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.

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.

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.

Secret Army – Weekend (8th November 1978)

Kessler is taken hostage by two desperate American airmen whilst Lifeline are keen to get their hands on three priceless paintings by Rubens ….

Even those with only a rough working knowledge of ‘Allo! ‘Allo! will be able to spot that this episode was used as the inspiration for the long-running saga of the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies (by Van Klomp).  And whilst the later parody by ‘Allo! ‘Allo! means that the paintings subplot raises a titter (as it were), events later in this episode take a rather grim turn.

I’ve previously raised an eyebrow at some of the series’ plotting and I’ll do so again here. Kessler knows that three paintings by Rubens are stored in a convent somewhere in the country, but he doesn’t know their location. Then up pops Oberleutnant Horst (Christian Roberts) who helpfully tells him exactly where they are. Well, that’s lucky.

Not only that, Lifeline are preparing to take possession of the paintings with the full consent of the Mother Superior (Sylvia Barter) and plan to leave expert forgeries in their place. What were the odds that Kessler and Lifeline would suddenly both decide to take a great interest in art?

For Albert the paintings mean security – at least for a little while. With no money currently coming in from London, once the paintings are sold they will allow the escape route to carry on (although not indefinitely). The shifting objectives of the war are touched upon here, with Albert unhappy at the way London are attempting to take more control (insisting that Communist spies are weeded out from the line). Although given that Albert’s first love has always been money (others in Lifeline may be patriots, Albert is much more mercenary) I’m not quite sure why he doesn’t just go with the flow.

It’s interesting to ponder what Kessler’s motives are. He tells the Mother Superior that the paintings are being taken into protective custody, bemoaning the fact that other art treasures have been looted. Is he telling or truth or does he plan to squirrel them away for his own use?

Christian Roberts gives a nice performance as the hapless Horst. Keen to impress Kessler at every turn, he nevertheless ends up a fellow prisoner after the pair are captured by Peter Harris (Paul Wagar) and Charles McGee (Vincent Marzello). The series has presented us with unpleasant airmen before, but McGee is in a class of his own.

Whilst Harris is mild-mannered and conciliatory, McGee is arrogant and reckless. Both are lucky to stumble across a friend of Lifeline who takes them in for the night – but McGee isn’t prepared to wait around to be collected the following day. Instead he ambushes a car (containing Horst and Kessler) and puts his masterplan into operation. Actually I don’t really think he’s got a plan, so it’s rather fortunate that he happens to stumble across the barge owned by Hans Van Broecken (this seems a tad contrived).

Kessler, now a prisoner on the barge, seems to be deriving a certain pleasure from the situation, confiding to Horst that he rarely has had the chance to study evaders at such close quarters. Clifford Rose, yet again, is on top form – contrast Kessler’s early (and quite informal) conversations with Horst to his later business-like persona.

Another plot oddity concerns the three Rubens. They’re in the boot of Kessler’s abandoned car which is located quite easily by Monique and Max (they swop the originals for the forgeries). How did they know where the car was, especially since it was moved off the main road and hidden?

The episode really springs into life towards the end.  When McGee and Harris finally end up with Lifeline, McGee’s sexist banter doesn’t go down well with either Natalie or Monique. Angela Richards has a mesmerising moment as Monique spells out the facts of life to McGee at gunpoint.

And for those thinking that everything has gone just a little too smoothly, there’s a late sting in the tail – Hans and his wife Lena are taken away by Kessler for questioning. Kessler is at his most chilling when he tells them that they have nothing to worry about – provided they have nothing to hide.

Lena – unable to face the prospect of interrogation – commits suicide by stepping out into the path of an oncoming car. The bitter irony is that Kessler’s questioning was (or so he says) purely routine. Hans tells him that he doesn’t realise the fear he instills in people. Kessler replies that he does ….

It’s a slight surprise that we don’t see Natalie’s reaction to the news that her aunt has died.

Weekend was written and directed by Paul Annett. It’s an unusual double for this era of British television (Annett was much more prolific as a director, his only other television writing credits being a couple of episodes of Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime).  Apart from a few plot niggles, it’s a decent episode. Not the best the series has to offer, but still very watchable.

Secret Army – Scorpion (1st November 1978)

Major Brandt’s wife, Erika (Brigitte Kahn), is in Brussels for a brief visit. Their interactions later provide the spur which kicks the plot into gear, but before that there’s plenty of nice character development on offer.

Brandt is clearly delighted to see her (something she reciprocates, although in a rather cooler way). This is partially explained by the fact that, as a General’s daughter, she suffers from something of a superiority complex – for example, she has no wish to meet Kessler. A member of the SS is plainly a much lower form of life.

Plot-threads which pay off later in the year are established here. Erika now finds living in Berlin, which is suffering heavy bombing raids on a regular basis, intolerable. Fearful for her own life (and that of their children) she begs Brandt to move them to Brussels. This he declines to do, although he concedes that they should leave the city.

There’s an intriguing moment when she finds a photograph of an attractive young woman in his wardrobe. His mistress? Since we know that he’s a workaholic it would seem not and his protestations of innocence do appear to be sincere. And yet ….

You have to say that his explanation for its presence (the cleaning woman could have left it there) is a bit feeble.

Brandt has already tried and failed several times to infiltrate the escape line with one of his officers. Indeed, during series one it seemed like he was doing it every other week.

He hasn’t attempted it for a while, so I suppose it was bound to happen again. The way that the audience (and Lifeline) learn about it today is a touch contrived though. Brandt and Erika are having an argument in bed and he tells her the whole story (an infiltrator – accepted as genuine by London – will shortly be going down the line). But at that precise moment his cleaning lady happens to overhear the whole thing.

That’s hard to swallow moment number one. Hard to swallow moment number two is the fact she knows that Albert is the person who needs to be told about this straight away. Slightly clumsy plotting then.

Hans Van Broecken (Gunner Moller), Natalie’s uncle (and no friend of Albert), returns. As a German himself, he’s the ideal man to try and identify the spy, but given his loathing for Albert, will he agree? Yes of course, otherwise the plot would have floundered somewhat.

If he’s unsuccessful then there will be some difficult decisions to be made. With nineteen British airman in Brussels, one way out would be to shoot them all. It seems cold-blooded, but it might be necessary in order to protect the line.

Some familiar faces can be found amongst the motley collection of airmen. James Wynn (later to play Sooty Sutcliffe in Grange Hill) is one whilst Harry Fielder (someone with a list of credits longer than several arms) is another. The spy isn’t either of these though – but he’s eventually dealt with by Max, with a horrified Hans looking on.

Hans’ disgust that Max resorts to murder is a little difficult to credit. Did he think they’d just let him walk away? He might not have discovered too much about the escape route, but he still would have been able to identify a number of people (Max and Hans, for two).

As touched upon eadlier, the plotting of the episode feels a little suspect in places. We’re told several times that various airmen have been cleared of suspicion, but it’s not explained how this is done. Considering that the infiltrator appears to be, until the very last minute, a perfectly normal British officer it’s hard to work this out.

Kessler only features briefly, but his scene – a meal with Madeleine (Hazel McBride) – is still a fascinating one. There’s some light shone onto Kessler the private man (he admits to being lonely at times, which is why he’s sought the company of Madeline – he’s decided she’s a kindred spirit). And he almost (but not quite) declares that Brandt is his friend, explaining to Madeline that normally he’d be irritated by the superior attitude of Erika, but given his respect for Brandt he’s content not to make a scene.

Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

great.jpg

When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.

As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.

So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….

Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow).  A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.

Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired.   Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest.  Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD.  Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.

Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential.  Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood.  Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens.  Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).

The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.

John Tate & Christopher Guard

John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.

Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.

Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.

If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.

Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.

Francesca Annis, Maxine Audley & Christopher Guard

Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.

The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of stasis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).

Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.

The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!

Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle

Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t.  Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.

Great Expectations 6
Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).

Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught?  Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).

Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.

This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.

The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).

Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention.  Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today.  Warmly recommended.

Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Bernard Hepton & Gary Bond

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Secret of the Magnifique

secret

Bernard Hepton as Mr J.T. Laxworthy in The Secret of the Magnifique by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Adapted by Gerald Kelsey. Directed by Derek Bennett

Sydney Wing (Christopher Neame) and Anderson (Neil McCarthy) have both recently been released from prison, but that’s where the similarity ends.  Wing has the sort of casual, upper-class air which ensures he can easily mix with the highest in the land whilst Anderson hails from a much lower rung of society.

But whilst they’re very different people, both are selected by the mysterious Mr Laxworthy (Bernard Hepton).  Laxworthy has a proposition – he wants Wing to pose as a rich man-about-town whilst Anderson takes the role of his valet.  And since both Wing and Anderson are penniless they readily agree (especially when Laxworthy tells them there’s a fortune to be made).

The three later travel to the South of France, where the French warship Magnifique lies in port.  It possesses an innovate new torpedo and Laxworthy sees an opportunity to make a great deal of money …

Edward Phillips Oppenheim was a highly prolific author, penning more than a hundred novels between 1887 and 1941 as well as numerous short story collections.  Dubbed “the prince of storytellers” he was a pioneer of the spy-fiction genre – although like many of the authors featured in The Rivals he slipped into obscurity following his death.  The Secret of the Magnifique was one of a number of short stories collected in the volume Mr Laxworthy’s Adventures, which was published in 1913.  It can be read here.

Bernard Hepton is a great, albeit rather underrated, British actor.  His fairly low profile, despite his impressive list of credits, may be partly due to the type of characters he usually plays.  They don’t tend to be flamboyant or demonstrative – Hepton specialises in self-contained, internal performances.  So he’s never going to be an actor that commands the screen, he’s much more subtle than that.

The 1970’s were something of a golden period for him.  He took the lead in two WW2 series produced by Gerard Glaister – Colditz, in which he played the Kommandant and Secret Army, which saw him switch sides to take the role of Albert Foriet, a member of the Belgian underground network “Lifeline” (which was dedicated to returning Allied airman to the UK).  Other notable series, such as I Claudius and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were also graced by his presence and there were numerous one-off appearances, such as this one.

Our first sight of Hepton is as the cabby who picks up both Wing and Anderson.  Had there not be a caption-card at the start, proclaiming Hepton as the star of the episode, then this slight misdirection might have worked a bit better.  As it is, when Laxworthy takes off his cabby’s overcoat and removes a fake moustache it doesn’t really come as any sort of surprise.  But it does give us an early indication that he’s a man who likes to be in control and also enjoys manipulating people.

Christopher Neame had also starred in Colditz (and would appear in the first series of Secret Army too).  His trademark charm is on display here, making it obvious why Laxworthy selected him.  Neil McCarthy is present for a spot of comic relief – Anderson is a rough, gruff sort of chap who’s inclined to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The Secret of the Magnifique offers something of a change in pace for The Rivals, as there’s no detective (Laxworthy loosely fulfills this role though).  But whilst Mr Laxworthy might not be an honest man he’s not a totally dishonourable one either.  He makes a handsome profit from the secret of the Magnifique’s torpedo, but it’s maybe not in the way one might have expected.

Elsewhere in the cast, the likes of Gary Watson and John Nettleton adopt French accents of varying accuracy whilst Canadian-born Bruce Boa plays an American, Freeling Poignton.  Boa was one of a handful of Canadian actors resident in the UK during this time (Shane Rimmer was another) and this small band of ex-pat Canadians were able to earn a very good living by playing Americans.  And at least their accents always sounded convincing!

The Secret of the Magnifique is one of those episodes that leaves you wanting more.  Hepton, Neame and McCarthy make an entertaining team and a run of further adventures would have been very welcome.  As mentioned previously, it’s strange that The Rivals was never used as a series of pilot programmes since a few episodes, including this one, could have spawned their own series.   Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Six

tinker 06

Smiley’s hunt for the mole leads him to a rather dingy London drinking club.  There he meets Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland).  Westerby is a newspaper reporter who’s done odd jobs for the Circus in the past – such as delivering packages to dead letter drops.  “Telephone kiosk, ledge at the top, dump a little package ready for collection.”

Westerby is clearly somebody who enjoys the cloak and dagger aspect of the job, as well as the glamour of operating on the fringes of the intelligence services, though it seems that his usefulness has come to an end.  Possibly his fondness for alcohol is the reason.  “Firewater not good for braves. They think I’ll blab, crack up.”

Or it may be because of what he knows about the Jim Prideaux shooting.  Westerby was in Czechoslovakia at the time and he learnt that “the Russians moved in on Saturday, it was the day after they got Jim. Russians knew the lot, knew he was coming. They were lying in wait for him. Bad story, you see. Bad for big chief. Bad for tribe.”   When Westerby returned to England he told Toby Esterhase, but Toby professed not to believe it, dismissing it as nothing more than drunken ravings.

It’s a lovely cameo from Ackland and Guinness is his usual excellent self.  Whilst it’s clear from the outset that Westerby wouldn’t necessarily be Smiley’s first choice as a lunch companion, he’s easily able to tease the information out of the newspaper man.  As always, Smiley asks many more questions than he answers – witness the end of lunch, as Westerby wonders exactly what Smiley’s been after.  Guinness remains inscrutable, offering very little.  At one point, rather than commit himself, he smiles – and the camera remains on him as the smile slowly fades away.  Tight close-ups (switching between Ackland and Guinness) are used in this scene, very effectively.  As they finish their lunch, Westerby muses about Toby Esterhase.

Westerby: Rum chap, Toby Esterhase.
Smiley: But good.
Westerby: God, brilliant! First-rate chap! But rum.

If Smiley has tended to be mostly passive so far, eliciting information rather than sharing it and not expressing too many of his own opinions, that changes once he confronts Toby.  It’s the first time he’s spoken to one of the four suspects and it signals a major turning point in the story.

Toby meets Guillam at a safe house – apparently to see a potential agent – but instead he’s met by George Smiley.  Now it’s Smiley who does the majority of the talking, whilst the camera closes in on Toby’s increasingly pained face.  Guinness is, once again, excellent, as he’s able to fillet and humiliate Toby – but in the most gentlemanly way.

George Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?
Esterhase: I sold a couple once.
Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.

Eventually it becomes clear to Toby that source Merlin, and his London representative Polyakov, has deeply compromised the Circus.  He’s desperate to assure Smiley that he knew nothing about it, as well as downplaying his own involvement.

Esterhase: Why pick on the little guy? Why not pick on the big ones? Percy Allenine, Bill Haydon!
Guillam: I thought you were a big guy these days.
Smiley: You’re the perfect choice, Toby: resentful about slow promotion, sharp-witted, fond of money. With you as his agent, Polyakov has a cover story that really sits up and works. The big three give you the little sealed packets of chickenfeed, and Moscow Centre thinks you’re all theirs. The only problem arises when it turns out you’ve been handing Polyakov the crown jewels, and getting Russian chickenfeed in return. If that’s the case, Toby, you’re going to need some pretty good friends. Like us. Gerald’s a Russian mole, of course. And he’s pulled the Circus inside out.

Afterwards, Smiley commiserates with him.  “Poor Toby. Yes, I do see, what a dog’s life you must have had running between them all.”  It might be just another scene of people sat in a room talking, but in the context of the story it’s riveting stuff.  The result is that Smiley’s happy to discount Toby as a suspect, so that leaves the other three.

Now we’re into the endgame.  Toby has told Smiley about the location of the safe-house where Polyakov meets the representatives of the Circus.  In order to flush out the mole, a crisis needs to be created (so he’ll arrange a crash meeting with Polyakov).  He sends Ricki Tarr to Paris and instructs him to telex the following message back to London Station.  “Have information vital to the safeguarding of the service. Request immediate meeting. Personal.”