Mr White Goes To Westminster – Simply Media DVD Review

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Ben White (Bill Paterson) decides to quit his job as a foreign correspondent in order to stand as an independent candidate against the disgraced Conservative politician Paul Madison (Robert Duncan). Catching the mood of a public disgusted with political sleaze, Ben finds himself Westminster-bound and keen to curb the excesses of the gutter press. But Ben has a skeleton in his closet – one which the editor of the Daily Comet wastes no time in exposing …..

Guy Jenkin’s 1997 satire has lost none of its topicality. Delighting in taking broad side-swipes at both the media and politicians, most of the piece still seems as depressingly relevant today as it was back then.  Given Jenkin’s background (he was the co-creator of Drop The Dead Donkey) it’s maybe not surprising that the opening shot of Ben reporting from a warzone has more than a feel of Damien Day’s reportage about it.  But there’s nothing faked about Ben’s piece to camera – although the mood of his heartfelt speech is somewhat spoiled by the ostentatious appearance of that week’s lottery numbers.

The broad satire continues when Ben, handed an award for this report, receives a trophy shaped like a golden McDonalds hamburger.  Various familiar faces appearing as themselves – John Humphrys, Keith Chegwin, Edwina Currie – is another Dead Donkey touch, whilst his Dead Donkey co-writer – Andy Hamilton – seems to be enjoying himself tremendously as the Comet’s low-life editor. At one point he expresses genuine puzzlement as to how they could possibly produce a newspaper if they were restricted to only telling the truth ….

At the time this first aired New Labour had just swept to power. But their honeymoon period – in Jenkin’s eyes anyway – seems to have been extremely brief.  Behind the glossy PR-speak, their political operatives are just as ruthless as the opposition.  Helen Nash (Samantha Bond) is a Labour politician earmarked for big things, but this has little to do with her abilities (although she’s presented to us in a very sympathetic light) and more because she’s a very photogenic sort of person.

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It’s Ben’s decade-old affair with Helen (that occurred when he was still a married man) which is the trigger for him to be the recipient of a deluge of unwelcome press attention (other allegations follow).  Paterson and Bond handle the dramatic scenes with aplomb, although both are equally adept at mining the script for its considerable reserves of humour.

Casting-wise, there’s impressive strength in depth here.  Robert Duncan (another Dead Donkey old boy) is hugely entertaining as Paul Madison, the weak-willed Tory politician who loves to impersonate Adolf Hitler in private.  He’s matched all the way by Ceila Imrie as Madison’s wife – the long-suffering Victoria. The clear power behind the throne (they always appear together in press conferences, where she barely lets him get a word in edgeways) Imrie is perfect as a steely puppet-master.

Matilda Ziegler as a dead-eyed Labour fixer and Dervla Kirwin as the Daily Comet’s top reporter, the Ferret (who apparently casts no shadow), also both catch the eye.

Mr White Goes To Westminster is loosely based on the exploits of Martin Bell, the foreign correspondent who resigned from the BBC in order to oppose one of the safest Conservative seats in the country – that of Neil Hamilton.  Bell won by a landslide (helped by the fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew their candidates) and was sometimes referred to as the man in the white suit. Mr White, ah I see.

Running for 75 minutes, Mr White Goes To Westminster is a sharp satire, featuring a fine central performance from Bill Paterson. There may be plenty of gags but it also takes the time to touch upon concerns which still strike chords today.  This is a DVD that is well worth checking out.

Mr White Goes To Westminster is released by Simply Media on the 8th of October 2018, RRP £11.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror. Episode Four – The Tyrant of France

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In 1990 I acquired pirate copies of the four existing episodes of The Reign of Terror on VHS and happily watched them for many years. Back then I didn’t have a great deal of interest in the  audios of the missing episodes. This was understandable in one way as I was keener to track down copies of all the episodes that did still exist (meaning that the audios were a much lower priority).

It wasn’t until the remastered soundtracks started to appear on CD that I began to plug the gaps (later on these missing episodes would be enhanced by various recons – both official and unofficial). With some stories, like The Invasion, I never felt that I’d missed too much by not having audios of the missing episodes back in the 1990’s, but it wasn’t until I had the chance to listen to the audios of episodes four and five of The Reign of Terror that I finally realised what I’d been missing all those years.

These two episodes contain the dramatic heart of the story. The first three episodes contain a great deal of interest, but in many ways they’re simply designed to get us to this point (episode six is a coda which has very little connection to the rest of the story).

The Doctor’s meeting with Robespierre (Keith Anderson) is a fascinating one. Robespierre isn’t presented as a cackling villain, but rather as a weary administrator who – whilst authorising carnage on a grand scale – is convinced that he’s doing it for the greater good. This is a much more interesting portrait than had he simply been shown as a stock, “evil”, character. Beware the man who knows he’s right.

ROBESPIERRE: I could, and I shall, do great things for France. For too long the Nobility have kept our people to heel. And now finally, my world is at power, what happens? My colleagues, my trusted friends, plot for power.
THE DOCTOR: Do they? Or is it just their wish to keep their heads, hmm?
ROBESPIERRE: Danton planned to restore the monarchy. I had the proof, I knew! I had to dispose of him. And the Girondins. Even now, convention members are at work, plotting my downfall. But I will triumph, even if I have to execute every last one of them! Death, always death. Do you think I want this carnage? Three hundred and forty two executions in nine days in Paris alone. What a memory I shall leave behind if this thing lasts.

Elsewhere, the spark that seems to exist between Barbara and Leon deepens a little (this pays off in spectacular fashion next time) and Ian finds himself reunited with Barbara and Susan, although in the capture/escape/capture nature of this serial it’s not for long as the girls once again find themselves back in the prison (and once again under the unforgiving eye of the jailer). Ian continues his hunt for the English spy called James Webster whilst Lemaitre has definite proof that the Doctor is an impostor. But still he doesn’t act on this information.

There’s at least three different ways to enjoy episodes four and five – the audios, the DVD animations or the Loose Cannon recons. I tend to favour the Loose Cannon recons, as the animations are rather too hyperactive for my tastes. It seems that the animation company, Planet 55, learnt a great deal from this commission as their later efforts (The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase) were much, much better.

Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror. Episode Three – A Change of Identity

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Given the cramped studios they had to record in, it’s remarkable just how much was achieved in the early years of Doctor Who.  A good example of the quality of Roderick Lang’s design work can be seen in the opening minutes of this episode – as Barbara and Susan are transported in a horse-drawn cart through the streets of Paris (all of which was created in the studio).  The fact they have a real horse – as well as small touches like the cackling women at their windows – helps to sell the illusion.

Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by Jules Renan (Donald Morley) and his friend Jean (Roy Herrick).  Many of the historical stories from this point on would freely plunder popular fiction and it’s easy to make a link between Jules and Jean and the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel.   Their arrival helps to move the story in a slightly different direction – we leave behind the squalor of the Conciergerie and the uncouth antics of the soldiers.

Meanwhile the Doctor has reached Paris and has gone shopping for some new clothes.  This is another scene that seems tailored (if you’ll excuse the pun!) to Hartnell’s comic strengths.  He sets his eye on a very impressive uniform and is informed by the shopkeeper that it signifies the position of regional officer of the provinces.

DOCTOR: Yes, I’m quite aware of that. Yes, quite aware. Yes. In fact, it’s a post that I myself personally occupy.
SHOPKEEPER: I see. I’m sorry, citizen.
DOCTOR: Don’t apologise. I want to try that on.
SHOPKEEPER: Certainly, citizen. The quality is unmatched, and in comparison, the price
DOCTOR: The price is of no matter. I haven’t any money.
SHOPKEEPER: No money?
DOCTOR: No. No, I though possibly we could arrange an exchange.
SHOPKEEPER: For this?
DOCTOR: What’s wrong with it?
SHOPKEEPER: Nay, it’s little better than a fancy dress outfit.
DOCTOR: A fancy dress? My dear sir, I doubt that you’ve seen a coat like it.
SHOPKEEPER: I agree.
DOCTOR: Am I correct to assume that you’re not interested?
SHOPKEEPER: You realise there is not much call for a
DOCTOR: Have you had a similar coat like this in your shop?
SHOPKEEPER: Never.
DOCTOR: Then I can understand why there has been no call.

You have to love the Doctor’s cheek, although we’ll later learn that he didn’t quite convince the shopkeeper of his bona fides. Which if you think about it isn’t that surprising – had the Doctor really had been a regional officer then surely his uniform would have been provided by the state.  And why was one hanging up in the tailor’s shop anyway?

The dashing Leon Colbert (Edward Brayshaw), a friend of Jules, is introduced to Barbara and makes an immediate impression.  If you’re a fan of 1970’s and 1980’s BBC children’s television it’s impossible to see Brayshaw as anybody other than the harassed Mr Meaker from Rentaghost.  But if you can push that to the back of your mind then you can enjoy Brayshaw’s fine performance.  It’s just a pity that all of his key scenes were in the forthcoming wiped episodes.

The Doctor (complete with the sort of hat that would have turned Troughton’s Doctor green with envy) makes his way to the prison and has his first meeting with the jailer.  It’s yet another dialogue-heavy scene that Hartnell and Cunningham play to perfection.   This is a good example of the first Doctor at his imposing best.

As I’ve touched on before, Hartnell was excellent at reacting to other actors. He never needed to overplay – he was able to express a world of emotions with just a few expressions.  This is notable at the point when the jailer tells him that Barbara and Susan have been taken for execution.  A spasm of pain crosses his face – which is quickly gone – and the news that they were rescued (and that Ian has also escaped) is quickly processed and digested before he moves on to the next topic.

But although Ian, Barbara and Susan are free, the Doctor now finds himself a prisoner of sorts.  Lemaitre (James Cairncross) is a key figure in the Revolution and after he meets the Doctor suggests that he joins him in a meeting with Robespierre.  This is the start of some cat-and-mouse games which play out over the following episodes. Is Lemaitre aware that the Doctor is an impostor, and if so what is his gameplan?

That the Doctor appears to be on shaky ground is strengthened when the shopkeeper comes to the prison to denounce him.  Quite why he would decide to come to the prison isn’t clear (except in story terms of course) but it sets us up nicely for the next episode.

Designated Survivor – The Complete Second Season (eOne DVD Review)

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I loved 24 and I loved The West Wing, so what could be better than a series which mashes up the two? ABC seemed to agree, as they ordered an initial run of thirteen episodes (later expanded to twenty one) for the first season of Designated Survivor without going down the pilot route.

Partly this was due to the draw of Kiefer Sutherland.  As Thomas Kirkman, a lowly American politician suddenly thrust into the role of President after everyone else in the line of succession is murdered in a brutal terrorist attack, he’s a suitably solid anchor around which the rest of the characters revolve. As the second season opens, Kirkman is celebrating one year in the White House, but as might be expected things are far from plain sailing.  The hunt for Patrick Lloyd (Terry Serpico), the man responsible for the attack, continues whilst Kirkman finds himself juggling a host of other problems, both domestic and foreign.

As the role of Tom Kirkman is somewhat removed from that of Jack Bauer, other (younger) faces are to be found in the field.  Rather improbably, Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) appears to be the sole FBI agent on Lloyd’s tail. You’d have assumed that the FBI might have been able to run to supplying a few more bodies on the ground ….

No matter, as in the debut episode of season two (One Year In) Hannah teams up with  Damian Rennett (Ben Lawson), an MI6 agent who also has an interest in Lloyd. Exactly how Rennett is able to operate so freely on American soil is a mystery which remains unanswered (it’s also slightly mysterious that they cast an Australian actor in the role).  You may not be surprised to learn that the initial wariness which exists between the pair gradually softens as they find themselves thrust together in one hair-raising escapade after another.

Coming back to the point of fake accents, since the British actress Natascha McElhone adopted an American accent to play Kirkman’s wife, Alex, I daresay everything balanced out over time.  A regular during season one,  McElhone elected to jump ship during season two to join The First, which was the perfect excuse to create a dramatic exit for her.

Most of the cast from season one carried over to this run, but there were a few new additions such as Paulo Costanzo, who plays Lyor Boone, the White House’s Political Director. A deeply skilled political operative, albeit one with few interpersonal skills, he adds a touch of colour and humour to the occasionally dour West Wing scenes.

Designated Survivor has something of a problem hanging onto showrunners. Amy Harris was replaced by Jon Harmon Feldman before production began on the first season whilst Jeff Melvoin took over from Feldman about halfway through the debut season. There was more stability during this second run, as Keith Eisner remained in place throughout, but his decision to not to remain for the proposed third year was one of the reasons why ABC pulled the plug following the season two cliffhanger. A drop off in ratings also didn’t help, but healthy foreign sales helps to explain why Netflix decided to pick it up for a ten episode S3.

There are certainly many things to love about the series, even if at times it rather falls uneasily between two stools. It lacks the highly crafted political nuances of Sorkin-era West Wing and it doesn’t fully convince as a high-octane thriller like 24.  But across the 22 episodes of this second season there are enough strong episodes to suggest that – with some tweaks – the formula could be perfected.  Time will tell whether the Netflix pick up will be the start of a new lease of life for the series.

Designated Survivor – The Complete Second Season is released on DVD by eOne on the 1st of October 2018.

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Play For Today – The Imitation Game. Simply Media DVD Review

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The year is 1940. Having previously worked at a wireless listening station dealing with coded Enigma transmissions, Cathy Raine (Harriet Walter) arrives at Bletchley Park – the home of the Enigma machine and the nerve centre of Britain’s code-breaking efforts.

Disappointingly, she finds her duties are very mundane – making coffee and cleaning – but there are compensations. She becomes friendly with a Cambridge mathematics don called John Turner (Nicholas Le Prevost) and the pair go to bed.  But their love-making ends badly with Turner blaming Cathy for the debacle.  Shortly afterwards, Cathy is discovered in Turner’s room reading top secret documents and this act leads to her imprisonment ….

Originally broadcast on the 24th of April 1980, there’s a very modern feel to this Play for Today. Cathy is determined to break free from her stifling home life and domineering father (Bernard Gallagher).  Most girls have “done their bit” by going to work in the local munitions factory, but Cathy has set her sights a little higher and so joins the ATS.

During her initial training she befriends Mary (Brenda Blethyn – making her television debut) and the pair become close.  That they and the other ATS girls are encroaching into male territory is demonstrated after the pair dare to pop down to the local pub by themselves for a drink. This invasion of a male dominated province doesn’t go down well and the landlord’s attempt to move them on ends in an ugly scuffle.  Following a severe reprimand she’s moved to Bletchley Park – an ignominious reason for her transfer.

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If Cathy was – apart from Mary – isolated before, then this feeling only increases when she takes up her duties at Bletchley.  So it’s possibly not surprising that she responds so eagerly to the handful of kind words flung her way by Turner.  Based loosely on Alan Turning, Turner is unable to perform when the pair go to bed and he quickly decides that she’s the guilty party.  “You wanted to humiliate me and you’ve succeeded. You hated your own job and you’re jealous of me for mine”.

Ian McEwan had originally wanted to write a play about Alan Turing and the Enigma machine but found information on both was rather scarce, so instead he turned his attention to life at Bletchley Park. Despite the fact that women formed around 75% of the workforce, he learnt that they were very underrepresented in key positions (although research undertaken during the last few decades has somewhat revised this viewpoint).

Cathy’s downfall begins at the listening station after she becomes frustrated that she doesn’t understand why the coded messages she’s working on are important. “All of the women know nothing, some of the men know everything”.  Although it’s easy in one way to understand her point of view, does she “need to know” in order to do her job? She doesn’t, but it’s her desire to see the bigger picture which eventually leads her to Turner’s Enigma notes.

The Imitation Game was only Harriet Walter’s second television credit, but she belied this lack of screen experience with a beautifully judged performance (Cathy’s closing monologue is a particular highlight).  A fair few familiar faces make appearances, some more fleeting than others. Patricia Routledge is perfectly cast as a hearty ATS officer whilst Geoffrey Chater, always at home when tackling authority figures, plays to type as the interrogating Colonel.

Bernard Gallagher is terrifically unbending as a martinet father who clearly wouldn’t be averse to a German invasion (at one point Cathy ironically suggests he should put on his black shirt). Simon Chandler is also very good value as the supremely irritating Tony, Cathy’s long-term boyfriend, who’s more than a little put out to learn that she’s decided to join the army (regarding the ATS as something of a den of iniquity).

Running for 92 minutes, The Imitation Game was one of a number of interesting Play For Today‘s directed by Richard Eyre during the late seventies and early eighties (hopefully over time they might all make it onto DVD). Thanks to Harriet Walter’s vulnerable but steely performance as Cathy (along with the strong supporting cast) this is an absorbing play.

The Imitation Game is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Play of the Week – Our Day Out. Simply Media DVD Review.

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Mrs Kay (Jean Haywood) runs a remedial class for illiterate children.  Along with the long-suffering Mr Briggs (Alun Armstrong) and two younger teachers – Susan (Elizabeth Estensen) and Colin (Lennox Greaves) – she escorts her unruly mob on a day trip from Liverpool to Conwy Castle in North Wales.  For Mr Briggs, it’s a day of considerable stress ….

Drawing on his own experiences of school trips (both as a teacher and a child) Our Day Out is a typically perceptive slice of drama from Willy Russell. Originally broadcast in December 1977 as part of the Play of the Week strand, it obviously struck an immediate chord with the audience as it was swiftly repeated just a few months later (this time as a Play For Today).

Although he wrote the play in just four days, it was a subject he’d been mulling over for some considerable time. Later turned into a musical, the original BBC play is one which Russell still regards with fondness today.  “The performances are exquisite. Shot on 16mm in just three weeks by a first time director working with a largely untrained cast it just seemed to be one of those charmed ventures in which everything just fell into place”.

Mrs Kay and Mr Briggs are two very different types of teacher – she’s the free and easy type whilst he’s stern and controlling. Which method works best? Mr Briggs maintains that you need discipline in order to make any headway in teaching these types of children but Mrs Kay – in a late set-piece monologue – is totally dismissive of this attitude.  Society at large, she maintains, doesn’t want them schooled – after all, if they were then where would the next generation of factory fodder come from?

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This is the most overtly political point in a play where the thorny topic of inner-city deprivation is never far from the surface. The difference between the streets of Liverpool (shown here in all their grimy 1970’s glory) and the countryside of Wales is marked, especially since it’s made plain than most of the children have never gone further than Birkenhead before. There’s a yearning melancholy on display from some of them which is heartbreaking – they want a better life, but there’s a sense that the system just won’t allow it.

The gulf in acting experience between the adult cast and the children is one of the most intriguing things about Our Day Out.  None of the children had acted before (and most wouldn’t again) which gives their performances a very natural and unaffected air.  To balance this, you have experienced actors such as Jean Haywood and Alun Armstrong in the central roles as well as decent cameos from the likes of George Malpas, Robert Gillespie and Peter Tilbury.

En route to the castle, they stop off twice – first at a motorway cafe and then at a zoo.  It does beggar belief that both times Mr Briggs would let them roam unsupervised – with the result that they pilfer all the sweets from the cafe and later attempt to steal half the zoo! This latter moment is high on comic value but low on credibility.  However it allows Armstrong (who is excellent throughout) a moment of high intensity as he roundly berates the children.

As you might expect, he eventually begins to relent and it’s his clifftop encounter with young Carol (Julie Jones) which is key. Jones tackles the substantial role of Carol with such gusto that it’s a real shame she didn’t continue acting.  Desperate to stay in Wales rather than return to her miserable existence in Liverpool, there follows a tense scene where Mr Briggs attempts to talk her back from the cliff edge.  This he does and the emotional connection he makes with her helps him to finally unbend.

A late visit to the funfair – his idea – ends the day on a happier note, but as the coach returns to Liverpool it’s easy to see Mr Briggs’ relaxed spirit slowly dissipating.  Will he modify his approach in future or simply revert to his stern ways once they’re back at school? This is left unresolved, but there’s one key moment which suggests that the latter course is the most likely.

Deftly juggling comedy with more serious themes, Our Day Out is a gem of a play which at 67 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome.  Alun Armstrong is outstanding, but none of the cast disappoint and it’s the sort of play which should have considerable replay value.

Our Day Out is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Play For Today – The Fishing Party. Simply Media DVD Review

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Three Derbyshire miners – Art (Brian Glover), Ern (Ray Mort) and Abe (Douglas Livingstone) – set out for a weekend’s fishing. It may be out of season but they’re determined to have a good time, although Art (the self-appointed leader) is keen to ensure that they don’t disgrace themselves.  “We ain’t pigs. No brown aleing, no being sick over the wall – we’ll show our wives we can be civilised without them.”

But after being fortified with a greasy chip supper and a bountiful supply of brown ale, their good intentions start to dissipate once they take to the choppy waters ….

Originally broadcast on the 1st of June 1972, Peter Terson’s play is an entertaining comedy that’s rich in character detail. The first in a trilogy by Terson featuring Art, Ern and Abe (slightly surprising that all three haven’t been collected together in one DVD set) The Fishing Party has a wonderful sense of place and time.

There’s just something so very evocative about this small Northern fishing port.  This is best observed when our hapless trio roll up to the boarding house that they’ve taken a shine to. It’s run by the domineering Audrey (Jane Freeman) and her thoroughly hen-pecked husband Brian (Frank Mooney).

Shortly afterwards, Freeman would begin thirty seven years of service in Last of the Summer Wine (as Ivy, a not totally dissimilar character to Audrey). And there’s another Summer Wine connection, as John Comer (who would be cast as Ivy’s long-suffering husband, Sid) also makes an appearance – here playing the owner of a quay-side tea van.

Brian Glover started out as a professional wrestler (billed as Leon Arris, the Man from Paris) before switching to acting in the late sixties and building up an impressive list of roles. Comedy was his speciality (shortly after this PFT he’d make several memorable appearances in sitcoms scripted by Clement and La Frenais – first as Flint in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and then as Heslop in Porridge).

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Glover’s Art is a wonderful creation. Overawed by the fairly modest boarding house that they’re all staying in (which he likens to a small hotel) he paints a totally unrealistic picture of the sort of culinary delights they’ll be treated to later. He’s convinced that entrées will feature, along with a selection of wines.

Alas, we never learn exactly what Audrey would have served up for their evening meal as she’s unwilling to change her serving up time from 6:45 (which is when they’ve booked their boat for) meaning that they have to head out for a bite to eat instead.  But there’s no sense of disappointment from Art and the others, indeed they never lose their sense of innocence and optimism throughout the play.

There’s a lovely moment when the three – all safely deposited into single rooms – communicate with each other by shouting through the walls. Art is initially reluctant to join them in one of the other rooms (considering that consorting together is simply not quite the thing). He’s not at all convinced when told that James Bond does it all the time (delightfully, his argument with the solid wall is accompanied by a great deal of gesticulating).

The fishing trip – a nightmare journey of sea-sickness – is another obvious highlight, as is the aftermath when our shivering heroes find themselves back on solid ground. At least they have an impressive haul of cod to take back home – even if the fishy glances from the cod are all rather reproachful.

Like Glover, Ray Mort would become an instantly recognisable television face. Active from the mid fifties, he was equally at home both in drama and comedy.  Douglas Livingstone’s acting career had virtually come to an end by the time The Fishing Party aired, but he’d already established a parallel writing career which would continue well into the 21st century.  He would contribute to both Armchair Theatre and Play For Today in addition to a number of other series and serials. One notable later credit was his well-remembered 1981 adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids.

Running for 57 minutes, The Fishing Party is an earthy comic treat.  Featuring three strong performances from Glover, Mort and Livingstone and a number of sharply-defined supporting turns, the hour just flies by.

The Fishing Party is released by Simply Media on the 1st of October 2018, RRP £9.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).