiffy’ Porter, are both having a shave.  There then follows some gloriously stilted dialogue as Stiffy and Gordon argue about the merits of this new fighting force. Gordon mutters that “I’ve been trying to drive into my mate’s thick head that the Commandos aren’t a lot of fancy bruisers” and over the next few minutes manages to argue his case pretty successfully.

The barber also pitches in with some wise words of wisdom and shortly afterwards Gordon sets off to begin his training at the Deal barracks in Kent.  Early on he attends a lecture from a Commando Captain who warns the new recruits that this isn’t the place to find “cheap glamour”.

As the hour continues we see Gordon tangle with the Tarzan course (“talk about Strength-through-Joy! I’m a new man already!”), face gruelling cross-country treks, tackle the essentials of unarmed combat and learn about the various Allied and Axis weapons he may well have to handle.

By dropping Gordon (who was presumably an actor) into the middle of a real Commando unit, the film is able to keep the interest level up as we follow his progress. There’s a varied mixture of newly shot footage and archive combat material and this is topped off with a typically jolly soundtrack (played by the Royal Marines band of course).

At just under an hour it’s the main feature and – notwithstanding some of the rather forced sounding dialogue early on – is a well put together piece of army propaganda.

Also included are three shorter documentaries, beginning with Rough Weather Landing (ten minutes). An experiment by No 4 Commando, it demonstrates how they’re able to launch a surprise attack on a seemingly impregnable coastline.  It may have been just off Cornwall – so they were under no threat from the Nazis – but the natural elements they had to face were dangerous enough ….

Jungle Mariners runs for fifteen minutes and revolves around the dangers faced by Marines in the Far Eastern jungles.  It’s another prime slice of propaganda, showing our boys happily interacting with a group of smiling natives as they all tuck into some nice slices of pineapple (elsewhere, things are a little more hairy of course). Jungle Mariners looks to be a mix of real footage and staged material, with multiple voice-over participants and the usual stirring soundtrack.

By Sea And Land – A Royal Marine Patrol In Normandy rounds off the disc.  Just under thirteen minutes, this short documentary follows the progress of a group of Marines as they attempt to maintain their position in occupied Europe following the D Day landings.  It’s another fascinating piece, full of interesting footage.

With a total running time of around 100 minutes, Royal Marines At War is another strong title released by Simply in association with the Imperial War Museum.  With Commando taking prime position, there’s plenty of worthy material to be found across all four documentaries.

Royal Marines At War has an RRP of £9.99 and can be ordered directly from Simply here. Quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

commando

The True Glory – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Released in 1945, The True Glory (a co-production between the US Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information) documents the victory on the Western Front – from the D Day landings of 1944 to the collapse of the Nazi regime in Berlin the following year.

The footage – shot by some seven hundred front-line cameramen – remains highly impressive and in certain cases (shots of the wizened victims in the liberated concentration camps for example) gut-wrenchingly moving.

Although the film does use a narrator, the majority of the voices heard are a varied cross-section of fighting men and women drawn from many countries. This ‘oral history’ approach is a major plus point – it certainly helps to reinforce the notion that the war was won thanks to the efforts of millions of ordinary people rather than the select band of generals and commanders.  Indeed, General Dwight D. Eisenhower filmed an introduction making this very point.

All this is excellent propaganda of course – indeed, as the whole film is.  The True Story may still stand up today as a record of a vital year, but it’s not quite the whole story. However the authorised nature of the film does give us a totally different, but still valid, perspective on a host of key events compared to documentaries made decades later.

The Anglo-American nature of the production was reflected in the fact that two directors, one British and the other American, were assigned to the project (Carol Reed and Garston Kanin).  Although there were tensions in certain quarters about content and tone, Reed and Kanin got on very well and swiftly formed a harmonious working partnership. Kanin later said that his collaboration with Reed was “a kind of love affair from the start. I simply adored Carol Reed.”

Peter Ustinov, who had worked with Reed the year before on The Way Ahead, found himself sifting through some of the thousands of hours of raw footage sent back to London.  Ustinov remembered watching the material shot in Belsen. “One after the other, individual soldiers fell out, vomiting helplessly on all fours. The shock had felled these men with a blow to the stomach, and there was nothing discipline could do. Suddenly one soldier went berserk. He broke ranks for no visible reason. Eyes wild, he ran, and the camera followed him.”

Ustinov’s presence makes me wonder if other personnel from The Way Ahead were also utilised.  Certainly at one point there’s a voice-over from a British tommy who sounds very much like Leslie Dwyer – so maybe the voices were a mixture of actors and real people.

This two disc set from Simply is supplemented by four further documentaries produced by British Paramount News for the British MOI.  They don’t quite have the weight of The True Glory but are all still interesting in their own right and I’m glad they were included.

The True Glory is a fascinating slice of contemporary reportage which attempted to sum up the tumultuous events of 1944-1945 in just under ninety minutes.  This was obviously going to be a tall order, but the ‘now’ feel of the film helps to give it a great impact. Warmly recommended.

The True Glory has an RRP of £9.99 and a running time of 271 minutes. It can be ordered directly from Simply Media here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Sources – the Kanin and Ustinov quotes were taken from this New York Sun article dated 5/2/08.

1118full-the-true-glory-poster

The Love School (BBC, 1975) – Simply Media DVD Review

love dvd.jpg

It is 1848.  Seven young men active in various artistic fields form a secret group, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  All are bound together by common aims – chiefly a desire to innovate and so break free from the stifling constraints of conventional artistic thinking.  Critical and public acclaim for their work is sparse to begin with though, whilst their unity as a cohesive collective is threatened by their egos and conflicting desires …..

Broadcast in January and February 1975 (comprising six 75 minute episodes) The Love School boasts a cast chock full of talent.  Peter Egan, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Quinn, David Collings, David Burke, Kenneth Colley and Sheila White are just some of the leading players.

The opening episode – The Brotherhood – introduces us to several main characters.  In these early stages it’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Ben Kingsley) who makes the strongest impression. Resplendent in a flowing wig, Kingsley certainly has plenty to work with. Rossetti might be a genius (he certainly believes so) but he’s also capricious and manipulative.

After persuading Ford Madox Brown (Malcolm Tierney) to take him on as a pupil, he then promptly dumps his mentor in favour of Holman Hunt (Bernard Lloyd). And whilst Rossetti and Hunt may later be the prime movers in founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the opportunistic Rossetti is always happy to drop his friends at the drop of a hat if it means advancing his career

And yet to begin with Hunt is always prepared to forgive his friend his sins.  Lloyd, like Kingsley, shines in this first episide – bringing to life the engaging and sensitive Hunt.  Peter Egan (as John Everett Millais) has less to work with initially, but his natural charm still comes to the fore.  Millais is a gifted artist, and has been since he was a child, but recent rejections by the Royal Academy are beginning to sting.

love egan

David Troughton (Frederic Stephens), Gareth Hunt (Thomas Woolner), John Quentin (James Collinson) and Nicholas Grace (William Rossetti) skirt around the perimeters of several episodes whilst Patricia Quinn, as the haunting Lizzie Siddal, and Sheila White (the gloriously common Annie Miller) both make instant impressions.

The already strong cast is further enhanced when David Collings and Anne Kidd (as John and Effie Ruskin) appear. An influential critic, Ruskin champions Millais’ work, but the artist becomes besotted with his wife …

Collings teases out Ruskin’s icy detachment with skill. At times Ruskin treats Effie with casual indifference and cruelty, but on other occasions their bond seems very strong. Into this strange and dysfunctional marriage comes Millais, as open and eager as ever.

Given the lion’s share of episode two, Egan is excellent – showing us how the always indulged and spoilt Millais becomes increasingly confused by the signals he’s receiving from Effie (they eventually marry following her acrimonious divorce).

One way of marking the passing of time is to keep an eye on the false beards and moustaches which suddenly appear. Hunt, for example, after travelling abroad for several years returns with an impressive beard and then reaffirms his intention to marry Annie. He’s paid for the guttersnipe to receive the best education possible, but has this turned her into a lady fit for polite society?

Speaking of false beards, there’s an excellent example courtesy of Desmond Llewellyn as Mr Coombe. Elsewhere in this third episode, Seeking The Bubbles, Egan sports a bald cap as Milliais grows older. Acting under heavy make-up was something Egan did a lot of during the 1970’s (see also The Prince Regent).

It’s slightly disconcerting the way Millais and Hunt age so rapidly. One minute they’re in hale and hearty middle age and the next they’ve been transformed into doddery old men. It’s a shame to see them go so soon, but on the plus side it means that Rossetti then reappears to dominate the second half of the serial.

Two notable actors, Kenneth Colley and David Burke, make their first appearances in the fourth episode (Remember Me). As Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris (who is usually referred to as Topsy) they may come across as two of the oldest undergraduates ever seen, but in their early scenes both manage to convey an appropriate degree of youthful enthusiasm when meeting their idol Rossetti for the first time.

Some delightful comic scenes then develop. The pair may be obsessive admirers of Rossetti, but Topsy especially finds it easy to pick holes in some of his more recent work.

Rossetti’s tender relationship with the physically ailing Lizzie generates some compelling moments. Despite his numerous sexual conquests elsewhere, he does seem to be genuinely in love with her. Although the fact he’s content to leave her alone all day, suffering silently, whilst he’s out and about enjoying himself tells its own story.  After being absent in episode three, Kingsley comes roaring back to life in this one.

love kingsley

Writing credits for the serial were shared between Ray Lawler, John Pebble, Robin Chapman and John Hale (one apiece from Lawler and Pebble, two each from Chapman and Hale). Chapman’s two episodes – four and five – are especially interesting. Depicting the rise and fall of Rossetti, both are compelling (although once again, the ever-growing false beards sported by several key characters can be a tad distracting).

Despite being largely studio bound, the milieu of Victorian England is very efficiently brought to life. The way the production uses ambient noise (such as horses and carriages clopping past outside) is an effective way of creating an immersive atmosphere.

There are several eye-catching directorial flourishes. At one point the picture is speeded up to suggest a frantic burst of activity from several of the artists – although this isn’t entirely convincing (it rather brings to mind Benny Hill). Rather more memorable is the moment when Patricia Quinn’s mouth is overlaid on a painting of Lizzie.  This is a traumatic scene for the hallucinating Rossetti, convinced that his dead love has returned from the grave to taunt him.

Even with the lengthy running time, some stories feel slightly undeveloped (we hurtle very quickly through Milliais’ life, for example). But with multiple colourful characters jostling for position it’s not really surprising that some fare better than others.  Ben Kingsley’s Rossetti (who appears in five of the six episodes) emerges as the first amongst equals.

The Love School is deftly able to impart an appreciation for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whilst at the same time not shying away from the multiple personality flaws which infected its leading lights (this makes for excellent drama of course).

Something of a neglected gem from the mid seventies, it’s yet another quality title that’s been brought back into circulation thanks to Simply.  An absorbing experience from start to finish, The Love School is worthy of your time.

The Love School is available now from Simply Media, RRP £24.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here, quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

 

The Phoenix And The Carpet (BBC, 1976/77) – Simply Media DVD Review

phoenix.jpg

When four children persuade their parents to buy them a rather shabby second hand carpet they have no idea what lies ahead for them.  For the carpet is a magic one, containing an egg which – when accidentally tossed into the fire – hatches a Phoenix who has been asleep for some considerable time.  With the wise Phoenix as their guide, the children embark on a series of amazing adventures ….

Published in 1904, The Phoenix and the Carpet was the second book in Edith Nesbit’s trilogy (beginning with Five Children and It and concluding with The Story of the Amulet). This 1976/77 adaptation by John Tully was retooled as a stand-alone tale, meaning that no knowledge of the previous story is required (the Psammead, from Five Children and It, appears briefly in the novel of The Phoenix And The Carpet but is omitted from this adaptation).

Given the technical limitations of the era, this was an incredibly ambitious production.  It’s not going to be to everybody’s tastes (there’s lashings of CSO and various other special effects which require considerable suspension of belief) but if you’re prepared to go with the flow then an utterly charming tale lies ahead.

Director Clive Doig had cut his teeth as a vision mixer on numerous 1960’s episodes of Doctor Who. Given this (as well as his work on Vision On and later Jigsaw) no doubt he wouldn’t have been phased by the taxing requirements of this eight-part serial.

I have to confess that within the first five minutes I was won over. Yes, the Phoenix may be a rather immobile puppet – but he’s brought to life by Robert Warner’s wonderful voice work.  Thanks to Warner, the Phoenix quickly becomes a character in his own right – knowledgeable and sage-like, but also possessed of an overweening sense of his own importance.

ph01

And although the children – Cyril (Gary Russell), Anthea (Tamzin Neville), Robert (Max Harris) and Jane (Jane Forster) – all have the slightly mannered stage-school delivery familiar from countless other period dramas of this era, there’s plenty of good one-liners and sly gags for them scattered throughout the script.

During the serial there are also some fine comic performances from the elder players. Robert Dorning as the carpet seller in the first episode for example, whilst Susan Field (as the children’s bad-tempered Cook) is a joy in episode two. Immediately after the Cook stumbles across the smooth-talking Phoenix she’s whisked away with the others to a desert island …

Clearly the serial had a decent budget as the island (whilst resolutely studio-bound) is shot on film rather than videotape. It doesn’t convince as a real location, but since the whole production has a heightened, theatrical feel this isn’t really a problem.

The island natives (browned up British actors with curly wigs and plenty of “ooga booga” mumblings) are slightly eyebrow raising, but these scenes only reflect the original novel, which sees the Cook carried off by the natives (who are so taken with her that they decide to make her their Queen).

The children’s colourful trips continue when they head out to India – we go back on film for a sumptuous palace based sequence which introduces us to The Ranee (Surya Kumai), someone who has every material benefit but still feels desperately unhappy. Luckily for her, the four plucky English children are able to cheer her up. Cyril launches into a lengthy explanation about how they acquired the carpet (delightfully causing the others to roll their eyes!)

ph13

Back in London, the imperious Mrs Biddle (Hilary Mason) is helping to organise a church bazaar with an Indian theme. She’s proud of her contribution, but is trumped by the knick-knacks acquired by the children during their recent jaunt.  This contrast between the exotic adventuring of the children and their return to a more mundane life in London gives the serial a very appealing feel (even though the adventures are high on charm but low on jeopardy).

There are several other highlights scattered throughout the remainder of the serial. I was particularly taken with the Phoenix’s tour of London. It’s a lovely opportunity to ramp up the comedy as the Phoenix demands to be taken to one of the many temples established in the capital to worship him (he has a little trouble in understanding that the Phoenix Insurance Company is a different sort of beast altogether …)

Monica Sims, head of BBC children’s programmes, told The Stage and Television Today that “the production has all the difficulties of children, animals, magic and the technical tricks required for a magic carpet. Not to mention a haughty bird as the leading artist” (30th September 1976).

All these hurdles were successfully overcome and by the time the eighth and final episode concludes there’s a definite sense of poignancy in the air.  The Phoenix And The Carpet certainly seems to have left an indelible impression on those who saw it at the time and it’s pleasing to report that the decades haven’t diminished its magic.  Other bigger-budgeted adaptations are also available, but this one is very special indeed. It’s well worth checking out.

The Phoenix And The Carpet is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

The Prince And The Pauper (BBC, 1976) – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Tom Canty, a street urchin, and Prince Edward, heir to the throne, bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. After they meet by chance, the Prince hatches a scheme in which the pair swop clothes and identities temporarily.  This will allow Edward to move incognito through the streets for an hour or so and get to learn a little about the ordinary folk he will soon be ruling.

But disaster strikes when Edward is captured by Tom’s cruel father, John Canty (Ronald Herdman). Unsurprisingly, no one believes he’s really the Prince of Wales whilst Tom, trapped in the palace, is equally unhappy.  The nobles take his protestations about being a commoner as a sign of madness, with Tom ending up as a pawn in a power game – the control of England being the prize ….

Published in 1881, Mark Twain’s evergreen nove! has spawned numerous big and small screen adaptations.  This BBC Classic Serial from 1976, adapted by Richard Harris and directed by Barry Letts, has many plusses in its favour – not least Nicholas Lyndhurt’s deftly played dual role as Tom and Edward.

The fourteen-year old Lyndhurst already had television experience (most notably in two previous classic serial adaptations – Heidi and Anne of Avonlea) but it still must have been a daunting prospect for him to have shared the screen with so many heavyweight actors.  He acquits himself with assurance though – creating two very separate personas for Tom and Edward (deferential and brow-beaten for Tom, autocratic and outspoken for Edward).

A quick glance down the cast-list makes it obvious that Barry Letts was in the directors chair. The first episode alone sees brief appearances from the likes of Dave Carter, Stuart Fell (as a juggler and fire-eater) and Max Faulkner.  Several other faces familiar from the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who enjoy decent roles, most notably Bernard Kay as Lord Hertford.

Kay, like many of the nobles at court, might be afflicted with a false beard, but as a very classy actor he’s easily able to rise above this handicap.  Nina Thomas is delightful as the sweetly concerned Princess Elizabeth whilst Martin Friend and Ronald Lacey, as Lords Sudbroke and Rushden, are both good value as a pair of devious plotters (Lacey was one of those actors who should have appeared in a Doctor Who, but sadly never did).

Ronald Radd is someone else who surprisingly never got the Doctor Who call.  As the ailing King Henry his understated playing bolsters the already strong cast. Henry’s death-bed imaginings is one highlight amongst many throughout the six episodes. Sadly this was one of Radd’s final roles – broadcast shortly before his death at the age of just forty seven.

June Brown does well with the fairly thankless role of Mother Canty (having little to do but act concerned) whilst Ronald Herdman might be a little ripe as John Canty but is still effective.  The early evening slot these serials enjoyed meant that violence tended to be implicit (so whilst we often see Canty raising his hand to Tom/Edward, blows are rarely struck).

But there is one jolting moment. Canty strikes down the inoffensive and bookish Father Andrew (Donald Eccles) leaving the old man dying the street, a trickle of blood on his face.  This sudden outburst of rage from Canty does help to illustrate that he’s an unstable powder keg, liable to explode at any moment, and therefore a constant danger to the outspoken Edward.

As the story progresses, both boys are drawn deeper into their new lives. Edward, despite making a new friend – Miles Hendon (Barry Stokes) – finds himself lurching from one dangerous situation to another, eventually ending up in prison. Meanwhile the increasingly confident Tom, following the death of the King, has to face the possibility that shortly he’ll be the focus point of a coronation ….

If the cast are first-rate, then there’s plenty to enjoy on the production side as well.  Kenneth Sharp’s sets are impressive, with several palace rooms possessing an imposing sense of scale.  James Acheson was an extremely safe pair of hands to have as the costume designer (later he would pick up three Oscars) so there’s no complaints there either.

The exterior film sequences gives the serial a glossy feel, although – as was the norm – most of the action takes place in the studio (and on videotape).  I’ve no doubt that Barry Letts relished the challenge of depicting the brief meeting between Tom and Edward.  There’s a very effective split-screen shot, but I was also impressed with a CSO mirror shot (Barry loved his CSO, sometimes to extremes, but this sequence works well).

Running for six episodes, each around 27 minutes duration, The Prince And The Pauper is a good example of the BBC Classic Serial output from the 1970’s.  It may lack the production gloss of later adaptations, but the excellent cast and fidelity shown to the source material means that it’s a very enjoyable watch.  There are many different versions of The Prince And The Pauper out there, but I have no hesitation in warmly recommending this one.

The Prince And The Pauper is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply Media here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

The Dawson Watch – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Les Dawson’s road to television stardom was a long and rocky one. Born in Collyhurst, Manchester in 1934, Dawson pursued numerous dead-end jobs whilst attempting to break into the comedy world.  After many false starts, thanks to a spot on Opportunity Knocks his luck slowly began to change.

His own show – Sez Lez – which ran on Yorkshire Televison from 1969 to 1976 was key in establishing his brand of entertaining miserablism.  Whilst some of the early editions were a bit thin comedy-wise, the arrival of a crop of experienced writers such as Barry Cryer and David Nobbs gave the show a considerable boost.  Having John Cleese as a regular co-star for a while didn’t hurt either.

Whilst with Yorkshire, Dawson also appeared in The Loner (scripted by Alan Plater) and Dawson’s Weekly (penned by Galton and Simpson) so he didn’t lack for heavyweight writers. Throw in a number of one-off specials, guest spots on other people’s programmes and appearances on panel shows such as Joker’s Wild and Celebrity Squares and it’s fair to say that by the mid seventies Dawson had well and truly arrived.

His defection to the BBC in 1977 wasn’t a shock on the same level as the departure of Morecambe and Wise to Thames, but it still raised a few eyebrows.  Lacking his familiar group of writers (even though they would have been happy to continue working with him) Dawson’s first BBC starring venture – imaginatively titled The Les Dawson Show – turned out to be something of a damp squib.

The writers – including Eddie Braben and a young David Renwick – were strong, but in some respects it seemed to be little more than a Sez Lez rehash (Les interacting with guest stars – such as Lulu – plus regular spots for singers and dancers).  The time was clearly right for Les to do something a little different next time and so The Dawson Watch (1979 – 1980) was born.

Dawson’s monologues (which he wrote himself, the sketches tended to be penned by other writers) often railed at life’s follies, so a series in which Les examined a different hot topic each week (Housing, Transport, Money, etc) was something which played to his strengths.

Along with a new writing team – Ian Davidson as script editor, Terry Ravenscroft and Andy Hamilton providing the sketches – the show began to take shape.  The Dawson Watch has the air of a consumer programme in which Les introduces sketches illustrating the topic of the week whilst moving around a studio packed with high-tech equipment (well, high-tech for the late seventies) and attractive young ladies pushing buttons.

daw20.jpg

It’s fair to say that the first series was a learning experience for all concerned.  Dawson seemed a little ill-at-ease in the first programme, only coming to life when he began to banter with the audience about where they live.  Once he does that – and presumably starts to go off-script – he visibly perks up.  Although there’s plenty of new material in his monologues, several old favourites (“until I was fifteen, I thought that knives and forks were jewellery”) also receive airings.

There are so many gems which can be mined from Dawson’s routines, such as this bleak portrait of Christmas.  Les confided that he could “only remember being given one Christmas present by my father. It was a do-it-yourself electric train set. Turned out to be a roll of fuse wire and a platform ticket”.

Possibly the major failing of the first series is the fact that Dawson doesn’t appear in many of the sketches.  Familiar faces such as Cosmo Smallpiece and Cissie and Ada do pop up, but most of the sketches are handled by others.  There’s certainly some very talented performers on view during these early shows – Sam Kelly, Johnny Ball, Michael Knowles, John Junkin, Patrick Newell, Terence Alexander, David Lodge, Andrew Sachs – but it would have been much more enjoyable had we seen Dawson playing off against them.

However, one of Les’ early sketch appearances (with Roy Barraclough as Cissie) is a Dawson classic.

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.
ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.
CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?
ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.
CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?
ADA: See it? We were never off it.

Clearly lessons had been learned for series two as Dawson takes a much more central role in the sketches whilst Vicki Michelle (as one of the computer girls) proved to be a welcome additon to the line-up. The girls in the first series were rarely called upon to be anything more than mute and attractive – acting simply as fodder for Dawson’s remarks – but Michelle possessed the comic chops to be able to engage in banter with him (which made Les’ lecherous advances seem a little less uncomfortable).

The astonishing roster of familiar faces making guest appearances during series one was reduced for the second and third series.  As was more common with series of this type, a “rep” of performers was used instead – Roy Barraclough headed the list, with Daphne Oxenford and Gordon Peters amongst the other regulars.

The formula remained the same for the third and final series (broadcast in 1980 and culminating with a Christmas Special discussing the obvious topic of Christmas). Vicki Michelle wasn’t featured so prominently, although one of her future Allo, Allo! co-stars, Kirsten Cooke, made a few appearances whilst it was also nice to see the likes of George Sweeney and Michael Keating.

Compared to some of his contemporaries, such as Mike Yarwood and Dick Emery, Les Dawson is very well represented on DVD. Virtually all of his surviving ITV material can be purchased from Network whilst this release from Simply constitutes a welcome chunk of his later BBC work. Hopefully more will surface in the future.

Whilst some aspects of Dawson’s humour haven’t aged well, there’s still so much of interest here – his wonderfully crafted monologues, the impressive parade of supporting actors – to make it easy for me to wholeheartedly recommend this release.

The Dawson Watch consists of nineteen 30 minute episodes spread across three discs (six, six, seven) and is subtitled. It’s released tomorrow (4th March 2019) by Simply Media and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).