The Secret War (1977 BBC WW2 documentary). Simply Media DVD review

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In retrospect, the 1970’s was an ideal time to be making documentaries about the Second World War.  Some thirty years or so had passed since the war had come to an end, which was long enough for people to be more candid about some events and particularly (in the case of this series) for certain facts, hitherto not in the public domain, to be discussed.

Several years before, Thames Television’s The World At War had covered many areas of the conflict in detail, but one omission was the role played by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.  At the time The World At War was in production this information wasn’t public knowledge, which meant that The Secret War was one of the first programmes to describe this vital part of the war.

The Secret War was narrated and presented by William Woollard,  a familiar face from Tomorrow’s World.  It was comprised of six episodes.

Episode 1 – The Battle of the Beams.  Early in the war, British Intelligence became aware that the Luftwaffe were using a series of radio navigational aids to accurately pinpoint targets, even in the dark.  This first episode describes these developments as well as the  jamming countermeasures developed by British scientists.

This episode, like several others, relies heavily on the input of R.V. Jones.  Jones played a major part in the development of the jamming beams and his book Most Secret War is not only a fascinating read in its own right, it was also a useful guide for the programme-makers in the early stages of The Secret War’s production.

R.V. Jones
R.V. Jones

Episode 2 – To See A Hundred Miles.  This episode discusses the development of Radar as well as British Intelligence’s efforts to discover German developments in the same field.

R.V. Jones appears again, as does Albert Speer – Hitler’s Minister of Armaments.  Another key interviewee is Arnold Wilkins, co-creator of Radar.  The presence of pioneers such as Wilkins is certainly one of The Secret War’s main strengths.

Episode 3 – Terror Weapons.  The creation of Hitler’s vengeance weapons – the V1 and V2 – and the countermeasures taken to combat them.

Interviewees here include Duncan Sandys (Chairman of the War Cabinet Committee responsible for defence against flying bombs and rockets) and Raymond Baxter, Woolard’s Tomorrow’s World colleague, who describes his exploits as a spitfire pilot and his unsuccessful attempt to shoot down a V2 rocket.

Episode 4 – If.  This episode describes numerous inventions that never came to pass.  These include the Messerschmitt Me 321, a large cargo and troop aircraft which was intended for use in the German invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation Sealion.  Also discussed are German bouncing bombs.

As well as further input from R.V. Jones and Albert Speer, also interviewed were Frank Whittle (creator of the turbojet engine) and Hanna Reitsch. Reitsch was a German test pilot and the only woman to be award the Iron Cross First Class. As might be expected, her unique status makes her a fascinating interviewee.

Hanna Reitstch
Hanna Reitstch

Episode 5 – The Deadly Waves.  Episode 5 looks at the hazards of magnetic mines and the methods used to counteract them, including degaussing.

Lt Cdr John Ouvry, who defused a German mine on the shoreline at Shoeburyness is interviewed and this actual mine is used in the programme to re-enact the event.

Episode 6 – Still Secret.  As previously mentioned, when The Secret War was in production the first information about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park began to emerge.  So whilst this programme is far from complete (as much more information would emerge in the decades to come)  it’s still a very interesting watch.

Discussed are the efforts to break the Enigma Code and the role played by the Colossus computer, designed by T.H. Flowers.  In 1977 the Colossus was still on the secret list, so details are fairly sparse, but the programme benefits enormously from an interview with Flowers.  And there are also valuable contributions from others present at Bletchley Park during WW2 such as Gordon Welchman, Harry Golombek and Peter Calvocoressi.

T.H. Flowers
T.H. Flowers

Whilst there are numerous WW2 documentaries available, The Secret War is noteworthy for several reasons.  The interviews with key pioneers on both sides is a major plus as is the wartime footage, some of which had not been widely seen until this programme.  The series was produced in association with The Imperial War Museum, so the programme-makers were able to make full use of their archives to locate interesting material.

And finally, the series helps to tell some of the less familiar stories of the Second World War.  Whilst the key battles and individual acts of heroism were already well known, The Secret War was able to explain that some of the real breakthrough moments of the war came not at the front, but in laboratories, far away from the fighting.

This is a first class documentary series and hopefully Simply will delve in to the archives again to unearth similar treasures.

Doomwatch – Simply Media DVD Review

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The Series

Created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch was an unsettling programme which ran for three series during the early 1970’s.  By this time, Pedler and Davis had been collaborators for several years – ever since Davis, working as script-editor on Doctor Who during the mid sixties, brought Pedler on board as a scientific advisor.  Although a scientist himself, Dr Christopher Magnus Howard Pedler had deep concerns about the way certain scientific advances were impacting on the world.  In Doctor Who this was given voice when Pedler and Davis created the Cybermen – today just another monster, but in their debut story – The Tenth Planet – there was room for debate about the morality of spare part surgery and where it might possibly end (would we all become emotionless Cybermen?).

Moving forward a few years, Pedler continued to be appalled by certain scientific and ecological stories which he was reading about in the newspapers and also in various scientific journals.  Like Davis, he was concerned that mankind was slowly destroying their planet and both of them wanted to raise the public’s consciousness – and so Doomwatch was born.

Always keen that they should base their stories on science fact rather than science fiction, the pair quickly drafted a raft of story outlines.  These were then passed over to a team of writers who would flesh out Pedler and Davis’ concepts into complete scripts.  Appointed as producer was Terence Dudley, who also crafted one of the series’ most memorable early episodes – Tomorrow, The Rat.  As is well known, Dudley enjoyed an uneasy working relationship with both Pedler and Davis and eventually the creators of Doomwatch were eased out as Dudley took creative control during the third and final series.  History would repeat itself a few years later, when Dudley ousted series creator Terry Nation from Survivors and recreated that show to his own tastes.

Whilst later behind-the-scenes squabbling might have affected the show, cracks were beginning to appear as early as the second series (when one of the regulars, Simon Oates, announced he wanted to leave).  Since so little of series three remans it’s hard to really pass judgement on Dudley’s sole stewardship (although some light can shed via the book Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow which contains a number of scripts from wiped Doomwatch episodes, most of which are drawn from the final series). It currently seems to be out of print, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the publishers website (Miwk) to see if there’s a reprint in the future.

In the opening story, The Plastic Eaters, it’s explained that the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, nicknamed “Doomwatch”, was created by the government in response to overwhelming public concern about the dangerous side-effects of modern scientific research (such as pollution and other environmental hazards).  We’re told that the Doomwatch organisation was one of the chief reasons why the government was re-elected, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the Minster (John Barron) distrusts the small band of scientists and is keen to close them down.  Doomwatch are frequently seen to come into conflict with both the government and private companies, who are keen to ensure that this independent organisation doesn’t reveal inconvenient truths.

Doowatch is headed by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul) a nobel-winning scientist who remains haunted that his research work was responsible – in part – for the creation of the atomic bomb.  John Ridge (Simon Oates) is his polar opposite, as whilst Quist is methodical and stern (although with the occasional glimmer of humour) Ridge is younger, much more flippant and very much the ladies man.  Resplendent in a series of impressive cravats, Ridge is used on occasions as Doomwatch’s secret weapon.  If there’s a lady scientist to be seduced, then Quist has no compunction in letting Ridge loose!

Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) tended to be stuck in the office during the early episodes, sometimes fretting over his computer (also called Doomwatch).  Doomwatch’s secretary, Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall) remained the most undeveloped character during series one.  Presumably created to provide the series with a little bit of glamour, she spends most of her time standing around looking pretty, stating the patently obvious or beating off the unsubtle advances of John Ridge.  She does have at least one episode that allows her to shine a little though – The Devil’s Sweets – where she’s central to the conclusion of the story.

These then are the characters who Tobias “Toby” Wren (Robert Powell) meets when he enters the office early in episode one for a job interview.  Toby is young and idealistic and neatly acts as a buffer between Ridge and Quist – he’s not as playful as Ridge but he’s also not as driven as Quist.

This line-up would remain in place for series one, but there would be several changes before Doomwatch returned for a second series.  Powell had decided to leave, as he didn’t want to get tied down to a long running show, and Hall, no doubt tiring of having little to do, also departed.  Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) was introduced as something of a Toby Wren clone, although he didn’t have much of a character and therefore remained a fairly secondary figure.  More interesting was Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) who became a fully fledged member of the Doomwatch team.

I’ll go into more detail about the existing episodes when I start an episode by episode rewatch shortly, but there’s plenty of interest in what remains (with, it’s fair to say, a few undeniable duffers).  From series one, Tomorrow, The RatProject Sahara and The Devil’s Sweets have all long been favourites.  You Killed Toby Wren (a great performance from John Paul) and Invasion are early highlights from series two and whilst series three only exists in very reduced circumstances it’s good to have a decent copy of the untransmitted Sex and Violence.

The DVD

Doomwatch has been a desired release of many for a considerable time, but until Simply announced that they’d licenced it late last year it seemed doomed (as it were) to remain out of reach.  Four episodes were released on VHS in the early 1990’s and two of these were ported over to DVD during the early days of the DVD format.  There was also a single repeat run on UK Gold in the mid 1990’s, but after that everything went quiet.

A total of thirty eight episodes were made (thirteen episodes apiece for the first two series and twelve for the final run).  Eight from series one, all thirteen from series two but only three from the third series remain in the archives.  Ten episodes (six from series one, one from series two and all three from the third series) exist in their original PAL format whilst the remainder are now only available as NTSC conversions (the PAL tapes were converted to the NTSC picture format for sale to Canada and then back again to PAL when they were returned to the UK).

The quality of the NTSC episodes will be the main point of interest for many and it’s fair to say that they’re a mixed bag.  Although it was believed that the BBC had processed all the NTSC tapes they held in their archives with a process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC) and then dumped the original tapes – thereby only retaining the raw RSC output – looking at the varying quality of the NTSC episodes on this release I wonder if that was the case.

Some – like Tomorrow, The Rat – look very nice indeed, not too far removed from the original PAL master, whilst others – such as You Killed Toby Wren and Invasion – seem to be very noisy, raw RSC conversions.  But later series two episodes – The Iron Doctor, Flight Into Yesterday – might possibly be the original NTSC tapes which therefore lack the RSC process.  If so, then I find this preferable to the raw RSC look – these episodes may look a little blurry but for me that’s better than the heavy picture noise.

My main fear was that all the NTSC episodes would look like You Killed Toby Wren, luckily that’s not the case.  In an ideal world the episodes would have had extensive restoration, but it seems that little or no work was carried out.  That’s not a criticism of Simply – it’s more than likely that restoration and picture grading would have pushed the RRP to a point where the release wouldn’t have been economic.  So although some episodes do look poor in places it shouldn’t detract from the fact that we now have Doomwatch on DVD – better to have it looking a little rough around the edges than not at all.  It also has to be understood that there’s only a finite amount of work that can be done anyway – several Jon Pertwee Doctor Who DVDs include RSC episodes which have undergone a great deal of restoration work, and even those don’t look perfect.

The extras are the untransmitted episode Sex and Violence and the thirty minute documentary The Cult of Doomwatch.  Narrated by Robert Llewellyn, it’s a decent little programme which is chiefly of interest due to the interviews with Robert Powell and the late Simon Oates.

One puzzling thing about the DVD is why Simply haven’t included the episode titles, either on the packaging or on the DVD menu screens.  So if you want to watch, say, In The Dark, then it might take a little trial and error to select the right disc and then find the correct episode.  Hopefully in future Simply can provide an episode listing somewhere, it’ll make things much easier!

But apart from that minor niggle, this is an excellent release at a very decent price.  Simply’s catalogue of archive BBC releases continues to grow and this is a very worthy addition.  Highly recommended.

Doomwatch is released by Simply Media on the 4th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

The Missing Postman – Simply Media DVD Review

postman

Clive Peacock (James Bolam) has been a postman for thirty five years.  He loves his job and is shattered to be forced into early retirement by the heartless personnel manager Peter Robson (Robert Daws).  So on his final day he decides to take all the post he’s collected and, rather than drop it off at the sorting office, sets off around the country to deliver each letter by hand.  But stealing the Royal Mail is a criminal offence and he soon finds himself pursued by DS Lawrence Pitman (Jim Carter) as well as a pack of hungry journalists, led by Sarah Seymour (Rebecca Front).

The Missing Postman is, at heart, a simple story.  It features one man (Clive) who appears to take a stand against the new, faceless technological systems that will allegedly make all our lives easier.  Peter Robson is keen to tell Clive all about OCR. “Optical character recognition. A sorting machine that actually reads the addresses. I mean can you believe that? Doing the work of eight people?”  This is clearly meant to be a bad thing – the machine lacks the human touch of Clive and, worse, it’s maintained by a surly computer expert who spends most of his time with his feet up, reading the paper.  Just to hammer the point home, this “progress” is flawed anyway, as OCR doesn’t like letters with paperclips or stamps affixed the wrong way round, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be any place for Clive in this technological new world.  He’s the last remaining postie to ride a bike and Robson is adamant that bikes are old hat – they just don’t fit into the new, upmarket Royal Mail.  It’s undeniably implausible that they couldn’t have just reassigned Clive to be a walking postman (he’s told that they’ve got all the walkers they need) but you have to accept this, otherwise there’d be no story.

Clive’s friend Ralph (Stephen Moore) suggests he comes and works with him at the local burger bar.  They’d have to work in the back of course – only young people are allowed to serve out front – and this gives us another fairly broad dollop of satire.  The kitchens are manned by old people who complain about their fungal infections whilst impossibly young managers boss them around.

The unsubtle nature of these early scenes (and the jaunty music which is clearly designed to be quirky and charming) does mean that the opening fifteen minutes or so do feel rather forced.  The humour and drama needs to come from the characters, rather than the viewers being bludgeoned by the script, but things then settle down and the first-rate cast can begin to enjoy themselves.

James Bolam is The Missing Postman‘s trump card.  It’s not the easiest role to play, since Clive is a rather diffident and undemonstrative character, but Bolam is gradually able to winkle out some genuine moments of pathos as his odyssey around Britain continues.  Alison Steadman, as Clive’s wife Christine, also gives a very decent performance, managing to rise above the cliche of the woman waiting tearfully at home for news.

It seems rather strange that Clive only makes a cursory attempt to contact Christine. He does call her again later, but by then she’s decided to move on with her own life. She’ll have him back, if and when he returns, but she won’t spend her time pining for him. At this point in the story Bolam cuts a very folorn figure, as we see Clive wrapped in a sleeping blanket and stuck a phone box somewhere in the the Scottish countryside, miles from anywhere.

Jim Carter as DS Lawrence Pitman and Gwyneth Strong as WPC McMahon make an amusing double act.  Carter spends his time with a permanent long suffering, hangdog expression on his face whilst Strong has a teasing, playful nature which obviously makes her superior officer feel somewhat uncomfortable.

One of The Missing Postman‘s strengths is that it features a series of character vignettes, as Clive moves from place to place delivering his letters.  Roger Lloyd-Pack (as Ken Thompson) is a good example.  Clive stops off for a few minutes to repair his bike and falls into conversation with Ken.  Ken asks Clive who he’d like to play him in a film, Clive suggests Dustin Hoffman(!) but Ken has other ideas.  He tells Clive that Ronnie Corbett or Michael Fish would be perfect casting.  Bolam’s expression is priceless!

Considering his job, you’d assume that Clive would be an experienced bike rider, but he does seem to spend a great deal of time falling off it, gradually becoming more and more battered. This leads to a moment where he exchanges his broken glasses for a new pair that belonged to a man who’s recently died. True, he won’t need them anymore but it does feel a little off that he’d take them from the man’s still warm body.

A meeting with Linda Taylor (Barbara Dickson) offers Clive a chance to stop and reflect. Her husband was a Scottish trawlerman who was lost at sea two years ago. Clive and Linda are drawn together and he quickly makes himself at home in her guest house. Romance blossoms (pity poor Christine) although Clive remains unrepentant. He tells Linda the story of Christine’s miscarriage, which he offers as the justification for his unfaithfulness. Bolam’s never better than during this monologue and Dickson, although she has little to do except react, also commands the screen.

The conclusion is interesting.  Clive returns home to find himself accosted by a barrage of reporters – his travels were widely reported and he’s become something of a celebrity.  But he finds it impossible to articulate the reasons for his flight, denying that it was any strike against the system, and then seems more than a little hurt when the press quickly lose interest in him.  They’re much more intrigued with Christine’s skills as an interior designer, which suggests that although Clive’s trip might have been a somewhat selfish one, it’s allowed her the space to express herself and begin a new and more fulfilling career

Transmitted in two parts (72 minutes for episode one, 80 minutes for episode two) The Missing Postman provides the viewer with an entertaining travelogue around the British Isles as well as some decently observed character comedy/drama.  It may sometimes overdose on its own charm and quirkiness, but the cast always ensure that it’s worth watching.

The Missing Postman is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016.  RRP £19.99.

The Children of Green Knowe – Simply Media DVD Review

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The 1980’s saw a number of well remembered BBC children’s telefantasy adaptations of which The Children of Green Knowe, originally broadcast during November/December 1986, is a prime example.

It bears some superficial resemblance to The Box of Delights (1984).  Both have a roughly 1950’s setting and feature as its central character a young boy who’s leaving school for the Christmas holidays.  On the production side, Paul Stone – producer of Box – would act as executive producer on Green Knowe, whilst the incidental music was again provided by a stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Roger Limb on Box, Peter Howell on Green Knowe).

But although they’re both very much fantasy stories, the tone of Green Knowe is quite different to Box.  Box has an air of threat and menace whilst Green Knowe, even though strange things happen, tends to exude an atmosphere of warmth and security.

The Children of Green Knowe was the first of six interconnected novels written by Lucy M. Boston which were published between 1954 and 1976.  John Stadelman adapted the book into four episodes, each with a duration of between twenty five and thirty minutes.

Episode one opens with the rather strangely named Toseland (Alec Christie) alone at his boarding school.  Everyone else has gone home for the holidays, but with his parents in Burma it seems inevitable he’ll have to stay within the confines of the school.  But out of the blue he receives a message to say that his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow (Daphne Oxenford) has just learnt that he’s in the country and invites him to stay at her estate, known as Green Knowe.

Toseland doesn’t look terribly keen when he’s given this news, but things look up when he eventually gets there.  It’s something of a trek though – floodwaters have made it almost impossible to reach and he fears he might have to swim across to the imposing castle-like structure, before the faithful servant Boggis (George Malpas) turns up with a boat (the rain machine was clearly working overtime during those scenes).

Mrs Oldknow, who tells the boy she’ll call him Tolly, explains about the history of Green Knowe.  Their family have lived there for generations and it becomes clear from very early on that the spirits of their ancestors are still with them.  Tolly is intrigued by a painting which shows three children who lived during the reign of Charles the Second – Toby, Alexander and Linnet.

The serial is content to take its time.  Episode one sets up the location and the basic premise, but although it seems clear that Toby (Graham McGrath), Alexander (James Trevelyan) and Linnet (Polly Maberly) will manifest themselves, they haven’t done so by the time the episode draws to a close.  Tolly hears the children playing at the start of episode two, but can’t see them.  Later, Mrs Oldknow asks him to “make up a great blaze, Tolly. And I’ll tell you a story.”

HILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE, THE (1986)
Picture Shows: (L-R) Alexander (JAMES TREVELYAN), Toby (GRAHAM MCGRATH), Linnet (POLLY MABERLY) and Tolly (ALEC CHRISTIE)

Her story concerns the time young Linnet fell ill and Toby (on his trusty steed Feste) set off into the dark and stormy night to get help.  Once again the rain machine is pressed into service and this, together with the night recording, flashes of lightning and sound effects all helps to create the appropriate atmosphere.  Later stories include when Alexander sang before the King and the time Linnet wasn’t able to join the others at Midnight Mass.

Tolly continues to be frustrated that the children won’t play with him.  We catch a brief glimpse of them at the end of the second episode and again at the start of the third.  When he explains this to his great-grandmother she’s not surprised and tells him that “they’re like shy animals. They don’t come just at first till they’re sure.”  That she’s fully aware of what’s happening is interesting – it removes a layer of drama (you’d normally expect only the boy to be able to see and hear them) but it works in the context of the story.  This may be a ghost story, but they’re ghosts of a very benign nature.

A slightly more discordant note is struck in episode four with the tale of the Green Nowe – a demon tree that’s brought tragedy to the Oldknow family over the generations.  And because by then Tolly has been able to hold a brief conversation with the children, who have gradually begun to accept him, this means they’re on hand to help when the demon tree strikes (which probably looks as effective as it sounds – luckily it’s only a brief scene).

With a fairly small cast, Alec Christie has to carry a fair amount of the serial on his shoulders, but he acquits himself well and gives young Tolly an innocent and open nature.  The other children are less developed, but that’s understandable since their screen time is rather limited.  Daphne Oxenford (a regular during the early days of Coronation Street amongst many other credits) casts a reassuring presence as Mrs Oldknow.

The Children of Green Knowe, like other productions of this era, was shot entirely on videotape.  Given the large number of video effects used on The Box of Delights it was understandable why that was an all-VT production, but since Green Knowe was very light on effects it’s a pity it wasn’t made on film.

It’s a strange sort of story – lacking any genuine threat (I can’t count the tree) or mystery it succeeds by creating an aura of warmth and Christmas cheer.  But although very little actually happens it’s still a comforting watch, which I’m sure would work even better at Christmas time.  For those who have memories of watching it nearly thirty years ago it probably won’t disappoint and since it’s a solid enough production there’s every likelihood it could enchant a new generation.

The Children of Green Knowe is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016.  RRP £19.99.

HILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE, THE (1986)

Stalky & Co. – Simply Media DVD Review

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Stalky & Co. was a collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling, originally published in 1899.  It concerns the adventures of Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle, three boys who are resident at an unnamed public school.  Kipling drew on his real life experiences when writing the stories – several of the characters are based on people he knew, whilst Beetle is a version of Kipling himself.  The novel can be downloaded here.

By the early 1980’s, the Classic Serials occupied a familiar place in the television schedule.  Sunday tea-time would be the time to see efficiently adapted serials with first rate casts, but eventually their familiarity began to breed contempt.  Just a few years later there were rumblings from certain quarters that the Classic Serials were beginning to look old hat themselves.  This was mainly do to with their visual look, as – like Stalky & Co. – they were shot entirely on videotape.  Bleak House (1985) was one of the first of the modern all-film BBC adaptations and it offered the programme-makers the ability to craft images with a cinematic sweep.  Compared to this, the poor old Classic Serial began to look somewhat second best.

But whilst the Classic Serial will never have the visual gloss of a modern film production, you know that you’re going to get decent actors and a faithful adaptation, so it’s always a pleasure when another one escapes onto DVD.

Although Robert Addie (Stalky), Robert Burbage (M’Turk) and David Parfitt (Beetle) all look a little old to be schoolboys (the actors were in their early to mid twenties at the time) it’s not really a problem as you quickly become embroiled in the action as episode one – An Unsavoury Interlude – begins.  It finds the three boys fighting a war against a rival house.  Their house, Prouts, is named after their housemaster Mr Prout (John Sterland) and they’re at bitter loggerheads with Kings, led by Mr King (John Woodnutt).

Stalky & Co. have little time for their own Mr Prout, but view Mr King with even less enthusiasm.  King (a wonderfully whiskered Woodnutt) is an eternally mocking character and his jibes are taken up by his boys.  After Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle are observed heading off for a bathe (we see their bare backsides as they dive into the water – an unexpected Sunday tea-time sight!) they have to face taunts from the Kings boys that they smell.

How do they gain revenge for this jibe?  Stalky has obtained three pistols and the boys head off to shoot some rabbits.  Beetle, being rather short-sighted, bags a cat instead and it’s an obvious wheeze to deposit the dead cat as close to the Kings dorms as possible – and then sit back and wait for nature to take its course.  This casual slaughtering of defenseless animals is a bit of an eye-opener and it’s debatable whether it would be something that would sit comfortably in an early Sunday evening timeslot now, but I also doubt that many eyebrows were raised back then.

Mr Prout and Mr King team up to try and catch our heroes in the second episode, In Ambush.  Mr Prout has discovered the den in the forest used by Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle, which is a bit of a problem.  Where can they now go to smoke to their pipes in peace?  Luckily Stalky has a brainwave, and he and the others join the natural history society run by Mr Hartropp (played by Geoffrey Beevers, who like the other teachers sports an impressive moustache).  The benefits of being members of the natural history society are clear – it means they’re free to roam wherever they like in the forests.

They venture even further afield, to the woods owned by Colonel Dabney (Denis Carey).  M’Turk is appalled to see Dabney’s gamekeeper shooting a fox and rushes to the house to confront the Colonel.  Although you might expect Dabney to be somewhat put out to be buttonholed by three schoolboys trespassing on his land, this isn’t the case.  He can tell they’re gentleman and knows a little about their families and history.  This provides us with a good example of Kipling’s values and mindset – the three boys might frequently flout the school rules but they’re bred to rule, so the likes of Dabney are happy to treat them with indulgence.  Prout and King might hold a temporary position of authority over them, but Kipling’s sympathies are always directed towards Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle.

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Although Prout and King are presented as little more than bumbling comic relief, the Headmaster (Frederick Treeves) is somewhat different.  He regards the boys more in sorrow than anger and whilst he admits he has no evidence against them, decides to cane them anyway (six strokes each on their upper backs).  He tells them this will be character forming and it’s no surprise they take it like gentleman (although it’s debatable how hard the strokes were).  So Prout and King seem to have won this round, although Stalky & Co. remain unrepedant after leaving the Headmaster’s study.

Slaves of the Lamp opens with Stalky and the others rehearsing for the upcoming pantomime.  The peace doesn’t last long as King bursts in, incandescent with rage at some unflattering doggerel written by Beetle.  This infuriates Stalky, who calls a council of war to discuss how they’re going to deal with King once and for all.  Robert Addie, who a few years later would be a memorable Guy of Gisburne in Robin of Sherwood, is in dominant form here.  This one also allows John Woodnutt the chance to go soaringly over the top, which is great fun to see.  Another brilliant comic performance comes from Roberts the cart-driver (played by Morgan Shepherd) who has a rather violent disagreement with King, which involves several broken windows and many hurled insults!

The arrival of two young men, Sefton (Glyn Baker) and Campbell (Tim Faulkner), in episode four (The Moral Reformers) sows a little discord.  They’ve arrived for six months intensive cramming and they instantly rile Stalky, although he’s quick not to offend them to their face (“remember your Uncle Stalky’s motto, never fight unless you can win”).  The relationship between the Padre (Rowland Davies) and Stalky & Co. is a fascinating one.  He treats them as equals and seems quite at ease relaxing in their rooms, puffing on his pipe.  But he does have an ulterior motive – a young boy, Clewer (Matthew Blakstad), is the victim of severe bullying and the Padre asks Stalky and the others to find out who the culprits are.

Although bullying is something that seems to regarded as part and parcel of school life (all of them – especially Beetle – suffered when they were Clewer’s age) they still readily agree to hunt the bullies down.  Their identity isn’t a surprise, but it’s another chance for Stalky to demonstrate his ruthless side. The bullies are well and truly taught a lesson by Stalky and Co. (to the evident delight of the Padre).

A Little Prep features one of the perennials of public school life – rugby.  Stalky and M’Turk find themselves drafted into the school squad and perform credibly against a team of old boys.  One of the old boys, Crandall (Simon Shepherd), is able to tell Stalky and the others about how another ex-pupil, Duncan, was killed in action (he was a soldier, fighting in India).  It’s a reminder that boys in schools such as these were bred to be officers (at one point Stalky wonders what it’s like to be shot at) and given Kipling’s background it’s no surprise that Crandall’s tale is a stirring one, with Duncan maintaining a stiff upper lip right until the end.  Apart from Shepherd, there’s another familiar face guest-starring (Dominic Jephcott).

The serial ended with The Last Term.  Stalky and the others face their last term and he wonders where they’ll all be five years from now.  The Headmaster has obtained a plumb job for Beetle – working on a newspaper in India with a salary of one hundred pounds a year.  Stalky looks set for Sandhurst whilst M’Turk has plans to be a civil engineer.  But before they leave they still have the chance for a few final scrapes ….

Produced by Barry Letts, script-edited by Terrance Dicks and with music by Dudley Simpson, this was something of a Doctor Who reunion.  Although Simpson’s scores on both Doctor Who and Blakes 7 had got into something of a rut in the late seventies, his work here is quite different (and all the better for it).  Rodney Bennett’s direction was effective and unshowy, but he was able to get the best out of the cast, enabling them to mine Alexander Baron’s adaptation for maximum comic effect.

Stalky & Co. is available now from Simply Media.

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Charters & Caldicott – Simply Media DVD Review

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Written by Keith Waterhouse, Charters & Caldicott was a six part serial which aired on BBC1 during January and February 1985.  Waterhouse had by this point enjoyed a lengthy writing career (often collaborating with his friend Willis Hall). Some of their early film screenplays – Whistle Down The Wind (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963 – adapted from Waterhouse’s original novel) – were key entries in the early sixties new wave British cinema movement.  The pair would go on to enjoy further success on the small screen, not least when they created Budgie (1971-1972) – a memorable vehicle for Adam Faith and Iain Cuthbertson.

The characters of Charters and Caldicott first appeared in the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, scripted by Frank Launder and Sidney Gillatt and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, the characters instantly caught the public’s imagination.  Charters and Caldicott were two cricket-obsessed men whose only interest was to return to England to catch the final day of a vital test match.  Unfortunately they find themselves tangled up in a mysterious case of international intrigue on their train journey home ….

The pair proved so popular that they returned in several more films – Night Train to Munich (1940), Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943).  Wayne and Radford would also play very similar characters in a number of other films and radio plays (but for copyright reasons weren’t named as Charters and Caldicott).

Given the 1930’s setting of the original film you might have expected Keith Waterhouse to have scripted Charters & Caldicott as a period piece, but instead he elected to set it in the modern day.  Whilst it’s possible to imagine this was done for budgetary reasons (thereby avoiding the necessity to redress locations in a period style) I’m more inclined to think it was a deliberate choice.

It may be the 1980’s, but Charters and Caldicott still dress and act like it’s fifty years earlier and this culture clash generates a number of memorable comic moments.  One lovely one occurs in the first episode, when the pair set off to meet Jenny Beevers (Tessa Peake-Jones), the daughter of a recently deceased schoolchum.  They rendezvous in the sort of fast-food restaurant that you know will be anathema to both of them.  This is made plain when Charters strides up to the counter and requests a pot of tea for two – only to be handed two cardboard cups with milk sachets on top (which he then proceeds to spray over himself!) In a later episode they both attend a country house party and descend the imposing staircase for dinner immaculately dressed – only to find themselves in their version of hell, surrounded by 1980’s yuppies.

Although there’s a puzzling mystery at the heart of Charters & Caldicott – complete with dead bodies, people who may not be who they claim to be, coded messages and several gun-toting heavies – this isn’t the strength of the serial.  The mystery is simply an excuse for Waterhouse to spend six episodes scripting wonderful dialogue for both Robin Bailey (Charters) and Michael Aldridge (Caldicott).

Bailey and Aldridge are both a joy as they blithely navigate their way through the story.  Their contrasting characters help to generate a great deal of the humour – Charters is severe, precise and suspicious whilst Caldicott is warm, vague and trusting.  The pair exist in a never-never land of comfortable gentleman’s clubs, complete with a library where it’s considered bad form to speak and a sauna where they can complete the crossword in peace – sometimes!

But the recent death of their old friend Jock Beevers, forces them out of their comfort zone.  Jock left a trunk of papers in Caldicott’s possession which he passed over to Charters for safekeeping.  Several unsavoury types seem very interested in the content of the trunk and this seems to be the reason why Caldicott discovers a dead girl in his flat.  Initially both Charters and Caldicott believe it to be Jenny (who they haven’t seen since she was a child) but Jenny later appears to tell them that she thinks her life is in danger.  The long-suffering Inspector Snow (Gerard Murphy) is assigned to investigate the murder and drops another bombshell – could Jock have been a Russian spy?  If not, what do his cryptic messages sent to Charters and Caldicott actually mean?

Apart from the spot-on performances by Bailey and Aldridge, Gerard Murphy is wonderfully dead-pan as Snow, whilst Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably beguiling as an apparent damsel in distress.  Caroline Blakiston as Margaret Mottram also gives a fine performance – she’s an old flame of Caldicott and finds herself mixed up with the mystery after she agrees to give the homeless Jenny a place to stay.  Blakiston is gifted with some tart dialogue and she bounces off both Bailey and Aldridge very agreeably.

I was slightly surprised that this was an all-VT production.  By the mid eighties the BBC was beginning to move towards film as the medium for many series and serials and you would have assumed that Charters & Caldicott would have been just the sort of programme to benefit from the extra gloss that film would have provided.  But no matter, the serial works just as well on videotape as it would have done on film.

As I’ve said, the mystery part of the story does play second fiddle to the character interactions and there’s no doubt that over the six episodes the plot does meander somewhat.  But even if the storyline does drag in places, the pleasure of watching Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge at work more than makes up for this.

Released as a two DVD set, each disc contains three 50 minute episodes.  There’s no issues with either picture or sound and as usual subtitles are provided.

Charters & Caldicott is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £19.99

Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

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Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

Nature Boy – Simply Media DVD Review

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David Witton (Lee Ingleby) is a troubled seventeen year old.  Along with several other youngsters he lives with foster parents (he barely remembers his father who left home when he was a young child, his mother refuses to speak to him) and he’s been placed in the remedial class at school.

He’s not a troublemaker though, which is made clear during a particularly rowdy lesson.  The other pupils are enjoying themselves by baiting the teacher whilst David remains totally absorbed in a world of his own.  To make this point plain, the background noise is gently faded down until there’s total quiet as David continues to look out of the window at a pair of nesting birds.  When the teacher asks him what he’s looking at, he replies “great tits” which she naturally takes the wrong way (as do the rest of the class).

Even this early on, we can see that David is disconnected from virtually everyone around him.  The only constants in his life are his love of nature plus the companionship of Fred (Mark Benton) who lives on the nature reserve.  But whilst the beauty of the local landscape offers some respite from reality it can only be a temporary refuge.

The opening episode is bleak on so many levels.  David meets Anne-Marie (Vicky Binns) who’s come to stay with his foster parents.  She’s about his age, although she seems much older – telling him that her previous foster father regularly abused her.  This isn’t a major plot point, simply some incidental colour as it’s taken as read that such things happen.  A familiar television face, thanks to long stints on both Emmerdale and Coronation Street, Binns offers a haunting portrait of a doomed, disaffected youth.

The serial makes an interesting choice when it’s revealed that Fred was a paedophile  The details aren’t revealed but David remains non judgmental (telling him that’s what he was, not who he is now) although that doesn’t prevent a group of youths (who were looking for David) from burning his hut down.  It’s no surprise that Mark Benton is excellent as Fred.  Not an easy role to play (nor is it a particularly large one) but it’s another performance that lingers in the memory.

It can’t be a coincidence that David reacts in the same way after he finds a stricken deer (which he’s forced to kill in front of his horrified classmates) and when he sees Anne-Marie’s lifeless body washed up on the shore.  Both times he mourns for a life lost, and it seems that both were equally important to him.

There’s nothing left for him at home now, so he sets off to find his father, Steve (Paul McGann).  His father is a constant presence in the narrative – regularly glimpsed briefly in flashback sequences as David slowly begins to remember more about him.  But with only a single photograph it seems unlikely he’ll be able to track him down.

As episode two opens, David is far from home and living off the land.  If this open-air existence could been seen as idyllic (the acoustic, guitar based incidental music reinforces this) there’s also the sense that – as with his trips to the nature reserve in the first episode – these moments of pleasure can only be fleeting ones. As his small boat sails into port he’s greeted by an ugly, industrial landscape and the incidental music changes accordingly.

David, nursing an injured fox, is found by a young boy Miles (Samuel Sackville) hiding in his parent’s shed. Miles is withdrawn and barely speaks, thanks to his domineering father Tom (Andrew Woodall) but David’s empathy not only exists with animals – he’s able, with the aid of the fox, to bring the previously taciturn Miles out of his shell. He can obviously see something of himself in Miles (who has to endure violent rows between his parents). The pair share several lovely scenes and their final one (soundtracked by Paul Weller’s Brand New Start) stands out.

David’s winsome, vulnerable persona claims another convert as he’s befriended by Jenny (Joanne Froggatt). Downtown Abbey is one of her most recent high-profile roles, but here she was right at the start of her career. Immediately prior to this she’d played the gormless work experience girl Sigourney in the series two opener of dinnerladies and a few years later would have an impressive dual role in the first episode of The Last Detective.

Tom (a local MP) is presented as such an obnoxious individual that it’s just about credible that his wife Martha (Lesley Sharp) would be so attracted to David that she’d want to sleep with him. Just about. Although since Martha and Tom have no sex-life to speak of, it’s maybe not surprising that she grabs the nearest available man she can find (even if it’s a seventeen year old living in her shed). Clearly you’ve got to watch the quiet ones …..

It’s a slight plot contrivance that Jenny is campaigning against the local industrial company Blexco whilst Martha is handling PR for them. It’s Martha’s job to spin the message that they’re not damaging the environment – instead they’ve helping the community by bringing employment into the area as well as sponsoring local projects. No surprise that Jenny isn’t convinced (cement dust killed her brother) although she’s something of a lone voice to begin with.

Blexco are exposed, but things don’t end well for David and he’s forced to move on. The third installment begins with Jenny’s involvement with a group of protesters who are attempting to stop the felling of a forest. As with the previous episode, we see the sharp contrast between nature and business (here it’s the Keyways construction site). There’s an undeniable sense of polemic to begin with (business = bad) but when David arrives he’s able to provide another point of view.

We move into borderline telefantasy territory as Jenny stands in the middle of the forest and says “come on.” Miles away, David is visited by another vision of his father, who’s brought somebody with him – Jenny. She repeats the same words that she spoke in the forest, seemingly guiding David towards her.

The protesters are a colourful group, no doubt inspired by the exploits of Swampy a few years earlier. As they all sit around, somewhat depressed by the encroaching security, Jenny is encouraged to sing to them. Joanne Froggatt’s acapella song is yet another stand out moment, made all the more interesting as it’s partly overlaid with scenes of David’s travels. As he stops for a moment, it seems as if he’s following her singing – a striking use of non-diegetic sound.

When David turns up he rescues Jenny from drowning – except she wasn’t drowning at all (David was having a flashback to Anne-Marie’s death). As with his visions of his father, it’s another indication that his grasp on reality is somewhat skewed.

Although Jenny tells David that she can’t leave with him – as she has to stay and protect the trees, flowers and animals – he’s far from impressed with the way they’ve created a series of tunnels in order to try and halt the developers. “You’re digging under trees and pouring concrete and bits of metal down there! There’s no animals here. There’s no foxes or badgers, ‘cos you’ve driven them all away.” It’s a fascinating moment.

Richard Ridings as Ted, the sheriff charged with clearing out the protesters, is another excellent performer. Ted isn’t a cackling, evil monster – he loves the forest as much as anybody, but tells David that the runway development will go ahead because “people like to go on holiday. They want to fly their planes here, there and everywhere. They don’t want to sit by the lake.” He’s more of a rounded character than many of the protesters, who tend to be defined by their sloganeering and little else.

David, Jenny, Wack (Ged Hunter) and Donny (Stephen Taylor) take refuge in the tunnels once the contractors arrive in force. Donny, previously the figurehead of the protesters (and David’s rival for Jenny’s affections) is a different character once the claustrophobia of the tunnels begins to take hold. He’s revealed as something of a dilettante whilst Jenny’s passion burns just as bright. This isn’t a good thing though, as she’s prepared to risk her life in what appears to be a meaningless gesture. David agrees to go further undergeound with her, but not because he believes in what she’s doing – he just wants to be with her.

The final scenes of the third episode, as David and Jenny are entombed deep underground, are striking. Both Ingleby and Frogatt are mesmerising as the characters enjoy moments of solitude and intimacy, which contrasts sharply with the frantic efforts above ground as the contractors attempt to rescue them. David’s naked, mud-covered body is pulled out, but Jenny is still down there and he frantically pleads with them to go back for her …..

I’m not going to discuss the final episode in any detail, so that first-time viewers can discover Jenny’s fate (and also whether David finds his father) for themselves.  Although if you want to remain spoiler free I’d also recommend skipping the coming next montages on the first three episodes.  Coming next trailers are something of a curse of modern television and it’s interesting to ponder whether the ones on Nature Boy (lest we forget, made some sixteen years ago) are simply a very clumsy, early example of this trend or whether the clips were chosen deliberately as part of the overall story-telling experience.

The trailers for the first two episodes not only preview events from the next installment, but also look ahead to later episodes – which means that we always remain several steps ahead of the characters (especially David).  What leads me to suppose that there’s some thought been given to the choice of these clips is that some of them (especially the ones with Paul McGann) are rather misdirecting, especially the ones seen directly episode one.

If a slight weakness of Nature Boy is its episodic nature, then then sharpness of the scripting and performances more than compensates.  Lee Ingleby has a difficult role to play, as David is withdrawn and self-contained, but he manages to bring considerable light and shade to the troubled teenager.  Joanne Frogatt is equally as strong and all four episodes also boast numerous compelling one-off appearances from a host of quality actors.

That it won the 2001 Royal Television Society award for Best Drama is entirely merited and as it seems to have made a strong impression on many who watched it on its original broadcast, it’s very pleasing that it’s now available on DVD.  Simply’s release contains the four episodes (each approx 58 minutes) across two discs.  There are no issues with either the picture or sound.

Nature Boy is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £24.99.

The Ginger Tree – Simply Media DVD Review

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Apart from its inherent qualities, The Ginger Tree is of interest because it was the first drama anywhere in the world to be recorded in HD.  The BBC had been running HD trials since the mid 1980’s, but this four-part 1989 serial was the first production designed for broadcast.

Because of the prohibitive cost of working with the new technology, a co-production deal with other broadcasters had to be arranged.  The choice of NHK Japan as one of the production partners no doubt influenced the novel chosen for adaptation, but that turned out to be one the strengths of the serial.  Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, if you needed a Japanese-looking actor then you’d get Burt Kwouk if you were lucky and if you were unlucky you’d have a British actor doing his best to look Oriental.  The Ginger Tree, despite being shot on (albeit HD) VT has a filmic sweep and the lavish period setting, location filming and authentic Japanese actors all help to give the serial a rich, immersive feel that the BBC by itself would never have been able to afford.

One irony is that back in 1989 there was no way for British viewers to enjoy the high definition picture.  Compatible televisions didn’t exist and the HDVS recorder used to make the program was essentially an NTSC system  – so the programme had to be converted back into the PAL format for screening on the BBC, meaning that it looked somewhat washed out.  This DVD release is therefore able to present the programme in better quality, although it’s a pity that a BD release isn’t available as that should have been better still (although to be honest, it doesn’t look any sharper or better in SD than a typical VT production of the era).

The Ginger Tree was a novel by Oswald Wynd, originally published in 1977.  Wynd was born in Japan in 1913 to Scottish parents who had come to the country to run a mission. Wynn spent his formative years immersed in what must have been a very alien culture (which obviously helped to inform the writing of The Ginger Tree).  After WW2, where he spent several years as a Japanese prisoner of war, he returned to his native Scotland and pursued a writing career, penning thrillers under the pseudonym of Gavin Black as well as several books under his own name.  The Ginger Tree, helped in part by this adaptation, remains his most popular work.

The book was written as a series of diary entries and letters penned by Mary Mackenzie.  This literary device naturally presents some problems for the adaptor, but Christopher Hampton (who had won an Oscar in 1989 for Dangerous Liaisons) was able to capture the essence of Wynd’s novel.

The year is 1903.  Mary MacKenzie (Samantha Bond) has travelled to Manchuria to marry her fiance, Captain Richard Collingsworth (Adrian Rawlings).  Because they barely know each other it’s clear that their marriage is doomed from the start.  But Mary’s affair with Count Kentaro Kurihama (Daisuke Ryû), a Japanese soldier, plunges her into a scandal from which there seems no escape.  After bearing his child, she finds herself facing an uphill battle as she attempts to find herself a place in the extremely rigid and formal Japanese society.

It’s possible to believe that Mary is something of an innocent. She’s never journeyed out of Britain before and now finds herself setting out on the long trek to Manchuria to marry Richard. Is she in love with him? He seems personable enough and she certainly seems keen to reach him as quickly as possible, so maybe. But they’ve only met a handful of times before their marriage was arranged, which casts obvious doubt that their union will endure.

Their wedding night is a key moment. He doesn’t turn instantly cruel, instead he becomes indifferent, which is possibly worse. He shows Mary her bedroom and then mentions he’ll be sleeping elsewhere. But he is prepared to do his duty as a dutiful husband and make love to her – although in the most perfunctory way. There’s no passion or tenderness and Bond’s silent, frozen face speaks volumes.

Samantha Bond had racked up some decent credits prior to this (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, Mansfield Park, Rumpole of the Bailey) but The Ginger Tree was her first major starring role and it required a subtle and nuanced performance, which she delivers.

Bond plays Mary in a very internalised way. This isn’t a surprise, given that ladies of her class and era weren’t encouraged to express their feelings. But given how inarticulate (emotionally) she is, it seems initially unlikely that she’ll ever form a relationship with the sensative Kentaro. Which makes the chain of events towards the end of the first episode – they take tea, they become lovers, she finds herself bearing his child – something of a whirlwind. Due to the languid pace of the episode up to this point it all seems to happen very suddenly.

Daisuke Ryû has tended to work mainly in Japanese language films, which could be the reason why Kurihama seems slightly stilted at times. But it could also be a performance choice and either way it helps to differentiate Kurihama from Collingsworth (Kurihama’s slight vulnerability constants sharply with the indifference of Collingsworth).

The sight of a heavily pregnant Mary quickly wipes the smile off the face of her returning husband. He immediately decides to pack her off back to Scotland, although he doesn’t intend to give her a divorce – for purely monetary reasons. It’s a remarkable revelation that Mary’s mother has pledged half her yearly income (some three hundred pounds) to Collingsworth for as long as the pair stay married.

Ar the station she’s faced with another option, a train ticket to Tokyo, provided by Kurihama. She accepts it and is accompanied by Baroness Aiko Onnodera (Fumi Dan). Dan gives a sparkling performance, which contrasts well with Bond’s more withdrawn persona. Aiko is an ardent campaigner for women’s rights, which has recently earned her a spell in prison, but she remains unrepentant. She’s able to explain exactly what Mary’s life in Tokyo will be like.

Kurihama has provided her with a house and servants, but as a women, a foreigner and essentially a concubine, her movements will be very restricted. Mary’s fleeting hopes that Kurihama will marry her are dashed when she learns he’s a married man with four children.

Although the general theme of The Ginger Tree is quite downbeat, there’s also a feeling of optimism. Mary might be portrayed initially as something of a naive, downtrodden figure but over time she gains strength and becomes less of a victim. Samantha Bond is very watchable, although her soft Scottish accent seems to come and go a little. Daisuke Ryû is equally impressive, as are the rest of the Japanese cast. The co-production budget allowed for a generous number of extras and set dressings, plus filming in Japan was obviously another major plus. The story unfolds over some forty years, ending during WW2, necessitating ageing makeup to be applied to the main cast, which is done very effectively.

Oswald Wynd’s tale of love and loss is effectively brought to life in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation and it’s sure to strike a chord with many.

The Ginger Tree is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016. RRP £19.99.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection. Simply Media DVD Review.

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Roobarb, which first aired in 1974, was one of a number of children’s series (The Magic Roundabout was another) which aired on BBC1 just before the six o’clock news, thus ensuring that it attracted a large adult viewership in addition to its intended target audience.  This is probably the one of the reasons why it’s maintained a certain cult status ever since, although there are several others.

Firstly, Grange Calveley’s scripts are funny.  Although they lack the layered humour that Eric Thompson brought to the Magic Roundabout, there’s still plenty of decent puns and weird flights of fancy to enjoy.  For example, in When Roobarb Found Sauce, Roobarb is concerned to find that the pond has dried up and sets out to find its source.  This leads him to the centre of the Earth where a strange creature provides him with the pond’s sauce, which turned out to be chocolate (his favourite!)

Richard Briers’ narration is a major plus point as well.  Briers was a master storyteller, and each five minute episode benefits enormously from his spot on comic timing.  As good as the scripts are, Briers makes them just that little bit better.

And lastly, Bob Godfrey’s unmistakable animation gave the series a look and feel unlike any other on television at that time.  Although Godfrey wasn’t the only animator to work on the original (he tended to lead a core group of around four or five animators) every episode has the same hand-drawn feel which makes it seem as if it was the work of an individual.  The animation style chosen, known as “boiling”, gave Roobarb a deliberately rough feel – as colour was crudely added with marker pens and varied from frame to frame.

The minimalist style (despite the fact that most of the action took place in the garden, there was little attempt made to colour in the backgrounds – instead they remained a plain white) also helped to create a certain atmosphere.  Of course this was no doubt borne out of necessity – the cruder the animation, the quicker it could be done – but thanks to the quality of Calveley’s scripting and Briers’ narration you can forgive the rough-and-ready nature of the visuals.

As for the main character, Roobarb is terribly appealing.  He’s an eternal optimist, always ready with an invention or a plan to make everyone’s life a little better.  Things don’t always work out quite the way he intends though, and when disaster strikes he finds Custard the cat and the birds forming up to mock his efforts.  But no matter, Roobarb always bounces back to hatch another scheme next time.

Roobarb ran for thirty episodes which were repeated on numerous occasions.  As with several other classic children’s shows it received a twenty-first century makeover and returned for another series, this time entitled Roobarb and Custard Too.

Roobarb and Custard Too ran for thirty nine episodes, which were broadcast on C5 during 2005.  As with the original, Grange Calveley provided the scripts and Richard Briers the narration, although this time the visuals were generated via computer animation (the “boiling” look of the original was kept).  The opening episode, When There Was a Surprise, provides us with a clear example that this is a 21st Century Roobarb as it concerns Roobarb’s efforts to build his own computer (out of wood and other scraps) and how he’s able to get it working, courtesy of Mouse.

Although the increased cast of characters in Roobarb and Custard Too slightly diluted the enclosed charm of the original, it was still a witty and entertaining series and whilst it’ll probably never surpass the original in many peoples affections it certainly has its moments.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection contains, as its title implies, all thirty episodes of Roobarb  (on the first DVD) and all thirty nine episodes of Roobarb and Custard Too (on DVDs two and three).  Given that Roobarb and Custard Too was made in 2005, it’s slightly surprising that the picture format for all these episodes is 4:3.  I don’t have a copy of the original broadcasts to hand, but I strongly suspect they would have been made in widescreen.  It’s also a little disappointing that none of the discs are subtitled.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 16th of May 2016.  RRP £34.99.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers – Simply Media DVD Review

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Broadcast between May and September 1967, The Further Adventures of the Musketeers (based on Dumas’ novel Twenty Years After) was a sixteen-part serial which followed on from the previous years adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

Brian Blessed and Jeremy Young returned as Porthos and Athos, but there were also two important changes.  Joss Ackland took over the role of d’Artagnan from Jeremy Brett whilst John Woodvine replaced Gary Watson as Aramis.

I have to confess at not being terribly impressed with Brett’s performance as d’Artagnan, so I wasn’t too sorry he didn’t return – although it would have been intriguing to see how he would have handled the older, more cynical character seen in this story.  In The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is young, keen and filled with dreams of heroism.  It’s therefore more than a little jarring when Ackland’s d’Artagnan is introduced at the start of the first episode.

Others may continue to call him a hero, but he’s not convinced.  Although he still holds a commission in the Musketeers, it now appears to be a hollow honour – especially since his three former steadfast friends (Porthos, Aramis and Athos) have all left and gone their separate ways.  When he recalls their old battle cry (“one for all, and all for one”) it’s done so ironically and whilst he bursts onto the screen with an impressive bout of swordplay, it was only to subdue a drunk in a tavern.  Brawling in taverns seems to be something of a comedown for the brave d’Artagnan, as he himself admits.

He’s therefore keen to grasp any opportunity to rekindle the glory days of old and when Queen Anne (Carole Potter) asks for his help, how can he refuse?  Potter was something of a weak link during The Three Musketeers and her rather grating performance continues here. This may be a deliberate acting choice though, as we see over the course of the serial that the Queen is a far from admirable character – instead she’s capricious, vain and frequently misguided.

d’Artagnan pledges his allegiance to the Queen, her young son, King Louis XIV (Louis Selwyn) and Cardinal Mazarin (William Dexter).  They are the orthodox ruling establishment, but the majority of the people seem to side with the imprisoned Prince de Beaufort (John Quentin).

The question of personal morality is key, especially when understanding which side the four Musketeers support.  As we’ve seen, d’Artagnan supports the Cardinal and Queen, but is this because he believes they are the right choice for France or is it just that they’ve offered him a chance to redeem his tarnished honour?

When d’Artagnan meets up with Porthos, his former colleague quickly joins him.  Blessed, a joy to watch throughout the serial, is never better than in his first scene.  He’s the lonely lord of a manor, complaining that his neighbours consider him to be something of a peasant and won’t talk to him, even after he’s killed several of them!  So he agrees to join d’Artagnan, mainly it seems because he’s always keen for a scrap.

But Aramis and Athos are both on the Prince’s side.  They believe their cause is just and Athos regards d’Artagnan’s allegiance to the Cardinal with extreme disfavour.  Athos supports the King, but in his opinion the Cardinal is manipulating both the King and the Queen to serve his own ends. It’s telling that d’Artagnan doesn’t deny this.

Joss Ackland, from his first appearance, is totally commanding as d’Artagnan.  If Brett’s take on the role tended to see him play the character at a hysterical pitch then Ackland is much more restrained and therefore much better. As I’ve said, Brian Blessed is tremendous fun – he gets to shout a lot and has some great comic lines.  John Woodvine, a favourite actor of mine, is excellent as Aramis whilst Jeremy Young once again impresses hugely as Athos.

Although there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of this in The Three Musketeers, at the start of this serial d’Artagnan tells us that Athos was always his mentor and closest friend (essentially a second father to him) so the fact they are on opposing sides means there’s some dramatic scenes between them.

Young, a rather underrated actor I feel, is compelling across the duration of the serial. Athos’ monologue in episode five, after d’Artagnan bitterly rounds on his old friends, is one performance highlight amongst many. “We lived together. Loved, hated, shared and mingled our blood. Yet there is an even greater bond between us, that of crime. We four, all of us, judged, condemned and executed a human being whom we had no right to remove from this world. What can Mazarin be to us? We are brothers. Brothers, in life and death.”

Athos is referring to the murder of his former wife, Milady de Winter. As we’ve seen, her death still preys heavily on his mind – but he’s not the only one. She had a son, Mordaunt, who spends the early episodes vowing vengeance on the men who murdered his mother. As the serial progresses we see that his thirst for revenge makes him a formidable foe. A variety of other plot threads also run at the same time – such as the kidnapping of the boy King, Athos and Aramis’ secret mission to England to rescue King Charles I (d’Artagnan and Porthos are also in England and change sides to fight for the King) and the continuing conflict between Queen Anne and Prince de Beaufort – all of which helps to ensure that the story, even though it lasts sixteen episodes, never feels repetitious.

Plenty of quality actors drift in and out.  Edward Brayshaw (once again resplendent in a blonde wig and complete with a wicked-looking dueling scar) returns as Rochefort, Michael Gothard is suitably villainous as Mordaunt, Geoffrey Palmer is memorable during his fairly brief appearance as Oliver Cromwell, David Garth is remote and aloof as King Charles I, whilst the devotee of this era of television can have fun picking out other familiar faces such as Nigel Lambert, Anna Barry, Morris Perry, Vernon Dobtcheff, David Garfield and Wendy Williams.

The budget was obviously quite decent, as there’s a generous helping of location filming and several notable set-pieces – such as the Prince’s escape from his prison fortress, which sees him absail to safety from the castle ramparts (although the use of illustrations as establishing shots for various locations is never convincing). Generally though, Stuart Walker’s production design is impressive – for example, his studio reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral includes various architectural features from the original. Few would have missed them had they not been there, but it’s a nice example of the trouble taken to be as accurate as possible.

With a number of interconnecting plotlines, there’s certainly a great deal to enjoy in Alexander Barron’s dramatisation.  The episodes set in England may lack a little tension (as we know Charles is doomed to die) but his execution is still a powerful moment.  Athos is under the scaffold, frantically attempting to rescue the King, and is crushed when he realises that all his efforts have come to nothing.  A macabre note is created when Charles’ blood drips through the floorboards onto the numb Athos. Christopher Barry and Hugh David share the directorial duties and although there’s (possibly thankfully) few of the directorial flourishes that made The Three Musketeers notable, they manage to keep things ticking along nicely.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers looks and sounds exactly how you’d expect an unrestored telerecording of this period to look and sound.  It’s perfectly watchable, although the picture is a little grainy and indistinct at times (and the soundtrack can also be somewhat hissy).  A full restoration would have been possible, but as always it’s a question of cost.  Niche titles like this don’t sell in huge numbers, so it’s no surprise that this DVD was a straight transfer of the available materials.

But although the picture quality is a little variable, the story and the performances of the four leads more than makes up for it.  With many classic BBC black and white serials still languishing in the vaults, hopefully sales of this title will encourage more to be licenced in the future.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers runs for sixteen 25 minute episodes across three DVDs.  It’s released on the 23rd of May 2016 by Simply Media with an RRP of £29.99.

Fred – Simply Media DVD Review

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In 1978 Fred Dibnah was commissioned to repair  the clock tower at Bolton’s Town Hall.  His casual attitude, even when suspended from a rickety bosun’s chair high above the ground, caught the attention of the BBC’s local news programme, Look North West.  Dibnah’s down-to-earth attitude meant that he was an excellent subject for a one-off documentary broadcast in 1979, Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack.   This then led to the seven part series Fred, broadcast in 1982.  Both are included on this DVD.

Easily the most famous part of Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack is the moment when he has to run fairly sharpish to avoid being crushed by a chimney which he’d just detonated.   His immediate response of “d’you like that?” was a classic television moment and it’s no surprise that it was later used on the opening credits of every episode of Fred.

Both the one-off documentary (which won a BAFTA in 1979) and the series follow a similar path.  They show Fred both at work and off-duty (where he’s often to be found tinkering in his shed). Wherever he’s working – up chimneys, church steeples, etc – the pictures are enlivened by Fred’s pre-recorded musings on a variety of topics.  Nobody could ever have called him profound, but his thoughts on life and religion have a rugged honesty about them.  Fred might have already been something of a celebrity by the time Fred was made (the third episode sees him as a guest of honour at a shop opening) but he still seems to take everything in his stride.

Fred’s all-consuming passion for his steam engine (which he spent more than a decade restoring) is gently suggested as putting something of a strain on his marriage.  After all, he seemed to spend more time in the shed with it than he did with his wife and children.  There’s also a later scene, which could possibly have been staged for the cameras, showing Fred merrily driving the steam engine very slowly down the road, whilst his wife and children stoically sit on the back!  But when you know that Alison, his first wife, let him in 1985 because she felt neglected, it does tend to make you view certain moments in a different way.

With series like these, it’s always interesting to ponder just how much we see is truthful and how much is the way it is just because there were cameras rolling.  Certain moments, such as when Fred decides to buy a new engine, do seem a little forced – mainly because the other person in the frame with Fred doesn’t seem as comfortable in front of the camera as he is.

But the public Fred probably wasn’t terribly different from the private Fred and this could be the reason why he was such a hit with the public.  Although he made many later series, for me this one is the most compelling.  With Deryck Guyler’s unmistakable tones as narrator, Fred is a pleasure from beginning to end.  Whether he’s musing about how he feels undressed without his cap or hoping that heaven will be stocked with steam engines, there’s plenty to enjoy.  And if Fred’s rough-hewn philosopy doesn’t entertain, then you can simply sit back and enjoy some of the remarkable photograpy as he scales some incredibly high constructions with a highly casual air.

Disc one contains the first four episodes of Fred, whilst disc two has the final three, plus the 1979 Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack.  Some sources say that Fred was an eight part series, although since the eighth episode listed by the likes of IMDB (A Disappearing World – not included in this set) was broadcast some six months after the rest of Fred, it’s actually a one-off and not part of the series, hence its non-inclusion here.

Fred is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of May 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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Long Shadow: The Great War – Simply Media DVD Review

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With the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme still fresh in the memory, it feels like the ideal time for Long Shadow: The Great War to be released on DVD in the UK for the first time.  Although as we’ll discover, David Reynolds (the writer and presenter) has concerns about how certain events – most notably the Somme – have come to dominate our understanding of the war.

Long Shadow was one of a raft of BBC Great War programmes announced in late 2013.  It’s an ambitious (and still ongoing) project – more than 2,500 hours of programming across television, radio and online to appear between 2014 and 2018.

This breadth of programming, covering both drama and factual, allows for a range of approaches to be taken when discussing the events of 1914 – 1918.  Long Shadow, broadcast in September 2014, asks us to both remember and reassess what we know (or what we think we know) about the Great War and how the conflict shaped the rest of the twentieth century.

Speaking to History Extra, Reynolds makes the point that the Somme, terrible though it was, has clouded our understanding of both the war and its legacy.  “Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict.  That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on.”

Reynolds, a Cambridge academic, follows in the footsteps of many illustrious predecessors.  Needless to say, presenter-led documentaries stand or fall on the quality of the man or woman in front of the camera.  Thankfully for Long Shadow, Reynolds is an engaging presence – he’s capable of deftly describing the bigger picture, but can also change gears to illuminate smaller-scale, individual stories. Reynolds rarely seems to stand still – he’s often seen walking to his next location – but this hyperactivity (and his sometimes highly dramatic intonations) doesn’t detract from the story he has to tell.

Over the decades, a certain perspective of WW1 has become solidified (“lions led by donkeys”) and this has been reflected in popular satire (Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth).  Long Shadow attempts to peel away this familiar (and, he argues, inaccurate) viewpoint in order to make sense not only of the war, but of the very different world that both the victors and vanquished returned home to.

Post 1918, the British were keen to honour their dead (Reynolds has some interesting points to make about Edwin Lutweyn’s Cenotaph) but since the public at large found it hard to visualise exactly what had happened on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918, the war slowly faded from the public’s consciousness. But a play, Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff (which debuted in 1928), would help to reignite interest in the conflict. Reynolds argues that for many, Journey’s End helped to illustrate the futility of war – “never again”.

In Germany there was a very different sentiment in the air. If the British were saying “never again”, then some Germans were of the opinion that the war had never ended. It was simply that they had been betrayed by a spineless ruling elite who had forced the country into signing a humiliating armistice. So the seeds for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power were already in place.

But if, as Reynolds argues, WW2 came to be seen as a just war – fought against an evil and corrupt regime – this would have consequences for the Great War. Post WW2, the Great War would be known instead as WW1. It was no longer “The War To End All Wars”, instead it was seen as a failed attempt to end global war (if it had been successful there would have been no need for a Second World War). Reynolds admits this renaming could seem to be a trivial matter, but it was a factor that helped to shape the modern viewpoint that the Great War achieved nothing, except mass slaughter.

Reynolds also examines the unfamiliar British landscape that emerged following the 1918 armistice.  Democracy had come to Britain for the first time with both the working classes and women eligible to vote.  Also discussed is the way that the Great War strengthened a section of the United Kingdom – as both Wales and Scotland took pride in joining with their English counterparts to defeat a common foe.  Had this not happened it’s tempting to wonder whether the union between the three nations would have fractured.  But if the war was a unifying force for England, Scotland and Wales then it was a very different picture in Ireland.  The Easter Rising in 1916 was a watershed moment for Catholics, just as the Battle of the Somme in 1918 was for their Protestant counterparts.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a documentary solely focused on the military conflict between 1914 and 1918 then this possibly isn’t the programme for you.  Long Shadow concerns itself with documenting the aftershock WW1 inflicted on the world at large, with Reynolds demonstrating how this brutal conflict helped to shape the modern world.

The series uses very little archive footage, which is a good move.  Iconic and stirring though these pictures are, the scratchy black and white images also tend to automatically distance the viewer from the events portrayed.  Running for three 50 minute episodes (Remembering and Understanding, Ballots and Bullets, Us and Them), Long Shadow is an accessible and thought-provoking documentary.

Long Shadow: The Great War is released by Simply Media on the 4th of July 2016.  RRP £19.99.

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World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel – Simply Media DVD Review

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Originally broadcast in 2011 (the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Russia) 1941 and the Man of Steel is a two-part documentary written and presented by David Reynolds.

It’s fair to say that the battles on the Eastern Front have never attracted the same level of interest (especially in the UK) as the conflicts in the West have.  But Reynolds convincingly argues that the Battle for Russia was just as critical – possibly even more so – than the Battle for Britain in deciding the future not only of the United Kingdom, but the rest of Europe as well.

Reynolds, a pleasingly idiosyncratic academic, makes this point with an amusing introductory speech, clearly designed to wrong-foot the viewer.  “He was a little man, about five foot five. In his sixties. Rather tubby. Enjoyed his drinks and his smokes. An unlikely hero perhaps. But in the dark days of the twentieth century he helped save Britain. And he was one of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Stalin was his party name”.

He then deftly paints a striking picture of Stalin, from his young days as a bank robber (albeit in a good cause – or at least the cause, Bolshevism, which he believed in) through to his years of terror in the 1920’s and 1930’s, where he brutally suppressed any opposition via show trials, torture and mass executions.

But Reynolds is able to argue that it was his dominant personality which helped to bring Russia to the brink of defeat in 1941.  If you create a society that functions only if the man at the top performs effectively, what happens when he begins to make mistakes?  Stalin’s first major miscalculation saw him fail to believe that an attack from Germany was imminent.  He had accurate intelligence from Britain, but his mistrust of the West caused him to disregard it – a fatal mistake.

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The first few days of the German offensive saw them make substantial gains whilst Stalin seemed powerless to act.  The news was no better during the next couple of months and Reynolds suggests that this pressure brought the Man of Steel to the point of a nervous breakdown – in a rare moment of candour he bitterly admitted to his colleagues that “Lenin founded our state and we’ve screwed it up”.  This picture of Stalin – a broken man, alone in his dacha and unwilling to answer the phone – is a compelling one.  When the politburo trekked out to see him, Stalin feared the worst (a coup) but in fact they wanted him back.  And it was their faith (a bitter irony when you consider how ruthless he’d been with anyone who dared oppose him) which seemed to spark him back into life.

How he then managed to turn things around is the crux of the documentary and Reynolds, using official documents and telegrams, illuminates the key moments.  Stalin began by falling back on his old methods of terror, but he also had to learn the gentle art of diplomacy – which wasn’t easy for someone who’d risen to the top by not listening to anybody.  But listen he did – and to a most unexpected source, Winston Churchill.  The British Prime Minister had been a savage opponent of Stalin’s Russia in the past, but political expediency now meant that the Man of Steel was a vital ally for the beleaguered British.

Churchill’s trip to Moscow in 1942 is a fascinating part of the story. Stalin attempted to push Churchill into launching an early invasion of France and then angrily called the British people cowards after he failed to get his own way.  Churchill took great umbrage at this slight and considered returning to Britain there and then, but the next day Stalin suggested they retire to his apartment for the evening – where they consumed a great deal of alcohol, leaving Churchill with a severe hangover the next day!  This moment helps to paint both leaders in a very human light and is also a good example of the strange dichotomy of Stalin’s character.  On the one hand he was a brutal and utterly ruthless tyrant, but, as here, he could be approachable and amenable (and remember, it was Churchill who nicknamed him “Uncle Joe”).

Twenty eight million Soviet citizens lost their lives during WW2 – a picture of death and devastation that’s almost unimaginable.  Had Stalin not been so reckless during the first year of the war, says Reynolds, then the death toll would have been considerably less, but he did ultimately achieve a crushing victory over Germany and this victory would help to shape world politics for the next four decades.

Running for ninety minutes (two 45 minute episodes) 1941 and the Man of Steel provides the viewer with a compact overview that still manages to feel quite comprehensive.  Reynolds, who has helmed a number of documentaries (including Long Shadow), certainly knows his stuff, although he may be something of an acquired taste.  He likes the odd dramatic flourish and his quirky sense of humour bubbles to the surface occasionally.  But his arguments are cogent and well thought out and he’s a very affable guide through this complex theatre of war.

1941 and the Man of Steel is released by Simply Media on the 8th of August 2016. RRP £19.99.

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Liverpool 1 – Simply Media DVD Review

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Running for two series and a total of twelve episodes between 1998 and 1999, Liverpool 1 was a decent attempt to produce an edgy, non-London based police series.  Although The Bill (1983 – 2010) was still very popular at the time, its long decline had definitely begun (an over-reliance on the tangled love-lives of the boys and girls at Sun Hill was one reason why).

But whilst it was past its best, since The Bill was such a dominant presence during the 1980’s and 1990’s it meant that rival series often struggled to generate a distinctive feel and tone.  Some that succeeded, such as Between the Lines (1992 – 1994), did so by focusing on a specific area which hadn’t been examined in depth before (in Between the Lines‘ case it was the work of the Met’s internal Complaints Investigation Bureau).

Although Liverpool 1 has the feel of a traditional police series, from the opening scene it’s also clear that we’re operating in unfamiliar territory.  Our first glimpse of DC Mark Callaghan (Mark Womack) is highly instructive – we see him break into a flat and start an argument with its male occupant.   Callaghan then begins to throw the man’s belongings (including the television set) out of the window, before also throwing out the man himself.  There can be no clearer way of demonstrating that DC Callaghan is a loose cannon.  He’s a far cry from George Dixon (or even Jack Regan).

DC Isobel de Pauli (Samantha Janus) has recently transferred to Liverpool from the Met and is teamed up with Callaghan.  Their partnership begins as an inverse of the traditional “buddy” pairings of police shows.  Pauli is an experienced and capable officer, but initially she’s a little out of her depth – Liverpool has its own codes, traditions and criminal network which are a mystery to her.  It would normally be the job of her partner to instruct and guide her, but Callaghan is remote and unapproachable.

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The nature of Callaghan’s motives and loyalties are a major factor which help to drive the series.  As in Between the Lines, the division between the police and the criminals they’re pledged to catch is sometimes blurred.  Liverpool’s crime boss John Sullivan (Paul Usher) always seems to be present. He claims to be a legitimate businessman, but is that the truth?

Callaghan’s extended family comes into play. One of his brothers, Ian, is a priest whilst another, Patrick (Scott Williams), is not only a junkie but also acts as an informant.  Patrick’s evidence was supposed to put away Sullivan’s younger brother Mikey, but a procedural cockup meant that the case was dismissed.  With John Sullivan now threatening vengeance (a memorable low-key performance from Usher) this helps to increase the pressure on Callaghan, which is exacerbated after Patrick is shot and Mikey dies in Callaghan’s custody.  The revelation that Callaghan and Sullivan are “sort of” cousins just raises the stakes even higher and sets up one of the series’ running themes.

The developing relationship between Pauli and Callaghan is an intriguing one. Pauli is open and friendly whilst Callaghan is internalised and closed-off.  The “will they, won’t they?” question is inevitably aired.  Both are in relationships to begin with, but it wouldn’t be a complete shock if they did get together.  But there’s also a spark between Pauli and Sullivan, which doesn’t please Callaghan.  He bluntly points out to her just how vicious his cousin can be, although his own relations with him are sometimes cordial. Families can be complex ….

Although Callaghan and Pauli sometimes enjoyed a frosty relationship, it was a different story for Mark Womack and Samantha Janus.  They married in 1999 and are still together today (which is the reason why she’s credited on the packaging under her married name of Samantha Womack).

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In addition to Womack and Janus, Liverpool 1 has a strong supporting cast.  Tom Georgeson (a regular in Between the Lines) plays DI Howard Jones whilst Eamon Boland was another face familiar from previous police series (he’d appeared in The Chief).  Boland appears as Chief Inspector Graham Hill.  Andrew Lancel, who would later put in over a decade’s service in The Bill, has a non-police role as Ian Callaghan.  Paul Broughton and Katy Carmichael play the other two police regulars, DS Frank White and DC Joanna McMullan.  DS White is lovable but hopelessly disorganised (his inability to concentrate sometimes put the others, such as Pauli, in danger) whilst DC McMullan spends a large part of series one sniping at Pauli (although by series two this enmity seems to have disappeared).  The likes of Leslie Phillips, Ian McNeice, Del Henney and Victor McGuire make guest appearances although many of the one-off roles are played by less familiar television faces.

Apart from the continuing story of Callaghan’s clashes with Sullivan, one of the highlights of series one concerns the hunt for a missing boy.  George (Ian McNeice) is a convicted paedophile who comes under suspicion and is subjected to an intensive grilling by DI Jones. Both McNeice and Georgeson give stand-out performances.  The case sees Jones pushed to breaking point and Georgeson excels, especially towards the end.  The same episode sees Pauli attempt to forge a closer relationship with Callaghan by inviting him for supper with her and her partner. Neither are particularly keen, which infuriates her!

The second series has several intriguing plot-threads which develop over the course of the six episodes. Pauli is now single, her feelings for Callaghan are still mixed (to say the least) and John Sullivan wants to turn informer (or does he just want Pauli?).  The stand-alone plots are, like series one, concerned with the seamier side of life.  A good example is episode two, which sees piano teacher Peter Kitchen (Adrian Rawlins) accused of indecent assault by one of his teenage pupils, Simone Kelly (Rachel Townsend).  Pauli instantly believes her and disbelieves him, whilst Callaghan is more non-committal.  This once again shows a clear division between their characters – Pauli is instinctive and quick to react, whilst Callaghan prefers to be inscrutable and unreadable.  It’s another dramatic and powerful episode which serves as a fine vehicle for Janus.

Liverpool 1 never really seemed to catch the public’s attention and so it came to an end after only two series.  This was a pity, as Womack and Janus bounce off each other very effectively and they also interact well with the other regulars.

Liverpool 1 is released by Simply Media on the 15th of August 2016.  RRP £34.99.

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The Ambassador – Simply Media DVD Review

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Harriet Smith (Pauline Collins) is the newly appointed British ambassador to Northern Ireland.  Recently widowed, she has to juggle the demands of her family (Harriet has two teenage sons who don’t understand why her job has to take precedence over them) as well as numerous day-to-day diplomatic challenges.

Thrust into a world where truth is often a flexible commodity, Harriet is fortunate to have the staunch support of commercial attaché John Stone (Denis Lawson).  But Stone also serves another master (MI6) which means that he occasionally pursues his own agenda, something which becomes more pronounced in the second series ….

It’s hard to argue that The Ambassador is a terribly realistic series, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.  Harriet seems just a little bit too good to be true – whilst everybody else stumbles around, she’s sometimes able to sort out seemingly insoluble problems in a matter of minutes.  But if the plotting can feel a little contrived at times, there’s also a pleasing sense that the world she now lives in is painted in shades of grey.  So even when she turns out to be right we can’t always expect a “happy” ending.

In the first series she clashes with Steven Tyler (William Chubb) and Kevin Flaherty (Owen Roe). It may not be entirely surprising that although both Tyler and Flaherty start off as implacable rivals they later become staunch allies. More interesting is the relationship she shares with John Stone.  Stone, with his MI6 connections, is invaluable whenever Harriet needs to dip into murky waters, but he seems to undergo something of a change between series.  In series one he tends to act in Harriet’s best interests but that’s not the case during the second series.  This does add a little spice to the stories though, and Lawson is an actor who’s always worth watching.

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Since she’s at the centre of most of the action, Pauline Collins is the glue that holds the series together, although it’s possible to argue that she has a little more to work with in the second series.  This is partly because Peter Egan is introduced as Michael Cochrane, who becomes Harriet’s love interest.  Her relationship with Michael helps to humanize her a little, as well as generating a rather unsurprising plot-twist when it turns out that he has a dramatic impact on her professional life ….

Out of the twelve episodes, the following were of particular interest.  A Cluster of Betrayals sees a hostage crisis take place at the embassy, as a distraught father (whose son died from radiation poisoning) brandishes a canister of nuclear waste in an attempt to draw attention to the pollution he claims has been created by leakages from British power plants.  Things aren’t going well until Harriet steps in to handle negotiations.  This is one of those episodes where it seems just a little too pat that Harriet is able to diffuse the situation when everybody else has failed.

Cost Price sees Harriet’s personal and professional lives collide as Michael is kidnapped.  Unable to negotiate directly for his release, she’s forced to watch proceedings from the sidelines.  Although both series were an excellent vehicle for Pauline Collins, the personal angle for Harriet in this episode helped to ramp up the tension a little more.

The final episode of series two, Getting Away From Murder, ensured that The Ambassador ended on a high.  After Tyler’s wife is found dead from an overdose, he’s accused by the Garda of murder.  He pleads diplomatic immunity (in order to not to derail some sensitive negotiations) leaving Harriet to wonder whether one of her key allies could really be a cold-blooded murderer.  With the truth not disclosed until just before the end, this is a very effective mystery story.

Thanks to strong central performances from Pauline Collins and Denis Lawson and quality support from the likes of Owen Roe, William Chubb, Peter Egan and Eve Matheson, The Ambassador is certainly a series that’s worth a look.  Guest appearances from the likes of Michael Angelis, Philip Jackson, T.P. McKenna, Frederick Treves, Geoffrey Whitehead, Michael Cochrane, Jack Dee and Tenniel Evans don’t hurt either.  Although Harriet may be rather too perfect, if you can suspend your disbelief then there’s plenty to hold your attention across both series

The Ambassador – Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 15th of August 2016.  RRP £34.99.

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ChuckleVision – Complete Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD Review

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ChuckleVision was a television fixture for over two decades, running from 1987 to 2009 (notching up a staggering 292 episodes along the way).  But before Barry and Paul Elliott endeared themselves to several generations of children they’d had to endure a long, hard showbiz apprenticeship.   Winners of Opportunity Knocks in 1967 and New Faces in 1974 (a unique double) the brothers found further television exposure hard to come by, so had to be content with plying their trade around what passed for the variety circuit during the seventies and early eighties.

Their return to television, The ChuckleHounds (1985/1986), didn’t sound terribly promising – a pre-school programme which saw them dressed as dogs! – but it lead to ChuckleVision, where the boys were able to put their slapstick skills to fine use.  The first two series had a different format to what came later – Barry and Paul are studio-based presenters (although they do venture outside via film inserts) plus there’s magic from Simon Lovell and a regular slot featuring Billy Butler as a storyteller. But even though much was unfamiliar, the basic dynamic of the brother’s relationship was already firmly in place.  Barry (the short one) is stupid, Paul (the tall one) is equally as stupid but considers himself to be a cut above in the intellectual stakes.  It’s the sort of formula that had served Laurel and Hardy well for many years and the Chuckle Brothers, whilst not quite in the same league, still managed to wring plenty of comedy out of this basic premise.

Wordplay and puns also feature.  A sample from the first episode, Breakfast, will suffice.  Paul mentions that Wayne Sleep will be coming on the show later.  Barry looks downcast and tells Paul he’d better call the vet (for the lame sheep!)  It’s a groanworthy pun and it won’t be the last ….

Each episode of series one and two has a theme.  For example, episode three of series one is about Sport.  There’s quite a nice touch of satire as they cut away regularly for live snooker at the Crucible.  Each time they do so, we see a still picture of Steve Davis, clearly not moving an inch, whilst the commentator tries to fill the time as best he can.

The second series still has the brothers in a studio setting, but there seemed to have been a little more money in the budget, which meant that the fairly bare set from series one was replaced with something rather more lavish.  The basic format remains though, as does Billy Butler’s storytelling slot.  Amongst the memorable moments are Barry’s caveman outfit (in Farming) and their attempts to discover whether the truth is really out there in U.F.O.  The robot Barry, perfect in every way says Paul, is also rather chucklesome (“it hasn’t got a brain” says Barry.  You can probably guess the next line).

Originally released on DVD by Delta in 2011, they’ve now been brought back into print by Simply.  For fans of the later oft-repeated runs of ChuckleVision, these two series are certainly very different (opinions are split over whether Billy Butler is an asset or a bore – personally I rather like him). Each series runs for around 250 minutes, which makes the decision to issue them as four disc sets a little odd (they would have easily fitted on two discs per series)

Although nice to see them back in circulation it’s a little hard to fathom exactly who’s going to buy them.  The subset of bloggers, like myself, with an interest in the history of British television must be quite small, so it’s either going to sell to those who grew up with the series or young children yet to be introduced to the joys of the Chuckle Brothers.  The latter may be the most fruitful audience, as whilst these early shows can be a little slow there’s still plenty for youngsters to enjoy.  Those coming back to the show after a gap of twenty five years may be harder to please.  Numerous series, such as Pipkins and The Banana Splits have escaped onto DVD over the years, but after an initial nostalgic rush the adult viewer has probably found they lack a great deal of rewatch value.

ChuckleVision: The Complete Series One was released on the 25th of July 2016.  RRP £19.99.

ChuckleVision: The Complete Series Two will be released on the 29th of Augut 2016.  RRP £19.99.

 

World War Two: 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly – Simply Media DVD Review

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In 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly, Professor David Reynolds re-examines the North African and Italian campaigns of WW2.  He starts by posing a question.  “Why did we and the Americans spend a lot of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, rather than crossing the Channel?”

If the main battleground was Russia, they surely the next key area was to be found in occupied Europe – so why was Churchill obsessed with campaigns in North Africa and Italy?  Reynolds is able to produce a number of convincing arguments.  As a man of Empire, Churchill understood the importance of Egypt – if the Suez Canal was lost, then Britain faced ruin.  But there were also more pragmatic reasons – neither the British or the Americans had the capability to launch a full-scale assault across the English Channel and into France in 1942.  But Churchill needed a victory, any victory, in order to shore up morale.

Given that defeat had already followed defeat for the British since 1939, another failure (he envisaged a bloodbath of the scale of the Somme if they attempted a landing in France) might have spelled the end.  Possibly not for the British war effort but certainly for him as leader, as the likes of Sir Stafford Cripps and Anthony Eden were circling.  The perilous state of Churchill’s own personal standing during this period is a matter of historical fact, but since it often gets overlooked it’s an interesting area to explore.

So once Monty scored a victory at El Alamein, Tunisia and Italy began to look like tempting prospects – offfering the British and Americans chances to score what should have been easy victories.  Surely Hitler would be too occupied with Russia to be able to adequately defend these theatres of war?

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It wasn’t to be and Reynolds declares that Churchill’s bright idea would become a dark obsession.  Partly this was because Churchill underestimated Hitler, but the British prime minister also received faulty intelligence.  The work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park has become well known during the last few decades, but Reynolds shows that they weren’t infallible.  Often this was because they didn’t have access to the top level of German high command and given the chaotic nature of the German command structure (thanks to Hitler’s knack of micro-managing) the information they received, whilst not deliberately inaccurate, wasn’t correct either.

David Reynolds is an engaging guide.  You get the sense that he relishes being away from his day job (as a professor of International History at Cambridge) and that he also enjoys throwing some quirky scenes into what otherwise might be a fairly dry viewing experience.

He opens the first episode with a fairly conventional piece to camera, except that he’s walking along a beach, his trousers rolled up and the waves lapping at his feet!  He also can’t resist doing the voices of the various players (his conversation between Monty and Churchill is one such amusing moment) and another comic touch occurs when he describes an interesting meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Churchill was a guest in the White House and, returning to his bedroom after a visit to the bathroom, was slightly surprised to find the president in his room.  Dressed in only a towel, Churchill told Roosevelt that “the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States” and promptly dropped the towel.  Reynolds re-enacts this scene although thankfully he was fully clothed.

The occasional moments of levity don’t detract from the fact that Reynolds is an authoritative historian who seems to delight in reaching out to a wide audience.  Across the two 45 minute episodes he’s able to succinctly sketch out all of the key points from this period of the war, sometimes offering a fresh outlook on familiar topics (but always giving well argued reasons for his statements).

A ninety minute television documentary can never hope to have the same scope as a reasonably detailed book (and Reynolds’ own writings are recommended for those who want to dig a little deeper) but 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly (like his other documentaries available on DVD – 1941 and the Man of Steel and Long Shadow) are all fine examples of popular history documentaries.

1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly is released by Simply Media on the 5th of September 2016.  RRP £19.99.

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Go Now – Simply Media DVD review

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Everything seems to be going Nick Cameron’s (Robert Carlyle) way, especially when his relationship with Karen Walker (Juliet Aubrey) begins to blossom.  But there are dark, dark clouds on the horizon.  He begins to experience feelings of numbness and double vision, and shortly afterwards he receives the bombshell that he has multiple sclerosis.

In a flash his whole world changes.  As his physical energy diminishes, Kevin angrily lashes out of those around him – especially Karen, who also has to make a dramatic adjustment (from girlfriend to carer).  She becomes unable to reach the man she fell in love with and so faces a dilemma – should she walk out and start a new life, or stand by this shell of a man?

Go Now eschews the sentimentality often to be found in dramas which tackle illness, instead it offers something much more direct and honest.  This may be partly due to the input of co-writer Jimmy McGovern (a man who has in the past contemptuously labelled other dramas dealing with similar topics ‘wheelchair plays’).  But the influence of the other writer, Paul Henry Powell, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Powell, a MS sufferer, had started writing the script based directly on his own experiences.  McGovern, who was running a writer’s workshop that Powell was attending, agreed to work with him to develop the story.

Although the basic synopsis makes it sound very depressing, the play is shot through with streaks of humour.  But what really impresses throughout the piece are the emotional ups and downs that both Nick and Karen go through.   Both Robert Carlyle and Juliet Aubrey offer outstanding performances.

Carlyle, who had already starred as the unstable killer Albie in McGovern’s Cracker serial To Be A Somebody, commands the screen.  And it’s when Nick’s physical abilities decline that his performance really comes into his own, as it requires him to express a host of emotions with am increasingly limited set of visual signals.

Aubrey is no less impressive.  That she turned down a big movie role (First Knight, opposite Richard Gere and Sean Connery) in order to appear in Go Now is an interesting revelation (no doubt a move that wouldn’t have pleased her agent).  Her commitment to the piece is obvious to see – especially in the scene towards the end when Karen, refusing to heed Nick’s pleas to leave him, waits patiently outside in the pouring rain for him to change his mind.

Whilst Carlyle and Aubrey are central, there are also impressive contributions from James Nesbitt (Tony) and Sophie Okenedo (Paula) and Michael Winterbottom’s direction is pretty much faultless.

A co-production between the BBC and PolyGram, it received a limited theatrical distribution and would go on to pick up a number of awards (it won the Prix Europa Television Programme of the Year 1995 whilst Powell and McGovern collected the Royal Television Society’s Best Writer award in 1996).

At times bleak and uncompromising, Go Now is best summed up by this comment from Juliet Aubrey.  “It’s a big love story with a huge heart, a lot of humour, a lot of passion and a lot of pain”.  Twenty years on it remains a powerful work which lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

Go Now is released by Simply Media on the 12th of September 2016 with an RRP of £19.99.  £1.00 from the sale of each DVD will donated to the MS Society.

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