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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!)

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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

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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

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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.

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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).

 

 

Impossible Peace – Simply Media DVD Review

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By the end of 1919 – when our story starts – it was all done and dusted. The terms had been hammered out at Versailles, the great and powerful had signed the papers, the echoes of war were fading and the new age, the age of a hard-won peace, was beginning.

It would last just twenty years. The twenty years that occupy our series. Twenty years is not a long time. This is the story of what went wrong.

WW1 might have been dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’ but a little over twenty years later the world fell headlong into a second world war, and one which was even more devastating than the first.

Numerous previous documentaries have examined the various causes of WW2, but most tend to begin with the rise of Hitler in 1933.  Impossible Peace winds the clock right back in order to suggest that WW2 was the inevitable result of the uneasy and unstable 1918 peace.

Impossible Peace is an eight part series (each edition approx. 50 minutes) developed by WildBear Entertainment and directed by Michael Cove. An Australian production company, WildBear have nevertheless ensured that Impossible Peace has a strong British flavour.  The narrator – Rod Mullinar – is a British born, Australian based actor who possesses the sort of deep and authoritative tones which fit perfectly with the style of this documentary.  True, he sometimes sounds a little overwrought but that’s no doubt due to the occasional patches of purple prose contained within the script.

Interspersed between the substantial archive footage are contributions (often brief, but always insightful) from a crop of British based academics.  And although political and military matters are heavily favoured, popular culture (including fashion, music and movies) are also featured – in this way, a more rounded picture of these two tumultuous decades can be formed.

The eight episodes are as follows:

1. The Lap of the Gods 1919-1921

After four years of vicious fighting, the survivors of WW1 expected that peace and prosperity would follow. But with so many economies and societies shattered (some maybe beyond repair) this would be far from straightforward.

2. Just Like the Arabian Nights 1922-1925

The victors of World War 1 believed that keeping their vanquished foes under-armed would guarantee peace.  And so as the US and Great Britain began to increase their military holdings, it was at the expense of a humiliated Germany.

3. Mussolini Is Always Right 1925-1929

Technological advances were embraced by some – but not all – whilst Mussolini began his autocratic rule in Italy.

4. Dancing On A Volcano 1929-1931

By the late twenties, Europe – France especially – appeared to have put the bad old days of economic strife behind them.  A few voices warned that this boom time would have inevitable consequences, but the majority weren’t listening ….

5. I’m Alright 1932-1933

With Europe now in the grip of a deep depression, where were the strong, charismatic leaders able to negotiate their way through this crisis period?

6. Everyone Trusts Him 1933-1936

With the United States also suffering, Japan took the opportunity to increase their empire.  Turning their attention to East Asia, they plotted the invasion of Manchuria.

7. History Stopped 1936-1938

By the mid thirties, Adolf Hitler’s ambitions seemed clear to all. If the great powers had acted earlier, would their intervention have prevented WW2?

8. Peace For Our Time 1938-1939

For some, appeasement was the only way (repeating the disaster of WW1 had to be avoided at all costs). But with Adolf Hitler at the other end of the negotiating table, this was a strategy doomed to failure.

Concise and absorbing, Impossible Peace rattles along at an impressive rate.  With such a wide-ranging scope, it’s true that some topics can only be lightly touched upon, but I’ve always tended to find that documentaries like this are useful for sparking an interest in certain topics which can then be researched in more detail by acquiring specific books, documentaries, etc.

If I have one quibble, then it’s the constant musical soundtrack.  There were times when I would have preferred the visuals and the narration to have spoken for itself as the ever-present musical underscore (especially when it’s in full-on dramatic mode) can be somewhat counter-productive.

This apart, there’s a great deal to appreciate in Impossible Peace (a three-disc set with no subtitles) and it comes warmly recommended.

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

Les Misérables (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

There have been countless film, stage and televison adaptations of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel (indeed, a lavish BBC1 adaption has just finished its run on Sunday nights). This 1967 BBC Classic Serial might have been mounted on a fairly modest scale, but where it scores – as these serials so often did – is in the quality of the actors, their performances and the fidelity of the adaption to its source material.

Frank Finlay is mesmerising as Jean Valjean. A former convict, Valjean has forged a successful new existence as a pillar of society – a mayor and magistrate – but remains haunted by his past experiences.

It’s such a shame that the original film inserts are long gone, as the opening episode has some remarkable film work (courtesy of director Alan Bridges).  The somewhat grubby telerecordings are obviously preferable to nothing (a fate which has sadly befallen so many 1960’s television programmes) but to have seen these impressionistic sequences in a pristine state would have been fascinating.

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At first, Finlay is barely recognisable (the haunted Valjean when released from fifteen years hard labour is a bedraggled and violent soul)  but by the second episode he’s undergone a remarkable transformation into a cultured man who dispenses charity and understanding to all.

Anthony Bate, as Inspector Javert, is a fine match for Finlay. Javert is the direct opposite of Valjean (Valjean dispenses compassion, Javert cold justice). This sort of role – icy, detached – was one that Bate played time and again, so as you might expect he’s incredibly good value. The clashes between the two are a key part of the story (initially uneasy allies, in the fourth episode Valjean admits his true identity in open court and flees, with Javert dogging his footsteps thereafter).

Excellent performances abound. Michele Dotrice, for example, as the increasingly wretched Fantine. A rapid downward spiral sees her forced to sell everything she has – hair, teeth – in order to provide for her daughter.  Dotrice throws herself wholeheartedly into the role and makes an indelible impression across these early episodes.

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Clifford Rose’s monologue in episode four – Buried Treasure – is another early highlight (he plays Champmathieu, a man accused of being the notorious Jean Valjean). It’s a role far removed from the later ones for which he’s best remembered for (Callan, Secret Army).

Coincidence tends to play a part in many novels from the nineteenth century and Les Mis is no exception. Having been unable to save Fantine, Valjean (now an outcast once more) just happens to run into Cosette (Lesley Roach), Fantine’s young daughter.

Left in the cruel care of an innkeeper called Thenardier and his wife (splendidly evil turns from Alan Rowe and Judy Parfitt), Cosette becomes the latest waif to be taken under Valjean’s wing. Finlay’s cool self-control as Valjean faces down the grasping Thenardier is expertly played. Yet another coincidence sees them run into each other years later, when it appears that Thenardier has gained the upper hand.

At the start of episode seven, Cosette has suddenly grown up into a beautiful young woman (like Fantine, played by Michele Dotrice). It seems odd that Valjean seems not to have aged compared to his adopted daughter, but this isn’t uncommon in serials of this type.

The last batch of episodes relocates the action to Paris and introduces some key new characters – like Marius (Vivian MacKerral) – as various plots and counter-plots come to fruition. Revolutionary Paris might only be glimpsed in snatches, but this isn’t a disappointment. On the contrary, the serial’s low budget ensures that character drama remains at the forefront right until the conclusion.

As previously discussed, the picture quality is somewhat variable. It looks pretty much like you’d expect an unrestored telerecording from the late 1960’s to look – there’s intermittent film damage, dirt and tramlining. But anybody familiar with archive television of this era should know what to expect and the occasional picture issues didn’t impair my enjoyment.

Running for ten 25 minute episodes (five each across two discs), this version of Les Misérables boasts a series of excellent performances and comes warmly recommended.

Les Misérables is available now from Simply Media. It has a RRP of £24.99 and can be ordered directly here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Lorna Doone – Simply Media DVD Review

John Ridd (John Sommerville) was just a boy when his father, a good and honest man, was brutally murdered by Carver Doone (John Turner). Despite an outward display of respectability, the wealthy Doone family delight in creating havoc and mischief.

As John grows up, he vows to avenge his father’s death. But matters are complicated when he falls deeply in love with the young Lorna Doone (Emily Richard) whose hand in marriage has been promised to her cousin, Carver ….

Subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore was originally published in 1869. An instant success, it has spawned numerous television and film adaptations over the last hundred years or more. It’s easy to see why, since it’s a heady mixture of action, adventure, revenge and romance.

This 1976 BBC Classic Serial version is a faithful adaptation (always a hallmark of the Classic Serials) although it does take a short time to tune in to the style of production. Even for those well used to the delights of archive television, some of the 1970’s Classic Serials initially appear to be rather earnest and mannered (the numerous very fake-looking beards are also a hindrance). But it doesn’t take long before the story starts to engross and the small niggles fade away.

Richard Beaumont, as the young John, carries most of the first episode. Although still a teenager, he’d already enjoyed a decent career stretching back to the late 1960’s (including a brief recording contract with Decca records). His John is a pleasing mixture of youthful impatience and innocence and such is the impression he makes that it’s almost a shame when John suddenly turns into the much older John Sommerville.

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It’s slightly odd that none of the other characters seem to age though (which makes John’s transformation from scrawny youth to strapping young man all the more jarring). Possibly it would have been better to have staged this transformation at the start of the second episode, rather than at the end of the first.

Episode one also gives us a brief glimpse of the young Lorna, played by Jennifer Thanisch (best known for appearing as Anne in the Southern series of The Famous Five). John Somerville’s John Ridd is a stolid enough creation but it’s Emily Richard’s Lorna Doone who really catches the eye. Easily the more experienced actor of the two, Richard had just starred in The Glittering Prizes and would later appear in the well-remembered WW2 drama Enemy At The Door.

Plenty of familiar faces are on show. Patrick Troughton plays Councillor Doone, not a terribly large role but Troughton was always good value whatever part he played. Ian Hogg is very appealing as the roguish highwayman Tom Faggus whilst Lucinda Gane (later to play Miss Mooney in Grange Hill) appears as Lizzie, one of John’s sisters. David Garfield, Max Faulkner and Trevor Baxter are amongst those who contribute to a strong supporting cast.

The romance between John and Lorna is a key part of the narrative, with various other subplots – the infighting amongst the Doones, rumbles of unrest in London about the King ‘s conduct – also bubbling away nicely throughout the episodes.

Whilst it’s true that some of the rustic supporting characters err on the ripe side, Lorna Donne boasts some fine performances amongst the principals. If you love the 1970’s era of the BBC Classic Serials then this should certainly appeal.

Lorna Doone is available now from Simply Media, RRP £24.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).