The Champions – Reply Box 666

c1

An GPU agent called Semekin (George Roubieck) is murdered in his Jamaican hotel room. His pocket contains a curious newspaper clipping which reads ‘Wanted: A parrot that speaks Greek. Reply box 666’. Even more curious is the fact that the sixes have been changed to eights. Deciding that this must be a code, Craig travels to Jamaica in order to replace Semekin. And that’s when the trouble really begins ….

I do love the fact that if the brief stock footage clippage of Jamaica at the start of the episode wasn’t quite enough, the incidentals then decide to go into steel band mode – after all, every little helps. A real steel band pops along later just to hammer the point home.

Poor Semekin only manages to lock lips with the very winsome Cleo (Imogen Hassell) for a few seconds before her boyfriend breaks into Semekin’s hotel room and chucks a knife straight at his back. It’s a remarkable piece of marksmanship, although maybe that’s just because the camera angles were slightly askew.

Craig handles today’s superpowers demonstration scene. He’s out in the countryside with a blonde, leggy lovely (who doesn’t look too dissimilar to Sharron – hmm) and proves that finding a wristwatch dropped in the middle of a field is no problem when you’re a Champion.

The newspaper clipping leads Craig to a shop in Jamaica run by Nikko (George Murcell). I don’t know what Murcell’s had slapped on his face (some kind of orange boot polish maybe) but it doesn’t really help to convince that this British actor is actually Greek. Ah well, that sort of thing was par for the course with this era of television (the acting pool being somewhat limited).

If the sight of an orange Nikko is a little off-putting, then Jules (Anton Rodgers) is slightly more palatable – although his moustache can’t help but catch the eye. His silly accent is a bit of a problem too, but then this is a story with several silly accents ….

When I get to the middle of an episode, my thoughts often turn to plotting.  I can accept that Craig’s been sent in to pose as Semekin’s replacement, but why has no thought been given to stopping Semekin’s actual replacement turning up? Because this isn’t done, Craig’s quickly rumbled (and chucked out of an aircraft by Jules for his pains).

What’s rather nice (and unusual) is the fact that Jules is working with Corinne (Nike Arrighi), who proves to be rather more resourceful and cool in a crisis than he is. She’s the one who shoots Craig, takes over control of the plane and orders Jules to dump Craig with immediate effect.  Females in the Champions-verse are rarely so proactive.

This may be an episode which features Craig heavily, but Richard and Sharron aren’t totally ignored. Sharron’s the one who’s able to establish that Craig is somewhere out in the ocean (Richard’s not picking anything up at all – so it was lucky Sharron came along for the ride).

Sharron also proves her worth by pumping Jules for information. Although first Richard tells her to go back to her hotel room and change into something extra slinky before unleashing her feminine wiles on him. Jules is obviously instantly smitten (well, who wouldn’t be?). Their scenes together are slightly torpedoed by Rodger’s French accent though – the more he speaks, the harder it is not to think of Inspector Clouseau.

It takes a long time before the mystery at the heart of the episode (what is Jules searching for?) is revealed. And to be honest it’s not really that interesting or exciting, so we’re left with a faint feeling of anti-climax when the beans are spilled.

But the episode’s not a total write-off.  Sharron’s seduction of Jules is something of a highlight – especially when he gets her back to his hotel room and decides that a kiss would be nice.  As he moves in (and Sharron decides to lay back and think of Nemesis) we cut to a shot of Nikko shovelling food into his mouth.  We then go back to find that Sharron has hypnotised Jules.  Rodgers plays dazed and almost unconscious very well (as we’d see later in his career, he was a fine comic performer).

The irony is that even after all that effort, Jules didn’t tell her anything. So what have we achieved? Absolutely nothing. Still, as padding goes it was rather entertaining.

Craig washes ashore on an island and is discovered by Clive (Linbert Spencer).  Clive then just happens to lead him to the plane which Jules has been searching for. This is a spot of dodgy plotting that’s hard to beat whilst the tiny studio island also requires the viewer to be in a forgiving mode. Clearly Reply Box 666 was something of a cheapie – no location filming and presumably most of the sets taken from stock.

This isn’t the series at its best then, but it’s still entertaining enough, so I’ll give it three and a half out of five.

c2

Gideon’s Way – The Nightlifers

nightlifers

Peter Sloane (Anton Rodgers) is the leader of a group of rich and bored young people who turn to crime in order to relieve their ennui.  Sloane becomes addicted to random acts of violence, but whilst he appears to have no conscience, others like Tim Coles (Derek Fowlds), aren’t so cold-blooded.  And as they begin to squabble amongst themselves, Gideon and the others start to close in ….

Whilst it’s true that the first sight we have of Sloane is likely to elicit more of a smile than terror (due to his Beatle wig and dark glasses) his instability is quickly demonstrated after he and Sue Young (Annette Andre) rob a greasy spoon cafe.  The owners are a friendly-looking couple in their fifties, which gives Sloane’s attack on them even more of an impact.

It’s no surprise that we don’t see the blows delivered to the woman, but director John Llewellyn Moxey still ensures the scene carries a punch by cutting away to Sue’s face.  She watches Sloane’s attack with a degree of amusement, which also serves as shorthand to indicate she’s on a similar wavelength to him.

The subsequent scene, as Sloane and Sue make their getaway in a car with Coles and Tony King (James Hunter), sets up the character dynamics between the four very clearly.  Coles finds Sloane’s violence both repugnant and unnecessary, whilst King says nothing.

Later, Sloane explains his philosophy to them.  “This nation is soft, flabby. A mass of gutless wonders led by a handful of little grey people in power. The only time Britain accomplishes anything is when we’re at war. War brings out the best in people, they develop virility of spirit.”

When Keen looks in on the crime scene on his way home (with, naturally, a beautiful young woman in tow) he reacts with a degree of bitter humour after Det. Insp. Caldwell (Roddy McMillan) suggests that the attack could be the work of teenagers, doing it for kicks.   If it is, then Keen indicates that even if they’re caught they’ll face no particular punishment.

Caldwell agrees as he ironically tells Keen to “remember, teenage crime is an environmental problem.”  It’s a rare example of cynicism in the series, since it suggests that sometimes crime does pay.

Anton Rodgers might have been pushing it a bit by attempting to play a young tearaway (he was in his early thirties at the time) but although he’s a tad long in the tooth Rodgers is still very compelling.  Sloane’s arrogance and unswerving belief in his own invulnerability are captured well by Rodgers and this makes his eventual downfall even more satisfying.

Derek Fowlds has a good role as Coles, the only member of the gang with a conscience, whilst James Hunter (star of an excellent episode of Out of the UnknownThirteen to Centaurus) has less to do but still has a few key scenes, especially when Sloane suggests they rob King’s aunt and uncle.

The generation gap (“kids these days” mutters Gideon) is debated.  Gideon regards the youth of today with a jaundiced eye, whilst his wife Kate is more forgiving as she sees many parallels with her own youth.  “In our day it was fast sports cars, parties on the river, Duke Ellington, chianti out of those wicker-basketed bottles.”

When Gideon counters that nowadays kids go around beating people up she responds that only a few do, but it’s not enough to convince him.  “Kate, they’re violent, restless. Sometimes I think they’re even half crazy.”

The long arm of coincidence sees Keen’s latest girlfriend Elspeth McRae (Jean Marsh) invited by Sue to the next party aboard Sloane’s houseboat (both are models).  When Keen learns about it he also goes along, as by now the police have an interest in Sloane.  Keen and Elspeth share a similar discussion about young people as George and Kate Gideon did  – and with similar results, Keen is pessimistic whilst Elspeth is optimistic.

Gideon’s Way was never a social-realism series, so the theme of youth crime (violence, drink, drugs) does end up being handled a little uneasily.  But whilst no-one could mistake this for an episode of an 1970’s crime drama like The Sweeney or Target, it does possess an undeniable period charm, helped by the first-rate guest cast.  And thanks to the likes of Rodgers and Fowlds this is one of the strongest episodes out of the twenty six made.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Man with the Twisted Lip

twisted

Mrs St. Clair (Anna Cropper) has travelled to London to conduct some business.  On her way back to the train station, she passes through Upper Swandam Lane (home to a notorious opium den).  Mrs St. Clair is astonished to see her husband briefly at the upper window of this disreputable place – but a second later he vanishes (as if pulled back by some unseen hand).

Neville St. Clair is a respected journalist who would have no reason to visit such a dive – unless he was a secret opium addict.  When Mrs St. Clair returns with the police they find no trace of her husband, although in the upstairs room they do discover a box of children’s blocks.  Mrs St. Clair collapses, as her husband told her he planned to buy such a toy for one of their children that very day.  Mr St. Clair’s clothes are also discovered.

All the evidence suggests that a well-known beggar, Hugh Boone (Anton Rodgers), was with Mr St. Clair when he was spotted by his wife.  Boone is quickly picked up by the police, but he’s saying nothing.  Holmes is convinced that Boone holds the key to Neville St. Clair’s disappearance – which he does, although Holmes’ solution is a most unexpected one.

The Man with the Twisted Lip was one of the original batch of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the Strand Magazine in December 1891.  Jan Read’s dramatisation is pretty faithful to the source material, but it’s a pity that the original, striking, opening wasn’t used.  In Doyle’s story, Watson travels to the opium den to extract a friend of his, Isa Whitney, who has fallen under the thrall of the drug.  When he’s leading his friend outside, he’s accosted by an old man (who turns out to be Holmes in disguise).  Holmes then explains that he’s investigating the disappearance of Neville St. Clair.  In Read’s adaptation, Watson does discover a disguised Holmes, but it sits rather uneasily in the middle of the story (where it makes less sense).

Although his screen-time is quite limited, Anton Rodgers is very effective as the disfigured beggar, Hugh Boone.  Anna Cropper, as Mrs St. Clair, is the latest stoic beauty to turn to Holmes for help.  A sign that retakes were only undertaken in the gravest circumstances is demonstrated by the scene where Mrs St. Clair visits Baker Street.  After lifting the veil from her hat, it falls down again and she simply has to push it back up and carry on.

Given the small pool of ethnic actors working in the UK during the period, it was very common to see British actors playing characters of every nationality.  Here we see Olaf Pooley (as the villainous Lascar) browned up.  To modern eyes it may seem strange, but it wasn’t an unusual occurrence at the time.

The Man with the Twisted Lip benefits from some atmospheric location filming in the East End.  The story could have been shot entirely in the studio, but the real locations certainly add something to the end product.  Within a few years redevelopment would have changed the locations beyond all recognition, so they were used at just the right time.

The first story of the series to be made (it was recorded in September 1964) it’s a very efficient production.  Given that the majority of the stories adapted for this series were later also adapted for the Granada series, it’s difficult to avoid comparing the two.  It’s slightly unfair though, since the Granada series had a much larger budget and therefore it would always score highly, particularly in a visual sense.  But whilst the Wilmer series has more modest production values, it can certainly hold its own performance wise, and in the end it’s the performances that really matter.

Zodiac – The Horns of the Moon

horns

Written by Peter Yeldham
Directed by Joe McGrath

General Weston (Peter Jones) is the autocratic chairman of a small merchant bank.  He wishes to initiate a merger (which effectively means selling the bank).  His fellow directors and his son Tony (Peter Egan) are against the plan, but the General always gets his way – and he does so again.

But shortly afterwards, he falls down the bank’s lift shaft.  As Tony later remarks, anybody else would have broken their neck, but he escaped with just a sprained arm.  However, it does seem to indicate that somebody at the bank wishes him harm.

There’s no shortage of suspects.  His son would inherit everything on his death, whilst the vampish Julie Prentiss (Michele Dotrice) seems to have the General wrapped around her little finger.  The other directors, Rodney Tyce (Graham Crowden), Ian Rentoul (Ronald MacLeod) and Agnes Courtney (Gillian Raine), could all have motives whilst the servant Dobbs (Norman Chappell) is another possibility.

Tony is a regular client of Esther’s and he calls on her to ask for advice.  He wants to leave the bank and break free from his father – but only if she confirms that the stars are correctly aligned.  She visits him at the bank to deliver the horoscope and he suggests they have a drink.  It comes as something of a surprise to find the General frozen solid in the fridge …..

The Horns of the Moon is by far the best mystery of the series since, as the above list indicates, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Once again, Esther is at the scene of the crime when the body is discovered, much to Gradley’s despair.  He’s also a little peeved at having to leave his dinner companion.  “You may not know it but I was at a charity dinner, escorting a debutante of the year.”  When Esther asks which year, he tells her it was quite a recent vintage.

Gradley quickly gets a feel for the list of suspects and it’s clear that Tony is his favourite.  Esther violently disagrees as she says it’s astrologically impossible for him to have committed the murder.  Gradley doesn’t arrest Tony straight away as he knows he’ll make his way to Esther’s flat in order to unburden himself.  This he does and what Tony says is pretty damming.  “What would you say if the files showed that I embezzled two hundred thousand pounds from the firm and the gun that killed the General was in my desk and that I wiped it clear of fingerprints and put it back in the boardroom and I took the files and put them in the cellar?”

Tony protests his innocence – he looks guilty, but that’s only because somebody has framed him.  Later on, even more evidence pointing to his guilt comes to light and Gradley arrests him.  Esther remains unconvinced and continues to nag at him to consider the other possibilities.

As with all the episodes, there’s a lovely group of actors here.  It’s a shame that Peter Jones doesn’t last longer as he’s got some nice comic business as the General.  Peter Egan is a bundle of nerves as the perpetually twitchy Tony whilst Graham Crowden is quite restrained as Tyce.  Tyce is a character that exists on the outskirts of the majority of the story, but he does have a part to play later on.

The banter between Gradley and Esther also helps to keep the interest chugging along.  Both of them, especially Anton Rodgers, have great comic timing and it’s their partnership which is one of the main strengths of the show.

The Horns of the Moon was the final story of this short series.  The real murderer is eventually found and Tony is set free, but that’s the end of the line for Gradley and Esther.  The premise of the series (detective and astrologer teamed up) was an intriguing one, although it’s fair to say that some of the plotting was a little loose in several of the episodes .

The partnership between Hempel and Rodgers as well as the guest casts more than made up for this though and there was certainly enough potential for a further run of episodes.  It wasn’t to be though, which is a shame since Zodiac is a nice little series and provided you don’t mind studio-bound drama (not a single location shot in the six episodes) it’s well worth tracking down.

Zodiac – Sting, Sting, Scorpio!

scorpio

Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Piers Haggard

Madame Lavengro (Anne Dyson) is a fortune-teller who lives and works in Brighton. Two maids from a local hotel visit her for a reading. Brenda (Jeananne Crowley) waits in the other room whilst Peggy (Susie Blake) goes first.

Whilst she looks like the archetypal fake fortune-teller (complete with headscarf and crystal ball) it’s clear that she has genuine insight. She knows that Peggy has problems with her boyfriend and that he possesses money that doesn’t belong to him.  A moment later she realises that he’s the Brighton Hotel robber.

Like Peggy, her boyfriend Brian (Robert Powell) works at the same hotel. He knows that he has to silence the fortune-teller – which he does. The day after, Esther pays a visit to Madame Lavengro and discovers her body. Esther was a friend and admirer of Madame Lavengro, so she takes the lease on her shop and tells Gradley she’s determined to track down her murderer.

Esther’s in something of a huff with Gradley as he’s reluctant to get involved in the case (it’s well outside his patch). He does eventually travel down to join her, after taking some leave, but they still indulge in a good deal of bickering once they do team up. There’s also another sighting of Anton Rodgers in denim (not good) and later he sports an interesting cravat (also not good).

A curly-headed Robert Powell is the villain of the piece. He’s not really known for playing baddies, which is probably why the character doesn’t quite have the dangerous edge he should have. The rest of the cast also features some familiar faces. Wensley Pithey (a regular in the early series of Special Branch) is Inspector Duggan, Susie Blake is the sadly doomed Peggy and Frank Gatliff brightens up the screen briefly as the camp-as-anything Felix Pettigrew.

Another eyebrow raising performance is given by Bob Sherman as the hippy singer Bob Thomas. Sherman’s probably best known for playing an American spook in The Sandbaggers, so this role is something rather different. Although the 1960’s was long over by this point, Thomas is obviously a throwback (“Yeah baby, I’d really freak out man”). He doesn’t contribute anything to the plot, but he’s a nice bit of local colour.

Anouska Hempel obviously had a cold whilst the story was being recorded, as her voice is pretty strained at times. This is referred to right at the end, presumably via an adlib, as Gradley declines to kiss her because of her cold and she threatens to spit all over him!

Sting, Sting, Scorpion! is a nicely plotted tale. There’s one example of Esther’s special powers (she receives a vision that Peggy has drowned) but that doesn’t affect the solving of the crime too much, so it isn’t a particularly large cheat.

Another strongly-cast and well-acted story.

Zodiac – Saturn’s Rewards

saturn 1

Written by Pat Hoddinott
Directed by Don Leaver

Richard Meade (Peter Vaughan) is awoken by noises from the flat opposite.  He opens his bedroom window to investigate and is shocked to see a man attacking a woman.  He rushes to the phone, but then stops – the woman sharing his bed isn’t his wife and since he’s an MP he can’t afford any scandal.  Next day, Gradley visits him to ask if he saw anything the previous night.  Meade responds in the negative.

A few days later, Esther is entertaining Meade’s daughter Deborah (Joanna David), her mother Susan (Dinah Sheridan) and Deborah’s new boyfriend Martin Seacombe (Ian Ogilvy).  Martin is a smooth-talker, but he doesn’t believe in astrology – which causes Esther’s hackles to rise slightly.  One of her gifts is an ability to tell the star-sign of anybody, just by looking at them.  She declares that Martin is a Scorpio, but he tells her he was born in May – which would make him an Aries.

Esther simply doesn’t believe him or that she could be so wrong.  His insistence would already be enough to mark him out as a wrong ‘un, but he was also the man we saw at the start, committing the murder, so he’s clearly going to be the villain of the piece.  When Meade arrives to pick up his wife and daughter he’s shocked to see Martin with his daughter.  He knows the man’s a murderer, but if he tells anybody then the story of his infidelity will come to light, and this puts him in something of a quandary.

Anouska Hempel & Ian Ogilvy
Anouska Hempel & Ian Ogilvy

Saturn’s Rewards isn’t the first episode of Zodiac to use some outrageous coincidences, but the ones here are worth repeating.  Meade’s daughter’s fiance chooses to commit a murder in the flat opposite Meade (it’s never explained why he’s in that flat).  Gradley is the detective assigned to investigate the murder, whilst Esther is an old friend of Meade’s daughter, Deborah, which is how Esther becomes involved.  Too many coincidences!

The studio-bound nature of the production becomes rather apparent when we see the murder committed.  The gap between the two flats isn’t very wide and it’s impossible to believe that Martin didn’t see Meade looking at him.  Obviously he didn’t, otherwise the story simply wouldn’t work, but the camerawork seems to imply otherwise.

Whilst the plot has its problems, we can take solace with the cast.  Peter Vaughan is good fun as a rather shifty, untrustworthy politician and Ian Ogilvy (complete with a moustache that may be fake, I think it is) is the charming, but dangerous Martin.  Joanna David and Dinah Sheridan have less to do, but having two good actresses in those roles is some consolation for their slightly underwritten parts.

Esther and Gradley are kept apart for a while, which is a pity, since the series really sparkles when the two of them are together.  When they eventually meet up, Gradley tells her a little about the murder case but then says he doesn’t need her help on this one.  Esther is incredulous. “It must be straightforward. What happened, did you find the killer drunk on the floor, prints all over the murder weapon and a signed confession in his top pocket?”

Undeniably, this is clumsily plotted, but once again the performances of both the regulars and the guest cast manage to make something out of the fairly thin material.

Zodiac – The Strength of Gemini

gemini

Written by Philip Broadley
Directed by James Ferman

Paul Derring (Norman Eshley) is a smooth-talking conman who targets beautiful, young, upper-class women.  He spies his latest mark, Elizabeth Charmont (Jenny Hanley), and moves in.  Elizabeth has never met him before – but he seems to know everything about her.  “Although we’ve never met, I know you. There is an empathy between us.”  He goes on to tell her things about herself that no stranger could possibly know.  Initially it seems that he’s an astrologer like Esther, but it turns out he’s been abusing Esther’s gifts for his own ends – which proves to be his downfall.

Since Esther writes a successful horoscope column (under the name of “Sibyl”) she receives many requests for personal horoscopes.  One such letter strikes a chord and she suddenly realises that recently she’s been sent numerous pleas for horoscopes – apparently from different people – but now it dawns on her that they’ve all come from the same person.  The names are different each time, but a handwriting expert called Toby (Charles Lloyd Pack) confirms that the signatures are all from the same hand.  So Esther calls in Gradley – she wants to find out who’s been doing this and why.

Since the opening of the story is Esther-centric, Gradley doesn’t appear until thirteen minutes in – but it’s worth waiting for, as Anton Rodgers is a vision in denim.  Maybe he was dressed down in order to make Hempel (who’s wearing a rather nice black evening dress) look even more stunning?  Esther shows him the letters and they decide that the first one – sent by a Paul Derring – is probably genuine.  So can they locate Derring?

Jenny Hanley & Norman Eshley
Jenny Hanley & Norman Eshley

The system he’s worked out to provide himself with victims is quite neat – he has a confederate called Penny (Deborah Norton) who works at a flower shop which is frequented by the upper-classes.  Whenever somebody visits to buy flowers for a likely target’s birthday, Penny makes a note of their birth-date and address and passes the information onto Derring.  He then requests a horoscope from Esther and therefore is able to astound his latest conquest with a host of impressive facts about their life.

Philip Broadley’s script follows the template laid down by Roger Marshall’s first two stories.  There’s plenty of banter between the two leads and a general lightness of touch throughout.  Whilst Derring is a conman, he also has a sense of humour and the script and direction help to accentuate this by throwing in the odd, wrong-footing moment.  My favourite is the scene that opens with a close-up on Derring’s face.  He looks quite serious, but as the camera pans down it becomes clear that he’s merely standing in his underpants, ironing his trousers!

The obvious plan is for Esther to present herself to Derring as his latest victim, which causes Gradley a little pain as she artfully stokes up his jealousy by casually mentioning how charming Derring is.  Fashion-wise, Hempel sports a variety of costumes, from the aforementioned black dress to a towel (and looks good in all of them).  Thankfully, Rodgers’ denim interlude is quite brief and he spends the rest of the story more conventionally attired.

One unusual thing about the series to date is that it’s completely studio-bound.  It wasn’t unheard of for some 1960’s series (like Sergeant Cork) to be almost entirely recorded in the studio (although that, I assume, was probably due to the show’s Victorian setting – it would have been difficult to film outside without major redressing of most locations).  Since Zodiac was a contemporary series, that problem didn’t apply – and the lack of location work does make the programme feel a little claustrophobic at times.