The Saint – The Romantic Matron

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Simon, this week in Argentina, meets a charming American lady called Beryl Carrington (Ann Gillis).  She tells him that a recent acquaintance – the personable Ramon Venino (John Carson) – has entrusted her with a list of political dissidents which he says will be vital in ensuring the future stability of the country.  Beryl passes the list to the Saint, who instantly comes under attack from the ungodly.  This raises Simon’s suspicions that the friendly Venino may not be all he appears to be ….

The Saint, like most ITC series of the time, requires a certain suspension of disbelief.  The opening stock footage and caption might tell us that we’re in Buenos Aires, but it quickly becomes clear that the filming was done a little closer to home.  Sometimes the programme makers can strike lucky and find a British location that does a fair job of doubling for this week’s foreign locale (or if not, they can simply stick a few palm trees into the frame and hope that does the trick!)

Alas, the opening of The Romantic Matron is one of the series’ less impressive location gambits.  We switch from Simon, relaxing at a pavement café, to a ridicously ugly building that isn’t at all in harmony with the attractive stock footage we’ve just witnessed.  For the dedicated ITC watcher, this will be a familiar sight – it’s the Elstree studios in Borehamwood.

Before we meet Beryl, there’s the little matter of the daring theft of one million dollars worth of gold bullion to consider.  The local police inspector (played by Patrick Troughton) resolves to hunt the criminals down.  If you’ve seen the Doctor Who story The Enemy of the World, then you might be able to guess what accent Troughton adopts – clearly it was his one size fits all solution when playing foreign types.

From the first time we see her, Beryl is presented as an innocent aboard.  Which is presumably why she’s targeted by the smooth and polished Venino (although since she’s only just arrived in the county it’s a slight mystery how he picked her out so quickly).  Venino shows her the sights, but there’s always a dark shadow dogging him – he’s followed everywhere by two silent men.

And what’s Simon doing whilst Beryl and Venino are becoming better acquainted and making googly eyes at each other?  Not a great deal, it has to be said.  This is another of those stories where the Saint remains off-screen until well into the episode – before that, Ann Gillis and John Carson take centre stage.

The title might suggest that Beryl, the romantic matron, is middle-aged, but Ann Gillis was only in her mid thirties at the time of recording.  As a child, she starred in a number of Hollywood films (seemingly positioned as the next Shirley Temple).  Her adult acting career was less prolific, although she notched up appearances in several other ITC series during the early 1960’s (EspionageThe Sentimental Agent).  Gillis is rather appealing as the ingenious adventurer – suddenly emboldened by her whirlwind romance with Venino.

John Carson’s second Saint role is much better than his first.  He’s still playing a foreigner, but at least this time he’s not browned up.  Always a favourite actor of mine, Carson manages to breathe a little life into a character that’s – possibly deliberately – not terribly well defined.

Once Beryl meets Simon and pours out her strange tale, then the story begins to pick up some impetus.  The Saint wasn’t a series which tended to dig too deeply into real-world politics, so the brief discussion here about Argentina’s current situation is fairly noteworthy.  Simon begins by pointing out how the people still seem to be a little nervous (a legacy, he claims, of decades of dictatorship).  However, things now seem to be on a more even keel thanks to the fairly popular government, suggesting that the story was set prior to March 1962 (which saw the moderate President Frondizi overthrown).

If this talk of politics seems a little dull, then never fear – it isn’t too long before Simon gets to duff up a couple of heavies.  It’s a cracking fight scene, with the Saint operating at full intensity (I especially like the way he slaps the second one around the face a few times before pushing him and his friend over and then toppling his bed onto them for good measure!)  You can tell it’s been a pretty severe tussle as Roger Moore’s usually immacuately coiffered hair is in a very distressed state by the end ….

The Saint gets a pretty good workout during this episode, as he’s later duffed up in a garage and then strung up for good measure. It looks fairly uncomfortable, but luckily Simon doesn’t stay trussed up for long.

The riddle of the missing gold bullion possibly isn’t too difficult a mystery to solve (especially when you discover that Venino – having bumped into Beryl’s car – was extremely keen to have the damage repaired at a local garage, all costs paid by him).

Larry Forrester’s teleplay relocates the action from Cuba to Argentina, but otherwise it sticks quite closely to Charteris’ story (originally published in 1958).  It’s mildly interesting that the crux of the story – Venino attempts to smuggle the stolen gold out of the country by fashioning solid gold bumpers (suitably camouflaged) onto Beryl’s car – was a plot point echoed in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, published in early 1959.  Did the one inspire the other, or was it just coincidence?

Fleeting appearances by some familiar faces (Patrick Troughton, Victor Spinnetti, Joby Blanshard) helps to keep the interest ticking along, but truth be told The Romantic Matron never quite sparks into life.  Gillis and Carson are both good and Roger Moore seems to relish the opportunity to handle a bit more action than usual, but the basic plot isn’t really that gripping.  Three halos out of five.

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Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of his mother in childbirth, the young Oliver Twist (Bruce Prochnik) is placed in the indifferent care of the state.  His childhood is a miserable one and eventually he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he encounters the devious Fagin (Max Adrian) who has no compunction in manipulating the trusting and naïve Oliver to serve his own ends ….

Published between February 1837 and April 1839, Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel and remains one of his evergreen tales, evidenced by the numerous film, television and stage adaptations it has inspired.  David Lean’s 1948 film and the stage/film musical by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) are possibly the most memorable, although there have also been multiple television adaptations as well.

This one, broadcast between January and April 1962, was the first BBC version and as might be expected remained very faithful to the original novel.  Constance Cox had already adapted Bleak House and would go on to tackle several other classic Dickens novels during the 1960’s (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewitt, A Tale of Two Cities) although sadly out of those three only a few episodes from A Tale of Two Cities currently exist.

Bruce Prochnik, playing the eponymous Olivier, had a pretty short television career (1961 – 1965) with Olivier Twist by far his most substantial role (he had a handful of later credits in series such as Taxi! and Emergency Ward-10).  It’s interesting to note that post-Olivier he popped up a couple of times on Juke Box Jury.  Clearly this serial had been successful enough to turn him into a household name for a short time.

An early signature moment occurs when Olivier, by this point a starving inmate of the workhouse, timorously asks for another bowl of gruel. There’s a grimy hopelessness about these early episodes. Workhouse life is shown to be hard and unrelenting (with a piece of bread, once a week on Sundays, about the only thing the boys have to look forward to).

Bruce Prochnik

Mr Bumble (Willoughby Goddard), the Parish Beadle, is shocked by Oliver’s behaviour. It’s hard to imagine anybody could have been better cast as Bumble than the corpulant Goddard, who’s always a pleasure to watch.

Olivier’s insurrectionist behaviour makes him an embarrasment to the workhouse board, so they decide to remove the problem. He’s apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry (Donald Eccles), although it’s debatable whether he’s better off here than he was in the workhouse. Mrs Sowerberry (Barbara Hicks) certainly has little time for the boy (Oliver’s first meal are the cold scraps which had been left out for the dog). Hicks, who had gone way over the top in Barnaby Rudge, is thankfully more restrained in her brief appearance here.

Once this section of the story is completed, the action moves to London where the innocent Olivier falls in with the worst crowd impossible.  Two very familiar actors (Melvyn Hayes and Alan Rothwell) appear as the Artful Dodger and his wise-cracking sidekick Charley Bates. Both Hayes and Rothwell make for appealing rogues, although their roles in the story are fairly slight.

It’s the grotesque Fagin (Max Adrian) and the intimidating Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughan) who will come to dominate the narrative.  Adrian was a noted classical stage actor who also managed to carve out an impressive film and television career. Across the decades Peter Vaughan would rack up some memorable appearances in Charles Dickens serials and his portrayal of Bill Sikes is a typically impressive one – from the moment we first meet him there’s an air of menace and simmering violence in the air.

The corruption of the green Oliver (Prochnik continues to radiate a sense of wide-eyed innocence) by Fagin, Dodger and Charley is another horrifying and distubing scene. Far removed from the chirpy cockney sing-alongs of Oliver!, this adaptation accurately reflects the bleakness of Dickens’ original novel.

Max Adrian & Bruce Prochnik

As the serial progreases, the plot-threads deepen. Why does a gentleman like Monks (John Carson) consort with the likes of Fagin and why is Monks so insistent that Fagin keeps a tight grip on Oliver? Carson, later to take the lead in Dombey & Son, was one of those actors who enhanced any production he appeared in (his tortured, conflicted Monks is no exception to this rule).

Everybody we’ve met so far has either mistreated Oliver or desired to use him for their own ends, so it’s therefore jolting when he finally runs into somebody who treats him with kindness. Mr Brownlow (George Curzon) initially accused the blameless Oliver of picking his pocket (Dodger and Charley were responsible). The contrite Brownlow takes him home and nurses the emaciated boy back to health.

Now that Oliver has a benevolent benefactor, his luck finally seems to have changed. But Fagin and Sikes, convinced that Oliver intends to inform on them, are determined to snatch him back ….

Bill Sikes’ relationship with the prostitute Nancy (Carmel McSharry) runs through the middle part of the serial with Nancy’s most famous scene – her murder at the hands of a vicious Sikes – proving to be a shocking moment. Although it’s not graphically violent, Vaughan and McSharry manage to give the scene considerable resonance by their performances alone.  Sikes’ clubbing to death of the unfortunate Nancy was deemed to be so disturbing that it was later edited down before the serial was offered for sale (the prints we have here were recovered from overseas, hence the reason why they’re slightly edited at this point).

Poor Olivier is again ensnared in Fagin’s web of crime although it’s not too long before he finds himself free once more.  It slightly stretches credibility that Olivier would stumble across another well-to-do family who elect to take him in, although this sort of plotting (and remarkable coincidences regarding Olivier’s parentage) are par for the course with early Dickens.

The production – as with the other Dickens serials recently released by Simply – is very studio-based. Photographic blow-ups of buildings are used to give a sense of depth (these work pretty well, although there’s no doubt that on the lower-definition television sets of the 1960’s the illusion would have been even more convincing). Sound-effects are utilized to generate a sense of hustle and bustle whilst Ron Grainer’s incidental music is used sparingly at key moments.

If Bruce Prochnik begins to irritate after a while (his Olivier is rather squeaky and a little too clean-cut) then there’s substantial acting compensations to be found elsewhere. Apart from those already mentioned, Peggy Thorpe-Bates and the always entertaining William Mervyn help to enliven proceedings.

The telerecordings were restored by Peter Crocker at SVS (Crocker, well known in archive television circles for his work on the Doctor Who DVDs, is the very definition of a safe pair of hands). VidFIRE seemed to be out of the question (presumably because the telerecordings weren’t of a sufficent standard) but the restoration helps to make the serial a more pleasant viewing experience than it would have been before.

Whilst there’s numerous adaptations of Olivier Twist to choose from, this one – thanks to the fidelity it displays to Dickens’ original novel and the performances (especially Peter Vaughan’s rampaging Bill Sikes) – is certainly worth checking out.  Recommended.

Olivier Twist is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Melvyn Hayes, Carmel McSharry & Peter Vaughan

Dombey & Son (BBC, 1969) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Paul Dombey’s (John Carson) fondest wish is for a son to carry on his thriving business.  As the story opens, his wife duly delivers a baby boy who is swiftly named Paul after his doting father.  Although Mrs Dombey dies shortly afterwards, this seems to have a negligible impact on Dombey as his son quickly becomes the centre of his life (with the result that his daughter Florence is pushed even more into the background).

When young Paul dies at the age of six, Dombey Snr is devastated.  Florence attempts to comfort him but he continues to rebuff her, which eventually leads to a seemingly irrevocable split between father and daughter ….

Originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between October 1846 and April 1848, Dombey & Son, despite being regarded by many as one of Dickens’ best works, has generated surprisingly few film or television adaptations.  In the cinema, a 1917 British silent film and a very loose 1931 adaptation (which was renamed Rich Man’s Folly and saw the action transferred to the United States) are the only examples.  On television there have been just two English-language versions – this one and a later BBC Classic Serial adaptation in 1983.

The first episode quickly defines Dombey’s character. He’s a proud, dignified and extremely humourless man who treats his young daughter, Florence (played to begin with by Vicky Williams and later by Kara Wilson), with at best indifference and at worst contempt. John Carson, an actor who was seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, impresses right from the start. Unbending as Dombey might be, Carson doesn’t play him as simply a monster, instead he offers a much more nuanced performance.

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John Carson

Although Dombey is something of a dull fellow, as compensation there’s a number of sparkling comic performances sprinkled throughout the thirteen episodes. Two sitcom favourites – Hilda Braid and Pat Coombs – form a wonderful double-act as Louisa Chick and Lucretia Tox.  Louisa (Braid) is Dombey’s sister, a woman who shares her brother’s low opinion of Florence whilst Lucretia (Coombs) is her friend, a somewhat simpleminded person who simpers delightfully over Dombey and harbours a hopeless secret desire to become the next Mrs Dombey.

William Moore, another actor probably best known for his sitcom work (for example, the long-suffering Mr Lumsden in Sorry!) is padded up as the hearty seadog Captain Cuttle. Complete with a hook for a hand, Moore gives an unsubtle, but highly entertaining performance.

The first meeting between Dombey and Cuttle is an absolute gem. Dombey, taking afternoon refreshment with Paul and Florence in a Brighton tearoom (young Paul has been sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will restore his failing health), is appalled when the colourful Captain Cuttle sidles over to his table. Cuttle is introduced to Domby by Walter Gay (Derek Seaton), one of Dombey’s clerks. The best moment of all is when Walter first mentions Cuttle’s name and the Captain raises his arm (the one with the hook, naturally) in response. Lovely!

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William Moore

Vicky Williams, as young Florence, doesn’t have a great deal of screentime (Kara Wilson would take over the role by the middle of the second episode) but she still makes an impression. The scenes where she’s lost in the city after being robbed of her clothes by an old crone, Mrs Brown (Fay Compton), are heartbreaking. Equally affecting is Ronald Pickering as young Paul. When Paul asks Dombey (in response to being told that money can buy anything) whether it can buy good health, his father is temporarily speechless.

When Dombey decides to send his young clerk, Walter, to the West Indies, it’s a story-beat which intrigues on several levels. Firstly, it’s another example of the way that Dombey cares little for other people (apart, of course, from his son) since it never seems to cross his mind to canvas Walter’s opinion first. Secondly, since Walter has shown interest in Florence, dispatching him abroad serves to sever their tentative relationship. Considering that he seems to care little for his daughters happiness, this appears to be an act of deliberate cruelty.

The fourth episode tugs at the heartstrings as young Paul begins to fade. His death is an understated moment – the camera moves away from his bed to focus on the window as the sound level reduces. The next scene, as Dombey stands by his son’s grave, is a sharp and jolting cut, but it works well.

Christopher Sandford as Mr Toots helps to lighten the mood following Paul’s funeral. Mr Toots, a former schoolfriend of Paul, is a kind-hearted, vague and twitchy young man who loves Florence dearly (but although she always treats him kindly it’s plain that she doesn’t feel the same way). But the ever-optimistic Mr Toots is never downhearted and can always be guaranteed to come bouncing back. Sandford provides a delightful comic performance in a serial which has an abundance of them.

Towards the end of this episode there’s the first hint that Dombey isn’t quite as unbending as he might appear. He decides not to send Walter to the West Indies after all, but it’s too late – his ship has already sailed, much to Florence’s anguish (which only increases when the vessel is feared to have been lost at sea).  Kara Wilson, as befits the character she plays, may be somewhat placed in the background but she still essays a subtle performance as a young woman constantly rebuffed by a father who finds it impossible to communicate with her on anything but the most rudimentary level.

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Kara Wilson

Clive Swift is yet another quality addition to the cast. He plays the bluff and hearty Major Bagstock, who seems to be Dombey’s only friend. The restrained Dombey and the ebullient Bagstock would seem to have little in common, but it’s their very differences which help to generate an entertaining spark between them.

The middle part of the serial sees Dombey remarry. He selects Edith Granger (Sally Home) who seems in every way to be an ideal choice – as she’s a skilled artist and musician as well as being a refined conversationalist. Nestling amongst some deliciously broad comic performances, Home offers a sharp contrast as the second Mrs Dombey.

Although she accepts Dombey’s proposal, it’s plain that – on her side at least – it’s not a love match. Manipulated by her mother from an early age (in order to ensnare a rich husband) Edith is a weary and embittered figure. But the one bright spark in her new life is her relationship with Florence.

Whilst some children might regard a new step-mother with mistrust, Florence is plainly overjoyed – partly because she hopes it will enable her father to find new happiness but also because there’s no doubt that her lonely existence would be enriched by a mothers love. The way that Florence instantly refers to Edith as Mama is touching (Kara Wilson is excellent again here).

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Sally Home

But any happiness that Dombey might have hoped for is short-lived, as Edith runs away with the slimy and manipulative Caker (Gary Raymond). Dombey, with the assistance of Alice Brown (also played by Sally Home) and her mother (who coincidently robbed the young Florence earlier in the serial) vows to track them down.

Gary Raymond seems to delight in playing the boo-hiss villain who, as tradition demands, meets a sticky end. And although Home plays both roles well, it probably would have been better had another actress played Alice (a woman who had a special cause to dislike Caker). This is mainly because it’s more than a little odd that no-one who ever meets Alice comments on her remarkably strong resemblance to Edith ….

Edith’s departure finally severs the already fraying relationship between Dombey and Florence. Whilst a distraught Florence is taken under Captain Cuttle’s wing (William Moore once again marvellous value at this point in the serial) Dombey faces severe business traumas due to Caker’s rash profiteering.  And as Dombey’s own health takes a turn for the worse, a now happily-married Florence attempts one final reconciliation. Will the patrician Dombey deign to acknowledge his daughter and her children?

Runnng for thirteen 25 minute episodes, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation manages to skillfully fillet Dickens’ novel and thereby retain everything of interest. A fine rogues gallery of comic performers – headed by the peerless William Moore as Captain Cuttle – helps to keep things ticking along nicely although the family drama between Dombey and Florence is never overshadowed. In general, performances across the serial are very strong although Douglas Mann as young Rob Toodle does overact somewhat (luckily his part isn’t a particularly large one).

Director Joan Craft had already helmed a number of Charles Dickens adaptations, although the survival rate of her serials is sadly quite low. Both The Old Curiosity Shop (featuring Patrick Troughton as Quilp – his favourite role) and Martin Chuzzlewit are completely missing although odd episodes from A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield do exist. More encouragingly, her 1968 version of Nicholas Nickleby remains in the archives, so hopefully a release from Simply might occur in the future.

Her directorial style isn’t dramatic or showy (there’s few of the flourishes that can be seen in Alan Bridges’ Great Expectations) but she still manages to ensure that the story unfolds at a decent pace. The production style is as you’d expect from a programme of this era – mostly studio sequences recorded on videotape, with occassional brief film inserts.

The episodes are a mixture of telerecordings and original videotape masters. The episodes which still exist on videotape are obviously the best quality ones. although since the telerecordings are also of a very high standard the jump between the different formats isn’t as great as it could have been. Overall, the picture quality (considering the unrestored nature of the source materials) is very good. The sound is generally clear although some of the telerecorded episodes (episode eleven especially) are somewhat crackly in places.

Thanks to the first-class cast who rarely put a foot wrong, Dombey & Son is another impressive Dickens adaptation.  Highly recommended.

Dombey & Son is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Gary Raymond & John Carson

Dixon of Dock Green – The Vagrant

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A vagrant (John Carson) is knocked down by a car in the street.  An eye-witness, Fred Smethwick (Bill Treacher), is insistent that the car deliberately drove into him and his statement catches the interest of the Dock Green police.  The vagrant is later identified as Joseph Conway, a career criminal who turned Queen’s Evidence a few years previously.  He helped to put two criminals, Gerald Tate (Johnny Shannon) and Bert Flower (John Hartley), behind bars and since they’re both now back in circulation it seems likely one of them was the driver.  But the truth is rather more complicated …..

The Vagrant benefits from John Carson’s guest turn.  Whilst he’s rarely been a leading man, he’s a quality actor who enhances any production he appears in.  Still active (he popped up in an episode of Midsummer Murders a few years back) he’s enjoyed a lengthy career stretching back to the 1950’s.  The Doctor Who story Snakedance and the Out of the Unknown episode This Body Is Mine are two of his credits which have been covered previously in this blog (both of which are enriched by Carson).

He’s rather cast against type here as a down-and-out.  The part calls for him to adopt a hoarse and hesitant voice and a rather vague manner, but it’s obvious from fairly early on that there’s more to Conway that meets the eye.  He may appear now to be a broken wreck of a man but that wasn’t always the case (in fact he’s not even Joe Conway).

His real name is Francis Spurling and the reason for him changing his identity helps to spin the story off in another direction completely.  After Spurling and Joe Conway swapped identities, it allowed him to drop out of circulation (Conway’s dead body was mis-indentifed as Spurling).  His wife, Margaret (Suzan Farmer), has since remarried and naturally views his return with horror.  But Spurling hasn’t returned to make trouble – he simply wants to try and make amends with Margaret and also help his friend Percy (a lovely turn from Paddy Joyce).

The Dock Green boys take a back seat in this one as the bulk of the episode revolves around Conway/Spurling, although Clayton and Bruton do entertain themselves by questioning Tate and Flower (Johnny Shannon is wonderfully belligerent as Tate).  As I’ve said, Paddy Joyce is very entertaining as Conway/Spurling’s fellow vagrant Percy and whilst he adds little to the plot, he’s a colourful character who enriches the episode no end.

There’s little for George Dixon to do and the story does somewhat splutter to a conclusion, but as ever, the first-rate guest cast (John Carson, Paddy Joyce, Johnny Shannon, Suzan Farmer), helps to keep the interest bubbling along.

Out of the Unknown – This Body Is Mine

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Written by John Tulley
Directed by Eric Hills

Allen Meredith (John Carson) invites his boss Jack Gregory (Jack Hedley) to his home in order to explain about his latest invention.  It’s a device that will allow minds to be swopped between bodies and Meredith and his wife Ann (Alethea Charlton) plan to put it to good use.

Ann drugs Gregory and then Meredith and Gregory swop bodies.  Once Meredith is in the body of Jack Gregory he plans to transfer a large sum of money from Gregory’s company (to recompense him for all the work he considers he’s been underpaid for).  But Meredith finds Gregory’s world is more complicated than he’d bargained for.

And Ann, who’s left at home with the personality of Jack Gregory in the body of her husband, finds that to be an intriguing combination ….

This Body Is Mine is a neat tale that boasts an impressive core cast.  It”s difficult to imagine three better players than John Carson, Jack Hedley and Alethea Charlton – and they certainly help to sell the story.  In the hands of lesser actors it possibly could have fallen a little flat, but not here.

Hedley manages to capture the indecision of someone trapped in a strange body and unsure quite how to proceed whilst Carson projects the bluff bravado of Jack Gregory perfectly.  He might be in someone else’s body, but he plans to enjoy himself, which includes availing himself of Ann Meredith.

I’ve always tended to picture Alethea Charlton with grimy characters (possibly due to her two Doctor Who appearances in An Unearthly Child and The Time Meddler) but here she’s much more upwardly mobile and Ann is the character who’s responsible for the outcome of the story.  She respects, rather than loves, her husband but she quickly comes to love Jack Gregory when he’s in the body of her husband.  And as might be expected, this isn’t going to end well for everyone.

Next up – Deathday

The dance goes on. It is all the dance, everywhere and always. Doctor Who – Snakedance

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Although Kinda had somewhat bemused Doctor Who fandom in 1982, it was popular with both the general audience and the Doctor Who production team, so a sequel always seemed likely.

Script Editor Eric Saward was also keen for another story featuring the Mara, as it would provide Janet Fielding with another meaty role.  Saward had quickly grown to appreciate Fielding’s performance as Tegan and when interviewed by DWB in the mid 1980’s he felt that the series would have been stronger if Davison’s Doctor had only had Tegan as a single travelling companion: “If we’d just had Janet and Peter the contrast would have been excellent — critical, curious, tenacious — all the element I think make a strong and insightful companion against a weaker, much more vulnerable Doctor. Tegan was the best companion not just because of good writing, but because of Janet Fielding’s skill as an actress. Her performances in Christopher Bailey’s scripts confirmed that.”

Whilst Snakedance resembles a traditional Doctor Who story much more than Kinda did, it’s still quite unusual.  Unless you count the Mara at the end of episode four, nobody dies and whilst the plot does develop in a linear way there’s still a considerable amount of time to debate the nature of evil.  As with Kinda, Bailey’s Buddhist beliefs are very much to the fore.

And like Kinda, Bailey would select the names of several characters from various languages.  For example, Tanha is a Buddhist term that means “thirst” and Chela is derived from a Hindu word meaning “slave” or “servant”.

Snakedance is also quite similar to Kinda in that whilst Janet Fielding does get the chance to shine, she’s also off-screen for quite some time (particularly in episode three).  This gives a welcome chance for Sarah Sutton to enjoy more of the limelight.  As with Arc of Infinity, Nyssa spends the majority of the story with the Doctor and there’s a very interesting, slightly bickering relationship, that develops.  Nyssa was the most underwritten companion of S19 and it’s only a pity that finally she’s beginning to show more promise just when her days are numbered.

Working well together - The Doctor and Nyssa
Working well together – The Doctor and Nyssa

Peter Davision is wonderful in this story.  For me it’s one of his three best performances as the Doctor, along with Frontios and The Caves of Androzani.  From the opening scene, he seems to have much more of a sense of urgency than in recent stories, as he pushes Tegan hard (too hard for Nyssa’s liking) to remember her dreams.  Later, he spends much of episode three locked up, firstly by himself and later with Nyssa.  And whilst some of the other Doctors would be pacing up and down and desperately trying to find a way out, there’s a lovely sense of calm about Davison in these scenes – he doesn’t seem to be doing much, but that’s the mark of a good actor.

It’s also noteworthy that he spends most of the story unable to make people believe that he’s anything but a raving madman, since in most Doctor Who stories the Doctor tends to get welcomed into the fold fairly quickly (Kinda is a good example of this, whilst Frontier In Space is, like Snakedance, a relative rarity where we see the Doctor as an outsider for the majority of the yarn).

A key man that the Doctor needs to convince is Ambril (John Carson).  But although Ambril is an expert in antiquities, he has little time for the Doctor’s doom-mongering, but the Doctor probably doesn’t help his cause in the following, wonderful, scene –

(A ceremonial helmet with a crest of five faces is on a display stand.)
AMBRIL: Now take this, for example. It dates from the middle Sumaran era and unusually is mentioned quite specifically in the Legend. Oh, there can be no doubt. The reference is to the Six Faces of Delusion. Now count. One, two, three, four, five. You will observe there are five faces, not six as the Legend would have it. Now, my point is this. I do find it quite extraordinarily difficult to take seriously a Legend that cannot even count accurately. Of course, artistically speaking, it’s an entirely different matter. The piece is exquisite. An undoubted masterpiece.
DOCTOR: What is it?
AMBRIL: Hmm? Head-dress.
DOCTOR: Try it on.
AMBRIL: What?
DOCTOR: Try it on.
AMBRIL: Certainly not. Whatever for?
DOCTOR: Please. I want to show you something, then I’ll go and leave you in peace.
AMBRIL: Very well.
(Ambril puts on the headdress.)
AMBRIL: Well?
DOCTOR: Now, count the faces again.
AMBRIL: Do as he says.
CHELA: One, two, three, four, five.
DOCTOR: And one makes six. The sixth Face of Delusion is the wearer’s own. That was probably the idea, don’t you think?
AMBRIL: Get out! Go on, get out!

The Six Faces of Delusion
The Six Faces of Delusion

John Carson’s performance is beautifully judged and must rank as one of the best Doctor Who guest-star performances.  There were plenty of bigger names that guest-starred in Doctor Who, but few were as good as Carson.  He’s a major reason why this story works so well.

The rest of the cast are equally good though.  Snakedance has a fairly small group of characters, which helps to ensure that all of them have room for some decent scenes.  Colette O’Neil is perfect as Tahna, the bored wife of the Federator, forced to listen to endless tedious speeches by Ambril about the history of Manussa.  Although Martin Clunes’ performance does tend to crop up on “before they were famous” type series, he’s fine as Lon, the bored son of the Federator.  Jonathon Morris gives a fresh-faced vigor to the role of Chela and Brian Miller (Mr Elisabeth Sladen) has a lovely turn as the showman, Dugdale.

L-R - Colette O'Neil, John Carson, Martin Clunes and Jonathon Morris
L-R – Colette O’Neil, John Carson, Martin Clunes and Jonathon Morris

Which leaves Preston Lockwood as Dojjen.  He doesn’t have much to say (at least not out loud) but he’s in one of Snakedance’s key scenes as the Doctor submits to a snake bite in order to discover how he can destroy the Mara.  And unlike many Doctor Who stories, the Mara can’t be destroyed with a gun or an explosion, something quite different needs to be done –

DOJJEN: No, look into my eyes. You have come this far. You must not now give in to fear. Look.
DOCTOR: It’s the poison. The effect of the poison.
DOJJEN: Fear is the only poison.
DOCTOR: Fear is.
DOJJEN: Ask your question.
DOCTOR: How, how can, I must save Tegan. It was my fault, so how, how can. Destroyed. How can the Mara? It was my fault.
DOJJEN: Steady your mind. Attach to nothing. Let go of your fear.
DOCTOR: What is the Snake Dance?
DOJJEN: This is, here and now. The dance goes on. It is all the dance, everywhere and always. So, find the still point. Only then can the Mara be defeated.
DOCTOR: The still point? The point of safety? A place in the chamber somewhere. Where?
DOJJEN: No, the still point is within yourself, nowhere else. To destroy the Mara you must find the still point.

This excerpt helps to highlight that Snakedance is something unusual.  For those who prefer monsters and explosions it might seem a little tame, but I’d take this over the empty heroics of Earthshock any day.  If one were being picky, then you could say that Manussa is not the most convincing of planets – it looks incredibly stagey (the entrance to the cave for example, is very artificial).  In the end though, I don’t really think this matters, as it’s the script and characters that are important and not the visuals.

It’s a great shame that Christopher Bailey never wrote for the series again, but at least we have Kinda and Snakedance.  Not only two of the best Doctor Who stories of the 1980’s, but two of the best Doctor Who stories, period.