Norbert Smith: A Life – Simply Media DVD Review

Harry Enfield (b. 1961) first came to prominence in 1986 on Channel 4’s Saturday Live. The two characters he created with Paul Whitehouse – Stavros and Loadsamoney – quickly became public favourites, especially the obnoxious Loadsamoney. But since they only offered limited possibilities for development it wasn’t surprising that Enfield eventually tired of them and moved onto other projects.

In 1990 he would debut Harry Enfield’s Television Programme on the BBC, but just prior to this Norbert Smith: A Life aired on Channel 4. It was the first time that his skill with multiple characters within the sketch format had been given free reign and therefore is a key moment in his early career.

The format is simple. Melvyn Bragg is interviewing the venerable British actor Sir Norbert Smith. In-between the rambling interview sections are clips from the great man’s many films (dating from the 1930’s up to the present day). This is obviously just a device to stop the programme from appearing to be nothing more than a series of film sketches (which it clearly is, but since everything works so well I’m not complaining).

The inspiration for the programme would have been obvious to most people at the time. Broadcast in 1983, Laurence Olivier: A Life found Britain’s greatest theatrical knight in conversation with Melvyn Bragg. In some ways Norbert is a wicked parody of the 1983 original, even down to the aged Norbert’s appearance (he’s the dead spit of the elderly Olivier). But although there’s a visual similarity (and some crossover in films, such as Hamlet) Norbert Smith isn’t a pastiche of Olivier’s career – the subject of this programme was an actor much lower down the food chain.

His film debut – appearing alongside Will Silly in Oh, Mr Bankrobber! – is a case in point. This first parody sets the benchmark for the rest of the programme – it’s a wonderfully observed Will Hay pastiche, capturing the tone perfectly (the crosstalk and ever-increasing verbal confusion is spot on). It’s visually very appealing too, with just the right amount of dirt applied to make it look like a fifty year old film (plenty of hiss on the soundtrack as well).

Another example of this attention to detail can be seen in Lullaby Of London. A 1940 American film featuring oodles of British clichés, not only does the picture have that odd washed-out colour tone of the era but the sound is a little tinny as well. Josie Lawrence joins Harry and a fair number of extras for this extravagant song and dance number.

The Noel Coward inspired Hamlet is another stand-out section – especially since it so closely apes the visuals of Olivier’s own classic version. The Brief Encounter skit (featuring Felicity Montagu) is given a little extra spin when it’s revealed that their over-earnest performances are only in respect of an advert for Sudso washing powder (which has the classic slogan “it washes clothes”).

It’s Grim Up North (1962) is a typically depressing kitchen sink drama, but the same year Norbert would also take on a very different role – that of the father in Keep Your Hair On, Daddio – so clearly Norbert was an actor of some versatility. And around this time an alcoholic Norbert found himself ruthlessly probed on Head to Head. “Why are you so hopeless? Forgive me for saying this, but you’re a complete alcoholic and a lousy actor”. The unmistakable tones of Geoffrey Chater help to make this Face to Face homage even more enjoyable.

There are many other gems scattered throughout (such as Rover Returns Home where Norbert shares the screen with a young Michael Caine) but rather than listing them all (and spoiling the gags) I’ll mention just one more. This is easily my favourite – Carry On Banging. Featuring three Carry On stalwarts (Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor and Jack Douglas) it manages to pack a breathtaking number of innuendoes into just two minutes.

“Now listen, we want you to pull them down and if you don’t, we will”.

“Those unsightly erections of yours are a danger to us all”.

“That man there, he threatened to give me a big stiff one”.

And the killer line ….

“Let us all have a little discussion, where you can all put over your points of view. Yes, let’s have a mass debate”.

With Paul Whitehouse not contributing, Enfield co-wrote Norbert Smith with Geoffrey Perkins, no slouch himself as a writer or performer. And although it only runs for 47 minutes, there’s so much packed in that it seems to be longer.

It’s a pity that there’s no special features or additional footage, which means that whilst this is a treat, it’s a very short one. But given the quality of the programme it’s certainly something I have no hesitation in recommending. A comic gem, it’s a joy from beginning to end.

Norbert Smith: A Life is released by Simply Media on the 16th of July 2018. It can be ordered directly from Simply here. Quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

Alan Bleasdale Presents: Self Catering

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A plane crash leaves five survivors stranded on a desert island. It’s a paradise – or would be if it wasn’t for the absence of food. As the deeply mismatched quintet consider their options, they decide to adopt the names of their favourite film stars ….

Another entry in the short-lived 1994 C4 anthology series Alan Bleasdale Presents, Self Catering chugs along very agreeably thanks to the number of excellent lines contained within Andrew Cullen’s script. The ninety minute screenplay is packed with quotable moments, such as this reaction from the narcissistically self-obsessed Marilyn (Jane Horrocks) to the prospect of having to become a forager. “We’re not hunter/gatherers anymore, we’re shoppers. My idea of a marathon is walking from Boots to C&A, realising I’ve forgotten the deodorant and having to walk back to Boots”.

In addition to Marilyn (who has adopted the name of Marilyn Monroe), we also have a movie buff who has decided he’d like to be Henry Fonda (John Gordon Sinclair), the womanising Clint Eastwood (Andrew Schofield), the acerbic Joan Crawford (Noreen Kershaw) and the unconscious (although she wakes up eventually) Meryl Streep (Jennifer Ehle).

If Cullen’s script is good – creating a group of hopelessly incompatible people (Marilyn detests heavy lifting or indeed any sort of work, Clint can’t keep his eyes off all the females, Joan loathes Marilyn, Henry is a film obsessed bore, etc) – then the actors take the material they’ve been given and run with it.

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Jane Horrocks is a total treat as Marilyn as is Noreen Kershaw as the foul-mouthed Joan. All three females find themselves caught up in an unlikely love-quadrangle with Clint (Joan at one point telling him that he’s “got a great body. But you’ve got a sick mind. But you’ve got a great body”).

It’s hard to imagine any better than John Gordon Sinclair in the role of the deeply pernickety Henry. “Does no-one like Henry Fonda these days? Rocky, Rambo, Robocop. They are nothing compared to Henry Fonda”.

I also love Henry’s doom-laden pronouncement from the opening few minutes. After considering the unconscious Meryl, who appears to be dead, he declares that they shouldn’t bury her too deep. With the only food available being the limited supplies on the plane, pretty soon they’re going to have to tuck into human flesh. It gives a new spin to the title Self Catering.

Robin Lefevre would later direct Alan Bleasdale’s Jake’s Progress (he had also acted in Requiem Apache) whilst Andrew Schofield had earlier prominently featured in G.B.H as well as Requiem Apache, suggesting that Bleasdale liked to work with a core group of creatives on a regular basis.

Jennifer Ehle (who would also appear in another Alan Bleasdale Presents, Pleasure) has the hardest role, since Meryl (who wasn’t even granted the ability to re-christen herself – Henry chose the name Meryl Streep since he liked the actress) is insensible for the first half of the story. After Meryl wanders off and then wanders back, it does allow John Gordon Sinclair the chance to riff in an amusing manner (wondering if the approaching figure might be an android!)

But once Meryl does regain consciousness, she makes up for lost time by indulging in flings with first Clint, then Joan (who promises to teach her about the birds and the birds) before moving on to the voluble, if deeply sexually repressed, Henry. As she slowly unzips his trousers, she asks him if he minds. He responds that he has “the gravest doubts on the subject, by I intend to crush them”. This, like many of his other utterances, derives from one of his favourite films.

Although Self Catering is played as a comedy, it’s sometimes a rather dark one. Both Clint and Marilyn venture, at different times, into the wrecked cockpit. Moving their way through the dead bodies, Marilyn (to the strains of Elvis Costello’s I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down) amuses herself by taking a selfie, whilst Clint is more interested in the contents of a ladies blouse.

Clint’s later madness (he elects to wall himself off from the others) and Henry’s bizarre dreams are some of the later highlights. Lacking a straightforward narrative, Self Catering is more of a collection of character set-pieces with an open-ended conclusion. This isn’t really a problem though – since the cast are firing on all comic cylinders it’s another DVD from the series which is well worth your time.

Alan Bleasdale Presents: Self Catering is released by Simply Media on the 4th of June 2018, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Alan Bleasdale Presents Requiem Apache

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Hamish (Alfred Molina) has left his former life as a getaway driver far behind. Now ensconced in a bucolic English village and living a contented existence with his wife and baby daughter, everything seems perfect. Which it is until his old friends come calling and ask him to join them in one final job. But with his wife away he’s been left holding the baby – so even if he wanted to, juggling the twin demands of a life of crime and baby care might turn out to be a little tricky ….

Alan Bleasdale Presents was a short series of C4 television films broadcast during 1994. With Bleasdale acting as producer and mentor, the series gave a handful of young writers valuble exposure and the opportunity to hone their talents. And there’s no doubt that his name on the project helped to attract the cream of the acting profession (Requiem Apache, for example, featured brief appearances from the likes of Julie Walters).

This appears to be Raymond Murtagh’s only script for either film or television, which is a slightly surprising since it’s a quirky and entertaining piece (Murtagth’s other credits were all on the acting front – he appeared in various series including Crown Court, Juliet Bravo and Doctor Who).

Once Hamish’s wife swiftly departs aboard for a foreign trip, he throws himself into the task of looking after his daughter Laura (Aimee and Lynsay Bullard) with gusto. There’s a definite “aww” factor to these scenes, helped no end by the baby actor. The scene where Hamish engages Laura in conversation and she turns to stare at him could clearly never be scripted, but is a lovely moment nonetheless!

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Elsewhere though, storm clouds are brewing. A mysterious individual, credited only as the Juice Man (Robin Lefevre) is putting the squeeze on Hamish’s old boss, Tony (Kenneth Cranham), who in turn decides to put the squeeze on Hamish. The Juice Man certainly makes an impact with his handful of scenes. He gets his name from the way he intimidates a hapless barman (Christopher Ryan – another well known face appearing in a fairly small role) into giving him an immaculately poured glass of orange juice. The Juice Man also has a unique way of disposing of people who displease him ….

As good as Alfred Molina is, Requiem Apache really springs to life whenever Kenneth Cranham is on the screen. Effortlessly stealing every scene he appears in, he gives a beautifully judged performance which adds an extra level of quality to the production. Andrew Schofield and Ralph Brown (as Tony’s fixers, Rocky and Mick) are also good value – they’re mainly cast as comic foils, but are also responsible for the occasional darker moment (these brief bursts of violence are especially jolting given that the majority of the story is played almost like an Ealing Comedy).

The climatic bank robbery, with Hamish as the driver and Tony, Rocky and Mick cast in the unlikely roles of three blind men (all the better for confusing the bank staff) then leads into a final payoff which I doubt many would have seen coming. But whilst it might be unexpected it’s also a satisfying conclusion which ties up all the loose ends.

As touched upon before, there’s plenty of quality in this cast. Along with Julie Walters’ cameo (which doesn’t advance the plot at all, but passes a few minutes very agreeably) it’s also nice to see Sam Kelly, Chris Ryan, Peter Benson and Jon Laurimore passing through and at just 77 minutes the story doesn’t outstay its welcome.

An amusing comedy romp which isn’t afraid to go dark at times, Requiem Apache is a brisk treat, powered along by the excellent cast. Recommended.

Requiem Apache is released by Simply Media on the 28th of May 2018, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Comics – Simply Media DVD Review

American comedian Johnny Lazar (Tim Guinee) recently arrived in the UK, observes a gangland killing on the streets of Soho. As a witness, Johnny finds he’s a person of interest from both sides of the law ….

Simply Media continues to trawl through the Channel 4 back-catalogue with this two-part serial from 1993, written by Lynda La Plante and produced by Verity Lambert.

Within the first few minutes Johnny’s character has already been deftly painted – he’s an uncontrollable loose cannon (shooting his mouth off on a top American chat show is one of the reasons why he finds himself unemployable in his own country).

Given the generous running time (two episodes each of approx. 107 minutes) it’s slightly odd that Johnny witnesses the murder so early on in the first episode. The story might have benefitted from having a little more time to set up the characters and the milieu.

But even though the first twenty minutes seems to fly by at breakneck speed, all the essentials are put in place. We meet some of Johnny’s fellow comics, such as the cynical Haggis (Alex Norton) and the firmly traditional Graham Redcar (Graham Fellows). Fellows, no stranger to comedy himself (Jilted John, John Shuttleworth) was a wonderful casting choice. Graham is a strictly old-school turn, dressed in a smart dinner jacket he seems very out of place amongst his shabbier fellow performers. His insistence that you don’t have to descend to gutter language in order to amuse (instead he puts his faith in his hand puppet) is another obvious way in which he differs from the crowd.

Whilst it’s true that Londoners are very phlegmatic, it slightly stretches credibility that somebody could be shot multiple times right in front of a crowd of people with nobody reacting. You’d have thought somebody might have screamed at least once ….

But then some of the plotting of Comics is slightly suspect. We see the murdered man, Johnny Fratelli, walking past Anthony Fratelli’s (Stephen Greif) car. Given that Johnny was shot on his cousin’s orders (and that a briefcase was the prize) why choose to murder him in such a public place? It would have been far wiser to dispose of him in secret, that way obtaining the briefcase would have been straightforward (whereas here it’s not picked up in the melee).

It’s always nice to see Stephen Greif and although he’s rather typecast as a villain, since it’s a role he always plays so well I’m not going to complain. A number of other familiar faces (some already established, others just making a start) also appear – such as Danny Webb and Lennie James.

Brian Duffield (Webb) thinks that Johnny has the potential to hit the big time. The culture clash between the two – Johnny’s never heard of the likes of Rik Mayal, Ben Elton or the BBC – is nicely done, leading us to the punchline where Brian proudly tells him that he should be able to get him a spot on the Des O’Connor show. Needless to say, Johnny’s never heard of Des either ….

One plus point of Comics is the way that it intercuts an examination of the comedy scene in the UK with a straightforward police procedural (as the hunt for Johnny Fratelli’s killer begins in earnest). There’s some spiky satire directed at the comedy world – Duffield, with his brick like mobile phone and his rampaging desire to make Johnny a star, is the archetypal manager whilst the appearance of Michael Aspel helps to anchor the serial to the real world.

Johnny’s meltdown on the Aspel show (launching into a routine about guns and sex which I assume was intended to be shocking but today seems rather tame) shows the way his mind is currently functioning, i.e. not very well. But with one of his fellow comics recently murdered (he was mistaken for Johnny) it’s possibly not surprising that he’s becoming increasingly flaky.

Tim Guinee had to tread a delicate line. Johnny is often boorish and monosyablic, but Guinee also has to make him sympathetic, otherwise Comics would be a slog with an unlikable character at its heart. Guinee succeeds in teasing out the more vulnerable side of Johnny’s nature from time to time, so overall he gives a very rounded performance.

Although a little unfocused in places, there’s still a great deal of interest to be found in Comics, especially the depiction of the seedier end of the comedy circuit featuring a disparate group of characters all dreaming of a chance to make it big. Having the likes of Graham Fellows in the cast helped to add a layer of authenticity and it’s interesting to learn that Jo Brand was also approached.

Comics features a female performer, Rebecca (Jenny Galloway), who has more than a touch of Brand about her. It looks as if the part was originally written with Brand in mind, as touched upon during this interview.

A favourite of LaPlante’s, Comics slowly ramps up the tension before climaxing with a more than satisfying conclusion (followed by a touching coda). Propelled along by a very strong cast, Comics is an intriguing drama from the earlier days of C4 and is well worth your time.

Comics is released by Simply Media on the 21st of May 2018, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Cinderella – Simply DVD Review

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Nick Dear’s reimagining of Cinderella relocates the story to mid twentieth century Britain. Young Zezolla (Marcella Plunkett) tangles with her new stepmother, Claudette (Kathleen Turner), an evil woman who has the unsuspecting Martin (David Warner) firmly in her grasp.

Zezolla, nicknamed Cinderella after she’s given the task of stoking the coal boilers of her father’s sprawling mansion, also has to contend with Claudette’s two scheming sisters – Goneril and Regan (Katrin Cartlidge and Lucy Punch) A fairy godmother would be handy, but surely that would be expecting too much …

Whilst Cinderella draws much of its inspiration from the original fairy tale, it also delights in mixing and matching elements from various other stories. King Lear is an obvious inspiration – the names of Claudette’s daughters and the way that Zezolla becomes estranged from her father (in true Lear style) are the most obvious nods.

Kathleen Turner adds a touch of Hollywood glamour to the production. Bedecked in a series of eye-catching costumes, Claudette is depicted as a top class schemer. Although briefly disappointed when she discovers that her new husband might be aristocratic but is also pretty much broke, she soon recovers. Once she’s managed to dispose of him (poison should do the trick) she’ll be free to remarry and if one of her daughters could snag a young and handsome Prince, all the better ….

Karen Cartlidge and Lucy Punch as Goneril and Regan are a hoot. Just as wicked and narcissistically self-obsessed as their mother, they delight in taunting their new, downtrodden sister-in-law. An early scene, where the pair – cavorting on their bed in stockings – ponder whether they should corrupt the innocent Zezolla is nicely done.

As for Zezolla – or Cinderella as she becomes known – she’s deftly brought to life by Marcella Plunkett. Although this was an early screen credit for Plunkett, she doesn’t seem at all fazed by sharing the screen with vastly more experienced actors.

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The casting for Cinderella was very strong. David Warner has a tricky job as Martin (it’s difficult to believe that anybody could be quite as dim and trusting as he is) but Warner’s a class actor who just about gets away with it. Leslie Phillips has a nice role as Felim, Martin’s faithful family retainer. Although it does seem a bit harsh that a man as old as he is has been given the job of stoking the boilers ….

Felim acts as Cinderella’s confidant, which is perfect casting for Phillips who twinkles away very appealingly. When advising her about the pleasures and pitfalls of love, he lets slip that he has form in this matter – most notably Mab (Jane Birkin).

Another strong addition to the cast, Mab occupies the role of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, although she – like a great deal of the story – is far removed from the traditional image. Living in an underground cave, Mab’s delightfully disconnected (telling Cinders at one point that she can’t rustle her up a pair of shoes – she never bothers with them herself since shoes are only for people who don’t like the look of their feet). Several other familiar faces pass by later on, such as Sharon Maughan, Michael Medwin, Nickolas Grace and Jenny Tomasin.

Prince Valliant (Gideon Turner) enters the picture mid-way through. An unconventional Prince Charming, he’s portrayed as a bored and idle lounger. I’m not sure whether Turner’s playing is supposed to be off-kilter or if it was just a case of bad acting. I suspect the former, and this thought was strengthened by the memorable moment when the Prince elects to serenade the alluring Cinderella with a rock song and an energetic guitar solo. He does later roam the Kingdom (albeit on a motorbike) with a slipper, looking for a foot that will fit it – so at least in that instance he does conform to the traditional story.

With a woozy, non-naturalistic feel, Cinderella doesn’t outstay its welcome at 83 minutes. It may be fairly short, but is decidedly sweet and – thanks to the first-rate cast – is something of a treat. Recommended.

Cinderella is released on the 21st of May 2018 by Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

The Demon Headmaster – Simply Media DVD Review

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Starting a new school is traumatic at the best of times, but Dinah Glass’ (Frances Amey) first day is worse than most. Most of her fellow pupils seem uncharacteristically docile whilst the Headmaster is a very strange man indeed ….

Created by Gillian Cross, the Demon Headmaster has featured in a series of (to date) seven novels published between 1982 and 2017. When Cross’ books were adapted for television in the mid nineties (there were three series in total) four of her novels were used. The six episodes of series one utilised the first two books – The Demon Headmaster (1982) and The Prime Minster’s Brain (1985) – each running for three instalments.

Dinah, an orphan, has arrived at her new foster home. Mrs Hunter (Tessa Peake-Jones) is warm and welcoming but her two young sons – Harvey (Thomas Szekeres) and Lloyd (Gunnar Cauthery) – are far less enthused. This isn’t because they don’t want a girl around the house, it’s more to do with the fact that they’re members of a small group (five in total) who have somehow managed to escape the Headmaster’s control and fear that Dinah will end up as a spy in their camp.

The central heroic protagonist of the series (subtly reinforced by the title sequence which depicts the other children on either side of the screen whilst Dinah – like the Headmaster – is placed in the centre of the frame) Dinah’s plight instantly captures the viewer’s attention, thanks to Frances Amey’s performance. As you might expect, the child cast are variable (some good, some not quite so) so it’s fortunate that the key role of Dinah went to a strong actor.

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There’s no doubt who commands the screen though. Terrence Hardiman looks to be having a whale of a time as the thoroughly evil Headmaster who isn’t content with just controlling one school. “The man who can keep order can rule the world”. Effortlessly menacing, it’s easy to understand how he managed to traumatise a generation of children ….

Dinah, an incredibly intelligent girl, looks to be ideal fodder for the Headmaster, but her strong will means that she manages to break free of his control after something of a struggle. Quite how Harvey, Lloyd and several of their friends (Ian, Mandy and Ingrid) have been able to resist is never made clear. Possibly the reverse is true with them – they simply weren’t intelligent enough?

There’s an interesting moment in the third episode of series one when we see the Headmaster commanding a group of brainwashed pupils to dispose of Dinah and the others. He tells them that what they can see in front of them are a number of straw dolls who are no longer needed and can be ripped apart. The overlay effect is a simple one, but it’s nevertheless a disturbing little scene.

Danny John-Jules has an entertaining guest appearance in these early episodes as Eddy Hair, an energetic performer who runs a television game show which is the first step on the Headmaster’s path to power. Although with its screaming children and oodles of gunk it seems like the last place he’d want to be ….

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After Dinah manages to scupper the Headmaster’s plans at the conclusion of the third episode, he disappears. The reason for this isn’t quite clear since Dinah and the other members of SPLAT were the only ones who knew about his plans for world domination.

The remainder of series one sees the Headmaster – shock horror – making a surprise return whilst Dinah finds herself in thrall to a highly addictive computer game, Octopus Dare. Since Dinah had already foiled one of his schemes, it seems a little odd to find her recruited for the next one – joining a group of other children with equally high computer skills in an attempt to tap into the Prime Minister’s computer (the first step in taking over the world). Although not as engaging as the first story, there are various satirical swipes – at the addictive qualities of computer games and the dangers of automation – which are nicely done.

The toy helicopter, which the Headmaster escapes in, is possibly not the most convincing effect ever though ….

After speeding away in his helicopter at the end of series one, we pick up next time with the Headmaster coming back down to earth at the Biogenetic Research Centre. Shortly afterwards Mr Hunter takes up a new job at the Centre – as their public relations officer – which means that Dinah, Harvey and Lloyd will soon be tangling once again with their arch nemesis.

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Having skipped the third novel (The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster) the adaptations continued with the fourth, The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again. Given that Dinah had now defeated him twice, clearly the Headmaster was a glutton for punishment (he, of course, was responsible for bringing “Little Miss Dinah Hunter” back within his grasp).

The setting – a sleepy village – suits the story down to the ground (other series, such as Doctor Who and The Avengers, also made fruitful use of this type of environment). Having previously controlled (virtually) an entire school, the Headmaster’s now setting his net a little wider as he starts to bring the whole village under his spell.

Some familiar television faces, such as Annette Badland, pop up whilst Katey Crawford Kastin makes a welcome return as Rose Carter. During the early episodes of series one she was the Headmaster’s most loyal prefect – times might have changed but her loyalty remains constant (at least to begin with).

This second run, with a single story spread across seven episodes, feels more substantial than the first series. It certainly boasts the Headmaster’s strangest plan yet – with the power of evolution at his fingertips, he creates a human/lizard hybrid. The human part is a clone of Dinah, meaning that our heroine is forced to come face to face with an implacable foe – Eve – who looks identical to her (apart from possessing one lizard hand and a very long tongue). That’s not something you see every day.

Although the Demon Headmaster was killed at the end of the second series, the attentive viewer will probably have realised by now that a minor inconvenience such as death wouldn’t be enough to stop his evil plans. And so in series three (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Takes Over) we discover that a clone of the Headmaster, created at the Biogenetic Research Centre, proves to be just as troublesome as the original ….

Nina Young, as Professor Claudia Rowe, is a strong addition to the regular cast as is Tony Osoba whilst Ed Bishop is amongst those making guest appearances. With the military called in to deal with the fallout at the Research Centre, there’s something of a Doctor Who/UNIT feel about the opening episode (indeed, at times The Demon Headmaster does have a rather late eighties Whoish feel).

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One of the themes of S3 – surveillance – feels just as topical today as it did back then. After Mr Smith (Osoba) is brought under the Headmaster’s control, he explains how the British government (whom he works for in a shadowy capacity) attempts to control and manipulate the population, both through the flow of information and through surveillance. For a children’s series, this is quite an adult theme.

The nascent internet is also a running thread as Hyperbrain – an artificial intelligence programme – proves to be vital to the Headmaster’s latest plan for world domination. The computer stuff may seem a little quaint today, but at the time no doubt it would have seemed cutting edge.

The Demon Headmaster might not have had a particularly large budget, but what it lacked in money it made up for in sheer imagination. Some of the effects don’t quite convince, but that’s not a problem – indeed, I love the fact that they weren’t afraid to think big.

All three series, nineteen episodes in total, are contained within this three disc set. Sadly there’s no special features (the 1997 CBBC Christmas Pantomime The Demon Headmaster Takes Over TV would have been an obvious thing to include). An interview with Terrance Hardiman would also have been nice, luckily there are a few scattered around the internet, such as this one.

Packed with plots which get ever more bonkers as the episodes click by, The Demon Headmaster is held together by the performances of Terrance Hardiman and Frances Amey. No matter how strange things get, both continue to play it completely straight – which helps to keep the show grounded in reality.

Given the paucity of science fiction/fantasy programmes on British television during the 1990’s, The Demon Headmaster is quite a noteworthy series. It stands up well today as good, pulpy fun and whilst this DVD will be a nostalgic treat for many, there’s no reason why the Demon Headmaster shouldn’t cast his spell over a new generation of children.

The Demon Headmaster is released by Simply Media on the 14th of May 2018, RRP £29.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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A Foreign Field – Simply Media DVD Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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