Sherlock Holmes starring Douglas Wilmer (BBC 1964-1965) to be released by the BFI on R2 DVD (March 2015)

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It’s very welcome news that the BFI will be releasing the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes series on DVD next March.  Their press release reads as follows –

SHERLOCK HOLMES (4-DVD SET)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Classic BBC TV series.

Regarded by many to be the best incarnation of the Baker Street sleuth, Douglas Wilmer gives a career-defining performance in this celebrated BBC series. Intelligent, quick on his heels, and bearing a striking resemblance to the original Sidney Paget illustrations, Wilmer’s portrayal as possibly the closest to Conan Doyle’s original vision that there has ever been. In 2012, his status as legend within the Sherlock pantheon was cemented when he was asked to make a cameo appearance in Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch.

The first story in the series, The Speckled Band, was originally produced as part of the BBC drama strand Detectives. Appearing alongside Wilmer, as Holmes loyal companion Dr John Watson, was the great Nigel Stock. Such was the success of the adaptation that Wilmer and Stock were reunited a year later for a full 12-part series. With a supporting cast that included Clochemerle star Peter Madden as Inspector Lestrade, TV veteran Derek Francis as Mycroft Holmes, and guest starts such as Peter Wyngarde (Department S, The Innocents) and Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who), the popularity of the series gave rise to a second series, in which the role of Sherlock was played by Peter Cushing.

Presented for the first time on UK DVD, this long-awaited release also includes an array of fascinating special features, including two reconstructions of partially-surviving episodes, an alternative presentation of the Detectives pilot, an alternative title sequence, an interview with Douglas Wilmer and a number of newly-recorded audio commentaries

Special features
Original 1964 Detectives pilot episode The Speckled Band
All surviving episodes from the 1965 series
Alternative Spanish audio presentation of The Speckled Band
Alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client
The Abbey Grange episode reconstruction, featuring a newly-filmed sequence of Douglas Wilmer reading the first half of the story, followed by all surviving original footage
The Bruce-Partington Plans episode reconstruction, using all surviving original footage and original shooting scripts
Douglas Wilmer…on Television (2012, Simon Harries, 20 mins): the iconic actor discusses his career in British film and television
Five audio commentaries, including contributions from Douglas Wilmer and celebrated directors Peter Cregeen and Peter Sasdy, all moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke
Fully illustrated booklet with new essays and full episode credits
UK | 1964-65 | black and white | English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles | 650 minutes approx | Original broadcast ratio 1.33:1 | 4 x DVD9 | PAL | Dolby Digital mono audio | Cert: 12 | Region 2 DVD

Although the series has received a R1 release and a French R2 release, as the above indicates this will be the first UK release and the inclusion of the existing material from the two incomplete episodes as well as the Douglas Wilmer interview and commentaries are the icing on what looks like a very appealing cake.

A DVD review can be found here.

Out of the Unknown (BFI DVD Review)

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As I’ll be posting individual reviews of each episode as I move through the set during the next month or two, I’m going to take a quick look here at the content in general, the picture quality and also examine the special features.  The episodes and special features are spread across the seven discs like this –

Disc One
No Place Like Earth (+ audio commentary) (53 minutes)
The Counterfeit Man (59 minutes)
Stranger in the Family (53 minutes)
The Dead Past (+ audio commentary) (60 minutes)
Stills Gallery 1 (6 minutes)

Disc Two
Time in Advance (+ audio commentary) (58 minutes)
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…? (61 minutes)
Sucker Bait (+ audio commentary) (59 minutes)
Stills Gallery 2 (4 minutes)

Disc Three
Some Lapse of Time (+ audio commentary) (60 minutes)
Thirteen to Centaurus (60 minutes)
The Midas Plague (+ audio commentary) (63 minutes)
Stills Gallery 3 (3 minutes)

Disc Four
The Machine Stops (+ audio commentary) (51 minutes)
Lambda I (51 minutes)
Level Seven (+ audio commentary) (60 minutes)
Tunnel Under the World (52 minutes)
Stills Gallery 4 (9 minutes)

Disc Five
The Last Lonely Man (50 minutes)
Beach Head [reconstruction] (50 minutes)
The Naked Sun [reconstruction] (50 minutes)
The Little Black Bag [incomplete] (31 minutes)
An Interview with James Cellan Jones (16 minutes)
Stills Gallery 5 (19 minutes)

Disc Six
The Yellow Pill [reconstruction] (50 minutes)
To Lay a Ghost (50 minutes)
This Body is Mine (+ audio commentary) (49 minutes)
Deathday (48 minutes)
Deathday film insert (1 minute)
Stills Gallery 6 (8 minutes)

Disc Seven
Welcome Home (+ audio commentary) (50 minutes)
The Man in My Head (+ audio commentary) (48 minutes)
The Uninvited [reconstruction] (47 minutes)
Return of the Unknown (42 minutes)
Stills Gallery 7 (8 minutes)

The video was restored by Peter Crocker and the audio by Mark Ayres.  Both names will be familiar to some people via their work on the Classic Doctor Who DVD range, but the PQ on OOTU is a little more variable than the Doctor Who releases.  Crocker discusses the various reasons why this is the case in the booklet included with the DVD.  For the majority of the B&W episodes, existing tape transfers were used and then cleaned up as much as possible, although some (like Tunnel under the World) had so much damage that a full restoration was impossible.  Generally though, the picture quality is as good as could be expected.  The film sequences on some stories are out of phase (a common occurrence on material of this age) but it’s difficult to see how, given the time and budget, things could have been any better.

The menu screens are quite simple, with a static image and no music.

Apart from the audio commentaries (where the ever-cheerful Toby Hadoke teases reminiscences from both actors and technical staff) and a new 42 minute documentary, the most substantial extras are four reconstructed episodes.  Anybody who’s ever seen a Doctor Who recon will be familiar with how three of them (Beach Head, The Naked Sun and The Yellow Pill) are presented.  Available publicity photographs (along with a little CGI) have been married up to the original soundtrack to produce a pretty watchable experience.  The audios all sound pretty good (and subtitles can be switched on if there’s ever any muffled dialogue).  The audio of The Naked Sun is incomplete, so subs help to explain what’s happening during the audio-less sections.  Photographs for The Uninvited are thin on the ground, so the audio for this recon is matched up to the camera script.

Below are a number of screenshots from a variety of episodes. Although I’ve only scratched the surface of this release, it looks an impressive package, with a healthy selection of special features which help to place the original stories in context.

Trailer for the BFI DVD release of Out of the Unknown

With the release of Out of the Unknown less than a week away, the BFI have put this rather nice trailer up.

This link will take you to the BFI’s website, where there’s highlights of an Out of the Unknown panel moderated by Toby Hadoke and featuring director John Gorrie, SFX sound engineer Brian Hodgson and author Mark Ward.

For more info on the DVD set, please look here, here and here.

An overview of all four series can be found here.

BFI DVD of Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC 1954) now cancelled

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It’s disappointing that the BFI DVD of Nineteen Eighty Four, adapted by Nigel Kneale, produced by Rudolph Cartier and starring Peter Cushing, is still in limbo.  The original release date was planned for the end of 2014, then it was pushed back to March 2015.  At the time of writing this update (07/03/15) the DVD is no longer listed on the BFI’s website and the provisional release date has vanished from e-tailers such as Amazon, which indicates that it’s not going to appear any time soon.

This isn’t the first time that a DVD has been mooted only for it to never materialise.  The story starts in 2004, when it was announced that it would be released by DD Video.  This was exciting news and when DD issued a press release it became clear that considerable effort had been expended in order to present the programme in the best possible quality.  Their 2004 press release is reproduced below –

BBC CLASSIC SF DRAMA PAINSTAKINGLY RESTORED

Classic TV specialist DD Home Entertainment claims to have set a new quality benchmark on its restoration work for the 1954 BBC drama Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This early landmark of British television, which will be available for the first time ever on DVD and video on November 8th, required extensive work on it, but viewers will – according to DD – find the restored picture even better than when it was first transmitted.  In December 1954 videotape recorders (even for broadcast use) were two years away and existed, if at all, only in prototype form in research laboratories.

Since 1947 BBC engineers had been able to make crude recordings of TV pictures simply by pointing a film camera at a monitor screen.  However, dramas were not recorded until 1953 and Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the earliest surviving examples of the art-form. It was recorded at the time using an ingenious system of modified telecine machines.

New transfers of the film recording were commissioned from BBC Resources using its highest quality Spirit datacine equipment. Special arrangements were made with the BBC Film and Videotape Library for access to the archive master material, which cannot normally be used.

The new copies of the play were graded. This is the process of taking each shot (or even part shot) and adjusting the brightness and contrast. Dirty cuts (where a frame is made of superimposed and distorted pictures from two cameras) were removed or, where possible, repaired using paintbox techniques.

Next, every frame of the play was examined and film dirt, scratches and other defects were laboriously re-touched and pointed out by hand. Finally a video process was applied to give the studio sequences the fluid motion appearance that they would have had on original broadcast.

The result – one of the earliest surviving examples of British television has been restored to exceptional quality.

Nineteen Eighty-Four will be available from November 8th 2004

But the DVD was never released in November 2004, instead it was announced that it had been postponed due to a dispute with the Orwell estate.  The 1984 film of Nineteen Eighty Four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, had been released on DVD in 2004 and it appears the Orwell estate didn’t want the BBC version to be available at the same time.

After this, everything went quiet until the BFI’s press release in July 2014 announced they would release it as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder SF season.  And the even better news was that they intended to use the restored master prepared in 2004.

It could be that it’s been delayed in order for the BFI to source more special features.  There’s some interesting material that could be added, most especially the 1965 version starring David Buck (a remake of the 1954 script).  Although it’s missing a few minutes, it would still be a very worthwhile (and long!) special feature. Further information about this production can be found here, in an article written by Kim Newman.

Or it could be that the Orwell estate are once again flexing their muscles.  If so, it’s their last opportunity, since in a few years their copyright claim to this production will have expired and they’ll no longer be able to block it.

It does seem bizarre that the BFI would announce the release without ensuring that all the necessary clearances had been obtained (but then the same thing seems to have happened a decade ago, with DD Video having spent money on a restoration that remains unseen).  Whilst it’s hardly difficult to source a copy of the unrestored print via the internet, it was the restored programme (along with some decent special features to place it in context – like the Out of the Unknown and the forthcoming Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes DVDs) that the majority of us were keen to see.

For now, we’ll just have to wait and see if any more hopeful news surfaces in the future.  Anybody who is interested in more detail about the production may find this of interest.

Edit (Jan 2016).  Unfortunately the BFI DVD has now been cancelled.  The reason why isn’t known (possibly problems with the Orwell estate).  It does seem remarkable that both DD and the BFI prepared DVD releases which stumbled due to unspecified complications.  It possible that someone will try again in a few years time, but for now the restored version remains locked in the vaults.

The World At War by Taylor Downing (BFI TV Classics) – Book Review

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In his introduction, Downing writes that –

“The World At War is unique in factual television.  Forty years after its first transmission it is as popular, possibly even more popular, than it was when first shown.  Factual channels that were not in existence when the series was made eagerly compete to show it today.  This is as true in the US and in many other major television markets, as it is in the UK.  No other factual series can claim this.”

The stature and enduring appeal of The World At War makes it an ideal programme to merit an entry in the BFI’s Film & TV Classics series.  Each book offers a concise, well-written overview of its subject as although Downing’s book is only 180 pages, it manages quite effectively to describe the factors that enabled Thames Television to undertake what was an expensive, time-consuming and potentially very risky programme.

When The World At War entered production in 1971, there hadn’t been a major British television documentary series produced about WW2.  The BBC had been mulling over  various ideas for some time but hadn’t made any firm commitments.  And Paul Fox, the then controller of BBC1, was of the opinion that since the BBC had only recently launched colour television, a lengthy documentary series featuring mainly black and white footage wouldn’t be a good idea.

Over at Thames, there was more interest in the idea and the return to power of the Conservatives in 1970 was a key factor in kick-starting the production of The World At War.  Under the previous Labour government, all the ITV companies were required to pay a hefty Levy to the government for the privilege of operating an independent television licence.  The Conservatives substantially reduced the amount of the Levy, which immediately freed up substantial funds which could be put into new programming.

Jeremy Isaacs, an experienced programme-maker at both the BBC and ITV, knew that the reduction of the Levy meant that the time was right to make the series.  The speed at which it was green-lit was remarkable and it’s impossible to imagine a similar scenario happening today.  Within twenty-four hours the Managing Director of Thames, Howard Thomas, had agreed and the wheels started to move.

In retrospect this was a big risk, as the Thames board hadn’t been consulted and neither had the other ITV regions.  At this time, the dozen or so ITV regions all had to agree to network their programmes, so if the other regions had decided not to take The World At War then it would have been a major blow.  Twenty-six prime-time slots devoted to a WW2 documentary was a substantial undertaking, but Thames were happy to leave thoughts such as scheduling to a later date.

The first thing that Isaacs needed was to get a major figure onboard as a historical consultant.  Dr Noble Frankland, Director of the Imperial War Museum was an obvious choice, but he had not enjoyed the experience of working with the BBC a decade earlier on their WW1 series The Great War.

Frankland felt that on far too many occasions The Great War had used archive footage incorrectly by failing to distinguish when it had been reconstructed or faked.  He was heartened to learn that Isaacs shared his desire to be rigorous with the use of archive footage and happily agreed to work as the consultant on the series.

Taylor Downing deftly examines the various production processes that over the course of the next three years were responsible for bringing the twenty-six episodes into existence.

Several different directors worked on individual programmes and they all brought something different to the subjects tackled.  The availability of footage and interviewees also affected each episode, so that some featured only scant footage and relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and vice-versa.

Downing also discusses the role played by composer Carl Davis and narrator Laurence Olivier.  Olivier and Davis contributed to all twenty-six episodes and so they helped to give a unity to the overall series.  The inclusion of a major figure like Olivier was deemed essential by Thames’ management, and was somewhat against the wishes of Isaacs, and Downing feels that his mannered delivery is something that now dates the series.  I’d disagree with this as Olivier’s narration, for me, tends to always be spot on – and his narration is only used sparsely, as generally either the pictures or the eye witnesses are used to tell the story.

Also examined by Downing is the style of documentary that The World At War was and its enduring legacy.  Whilst, he concedes, it was out of date almost as soon as it was first broadcast (the revelations of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, came to light just too late to be used) the programme’s main themes and its use of first-hand testimonies means that it remains a series that is still able to resonate with audiences today.

Episode 20, Genocide, which documents the terrible events of the Holocaust, is just as uncomfortable to watch today as it was forty years ago, but the impact of both the footage and the eye-witnesses from both sides remain undimmed.  Many episodes of The World At War are outstanding, but surely none more so than this one.

Downing concedes that the series isn’t perfect, as although it presented a more global picture of the war than had previously been seen, there are still omissions – China and Poland, for example, are barely mentioned.

Overall, Downing’s book provides the reader with a clear overview and is the perfect companion to this landmark British documentary series.

Look and Read – The Boy From Space. Series overview and BFI DVD review

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Look and Read (1967 – 2004) was a long running BBC Schools programme that is fondly remembered by several generations of school-children.

Its aim was to help less developed readers gain confidence but the drama segments (each twenty minute episode would be a mix of studio based learning lessons and a continuing serial) ensured that the programmes appealed to most children.

The Boy From Space was the third in the Look and Read series, originally broadcast between September and November 1971 and was scripted by Richard Carpenter.

Carpenter had started his career as an actor and during the 1950’s and 1960’s he racked up an impressive list of credits on shows such as Z Cars, Softly Softly, Emergency Ward 10, No Hiding Place, Sherlock Holmes, Dixon of Dock Green and Strange Report.  But by the late 1960’s he had decided to change course and become a writer.

His first series, Catweazle, was an instant success.  Broadcast on LWT between 1970 and 1971, it starred Geoffrey Bayldon as a magician from Norman times who found himself adrift in the modern world and totally unable to understand many of the simplest things we take for granted.

Carpenter would continue to notch up an impressive list of writing credits over the next few decades (creating The Ghosts of Motley Hall, Dick Turpin and Robin of Sherwood, amongst others) and he also penned several further serials for Look and Read – Cloud Burst (1974) and The King’s Dragon (1977).

Turning back to the original 1971 broadcast of The Boy From Space, it comprised 10 episodes of 20 minutes duration.  Although it was repeated several times up until 1973, sometime after that the tapes were wiped which meant that that only the drama inserts remained.

At this point in time the majority of BBC programmes were made and broadcast on videotape.  Videotape was expensive and could be re-used, hence the reason why so many shows from this era are lost for ever – as periodically the tapes would be wiped so that new recordings could be made.

Film, however, could not be re-used, which explains why these sections of The Boy From Space remained in the archives.

In 1980 BBC Schools were looking around for a new Look and Read serial, so it was decided to use the material shot in 1971 along with newly created learning inserts.  And as the original music was lost Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop was commissioned to write a new score.

Wordy and Cosmo
Wordy and Cosmo

The 1980 series was presented by Phil Cheney as Cosmo with Charles Collingwood providing the voice of Wordy whilst Katie Hebb was the puppeteer who brought him to life.  Derek Griffiths led the team of singers who performed the educational songs.  The cast list from the 1971 drama inserts was as follows –

Anthony Woodruff as Mr Bunting
Colin Mayes as Peep-peep
Gabriel Woolf as Peep-peep’s father
John Woodnutt as the thin space-man
Loftus Burton as Tom
Stephen Garlick as Dan
Sylvestra Le Touzel as Helen

As with the 1971 series, it was broadcast over 10 episodes –

01 The Meteorite (15 Jan 1980)
02 The Spinning Compass (22 Jan 1980)
03 The Man in the Sand-pit (29 Jan 1980)
04 In danger! (5 Feb 1980)
05 The Hold-up (12 Feb 1980)
06 Where is Tom? (26 Feb 1980)
07 The Hunt for the Car (4 Mar 1980)
08 The Lake (11 Mar 1980)
09 Captured! (18 Mar 1980)
10 In the Spaceship (25 Mar 1980)

It’s fair to say that The Boy From Space is an odd viewing experience.  The drama sections concern two children, Dan (Stephen Garlick) and Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) who, whilst out stargazing, spy an object plummeting to the earth.  They decide to explore and discover a crashed space-ship.

Peep-peep
Peep-peep

Amongst the ship’s inhabitants is a young alien boy christened “Peep-peep” by the children due to his backwards language.  But there is danger from another alien who the children refer to as  “the thin space-man”, played by John Woodnutt.  He seems to have a hold over their new friend from space and this puts them all in danger.

Whilst this is obviously quite low budget, there’s plenty of merit here.  The child actors are pretty good (Le Touzel would go on to have a lengthy career) whilst Gabriel Woolf and John Woodnutt are as solid as you would expect.  Another plus point is the score by Paddy Kingsland.  Anybody who loves early eighties Doctor Who music will find much to appreciate.

The thin space-man
The thin space-man

The educational inserts may be of less interest to some, but thanks to the comprehensive package prepared by the BFI, there are several different viewing options.

You can either watch the series as broadcast in 1980 or there’s an option to view just the drama sequences in a new 70 minute edit on the second disc.

There’s also two versions of the BBC Schools LP recording.  The first is the original audio, with narration from Wordy himself and the other marries footage from the show along with the LP audio.

The original LP cover
The original LP sleeve

In addition to this, there’s Wordy’s Think-ups (animated lessons from the episodes), PDFs of the school brochures from both broadcasts and an interesting booklet which contains information about BBC Schools programmes in general as well as detail on the Look and Read series.

The DVD is part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder series of releases.  Also available now is The Changes, with others such as Nineteen Eighty Four and Out Of The Unknown to follow later in the year.

The series by itself would have been a worthwhile purchase but the supplementary features mean that it’s an even more attractive package. It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s nice to see the BFI releasing something slightly left-field like this. Hopefully there will be more to follow in the future.

Commentary participants for Out Of The Unknown (BFI DVD) announced

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The commentary participants for the forthcoming BFI DVD of Out Of The Unknown (to be released in October 2014) have been announced by Toby Hadoke on his website.

All commentaries are moderated by Toby and they feature a comprehensive collection of guests –

No Place Like Earth with Mark Ward (Out Of The Unknown expert) and Dan Rebellato (playwright, lecturer and John Wyndham expert).

The Dead Past with John Gorrie (director) and Brian Hodgson (Special Sounds).

Time In Advance with Peter Sasdy (director), Wendy Gifford (Polly), Philip Voss (Police Officer) and Danvers Walker (Dan).

Sucker Bait with Clive Endersby (Mark), Roger Croucher (Fawkes).

Some Lapse Of Time with Roger Jenkins (director), John Glenister (PA), Jane Downs (Diana Harrow) and Delena Kidd (Dr Laura Denville).

The Midas Plague with Peter Sasdy.

The Machine Stops with Philip Saville (director), Kenneth Cavander (adaptor), Michael Imison (story editor).

Level 7 with Mordecai Roshwald (author), Michael Imison (story editor).

This Body Is Mine with John Carson (Allen).

Welcome Home with Moris Fahri (writer), Bernard Brown (Bowers Two).

The Man In My Head with Peter Cregeen (director), Tom Chadbon (Brinson), Jeremy Davies (designer).

Given the short time that was available to record these commentaries, the range of participants assembled Is extremely impressive.  The 11 commentary tracks should shine plenty of new light on the making of these stories and they promise to be one of the highlights of an impressive sounding package.

The complete list of extras can be found here.

A brief history of Out Of The Unknown is here.