Top of the Pops – 1976 Christmas Special

DLT and Noel Edmonds are your hosts for this year’s Christmas show. They wish the viewers at home seasonal greetings in a short CSO-tinged pre-credits sequence, most notable for the way Edmonds stumbles over his few words. Couldn’t they have afforded a take two? And as the show wears on it’s noticeable that the pair seem to be marooned in a CSO bubble, well away from the audience ….

Slik are on first with Forever and Ever. It starts moodily enough but once the lights come up the song transforms into more of a chugging sub-Bay City Rollers sort of track (understandable really since the song had originally been written for the Rollers). It’s cheesy fun, with little Midge giving his all.

Elton John & Kiki Dee then pop up on video with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart before Legs & Co entertain with Dancing Queen (which judging by the way DLT starts to froth at the mouth, gained his approval).

It was a canny piece of scheduling for J.J. Barrie (No Charge) to appear next. All those dads (and DLT) who had got just a little hot under the collar watching the six young ladies of Legs & Co jigging around could now cool down with J.J. Somebody (well many bodies) obviously loved this as it made the UK Number 1 (J.J.’s only Top 40 hit).  Alas, his 1981 collaboration with Brian Clough (You Can’t Win Them All) failed to trouble the scorers. As for No Charge, it’s a bit grim really ….

Let’s raise the tempo with Laurel & Hardy who (obviously enough) are appearing on film with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. A surprise hit this year, there’s some interesting background to the song’s re-release here.

Tina Charles, wearing a nice scarf, belts out Love to Love (a live vocal!). That’s quite exciting, but even more exciting is the fact she performs the song from a gantry high above the studio floor (which means we get a rare birds-eye view of the studio). It’s a bit grim and grimy up there, but that all adds to the charm.

I love The Wurzels (in a totally non-ironic way). The Adge Cutler era is obviously closest to my heart, but post Adge they still came up with a few gems (such as today’s Combine Harvester song). Another performance featuring a live vocal, it’s ideal Christmas Day fare. The audience (some of whom have been given pieces of straw to chew) seem to be enjoying themselves.

Tip top Cliff Richard with Devil Woman. It’s easy to mock Cliff, but give him the song and he could deliver. Decked out in a nice pinkish shirt (which is cut quite low to show off his medallion collection) he gives full value during this performance – pointing dramatically throughout whilst half-hearted flame effects are overlaid onto the screen.

ABBA entertain a handful of audience members with Mamma Mia. The ABBA foursome are decked out in silky blue suits, although clearly they couldn’t afford to buy stage clothes for their two additional guitarists and drummer, who are forced to wear their normal clothes.

Most of the performances in this show have been pretty basic, but the boat’s pushed out when Hank Mizell turns up with Jungle Rock. We get a jungle set (of course), Hank stuck in a cooking pot, Legs & Co gyrating around and a load of extras dressed as elephants, crocodiles, etc. With so much going on it’s no surprise that the camera rarely focuses on Hank (who nevertheless would have been pleased to see Jungle Rock finally becoming a hit – some eighteen years after it was first released).

Pussycat (live vocals!) do Mississippi. The instrumental backing is a little off, so it’s one of those instances when playback might have been the better option. But they gave it a go, so deserve a thumbs up for that.

We’re coming towards the end of the show, but first there’s the substantial hurdle of Demis Roussos to leap over. If I was watching the show for pleasure no doubt I would have skipped this – but since I’m in review mode I felt it was only fair not to take the easy way out. But since I’ve made the sacrifice, if you wish to wind him on then I quite understand.

Queen close proceedings with Bohemian Rhapsody. Given that it first hit Number 1 at the end of 1975 (although it held the top spot until early 1976) the song probably would have seemed a little old-hat by December 1976. It would have been nice to see them in the studio, but they no doubt had better things to do, so sent the video instead.

And that’s it for 1976. Punk may have begun exploding, but it had yet to reach the Christmas TOTP studio ….

Random Who – The Web of Fear

Recently I’ve been using the random number generator at random.org to select a number of Doctor Who stories to revisit. The latest choice of the randomiser was The Web of Fear ….

You have to say that the story is gossamer thin. Apart from puzzling over the Great Intelligence’s somewhat over complicated scheme to snare the Doctor, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have nabbed him at some point during the first few episodes (although this would have made for a very short tale). But since there’s six episodes to fill, a great deal of running on the spot has to be done.

Mind you, since Douglas Camfield is directing, this running on the spot is never less than very entertaining. For example, the Covent Garden battle in episode four adds absolutely nothing to the story, but it’s a wonderfully directed and edited sequence (for once, the Yeti – usually at their best lurking in the shadows – don’t look too bad in broad daylight either).

The guest cast are top notch. Well, there is one slightly annoying performance – can you guess who it is, boyo? Jack Watling gives a nice line in blustering comic relief, but otherwise Travers Snr doesn’t do a great deal. Indeed, things probably would have worked as well with just Travers Jnr (Tina Packer), who operates rather like a proto Liz. Anne does fade a little as the story progresses, regressing from an independent and practical young woman into more of a damsel in distress, but then some of the male characters do the same thing ….

One thing, I’ve never quite worked out is why (and when) she decides to change out of her miniskirt and into a trouser suit. With everyone facing multiple Yeti attacks, it seems an odd time to change your clothing.

The early episodes feature a selection of soldiers – such as Corporal Blake (Richardson Morgan), Corporal Lane (Rod Beacham) and Craftsman Weams (Stephen Whittaker) – who all bite the dust. But before each one is killed they’ve been invested with enough character to ensure their deaths mean something (they all seem a good deal more real than many of the faceless UNIT soldiers later mown down in the course of duty).

Jack Woolgar’s performance as the level-headed Staff Sgt. Arnold is an especially memorable one, which means his death comes as a particularly hard blow (although this part of the story makes little sense). We’re told that Arnold has been dead for some time and the Intelligence had reanimated his lifeless corpse (which is a horrifying concept). But since Arnold behaved so naturally throughout, it’s difficult to believe the Intelligence could have given quite so nuanced a performance (possibly Haisman and Lincoln, running out of time, simply closed their eyes and picked a traitor at random).

Elsewhere, Jon Rollason is suitably slimy as the David Frost-a-like Harold Chorley, whilst Ralph Watson impresses as the doomed Captain Knight. Poor Knight – treated with playful disdain by Anne and later clubbed down by a Yeti, he didn’t have much luck.

This six-parter, of course, also saw the debut of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart. The character arrived pretty much fully formed, although he does have a fairly untrustworthy air at times (but only because the story had to keep suggesting that he might be the traitor).

There’s a fascinating scene where Lethbridge-Stewart issues Evans (Derek Pollitt) with a direct order, which Evans fails to obey. It’s impossible to imagine the Brig ever taking that sort of lip from one of his soldiers, but then Lethbridge-Stewart never had to face this type of scenario again – a mission where virtually all the men under his command are killed, leaving him as one of the few survivors (and a slightly hysterical one at that).

The Troughton era raised the Base Under Siege story concept to a high art form (which is fair enough as they had plenty of practice at it). Few stories have quite the same claustrophobic feel as The Web of Fear though – as the web slowly increases and people keep dying, there really does seem to be no way out.

After a number of episodes where the plot only advances a few inches, we reach episode six. The conclusion … isn’t great (which docks the story a point or two). Overall, The Web of Fear is a triumph of style over content – but what style. It’s one where you have to ignore the niggles and go with the flow.

The Main Chance – The Walls of Jericho (12th October 1970)

Abdul Naji (Aly Ben Ayed) alleges that his brother was murdered and a precious artifact – one of the Dead Sea Scrolls – was stolen from him. David Main is sympathetic, but doesn’t believe Naji has much of a case – unless he can force a libel action (by penning a thinly disguised novel about these events). The book is swiftly published and a libel action is forthcoming, but not in the way Main was expecting ….

The first of two Main Chance scripts by Louis Marks, The Walls of Jericho features an increased role for Anna Palk (as Sarah Courtney), who has a little more to do for once than just take messages and look at Main in a worried and/or affectionate way (Sarah’s the one who befriends Naji and brings his case to Main’s attention). As per usual, Main begins by telling her (and later him) that there’s absolutely nothing to be done. But since that would make for a rather dull fifty minutes, by now the attentive viewer will be well aware that he’s bound to have a trick or two up his sleeve.

There’s a similar trick to be pulled in the episode’s ‘b’ plot (Main’s car is severely damaged when a lorry sheds its load of oil drums right onto it).  The company who owns the lorry aren’t admitting liability and both Margaret and Henry Castleton are convinced there’s nothing to be done, but wily old David Main pulls something out of the bag.

It’s something of a story contrivance that the scroll is put up for auction at exactly the same time Naji’s book is published. The name of the auction house – Christaby’s – rather tickles me (an obvious amalgamation of Christie’s and Sotherby’s).

The seller of the scroll – Professor Ian Allardyce (Freddie Jones) – isn’t the man Naji alleges murdered his brother (Allardyce bought the scroll off this apparent murderer). But the problem for Main is that, as the current owner of the scroll, Allardyce is the one who’s been libeled and he’s been convinced to sue.

As you’d expect, Jones gives his usual polished performance. Allardyce might be the walking cliché of an academic (hard-working, distracted) but Jones manages to tease out some decent moments from this fairly stock character. Jones’ best scene occurs when Naji confronts Allardyce. It’s also good for Aly Ben Ayed, who elsewhere tends to overact a little.

Allardyce maintains that he bought the scroll in good faith, although it’s left hanging about whether or not he’s telling the truth. What isn’t in doubt is his belief that the scroll belongs in expert hands (otherwise it risks damage or destruction). That’s laudable enough, although it’s odd that he’s selling it now for a large profit (why not donate it to a museum?)

Although Main appears to have won the day, there’s a late twist in the tail regarding the scroll’s ownership. This isn’t really a surprise though – indeed, it’s odd that no-one mentioned the possibility earlier.

The Walls of Jericho  isn’t top tier MC, but it clips along very nicely. Cynthia Grenville (as Allardyce’s wife, Mary) and Peter Cellier (as Braintree, a man who crosses swords with Main and fails badly) both catch the eye with small, but well-played roles.

Special Branch – Exit A Diplomat (26th November 1969)

Mira Kobylnova (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), the wife of a Czech diplomat, is arrested on a shoplifting charge. Since she carries diplomatic status, no charges can be brought – so why did she do it? Jordan discovers that she’s seeking asylum for herself and her husband ….

Exit A Diplomat is a slow-burner of a story. To begin with it’s difficult to feel too invested in Mira’s travails, but over time – as Jordan continues to question her – she begins to earn a little more sympathy. Since we don’t meet her husband until more than half way through the episode, we’re wholly dependent on her portrait of him until then. Does he really face censure (albeit not prison) when he returns home? And if so, does he actually want asylum or is Mira the one pushing him?

When Jan Kobylnova finally turns up, he’s played by the always reassuring George Pravda.  Pravda was an actor rarely out of work during the sixties and seventies, due to his ability to play characters from numerous Eastern European countries. He adds a touch of class to the story, despite having considerably less screen-time than Barbara Leigh-Hunt (who also gives a solid performance throughout).

Jordan drives this story, with Inman largely sitting it out (although he does enjoy a decent scene where he gives Jordan a hard time). There’s also a surprising moment towards the end of the episode as we drop in on Inman enjoying a sauna (luckily a towel covers his modesty). Moxon – fully clothed – pays him a visit, advising that any attempt by Special Branch to contact Kobylnova before he boards the plane home should be discouraged.

The reason for this is a neat one – Moxon has already recruited Jan Kobylna as a spy for the British, so any interference by Special Branch could jeopardise months of planning.  This is therefore another of those stories which would have been a lot shorter had Moxon decided to be less stringent about who needs to know what ….

Exit A Diplomat feels pretty low key but there are some definite highlights. For example, Jordan’s interrogation of Mira (despite Derren Nesbitt stumbling over his lines a little). The private meeting between Mira and Jan at the police station (well sort of private, since Jordan’s standing very close by) is nicely played by both Leigh-Hunt and Pravda. Moxon’s meeting with Bilak (Gary Watson) also catches the eye – a big wheel at the Czech embassy, he seems to be one of the few people to ever discomfort Moxon (although by that point, all the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t fallen into place).

There’s also an early screen credit for Cheryl Hall. Despite the fact it’s a blink and you’ll miss it part, she makes an impression as a shrill young shoplifter (who’s afforded far less courtesy than Mira).

Once again the episode ends in a downbeat fashion, with Jordan unaware why the mission to shadow Kobylnova has been aborted. He confides to Morrisey that they’ll probably never know, suggesting that Inman – like Moxon – knows how to keep a secret.

An interview with Anneke Wills

Beginning her career as a child actress in the mid fifties, Anneke Wills worked solidly for the next few decades – appearing on stage, in films as well as numerous television programmes. In 1960 she was cast as ‘Girl on Airfield’ in two episodes of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, starring Anthony Newley. It was a job which changed her life ….

Anneke didn’t have to attend a formal audition. “All I remember is an agent calling you up and saying ‘okay’. Later on I heard that he (Newley) chose me out of Spotlight and they showed me the picture he liked. Apparently he said ‘I’ll have her’ (chuckles).”

“I climbed on the coach and there was Tony Newley, surrounded by his crew. I was very shy and after a brief hello we were driving up to the airfield. I do know that standing on that airfield and looking into his eyes I fell instantly in love with the man. He was utterly charming and captivating and sweet.”

Anneke’s affection for Anthony Newley still shines through very clearly today. She went on to make the point that although he may be better known now as a singer, his grounding was very much as an actor. “Although he would go on to become a great singer, he was basically an actor. And a very, very talented one. It was lovely, it was always lovely to work with a very talented actor. The focus is there and it’s very energising.”

It’s always been assumed that Newley was heavily involved with Gurney Slade, both on the writing and directing side. This is confirmed by Anneke. “Oh he was completely involved. Sid Green and Dick Hills were a little group with him and they got this baby together and there would be lots of hilarious falling about and shuffling of scripts and organising.”

Anneke’s main memory of her brief association with Gurney Slade remains the morning spent on the airfield. “I didn’t know I came back for the final one until about three or four weeks ago when I sat down to watch it”. This at last solved the mystery for her about why there was a picture in existence of her sitting on Bernie Winters’ lap.

Watching the episodes did spark the odd memory though. She recalled being less than impressed with the clothes she was given to wear. “Why have they put me in a baggy old mackintosh? And then I was told he wanted you to look like a French film star. And they all wore gaberdine mackintoshes.”

Anneke then explained a little about Anthony Newley’s inspirations. “When I moved in with him we used to fall about with laughter listening to the Goons. Both of us were fans of the Goons and Gurney Slade had a similar kind of surrealistic humour that he found fascinating.  He made Gurney Slade into a sort of magic thing with off the wall humour and his own incredible charm. But it also was his own story, he was basically saying ‘stop the world, I want to get off’. He wanted to walk off the set and talk to ants and dogs and have a completely difference experience from the one that everyone else was following. And that was his uniqueness.

“In the next thing he did (Stop The World – I Want To Get Off) it was the same sort of story – the little chap trying to find his way in the world, trying to make sense of the madness. It was a sort of ongoing quest for him.”

Touching again upon Newley’s grounding as an actor, Anneke feels that it informed his unique singing style. “His voice in a way was like an actor being a singer. And so it was absolutely unique, he didn’t train, he just sung naturally. And I think that’s what it was which inspired the likes of David Bowie.”

The discussion then moved onto Doctor Who, something which – judging by her enthusiastic response – remains very close to her heart. “This year, during the Lockdown, when it was my birthday I had lovely cards from all the Doctor Who women. We are such a family and I really have missed them this year because we always got to meet up, doing gigs and things, and it’s got me thinking about what extraordinary women were cast as the companions of Doctor Who. Each one a totally unique human being and a wonderful woman and my friend.”

In recent years, Anneke’s Doctor Who association has continued apace with both Big Finish and BBC Audiobooks. But during Lockdown that’s come to a temporary halt. “A lot of them are continuing to do recordings but I don’t have a mobile phone, I don’t have a computer. I only have this small television, on which I only really watch Channel 81 (Talking Pictures TV).”

But Anneke seems to have adjusted to Lockdown life pretty well. “I’m very lucky because I’ve got a garden so it’s given me guilt free, obsessional gardening. And I’m also a happy hermit, so in fact it’s been quite nice for me.”

Out of her audio work, it’s the Target novelisations which are closest to her heart. “I really enjoy it. The last thing I did before Lockdown was The Smugglers and I just absolutely adored doing that. I love reading the Target books, I love doing all the characters.  To be able to still be performing is a treat.”

Leading on from that, I wondered if there was one of her Doctor Who stories which she’d particularly like to see returned. I’d assumed Anneke’s answer might have been along the lines of, say, The Power of the Daleks, so her response came as something of a surprise. “I’d love to see The Smugglers. Mainly because it was Michael Craze’s and my favourite one. We went to Cornwall! That was such a treat! If we went filming it was usually in a drafty old quarry.”

I’ve always had a fondness for The Smugglers as well, so I’m happy to second this suggestion. It’s one of those forgotten stories which nobody ever seems to talk about – but with extensive location filming and an intriguing guest cast, it must have something going for it.

I wrapped up our chat by touching upon the proposed second series of Strange Report. “At the end of doing the sixteen episodes, they came to Tony (Quayle) and me, cos Kaz (Garas) of course would have been happy to film in America, and they said ‘look, we’ll do another lot but we want to do them in Hollywood’. We went off to Tony’s dressing room and he didn’t really want to do it, but he said he would agree to it if I wanted to. I told him that it was impossible. I had two young children and my marriage wouldn’t cope with it, and anyway I don’t like Hollywood. So we went back to the American producers and told them no – they were so disappointed.”

A lively and engaging personality, it was a real pleasure to spend some time chatting with Anneke Wills about just a small section of her fascinating career.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade on Blu Ray can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Strange Report on DVD can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

More information about Anneke Wills can be found on her website annekewills.com. She’s also on Twitter – @AnnekeWills

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Network BD review

A little over sixty years ago (on the 22nd of October 1960 to be precise) the first episode of a short-lived series starring Anthony Newley was broadcast. The Strange World of Gurney Slade arrived with something of a bang but departed with much more of a whimper. Tumbling ratings and the lukewarm reception it received from a baffled audience were two reasons why it was swiftly demoted from peak-time and into a graveyard slot.

And yet there’s no denying that the series had its fans. A young David Jones (later to rechristen himself David Bowie) was certainly enthralled – his mid to late sixties persona borrowed heavily from the Newley image.

The initial critical response was mixed, but the series did garner some good notices. The Coventry Evening Telegraph (5th November 1960) called it the bright spot of their Saturday evening (and bemoaned that it was now on so late – having been shunted off in favour of 77 Sunset Strip). Kenneth Bailey, writing in The People (18th November 1960) made the point that whilst Gurney Slade‘s ratings weren’t spectacular, this type of experimental programme should be applauded (a letter writer to The Stage and Television Today made the same point).

A repeat run in 1963 was an early sign that the critical tide was turning in Gurney’s favour. Marjorie Norris, writing in The Stage and Television Today (12th September 1963), declared that she “enjoyed it even better than before. It is still as much a break-through in comedy as it was then”. Newley was clearly pleased by her comments, as he penned a thank you letter to The Stage (3rd October 1963), commenting that “the Newley ego took a bit of a dive after the pasting he received on its first outing, and it’s rather heart-warming that Gurney has been given a second chance”.

The cult of Gurney Slade was slowly building momentum then, but it wasn’t until Network released the series on DVD in 2011 that it could really be appreciated and reassessed. What’s especially striking for those of us who came to the series via DVD is how contemporary it felt. That’s no doubt because it’s easy to identify later programmes (The Prisoner, say) who were influenced – either directly or indirectly – by the show. But as the 1960 audience would have had none of these later reference points, coming to it cold must have been a bewildering experience for many.

British television comedy (indeed British television in general) was still in its infancy back in 1960. The BBC may have begun broadcasting in 1936, but the Second World War (and the slow roll out of transmitters) meant that only by the mid fifties was television establishing itself as a dominant force (helped along by the arrival of ITV). The pre-eminent sitcom of the time would have been Hancock’s Half Hour over on the BBC.

ITV also had a crop of popular programmes – such as The Army Game and The Larkins – but they tended to be somewhat broader in tone. When Gurney walks out of a middle of the road television sitcom at the start of the first episode (demolishing the fourth wall even before the credits have rolled) he seems to be turning his back on a series not dissimilar to The Larkins.

This pre-credits faux sitcom is everything that Gurney Slade isn’t – comfortable, cosy and predictable. By thumbing his nose at it, Newley (and his writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills) were taking a broad satirical swipe at this sort of show. The only problem with this is that it risks alienating that section of the audience who likes their sitcoms to be cosy and predictable. Annoying the audience within the first few minutes of the opening episode has to be a record ….

Recording wise the series was split – the first three episodes were shot mainly on location and the last three were studio bound. Heading into episode two, we find Gurney musing about the nature of relationships. He arrives at a deserted airfield – well, deserted apart from a young woman (Anneke Wills).  In their imaginations only, the airfield transforms itself into a dance hall and the pair enjoy a dance, after much hesitancy. It’s a remarkable sequence – not least for the fact that both engage in lengthy internal monologues.

In real life, their relationship was far less tranquil – Wills became pregnant by him twice (he persuaded her to abort the first baby, but she was determined to keep the second child – Polly, born in 1962). Given all we know about Newley’s notorious philandering – even after their relationship ended so he could pursue Joan Collins, he still couldn’t keep away from Wills – it gives this episode a subtext which would have been totally absent on its original broadcast.

Episode three was probably the one which snapped the patience of many casual viewers back in 1960. Even more fragmentary than the previous two, Gurney spends most of this episode either musing to himself or talking to the animals (such as a cow, seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding). He does bump into the odd human being, such as  Napoleon (John Bennett), who happens to be standing in a field.

Things get really interesting when we move into the studio episodes. Show four finds Gurney on trial. “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”

That Newley, Green and Hills could accurately foresee the way the series would be received is fascinating. The arguments and counter-arguments brought into play (an average member of the audience found the series clever – not funny, but clever) no doubt mirrored real life discussions generated by the series.  Another broad satirical dig occurs when the jury is revealed – twelve men all dressed identically in cloth caps and scarves. Throw in Douglas Wilmer as the judge and you’ve got an episode which is possibly my favourite – for sheer nerve alone.

The recursive nature of Gurney Slade is developed during episode five. Gurney is telling a group of children a story (all about a magical place called Gurneyland). When he later asks them why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television, they tell him that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.” A later trip to Gurney’s subconscious (which is invaded by the children and their families) offers plenty of food for thought about the dividing line between fantasy and reality. The invisible elephant is impressive as well.

By now it was clear that just about anything could happen, so how would the series be brought to a conclusion? The final episode sees a group of executives brought to the studio to watch a recording of Gurney Slade. So despite the fact that Gurney believed he was breaking free at the start of episode one, it’s made clear again today that he – like all the other characters – is a fictional construct. Born in the studio six weeks ago, his time is nearly up.

It’s nice to see most of the characters from previous episodes turn up for a final bow. They’re all given new jobs – Wilmer’s prosecutor lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at the prospect of having to take her clothes off in a French film.

Gurney’s fate is somewhat startling, but for those coming to the series fresh I won’t spoil the ending.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is something that deserves to be cherished. Network’s DVD has been played a number of times and it’s lovely to now have the series on a sparkling BD, packed with a number of new special features.

Three Saturday Spectaculars from 1960 are the pick for me – not only do the likes of Shirley Bassey and Peter Sellers make appearances, but there’s also the chance to see Newley try out the character that would eventually turn into Gurney Slade.

The Small World of Sammy Lee was released on BD back in 2016, but I won’t begrudge its inclusion here, Newley is on top form in this 1963 film, set in a sleazy Soho world where Sammy (Newley) is attempting to stay one step ahead of a Mr Big who’s intent on causing him serious damage. Newly discovered material (an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley) are intriguing additions.

Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts have all contributed essays to a 44 page booket. Pixley’s is the lengthiest and packed with the sort of painstaking detail he’s known and loved for (production information on the series was clearly a little hard to come by, but everything else – even down to how many different cover versions of Max Harris’ theme were issued – is detailed). The essays by Fiddy and Roberts are also well worth reading, although possibly not one after the other as there’s some duplication of information and quotes.

For those who own the DVD, then this BD set offers a considerable upgrade – the picture quality (which was good on the DVD) has received a substantial boost. This, along with the new special features, makes for a very nice package. And if you’re new to the world of Gurney Slade, the BD should be snapped up straight away ….

The Strange World Of Gurney Slade can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Here’s David Nixon – Network DVD review

David Nixon (1919 – 1978) first came to prominence as a panellist on the UK version of What’s My Line? Loved for his affable and friendly persona, he would go on to establish himself as one of Britain’s top magicians during the sixties and seventies.

Network have previously released David Nixon’s Magic Box, which ran between 1970 and 1971. Featuring star guests and a range of specialty performers, it set the template for others (such as Paul Daniels) to follow.

Here’s David Nixon, which aired in 1963, is somewhat different – although just as interesting. With each edition running for around seven minutes, it has the feeling of a filler programme (the show was broadcast surprisingly late at night as well).  Nixon is confined to a very small and quite bare studio with just a handful of volunteers who, as he tells us on more than one occasion, were simply passing by.

This abbreviated audience means that there’s not a great deal of response to his tricks (although the studio crew do chip in with the occasional burst of laughter and applause). I don’t actually mind this though, as Nixon was equally adept at playing to just a handful of people as he was to a large audience.

Occasionally cheeky but never cruel, Nixon’s skill at handling the volunteers is something to behold. Unlike certain other magicians, he never felt the need to embarrass anyone for a cheap laugh.

Here’s David Nixon is a masterclass of close up magic. There are obviously plenty of card tricks, as well as illusions carried out with everyday objects (handkerchiefs, etc) and a sprinkling of groan-worthy gags. Nixon also indulges in a few party tricks – some of which work and others (attempting to whip a tablecloth off a crockery filled table) aren’t quite so successful ….

The picture quality is very good (the audio crackles a bit on a few shows, but it’s not a major problem). All thirteen episodes survive, which is a pleasant surprise as not all ABC programmes were so lucky.

For the devotee of close up magic, Here’s David Nixon is a must buy. A somewhat forgotten series (his IMDb page doesn’t have a record of it) it’s wonderful that Network have made it available. Highly recommended.

Here’s David Nixon can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Secret Army – Guests at God’s Table (29th November 1978)

A badly wounded airman has been found and hidden by a group of street children. Desperate for food and clothing, they attempt to sell him for a handful of Christmas treats ….

Given that a sense of repetition is unavoidable (oh look, it’s another important airman who has to be returned to Britain as quickly as possible) it’s always good when the series does something a little different.

The Group Captain (played by Mark Taylor) remains mute throughout – only occasionally opening his eyes and managing a smile before slumping back into unconsciousness.  So since the focus isn’t on him (we don’t even learn his name) it can instead be directed towards the four grubby children who’ve found him.

They’re led by Wim (Keith Jayne). Easily the most experienced actor of the four, by this point Jayne had already racked up credits in a number of popular series (Upstairs Downstairs, Survivors, Angels, Rumpole of the Bailey, etc).  Marie-Clare (Rachel Beasley) is his trusted lieutenant, with both taking it in turns to look after the two younger children – Bobo and Gaby (John Nani and Natasha Green).

Throughout the story there are numerous reminders that winter is really biting – with things made especially hard by the reduced rations and lack of fuel (Albert has secured a coal supply, but only because he was willing to pay way over the odds). Even the Germans aren’t immune to these cutbacks, with Kessler doing his best to eke some warmth out of his office fire.

Despite this, Monique and Natalie remain in a festive mood – even more so when the demands of the children reaches them. The items they request – clothing, jelly, a doll, etc – are piffling (in total, about the cost of a bottle of wine). So once the reluctant Albert gives the go-ahead, they begin to assemble the box of goodies with glee (Monique even going so far as to raid the till to give them a little extra cash!).

Throughout these scenes, Albert finds himself in the role of a stern father (with Monique and Natalie as a couple of unruly children) but there’s a sign that his bark is worse than his bite.When no-one is looking, he takes some notes from his wallet and adds it to the cash already pilfered from the till.

All this is quite low-key and touching, and that’s how the first half of the episode plays out (as a nice character piece, bereft of tension). But as we reach the conclusion of the story a sense of danger and anxiety begins to build.

Key scene of the episode, in terms of character development amongst the regulars, occurs between Kessler and Brandt. Kessler is concerned about Brandt’s excessive intake of alcohol, but Brandt is more concerned about the rumours he’s heard regarding German atrocities in the East. That the pair choose to have a row in the middle of the Candide only adds a little extra spice – as does the fact that after Kessler leaves, Monique (with Albert’s blessing) shares a drink with Brandt. Albert’s smug expression makes it plain that there could be a weakness to be exploited here.

Max continues to be a mild topic of conversation, with the others wondering what he gets up to when he’s not with them. The audience has long known about his Communist sympathies, but the other Lifeline members remain ignorant – for now.

Max keeps a watching brief on the children – even after they’ve handed over the airman – much to Albert’s puzzlement. Although when it’s revealed that Max was an orphan himself, things become clearer.  The episode’s conclusion – a snow-covered Max gives the children some money before being forced by the Germans to move on – means that things end on a slightly hopeful note. Although with food and fuel becoming scarcer and scarcer, the situation still looks bleak for them.

Guests at God’s Table is a totally studio-bound story, but a well designed street set helps to give the “outdoor” scenes some depth. It’s another strong script from John Brason, SA‘s most prolific writer.

The Main Chance – A Little Black and White Lie (5th October 1970)

A Brazilian diplomat, Manuel Patino (Clifton Jones), and his wife, Carlo (Valerie Murray), are desperate to adopt a baby. The only problem is that they’re black and their intended adoptee is white ….

This is the second of David Weir’s three Main Chance scripts, so you should once again expect a few slightly jarring scene transitions (although this episode flows better than his previous effort).

The colour problem was a topic tackled in numerous British drama and comedy series during this period (often well-meaning, sometimes controversially). A Little Black and White Lie falls into the well-meaning category, although the first half of the story does display something of a sledgehammer subtlety.

The baby’s natural mother, Eileen Donnell (Margaret Brady), remains pretty passive until the last few minutes of the episode, which means that her mother, Mrs Donnell (Elizabeth Begley), makes all the early running. What can you say about Elizabeth Begley’s performance? Hmm. It’s certainly memorable, although maybe director John Frankau should have asked her to tone it down several notches.

Mrs Donnell is very, very Irish (swigging pints of Guinness like they’re going out of fashion). She launches a tirade of racial abuse against the Patinos which is fairly shocking, although if she’d been less of an Irish caricature this scene might have had even more of an impact.

Convinced that Margaret Castleton has become emotionally involved, Main takes over the case and proceeds in his own fashion (bad-tempered as usual). Indeed, Main’s apoplexy reaches new heights today although thankfully things quieten down for a scene which is easily the highlight of the episode.

Similar to Bernard Kay a few episodes back, it was initially a surprise to see Douglas Wilmer tackling the role of Dr. Lowton. The doctor responsible for arranging the adoption, to begin with it looked like a pretty minor role.

But when they meet, Main is able to dispassionately chip away at Lowton’s seemingly honest façade to reveal an unrepentant racist underneath. Lowton knew trouble would erupt when news filtered out that a black couple intended to take a white baby out of the country (indeed, he did all he could to stoke things up). This scene is far more chilling than Mrs Donnell’s tirade, thanks to Wilmer’s underplaying.

It’s Lowton’s calm denial that he’s done anything wrong which really has an impact (so maybe we had to suffer the rantings of Mrs Donnell first in order to appreciate this contrast).

Apart from Wilmer, there’s another familiar face guesting – Jack May. He has a fairly unexciting part though (a newspaperman called Harry Turner who doesn’t – as expected – look to dish the dirt).

Things are left open ended. Eileen visits Mr and Mrs Patino and – seeing how much they love the child – elects not to contest the adoption. But as Main says, that still only means that there’s an even chance it will be approved.

A Little Black and White Lie is rather heavy-handed in places, but it does generate some food for thought.

Special Branch – Short Change (19th November 1969)

The Troika affair rears its head again after Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant) escapes from an open prison. She’s swiftly recaptured, but it seems that she might end up in Russia anyway ….

The move to colour is initially a little jarring (mainly because it allows us to appreciate for the first time just how gaudy many of DCI Jordan’s shirt and tie combinations are). There’s also a rejigged title sequence, which is notable for the way it features the series’ two leading actors, Derren Nesbitt and Fulton Mackay (previously the images were of unknown miscreants).

We’re don’t see the initial meeting between Inman (Mackay) and Jordan (Nesbitt), but their first scene together sets the tone. Inman is clearly throwing his weight around a little by attempting to tighten certain areas of procedure that he feels have got too lax (Jordan, of course, bridles about this).  No doubt over time they’ll find an amicable way to work together, but this initial friction isn’t unpleasing.

An early hot topic of discussion concerns the hapless DC Morrisey, who stands accused of assaulting a protestor at a demonstration. Jordan (despite indulgently regarding Morrisey as a somewhat hopeless case) stands firmly behind him – he has no evidence either way, but is happy to close ranks as he instinctively knows Morrisey would never give way to violence. But since Inman doesn’t know Morrisey he requires something more than blind faith. Mind you, as Inman later establishes his innocence (by studying the film rushes of the alleged attack) he does seem to have the best interests of his officers at heart.

Sandra Bryant returns as the unsettling Christine Morris. Apparently an innocent pawn caught up in a spy web, her coolness under pressure (not even the prospect of being sent to Holloway prison fazes her) begins to set alarm bells ringing for Inman. After a little digging it’s discovered that the real Christine Morris died in infancy, so the woman masquerading as her looks to be a Russian agent.

A pity this wasn’t discovered the first time around, which is a mark against the recently department Eden ….

The irony is that Moxon had long suspected this and is more than happy for her to be sent back to Russia. Partly because she can be swopped for a British student arrested in Moscow for selling two jumpers from Marks & Spencer, but mainly because it’ll enable a British shoe factory to be built over there.  As Moxon discloses to the Deputy Commander (David Garth) not only will the factory net HMG three million pounds, it’ll also be of benefit to the Russians (who have terrible shoes, according to Moxon).

As so often with the series, justice has to take a second seat to political maneuvering (although it’s best not to assume this particular story has concluded).

At one point the Deputy Commander wonders whether Moxon’s air of infallibility is all just a mask. He, of course, demurs – but the episode leaves a few questions unanswered. For example, since it looks like the Russians went to considerable trouble to arrange the swop, why did they attempt to spirit Christine away from prison in a rather amateurish fashion?

Much more vigorous and active than Eden, Mackay makes an instant impression as Inman. Jennifer Wilson, as DS Webb, appears to have vanished without trace. She had a pretty thankless role, but it’s surprising that she didn’t carry over into the colour era of the series.

As often happened with ITV drama from this period, there’s a mix of OB VT and film used for location work. Christine’s escape from prison is shot on film whilst her departure from the UK is captured on videotape (possibly there were logistical reasons for this – maybe it was easier to move the more lightweight VT cameras around the airport).

Short Change isn’t a story with many shocks (for once we know exactly why Moxon does what he does, and it’s difficult to argue against him) but the episode sets up the new dynamic between Inman and Jordan very effectively.

Secret Army – Little Old Lady (22nd November 1978)

Wing Commander Kelso (Andrew Robertson) is required back in Britain as soon as possible. But it won’t be easy to move him – as he sustained severe facial burns when his plane crashed. There are ways though, but will Kelso agree?

The second series of Secret Army has already suffered from some melodramatic music cues, but there’s several in today’s episode which take the biscuit (especially the one during the opening few minutes). Rather than helping to create tension, their over the top nature somewhat dissipates the mood.

Although Albert briefly escapes from the Candide to meet Kelso, he otherwise remains pretty much rooted to the spot. But Hepton does have some decent scenes today, which makes a nice change (he’s been somewhat underused so far during this second series). Albert’s love for the Candide is displayed after someone drops a bomb into the middle of the dining room (luckily it doesn’t go off). More than helping the airmen to escape, more than his relationship with Monique, you do get the sense that Albert’s first love is the Candide – mainly because of the money it makes him.

Albert’s close fraternisation with the likes of Kessler hasn’t gone unnoticed, hence the bomb. We never discover if it was a dummy or whether it had a faulty fuse. But in story terms that doesn’t really matter as it serves to shake everyone up – especially Madeline, who is feeling isolated during Kessler’s absence.  She latches onto Monique and the pair strike up a hesitant friendship – encouraged by Albert (who can see the benefits) and despised by Max (who has no love for collaborators).

One running theme throughout the episode is Madeline’s fur coat, which she gives to Monique. She decides to wear it when taking Kelso down the line and gifts it to him as a parting present (he later throws it away). Amazingly it’s found by a German soldier and Brandt mentions it to Kessler. Could this be a clue that leads Kessler a step closer to discovering that the Candide is the headquarters of Lifeline? Presumably not, but you never know ….

Andrew Robertson gives a solid performance as Kelso. Despite notching up over fifty flying missions, Kelso eschews the aura of a hero – maintaining that he’s simply been lucky. His abrasive nature means that initially he clashes with Monique, but in a not terribly surprising plot twist they part on much better terms.

Things get a little odd mid way through the episode when Kelso decides, for no good reason, to hop off the train he and Natalie are travelling on. Partly this seems to have been done so that Kelso (a locomotive expert) can pinch another train and go chugging down the track. Commandeering a steam engine is not exactly the thing do to if you’re trying to keep a low profile.

Later safely ensconced with Sophie and Madeline (two old ladies who we’ve met before), Kelso is then introduced to Louis-Victor Condé (David King). An experienced actor, he uses his knowledge to instruct Kelso how to masquerade as a woman (as a female he’ll be able to use heavy make up which will disguise his scars). The scene where Louis-Victor fashions a tablecloth into a baby and proceeds to demonstrate the art of the actor is another of those odd moments. It’s certainly an unusual scene for SA.

Francois pops up again. He continues to be Lifeline’s least interesting member as either he’s fretting that Natalie’s in danger or he’s embracing her heartily once she returns.  Max doesn’t have a great deal to do, but Stephen Yardley’s aura of simmering danger is put to good use – particularly when Albert is carted off by the Gestapo. Albert returns later – shaken, but unharmed – although Max continues to brood.

Angela Richards probably comes off best, script wise. Not only does she share a fascinating two-hander with Hazel McBride which helps to bulk up both their characters, but later there’s a handful of strong scenes between Monique and Kelso (who by now is thawing somewhat).

Little Old Lady lacks many moments of real tension, but David Crane’s script is a good character piece and, apart from a few minor plot niggles, works well.

Upstairs Downstairs – Married Love (4th November 1972)

Relations between Elizabeth and Lawrence are worsening due to his inability to consummate their marriage. Shuddering at the thought of such gross physical activity, he turns to his publisher and mentor – Sir Edwin Partridge (Charles Gray) – who may be able to assist ….

The opening of this episode feels a bit abrupt (the UpDown website confirms that the first few lines are inexplicably missing from all copies currently in circulation). Thomas’ incredulity that bootlaces and newspapers need to be ironed raises a smile (as does his suggestion that he could do the same to the bacon). The truculent cook, Mrs. Fellowes, also helps to create an air of sour comic relief – it’s all to do with her leg you know.

Laughs are thin on the ground when we move upstairs to Elizabeth and Lawrence’s bedroom. His total disinterest in that side of their relationship (as a poet he apparently finds it too ghastly to contemplate) is made plain – which launches Elizabeth into the realms of deepest despair. Matters get no better over the breakfast table and they part – he to visit Sir Edwin – on the worst of terms.

Elizabeth has very few role models to turn to. It would be impossible to speak to her mother about such a delicate subject, so instead she sounds out Rose. This is a gloriously uncomfortable scene – the pure and innocent Rose is just about the last person to advise anyone on sexual matters (all she can do is pass on second hand information about her aunt and uncle’s strained relationship and how all working men are only after one thing).

Given that the first half of the episode is claustrophobic and rather unhappy, it’s a jarring (but not unpleasant) change of pace when the action switches to Thomas and Elizabeth taking a drive. The wily Thomas has persuaded the Kirkbridges that buying a car would be a wise move – he, of course, will be more than happy to act as chauffeur.  Although the OB VT makes things look a little cheap, it still must have been quite an expensive scene to mount as there’s a fair number of extras dotted about the park.

Whilst Elizabeth is getting the colour back in her cheeks, Lawrence is unburdening his soul to Sir Edwin. Charles Gray is on typically mesmerising form throughout – purring like a particularly well-fed cat as Sir Edwin elects (with Lawrence’s blessing) to try and lift Elizabeth’s spirits by any means necessary.

By seducing her? During a party held by Lawrence to celebrate the publication of his new book, Sir Edwin and a rather tiddly Elizabeth do visit her bedroom, but it’s not specified in this episode exactly what they get up to.  Sir Edwin does look satisfied when he later bids Lawrence farewell, but then that seems to be his default setting.

Elizabeth and Sir Edwin’s conversation during the party is fascinating. Although he toys with her, Elizabeth does possess some intellectual tools of her own (even though, as events during previous episodes have proved, she still has a strong streak of naivety).

The champagne flows freely at the party, which is just as well as the sample we have of Lawrence’s poetry (all doom laden stuff) would no doubt sound a little better after a few stiff drinks.

In some ways Married Love serves as a prologue to the drama of the next episode, but John Harrison’s script (the second of his two UpDown efforts) is still a strong vehicle for Elizabeth. Since Harrison’s previous effort was The Path of Duty (Elizabeth’s debut in the series) it’s possibly not surprising he was chosen to move her character on to the next stage.

The Main Chance – First, You Eat – Later We Ruin You (28th September 1970)

Kenneth Manmer (Peter Jeffrey) enters into a lucrative property deal with David Main. Main’s 7.5% holding promises to make him a rich man – although it isn’t long before he starts to wonder exactly where the seemingly affluent Manmer’s money is coming from ….

The first of three Main Chance scripts by David Weir (and not a killer cat in sight) there’s something a little off-kilter about First, You Eat – Later We Ruin You. Partly this may be down to Weir’s unfamiliarity with the series and characters (it’s very jarring to see a happy Main singing arias at the top of his voice whilst cleaning his teeth!) but there’s also some bafflingly quick scene transitions, which are unusual to see.

Most notably this occurs at 14:10 into the episode. We go from a scene with Margaret, then to Sarah, then to Main, then to Sarah again (wearing different clothes, so obviously time has passed) and back to Margaret. It’s a bewildering series of jumps which in total lasts no more than twenty seconds.

Remaining in niggle mode, you have to say that it was very unwise for Main to so readily agree to jump into bed (business wise) with Manmer. The attentive viewer would have expected there to be a sting in the tail (after all, Peter Jeffrey’s stock in trade was playing shifty types). Any time the audience is ahead of Main, it doesn’t make him look good.

It’s a very entertaining guest turn by Jeffrey though, who plays the affluent lord of the manor (chomping cigars and shooting pheasants) very well. And everything is given a little extra spice when we meet Manmer’s rather frightening wife, Meriel (Valerie Sarruf), and begin to learn that his devoted assistant, Doran (Tom Kempinski), is possibly the one pulling the strings.

Main makes a totally pointless trip to Switzerland in order to question Manmer’s banker. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Swiss bankers don’t divulge any secrets, but it was nice to see Vladek Sheybal.

Even though Peter Jeffrey has the most screen time of any of the guest stars, my favourite performance came from Bernard Hepton as Bridges (the man from the Inland Revenue). Hepton always seemed incapable of giving a poor performance and he’s very much on song today. Bridges is a softly-spoken, seemingly innocuous sort of man, but it’s plain that he possesses considerable tenacity. This character type was very much Hepton’s stock in trade.

Oddest performance comes courtesy of David Hutchenson as the crusty old banker, Sir George More-Litton. Hutchenson struggles with his lines at times, particularly in a key scene towards the end of the episode.

Everything is wrapped up a little too neatly. Just before the second ad break a jubilant Manmer tells Main that he can’t walk away from the deal (Manmer’s been paying funds into a Swiss bank account in Main’s name just to make him look even more guilty). But over the remaining twenty minutes Main is calmly able to extract himself whilst Manmer is never seen again (the inference is that he’s been chopped up into tiny pieces by his Mafia associates).

Although there’s not a lot of time for pleasure in this episode, Main does hook up with Edie Semple (Georgina Ward), a fellow divorcee who seems to have always carried a torch for him. She appears in the next episode (also written by Wier) although I found Edie to be a little distracting today, mainly due to her wig.

First, You Eat – Later We Ruin You is a decent watch, thanks to Jeffrey and Hepton. It’s just a shame that Main comes over as a little foolish.

Special Branch – Reliable Sources (12th November 1969)

The ninth episode of series one, Reliable Sources is something of a milestone episode as we bid farewell to Det. Supt. Eden. There’s been a serial element running through a number of these episodes, which continues here (and in the episode to follow). Eden – after an intense grilling from the security commission – is told that he’s been cleared of any wrongdoing in respect of his handling of the Troika debacle (as have his fellow Special Branch officers). But any jubilation proves to be short-lived ….

If Reliable Sources shows us anything, then it’s how the bluff, honest Eden is no match for the devious Moxon. Right from the start, when Moxon warns Eden not to poke around in matters which don’t concern him, it’s plain that Eden will come off second best.

A Russian spy called Alexandrov (heavily involved in the Troika affair) has defected to the West. This means little to Eden, who still has a warrant for his arrest and is keen to enforce it, but Moxon firmly warns him off. When the news of Alexandrov’s defection is leaked to the papers, Eden becomes a prime suspect – especially since he’s recently lunched with Clive Bradbury (Tony Britton), an experienced Fleet Street hack who specialises in security stories.

What’s interesting is that Moxon admits to bugging Bradbury’s phone, so the true culprit of the leak would already have been known to him (although he later shrugs this off). Why then did he make Eden feel so uncomfortable? Possibly Moxon, the arch manipulator, simply can’t help himself.

The twist in the tail – the man responsible for leaking the story meets with Moxon – shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But both Eden and Jordan jump to the wrong conclusion (Moxon is corrupt) rather than the right one (Moxon is laying a false trail to confuse the Russians).

Morris Perry is on top form today and it’s nice to see both Tony Britton and David Collings guest-starring. Collings plays Bradbury’s editor, who’s just as keen as he is for a scoop on the Alexandrov affair. Although the story that’s leaked to them via Moxon’s proxy (Alexandrov’s precise whereabouts) doesn’t sound that exciting.

The fact that Eden’s been totally outplayed from beginning to end is highlighted by the way he’s unceremoniously shunted out of Special Branch and into an important-sounding (but no doubt meaningless) job for the next twelve months until his retirement is due. It’s easy to imagine Moxon’s hand in this, although given how easy Eden has been to manipulate, maybe not – after all, the next man in the hot seat might pose more of a challenge.

There’s been whispers throughout the episode that Jordan is in line for the job. He certainly seemed to think so, as when the Deputy Commander breaks the news that Det. Supt. Inman will be taking over, Jordan’s face visibly falls.

The next episode is clearly a key one as George Markstein returns to write it. Plus there’s the fact that the series moves into colour, which – together with the arrival of Fulton Mackay as Inman – helps to give these later S1 episodes the feel of a new series launch.

Secret Army – The Big One (15th November 1978)

The RAF mount a massive raid over Berlin – the big one. But things go awry after bombs are dropped short, destroying a residential suburb on the outskirts of the city. Amongst the dead are Brandt’s wife and son ….

The Big One is an episode that could easily have centered totally around the Germans as Lifeline’s contribution is pretty negligible.  Opening with the bombing raid (stock footage mixed in with newly shot material and somewhat melodramatic music cues) we then cross to the Candide, where Brandt is dining with Oberst Neidlinger (Mark Jones).  Neidlinger is the latest oficer attempting to draw Brandt into the conspiracy to kill Hitler, but Brandt still refuses to commit himself.

The conflict between the aristocratic military (as represented by Neidlinger) and the thuggish Gestapo (as represented by Kessler) is given another airing today. Kessler, dining with Madeline, repeats his views on the subject (he’s still fuming about the way the Gestapo is treated with arrogant comtempt by the military elite). The cliché of the good German hovers in the background of this episode, but by the end the lines between Kessler and Brandt have been somewhat blurred.

Brandt travels to Berlin in order to arrange the transfer of his family to a safer location – ironically on the same day that the bombs hit. There’s some more stock footage patched in, along with a small rubble strewn set which is the only bit of desolated Berlin we see. Brandt’s collapse (after he learns of his loss) is nicely underplayed by Michael Culver.

The relationship between Kessler and Madeline inches forward (he gives her a chaste kiss).

I like the way we switch from Lifeline (listening to the BBC radio broadcast stating that 22 RAF aircraft failed to return) to Kessler and Madeline (German wireless reported 45 aircraft shot down). Both Max and Albert have a suspicion that the German figures are more likely to be correct.

Lifeline pick up one airman, Flight Sgt. Bert Lewis (Daniel Hill), but they don’t hold onto him for very long. Frankly it’s not surprising as their interrogation of him is brutal and hectoring. Plot-wise the reason for this is obvious – Lewis, believing they were German spies, later makes a run for it – but given the experience Lifeline have, it’s hard to believe that Monique and Alain would be quite so clumsy.

And this is Lifeline’s major contribution to the story. Whilst a little tension is generated (will Lewis betray any of Lifeline’s secrets?) this falls flat as Lewis doesn’t really know anything about them. So this part of the plot would have played out just the same had Lewis spent a couple of days wandering around the countryside before getting picked up by a German patrol.

Brandt returns to Brussels and is treated to a meal by Kessler. This is a fascinating scene, not least for the way that Brandt behaves (in a very jolly and hyperactive manner). Seemingly shrugging off the death of his wife and son as matters of no consequence, he then playfully begins to mock Kessler’s liaison with Madeline. The reason for doing so is obvious – it’s Brandt’s way of telling Kessler that whilst others may gossip about his totally innocent relationship, he doesn’t (and hopes in turn that Kessler doesn’t read anything into the meetings he’s had with known anti-Hitler officers).

Given that Brandt earlier confessed to being somewhat wary of Kessler, it’s strange that he decided to be quite so blunt. But maybe it’s a sign that he’s not thinking clearly.

Matters come to a head for him during his interrogation (or debriefing, as he calls it) of Lewis. It begins amicably enough, in his trademark friendly style (something which Kessler has long derided). But a still grieving Brandt eventually loses control and takes out his frustration on Lewis. The few minutes leading up to his sudden outburst of violence are mesmerising – it’s framed as a tight two-shot of Brandt and Lewis, which slowly closes in on Brandt as his anger increases.

The Big One is Michael Culver’s episode and he doesn’t disappoint.

Light Entertainment Rarities – Network DVD Review

Sammy Davis Jr Meets The British (11th June 1960)

This special, directed by Brian Tesler, neatly falls into three separate sections. In the first, a solo Sammy entertains with a selection of songs, some affable chat to the audience and an impersonation of Adam Faith thrown in for good measure. All this takes place against a fairly basic set, so it’s clear that the budget wasn’t spent on this section.

A little more spending is evident in part two which begins with an OB shoot at a deserted Battersea funfair. Sammy leads a group of cute children around the fair, all the time indulging in plenty of song and dance action. Thanks to the presence of the kids there’s a strong sense of schmaltz about this part of the show, but it’s tightly choregraphed and it’s also nice to get a look at the long vanished fair.

We then return to the studio to see Sammy – desperate to become an English gentleman – receiving some instruction from Lionel Blair. Their initial crosstalk might drag a little, but it’s worth wading through as the pay-off (the pair attempt to out tap each other) is great fun. They seem to genuinely spark off each other, with Sammy spontaneously bringing him back in part three to take another bow.

The final third of the special has a nightclub ambiance. A dinner suited Sammy performs behind an orchestra with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sat at tables nearby.  Had the whole show been like this then I wouldn’t have objected – as it is, these remaining fifteen minutes gives him a chance to demonstrate his versatility one final time (singing, playing the drums and attempting various impersonations – of which Louis Armstrong is the most impressive).

Steamboat Shuffle (1960)

I was expecting this to take place on a Steamboat set in the studio, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the twenty five minutes of trad jazz action occurs on a real boat – the Cottontail – moored on the riverside at Teddington. It was built especially for this short series (of which the edition on this disc is the sole survivor).

Introduced by the affable Peter Elliott, Steamboat Shuffle is interesting for several reasons – not least for the way director Ben Churchill managed to make the OB recording flows nicely (giving it the feel of a live production). Logistically it must have been something of a nightmare, with the cameras for certain performances placed on the dockside (meaning that the cameramen had to nip past the jiving hip young things) but there were very few muffled shot choices.

The musical turns come thick and fast, with the performances from a young Kenny Lynch especially catching the eye. It’s an enjoyable way to spend twenty five minutes, and it leaves me a little saddened that this episode is the only one still left in existence.

Big Night Out – The Peggy Lee Show (26th August 1961)

This edition of Big Night Out has a similar feel to the Sammy Davis Jr special, although Peggy Lee wasn’t quite the same all-rounder – her brief chat to the audience has a faint air of awkwardness (as does a skit she appears in, featuring David Kossoff as a taxi driver). But luckily this show plays to her strengths, so it mainly comprises of a series of excellent musical performances (Fever is an obvious highlight).

The third part of the show sees Peggy joined by three friends – Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and Bing Crosby. This is something rather special as the affable Cahn enjoys some nice musical byplay with Peggy (Van Heusen remains silent, content just to play the piano). Bing Crosby wanders on towards the end to perform a couple of songs, although given the Cahn/Van Heusen catalogue (both together and separately) this part of the show can only scratch the surface of their musical output.

Celebration (9th April 1966)

The final programme on the disc, Celebration with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, is a little heavier than the three other other light entertainment offerings, but it’s still a fascinating watch. Recorded at Coventry Cathedral, Celebration was only rediscovered in 2018. Including the European premiere of his ‘Concert of Sacred Music’, the performance was one that was close to Ellington’s heart (he later referred to it as “one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. And the most important.”)

Light Entertainment Rarities is an excellent release, scooping up a selection of one-offs or orphaned episodes from otherwise wiped series which would be too short by themselves to merit a stand-alone release. Fingers crossed that a volume two follows in due course, but for now this DVD is well worth checking out.

Light Entertainment Rarities was released by Network on the 9th of November 2020 (1 disc, running for 177 minutes). It can be ordered directly from Network here.

The Bruce Forsyth Show – Network DVD Review

Sandwiched inbetween Bruce Forsyth’s initial breakthrough as one of the hosts of Sunday Night at the London Palladium during the late fifties and his rebirth as a fully-fledged game-show host on The Generation Game in the early seventies, The Bruce Forsyth Show is a fascinating programme (Brucie’s missing link, you might say).

Most thumbnail biographies tend to skip over this period, contending that it took The Generation Game to restore Bruce to full television glory. And yet The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t skimp on star names – Frankie Howerd, Cilla Black, Dudley Moore, Tommy Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Diana Dors, Kathy Kirby, Julie Rogers, Harry Secombe, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones were amongst the performers appearing.

No doubt its low profile is due to the fact that it’s been pretty much unavailable since its original broadcast, so a tip of the hat to Network for bringing it back into circulation.

The debut show was broadcast on Christmas Day 1965. There’s a distinct lack of festive trimmings though – which raises the possibility that the show may have been put out on the 25th of December as something of an afterthought. Cilia Black is the show’s big guest – sharing some slightly uncomfortable crosstalk with Bruce (although it’s still good natured) and belting out a couple of songs.

Unsurprisingly, Brucie’s skills as a song and dance man are put to good use (as they are throughout the series) and he also takes part in a number of sketches. These try the patience a little more – although the skit with Miriam Karlin (she plays a hoity toity dog breeder) does have a few bright moments. They mainly occur when Bruce wanders off script (he tended to be more comfortable when he could riff with the material).

Laughs are fairly thin on the ground later on when Bruce and Francis Matthews play a couple of drunk golfers, returning home. This was a sketch that probably would have been twice as funny if it had been half as long. The final third of the show picks up though – with an orchestra skit (featuring Bruce as the conductor) – so overall this debut show was a pretty strong effort.

After this one-off, the series proper debuted on the 14th of August 1966. Sid Green and Dick Hills returned as the writers, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ronnie Corbett, Lionel Blair and Tom Jones appearing. Tom throws himself into things with gusto – appearing in a frenetic sketch where he’s pushed and pulled from pillar to post. The BBC era of The Morecambe & Wise Show has gained the reputation of being the show which allowed the stars to do things outside of their comfort zone, but it’s easy to see that Brucie was doing something similar years earlier.

Sid and Dick will always be best remembered for their 1960’s work with Morecambe & Wise (mostly also at ATV). They fashion similar material for Bruce here – even to the extent of appearing in a sketch themselves (which they regularly did with Eric & Ernie).

Like many series of this era, The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t exist in its entirety, but its survival rate is pretty good (especially when compared to other variety series such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium). Series one is virtually complete, only about ten minutes from the 4/9/66 edition (Frankie Howerd and Julie Rogers guest-starring) are missing.  As for series two, three of the six shows still remain – they feature the likes of Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid and Engelbert Humperdinck.

There’s also a brief clip from an otherwise wiped 1967 Christmas show with Bruce and Frankie Howerd. Recorded on one of the earliest domestic video recorders, the quality of this brief excerpt is pretty poor but nevertheless it’s nice to have it (to have it, nice).

If the sketch material across the series tends to be fairly routine, then the calibre of the guests (Dudley Moore and Tommy Cooper teamed up, for example) helps to keep the energy levels raised. Like all variety shows, The Bruce Forsyth Show is something of a mixed bag, but thanks to Bruce’s exuberance and playful interactions with the guests it’s almost always watchable and comes warmly recommended.

It’s nice to see some more 1960’s LE on DVD, hopefully Network will continue to dig through the archives as I’m sure there’s plenty more waiting to be unearthed.

The Bruce Forsyth Show (3 discs, 503 minutes) is released by Network on the 9th of November 2020. It can be ordered directly here.

Public Eye – A Mug Named Frank (7th July 1971)

A Mug Named Frank, the first episode of series five, in some ways feels like an addendum to series four. There’s the Brighton setting, the black and white visuals (albeit only due to the colour strike) and the reassuring presence of Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). And yet …

Series four of Public Eye was very much an authored piece. Roger Marshall wrote all seven episodes, which helped to give them a serial-like feel, but for the remainder of PE’s run his input would be drastically reduced. Producer Michael Chapman penned this installment, which concerns itself with uprooting Frank from Brighton and settling him down in Windsor.

Marshall would later cast a slightly withering eye over the direction of the Windsor series, labelling it as rather cosy (this interview is a fascinating read). Although it’s worth noting that it was Marshall who created Mrs Mortimer and established a “will they, won’t they” vibe between her and Frank.

How Marshall would have developed their relationship is unknown but it seems unlikely he would have gone in the direction of Chapman’s story – which not only abruptly wrenches them apart, but also rather off-handedly negates most of Frank’s Brighton experience. And this is why I find this episode a rather curious watch – rather like The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin’s departure, A Mug Named Frank feels inauthentic (Chapman attempting, but not really succeeding, to mimic Marshall’s voice).

The main plot is quite simple. Frank befriends an old lady, Mrs. Stuart (Nora Nicholson), who he spots in the supermarket popping a tin into her shopping bag, presumably with the intention of stealing it. He manages to diffuse the situation, but this plot-thread isn’t really developed. Was it an absent-minded slip, a cry for help or a theft borne out of necessity? We never find out, so it appears to have been little more than a clumsy way of bringing Frank and her together.

She lives in a rather threadbare couple of rooms with only one object of value – a silver box – which was given to her by her son, Gerald (Barry Foster), shortly after the war. He’s a clearly something of a shifty type (I think it’s the moustache) and is keen to “borrow” the box in order to raise some money for his failing business.

Frank knows him of old – they were fellow jailbirds for a brief while – and their clash towards the end of the episode is a definite highlight. As is André Morell’s cameo as Gerald’s rich uncle, who mockingly declines to bail him out. The scene adds little to the story overall, but I’ll never turn down a few minutes of Morell.

Travelling to Windsor in search of the silver box, Frank meets Inspector Percy Firbank (Ray Smith) and Nell Holdsworth (Brenda Cavendish), two characters who will loom large in the episodes to come. Although I take Marshall’s “cosy” point, the series quickly establishes itself in Windsor – shaking off the last vestiges of the Brighton era with a crop of strong scripts from a pool of first-rate writers.

Upstairs Downstairs – A Pair of Exiles (28th October 1972)

UpDown was rarely the sort of series to indulge itself with showy directorial flourishes, but the opening shot of this episode – we see a worried Lady Marjorie through a rain-soaked window – is quite nice.

She’s concerned about a bill that’s been forwarded onto her from a jewellers – James has run up quite a debt with them. Lady Marjorie – always keen to think the best of her son – worries that he’s fallen into bad company, gambling with his brother officers (who can easily afford to shrug off substantial losses as matters of no consequence).

But Richard points out that these aren’t gambling debts – jewels suggest a young woman. Richard goes on to surmise that he’s fallen into the clutches of an unprincipled female who intends to take him for every penny that he’s got.

Just to hammer this point home, the action then cuts to Sarah (wearing a hat that certainly catches the eye). She fits the bill of a gold-digger, but it’s interesting how the episode is quick to turn this idea on its head. James has got large gambling debts and he obtained the jewels in order to pawn them (thereby raising a little money). Sarah is doing her best to help him, but it’s plain that he’s in a desperate situation.

James’ commanding officer, Colonel Winter (Moray Watson), pays a visit to 165 Eaton Place. Watson could play this sort of role in his sleep, but he’s still very watchable – Winter makes polite smalltalk with Lady Marjorie and Richard for a few minutes before breaking the bad news. James is drinking far too much and running up debts at a rate of knots.

That would be enough to generate a decent episode’s worth of drama by itself, but everything then moves up several notches after Sarah tells James that she’s pregnant (“there’s a little captain on the way” as she puts it). Thankfully, this bombshell means that Sarah stops acting in a manic manner (when Pauline Collins is in full flight it’s a little difficult to take).

Rose has arrived to take tea in the servants hall and has a letter waiting for her from Sarah. Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges are incensed that she has the nerve to write (following the scene she made at Miss Elizabeth’s wedding) but the younger servants, like Edward, are much more indulgent.

Rose later visits Sarah and she shares her news. After a moment of shock, Rose decides that James has to do the right thing by her. Despite Rose’s obvious affection for Mr James, all of her sympathy lies with Sarah (who begins to wail in a rather over the top manner).

James meets with his parents and comes clean. As you might expect, Lady Marjorie doesn’t react kindly to the news that James has fathered a child with their former parlour maid. She’s too far well bred to make a scene though – instead her features simply set into immobility.

Mrs Bridges isn’t surprised to learn about James’ gambling debts. She mutters darkly about James’ Uncle Bertie, which helps to fill in another chink of the Southwold family tree (they seem to be mainly comprised of dissolute spendthrifts, at least according to her occasional reminiscences).

The arrival of Sarah sets the servants’ tongues a wagging – especially when she’s invited upstairs. If there’s a problem to be fixed, then Sir Geoffrey Dillon (Raymond Huntley) is your man. He’s got it all worked out – Sarah moves down to Southwold and eventually – after the child is born – will be found a suitable job, in the laundry maybe.  Sarah doesn’t react very well to this ….

James comes over as rather spineless in this scene. Whilst Sir Geoffrey intones, James says very little – unable to meet Sarah’s eye or respond to her pleas. Eventually he does speak a few words to her (“I’ll write to you”). This comment is greeted with a faint smile and a nod of the head. For all that Pauline Collins can go over the top at the drop of a hat, this is a subtle moment.

James is banished to India – which writes out Simon Williams until the final episode of series two.  That’s a shame, but by the time he finally returns he does become more of a central character.

The final line of the episode (Sarah’s “Rose, I’m frightened”) manages to strip away all of Sarah’s brittle bravado to reveal a more vulnerable woman underneath. Mind you, I’ve a feeling that she’ll bounce back ….

The Main Chance – It Could Happen To You (21st September 1970)

David Main continues to seethe over the fact that Patrick Bell (Bernard Kay) is now responsible for the upkeep and moral guidance of his children. He remains intensely keen to win back custody …

We’ve seen Main angry before, but at the start of this episode he reaches levels of hysteria which are quite new. The reasons why are obvious – but it takes Henry Castleton some time before he can talk Main down and remind him that emotion won’t help to win the day. But the law very well might.

What’s really interesting about this episode is what we don’t see. With Kate O’Mara no longer a member of the cast, Julia’s increasing desperation at the prospect of losing her children has to be discussed through third parties. It’s surprising that O’Mara didn’t return for these first few episodes, as the tug of war custody battle would have given her a hatful of dramatic scenes (something sorely lacking for her character during the first series).

After Main wins custody, his uneasy fumbling relationship with his children (who, due to the pressures of his work, are like strangers to him) is reported second hand rather than shown. It seems strange to skip such an obviously dramatic scene, but this plotline hasn’t been about Main and his children (who remain shadowy indistinct figures, only briefly glimpsed on film). It’s much more concerned about the clash between Main and Bell.

Bell crumbles in the witness box once some of his darker secrets (a fondness for using the cane) have been unearthed. Sidney Bulmer proved his worth by digging up the dirt, although if the positions had been reversed and Bell had been Main’s client, no doubt the tone would have been somewhat different.

Two scenes late on in the episode are both standouts. The first – Main talks to his ex-wife on the phone – required a lot from John Stride. His monologue is convincing enough to suggest he was actually speaking to someone.  The way the camera slowly closes in on his face helps to ratchet up the tension.

Main had earlier confided to Bell that Julia, deprived of the children, would be in a mental institution within six months. Given this harsh statement it’s fairly easy to guess how the story will be resolved – Main retains custody but allows the children to go back to Julia and Bell, provided they accept Main’s choice of schools and Bell moves to a slightly better neighbourhood. Once again, Stride and Kay both command the screen. Bell’s initial reluctance to betray his principles is bitterly mocked by Main (who processes to be sickened by the inflexibility of his rival).

The episode’s secondary plot – an antiques dealer called Mrs. Clifford (Diana Coupland) is seeking financial restitution from two young thugs who blinded her – ticks along nicely as well.

It Could Happen to You might be a little predictable in places, but the drama still plays out effectively – especially in the last few minutes when Main fights a two-pronged battle. Not only seeing off Bell but also tackling the smooth defender – Mark Freedler (John Barcroft) – who dared to deprive Mrs Clifford of her money.