Colditz – Name, Rank and Number (2nd November 1972)

The third of three pre-Colditz episodes, this one centres around the travails of Lt. Dick Player (Christopher Neame). Having already followed an army officer (Pat) and a member of the air force (Simon) it makes sense not to leave the navy out, which is where Lt Player comes in.

Washed ashore in France, Player is taken to a nearby hospital. The French doctor who deals with him is either on his side or rather incompetent (he tells a keen as mustard German officer that Player won’t be in a fit state to be interviewed for at least two days – but as soon as the pair leave, Player opens his eyes and begins to plan his escape).

As Player moves through the hospital, there’s a vague element of farce to his frantic attempts to pinch some clothes (rather reminiscent of Jon Pertwee’s debut Doctor Who story). For example, he steals some trousers (much to the indignant chagrin of their owner) and, when looking for shoes, initially comes across a nice ladies pair.

The episode boasts some well played cameo performances. The first comes from Alistair Meldrum as a chatty German soldier who runs into the absconding Player. Next up is David Garfield as Diels (he’s the sort of actor – rather like Michael Sheard – who portrays cold German officers with casual ease).

Recaptured and forced to admit his identity, Player is interrogated by two Gestapo officers (played by Nigel Stock and Terrence Hardiman). Their scenes together are a highlight of the episode – Stock’s character (the senior of the two) appears to be full of bluster whilst the other (Hardiman) is seemingly more friendly. But you must always be wary of a friendly Gestapo officer ….

Hardiman, of course, would later appear in another Glaister series (Secret Army) playing a not totally dissimilar character. Neame would also be a Secret Army regular for a while (his character was written out at the end of series one).

Player is then released into the care of an old friend, Paul Von Eissinger (John Quentin). That Player has German friends (and indeed, can speak the language like a native) might explain why he’s not immediately slung into a prison camp.

Von Eissinger, like his friend, enjoys a privileged background and professes to be no friend of the Nazis. He paints a compelling picture – Hitler removed from power and an alliance forged between the new Germany and Britain (together they could rule the world). Quentin’s clipped, mannered performance is a slightly odd one, but his dueling dialogue scenes with Neame are still absorbing.

The viewer knows that Player’s brief stint of luxurious living with Von Eissinger will only be transitory, as the price on offer for his freedom is just too great for him to pay. The episode ends with his arrival at Colditz, where he meets some familiar faces (Pat, Simon) and some others that the viewer will get to know during the next few weeks.

These first three episodes have been much more than just padding, but it’s hard to deny that the pulse quickens just a little when we pass through the gates of Oflag IV-C for the first time …

The Cleopatras – Episode Eight

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The end of the previous episode made it quite clear that the power dynamic between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony was weighted entirely in Cleopatra’s favour.  Indeed you have to feel a little sorry for Mark Anthony as he finds himself obsessed and dazzled by Cleopatra’s beauty and becomes her pliant and willing slave.  Whether Michele Newell has done enough to convince us of Cleopatra’s mesmerising qualities is open to debate – personally I found Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe (Francesca Gonshaw), to be much more alluring, even though she only had the merest fraction of Newell’s screentime

When Cleopatra asks Mark Anthony to do her a tiny favour and kill her meddlesome sister it did raise my hopes that Gonshaw would have a more substantial role in this final episode, but alas she’s dealt with very abruptly (like most of the deaths in the series, it’s brief and almost abstract).

Christopher Neame continues to chew the scenery in an alarming way – witness his reaction early on when he realises that Cleopatra doesn’t want to sleep with him that night – and it’s interesting to compare his performance with that of Robert Hardy.  Hardy’s Caesar was equally as besotted, but he played it in a much more undemonstrative way.  Neame lacks any sort of subtlety which means he begins to grate after a while.

Octavian (Rupert Frazer) offers Mark Anthony a deal – the world divided up between them.  Anthony agrees (although with more than a hint that this won’t be enough to satisfy him).  Octavian seems quite content with his half though and proposes a way to cement the deal – he offers Anthony his sister Octavia’s (Karen Archer) hand in marriage (he agrees).  This sparks an imperial bout of sulking from Cleopatra …..

Needless to say they kiss and makeup and when Anthony decides to divorce Octavia it puts him on a collision course with Octavian, who’s more than a little miffed at the slight his sister has suffered.

Amongst the decadence at Cleopatra’s court, one man – his oldest friend Ahenobarbus (Matthew Long) – stands apart.  He views Cleopatra as a malign influence and has the nerve to tell her so to her face.  Before Ahenobarbus takes his leave, he tells Mark Anthony that because he loves Cleopatra “there’s no saving you from doing what legendary lovers do, dying for love. I shall die of something much more commonplace, like fever. But then I’m not the sort of person of whom legends are made.”

Although The Cleopatras ends with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang (a little of Neame’s overacting goes a long way) overall there’s a great deal to enjoy across the eight episodes.   Richard Griffiths, Ian McNeice, David Horovitch and Adam Bareham all made excellent – and very different – Kings of Egypt, whilst Robert Hardy was wonderful as the urbane Caesar (who it’s true had more than a touch of Seigfried Farnon about him).  During the series many actors flit on and off, some – such as Morris Perry and John Bennett – are memorably good, whilst others are memorably …. not so good, but we’ll spare their blushes.

The Cleopatras is a strange production which asks a great deal of the audience.   I think that in order to connect with it you have to embrace its highly theatrical nature.  Battles, riots and other major occurrences happen off screen and the sets are minimal (with scenes often played against plain black backgrounds).  One weakness is that too much was crammed in across the eight episodes, so at times it can feel rather repetitive – there’s an autocratic ruler, someone gets poisoned, the mob starts to riot, etc.

But although it’s a curio, it’s definitely worth seeking out.  It may sometimes baffle and frustrate, but it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining.

The Cleopatras – Episode Seven

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Cleopatra has a bombshell for Caesar – she’s pregnant.  He’s obviously delighted and after the child (as she predicted, a boy) is born, she visits Rome.  Cleopatra’s self absorption is made very plain within the opening minutes of this episode.  Her two maids, who are completely sycophantic in her presence, have a very different opinion of her when she’s not around.

Ammonius (Frank Duncan) is the Roman official who’s been tasked with preparing Cleopatra’s Roman villa.  When he mentions that he was a great admirer of her father, he receives a polite but cool response.  After she’s left the room her maids tell him that he shouldn’t “harp on about her father too much, she didn’t care for him. She cares only for herself. We recommend flattery, you can’t lay it on too thick.”

It’s interesting that Caesar later tells her that “you’re an intelligent woman, you like plain speaking. And you hate meaningless flattery.”  According to her maids she loves flattery – so who is closer to the truth?  Of course, the fact that Caesar tells her to her face that she hates flattery is a form of flattery in itself.  Caesar doesn’t seem very manipulative – Hardy plays him as an affable sort of chap – so maybe he’s sincere in what he says.

The only scene between Caesar and Mark Anthony is highly entertaining.  Caesar tells him of his desire to be crowned king, but can he persuade the republican loving Roman citizens?  Neame’s Anthony is full of boyish enthusiasm for his plans and exuberantly tells him so.  Compared to Hardy’s laconic Caesar, Neame’s Anthony is much more hyperactive.  Like some of the other performances throughout the series it’s not a subtle one, but there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from watching him chew the scenery.

For all Cleopatra’s self-centeredness, she did seem to be genuinely in love with Caesar – and he with her – and she takes the news of his assassination hard.  When Mark Anthony presents himself to her, she wonders why he “didn’t die protecting him? Or die with him?”  Mark Anthony’s equally as upset as her though, as is made plan as Neame full-throttles his way through the scene.

Familiar faces (and voices) who turn up in this episode include Geoffrey Chater as Perigenes, a plain-speaking Egyptian official.  Amongst his many credits he had a memorable recurring role as Bishop, opposite Edward Woodward in Callan.  John Moffatt, as Quintus Dellius, might not have been such a familiar face, but he was a highly skilled radio actor, playing the role of Hercule Poirot over several decades.

With Mark Anthony and Octavian victorious, Cleopatra should be glad that Mark Anthony is now ruler of half the world – but that’s not enough for her.  Julius Caesar ruled the world and she wants Mark Anthony to do the same ………