Brond – Simply Media DVD Review

Out for an early morning jog, Robert (John Hannah) witnesses a shocking murder. A man later identified as Brond (Stratford Johns) casually pushes a young boy over a bridge. But this sudden act of violence is only the beginning as Robert finds himself embroiled in Brond’s scheme to trap an IRA killer ….

Adapted by Frederic Lindsay from his own novel and broadcast in 1987, Brond is one of those 1980’s thriller serials (along with the likes of Edge of Darkness and Dead Head) which eschew narrative clarity in favour of something much more non-linear. But given that Lindsay’s novel was rather baffling in places, it’s no surprise that his television adaptation was also opaque.

Brond’s first appearance is ridiculously memorable. Pushing the boy over the bridge without a second thought, Brond then casually winks at Robert as he passes by.  What’s especially interesting about this scene is that until the incident is revisited towards the end of the serial, it’s possible to believe that Robert was hallucinating and that there was no murder.

Brond might have been John Hannah’s television debut (a major role for such a newcomer) but Alan Stratford Johns was an old hand. He’ll always be best remembered for playing Charles Barlow in a string of BBC police series (Z Cars, Softly Softly, Softly Softly: Task Force, Barlow) but he had a rich and diverse career before and after his time with the police force.

Brond was one of his later signature roles though – it certainly made a considerable impact at the time and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s a peach of a part which offers Johns a number of wonderfully constructed monologues and set piece scenes. The first occurs at a university party, where an increasingly disconnected Robert views Brond in a mirror. The framing is so non-naturalistic that the exact reality of the situation seems to be in doubt (as with the boy’s murder).

Satan must be defeated. But never is quite. So we owe red roses and sunsets to Satan’s joy in being master.

Brond’s materialisation by Robert’s hospital bed is another peculiar and jolting moment. Why the whole ward is suddenly bathed in an unearthly red light is a mystery which is never explained. And yet again Brond’s elliptical, gnomic utterances don’t help to make the situation any clearer.

I remember Paris, young men, far from home. The story was written to make a little money, concerning a lady and her victim who was quite willing – eager to suffer and obey. She did terrible things to him, she might have killed him. But it was all innocent daydreams, some wonder drug of science fiction. So when it was over, no blood, no regrets, just a man and woman and a warm summer evening. Wasn’t that a better world to live in?

In the wrong hands, this sort of florid material could easily fall flat, but it’s testimony to Johns’ skill that he makes moments such as these utterly compelling.

Aside from Johns and Hannah, there’s a strong supporting cast. James Cosmo, as Primo, looms menacingly throughout. Although connected to Brond, he also latches himself onto Robert. Louise Beatty (Margaret) also impresses whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Ellison. A number of other familiar faces, such as Russell Hunter, pop up in minor roles.

As we proceed to the second episode, the plot only becomes more labyrinth. Robert’s mysterious landlord, Kennedy (Ian McElhinney), casts a menacing shadow whilst the murder of a fellow lodger, Kilpatrick (Laurie Ventry), and Robert’s discovery of a gun wrapped in a blood-soaked cloth are further pieces of the disorienting puzzle. Robert’s later police cell conversation with a gardner (Phil McCall) is another of those strange Brand moments.

Charged with the murder of Kilpatrick, Robert is interrogated by Frew (Christopher Ellison) a character who could be a close cousin of Frank Burnside. But the murder of Kilpatrick is clearly only a sideshow – the assassination of Sir Colin Fraser seems to be much more key ….

The final episode sees Robert released into Brond’s care. Stratford Johns is on fine form, espeically when in interrogation mode. Things then go very strange after the pair pay a visit to high class brothel. Brond has some peculiar ideas about entertainment (and isn’t fussy about who might be looking in). There’s also an intriguing callback to the murder of the boy from episode one, whilst some of the loose ends are tied up. Other aspects of the story (notably why Brond latches onto Robert) remain open to interpretation.

Critical reaction at the time was pretty positive.  The Stage (14th May 1987) reviewing the first episode, declared it to be “a jigsaw thriller, in which you are not expected to see the picture until most of the pieces have slotted into place”.  Johns’ performance (“Brond isn’t the sort of man you would want as a babysitter. He speaks in a calm, measured voice, at once chilling and reassuring”) drew praise as did John Hannah (“a likeable dupe, whose jokes always seemed to fall on deaf ears”).

The three episodes (each approx. 50 minutes) are contained on a single DVD.  The all-film production is unrestored, but for a thirty year old serial is in pretty good shape with no major picture issues.  There’s no special features and, as per Simply’s other recent C4 releases, no subtitles (it appears that Channel 4, unlike the BBC, don’t require subtitles to be added).

Featuring a haunting title theme by Bill Nelson and Daryl Brunswick, Brond lingers long in the memory. The lack of a clear narrative means it won’t appeal to all, but since there’s so much of interest – notably the performances of John Hannah and Stratford Johns – it’s hard not to be drawn into this dark, twisted world.

Brond is released by Simply Media on the 30th of July 2018, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered from Simply here, quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Six

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The hunt for Franky’s killer begins in earnest ….

There’s a certain amount of dramatic licence at play here, since it seems more than a little unlikely that the close colleagues of a dead officer would be the ones leading the investigation to find his killer. Surely the fact they’d be emotionally involved would have ruled them out?

The opening plays as you’d expect – the team are shellshocked (Bruce is the one we follow into the station as – disorientated – he reels from the buzz and bustle of the crime scene) whilst Franky’s widow, Lorraine (Denise Stephenson), blames Temple and just about any other copper she can find for Franky’s death.

Although Temple later warns the others not to cut any corners, Marty – when questioning a suspect – spells out precisely what Franky’s death signifies. “Do you know what a dead copper means? It means the sky falls in on every little arsewipe who might know anything”.

Assistant Chief Constable Friel (Trevor Cooper) makes a small, but telling, contribtion. He informs Temple that he doesn’t want any of Franky’s dirty linen washed in public. They have to tell the truth about Franky’s activities, but anything unsavoury needs to be hidden from public consumption. The conflict between the need for truth (the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth) and police politics is clearly delineated here.

It’s hard not to feel that the unstable Victor was pushed into a corner by Franky. Temple later makes that point to the team, although most of them – especially Marty – don’t really want to hear. Even though Temple then goes on to say that he’s making the potential case of Victor’s defence laywers, there’s more than a kernel of truth in his statement.

Apart from a voice on the phone, we don’t see Victor until we’re well into the episode. The stake-out nature of the middle part of the story, as the team wait for him to surface, enables there’s a little time for various personal problems to be given an airing. Warren still hasn’t given up hope that he and Becky might become an item whilst Ron gives Marty some sage advice about children (Marty and his wife have been unable to conceive).

The tension that hangs over the episode, indeed the whole series, concerning Franky continues here. His colleagues have always been loyal and – toasting his memory in the pub – they continue to be. All except the newcomer Tony. “When everything else comes second best to your ambition. Your mates, your wife, your kids …”

Victor confesses but there’s little sense of celebration. The mood is best summed up by Marty in a short speech which could easily serve as the series’ raison d’etre. “Where’s the blame? I’ve been searching in me head for where the blame is. All day. Thinking and looking. Asking and asking. No, it’s kids going mad, but its not. Who teaches you to be stupid? Where does greedy start from? You know what I’ve decided? I can’t find it”.

The last scene – Franky entertains the others from beyond the grave via the power of VHS – proves to be something of a cathartic experience. If some questions about his character will remain unanswered for ever, at least this provides them with the opportunity of remembering his better side.  The truth then, but not the whole truth ….

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Five

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A woman called Anna Cornish is shot. Who did it and why was her body moved across town?

Although Mrs Cornish is a respected member of the local community (a black lawyer and a noted anti-drugs campaigner) the team can’t expect to receive much in the way of cooperation. Temple sums the mood up when he mentions that the community despises the police only slightly more than they hate each other.

The bleakness and hopelessness of mid nineties inner-city Britain is a running theme of Out of the Blue and gets developed in this episode. Mr Megson (Tony Barton) was the publican who wheeled Anna from away from his pub and he doesn’t waste any time in explaining why.  Anna was “a colonial cousin” and, according to him, a member of a race that doesn’t have a great respect for human life.

Megson believes that all of the estate’s problems can be dated to the arrival of the black community, which leaves us with the strong impression that he regarded Anna as little more than a piece of rubbish to be removed. It’s striking that Megson doesn’t seem to understand that he’s done anything wrong although when Bruce tells him that he may end up charged with manslaughter he starts to take attention.

A tip-offf leads them to three suspects, Shaun Hayley (Tim Evans), Bunny (John Muir) and Daniel Gelder (Taurean Mulholland). They’re only fifteen though. Could a group of fifteen year-olds really be responsible for this shooting? It’s a telling moment that nobody dismisses this out of hand. It clearly wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened.

On the plus side, the episode doesn’t feature Franky whining about his epilepsy. Instead we see just how far he’ll go in order to get a result. Convinced that the shooting has a drug connection, he infiltrates a gang of low-lifes. First he shares their drugs and then he asks to buy a gun (because, he says, he wants to shoot a copper). By acting alone and without backup he’s taking an incredible risk – this seems to demonstrate he’s got something of a death-wish.  He’s remarkably convincing as an unstable psychopath ….

Nobody wins in this one since the shooters can be said to have been just as much victims as Anna was. Moments of levity are therefore few, although the spat between Marty and Ron is good fun (Ron’s aggrieved that Marty let slip about his philandering ways to the others).

The episode ends with Franky being confronted by Victor (Gary Sefton). Victor’s a drug dealer as well as Franky’s informant. Although Victor seems upset and a little unstable, Franky’s the sort of person you always imagine will win through, so when he’s stabbed and collapses in a large pool of his own blood on the office floor it’s a considerable jolt.

That the action then switches to the pub, where we see the others unwinding after another long day.  We’ve seen during the course of the first series how Franky has isolated himself from the others – declining to join them in the pub or for bowling nights on previous occasions – so the fact he dies alone whilst the others are together is clearly an intentional bitter irony.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Four

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A women is found dead in a bus shelter located just outside her house. It looks as if she was sleeping there, but why? A baker, Mr Flood (Kenneth Cope), is once again sweeping up broken glass from his shattered shop windows. Convinced that no-one is taking him seriously he resorts to drastic action to make himself heard. Meanwhile, Franky has disappeared. He had been working unofficially on a cold case, so the team follow it up ….

Dave Norman, playing Ray Chaplin, has an easy time of it. Ray, a pimp, previously had his tongue cut out, so Norman didn’t have to go to the trouble of learning any lines. All he had to do was look moody and scribble down his answers to Becky and Warren.

This was the cold case Franky was working on, so it serves a dual purpose in the narrative – not only is there a mystery to be solved, but finding the answer might allow the team to discover Franky’s location.

Ron’s dalliances with his ex-wife become public knowledge around the office (although his curent wife remains in the dark). He’s yet to discover that Marty let this secret slip though, but I’ve a feeling he’s going to find out soon …

Bruce and Tony visit Mr Flood. Their different reactions speak volumes about their characters. Bruce wants to be out looking for Franky, so dealing with a case of broken windows seems completely trivial (he caustically refers to Mr Flood as Mr Pastry).  But Tony instantly emphasises with the victim – he can see that Mr Flood is living a life of quiet desperation (his life made a misery due to abuse and vandalism) and wants to help. So Tony is idealistic, Bruce realistic.

Tony later confides that as a uniformed officer he felt part of the community, but now he’s in plain clothes there’s more of a sense of isolation. The fact that we never actually see any of the tearaways who abuse Mr Flood is an interesting touch – as making the threat abstract means it becomes more problematic and insoluble.

Kenneth Cope nicely underplays as a man driven to the edge by antisocial behaviour.  The way he finally gets a little attention is a wrong-footing moment (although due to the way the camera coyly doesn’t focus on the action, it’s possibly not as impactful as it could have been).  No matter though, Cope still deftly sketches the character of Mr Flood – a man who doesn’t want to be labelled a victim, but urgently needs help.

The dead woman at the bus stop, Angela Grainger, was also a victim of antisocial behaviour.  In her case, she was driven to distraction by pounding music played at all hours by her next door neighbours. But did one of them attack her in the days before she died of a heart attack?

It can’t be a coincidence that Kenneth Cope’s daughter, Martha, appears as Marilyn Jowett, Angela Grainger’s neighbour. Another familiar face, Sheila Ruskin, pops up as Margot Gillespie, the doctor who tells Franky that his epilepsy isn’t operable.

Alternating between these two storylines as well as the search for Ray’s attacker and Franky’s continuing tantrums, it’s a packed episode. At one point, Ron confides that there’s no justice and by the time the credits roll it’s hard to disagree with him.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Three

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When Ron’s daughter is discovered with a computer disc containing violent pornography, the team spring into action to track the perpetrator down …

This episode is of particular interest due to the computer porn angle. Given it was the mid nineties when computers – and the internet – were just beginning to establish themselves, it has to be a pretty early example of this type of storyline.

Bruce is puzzled by this brave new computer world (no doubt a section of the audience would have been just as perplexed as he was) but luckily there’s a young schoolboy on hand to explain the world of networks, notice boards, DOS and floppy discs.  We must be pretty much pre-internet for most people, since the images were distributed on 3.5″ discs, which helps to date the programme.

John Hannah’s been boiling away nicely for the last few episodes but now Franky’s been suspended Hannah takes the opportunity to ramp up the intensity level several notches. Franky blames Bruce for shopping him, but he’s blameless (it was Franky’s wife, Lorraine, who informed DI Temple).  When Franky later learns the truth, does he apologise to Bruce? Nope. Which provides more evidence that Franky’s a charmless, self-centered, self-pitying sort of chap. Possibly he’s a good thief-taker, but his social skills need more than a spot of work.

Poor Warren’s lack of success with the opposite sex leads the others, notably Ron and Marty, to offer him some well-meaning words of advice. Bruce is more caustic, he opines that Warren’s problem is due to the fact he dresses off the peg (at the Salvation Army!)

There’s a nice mid-episode change of pace as Ron, Marty and Becky attempt to track down a suspect in the computer porn case, Gary Lowell. They encounter Craig Page (Andrew Dunn) at Lowell’s house, who looks more than a little shifty. The fact that Lowell’s dead body is stuffed in a cardboard box might have something to do with that ….

The episode also features a back-street strip club which employs disabled performers. Warren, at the club in surveillance mode, is appalled. The camera coyly doesn’t show us the stripper, but we get a good insight into Warren’s distressed state of mind by the way the camera starts to weave and lose focus.

The mystery of who killed Gary isn’t much of a mystery after all, but it’s still a strong enough episode with a pre-dinnerladies Andrew Dunn making the most of his limited screentime.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Two

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Ron and Marty are pursuing Neil Chettle (Matthew Wait). They’re convinced that he’s responsible for robbing a series of pensioners of their life savings, but there’s no solid evidence. Chettle’s clever, as by selecting only the elderly and infirm, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to pick him out of an identity parade ….

This second episode continues to put more meat on the bones of the regular characters. Becky’s fledgling relationship with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) seems to have put Warren’s nose slightly out of joint whilst Tony’s casual statement that he believes in God somewhat nonplusses Marty (who then can’t resist questioning him on his beliefs).

This is a strong episode for Neil Dudgeon. Although the story isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen countless times before in other shows – Marty doggedly pursusing a cocky suspect who believes he’s untouchable – Dudgeon and Wait are still on top form. When the tables are turned and Chettle begins to target Marty’s wife, the pressure gets ramped up a notch, although this part of the plot is never really developed as much as it could have been.

Bruce continues to glower at Franky. Franky claims that he’s now perfectly fine but Bruce – he is a detective after all – doesn’t believe a word of it. This is confirmed later on by Franky’s retching and pained staring into the toilet mirror.

There’s a later oblique conversation between Bruce and DI Temple in which the senior officer seems to be warning Bruce against doing anything about Franky. Although this is contradicted towards the end when Temple spells out Franky’s options to him – none of which seem to appeal.

Broken marriages are a common sight in police series and Marty helps to explain why. He may still be married, but the job has plainly had a toxic effect. “I went home to Judy one time and I had to tell her that I’d been tying labels onto the toes of a kiddie who’d been strangled, and you know what she said to me? Do you know what my own wife said to me? Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me”.

Although the episode juggles several other plotlines – the mystery of how a man, dead for several months, has continued to open his mail and a potential robbery at a pub – it’s the feud between Marty and Chettle which dominates. Marty may be satisfied with the eventual outcome, but Ron isn’t. “Racing around like the caped crusader, you’ve turned this into a schoolroom brawl between you and him”.

Whilst the others enjoy an evening’s bowling, Franky – as befits a flawed hero – broods alone in the office, with only a cigarette for company.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode One

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Hugh Evans was sixty seven years old and dying of cancer. So why would somebody shoot him four times as he lay in his hospital bed? Meanwhile, as the only female detective, DS Rebecca Bennett is called upon to interview a traumatised rape victim.

Out of the Blue hits in ground runnng. In the opening few minutes as – somewhat oddly – all the detectives hot-foot it over to the hospital, the regulars’ characters are deftly sketched.

DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for an entertaining double-act. Marty is clearly the iconoclast of the team (thinking nothing of giving a man who spat in the street a hard time). Also making an early impression is Orla Brady as DS Rebecca ‘Becky’ Bennett (partly because she’s the only female detective in an all-male enclave).

DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) and DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James) chase down a suspect in the shooting case, but it’s what happens afterwards which will haunt the remainder of the first series. Franky suffers an epileptic fit in the pub and refuses to report it to the medical officer. This not only puts his own career in jeopardy but swearing Bruce to secrecy only serves to complicate matters even further (as well as creating a simmering sense of tension).

Becky and DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) make up the third team and putting them together on the rape case helps to generate a certain amount of debate between them which defines both their characters, although at this point Becky is the one who’s received the most screentime.

DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh) has been newly transferred to the team and, as an outsider, serves as the audience identification figure. As he begins to understand how his new colleagues tick, so do we. Rounding off the squad is DI Temple (John Duttine). By far the most familiar television face, Duttine doesn’t have a great deal to do here (the harrased boss is a long-standing police series cliche) but having a quality actor in the role gives Temple the gravitas he needs.

Juggling two strong storylines, this opening episode is a solid one. The visual style (shaky camerawork and the occasional loss of focus as the camera – effectively acting as an unseen member of the team – moves from person to person) helps to give the story a little impetus.