1990 – Series 2. Simply Media DVD Review

Broadcast between February and April 1978, series two of 1990 continued to chronicle Jim Kyle’s (Edward Woodward) fight against the all-powerful Public Control Department (PCD). My thoughts on series one can be found here.

Several key cast changes had been made since the conclusion of the first series. Although Robert Lang returned as PCD supremo Herbert Skardon, Clifton Jones and Barbara Kellerman (who played deputy PCD controllers Henry Tasker and Delly Lomas during S1) didn’t. It’s fairly easy to understand why Jones might have been dropped (Tasker was by far the least developed of the three and therefore often seemed to be surplus to requirements) but Kellerman’s absence was more perplexing.

The relationship between Kyle and Delly provided the first series with dramatic impetus (especially the “will they, won’t they” conundrum) and the introduction of the new deputy PCD controller, Lynn Blake (Lisa Harrow), could be seen as an attempt to replicate a similar relationship. Kyle and Lynn have a history – they used to be lovers – which instantly creates a source of tension, since her new job will inevitably bring her into direct conflict with Kyle.

Lisa Harrow & Edward Woodward

It’s possible that Lynn’s character was a hastily written replacement for Delly Lomas (maybe because Kellerman was unavailable for S2) otherwise it rather stretches credibility that Delly’s replacement was also someone whose relationship with Kyle had the same uneasy mix of business and pleasure.

Home Secretary Dan Mellor (John Savident) is another absentee, with Kate Smith (Yvonne Mitchell) taking his place. 1990 was Mitchell’s final television role (she died in 1979, aged 63). Although primarily a stage actress, she had notched up some notable film and television credits during her career – for example, Nigel Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty Four in which she played Julia opposite Peter Cushing’s Winston Smith.

Series two kicked off with Wilfred Greatorex’s Pentagons. Kyle is now a member of Pentagon, one of a growing number of dissident groups. But whilst he favours non-violent action (“words have won more batttles than bullets”) others, such as Thomson (John Nolan), are more keen to fight fire with fire ….

Nolan (probably best known for his semi-regular role in Doomwatch) is one of a number of familar faces who pop up in this one – Barry Lowe, Oscar James and Edward de Souza also feature. Lisa Harrow, debuting as Lynn, makes an immediate impression. Harrow and Woodward share a series of strong two-handed scenes which form the core of the episode (Lynn has been tasked to discover the identity of the PCD mole who has been passing sensitive material to Kyle). Juggling several plotlines – including the complex relationship between Kyle and Lynn – Pentagons is a solid season opener.

Lisa Harrow & Robert Lang

As with the first series, the second run of 1990 used a small pool of writers. Creator Wilfred Greatorex penned four episodes, Edmund Ward contributed three whilst the remaining episode was provided by Jim Hawkins (his sole contribution to the series).

Edmund Ward’s three episodes – Trapline, Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope and Hire and Fire – were broadcast third, fourth and fifth and therefore form the heart of the second series.

In Trapline, Commissioner Hallam (John Paul) seeks Kyle’s assistance. Hallam may be a senior officer in the civil police, but he bitterly tells Kyle that it’s “the second-class police force. The street sweepers that clear up after the politicals”. Private security firms such as Careguard, run by William Grainger (John Carson), are where the real power lies, thanks to their links to the PCD.

It’s always a pleasure to see John Paul (Doomwatch‘s Spencer Quist) as well as John Carson (one of the most dependable and watchable character actors of his generation). The episode explores how the authorities (both Hallam and the new Home Secretary, Kate Smith) have grown increasingly concerned about the unregulated power wielded by the PCD and Careguard. The fact they want Kyle to help them is an irony which amuses him greatly.

Edward Woodward & John Paul

The verbal fencing between Skardon and Smith, as both jostle for supremacy, is highly entertaining as is the interaction between Kyle and Smith, who become unlikely allies. When Kyle calls her “love” (a rather Callan-like touch) watch how Yvonne Mitchell moves from mild disapproval to amusement in a heartbeat.

Robert Lang is well served by this one. Not only has Skardon gained a girlfriend, the very attractive Barbara Fairlie (Sandra Payne), but he’s also given some killer lines. When informed that the Home Secretary is beating a path to his door, he replies on the intercom that he’s preparing to genuflect. Smith overhears this, leading Skardon to respond that on reflection he can’t. “Injury sustained in youth. Choirboy’s knee”!

In the intriguingly-tiled Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope, Skardon puts his latest plan into action – Authorised Systematic Harassment (ASH). Described as “an authorised version of the Chinese water torture” it uses the most deadly weapon of all – bureaucracy.

The unfortunate targets – Kyle’s editor Tom Doran (Clive Swift) and his family – find themselves under close surveillance, but that’s only the beginning. When the state bailiff moves to evict them from their home and into a slum area then the pressure really begins to tell. As a way of breaking somebody’s spirit, mindless officialdom can be more effective than kicks and blows.

Skardon succinctly sums it up. “The slow and noiseless steamroller of the state, the daily brown envelope dropping on the mat”. Doran used to be a fighter like Kyle, but now he’s older and more frightened of making waves, which makes this persecution even crueller. It’s all been arranged in order to put pressure on Kyle, but Lynn argues that by targeting Kyle’s friends they’ll simply turn him into an even more implacable enemy …

Because it’s so horribly plausable and shockingly bleak, Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope is one of the most memorable S2 episodes. Woodward, as usual, is electrifying.

A vicious protection racket, centered around a state factory, is the theme of Hire and Fire. Another first-rate cast – Colin Douglas, Joseph Brady, Simon Cadell – power a story which sees Kyle and the PCD (in the shape of Lynn) form an uneasy alliance for the common good. Skardon is less than impressed when he learns that Kyle has been brought in – which leads to an entertaining confrontation between them (Woodward once again in sparkling form). Also amusing is Kyle’s luncheon with Lynn and the Home Secretary, where he likens himself to “a rose between two thorns”.

Robert Lang & Yvonne Mitchell

Skardon’s pursuit of Kyle continues across the remaining episodes, with matters coming to a head in the series finale, What Pleasess The Prince. Will Kyle and his friends emerge victorious or can the beleaguered PCD fight back?

As with the first series, Edward Woodward shines. Kyle may be more of a thinker than a man of action like Callan, but their core characteristics (a disdain for authority and a highly developed conscience) aren’t too dissimilar. Robert Lang, Lisa Harrow and Yvonne Mitchell are all strong enough actors to hold their own against Woodward in full flight whilst Tony Doyle impresses again as Dave Brett, one of Kyle’s staunchest allies.

Even after all these years, it’s interesting to see how 1990 can be fashioned into a political weapon.  This article from Conservative Woman makes great play of the fact that the government in 1990 was left-wing, although it has to be said that series rarely made party political points (if 1990‘s government had been of the opposite persuasion there would have been little need for any serious redrafting of the scripts – it’s easy to see a fascistic right-wing police state operating in pretty much the same way).

But whatever your political leanings, 1990‘s dystopian future continues to resonate.  At the time of its original broadcast the show was tapping into contemporary concerns about the state of the country (numerous other examples can be found across many different series – Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law Jimmy, feverishly planning for the day when “the balloon goes up”, is just one example).  Forty years on, 1990 still raises talking points and stimulates the imagination – the year 1990 may be behind us, but many of the issues encountered by Jim Kyle and the others remain.

Tightly scripted and well cast, the second series of 1990 offers another eight episodes of thought-provoking, character-based drama. Both this and series one come highly recommended.

1990 Series Two is released by Simply Media on the 1st of May 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Star Maidens – Simply Media DVD Review

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The planet Medusa is a world run by women where men are very much second-class citizens, only fit for menial domestic tasks (as well as pleasuring their mistresses of course).  But after Medusa is blown out of its solar system (don’t ask) and drifts close to Earth, two worms, Adam (Pierre Brice) and Shem (Gareth Thomas), decide to turn.  They steal a space-yacht and head for our world – a paradise where men are free to be men.

Star Maidens is a bizarre British/German co-production from the mid seventies.  It’s been suggested that the series’ odd tone was a consequence of cultural differences – the Germans wanted to create a sex comedy whilst the British were more interested in crafting serious(ish) science fiction. These two different styles meet head on, with varying degrees of success …..

The fact that Star Maidens wasn’t networked indicates that ITV had little love for it.  The show limped out at different days and times from region to region (a Sunday afternoon slot on Granada, a 5:15 pm weekday slot on both HTV and Anglia, etc) whilst some areas don’t appear to have shown it at all.

It certainly didn’t lack for talent though, both in-front of and behind the camera.  It was created by Eric Paice, co-writer of the Pathfinders series with Malcolm Hulke (which had been a clear influence on the creation of Doctor Who).  Several Doctor Who writers – Ian Stuart Black and John Lucarotti – contributed scripts whilst Freddie Francis, a respected director and cinematographer, directed five episodes.  Another notable behind-the-scenes name lending his expertise to the series was Alan Hume, who worked as the director of photography on a score of major films (including multiple James Bonds and Return of the Jedi).

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Gareth Thomas

Three years before playing Roj Blake, Gareth Thomas had his first taste of the weird world of television science-fiction when he played Shem.  Shem’s a rather subservient character, as not only is he in thrall to his female mistresses but he also plays second fiddle to Adam, who’s clearly marked as the alpha-male right from the start.  In the first episode Shem is given several lines (“it’s a woman’s world”, “men’s liberation”) which hammers the point home that Medusa is a planet totally dominated by women.  Subtlety is not a hallmark of this series.

French-born Pierre Brice might have been an unknown quantity for British audiences, but since he was a big star in Germany at the time it explains why he was drafted in to take one of the leading male roles.  Adam’s decision to flee to Earth annoys his mistress Fulvia (Judy Geeson) whilst security chief Octavia (Christine Kruger) vows to get them back by any means necessary.

The Medusans kidnap two Earth scientists, Rudi (Christian Quadfleig) and Liz (Lisa Harrow), and as might be expected there’s a certain amount of irony and comedy to be mined out of their situation. Both are taken back to Medusa and suffer different fates – Rudi is assigned to a work-party whilst Liz is treated like a princess.

The guest casts feature familiar players such as Graham Crowden, Terence Alexander, Anna Carteret, Ronald Fraser and Alfie Bass.  Those who enjoy picking out background faces might spot David Ellison playing a policeman (a few years later, along with Anna Carteret, he’d be a regular in Juliet Bravo) whilst any fans of Delta and the Bannermen may want to look out for Belinda Mayne in episode seven, Test for Love.

The first episode – Escape to Paradise – sets up the premise of the series with a very hard info-dump during the opening few minutes.  This explains that Medusa (Space 1999 like) has somehow gained the ability to drift around the universe, eventually ending up not too far from Earth.  There’s some nice modelwork on show, although unfortunately the models do rather look like models. That’s something of a hallmark of the series.

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The next episode, Nemesis, sees Adam and Shem, newly arrived on Earth, forced to go on the run (it features the immortal line “there are two funny men stealing our apples”!).  Following that, we have another Earth-based instalment, The Nightmare Cannon, notable for the eponymous device which causes the faces of Octavia and Fulvia to be seen by Adam and Shem everywhere. The moment when two suits of armour come lumbering towards Shem and raise their visors to display the features of Octavia and Fulvia (a not terribly convincing optical effect) is just one of many classic moments scattered thoughtout the series. Gareth Thomas certainly gives his all during this scene.

Terence Alexander has a good guest role in the fifth episode, Kidnap – he plays a smoothie with designs on Fulvia.  Gregori (Alexander) plies Fulvia with champagne as a prelude to strapping her into a human thought transference machine. Alexander plays drunk amusingly, whilst decent actors like Philip Stone and Stanley Lebor lurk in a menacing manner.

One of the interesting things about the series is the fact that it features stories set both on Earth (featuring the misadventures of Adam, Shem and Fulvia) as well as Medusa (where Rudi and Liz find themselves to be fishes out of water). By centering the action around newcomers to both civilizations, there’s scope for drama and humour as they all come to terms with a new world which differs dramatically from their own. Although it’s something of a weakness that the first half of the series is dominated by Earth stories (a bit more variety at this point would have been welcome).

Test for Love finds us back on Medusa with Liz facing a terrible ordeal – she has to undergo a computer test in order to establish whether her claims that she doesn’t find Medusan men attractive is true (this mainly involves watching bare-chested men on a viewing screen).  Lisa Harrow, who during her career has tackled many major roles at the RSC, admirably manages to keep a straight face. Quite what the lunchtime and early evening audiences made of this back in the seventies is anyone’s guess ….

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Dawn Addams & Lisa Harrow

The Perfect Couple is a series highlight.  Adam and Fulvia, still stranded on Earth, decide to set up home together.  But things don’t go smoothly as Fulvia becomes annoyed that househusband Adam’s coffee mornings are spent entertaining attractive housewives! Meanwhile, Fulvia’s story of life on Medusa has inspired the local women to rise up and take control. Today suburbia, tomorrow the world.  Although it’s as unsubtle as the rest of the series, this one is genuinely funny (as well as featuring a nice guest-turn from Ronald Fraser).

Gareth Thomas gets a chance to shine in Hideout.  Shem, like Adam, is still on the Earth and remains a hunted fugitive.  He’s befriended by Rose (Conny Collins) but with the police closing in there’s danger all around.  Thomas and Collins both work well and even though they don’t spend a great deal of time together, their relationship still feels real.

The second half of the series concentrates more on Medusan stories, with both The End of Time and Creatures of the Mind being of particular interest. In The End of Time, Earth scientist Professor Evans (Derek Farr – a strong presence throughout the series) is brought to Medusa by Octavia, but they arrive to find a city in crisis with the President (Dawn Addams) apparently dead. There’s an eerie tone to this one, which contrasts well with some of the broad comedy seen elsewhere.

Creatures of the Mind finds Liz under attack from a group of whispering robots. Scripted by Ian Stuart Black, it puts Lisa Harrow centre-stage and gives her some good material to work with. It’s just a pity that the twenty five minute format results in everything feeling a little rushed (although since the thought of some of the slighter episodes bulked out to fifty minutes is a terrifying one, maybe the shorter running time was the best option overall).

The series finale, The Enemy, sees Adam eventually make his way back to Medusa, which means he’s on hand to save the day as the planet comes under attack from a mysterious alien craft. This feat even impresses the hard-bitten Octavia (although how long she stayed impressed we’ll never know, as it was decided not to renew the show for a second series).

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Pierre Brice, Gareth Thomas & Judy Geeson

Originally released by Delta in 2005 but OOP for several years, Star Maidens has now been brought back into print by Simply. Simply’s release looks to be pretty much the same as Delta’s, with identical menu screens and picture quality. The PQ is reasonable, athough had new prints been struck from the negatives then things could have looked a good deal better. But apart from the expense, that supposes the original negatives still exist – which due to the age of the series isn’t certain.

There’s a bonus feature on disc two – an interview with Gareth Thomas. Running for 35 minutes, it offers a highly entertaining trot through the series, as well as briefly touching on other parts of his career.  Thomas was always an affable and unpretentious interviewee, which becomes clear over the course of this feature.  It’s easy to imagine that many actors would be reluctant to revisit such an undistinguished and faintly embarrassing part of their career, but Thomas had no such qualms and was happy to speak at length about the production.

There isn’t another series like Star Maidens. It’s fusion of gender politics, mild titillation (the eye-catching female guards, decked out in hotpants and crop tops) and sci-fi themes all combine to produce a heady brew. And although it’s no classic, it possesses a certain wonky charm (even if there are times when it’s impossible not to react with slack-jawed incredulity at the events unfolding on the screen).

Hand on heart, some of the acting isn’t great, the music is of its time (that’s the kindest thing I can say about it) and the extensive redubbing tends to increase the unreal air of the stories. But I still find it a fascinating and entertaining time capsule of the period and whilst it won’t be to everybody’s tastes, I’m glad that it’s available once again.

Star Maidens is released by Simply Media on the 17th of April 2017.  The series is comprised of thirteen 25 minute episodes and has an RRP of £19.99.

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