The Champions – The Survivors

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The death of three students in Austria catches the interest of Nemesis.  The locals believe that a nearby lake contains plundered Nazi loot, but when Richard and Craig investigate they find that the trail leads them to a cave and a madman intent on reversing the outcome of WW2 ….

Uh oh, the curse of the dodgy dubbing strikes again. In the opening scene my heart lifted when two very familiar faces – Donald Houston and Bernard Kay – appeared, but once Houston opened his mouth the spell was broken. Clearly it was felt that a German accent was beyond him, so he was given a little “assistance”.

Luckily a young Stephen Yardley was able to manage a credible Austrian accent (he plays one of the three students combing the lake for treasure) although he didn’t make it past the opening credits as Ritcher (Houston) machine-guns him and his two pals to a very sudden death.

Post credits, Sharron demonstrates her skills with a dart at a local village pub. It’s a rather strange little scene though, as it has a set up but then stops before any sort of pay off.

Our three heroes head out to Austria where they run into a shifty hotel keeper, Emil (Kay), who reacts with a start when he spies Sharron’s flippers (she wasn’t wearing them though, just carrying them). Thankfully Kay – always such a watchable actor – was allowed to keep his own voice. He doesn’t have much to do except cast shifty glances at Sharron, Craig and Richard but he still does that rather well.

Donald Houston was an actor I found it slightly harder to warm to. His performances could be quite variable (subtlety was never one of his strengths) so even undubbed he might have come across as a touch hammy (as he does throughout the episode when speaking with another actors voice).

Anyway, since only the boys go scuba diving, why was Sharron carrying their flippers? I have to confess that it would have been nice to see Sharron in a wetsuit ….

Ritchter and Emil are out hunting Richard and Craig by the lake. When Emil reacts in wonder at Richard’s gymnastic abilities (“he must have jumped at least thirty feet”) some suspension of belief is required, as what we see on-screen isn’t quite as impressive. Poor Emil then hits the dust (farewell Bernard Kay, it wasn’t much of a part but it was nice to see you).

A little over sixteen minutes in, there’s a lovely gag which tends to pop up in series of this era from time to time (it also occurred in an episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes). The scene opens with a static shot of a snowy mountain range, only for the camera to pull away and reveal that it’s just a photograph at the entrance of the local mines! This has to be a deliberate tease (no doubt the audience would have both noted and appreciated this moment).

You have a love a story featuring ex-Nazis desperately longing to revive their golden years. It was a staple for many years (as late as 1988, the Doctor Who story Silver Nemesis was riffing on this theme) and The Survivors is a textbook example. Today’s prominent guest star, Clifford Evans, has a dual role – the nasty Nazi (Hans Reitz) and his mad brother (Colonel Reitz).

Sharron is sidelined for the early part of the story but springs into action when she karate chops Hans Reitz unconscious. It’s impossible not to notice the way she flings her coat over his head – that’s a handy trick to hide the fact that a stunt double has taken Evans’ place (fair enough though, you can’t really expect a senior actor to go flinging himself around).

Midway through the story it becomes obvious that something is hidden in the caves (which makes the red herring of the murdered students by the lake all the more baffling).  Mind you, that plot point seems quite sensible compared to the revelation that Colonel Reitz has been buried alive in the caves since 1945, growing madder and madder. Although since his uniform is spick and span and he’s clean shaven, he must have very decent washing and laundry facilities down there ….

This is a totally loopy concept, but you can’t help but love Evans’ full-throttle performance (just don’t think about the plot specifics too much). And just when you’re reeling from the revelations contained in a lengthy scene between Sharron and Colonel Reitz, we learn that the Colonel is the “good” German, buried alive by his evil Nazi brother who’s been waiting twenty five years for him and all the other troops also trapped with him to die off, so he can utilise the cache of weapons buried with them.

Crumbs. For the sheer chutzpah it took to create such a plot you have to tip your hat to Donald James. Utterly bonkers it may be, but I’ll give The Survivors an indulgent four out of five.

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The Prince And The Pauper (BBC, 1976) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Tom Canty, a street urchin, and Prince Edward, heir to the throne, bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. After they meet by chance, the Prince hatches a scheme in which the pair swop clothes and identities temporarily.  This will allow Edward to move incognito through the streets for an hour or so and get to learn a little about the ordinary folk he will soon be ruling.

But disaster strikes when Edward is captured by Tom’s cruel father, John Canty (Ronald Herdman). Unsurprisingly, no one believes he’s really the Prince of Wales whilst Tom, trapped in the palace, is equally unhappy.  The nobles take his protestations about being a commoner as a sign of madness, with Tom ending up as a pawn in a power game – the control of England being the prize ….

Published in 1881, Mark Twain’s evergreen nove! has spawned numerous big and small screen adaptations.  This BBC Classic Serial from 1976, adapted by Richard Harris and directed by Barry Letts, has many plusses in its favour – not least Nicholas Lyndhurt’s deftly played dual role as Tom and Edward.

The fourteen-year old Lyndhurst already had television experience (most notably in two previous classic serial adaptations – Heidi and Anne of Avonlea) but it still must have been a daunting prospect for him to have shared the screen with so many heavyweight actors.  He acquits himself with assurance though – creating two very separate personas for Tom and Edward (deferential and brow-beaten for Tom, autocratic and outspoken for Edward).

A quick glance down the cast-list makes it obvious that Barry Letts was in the directors chair. The first episode alone sees brief appearances from the likes of Dave Carter, Stuart Fell (as a juggler and fire-eater) and Max Faulkner.  Several other faces familiar from the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who enjoy decent roles, most notably Bernard Kay as Lord Hertford.

Kay, like many of the nobles at court, might be afflicted with a false beard, but as a very classy actor he’s easily able to rise above this handicap.  Nina Thomas is delightful as the sweetly concerned Princess Elizabeth whilst Martin Friend and Ronald Lacey, as Lords Sudbroke and Rushden, are both good value as a pair of devious plotters (Lacey was one of those actors who should have appeared in a Doctor Who, but sadly never did).

Ronald Radd is someone else who surprisingly never got the Doctor Who call.  As the ailing King Henry his understated playing bolsters the already strong cast. Henry’s death-bed imaginings is one highlight amongst many throughout the six episodes. Sadly this was one of Radd’s final roles – broadcast shortly before his death at the age of just forty seven.

June Brown does well with the fairly thankless role of Mother Canty (having little to do but act concerned) whilst Ronald Herdman might be a little ripe as John Canty but is still effective.  The early evening slot these serials enjoyed meant that violence tended to be implicit (so whilst we often see Canty raising his hand to Tom/Edward, blows are rarely struck).

But there is one jolting moment. Canty strikes down the inoffensive and bookish Father Andrew (Donald Eccles) leaving the old man dying the street, a trickle of blood on his face.  This sudden outburst of rage from Canty does help to illustrate that he’s an unstable powder keg, liable to explode at any moment, and therefore a constant danger to the outspoken Edward.

As the story progresses, both boys are drawn deeper into their new lives. Edward, despite making a new friend – Miles Hendon (Barry Stokes) – finds himself lurching from one dangerous situation to another, eventually ending up in prison. Meanwhile the increasingly confident Tom, following the death of the King, has to face the possibility that shortly he’ll be the focus point of a coronation ….

If the cast are first-rate, then there’s plenty to enjoy on the production side as well.  Kenneth Sharp’s sets are impressive, with several palace rooms possessing an imposing sense of scale.  James Acheson was an extremely safe pair of hands to have as the costume designer (later he would pick up three Oscars) so there’s no complaints there either.

The exterior film sequences gives the serial a glossy feel, although – as was the norm – most of the action takes place in the studio (and on videotape).  I’ve no doubt that Barry Letts relished the challenge of depicting the brief meeting between Tom and Edward.  There’s a very effective split-screen shot, but I was also impressed with a CSO mirror shot (Barry loved his CSO, sometimes to extremes, but this sequence works well).

Running for six episodes, each around 27 minutes duration, The Prince And The Pauper is a good example of the BBC Classic Serial output from the 1970’s.  It may lack the production gloss of later adaptations, but the excellent cast and fidelity shown to the source material means that it’s a very enjoyable watch.  There are many different versions of The Prince And The Pauper out there, but I have no hesitation in warmly recommending this one.

The Prince And The Pauper is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply Media here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

Redcap – The Orderly Officer

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It looks like an open and shut case. 2nd Lt. Harry Barr (Giles Block) confesses to Mann that in a drunken New Years Eve misadventure he knocked down a concrete bollard outside his barracks.  Although it’s a relatively trivial matter, it will still mean a court martial for Barr.  But things don’t quite go the way that Sergeant Mann planned ….

This is an interesting one. It’s a good ten minutes before the crime of the episode is revealed. Which means there’s plenty of time to get to know Barr – who’s young, inexperienced and totally out of his depth. The sergeants – notably Sgt. Greatorex (Barry Keegan) – delight in running rings around him. This is demonstrated by the contemptuous grin given by Greatorex during Barr’s inspection of the men.

But maybe Greatorex isn’t totally a bad sort, as he invites Barr to a New Years Eve drink in the Sergeant’s mess. A friendly gesture or is he simply seeking to embarrass the officer further? The real trouble begins when Greatorex suggests that he and Barr pop down the road for a quick drink with a nearby Highland regiment. It may be nearly the new year but they’re both on duty, so it would be something of a dereliction. But Barr, keen to prove that he’s one of the lads, agrees and he later pulls rank by insisting that he drives them back to barracks, despite being somewhat insensible.

So the blame is shared. Barr was responsible for the accident but had Greatorex not goaded him into making the trip in the first place then nothing would have happened.  But as the officer, Barr will be the one to shoulder most of the responsibility – unless the regiment closes ranks.

A little more meat is put onto the bones of Mann’s character in this episode. He’s still working late into New Year’s Eve and is very resistant to popping down the pub for a quick drink, despite the entreaties of the Staff Sergeant (the ever-solid Bernard Kay in an all too brief role). Eventually he does agree, which proves that he’s human – but the dour, workaholic John Mann is certainly a world away from Jack Regan.

We’ve previously seen how Mann has faced hostility from certain quarters during his investigations, but not the complete obstruction that he runs into here.  On the surface they’re pleasant enough – Captain The Hon. Ian Loder (Mark Burns) is courtesy itself – but everybody has their stories and they’re sticking to them.

Can Mann force someone to confess? Greatorex is unlikely to crack and neither is the mess Sergeant (Jack Smethurst). Smethurst sketches a nice performance with his limited screentime – it appears that the Sergeant spends most of his time sampling the stock or worrying about a visit from the weights and measures man!

Mann eventually manages to break through the wall of silence when Barr admits all.  All well and good, but he then makes a fatal mistake when he allows Barr to confess his crime to the Colonel (Ronald Leigh-Hunt).  The upshot is that Mann is appalled to later find a new suspect – Trooper Kelly (Harry Littlewood) – has been put into the frame whilst Barr is nowhere to be found.  Mann attempts to interrogate Kelly, but he gets nowhere – the Trooper is a mixture of Irish charm and sorrowful remorse.

It’s previously been mentioned that Mann is somewhat inexperienced and this episode was possibly designed to reinforce that fact.  For all his implacable questioning earlier on, he’s been undone thanks to one simple request which now means that there’s no way back – this time the ranks have firmly closed and he’s forced to admit defeat.

For an ex-copper like Mann, it chafes to see a guilty man go free but the Colonel holds a different view.  In time, Barr might become a more than decent officer, so why squander that potential over such a trivial matter? Neither of them are wholly wrong but neither are wholly right either and this is what makes The Orderly Officer such a fascinating watch – for once it’s not a matter of life or death, but that makes the drama no less compelling.

This was Giles Block’s first television appearance. He’s probably best known for playing Teel in the Doctor Who story The Dominators, although his list of credits isn’t particularly lengthy.  His television inexperience probably helped here, as Barr is supposed to be something of a greenhorn. As I’ve said, it’s a shame that Bernard Kay’s part wasn’t larger, but the rest of the cast is peopled with the usual roster of strong supporting players.

Although there’s a spot of location filming, Redcap‘s studio-bound nature is still in evidence. This is most notable during a scene which attempts to suggest a country road (a few sad twigs in the background do their best, but it’s painfully obvious that we’re still in the studio).  This apart, there’s little to quibble about in this episode since it’s another strong instalment.

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Obituary – Bernard Kay (1928 – 2014)

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I was sorry to hear about the recent death of Bernard Kay.  He had a lengthy career with some notable film appearances (such as Doctor Zhivago & Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) but many of his best performances were on television.

And one of his finest small-screen appearances must be the Tweedledum episode of Colditz (transmitted on the 21st of December 1972).  Michael Bryant played Wing Commander George Marsh, who decided to fake madness in order to get released from Colditz and gain repatriation to Britain.  Kay was Hartwig, the German soldier assigned to watch him.  Initially, Hartwig was convinced that Marsh was a fake and sought to prove this by various humiliating means.  Eventually though, he’s convinced and it’s Kay’s compassion that moved the story to another level.

Bernard Kay would become a familiar screen presence for decades, appearing in many popular series such as Out of the Unknown, Redcap, No Hiding Place, The Baron, Adam Adamant Lives!, Softly Softly, The Champions, Budgie, Z Cars, The Sweeney, Space 1999, Survivors, The Professionals, Grange Hill, Dick Turpin, Tales of the Unexpected, The Bill, Juliet Bravo, Remington Steele, London’s Burning, Coronation Street, Jonathan Creek, Foyle’s War and TV Burp amongst many, many others.

He also made four appearances in Doctor Who, between 1964 and 1971.  The first, The Dalek Invasion of Earth was opposite William Hartnell and he played Tyler – a member of the Earth resistance fighting the Daleks.  A few months later he returned to the series, as Saladin in David Whitaker’s The Crusade.

Since Kay (along with several other actors) was browned-up in The Crusade, this might mean that some people would view the story today as politically incorrect, but Whitaker’s script certainly wasn’t.  Kay’s Saladin isn’t a monster – indeed he seems to be just as rational as Julian Glover’s Richard the Lionheart (possibly more so).  As Richard blusters, Saladin is content to remain cold and logical.  It’s Kay’s best Doctor Who performance.

A few years later, he played Inspector Crossland opposite Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in The Faceless Ones and would make his final appearance in the series in 1971.  Jon Pertwee was the Doctor at the time and whilst the story (Colony in Space) is a little dull, Kay was, as usual, very good – this time as Caldwell, a man who finds himself increasingly at odds with his IMC (Interplanetary Mining Company) colleagues.

Kay was born in Bolton in 1928, and following his National Service he trained to become an actor at the Old Vic Theatre School.  Although the majority of his work was either on television or film, he was no stranger to the Theatre.  One notable early performance was as Macbeth in the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of  1952.  When the actor playing Macbeth had to pull out, Kay stepped into the part – with only 24 hours to learn the role.

Bernard Kay was always somebody who spoke his mind – and this is demonstrated in these fascinating interviews, conduced by Toby Hadoke for his Who’s Round Project – Part One and Part Two.  At times painfully frank, they provide a good insight into the personality of a fine character actor.