H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Crisis in the Desert

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Brady is approached by Colonel Warren (Douglas Wilmer) of Military Intelligence as one of their top agents, Jack Howard (Howard Pays), is being held prisoner in a Middle Eastern country.  Howard, badly injured after an abortive escape attempt, is being guarded in a high security hospital and only the Invisible Man – along with the alluring local assistance of Yolanda (Adrienne Corri) – has any chance of freeing him ….

Fictitious Middle Eastern countries, forever teetering on the edge of instability, would be a staple of ITC adventure series during the next decade or so and Crisis in the Desert is an early example of this genre.  Naturally, foreign location filming was beyond the series’ budget, so instead we have a reasonably dressed backlot (which doesn’t look too shabby, it must be said).

Ethnic actors would also tend to be in short supply whenever an ITC series headed abroad, so it’s no surprise to see British performers in all the main roles.  The eagle-eyed will spot Derren Nesbitt in the background, but the bulk of the action is divided between Corri as Yolanda, Eric Pohlmann as Yolanda’s associate Hassan and Martin Benson as the villainous Colonel Hassan.

These three, along with Wilmer, make Crisis in the Desert a very enjoyable watch.  Wilmer oozes charm as he persuades Brady (rather easily it must be said) to undertake a dangerous mission in the Middle East.  It’s interesting that Warren reacts with horror when Brady tells him he thinks he’s close to reversing his invisibility – it’s obvious that Warren needs an invisible man to rescue Howard, but it’s odd that he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that once Brady has perfected his formula it could be duplicated.  Creating a whole army of invisible agents would have obvious benefits.  Given this, it seems a little foolhardy to risk Brady’s life (and the knowledge that only he has) on this jaunt abroad.

Corri had already racked up an impressive list of credits before appearing here as the glamourous freedom-fighter Yolanda.  She looks very nice in a nurse’s uniform as well.  Pohlmann has less to do, only react to Yolanda, but he’s effective enough.  Benson is great fun as the sadistic Hassan – he opens the story by slapping Howard about and later suggests to an unfortunate surgeon (played by Derek Sydney) that he performs a little brain operation on Howard in order to make him more pliant.

Several actors black up – most notably Peter Sallis as Nesib, the ambulance driver.  This probably isn’t a performance that’s going to be at the top of his cv, but for a working actor of this era playing the most unlikely nationalities was an occupational hazard (Sallis would later appear as an equally unconvincing Chinaman in an episode of Sergeant Cork).

The main problem with Crisis in the Desert is that there’s no real need for Brady to be there at all, as although he sneaks around the hospital in his invisible state, Nurse Yolanda is in plain sight all the time.  As we’ll see, this proves to be something of a problem for the writers – often the gimmick of having an invisible man tends to be sidelined as Brady is shoehorned into plots that don’t require his invisibility skills to be utilised.

Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

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Time marches on alas, and it’s more sad news that another favourite of this blog – Douglas Wilmer – has passed away.

Blessed with a long life and a lengthy career, he was also fortunate that he seemed to keep his sharpness pretty much to the end – he was a pithy contributor to the BFI DVD release of his Sherlock Holmes series last year.

I’ve written in depth about Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes elsewhere on the blog, but suffice it to say that if you love Holmes,  or you love archive television,  then the BFI set is something you really should have in your collection.

And even if you have no interest in Holmes, there’s plenty of other fine Wilmer performances to seek out.  RIP Douglas Wilmer.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Superfluous Finger

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Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in The Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Derek Bennett

A top surgeon, Prescott (Laurence Payne) is perturbed when a young woman (played by Veronica Strong) asks him to amputate one of her fingers.  Prescott refuses since there’s no medical reason to do so, but on her way out she deliberately traps her finger in the door – forcing Prescott to accede to her wishes.  He later calls in Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) to untangle this strange mystery.

The Superfluous Finger was the second of two Professor Van Dusen stories to be adapted for series two of The Rivals.  The original story, by Jacques Futrelle, can be read here.

The story has a strong Sherlock Holmes influence, especially since it opens with a puzzling mystery (why should anybody wish to have a perfectly healthy finger amputated?).  Some of the other Holmesian touches were added by Julian Bond’s adaptation – such as Van Dusen being able to deduce that the woman recently travelled from America (due to her clothes) as well as his assertion that whilst he has many acquaintances he has very few friends.

Of course, having Douglas Wilmer in the lead role (a notable Sherlock Holmes himself) also helps to connect Van Dusen and Holmes.  But though there are some similarities between Wilmer’s portrayal of both characters there are also some fairly major differences.  Wilmer’s Holmes tended to be somewhat abrupt and humourless, whilst Van Dusen has a more light-hearted and ironic air.  Van Dusen seems to breeze through life in a rather detached way, rarely exhibiting strong emotions.

What connects the two is the delight they take in keeping their deductions to themselves.  Both are disinclined to share their initial thoughts with others (Holmes with Watson, Van Dusen with Prescott) for pretty much the same reason.  The others have seen what they’ve seen, so if they can’t draw the same conclusions from the evidence why should it be spelled out to them?

Van Dusen is aided in his investigation by the reporter Roderick Varley (Mark Eden).  It’s odd that Nicholas Courtney didn’t return as Hutchinson Hatch (especially since Hatch is featured in the original story) so I can only assume that filming dates for Doctor Who clashed with this recording.  But Eden is a more than adequate substitute and enjoys a decent part of the action.

This starts when he tails the mysterious woman in a film sequence which clearly had some money thrown at it.  We see hansom cabs with horses (one previous episode had a cab in the studio – but no horse – with a stage-hand clearly shaking it about to create the effect of motion!) as well as several extras walking up and down the street.  It’s a welcome moment of fresh air that does help to open out the story.

Varley later seems to find the woman murdered and is arrested by the police (in the form of Mallory, played by Charles Morgan).  Van Dusen has to go and effect his release, this he does in a wonderfully comic scene which showcases Douglas Wilmer at his best.  Charles Morgan was no stranger to playing Victorian policeman (thanks to his role in the long-running Sergeant Cork) and is just as good here.

William Mervyn (as Sir Hector Drummond) turns in the sort of eccentric performance that he possibly could have done in his sleep, but is amusing nonetheless.  And Laurence Payne is dependable as Prescott, the man who invites Van Dusen to investigate but finds it hard to hide his exasperation with the Professor’s unorthodox practices.

Although the story opens with an intriguing mystery it’s probably not too difficult to work out what the solution is long before Van Dusen tells us (the pre-credits sequence, added by Julian Bond, does tend to give the game away somewhat).  But whilst it’s not the most interesting story, Wilmer is once again good value as the eccentric Professor.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – Cell 13

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Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Reginald Colin

Professor Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) doesn’t believe Fielding’s (Donald Pickering) claim that the prison he’s designed is escape proof and says so to his face (Van Dusen states he could escape from any cell in any prison within seven days).

Fielding, slighted by this attack on his professional abilities, agrees to the challenge and so shortly afterwards Van Dusen finds himself at the imposing Grangemoor prison.  The governor (Michael Gough) and the chief warder (Ray Smith) are certain that escape is impossible and the odds certainly seem stacked against the Professor.  Seven locked doors lie between Cell 13 and freedom.  Can Van Dusen really just “think” himself out of the prison?

The Problem of Cell 13 was written by the American author Jacques Futrelle and was originally published in 1905.  It was the first of a number of stories written by Futrelle about Professor Van Dusen, nicknamed “the thinking machine” and was later included in a volume of short stories which can be read here.

Futrelle’s promising career was cut short following his decision to travel aboard the Titanic. He refused to board a lifeboat, insisting that his wife take his place.  This ensured that whilst she lived, he didn’t.  His last book, My Lady’s Garter, was published posthumously in 1912, with his wife May adding the following inscription.  “To the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate this my husband’s book.”

The peerless Douglas Wilmer is excellent as Van Dusen.  The Professor appears to be somewhat dreamy and remote, but it later becomes clear that he’s a man of rare intellect.  And Wilmer’s comic timing is used to good effect in the early part of the story, when he finds himself subjected to the attentions of the chief warder.

But as the days wear on, Van Dusen doesn’t seem to be any closer to escaping and his various attempts (a note thrown out the window, attempting to file the bars) seem to be both painfully obvious and terribly half-hearted.  Of course, he does manage to escape in the end – but for maximum impact this doesn’t happen until virtually the last minute of his seven days

In terms of the episode’s running time, this occurs at the end of part two – so part three allows Van Dusen to explain in detail just how he did it.  He also gets the opportunity to throw a few, well-deserved insults at the chief warder such as “it’s a pity you don’t exercise your wits as often as you exercise your tongue.”

With no actual crime, it’s much more of an intellectual exercise as well as an early example of the locked-room mystery, which would be a staple of the golden age of detective fiction.  And although it’s very much a vehicle for Wilmer, there’s some decent performances from the supporting cast. Michael Gough, Ray Smith, Clifford Rose and Donald Pickering are all worth watching (although Smith’s very fake beard and overly gruff voice are a little distracting).

It’s also nice to see Nicholas Courtney pop up in a small role and Derek Ware (a well-known stuntman) is the star of the pre-credits sequence (he plays a convict who attempts to escape, but is recaptured).  This sequence is notable since it’s shot on film (a rarity for The Rivals) and also at night, which gives it a glossy, expensive feeling – making a brief change from the usual, studio-bound nature of the series.

This is good stuff, thanks to Wilmer, and there’s another appearance from the Professor, later in the series, to look forward to.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Six

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If the whole series of Gurney Slade has offered a sly meta-textual commentary on the artifice of television, then this is taken to its logical conclusion in the sixth and final episode.

A group of executives pay a visit to the studio to observe the recording of an episode of Gurney Slade.  The recursive show-withina-show nature of the series is once again highlighted, as we then meet all of the characters from previous episodes.  They aren’t actors though – they’ve been created by Gurney’s imagination and now protest that due to his lack of thought they’re unable to live full lives.

The only character traits they have are the ones provided by Gurney – their other likes and dislikes are unknown and unknowable.  The prosecutor (Douglas Wilmer) makes this clear when he tells him that “I submit, Gurney Slade that you are guilty of providing us with inadequate lives.”

Gurney doesn’t believe it’s his fault though.  “All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the bit that the author gave them. They’re not like real people.”  This is a nod to Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which depicted a group of characters who complain that their author hasn’t provided them with sufficiently rounded personalities and motivations.

But can Gurney help them?  There’s a sense that his time is coming to an end.  As the arguments between the characters are played out, a shadowy man in the production gallery notes that Gurney only has twenty minutes left (as the episode time counts down).  The same man is also able to control Gurney (without, it appears, Gurney being aware of this).

But Gurney does seem to understand that he’s as artifical as the rest.  He knows he was born in the studio six weeks ago and he also knows that someone’s coming to take him away.  The floor manager and the executives regard Gurney with the same dispassionate interest as the cameras and lights – to them, he’s just another piece of machinery.  Are they right?

As with previous episodes, there are sly comments about the television industry in general and this programme in particular.  Gurney is described to the executives as someone who “has a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand. You pay it about five hundred a week and it’ll do practically anything.”

There are also moments that seem designed to touch upon Newley’s public and private personas.  For example, when he re-encounters the young girl (Anneke Wills) who fell in love with him in episode two, initially she’s still blindly in love with him.  But this is only because she (like the others) is a character defined by the character traits she’s been given by him.

When Gurney tells her that he pictured her aged eighteen or nineteen, she reacts to this by telling him that, in that case, he’s a little too old for her.  “Just think, when I’m thirty you’ll be forty. An old man!”  Newley and Wills would enjoy a relationship for several years following the recording of the series, but was there already something of a feeling of mid-life crisis in Newley’s psyche?  That sometime soon he’d find himself rejected by the younger women he desired?

Luckily for everybody (apart from Gurney) they’re offered new jobs by a gentleman from the Character Bureau.  The prosecutor, for example, lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at having to take her clothes off in a French film.  Therefore every character seems to have been pigeonholed as archetypes, or stereotypes, depending on your point of view.

“Cue Anthony Newley”

With those words, the programme enters its final moments with an ending that’s as memorable and as weird as the final episode of The Prisoner (Fall Out).  But as touched upon before, when The Prisoner was transmitted (some seven years later) the sixties were well and truly swinging – back in 1960 it certainly wasn’t.  This makes Gurney Slade’s wild flights of fancy even more remarkable.

Although doomed to be a noble, but flawed, experiment, thanks to the 2011 Network DVD release The Strange World of Gurney Slade has gained something of a new audience.  It’s also probably the best visual showcase for the talents of Anthony Newley, whose later career was notable for its peaks and troughs.

Below is one of the trailers for the series, which is as idiosyncratic as you’d expect and offers a final, mocking, commentary on a short, but exceptional, series.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Four

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Gurney Slade is on trial.  “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”  Given that by this time the series had been moved to a late-night slot (due to an alarming slump in viewing figures between the first and second episodes) this was a canny piece of prediction by Green, Hills and Newley.

Unlike the first three episodes, which were location based, this is shot entirely in the studio – which means that visually it obviously feels very different.  The courtroom set is quite basic – black drapes form the background, for example (giving a theatrical feel to proceedings).

When Gurney learns that the judge is the fairy-tale figure Princess Eleanor (who’s never laughed) he knows he’s got his work cut out.  Can he rely on his defending counsel, Archie?  Archie is a old-style music-hall comedian – modelled on the likes of Max Miller.  Possibly there’s something of Archie Rice (from John Osborne’s 1957 play, The Entertainer) in his style as well.  He offers a series of painfully unfunny jokes as part of Gurney’s defence, which makes Gurney believe he’d be better off defending himself.

The prosecuting counsel (a typically effective turn from Douglas Wilmer) is convinced of Gurney’s guilt and attempts to prove it by showing the jury a clip from one of his previous shows.  This is another self-reflective moment, as the clip is new – though it could have easily featured in one of the previous episodes.  We see Gurney sitting on a bus, musing about an advertisement showing a man who appears to be delighted about a new countersunk screw.

There then follows a series of arguments and counter-arguments about whether countersunk screws are funny or not.  An average family (the ones we saw in episode two) are called to the witness box.  The father says that the clip was clever.  Not funny, but clever.  The mother was less impressed.  “I didn’t understand what it was all about. Besides that, I don’t think it ought to be allowed. Bad for kids.”  As it turns out, that possibly wasn’t too far removed from the actual response of a good proportion of the audience.

With the jury being made up of twelve men dressed identically (in cloth caps and scarfs) it’s possible to sense a little contempt for the viewing audience.  This is a potentially difficult line to tread, but they seem to have got away with it (possibly because by this time, the people left watching had invested in the programme and its worldview).

Gurney interacts briefly with the jury – and they appear not to realise that he’s the one on trial.  When the foreman asks for a show of hands, Gurney is the only one who says not guilty.  He suggests they talk about it for a while (a clear nod to Twelve Angry Men).

If television is the main target in this episode, then the press aren’t immune either.  Before the jury come back with their verdict, Gurney is offered twenty thousand pounds for his life story.  He refuses, so the press turn to Leolia Plinge (“I will reveal everything.  I first met Gurney Slade at a beauty competition at Tufnell Park.”)

Gurney is found guilty – but he’s unable to be executed due to a problem with the axe.  It needs a countersunk screw to repair it, which makes the Princess laugh (and thereby gets Gurney off the hook).  It’s an ironic ending to an episode that, whilst it’s concerned with humour, isn’t particularly funny.

That’s not a criticism though.  There’s few laughs here, but it does have plenty of well-timed swipes at television makers, audiences, advertising and the media.  The stark setting and the minimal use of music helps to create a sense of tension and unease – which is unusual for a programme that’s supposed to be a comedy.  But by now it should be clear that Gurney Slade is a very unusual programme.

Douglas Wilmer in Sherlock Holmes – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax

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Holmes muses to Watson that in his opinion “one of the most dangerous things in the world is the drifting and friendless woman. She may be perfectly harmless in herself, but all too often, she is a temptation to crime in others.  She is a stray chicken in a world of foxes, and when she is gobbled up, she is hardly missed. I very much fear that some evil has befallen the Lady Frances Carfax.” This monologue is a preamble to Holmes’ request that Watson travels to the hotel in Lausanne (where Lady Frances was last seen) so he can investigate her sudden disappearance.

Holmes is convinced that the trip will do his friend good, since he’s observed that Watson has been feeling run-down lately.  Watson, of course, is amazed that Holmes knows this – and Holmes’ explanation (involving the way Watson’s shoe-laces are tied) is a classic Conan-Doyle moment.

Watson travels to the hotel and speaks to the manager Moser (Roger Delgado).  Moser mentions that Lady Frances seemed to be worried by a bearded stranger and there’s also the question of why she gave a cheque for fifty pounds to her former maid.  The manager is also able to tell Watson that Lady Frances spent some time in the presence of Dr. Shlessinger and his wife.  This seems to be a dead-end though, as Dr. Shlessinger is a man of piety and devotion who surely can have connection to the case.

Watson’s investigations continue, but it’s maybe no surprise to learn that all of his efforts turn out to be futile.  Luckily, Holmes is on hand to shed some light on this tangled mystery.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
was originally published in 1911. Like the preceding story adapted for the series, The Retired Colourman, it’s memorable for depicting an independent Watson, sent off to investigate by Holmes.  It’s just a pity that since this happened so rarely, the two were broadcast one after another.

But no matter, as once again we can enjoy the sight of Nigel Stock’s Watson in investigative mode.  As ever, Stock plays these scenes so nicely (witness the moment when Moser wonders if Watson is a detective and you can see Stock visibly grow in stature).  Of course, things don’t go very well and he has to be rescued by Holmes after he gets into a tussle with the bearded stranger.

Despite Holmes’ claims that he was too busy to make the trip, he has (after reading Watson’s initial reports) decided to come over after all – and Wilmer’s sudden appearance is delightful.  Holmes is wearing a very effective disguise and his ironic comment of “Dear me, Watson. You have managed to make a hash of things, haven’t you?” is one of the episode’s many highlights.

For those brought up with the efficient and unflappable Watsons of the Granada series, this may be a little difficult to take – but it’s totally consistent with Conan-Doyle’s original story.  As good as the Granada series was (for the most part) it’s fair to say that on occasions, their eagerness to redress the perceived imbalance in some of the previous portrayals of Watson sometimes pushed the character too far the other way (making him rather too capable).

This excerpt from the Conan-Doyle story is interesting –

To Holmes I wrote showing how rapidly and surely I had got down to the roots of the matter. In reply I had a telegram asking for a description of Dr. Shlessinger’s left ear. Holmes’s ideas of humour are strange and occasionally offensive, so I took no notice of his ill-timed jest.

The clear inference from this is that Watson is heading for a fall, since we know that Holmes never makes a frivolous request.  And the fact that Watson, after all his years of experience, should think so doesn’t reflect well on him.

It’s also worth viewing the Granada adaptation, which takes many liberties with the original story – including completely removing the plot-thread of Watson being sent to investigate Lady Frances’ disappeance (in the Granada version he’s already present at the hotel and sends for Holmes when he becomes concerned for Lady Francis’ safety).  All of Watson’s mis-deductions are therefore absent, which isn’t surprising since they would have jarred with the efficient and capable picture of Watson presented since series one in 1984.  It’s a valid decision, but it sits rather uneasily with the Granada’s original claim that they would return to the original stories and present them authentically (undoing the harm they considered was done by earlier portrayals, such as Nigel Bruce’s).

Thanks to Holmes’ intervention, it becomes clear that the bearded stranger is a friend not foe.  His name is the Hon. Philip Green and had Lady Frances’ family not objected, he would have married her years ago.  Joss Ackland (as Green) is completely unrecognisable (he’s sporting long black hair and a black beard).

One of my favourite actors, Ronald Radd plays Peters, the villian of the piece and a brief appearance by another favourite, Roger Delgado, is just the icing on the cake.  Holmes and Watson return to London and track down Peters (the erstwhile Dr. Shlessinger).  I love the moment when Holmes and Watson confront him.  Holmes warns Peters that Watson is a very dangerous ruffian and, after a moments pause, Stock raises his stick in a mildly threatening manner!  It’s only a little throwaway moment (possibly worked out in rehearsal) but it never fails to raise a smile.

Location filming in France helps to give the story a sense of authenticity and whilst there’s the odd production misstep (the body in the coffin looks very odd) all in all this is a very strong end to the series.

This would be Douglas Wilmer’s final appearance as Holmes in the series, as various factors made him decide not to return for a second run.  These included problems with scripts, directors and the news that series two would be made to an even tighter production schedule than the first.  For Wilmer (who considered that the quality of the series was already compromised) this was unacceptable, and it would be Peter Cushing who would have to deal with numerous production difficulties when the series returned in 1968.

It’s fair to say that the series suffers from the same problems of virtually every series of this era.  Boom shadows are a regular presence and the sets sometimes wobble (and so do the actors!).  The stories only had a limited amount of studio-time (with over-runs strictly frowned upon) so occasionally we will see scenes with technical problems (line-fluffs, malfunctioning props) that could have been resolved had the time been available for another take.

But the series also has all the strengths of television of this era – and the main strength is the sheer quality of the actors.  Peter Wyngarde, Patrick Troughton, Patrick Wymark, Nyree Dawn Porter, James Bree, Anton Rodgers, Leonard Sachs, Derek Francis and Maurice Denham are just some of the fine actors to grace the stories prior to this one.  And that’s not forgetting the numerous smaller roles which were equally well performed.

It’s not surprising that the lavish Granada series tends to be regarded as the definitive Sherlock Holmes television version as the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes will never be able to compete in a visual sense (the BBC series was much more studio-bound and therefore lacked the visual sweep of the Granada Holmes).  But these adaptations were as good (and as faithful, if not more so) to Conan-Doyle’s original stories.  Plus the first BBC series has an obvious trump card – Douglas Wilmer.

Few actors have ever been able to capture as well as Wilmer the icy, logical nature of Holmes.  Watson once called him “the perfect reasoning machine” and it’s this precise, mechanical nature that Douglas Wilmer portrays to perfection.  Many actors would have sought to soften him, but Wilmer stays true to Conan-Doyle’s original.  It’s a performance that never fails to impress, as Wilmer (even in the scenes where he has little dialogue) is always doing something that’s worth watching.

He’s complimented by Nigel Stock’s Watson.  It’s, at times, a rather comedic turn, but as I’ve mentioned it’s probably not as far removed from the original text as some people would think.

If you love Sherlock Holmes or you love 1960’s British television then the BFI DVD is a treasure.