The Champions – The Mission


Winthrop House Mission, located in deepest Surrey, seems to be just a refuge for vagrants and others down on their luck. Run by Dr Peterson (Anthony Bate), it’s actually the cover for a well oiled organisation – giving criminals a new life via the wonders of plastic surgery. Craig and Sharron masquerade as a couple of crooks requiring new faces but soon Craig learns that Peterson has a horrifying Nazi past …

The pre-credits sequence features nice turns from Harry Towb and Dermot Kelly as a couple of tramps seeking succour at the Misssion. Towb doesn’t last long though as he hits the dust before the credits roll (after poking around in a room where he shouldn’t have gone). His murderers are suitably off-putting – both bandaged up like Invisible Men – which serves as an intriguing teaser.

The three Champions are involved in the post credits superpowers demonstration. All recycled footage alas – Sharron fending off a couple of lecherous hitch-hikers, Richard going athletic in The Dark Island and Craig chasing a runaway van.

Craig – with the aid of a moustache and some faked newspaper reports – poses as an American gangster with Sharron as his suitably attractive bit of stuff. There’s a rare comic moment for Alexandra Bastedo during the scene where Craig speaks to a gaggle of reporters at the airport – as Craig pours out his story, Sharron is preening like a glamour model in the background!

This episode gives all three regulars a chance to ramp up the comedy. Bastedo is great fun as a glamourous gum-chewing moll, Damon slips into gangster mode very easily whilst Gaunt later amuses himself as a tramp (pairing up with Dermot Kelly). Richard’s inadvertent shower soaking also amuses.

I like the way the tone of the episode suddenly darkens after Craig recognises Peterson as a top ranking Nazi from the Dachau concentration camp. It’s a slight shame that this revelation comes to Craig via his superpowers though (possibly he’s memorised the pictures of every Nazi war criminal in the world on the off-chance he might run into them).

It just feels a little too contrived though, maybe discovering Peterson’s past through research would have been the better option. But if you begin to pick holes in the plot then you’d never end – the Champions stumble across Peterson’s operation with embarrassing ease, it’s difficult to believe that watertight gangster covers for Craig and Sharron could be set up so quickly, etc, etc.

Craig’s anger at Peterson’s past dissipates very quickly (his initial response is to forget the mission and simply act as executioner). A little more angst and conflict between Craig and Sharron about whether Peterson should live or die would have ramped up the drama of the episode quite nicely, but since the revelation is glossed over so quickly you wonder why it was raised at all.

Richard poses as a tramp and befriends Hogan (Kelly). Kelly’s excellent comic value even though his part is fairly small. Oh, and it’s remarkable that Richard stumbled across a vagrant who was able to take him back to Winthrop House.

On the plus side, we learn a little about the Champions’ biological makeup. Craig, Sharron and Richard all now share the same rare bloodgroup – which is presented as a major revelation.

Anthony Bate never gave a bad performance and is suitably icy and detached as Peterson. As touched upon before, many Champions villains tend to be fairly two-dimensional, but Bate is able to add a touch of light and shade to what could otherwise have been a rather cliche character.

The tag scene is rather silly – the Champions bring Tremayne back a present (a bottle of Hogan’s incredibly powerful hooch). By the way they all nip off pretty smartish you know exactly what’s going to happen (he’s going to try a sip and spit it out with an expression of disgust). And that’s exactly what happens. Poor Tremayne, his underlings really have no respect for him.

Another very competent script from Donald James, The Mission is worth a score of three and a half out of five.


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

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

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

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

Frank Finlay

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

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

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

Michele Dotrice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivanhoe – Simply Media DVD Review

The year is 1194.  Sir William of Ivanhoe (Eric Flynn) has returned home to England following the disastrous Third Crusade in Palestine.  Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric (Peter Dyneley), one of the few remaining Saxon nobles in an England now dominated by the Normans, has broken off relations with his son due to Ivanhoe’s support for King Richard.

The young Ivanhoe doesn’t seem too disheartened by this familial disapproval though, as he has scores to settle – most notably with Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert (Anthony Bate), a member of the Knights Templar.  They will not only clash on the tournament field but also off it and two desirable young women – the Lady Rowena (Clare Jenkins) and Rebecca (Vivian Brooks) – will both have parts to play in their bitter feud.

Meanwhile, King Richard and Prince John find themselves locked in a grim battle for control of the English throne ….

Published in 1820 across three volumes, Ivanhoe – A Romance has proven to be one of Sir Walter Scott’s most enduring works.  Its mixture of Medieval derring-do and romance is an intoxicating one, with numerous film and television adaptations serving as a testament to the timelessness of the story.

Possibly one of the most notable things about Ivanhoe is how Scott’s novel helped to solidify the modern myth of Robin Hood.  Robin (referred to as Locksley for most of the serial) appears throughout and his characterisation here – a freedom fighter first, an outlaw second – chimes with how we view Robin today (the Robin Hood of the earlier ballads was a much less likeable and noble chap).

Scott wasn’t the first writer to set the struggles of Robin Hood during the reign of Richard I, but this story undeniably helped to create the template which many in the future would emulate.  Certain aspects of the Robin Hood myth are established here – most notably the way that Robin splits the arrow of his challenger during a test of skill.  It’s also interesting how subsequent writers took aspects of Ivanhoe’s character – his return to England from the Crusades, for example – and grafted them onto Robin.

The opening episode wastes no time in creating a sense of place and time. With the rightful King of England, Richard, believed to be languishing in a foreign jail, his brother John sees an opportunity to sieze power. The downtrodden Saxons find themselves suffering under the rule of the Normans, whilst Sir Brian casts a baleful shadow over proceedings.

Anthony Bate

Right from his first appearance, Anthony Bate impresses as Sir Brian. Although Bate tended to play establishment types and professional men, he throws himself into this role – a black-hearted villain, albeit one with his own code of honour – with gusto.  Eric Flynn, as Ivanhoe, is perfectly cast as the square-jawed hero. Whilst it’s true that Bate, as befits a baddy, has the more interesting role to play, Flynn has a boyish charm which suits the character.

Ivanhoe’s first acknowledged appearance is held back until the end of the opening instalment (although it’s rather obvious that the mysterious hooded pilgrim who makes several enigmatic comments throughout the episode is Ivanhoe). That he and Sir Brian (bitter rivals from the Holy Land) happen to run into each other at the castle of Ivanhoe’s estranged father is something of a coincidence ….

Clare Jenkins, as Rowena, makes for a very appealing herione (coincidentally she and Flynn had appeared together a few years earlier in the Doctor Who story The Wheel In Space). Rowena and Ivanhoe are in love but he has a challenger for Rowena’s affections, the arrogant de Bracy (David Brizley), a Norman lord.

Rebecca (Vivian Brooks), daughter of the despised Jewish moneylender Isaac of York (John Franklyn-Robbins), is somewhat taken with Ivanhoe (she nurses him back to health after Sir Brian gains the upper hand during Prince John’s tourney) but she’s doomed to be unsuccessful as Ivanhoe only has eyes for Rowena.  Sir Brian later attempts to woo Rebecca, but she shuns his advances.

Ivanhoe was Vivian Brooks’ third and final television job (following appearances in Thirty Minute Theatre and Z Cars).  It’s a slight mystery why she didn’t go on to have a longer career as she’s really rather good here, especially when she and Bate cross verbal swords. Brooks may have been very inexperienced compared to Bate, but she more than holds her own during the scenes where Sir Brian and Rebecca warily circle each other.  Vivian Brooks certainly has the meatier of the two main female roles (Clare Jenkins’ Rowena doesn’t have a great deal to do except pine for Ivanhoe).

Vivian Brooks

Although Vivian Brooks only racked up a handful of credits, most of the other main roles were filled by very familiar faces.  That Ivanhoe was directed by David Maloney should be fairly obvious by taking a quick glance at the cast list.  The likes of Graham Weston, John Franklyn-Robbins, Tim Preece, Michael Napier Brown, Bernard Horsfall, Noel Coleman and Hugh Walters had already appeared or would later appear in other productions directed by Maloney.  David Maloney, like many other directors, tended to use a “rep” of actors – dependable people he knew would deliver the performances required.

The strength in depth of the cast is one of the reasons why this serial works as well as it does.  Tim Preece entertains as the capacious and vain Prince John, Hugh Walters is pleasingly off-kilter as Cedric’s fool Wamba, Bernard Horsfall is suitably imposing as the Black Knight, John Franklyn-Robbins impresses as the persecuted Isaac and Noel Coleman is characterically strong as Fitzsurse, one of John’s advisors.  Clive Graham, as Locksley, also offers a vivid performance and it’s always a pleasure to see Michael Craze, here as one of Lockley’s men (Thomas).

Graham Weston, clearly one of David Maloney’s favourite actors (apart from Ivanhoe, Maloney cast him in two Doctor Who stories – The War Games and Planet of Evil), gets a chance to display his skills with a quarterstaff when his character – Ivanhoe’s loyal servant, Gurth – tangles with the outlaws. It’s not a badly directed sequence, although like all fight scenes taped in the studio it pretty much had to be done in a single take (had it been shot on film then it could have been edited much more tightly).

Graham Weston

With Ivanhoe injured and insensible during the middle part of the serial, other characters move to the forefront of the action. Bernard Horsfall’s mysterious Black Knight (a vision in blond wig and beard) has an entertaining tustle with Barry Linehan’s disolute Friar. The Friar, living the life of a hermit deep within the forest, may claim to exist on a diet of peas and water but the truth is rather different!

When Ivanhoe, Cedric, Isaac, Rebecca and Rowena are captured by a group of Norman knights led by Sir Brian, they find themselves the prisoners of Godfrey Front de Boeuf (Francis de Wolff). Godfrey has usurped Ivanhoe’s lands and now seeks his death in order to secure his position. de Wolff cackles with evil intent (like Peter Dyneley he’s somewhat of a stranger to subtlety).

Rebecca is later denounced as a witch by the leader of the Templars – angered by Sir Brian’s infatuation with her – and is sentenced to death. She claims the right of trial by combat and nominates Ivanhoe to be her champion. And with Sir Brian in the opposite corner it seems that the final reckoning between them is now at hand ….

Although the Classic Serials had just moved into colour, this ten part adaptation (broadcast during January, February and March 1970) maintained the same production model from the black and white days.  Therefore the bulk of each episode was recorded on videotape in the studio, with film inserts used to open out the narrative.  Whilst this means that it isn’t as glossy or filmic as some of the later television versions, the quality of the performances are more than adequate compensation for the occasional production shortcomings (such as the unconvincing beards and the way some battles largely take place off screen).

Although some of the turns are rather on the ripe side (there are times when it’s impossible not to be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) there are subtler pleasures to be found elsewhere – Anthony Bate, for example, is excellent throughout. Overall, this is a strong and faithful adaptation of a sprawling epic and certainly deserves a place in your collection.

Ivanhoe is released by Simply Media on the 18th of September 2017.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Eric Flynn

Bodyguards – Stand Off

stand 01.jpg

Maurice Boyd (Michael Williams), an ex-MI6 agent turned Russian defector, returns secretly to the UK to attend the funeral of his granddaughter.  The Close Protection Unit are assigned to project him and have put a strict secrecy blanket in operation – since many people (including MI6) would be far from happy if it was known that Boyd was back in the country ….

Stand Off benefits enormously from the presence of Michael Williams.   Maurice Boyd is something of a Kim Philby-like character and the audience’s knowledge of real-life defectors no doubt helps to fill in some of the blanks.  There’s something of a personal edge to the story, as MacIntyre and Boyd had been close colleagues.  Prior to his arrival, MacIntyre displays an understandable coolness towards his former friend (responsible for the deaths of many fellow agents) but we see something of a rapprochement as the story progresses.

Boyd later tells him that “I don’t regret what I did, I never will. But there are some things in my life that I do regret. And one of them is the rift between us.”  Since Boyd is an arch dissembler it’s left unclear whether this is the truth or yet another lie.  Throughout the story Boyd is presented as an affable, friendly sort – which means that reconciling his current behaviour with his previous actions is difficult, but that’s true of many real-life traitors.

Anthony Bate, an actor not unfamiliar with spy dramas, has the small but pivotal role of Sir Thomas Glennie.  It’s always a pleasure to see Bate, even in such a brief cameo, although it’s a little surprising that he didn’t return at the conclusion of the story.  But then as we’ve seen previously in Bodyguards, the focus of the series is the protection of their subjects rather than the solving of mysteries.

Stand Off poses the question as to who wants Boyd dead and there’s a credible answer provided – a high-up government official who, like Boyd, is a Russian agent, although he, unlike Boyd, has remained undetected.  With Boyd working on a book that (ala Peter Wright’s Spycatcher) plans to name names, this agent is keen to silence Boyd and so arranges for his granddaughter to be killed in order to lure him to the UK.

This part of the plot doesn’t quite hold water – if Boyd was preparing to betray his Russian masters by revealing the identity of a mole inside the British establishment, why haven’t the Russians taken steps to silence Boyd and his co-writer?  It would have made more sense for the Russians to deal with Boyd in their own country rather than for the mole to spirit Boyd over to Britain.

A minor quibble, since – as previously touched upon – the mystery part of the story plays second fiddle to the job of keeping the target alive.  Williams and Shrapnel only have a few scenes together, which is a shame, but they certainly make the most of them.  Apart from a few explosions, Stand Off is fairly low-key – character interactions rather than gunplay drive it forward – but there are far worse ways to spend fifty minutes.


Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Four


Once again, the Squire is forced to count the human cost of his quest for gold, since all three of his servants now lie dead. “Old Redruth. Joyce. And now Hunter. Loyal souls, all of them, who served and trusted me. I have much to account for, Livesey.”

The Doctor offers a brief word of comfort, but maybe Livesey’s gesture here is just an automatic one. It’s certainly debatable that Trelawney’s escapade can be judged to be an honourable one – as his intention was to keep the plundered gold for himself (after, presumably, sharing out a small portion to the others) he can hardly claim the moral high ground over Silver and his men.

Jim decides to take Ben Gunn’s boat and return to the Hispaniola. It’s a brave, if foolhardy venture, since it brings him into contact with the murderous Israel Hands. Patrick Troughton once again is on good form as Israel, reacting calmly to Jim’s statement that he’s returned to take possession of the ship.

Exactly why Jim decided that the pirates onboard would be happy to receive him is a slight mystery. True, Israel seems harmless enough to begin with (he’s incapacitated after a fight to the death with another pirate) but Jim wasn’to know this. You’d have assumed that after the horror of the stockade battle, with death all around him, Jim would have been a little more cautious. But if Trelawney has begun to learn the true cost of adventure, maybe Jim hasn’t.

All that we’ve seen of Israel has primed the audience to expect that he’ll turn on Jim when the moment is right, and so it proves. Israel’s pursuit of Jim is a nicely shot sequence from Michael E. Briant, especially as the pair climb the rigging to face their final reckoning.

The ever resourceful Jim returns to the island, only to find that Silver and the others have taken possession of the stockade. Alfred Burke is at his most affable, as Silver appears delighted to see the boy and offers him a chance to join them. Jim refuses and furthermore tells them all that they’ll never see the Hispaniola again.

This is something of a turning point – Jim’s life should now be forfeit, but Silver won’t kill the lad, which displeases the others intensely. Silver has been tipped the black spot, but even with his back to the wall he’s still able to run rings around the rest of his crew.

Silver, with his keen sense of self preservation, is looking to change sides and Jim is an important part of this. Ashley Knight is never better than In the scene where Livesey attempts to forcibly remove Jim from the stockade. Jim refuses, biting the Doctor’s hand at one point, because he gave Silver his word he wouldn’t attempt to escape. This action bounds Silver and Jim even tighter together.

The sting in the tail – the treasure is gone from its resting place – is the prelude for the final (albiet brief) bloody battle. Ben Gunn, of course, found the treasure nine months ago and brought it back to his cave. The reveal is done in a highly theatrical manner – a seemingly never-ending stream of coins gush out onto the cave floor as the faces of Silver, Livesey, Ben, Trelawney and Jim are overlaid. It was surely intentional that Livesey’s face was impassive whilst both Trelawney and Jim showed great pleasure.

As I said earlier, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s something of a mystery why this excellent version of Treasure Island hasn’t appeared on DVD before, but it’s something that any devotee of this era of British television should have in their collection.


Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part One


Treasure Island, an evergreen classic of children’s literature for more than a century, has generated more film, television and radio adaptations than you could shake a cutlass at.  But even though there’s many versions to chose from, this one (broadcast in four episodes on BBC1 in 1977) has to rank amongst the very best.

Like the majority of the BBC Classic Serials from the sixties, seventies and eighties, the adaptation (this one from John Lucarotti) displays considerable fidelity to the original source material, although Lucarotti is unafraid to build upon the original narrative.  In a way this isn’t surprising, since the book was told from Jim’s perspective it’s inevitable that it has a somewhat restricted viewpoint.

Lucarotti’s additions begin right from the start, as Jim’s father, Daniel (Terry Scully), someone who merited only a handful of mentions in Stevenson’s original, is fleshed out into a substantial character.  Scully excelled at playing people who suffered – he had one of those faces which could express a world of pain – and Daniel is no exception.  Daniel is clearly far from well and concern that he’s unable to provide for his family is uppermost in his mind.  So the arrival of Billy Bones (Jack Watson) seems to offer a chance to extricate himself from his financial problems.

Watson’s excellent as Bones.  With his weather-beaten face and the addition of a wicked-looking scar, he’s perfect as the rough, tough, seaman with a secret.  Bones’ decision to recruit Daniel (an invention of Lucarotti’s) is quite a neat idea, since it explains how Long John Silver and the others came to learn where Bones was (Daniel heads off to secure passage for himself and Bones to the Caribbean, not realising that Silver is monitoring the port for any unusual activity).

Lucarotti also elects to bring Silver and his confederates into the story very early, making it plain that Bones has absconded with something of great value that they’d all like back.  If you love British archive television of this era then the sight of Silver’s gang will no doubt warm the cockles of your heart (step forward David Collings, Patrick Troughton, Stephen Greif and Talfryn Thomas amongst others).

Alfred Burke’s Long John Silver impresses right from the off.  He doesn’t have Robert Newton’s eye-rolling intensity, nor does he have Brian Blessed’s physical presence – but what Burke’s Silver does possess is great charm and a rare skill at manipulating others to do his will.  But although he seems pleasant enough to begin with, it doesn’t take long before he demonstrates his true colours.

Bones’ run-in with Doctor Livesey (Anthony Bate) is kept intact from the original.  Bate is yet another wonderful addition to the cast and Livesey’s stand-off with Bones is a highlight of the episode.  Lucarotti’s subplot of Daniel’s doomed night-time misadventure slots into the original story very well, as it explains why his health suddenly took a turn for the worse, which then resulted in his death shortly afterwards.

A member of Silver’s gang, Black Dog (Christopher Burgess), arrives to confront Bones.  Burgess was a favourite actor of the producer, Barry Letts, so it’s maybe not too much of a surprise that he turns up.  He and Watson step outside (and therefore onto film) for a duel, which leads to Bones’ stroke.  Watson’s particularly fine as the bedridden Bones, suffering nightmares accrued from the horrors of a life spent on the high seas and dreading the arrival of the black spot.

David Collings’ nicely judged cameo as the malevolent Blind Pew is yet another highlight from a consistently strong opening episode.

treasure 01-02.jpg

Gideon’s Way – Boy with Gun

gun 01

Chris Kirk (Howard Knight) is a quiet, bespectacled boy of fifteen who finds himself corned by three toughs of his own age, led by the knife-wielding Mick (Roger Foss).  Mick wants Chris’ rifle and after a struggle the gun goes off.  Mick falls to the ground, apparently dead, whilst Chris flees the scene.

Chris isn’t the sort of boy you’d expect to be tangled up in a shooting case.  His father, Dr Kirk (Anthony Bate) is the local police surgeon and a well respected man.  The reaction of the local Inspector, after Dr Kirk tells him that his son was responsible, speaks volumes.  He simply can’t believe it – after all, nice middle-class people don’t go around shooting other people.

Anthony Bate was an immaculate actor who I can never remember giving a bad performance.  His credits are too numerous to mention, but I’ve previously written about his turns in the likes of An Englishman’s Castle and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (both series are undeniably enriched by his playing).  He’s also first-rate in the classic Out of the Unknown episode Level Seven.  Dr Kirk is another well crafted creation – a cold, cold man who is indirectly responsible for the mess young Chris finds himself in.

Dr Kirk is pained that Chris takes no interest in sports and would sooner bury his head in a book.  He dismisses the boy as effeminate and then tells his wife Helen (Ruth Trouncer) that it’s mostly her fault anyway – she wanted a girl so (in his eyes) she’s stunted his development. Husband and wife have a blazing row, expertly performed by Bate and Trouncer (which is notable as it’s played at a more intense level than is normal for the series).

Helen concludes the argument by telling her husband that the reason he wants Chris to be a real man is because he isn’t one himself.  It’s a wonderful piece of character development which lays the character of Dr Kirk bare.  But this isn’t the whole story, as later Gideon remembers the time when Dr Kirk risked his life to save an injured policeman.  Gideon’s story helps to demonstrate that whilst the man may have many less than admirable traits, he (like all of us) is a more complex character than might first be supposed.

Kirk gave his son the gun because he’s been trying to interest him in various manly pursuits – hunting, shooting, fishing.  Of course, this doesn’t explain why Chris was carrying a loaded gun around the streets of London, which remains a slight weakness of the story.  The point where Mick is shot is also worth looking at – did Chris shoot him deliberately or did the gun go off by accident?  It’s possible to make a case for both, although it has to be said that anybody who walks around with an unbroken rifle is simply asking for trouble.  It’s also odd that when Chris goes on the run he takes the gun with him, why would he do that?

Mick isn’t dead, although his condition is serious.  His anxious parents, Tim (George Sewell) and Mary (Mary Quinn) wait anxiously at the hospital for news, as Tim vows vengeance on Chris.  I’ve always loved George Sewell but since the character he’s playing is Irish, he’s operating a little out of his comfort zone, meaning that every time he opens his mouth I find it hard to take him seriously.  Quite why Tim couldn’t have been played with Sewell’s authentic East-End tones is a bit of a mystery.

After Chris goes on the run he’s befriended by Vince Kelly (Michael Craze), a Borstal escapee.  Chris’ mother tells Gideon that her son is a lonely child – shunned by the boys in his area – so he latches onto the friendly Vince with alacrity.  Craze’s breezy naturalistic playing is a delight.  He’s the diametric opposite of Chris – whilst Chris has had everything, Vince has had nothing – but there’s no resentment from the Borstal boy.  He simply accepts Chris at face value, understands that he too is in trouble and makes an instant connection.

Mick’s father, Tim, is the one with the resentment.  In a memorable scene, he confronts Gideon and tells him that he knows the police won’t try too hard to find Chris – after all, Dr Kirk is a member of the establishment and they always look after their own.  “My boy never really had a father. For ten years I was sewing bags in Dartmoor for the Regent’s Street fur job. The Kirk boy’s had everything. Good school, clothes, family background the lot. And what happens? My boy’s walking along, minding his own business, doing no harm to nobody, and the Kirk kid blasts him with a shotgun.”  Even allowing for Sewell’s interesting Irish accent this is good stuff, capped off when Gideon tells him that his son wasn’t quite the innocent party his father has made him out to be.

Vince is an irrestable dreamer, who’s sure that his elder brother Ches (Michael Standing) will be able to spirit them out of the country. As they hitch a ride to Ches’s flat, Vince continues to express his respect for the fact that Chris was able to shoot a man. It’s therefore fairly obvious that Vince isn’t the brightest, but Craze manages to make the boy both vunerable and appealing.

It slightly beggars belief that Chris eventually finds himself pretty much back where he begun, meaning that a local petty criminal (played by the wonderful Joe Gladwin) is able to pop round the corner and tell Tim that the boy who shot his son is hiding in the area. This is the excuse for Sewell to dial his Irish accent to eleven and it also shows Chris levelling his gun at the struggling Ches and Tim. So although Chris has been somewhat painted as a victim, this moment is another indication that his sense of morality is rather skewered.

The ending – as Gideon and the others confront Chris, who’s still armed – is very interesting. Dr Kirk is on the spot, and everything seems set up for him to be the one who talks the boy down. But this doesn’t happen and it’s Vince who’s finally able to bring the stand-off to a peaceful conclusion. Father and son do walk off together though, which suggests that maybe, over time, there’s a chance for them to rebuild their shattered relationship.

As ever, good playing from the guest cast helps to enrich an already strong screenplay by Iain MacCormick.  MacCormick’s screen credits aren’t terribly extensive (he died, aged just 48, in 1965) but his contribution to Gideon’s Way was notable.  Boy With Gun was his fifth and final script, whilst the others (especially The Nightlifers, The Alibi Man and The Thin Red Line) are amongst the best that the series had to offer.

gun 02

An Englishman’s Castle – Part Three

castle 03

Henry is dead – he was shot three times and a sign saying “delator” was hung around his neck.  With one of Peter’s sons now dead there’s a sense that his real life is turning into a soap operaOne example of this is when Peter’s wife is told of her son’s death.  She tells her husband that she won’t cry – instead she’ll behave as bravely as Peter’s fictional family.

Peter finds himself the prime suspect for Henry’s murder and is taken away by the special police for questioning.  The Inspector (Philip Bond) is initially affable, telling Peter it’s nothing more than an informal chat, but the mood darkens very quickly.  Kenneth More and Philip Bond share an excellent two-handed scene – like the rest of the serial it’s incredibly powerful, but very understated.

The Inspector occupies a room that’s virtually bare, and there’s never even the threat of violence, but he’s still able to inexorably pressurise Peter.  So Peter is forced to reveal that Henry told Harmer he was an informer – which gets Peter off the hook but spells trouble for Harmer.

As events get darker and darker, Kenneth More remains the solid centre of the story.  Now promoted to programme controller, Peter has the ultimate responsibility for initiating the revolution – a code-word inserted into the next episode of his soap opera will be the call to arms.

Philip Mackie’s three scripts are taut, with little or no padding.  It’s easy to imagine that the serial could have been developed into a series, as in one way we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this world.  It would have been fascinating to see Peter’s soap-opera, which at times offers a meta-textual commentary on real-world events, expanded over more episodes.

Anybody looking for big-budget action scenes will be disappointed.  The revolution does begin in the last few minutes of this episode, but it happens off-screen (via sound effects).  The fates of some characters, including Peter, are clear at the end – but with others it’s left to the viewer’s own imagination to decide what may have happened to them.  It’s also notable that certain people’s motivations are very much open to interpretation – Harmer is a prime example.  In the first two episodes he was portrayed firmly as a man in sympathy with the German establishment, but in the final episode we’re asked to consider him in a different light.  Nothing is ever proven either way, so we’re not spoon-fed “facts” – the viewer is invited to weigh up the evidence and decide.

It’s a downbeat ending, but there’s also a possible glimmer of hope.  We’re left not knowing whether the revolution will succeed or fail, but whatever happens we’ve seen characters who have been personally redeemed, Peter amongst them.

At times this feels like a stage play (not a criticism, by the way).  People die off-screen, for example,  and other events are described but not seen.  Some may find this frustrating, but this style of storytelling ensures that the focus remains inexorably on the characters,  which is a major plus point when the cast is so strong.

This is first-rate drama and comes highly recommended.  Heading a very strong cast are Kenneth More, Isla Blair and Anthony Bate, all of whom dominate the screen.  Simply Media should be applauded for continuing to dip into the BBC archives and for anybody who enjoys classic British television, An Englishman’s Castle should be on your to-watch list.

An Englishman’s Castle – Part Two

castle 02

Part two opens with another excellent two-handed scene between Kenneth More and Anthony Bate.  Peter has come to tell Harmer whether he’s decided to change the name of Rosenthal to something less Jewish-sounding.  Harmer pretends to have completely forgotten about this request, but we’ve seen enough of him to know that he forgets nothing.  To Harmer’s undisguised annoyance, Peter is insistent that the name must remain and when pressed for a reason he states that he wants to send a message of hope and friendship to the Jews watching.

Harmer is incredulous and tells him that there aren’t any Jews watching the programme.  Those that are alive are in places where there aren’t any television sets.  With a series like An Englishman’s Castle, which is completely dialogue driven, it’s throwaway moments like this which help to paint a fuller picture of their alternative world.  In part one it was mentioned that there were still labour camps for some Jews (although most had already perished in the gas chambers) so the number who still exist in Britain must be small.  We know of at least one, Jill, so it could be that there are others.

Although Peter doesn’t back down, Harmer gets many of the most telling lines, especially when Peter tells him that he simply wants to show the public that the Jews are like them.  But, as Harmer responds, they aren’t.  “We are wealthy and comfortable and alive.”

In part one it was mentioned that Peter’s soap opera is drawn directly from his own wartime memories.  This theme is now developed further as one of the two sons – Frank – is set to be killed off.  The actor playing Frank is highly dismayed when he receives the latest script and learns that he perishes at the hands of the Germans.  In a scene that no doubt has echos with many real-life soap operas, when the actor realises that he’s not coming back next week his mood quickly darkens.  He protests that he’s been with the series since the beginning and is one of the most popular characters, but all to no avail.

Peter explains that the two sons in the show – Frank and Bert – are both based on him.  Frank is his romantic side and Bert is his realistic side.  When the Germans invaded in 1940, Peter’s romantic side died, so Frank has to die as well.  Since then Peter’s lived as a realist, as he’s seen no other way, but events are now changing.

Peter has two sons in the real world as well.  Henry (David Meyer) works on the show with Peter whilst Mark (Nigel Havers) despises his father and everything he stands for.  Mark appeared briefly in part one, where he denounced his father’s politics vigorously, and in part two he’s arrested by the police on suspicion of being a terrorist.  Havers performance isn’t particularly subtle (Mark’s manic radicalism seems rather overblown) but there may be a reason for this (he’s a radical, but not a member of the true underground resistance).

When Peter returns home, he finds Mark in the custody of the polite, but clearly ddangerous, Inspector (Philip Bond).  It’s probably the fact that he’s so very reasonable which is the most unsettling thing about Bond’s Inspector.  He’s not brutal or brusque, Bond gives the Inspector a casual air as if he’s just taking Mark away for a few simple questions.  The reality – as even Peter knows – is quite different.  Mark will be tortured and die, unless Peter can pull some strings.

The only man who has the influence to save Peter is Harmer, and this leads us to another absorbing scene with More and Bate.  Harmer is enjoying a candlelit dinner with his social secretary Anja (Suzanne Roquette) but once he learns of Mark’s plight he’s keen to help.  He rushes off to the phone, leaving Peter to talk to Anja – the only problem is that Anja only speaks German and Peter knows only a few words (surprisingly so, you’d have assumed everybody would have learnt the language by now).

Harmer tells the police that he doesn’t care whether Mark’s innocent or guilty, he just wants him released – which he is.  It’s another fascinating part of the story – both for the way that a television executive like Harmer is able to intercede in police matters and also for the casual confirmation that the evidence planted on Mark was faked.

Peter had come to Harmer ready to offer a quid pro quo – if Harmer can get Mark released then he’ll agree to change Rosenthal’s name to something less provocative.  It’s interesting that Harmer only learns of Peter’s decision after he’s made the call, but as ever with Harmer, he wasn’t acting out of friendship (he’s well aware just how important Peter’s programme is to the government and he’ll do anything he can to ensure his star writer is kept happy).

Peter later muses with Jill about whether Harmer orchestrated the whole thing – arranged to have Mark arrested in order to force him to back down over Rosenthal’s name.  It’s an intriguing thought – which turns out not to be true – but somebody is manipulating Peter.

It turns out to be Jill, who’s a member of the underground movement dedicated to the overthrow of the government.  She’s dismissive of the actions of people like Mark, who it’s implied are simply playing at being resistance fighters.  They throw a few bombs around and hit the headlines, but the real struggle is done deep underground – by people like her.

Peter’s realisation that Jill only became his mistress in order to recruit him is nicely played by More.  He agrees to join, but it’s not clear why.  Is it because he agrees with the aims of the organisation or is it just out of his love for her?  One thing that concerns him is her insistence that anyone who is suspected of being a delator (informer) has to be killed.  Peter might have fought in the war, but that was a long time ago.

We end this episode, as we began, with a two-handed scene between More and Bate set in Harmer’s office.  It’s another few moments which zing with tension as Harmer tells Peter that his son Henry has been promoted to director.  This is good news, but the ominous way in which Harmer goes to say just how loyal Henry is to the state indicates trouble ahead.  It was Henry who informed on his brother and this leaves Peter with some impossible decisions to make.


An Englishman’s Castle – Part One

castle 01-01

The 1970’s were a fertile time for British television dramas which portrayed the country toiling under totalitarian dictatorships.  Apart from An Englishman’s Castle, broadcast in 1978, there was also The Guardians (LWT 1971) and 1990 (BBC 1977).  It’s probably not too hard to understand the reason why – strikes, power cuts, the three-day week, inflation running at 30% and a humiliating bail-out by the IMF had all conspired to dent the nation’s pride.

In some ways, the 1970’s was the decade of paranoia.  Rumours of impending right-wing coups and mutterings that MI5 were planning to oust Harold Wilson and his government abounded.  So it’s no surprise to find several television dramas had tapped into this mood to produce nightmarish visions about what might happen.

But whilst The Guardians was set in the aftermath of a coup and 1990 was set a decade or so in the future, An Englishman’s Castle takes a different tack.  In this serial, the Germans won WW2 and Britain has been a subjugated nation ever since.  Coincidentally, Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB had the same basic premise of a Nazi-subjugated Britain and was published a few months after An Englishman’s Castle was broadcast.

Casting Kenneth More in the central role was a conscious statement of intent.  More had built a career playing a certain type of Englishman (exemplified by classic war films such as Reach for the Sky).  Following the gradual decline of the British film industry More moved into television (The Forsythe Saga, Father Brown) but he still tended to play upright, decent characters.  Peter Ingram also seems to be a decent man – but as the serial opens we see that he’s totally reconciled to living under German rule.  Is he simply being rational or has he been living a lie all these years?  That’s one thing that we’ll discover over the following three episodes.

An Englishman’s Castle is the name of Peter Ingram’s popular soap opera.  Set in 1940, just prior to the German invasion, it’s the story of an everyday British family.  Not only is it a success in Britain, it’s also sold all over Europe (or as Ingram says, “all over German Europe”).  Programme controller Harmer (Anthony Bate) is intrigued as to how Ingram will present the invasion.  Ingram tells him that “I can’t rewrite history. I mean, the Germans invaded us, and we got beaten.”  Harmer’s response strikes the first discordant note. “I look back on it now as a victory. A victory for common sense, and decency, and humanity. The triumph of peace-loving people everywhere.”

Jill (Isla Blair) plays Sally in the show.  She’s young, beautiful and Peter desperately wants to take her to bed.  Jill’s also interested in Peter, but has a mocking and questioning nature which indicates that nothing’s going to happen straightaway.  To begin with, she’s more interested in finding out about the young Peter and what happened to him in 1940.

JILL: Were you in the resistance?
PETER: Yes, of course.
JILL: And then?
PETER: And then there was Black Friday, the day that Churchill was killed.
JILL: And then?
PETER: A lot of us were killed.
JILL: One way or another.
PETER: The survivors took to the hills, and lived like ancient Britons. Had a bad time of it. Then they proclaimed a general amnesty. And I suppose we were getting older and more peace loving and we wanted to see our wives again, our girlfriends … so we came down from the hills and handed over our weapons, or at least most of us did.
JILL: You?
PETER: I couldn’t see that we would ever win.
JILL: No .
PETER: What was the point of it all? What was the use?

It’s notable that we never see any Germans and there’s no outward signs that Britain is an occupied country. All the dialogue strongly indicates that following the invasion, the British were left to govern themselves (but with the ultimate decision-making taking place in Germany). Peter has come to accept this as normal – they might be a subjugated race, but when the authorities are British it’s easy to forget this (or at least push it to the back of your mind).

When the restaurant that Peter and Jill are eating in is attacked by resistance terrorists, Jill is convinced that the terrorists will be taken away and tortured.  Peter doesn’t believe that the British police would do such a thing (“they have a long tradition of not doing things like that”).  “Had a long tradition” counters Jill.  This clearly indicates that they think in totally different ways.  It’s partly an age thing (Peter is much older) but there are other reasons why Jill is much more suspicious, as we’ll discover later.

The scenes we see of Peter’s soap opera are particularly instructive.  He hasn’t been told to write propaganda, but that’s what he seems to have done anyway.  Jill later puts this point to him very clearly.  Although it’s set in 1940, it reflects contemporary attitudes and seems to have been designed (either consciously or unconsciously) to keep the masses docile.  “What they’re saying is now. Be sensible, make peace. We don’t want to die. Nobody does. Survival, that’s all that matters. In every programme you have this keynote speech, your message for now, and your viewers think ‘he’s right, you know’, telling us we’re right. We’re right to go on as we are. Not making any fuss, obeying orders. Just content to work hard, fall in love, have children, give them a good start in life, and retire on a pension when we’re old. Eh lad, it’s not a bad life under the Germans, is it?”

It should go without saying that More is excellent here, but he’s matched step-for-step by Blair.  Another top-notch performance comes from Anthony Bate as Harmer, who is insistent that he doesn’t want to censor Peter’s script, just edit it.  Bate is at his most chilling when Harmer tells Peter that it’s impossible for him to introduce a character called Rosenthal.  The Jewish problem (courtesy of the gas chambers) was dealt with a long time ago, but there’s no way that a sympathetic Jewish character could appear on British television.

This is not a request from the Germans – Harmer is simply anticipating their concerns.  He dangles the possibility that by aggravating them over such a trivial matter they run the risk of inviting German interference in every aspect of their broadcasts.  Is this another example of the subjugated British being more rabid than the Germans would be?  In the first sign of stubbornness from Peter, he refuses to change the name straightaway and asks if he can sleep on it.  Harmer doesn’t spell out what will happen if he doesn’t, but then he doesn’t need to – by now it should be pretty clear.

When Jill reveals that she’s Jewish, Peter’s squabble with Harmer pales into insignificance.  If it’s discovered that she’s Jewish and that Peter’s slept with her then under the racial purity laws they’ll both face death.  An excellent hook to end part one with.

castle 01-02

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Two

tinker 02

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was certainly a series that took its time.  With seven episodes to play with, it could afford to take the long road – and this was very evident in episode two.

Ricki Tarr’s story runs for the first thirty minutes and it’s fair to say that the amount of plot in this section could have easily been condensed down to, say, ten minutes.  But plot obviously wasn’t the overriding factor here – rather, it’s developing character and atmosphere.

So while Tarr’s romancing of the Russian spy Irina (Susan Kodicek) is told at a leisurely pace, it doesn’t feel drawn out and the location filming in Lisbon helps to bring a dash of colour to a series that otherwise exists in the (intentionally) drab world of British intelligence.

Ricki Tarr’s been dispached to Lisbon to liase with station head Tufty Thessinger (Thorley Walters).  Tufty is convinced that a Russian called Boris (Hilary Minster) is ripe for the picking.  Tarr keeps him under observation for a while and he reports back to Tufty that Boris is bad news.  “We’re definitely in the wrong ball game with this chummy.  That’s a professional, a Moscow Centre-trained hood.  The way he sets himself.  That alone!”

Tarr is about to report back that Boris is a no-go, when he decides to take a look around his apartment and see what happens.  It’s dangerous and possibly somewhat reckless, but that sums up Tarr’s character – he’s someone who’s supremely confident in his own abilities to extricate himself from any situation.

When he breaks into the flat, Boris isn’t there – but his wife Irina is.  Tarr puts on an Australian accent and spins her a line about how Boris has stolen his girlfriend.  He manages to use all of his considerable charm to arrange another meeting with her the following day, but he quickly learns that Irina is no fool.

There’s an English expression.  ‘It takes one to spot one’.  You wouldn’t have fooled me for long.  It’s the way we look for things, isn’t it?  We don’t stare.  We don’t seem to be looking.  We are not like tourists … or prostitutes … or pickpockets.  We just know how to see.

The relationship between Ricki and Irina is the heart of the episode – and it’s a fascinating one.  As they’re both spies, how much trust can we put in what they say?  Ricki seems to be the colder, more professional one.  He picks up Irina for no other reason than to understand what makes Boris tick.  As their brief relationship blossoms, does he ever feel any genuine love for her?  Or is the fact she has information about a mole in British Intelligence the reason for his growing interest in her?

Irina professes love for Ricki.  But again, can we believe her?  Or is she simply telling him this so that he’ll take her back to London as a defector?  But the fact she leaves him a series of notes in a dead-letter drop is one indication that her feelings were genuine.  By the time he visits the drop, she’s gone – forcibly taken back to Moscow where, presumably, a brutal interrogation awaits.  Was she betrayed and if so, was it the mole in London?  Her parting gift to him is the sheaf of documents which detail what she knows.  “I would prefer to give you my life, but I think that this wretched secret will be all I have to make you happy.  Use it well”.

Her notes confirm that the mole in London is known by the codename of Gerald and that he’s a high-ranking member of British Intelligence.  She doesn’t name names though, so Lacon needs somebody to investigate the Circus clandestinely and Smiley is the obvious man for the job.  Especially since six months previously he tried to convince Lacon that there was a mole – only for Lacon to dismiss him out of hand.

Since the bulk of the episode is taken up with Tarr’s flashback, there’s not a great deal of screen time for Alec Guinness, but he’s still so good when he does appear – especially when he and Anthony Bate are walking through Lacon’s garden, discussing how the enquiry will work.  As ever, it’s a masterclass in underplaying.

Smiley and Lacon discuss how well the Circus has been doing lately, especially with Alleline’s source of material, codenamed “Witchcraft”.  The mysterious source, Merlin, has provided the Circus with invaluable intelligence – but the uncomfortable, unspoken question is how much credence can be placed on this material if Moscow have an agent at the heart of the Circus?  Is Witchcraft information or disinformation?

That can wait for another time, for now Smiley is holed up in an anonymous hotel, where he can work undisturbed.  He plans a trip to Oxford to visit an invaluable source whilst he asks Peter Guillam to break into the Circus to steal some key files …..