Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal (29th December 1971)

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The Removal opens with Garbutt and Turner (Graham Weston and Johnny Briggs) arriving at a substantial house (it stands in its own grounds). We can instantly tell that they’re wrong ‘uns because it’s night-time and they’re wearing dark glasses. This faint comic air is reinforced when the rest of the gang turn up, all wearing dark glasses too ….

I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be amusing or not though. It’s hard to take Weston and Briggs seriously as a couple of hardmen, but that may be to do with the fact that they’re both familiar actors.

The gang have arrived to strip the house bare (pictures, carpets, furniture, etc) much to the dismay of Sybil Albert (Stephanie Bidmead) and her son Tom (Paul Aston).

The gradual denuding of the house which occurs throughout the episode is fairly low in dramatic tension. Mainly this is because Garbutt and Turner – save for one brief spat – remain supremely confident throughout. Bidmead was a quality actress who died far too young (this was one of her final credits) but she doesn’t have much to work with here – Mrs Albert is little more than a fairly weepy and passive character.

There’s more interest elsewhere, with the stroppy Liz Carr (Lois Dane) proving to be a handful. The common-law wife of one of the gang, she’s very outspoken but is quietened down by the efficient DS Green (Heather Stoney). It’s the first SS:TF credit for Stoney, who instantly impresses.

Any time Snow and Evans are put in a car together you can be guaranteed some amusing dialogue (and so it proves here). Watt and Hawkins also have some good scenes, so there’s plenty going on – even if the main plot is quite linear.  The bleak-ish ending is effective too.

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The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1995)

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Following a couple of pilots (the first on ITV and the second on the BBC) the series proper of The Mrs Merton Show began airing in early 1995. Clearly it did well, as the second run started later that same year and culminated in this Christmas Eve special.

Top marks for the Christmassy border around the opening titles – a cheap way of creating a spot of festive cheer without having to go to the expense of shelling out for new titles.  Mrs Merton is in full holiday mode – handing out mince pies and greetings – prior to her first guests, Alma and Mike from the Street ….

It was an unexpected treat (I think that’s the right word) to witness Amanda Barrie and Johnny Briggs duetting on the evergreen Something Stupid.  You have to give them top marks for being game (the largely octogenarian audience lapped it up of course).

We’re still in the early days of the series, which meant three guests jostling for position in each half hour show.  Later, TMMS would drop down to just two guests – this was a wise move as it meant that there was the possibility a half-decent interview might develop.  Amanda and Johnny are amiable enough but they’re really never given any questions that they can actually answer (a pity, but not surprising, that they didn’t confess which of their co-stars they hated ….)

There’s slightly more substance when Mrs M meets Glenys Kinnock. It’s always fun to see a combative guest who isn’t content to simply take the blows, but instead elects to gently go on the offensive.  When Glenys started to deal with the questions by asking her own, you got the sense that Aherne was forced to do a bit of speedy adjustment. As entertaining as the show often was, this was its main weakness (especially to begin with). Aherne often appeared to be more interested in delivering her scripted barbs than dealing with the answers she might receive.

Up next is by far the oddest part of the show. Seven year-old orphan little Tommy Regan is subjected to a special treat – a song from Mrs Merton. As she begins to blub her way through The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot, some of the audience are clearly getting a little misty-eyed too.  The punchline to this spot of mawkish sentimentalism? There isn’t one, which I guess was the point.

Gary Rhodes closes proceedings with some entertaining back and forth banter and a spot of food, tested by some of Mrs Merton’s most trusted lieutenants. That leaves just enough time for Hooky and the boys to play us out with that Slade song.

An entertaining enough half-hour, but many of  the series’ most entertaining moments (the unforgettable Bernard Manning/Richard Wilson face-off, for example) were still in the future at this point.

The Saint – Marcia

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Simon is mourning the death of Marcia Landon, famous film star, who took her own life after being disfigured in an acid attack.  Rising starlet Claire Avery (Samantha Eggar) has taken over the role Marcia was due to play in an upcoming film and after receiving a threatening letter – stating that unless she hands over five thousand pounds she too will be disfigured – calls on Simon for help.  So the Saint finds himself with a film studio full of suspects to investigate …..

The pre-credits sequence has a bleakness which wasn’t typical for the series, as we see Simon pay Marcia a fullsome eulogy.  Her face – prior to the attack – is prominently displayed both in the newspapers and on the studio walls where Simon has called to see Claire (and Marcia’s image will continue to appear throughout the episode).  The attack is shown in flashback – shot from distance and mostly using shadows, it’s effectively moody (and also isn’t explicit – which was always a consideration).

It’s a cliché but Samantha Eggar – just like Claire Avery – has undeniable star quality.  Director John Krish favours close-ups in the early part of the episode – as Claire and Simon chat about Marcia – and these shots, along with Eggar’s low, breathy voice helps to create a considerable impression.  The camera loves her and, to be honest, so do I.

Johnny Briggs creates an immediate impression as the chirpy runner, Johnny Desmond – he’s an upbeat sort of chap, always ready with a bad joke.  Marion Mathie, later to be the third and final television She Who Must Be Obeyed in Rumpole of the Bailey, is another familiar face who pops up (she plays Sheila – wife of Mike Sentinal, the director).

Jill Melford is deliciously bitchy as Irene Cromwell, an older actress who clearly believes that she should have been given Marcia’s role.  Dripping with honey-tongued venom, she’s highly entertaining.  Mix in Tony Beckley as Claire’s very disgruntled co-star and Philip Stone as a dogged police inspector and it’s hard to see how this story could have been better cast.

What’s nice about this one is that it gives us a rare chance to look behind the scenes at the studios where The Saint was shot.  It’s nowhere as self-reverential as some of the later UFO episodes, but it’s still interesting (and I daresay since it was pretty cheap to shoot, it would have pleased the producers).

As the story progresses, Claire continues to stress.  Things come to a head when a prop gun, used in the recording of the film, is substituted for a real one.  Simon, standing off-camera, shouts “drop that gun and nobody move!” in an incredibly forceful way (very uncharacteristic) whilst Claire just screams.  Oddly, she does so after the shot’s been fired (she appears to be working on a slight delay).  John Krish doesn’t really do Eggar any favours by zooming into her screaming mouth – it’s an arresting image, but not terribly flattering.

Towards the end of the episode, there’s a chance to see even more of the studio as Simon pursues a mysterious stranger through its various nooks and crannies.  This might be little more than padding, but it’s shot so well that it’s hard not to enjoy it.  Indeed, that sums up the story as a whole.  The mystery is fairly slight, but with such a strong cast it’s easy to be totally absorbed.

The use of Marcia’s photograph is an especially memorable touch.  It’s seen so often, in various different locations, that it’s almost like she’s always present – albeit as a passive, non-speaking observer.  This is one of the reasons why Marcia is a fascinating story which rates four and a half halos out of five.

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