Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1958/59) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of a rich miser, his substantial fortune is willed to his estranged son, John Harmon (Paul Daneman), on one condition – that he marries, sight unseen, Miss Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker).  But when Harmon is believed drowned on his journey home to England, the inheritance passes to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson & Marda Vanne), the loyal and faithful former employees of Harmon Snr.

The Boffins are good-hearted people, happy to share their new-found wealth with others.  To this end they adopt Bella as their daughter and employ the one-legged pedler Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to read to them in the evenings.  They also engage a mysterious young man now going under the name of John Rokesmith (who in reality is John Harmon) as their secretary.

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ final completed novel and was originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865.  The thorny topic of inheritance, a familiar Dickens theme, is a major feature of the story as is the notion that wealth can have a corrosive effect on those it touches.

Film or television adaptations of Our Mutual Friend have been fairly thin on the ground with this 1958/59 BBC adaptation by Freda Lingstrom marking the first time the novel was tackled (two further television adaptations, in 1976 and 1998, would follow).

Things begin a rather arch way, as the Wilfer family consider their lack of money. George Howe as Reginald Wifer, the nominal head of the family, has a nice henpecked comic touch but Daphne Newton, as Reginald’s domineering wife, does declaim in a somewhat stagey fashion.

The Wilfer Family

The first episode also allows us an early insight into Bella’s character. She tells her father that she’s “nether reasonable nor honest. One of the consequences of being poor and of thoroughly hating and detesting it”. She then goes on to describe herself as a horrid, mercenary little wretch.

Compare and contrast her attitude with that of John Harmon. On his way back home to England via a sea journey (the onboard sequences are effectively mounted, despite the confines of the studio) he explains to a fellow traveller that his inheritance is dependent on his marrying Bella. The fact he’s returning to England suggests that he’s considering acceding to his late father’s request, but he then explains this is dependent on Bella’s character. If she turns out to be an objectionable person then he’d be happy for his old friends, the Boffins, to receive the money instead.

This might suggest that John is a wiser and more noble person than Bella, but since he has the choice of returning to his vineyard in South Africa it’s plain that he has options, whilst she doesn’t.

Both Paul Daneman and Zena Walker make strong early impressions whilst Bruce Gordon, as George Sampson, gives a nice turn as Bella’s devoted suitor. When Bella breaks the bad news that she’s planning to marry for money, he’s a picture of angst (sucking his walking stick as a child might suck his thumb!).  George contributes little to the story, but can be guaranteed to pop up from time to time in order to provide a spot of comic relief.

Richard Leech casts a menacing shadow as ‘Rogue’ Riderhood, a waterman who was part of a conspiracy to murder John (another of the conspirators – Radfoot – planned to take John’s place, marry Bella and claim the inheritance). Leech gives a performance that’s somewhat on the ripe side but after a few episodes either he settles down a little or I just became more accustomed to it.

But if there’s ripeness from some, there’s subtler playing from others. Peggy Thorpe-Bates makes an immediate impression as Miss Abbey, the innkeeper of a raucous riverside tavern. Miss Abbey may be physically slight but she’s more than capable of dealing with her customers, even the intimidating Riderhood.

The first meeting between Bella and John isn’t auspicious. She later confesses that there were few people she disliked more at first sight. It might not be a surprise to learn that her feelings change as the serial wears on ….

As the episodes progress we’re introduced to all of the main characters. Richard Pearson is very agreeable as the generous and good-natured Nicodemus Boffin whilst Esmond Knight has delightful comic timing as Silas Wegg, an untrustworthy wooden-legged vagrant with a veneer of literary education.  Malcom Keen (whose career began in silent movies, Hitchcock’s The Lodger amongst them) also impresses as the sympathetic Jewish moneylender Riah.

Esmond Knight

David McCallum (whom the credits inform us was appearing courtesy of the Rank Organisation) plays Eugene Wrayburn, a well-educated barrister who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam (Rachel Roberts). Eugene is a somewhat arrogant person to begin with but, as with Bella, over time he grows and develops. It can’t be a coincidence that, like John, he is nearly drowned in the river (his near-death experience seems to trigger something of a rebirth in him, just as it did with John).

Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie is complicated by Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), who is also besotted with her (although she has little time for him). This love triangle, along with John’s continuing close observation of Bella, are major main plot-threads whilst other subplots (the machinations of ‘Rogue’ Riderhood and Silas Wegg amongst others) also simmer away nicely.

Although John Harmon might be the nominal central character, the conflict between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie’s hand in marriage is another highlight of the serial (both McCallum – even though he’s sporting a silly beard – and Scott provide standout performances).

Considering the limitations of this era of television, Our Mutual Friend is a polished production. If it wasn’t broadcast live, then it would have been recorded as-live (with only limited opportunities for retakes and editing). But across the twelve episodes there’s few obvious production stumbles (fluffled lines, miscued shots, etc) which is impressive.

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That studio space was at a premium can be surmised by the fact that each episode restricts itself to a handful of locations. A sprinkling of filmed material helps to open the production up a little, although a number of backdrops, used in the studio to create the illusion of scale and depth, aren’t always terribly convincing. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this serial and after a while it ceases to be an issue.

There are many fine performances scattered throughout the twelve episodes. Paul Daneman had a fairly thankless task, since John Harmon/Rokesmith is a very colourless sort of fellow (often a fate suffered by Dickens’ heroes) but he still manages to make something out of the role. David McCallum has more to work with, as Eugene is a complex, dissolute character who eventually finds redemption and love.  Esmond Knight is simply a treat, meaning that whenever Silas Wegg shuffles onto the screen you know that something entertaining is going to happen.

Many strong character actors – Rachel Gurney, Basil Henson and William Mervyn, amongst others – pop up from time to time. Another brief but vivid performance comes from Wilfred Brambell as Mr “Dolls”, the alcoholic father of Jenny Wren (Helena Hughes). Hughes herself is also noteworthy as the young, crippled dolls-clothes maker who has reversed roles with her father (she calls him a “bad child” and bosses him about without mercy).

The picture quality is pretty good throughout. The telerecording might show the limitations of the original 405 line transmission, but it’s still perfectly clear (some blurring on the bottom of the frame in the penultimate episode is probably the most visible fault). The soundtrack, apart from the odd crackle, is quite audible.

Freda Lingstrom’s adaptation manages to retain the flavour of Dickens’ dense novel and the generous running time (twelve half-hour episodes) is more than sufficient to ensure that all the characters are dealt with sympathetically. The serial-like nature of the original novel is kept intact, meaning that some characters may feature heavily in one episode but then not appear in the next as others take their place.  It’s true that everything gets wrapped up rather too neatly at the end, but that’s a criticism that needs to be laid at Dickens’ door rather than Lingstrom’s.

Lingstrom was a fascinating character. She created the BBC Radio strand Listen with Mother in 1950 and shortly afterwards became Head of BBC Children’s Television. Watch with Mother was a logical development for television and Lingstrom, in partnership with Maria Bird, would devise two of the most enduring of all pre-school children’s programmes – Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men.  This adaptation was therefore an unusual entry on her CV (and also her final television writing credit).

It’s fascinating to observe how the production battled to transcend its limited production values (most notably the lack of studio space) and whilst it may feature a few broad performances from the minor players there’s little else to find fault with here.  With so little 1950’s BBC drama available, it’s very pleasing to see Our Mutual Friend released and despite the six-hours running time the story rarely seems to flag.  Highly recommended.

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

Marda Vanne & Richard Pearson

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Six

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The slightly confusing nature of Rob’s fate remains unresolved at the start of the final episode.  He can hear Sapphire calling out to him, but it appears that he still remains hidden from view.  The entity pretending to be his father lures him down to the cellar, promising that he’ll be reunited with his mother.

Mrs Jardine (Felicity Harrison) appears to be there, but she’s facing the wall.  Her immobility and the time it takes her to turn around are both strong signifiers that something is very wrong.  And so it turns out to be – and the sight of her face (glowing eyes and waxy teeth) probably would have been responsible for causing nightmares amongst some of the younger viewers.

Rob is now stranded in the past – back in the 1700’s when the house was first being constructed.  He’s linked to the others in the present, and Lead attempts to keep his spirits up (as well as ensuring that he doesn’t fall foul of the dangers of time) with a rousing version of What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?  There’s a lovely juxtaposition between the full-blooded singing of Lead and the cool, calm deliberations of Sapphire and Steel as they ponder their next move.

Back in the 1700’s, Rob observes two soldiers carrying an open coffin – inside it is Helen.  Since she’s alive and well with the others in the present day this is a slightly inexplicable moment, albeit a chilling one.

Steel has come up with a solution, but they need to lure time down to the cellar.  A nursery rhyme read by a child will do the trick, and since Rob isn’t here there’s only one choice.  Sapphire puts up rather half-hearted resistance, but Steel easily gets his way.  Using Helen will clearly put her into danger, but it’s the only way – and this is a moment which serves as an early indicator that Steel will use anyone or anything in order to achieve his aims.

Helen’s mother – viewed as a shadow on the wall – attempt to call her back upstairs (another simple, but nicely produced, effect).  Helen pays no attention to it and slowly time is led into Steel’s trap.  Although it’s a pity that the final act – Lead crushing a stone which is obviously polystyrene – isn’t terribly convincing, but that’s only a minor niggle.

This first story ends in complete success as Rob and Helen’s parents are returned safe and well.  But not all of Sapphire and Steel’s adventures end so happily …..

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Five

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The danger is over – for now – but this news doesn’t please Steel.  He’s brusque and abrupt with everyone, especially Sapphire and Helen.  It takes a few patient words from Sapphire before he realises that he needs to unbend a little, and as he exits the kitchen he has a smile on his face.

Given how tightly wound Steel normally is, it’s very rare to see him smile.  It hints that there is a more (for want of a better word) human presence lurking underneath his cold, business-like exterior.  It would appear that he rarely feels comfortable in showing his emotions, possibly because he feels they are a weakness.  Sapphire is the complete opposite and therefore finds it easy to connect with Rob and Helen.  It’s an old storytelling cliché, but they are the two sides of the same coin.

With a six-part serial like this, there’s always the danger that the middle episodes will sag a little.  This probably would have been a particular concern here, because of the single location and limited cast.  So the introduction of Lead in episode four helped to refresh the narrative and another character appears in episode five to serve a similar function.

Rob’s father, Mr Jardine (John Golightly), suddenly appears out of nowhere.  The observant viewer will quickly deduce that this is simply time playing more tricks (like the voice that appeared to be Rob’s mother earlier in the serial, but wasn’t).  This once again poses questions – we’ve seen that time was able to manifest itself after both Helen and Rob were forced to recite nursery rhymes against their will, but what was the trigger here?  Was it simply due to Rob having a subconscious desire to see his father again, which time was somehow able to use?

The ersatz Mr Jardine is able to convince Rob that Sapphire and Steel are his enemies and that he and his mother have been hiding from them in the house all this time.  After all he’s seen, it’s a little hard to accept that Rob would so quickly change sides, but it makes for a dramatic twist.  Golightly, an experienced film and television actor, is smooth and convincing as Mr Jardine.

Once Rob agrees to go with his father, he disappears from the view of Sapphire, Steel, Lead and Helen.  But Rob and Mr Jardine are still in the house, although they’re unable to see the others.  Like many parts of the serial, this isn’t immediately explained, leaving the viewer to make up their own minds about what has and what might happen.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Four

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The previous episode concluded with Sapphire returning to the house pursued by the soldiers and ended on a close-up of Helen screaming.  A more effective, although possibly disturbing, cliff-hanger could have been created by allowing the action to run on just a little longer – this would have showed us a tense shot of Sapphire about to be beheaded.

Luckily Steel’s on hand to save her – by freezing the soldiers – although having to reduce his body temperature so dramatically means that his energy is temporarily spent.  That the soldiers were now full physical manifestations, whereas previously they had been insubstantial “ghosts”, poses more questions and seems to run counter to the events seen at the start of the serial, where time was depicted a subtle, non-corporeal manipulator.

A little more background is established after Rob asks Sapphire if there are any more like her and Steel.  She replies that there are 127, although Steel counters that there are only 115 (“you must never rely on the transuranics”).  This ties into the opening credits voice-over but it’s something that’s never developed – it serves as simply another tantalising hint about the nature and origins of the mysterious Sapphire and Steel.

It’s slightly coincidental that immediately after it’s revealed that Sapphire and Steel have colleagues, one turns up.  Lead (Val Pringle) is an imposing figure (at first sight Rob calls him a giant) but he’s a lot less frightening than he first appears.  He likes a laugh, that’s for sure, and his first question on seeing Sapphire is to wonder what food is in the house.  Like Silver, Lead is a good deal more frivolous than Steel, and the clash of their personalities is entertaining.  Lead provides insulation and chides Steel that he shouldn’t have attempted to lower his body temperature without him around.

Lead also brings news from home.  Jet sends her love to Steel, which amuses Sapphire no end whilst he tells them that Copper’s having problems with Silver again.  These throwaway lines hint at possibilities for future team-ups, but ultimately Silver is the only one we meet.

The ending of this episode is rather busy – Steel, Lead and Rob are upstairs attempting to prevent time from breaking through again, whilst Sapphire and Helen are in the kitchen.  They intend to burn all the nursery rhyme books in the house, although this plan goes a little awry when pages start to fly about.  Although it’s rather obvious they’re attached to wires, this isn’t too much of a problem since so much else is going on to ensure that a suitably apocalyptic atmosphere is created.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Three

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Steven O’Shea, as Rob, has a rather unenviable job.  Up until now Sapphire and Steel have been cool and unemotional, leaving Rob as the character who has to express a wide range of emotions from bewilderment to fear.  It would be a tough task for any actor, not made easier by O’Shea’s relative inexperience (he only had a handful of screen credits prior to this).  But after a rather histrionic turn during the opening few minutes of this episode he settles down nicely and interacts well with the much more experienced McCallum and Lumley.

Something has escaped from the locked room.  Its manifestation is very basic – a pool of light – but why bother to create anything more visually impressive when such a simple effect works just as well?   As the light moves secretly around the house, Sapphire and Steel ponder their next move.  Steel’s never heard of Olivier Cromwell, a fact which shocks Rob.  When the boy asks Steel if he knows his history, Steel replies that yes, he does.  It’s easy to draw the implication from this that Steel is an alien, although this isn’t explicitly stated (he could just be implying that he’s not British).

As the Cromwellian soldiers make another appearance, Rob buries his face in Sapphire’s shoulder.  It’s a non-verbal moment which shows her caring side – watch how she silently smoothes his hair afterwards – and possibly it was something worked in rehearsal.  The next line of the script has Steel asking Rob if this latest manifestation was the same as the previous one – a rather redundant question since Rob wasn’t looking that way at the time.

If Sapphire and Steel have seemed rather cocky up until now, then the plot-twist mid way through the episode wipes the smiles from both their faces.  Sapphire has been transported by the mysterious pool of light into a picture of a cottage hanging on the wall.  This poses numerous questions, most notably about how time could do such a thing.

We’re told that Sapphire is still in the house – time is simply creating the illusion that she’s somewhere else.  This illusion is a powerful one though, meaning that Steel and the others have to attempt to keep her grounded in reality – once she really believes that she’s in the cottage then she’ll be lost to them.

This is another effective part of the serial.  The camera focusing on a close-up of McCallum with Lumley heard only as a voice-over and then switching to the vaguely dream-like cottage bedroom, with an increasingly frantic Sapphire just about hanging on.

The cottage was the scene of a terrible atrocity during the English Civil War (which raises another question – how could time discern this from a painting?) and Sapphire looks set to re-enact this event.  Steel manages to bring Sapphire back, but the danger isn’t over ….

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Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Two

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A certain nursery rhyme – ring a ring of roses – was the trigger that allowed time to break through and steal Rob and Helen’s parents.  After Steel ripped the page out of the book he seemed to have assumed the danger was over, but hadn’t reckoned on Helen reciting the rhyme from memory.

This is a good indicator that Steel lacks any understanding of basic human behaviour.  As he later says to Sapphire, that’s why she’s here – he doesn’t see himself as a diplomat or as someone who needs to have any more interaction with people than is strictly necessary, it’s Sapphire’s job to reassure people like Rob.

She’s not doing very well though, as Rob now doesn’t entirely trust either of them.  He decides to tell the whole story to the police, who in the form of the local constable (played by Charles Pemberton) is due to arrive shortly.  As Rob unlocks the door to wait for his arrival, Sapphire and Steel appear at the top of the stairs.

They cast a sinister air, immobile and silent.  They make no direct attempt to stop him, but it’s plain that they hold the upper hand.  This feeling is strengthened when Sapphire innocently asks him if he speaks for both himself and Helen.  He says he does, but Sapphire is easily able to induce the girl to join her, which fractures their unity.  And when Sapphire puts the policeman into a time loop, Rob has to admit defeat.

Sapphire asks him to “please stop fighting us, and try to believe in us for once. We’re all you’ve got on your side! First a wall, then a room. What then? The house? A road… a village… a town. What next?” This seems to do the trick and even Steel – a flicker of a smile crosses his face when he enters the room – seems to be impressed by her powers of oratory.

We’ve already learnt that time can be destructive and capricious, but now we learn that it can also be intelligent and cunning.  It speaks to Rob, using the voice of his mother, pleading with him to open the barricaded door at the top of the house.  He’s persuaded by his “mother” to recite another nursery rhyme – goosey goosey gander.  This rhyme has long been linked to the English Civil War and the sight of Cromwellian-era soldiers, who suddenly appear on the stairs from nowhere, confirms that S&S is using this familiar interpretation.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode One

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All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

Sapphire & Steel was originally created as a children’s series, something which is most evident in the opening story, as two children, Rob (Steven O’Shea) and Helen (Tamasin Bridge), are the people in need of help from the mysterious “time detectives”.

Production limitations (an incredibly low budget) helped to shape the tone of all S&S‘s serials.  Small casts (with usually only a handful of main speaking roles), a handful of sets (only one of the six serials featured any location filming) and very limited special effects tended to be the order of the day.

The unsettling feel of this opening story is quickly established.  The location is a large, comfortable and old-fashioned house.  Whilst Rob is downstairs doing his homework, his mother and father are upstairs, reading nursery rhymes to their young daughter Helen.

The snatches of nursery rhymes used as incidental music is an indicator that the rhymes are designed to have a sinister, rather than comforting, air.  The feeling of unease can also be seen on Rob’s face downstairs – he doesn’t know why he feels his way, he just does.

The fact that we don’t see the faces of Rob and Helen’s parents is a deliberate move, it helps to make their brief appearance another discordant element.  When they vanish – after reading a nursery rhyme – Robert attempts to take charge (phoning for the police) although his constant reassurances to Helen that everything will be all right seems to be as much for his benefit as hers.

Shaun O’Riordan’s direction has a few notable moments, especially a long tracking shot – which moves from Helen, alone and frightened in the kitchen, down the corridor and to the front door.

The events so far have primed us for the arrival of Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) and their first appearance is a memorable one.  They adopt patterns of behaviour which will become familiar – Steel is brusque and business-like, whilst Sapphire is friendly and amusing.

The mystery of their arrival, as well as the fact that Steel knows Rob’s full name, is never answered – rightly so, since part of the tone of S&S depends on the fact that the title characters are inscrutable and unknowable.  But although Steel regards the presence of Rob and Helen as little more than an irritation, Sapphire attempts to explain what’s happened and why they’re here.

There is a corridor and the corridor is time. It surrounds all things and it passes through all things. Oh you can’t see it. Only sometimes, and it’s dangerous. You cannot enter into time, but sometimes … time can try to enter into the present. Break in. Burst through and take things. Take people. The corridor is very strong; it has to be. But sometimes, in some places, it becomes weakened. Like fabric, worn fabric. And when there is pressure put upon the fabric….

Sapphire is rather more playful and frivolous in this episode than she’d later become. She changes dresses and hairstyles in the wink of an eye several times, something which impresses Rob no end (who’s already a little in love with her).  But Steel’s on hand to bring the conversation down, telling Rob about the dangers in the house. “There are things – creatures, if you like – from the very beginnings of time, and the very end of time. And these creatures have access to the corridor. They’re forever… moving along it. Searching… looking… trying to find a way in. They’re always searching, always looking …”