The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Network BD review

A little over sixty years ago (on the 22nd of October 1960 to be precise) the first episode of a short-lived series starring Anthony Newley was broadcast. The Strange World of Gurney Slade arrived with something of a bang but departed with much more of a whimper. Tumbling ratings and the lukewarm reception it received from a baffled audience were two reasons why it was swiftly demoted from peak-time and into a graveyard slot.

And yet there’s no denying that the series had its fans. A young David Jones (later to rechristen himself David Bowie) was certainly enthralled – his mid to late sixties persona borrowed heavily from the Newley image.

The initial critical response was mixed, but the series did garner some good notices. The Coventry Evening Telegraph (5th November 1960) called it the bright spot of their Saturday evening (and bemoaned that it was now on so late – having been shunted off in favour of 77 Sunset Strip). Kenneth Bailey, writing in The People (18th November 1960) made the point that whilst Gurney Slade‘s ratings weren’t spectacular, this type of experimental programme should be applauded (a letter writer to The Stage and Television Today made the same point).

A repeat run in 1963 was an early sign that the critical tide was turning in Gurney’s favour. Marjorie Norris, writing in The Stage and Television Today (12th September 1963), declared that she “enjoyed it even better than before. It is still as much a break-through in comedy as it was then”. Newley was clearly pleased by her comments, as he penned a thank you letter to The Stage (3rd October 1963), commenting that “the Newley ego took a bit of a dive after the pasting he received on its first outing, and it’s rather heart-warming that Gurney has been given a second chance”.

The cult of Gurney Slade was slowly building momentum then, but it wasn’t until Network released the series on DVD in 2011 that it could really be appreciated and reassessed. What’s especially striking for those of us who came to the series via DVD is how contemporary it felt. That’s no doubt because it’s easy to identify later programmes (The Prisoner, say) who were influenced – either directly or indirectly – by the show. But as the 1960 audience would have had none of these later reference points, coming to it cold must have been a bewildering experience for many.

British television comedy (indeed British television in general) was still in its infancy back in 1960. The BBC may have begun broadcasting in 1936, but the Second World War (and the slow roll out of transmitters) meant that only by the mid fifties was television establishing itself as a dominant force (helped along by the arrival of ITV). The pre-eminent sitcom of the time would have been Hancock’s Half Hour over on the BBC.

ITV also had a crop of popular programmes – such as The Army Game and The Larkins – but they tended to be somewhat broader in tone. When Gurney walks out of a middle of the road television sitcom at the start of the first episode (demolishing the fourth wall even before the credits have rolled) he seems to be turning his back on a series not dissimilar to The Larkins.

This pre-credits faux sitcom is everything that Gurney Slade isn’t – comfortable, cosy and predictable. By thumbing his nose at it, Newley (and his writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills) were taking a broad satirical swipe at this sort of show. The only problem with this is that it risks alienating that section of the audience who likes their sitcoms to be cosy and predictable. Annoying the audience within the first few minutes of the opening episode has to be a record ….

Recording wise the series was split – the first three episodes were shot mainly on location and the last three were studio bound. Heading into episode two, we find Gurney musing about the nature of relationships. He arrives at a deserted airfield – well, deserted apart from a young woman (Anneke Wills).  In their imaginations only, the airfield transforms itself into a dance hall and the pair enjoy a dance, after much hesitancy. It’s a remarkable sequence – not least for the fact that both engage in lengthy internal monologues.

In real life, their relationship was far less tranquil – Wills became pregnant by him twice (he persuaded her to abort the first baby, but she was determined to keep the second child – Polly, born in 1962). Given all we know about Newley’s notorious philandering – even after their relationship ended so he could pursue Joan Collins, he still couldn’t keep away from Wills – it gives this episode a subtext which would have been totally absent on its original broadcast.

Episode three was probably the one which snapped the patience of many casual viewers back in 1960. Even more fragmentary than the previous two, Gurney spends most of this episode either musing to himself or talking to the animals (such as a cow, seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding). He does bump into the odd human being, such as  Napoleon (John Bennett), who happens to be standing in a field.

Things get really interesting when we move into the studio episodes. Show four finds Gurney 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.”

That Newley, Green and Hills could accurately foresee the way the series would be received is fascinating. The arguments and counter-arguments brought into play (an average member of the audience found the series clever – not funny, but clever) no doubt mirrored real life discussions generated by the series.  Another broad satirical dig occurs when the jury is revealed – twelve men all dressed identically in cloth caps and scarves. Throw in Douglas Wilmer as the judge and you’ve got an episode which is possibly my favourite – for sheer nerve alone.

The recursive nature of Gurney Slade is developed during episode five. Gurney is telling a group of children a story (all about a magical place called Gurneyland). When he later asks them why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television, they tell him that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.” A later trip to Gurney’s subconscious (which is invaded by the children and their families) offers plenty of food for thought about the dividing line between fantasy and reality. The invisible elephant is impressive as well.

By now it was clear that just about anything could happen, so how would the series be brought to a conclusion? The final episode sees a group of executives brought to the studio to watch a recording of Gurney Slade. So despite the fact that Gurney believed he was breaking free at the start of episode one, it’s made clear again today that he – like all the other characters – is a fictional construct. Born in the studio six weeks ago, his time is nearly up.

It’s nice to see most of the characters from previous episodes turn up for a final bow. They’re all given new jobs – Wilmer’s prosecutor lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at the prospect of having to take her clothes off in a French film.

Gurney’s fate is somewhat startling, but for those coming to the series fresh I won’t spoil the ending.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is something that deserves to be cherished. Network’s DVD has been played a number of times and it’s lovely to now have the series on a sparkling BD, packed with a number of new special features.

Three Saturday Spectaculars from 1960 are the pick for me – not only do the likes of Shirley Bassey and Peter Sellers make appearances, but there’s also the chance to see Newley try out the character that would eventually turn into Gurney Slade.

The Small World of Sammy Lee was released on BD back in 2016, but I won’t begrudge its inclusion here, Newley is on top form in this 1963 film, set in a sleazy Soho world where Sammy (Newley) is attempting to stay one step ahead of a Mr Big who’s intent on causing him serious damage. Newly discovered material (an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley) are intriguing additions.

Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts have all contributed essays to a 44 page booket. Pixley’s is the lengthiest and packed with the sort of painstaking detail he’s known and loved for (production information on the series was clearly a little hard to come by, but everything else – even down to how many different cover versions of Max Harris’ theme were issued – is detailed). The essays by Fiddy and Roberts are also well worth reading, although possibly not one after the other as there’s some duplication of information and quotes.

For those who own the DVD, then this BD set offers a considerable upgrade – the picture quality (which was good on the DVD) has received a substantial boost. This, along with the new special features, makes for a very nice package. And if you’re new to the world of Gurney Slade, the BD should be snapped up straight away ….

The Strange World Of Gurney Slade can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Light Entertainment Rarities – Network DVD Review

Sammy Davis Jr Meets The British (11th June 1960)

This special, directed by Brian Tesler, neatly falls into three separate sections. In the first, a solo Sammy entertains with a selection of songs, some affable chat to the audience and an impersonation of Adam Faith thrown in for good measure. All this takes place against a fairly basic set, so it’s clear that the budget wasn’t spent on this section.

A little more spending is evident in part two which begins with an OB shoot at a deserted Battersea funfair. Sammy leads a group of cute children around the fair, all the time indulging in plenty of song and dance action. Thanks to the presence of the kids there’s a strong sense of schmaltz about this part of the show, but it’s tightly choregraphed and it’s also nice to get a look at the long vanished fair.

We then return to the studio to see Sammy – desperate to become an English gentleman – receiving some instruction from Lionel Blair. Their initial crosstalk might drag a little, but it’s worth wading through as the pay-off (the pair attempt to out tap each other) is great fun. They seem to genuinely spark off each other, with Sammy spontaneously bringing him back in part three to take another bow.

The final third of the special has a nightclub ambiance. A dinner suited Sammy performs behind an orchestra with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sat at tables nearby.  Had the whole show been like this then I wouldn’t have objected – as it is, these remaining fifteen minutes gives him a chance to demonstrate his versatility one final time (singing, playing the drums and attempting various impersonations – of which Louis Armstrong is the most impressive).

Steamboat Shuffle (1960)

I was expecting this to take place on a Steamboat set in the studio, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the twenty five minutes of trad jazz action occurs on a real boat – the Cottontail – moored on the riverside at Teddington. It was built especially for this short series (of which the edition on this disc is the sole survivor).

Introduced by the affable Peter Elliott, Steamboat Shuffle is interesting for several reasons – not least for the way director Ben Churchill managed to make the OB recording flows nicely (giving it the feel of a live production). Logistically it must have been something of a nightmare, with the cameras for certain performances placed on the dockside (meaning that the cameramen had to nip past the jiving hip young things) but there were very few muffled shot choices.

The musical turns come thick and fast, with the performances from a young Kenny Lynch especially catching the eye. It’s an enjoyable way to spend twenty five minutes, and it leaves me a little saddened that this episode is the only one still left in existence.

Big Night Out – The Peggy Lee Show (26th August 1961)

This edition of Big Night Out has a similar feel to the Sammy Davis Jr special, although Peggy Lee wasn’t quite the same all-rounder – her brief chat to the audience has a faint air of awkwardness (as does a skit she appears in, featuring David Kossoff as a taxi driver). But luckily this show plays to her strengths, so it mainly comprises of a series of excellent musical performances (Fever is an obvious highlight).

The third part of the show sees Peggy joined by three friends – Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and Bing Crosby. This is something rather special as the affable Cahn enjoys some nice musical byplay with Peggy (Van Heusen remains silent, content just to play the piano). Bing Crosby wanders on towards the end to perform a couple of songs, although given the Cahn/Van Heusen catalogue (both together and separately) this part of the show can only scratch the surface of their musical output.

Celebration (9th April 1966)

The final programme on the disc, Celebration with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, is a little heavier than the three other other light entertainment offerings, but it’s still a fascinating watch. Recorded at Coventry Cathedral, Celebration was only rediscovered in 2018. Including the European premiere of his ‘Concert of Sacred Music’, the performance was one that was close to Ellington’s heart (he later referred to it as “one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. And the most important.”)

Light Entertainment Rarities is an excellent release, scooping up a selection of one-offs or orphaned episodes from otherwise wiped series which would be too short by themselves to merit a stand-alone release. Fingers crossed that a volume two follows in due course, but for now this DVD is well worth checking out.

Light Entertainment Rarities was released by Network on the 9th of November 2020 (1 disc, running for 177 minutes). It can be ordered directly from Network here.

The Bruce Forsyth Show – Network DVD Review

Sandwiched inbetween Bruce Forsyth’s initial breakthrough as one of the hosts of Sunday Night at the London Palladium during the late fifties and his rebirth as a fully-fledged game-show host on The Generation Game in the early seventies, The Bruce Forsyth Show is a fascinating programme (Brucie’s missing link, you might say).

Most thumbnail biographies tend to skip over this period, contending that it took The Generation Game to restore Bruce to full television glory. And yet The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t skimp on star names – Frankie Howerd, Cilla Black, Dudley Moore, Tommy Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Diana Dors, Kathy Kirby, Julie Rogers, Harry Secombe, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones were amongst the performers appearing.

No doubt its low profile is due to the fact that it’s been pretty much unavailable since its original broadcast, so a tip of the hat to Network for bringing it back into circulation.

The debut show was broadcast on Christmas Day 1965. There’s a distinct lack of festive trimmings though – which raises the possibility that the show may have been put out on the 25th of December as something of an afterthought. Cilia Black is the show’s big guest – sharing some slightly uncomfortable crosstalk with Bruce (although it’s still good natured) and belting out a couple of songs.

Unsurprisingly, Brucie’s skills as a song and dance man are put to good use (as they are throughout the series) and he also takes part in a number of sketches. These try the patience a little more – although the skit with Miriam Karlin (she plays a hoity toity dog breeder) does have a few bright moments. They mainly occur when Bruce wanders off script (he tended to be more comfortable when he could riff with the material).

Laughs are fairly thin on the ground later on when Bruce and Francis Matthews play a couple of drunk golfers, returning home. This was a sketch that probably would have been twice as funny if it had been half as long. The final third of the show picks up though – with an orchestra skit (featuring Bruce as the conductor) – so overall this debut show was a pretty strong effort.

After this one-off, the series proper debuted on the 14th of August 1966. Sid Green and Dick Hills returned as the writers, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ronnie Corbett, Lionel Blair and Tom Jones appearing. Tom throws himself into things with gusto – appearing in a frenetic sketch where he’s pushed and pulled from pillar to post. The BBC era of The Morecambe & Wise Show has gained the reputation of being the show which allowed the stars to do things outside of their comfort zone, but it’s easy to see that Brucie was doing something similar years earlier.

Sid and Dick will always be best remembered for their 1960’s work with Morecambe & Wise (mostly also at ATV). They fashion similar material for Bruce here – even to the extent of appearing in a sketch themselves (which they regularly did with Eric & Ernie).

Like many series of this era, The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t exist in its entirety, but its survival rate is pretty good (especially when compared to other variety series such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium). Series one is virtually complete, only about ten minutes from the 4/9/66 edition (Frankie Howerd and Julie Rogers guest-starring) are missing.  As for series two, three of the six shows still remain – they feature the likes of Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid and Engelbert Humperdinck.

There’s also a brief clip from an otherwise wiped 1967 Christmas show with Bruce and Frankie Howerd. Recorded on one of the earliest domestic video recorders, the quality of this brief excerpt is pretty poor but nevertheless it’s nice to have it (to have it, nice).

If the sketch material across the series tends to be fairly routine, then the calibre of the guests (Dudley Moore and Tommy Cooper teamed up, for example) helps to keep the energy levels raised. Like all variety shows, The Bruce Forsyth Show is something of a mixed bag, but thanks to Bruce’s exuberance and playful interactions with the guests it’s almost always watchable and comes warmly recommended.

It’s nice to see some more 1960’s LE on DVD, hopefully Network will continue to dig through the archives as I’m sure there’s plenty more waiting to be unearthed.

The Bruce Forsyth Show (3 discs, 503 minutes) is released by Network on the 9th of November 2020. It can be ordered directly here.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade to be released on BD – 30th November 2020

Network have just announced a BD release of The Strange World of Gurney Slade on the 30th of November, with some mouth-watering special features. The press release is below.

On 22nd October 1960 renowned singer and actor Anthony Newley crashed through the fourth wall in his weird and wonderful ATV television series The Strange World of Gurney Slade. To celebrate its 60th birthday all six episodes have been restored in HD from the original 35mm film elements and are now, sixty years to the day since their debut, available to pre-order on a Limited Edition Blu-ray packed full of rare special features exclusively from networkonair.com – this includes streaming of all six episodes via watch.networkonair.com.

This brilliantly inventive and startlingly surreal comedy was unlike anything previously seen on television. Audiences were flabbergasted to see this star on the rise in such an experimental series that deconstructed the fledgling sitcom genre and provided a platform for Newley’s unique stream of consciousness. It was ultimately dropped from its primetime slot after two episodes but not before it managed to take hold in the minds of fans, not least a young David Bowie who’s own breaking of the fourth wall and surreal characters took notes from his fascination and imitation with Anthony Newley and the bizarre Gurney Slade.

Carrying on from where radio’s The Goon Show left off in 1960, Gurney Slade’s influence on comedy was to be felt across the decades that followed – in the late Sixties and Seventies with the surreal sketches of Monty Python ‘s Flying Circus and Marty to the present day Peep Show. The Strange World of Gurney Slade is to television comedy what The Prisoner has since become to television drama – both firmly of its time and spectacularly ahead of it.

The series saw Anthony Newley star as an actor who walks off the set of a banal sit-com and into a fantasy world of his own imagination in a dreamlike odyssey through one man’s personal alternative reality. Talking to dogs, rocks and fairies and dancing with vacuum cleaners it is an unpredictable, absurdist fantasy created by Newley and written by comedy legends Sid Green and Dick Hills (soon thereafter to become key writers for Morecambe and Wise). The series features British stalwarts including Una Stubbs, Anneke Wills, Geoffrey Palmer and Bernie Winters.

This Limited-Edition Blu-ray is brimming with special features including three rare Saturday Spectacular shows from 1960 which acted as a testing ground for Gurney Slade’s internal monologue and feature Shirley Bassey, Peter Sellers, Lionel Blair and more. Also included is a commemorative booklet with contributions from Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts and Anthony Newley’s 1963 beat influenced British crime feature film The Small World of Sammy Lee from writer/director Ken Hughes. Released on 30th November it is now available to pre-order exclusively from networkonair.com and includes streaming of the series’ six episodes via watch.networkonair.com – Network’s new streaming platform launched this July.

“Well, it was a noble effort, wasn’t it? You tried. I give you that, you tried. But the public is no man’s fool, you know. The public knows what it wants, and you had no right to even try and suggest something different. Anyway, the public doesn’t like anything… suggestive.”  – Gurney Slade #GurneySlade60

Special Features:

Three Saturday Spectacular shows from 1960 featuring Anthony Newley alongside Shirley Bassey, Peter Sellers, Janette Scott, Lionel Blair and others. These variety specials feature Newley’s initial attempts at building the “internal monologue character” that would eventually become Gurney Slade.

Original Gurney Slade promotional shorts.

Extensive image galleries.

The Small World of Sammy Lee: The classic 1963 British crime film starring Anthony Newley

The Small World of Sammy Lee special features: newly discovered archive film material featuring an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley

Commemorative booklet with contributions from Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts

Free streaming of the series’ six episodes from today only when you buy the limited-edition Blu-ray set

7 – 63 UP. Network BD/DVD Review

Seven Up! was a World In Action special broadcast in May 1964. Planned as a one-off, it looked ahead to the far-off year of 2000 AD, reasoning that the seven year olds of 1964 would be forty three in 2000 and by then many would be key members of society (“executives and shop stewards” as the narrator puts it).

World In Action editor Tim Hewat had a jaundiced view of the British class system – wondering if someone’s social and economic background predetermined their future, even from a very young age.  Deliberately choosing a diverse mix of boys and girls from various parts of the country and different economic backgrounds, Seven Up! quizzed these voluble youngsters about subjects which included life, love, marriage, fighting, education and their plans for the future.

One of the unusual things about Seven Up! is the fact it was directed by a drama director (Paul Almond).  He was at Granada waiting to do something else and stumbled across Seven Up! almost by accident. Michael Apted (a researcher on the original programme) took over directing duties from the second edition onwards, maintaining this drama link.

What’s remarkable is how many of the subjects kept on returning once it was decided to make a new programme every seven years.  Charles dropped out after 21 Up in 1977, never to return, whilst others (John, Symon, Peter) have skipped certain ones but later came back (Suzy didn’t contribute to the most recent – 63 Up).  Lynn is the first to have passed away, dying in 2013 after a short illness.

Given that the original research process was fairly random and haphazard (no long term contracts or agreements were signed as no thought was given to the possibility of future programmes) the fact that most have come back again and again is testimony to the relationship they’ve forged with Michael Apted through the decades.

There has been a certain amount of tension though.  Apted himself has admitted that on occasions that he was tempted to “play God” and mould the interviews and programmes in a certain direction to tell a predetermined story.  The unbalanced male/female split (ten to four) is something else Apted now regrets, whilst only one contributor – Symon – is mixed race, another missed opportunity.

Taken in isolation, Seven Up! is a really interesting and entertaining watch.  The introduction of Andrew, Charles and John (all pupils in the same expensive Kensington pre-prep school) is unforgettable – along with the rest of their class they perform Waltzing Matilda in Latin.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue all attended the same primary school in East London (a slight pity that three of the four girls were plucked from the same area, but as previously discussed nobody was anticipating a long-running series at this point).

Although a fair number of the children were London-based, Neil and Peter hailed from Liverpool whilst Nick was raised on a farm in Yorkshire.

There’s plenty of amusement to be found in Seven Up! (John loathing the Beatles’ haircuts) as well as more reflective moments (Bruce wishing more than anything to see his Daddy again, who was six thousand miles away). 

When Seven Plus Seven was made in 1970, things really began to get interesting (as the process of comparIng and contrasting the people they are now to the people they were then could begin). This of course is the main strength of the series as it developed, especially with those who have had the most troubled or colourful lives.

Paul has had an especially chequered journey. A lively and amusing child at seven, by the age of 21 he’d dropped out of college and was living in a squat. Still homeless at 28, by the time of 35 Up he’d slowly begun to turn his life around and during the last few decades has become a local councillor as well as contesting several General Elections.

The stories of some of the others, such as Andrew, whose lives have progressed in a much more orderly fashion are still of interest – not least for the initial shock of seeing how they’ve aged when each new programme appears.

In order to contrast the current individual with their past self, liberal use has always been made of their archive interviews. This is understandable (especially during the early broadcasts, where the audience would otherwise have struggled to remember all the faces from seven years earlier) but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of repetition in each programme. Therefore the series is best sampled at irregular intervals rather than via a box-set binge-watch.

But however you view it, the Up series is an unmissable slice of social history. The format has subsequently been copied by various other countries, but the original is still the best. Enlightening, moving, amusing and deeply thought-provoking, this is British documentary making at its very best. Highly recommended.

The Programmes 

Seven Up! (39″ 35′)

Seven Plus Seven (51″ 56′)

21 (99″ 50′)

28 Up (61’05” and 73″44′)

35 Up (115″ 02′)

42 Up ( 59″ 40′ and 72″ 31′)

49 Up (70″ 27′ and 70″ 19′)

56 Up (46″ 58′, 46″ 57′ and 50″ 01′)

63 Up (47″ 40′, 47′ 45″ and 47′ 44″ )

Special Features

Michael Apted at Granada (21″ 41′)

Ir Was Only Going To Ever Be One Film (13″ 36′)

28 Up Commentary Track

7 Up and Me (46″ 32′). 2019 documentary narrated by Joanna Lumley in which celebrities discuss what the Up series means to them.

7 – 63 Up is available now from Network. The Blu Ray edition can be ordered here and the DVD is available here

Probation Officer to be released by Network – January 2017

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Volume One of Probation Officer (containing the twelve earliest surviving episodes) can be pre-bought now at Network.  Payment will be taken immediately, although the DVD won’t be dispatched until late January. For Doomwatch fans, it’s a chance to see a young John Paul, but it also looks like an absorbing, black and white videotaped drama in its own right, with a mouth-watering roster of guest actors.

An early hit for ATV, this absorbing, rigorously researched and very human drama series centres on the work of a team of probation officers based in London, and the lives of the men and women of all ages and backgrounds who come under their care. Drawing on the documentary skills of creator Julian Bond and produced by Emergency – Ward 10’s Antony Kearey, Probation Officer was broadcast at a time – a time when the service was increasingly coming into focus as a progressive response to rising crime.

Future Doomwatch star John Paul stars as newcomer Philip Main, alongside The Avengers’ Honor Blackman as Iris Cope, the team’s only female officer. Guests include Alfred Burke, Susan Hampshire, Charles Lloyd Pack, Richard Vernon and Peter Vaughan – while Earl Cameron and Lloyd Reckord star in a blistering tale of racism and intolerance which features one of the earliest interracial kisses ever broadcast on British television.

Probation Officer does not exist complete in the archive – this volume contains the twelve earliest surviving episodes from series one.

All Star Comedy Carnival to be released by Network – 5th December 2016

all-star

Network will release the 1972 & 1973 editions of All Star Comedy Carnival in December.

An annual television event for five years from 1969, All Star Comedy Carnival was ITV’s annual ‘Christmas bonus’ – presenting viewers with brand-new sketches from the network’s most popular sitcoms of any given year. A highlight of the festive viewing period, only two editions still exist: those for 1972 and 1973.

This set presents both complete shows, comprising specially written festive sketches for thirteen classic series:

• LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR
• ON THE BUSES
• CHRISTMAS WITH WOGAN
• NEAREST AND DEAREST
• THIRTY MINUTES WORTH
• SEZ LES
• THE FENN STREET GANG
• FATHER DEAR FATHER
• MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE
• MY GOOD WOMAN
• BILLY LIAR
• SPRING AND AUTUMN
• DOCTOR IN CHARGE

SPECIAL FEATURE: The Dustbinmen: All Star Comedy Carnival sketch from 1969.

Morecambe & Wise: Two of a Kind to be released by Network – 5th December 2016

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Morecambe & Wise: Two of a Kind  will be released by Network in December.

Morecambe and Wise, undoubtedly the best-loved double act that Britain has ever produced, first achieved their phenomenal television success in the early 1960s with this long-running hit series for ATV. Showcasing their mildly anarchic humour, impeccable sense of timing and keen eye for the absurd in a feast of uproarious sketches, onstage antics and musical entertainment, Two of a Kind propelled Morecambe and Wise towards superstardom in no uncertain terms.

Each show features fast-moving skits and musical parodies, with Eric and Ernie giving us their inimitable versions of television favourites Supercar, Face to Face and Candid Camera – in addition to memorable interpretations of key scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet, Eric’s ongoing battle to get his lines right in Samson and Delilah, and undoubtedly the most ambitious attempt ever seen to recreate the ‘fight sequence’ in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! Among the many guest stars are Roy Castle, Joe Brown, Kathy Kirby, Susan Maughan, The Bachelors and Acker Bilk.

This eight disc set contains all 48 editions of Two of a Kind (aka The Morecambe and Wise Show) alongside a wealth of special features – including an exceptionally rare early performance from 1957, several appearances on Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectacular and the two surviving editions of Piccadilly Palace.

The Life and Times of David Lloyd George to be released by Network – 3rd October 2016

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This is another very welcome BBC Network title – due for release in early October.

Philip Madoc gives a career-best performance as one of Britain’s most revered, inspiring – and controversial – leaders in this celebrated BBC series. Scripted by BAFTA-winning Elaine Morgan with input from leading historian A.J.P. Taylor – and with famously haunting theme music by Ennio Morricone – The Life and Times of David Lloyd George paints a multifaceted portrait of a political icon who steered Britain through the First World War and its aftermath, and whose pioneering reforms laid the foundations of the welfare state.

Brought up in a remote Welsh village, on his way to the top Lloyd George inspires both hysterical adoration and an enmity bordering on bloodlust. A passionate social reformer, his struggle to lift the spectres of poverty and the workhouse provokes the ire of the political establishment, while his indefatigable womanising fills many a gossip column; his political dexterity as the Liberal prime minister of a wartime coalition government, however, raised him to a new level of power and influence.

Sink or Swim to be released by Network – 3rd October 2016

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The first fruits of Network’s new deal with the BBC will be arriving this October.

Doctor Who star Peter Davison headlines this well-remembered BBC sitcom, starring alongside BAFTA-winning Hustle stalwart Robert Glenister in his TV debut.

They play brothers Brian and Steve Webber, whose attempt to strike out in business involves a soggy narrowboat and a dubious decision to ply the Thameside tourist trade. Unfortunately, Steve is as loutish and lazy as Brian is charming and ambitious – and the latter finds both his enthusiasm and his relationship with idealistic girlfriend Sonia severely hampered by his brother’s persistent presence!

Scripted by Alex Shearer, creator of The Two of Us, Sink or Swim is a much-sought-after comedy. This set contains all three series.

Callan: This Man Alone – Network DVD Review

this man alone

Callan: This Man Alone is a three disc set released in 2015 by Network.  The feature attraction, This Man Alone, is an exhaustive 130 minute documentary which covers every aspect of the character – from the Armchair Theatre pilot, the four series, the spin-off short stories and novels, the 1974 film and the not terribly well received one-off revival in 1981.

A host of key personnel who worked on the series (both in front of and behind the cameras) – Reginald Collin, Mike Vardy, James Goddard, Piers Haggard, Patrick Mower, Trevor Preston, Clifford Rose, Robert Banks Stewart, Ray Jenkins – were interviewed for the documentary, whilst Dick Fiddy is on hand to set Callan in its cultural and historical context.  Another very enlightening interviewee is Peter Mitchell, the son of Callan‘s creator, James Mitchell.  The pride he feels in his father’s legacy is palpable and, like the others, he has plenty to contribute.

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Although a number of people, including James Mitchell, Edward Woodward, William Squire and Russell Hunter, are no longer with us, they are represented via archive material.  This is mainly derived from a series of audio interviews conducted in 1987.  Presumably these were intended for transcribing purposes and not for broadcast as they’re a little indistinct in places.  Although Woodward sadly passed away before the documentary came to fruition, there’s still a family connection as This Man Alone is narrated by Peter Woodward, Edward Woodward’s son.

All of the key parts of the production – developing a series from the pilot, casting the regulars (and in the case of Hunter, numerous re-castings), moving from ABC to Thames, from black and white into colour, the public’s reception of the show and the decision to bring it to an end – are all covered.  Possibly the only aspect that I was surprised wasn’t discussed concerns the reasons for writing out Cross, Patrick Mower’s character, in series four (I’ve always assumed it was done in order to facilitate the return of Meres, played by Anthony Valentine).

Although the pair do have a brief cross-over period, it seems that once Valentine was available again (he’d declined to appear in series three) it was decided to write out Mower.  It would have been interesting to hear from Mower as to whether he thought that was the case, or if he was happy to leave on a high (his final story certainly was a dramatic one).

Unlike some series, Callan seems to have been a very harmonious production, so there aren’t too many story of back-stage bust ups.  The second Hunter, Michael Goodliffe, found the role not to his liking and was quickly written out, whilst Woodward wasn’t entirely sure that promoting Callan to Hunter in series four was a good idea, but that’s about it.

With an additional twenty five minutes of interview footage that didn’t fit into the documentary, disc one is as comprehensive as you’d might hope.

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Disc two has new transfers of two episodes, the Armchair Theatre pilot  A Magnum for Schneider and the first story of series one, The Good Ones Are All Dead.  The previously issued version of A Magnum for Schneider came from the transmission tape, but since the story was transferred to film prior to transmission (a not uncommon practice for VT programmes at the time, as it offered more flexibility for editing) Network were able to locate the original film recording and have produced a new transfer from it.  Both episodes offer a considerable upgrade on the previous versions issued on DVD.

Also on disc two is the complete studio tape for The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw.  Running to 78 minutes, this offers the viewer a unique chance to see how an episode of Callan was recorded, as all the takes and re-takes are included.  To be honest it sounds more interesting than it actually is, but it’s obviously nice to have.

Disc three has a real curio – the only surviving episode of The Edward Woodward Hour.  It’s taken from a domestic recording, so the picture quality isn’t quite broadcast standard, but that’s no problem.  It offers us a chance to see Woodward flex his singing muscles and the unforgettable comedy sketch in which Callan and Lonely meet the cast of Father Dear Father!  This bizarre encounter is touched upon in the documentary, with both Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter (especially Hunter) remembering it with a distinct lack of fondness.  Amusing or toe-curling?  I think that’s up to personal taste.

Semi-mute rushes of James Mitchell from 1969, recorded for A World of My Own, are also featured on disc three, but the main attraction is the extensive PDF archive.  All the scripts for the series are included (many of the early ones have both rehearsal and camera versions) whilst there’s also the original series outline, publicity material, audience research, etc.  There’s certainly a wealth of reading here and most importantly it’s lovely to be able to read the scripts for those episodes which are missing from the archives.

Whilst Callan: This Man Alone might feel like a three disc set of special features, if you have all of Network’s previous Callan releases (the monochrome series, the colour series, Wet Job, Andrew Pixley’s book) then it’s the perfect companion piece.  Quite why all these individual elements haven’t been collected into a boxset is a slight mystery, but no matter – if you love the series then it’s a very worthwhile purchase.

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The Organization now available from Network

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It’s very welcome (and unexpected) news that The Organization is now available to buy direct from Network.  This seven part series, broadcast on ITV in 1971, was originally due to be released last year, but when the release date slipped several times it made me wonder if it would follow the likes of Biggles (another Network title which is missing in action).

Written by Philip Mackie, whose work I’ve previously covered in posts on An Englishman’s Castle and The Cleopatras, The Organization centres around a faceless company where backstabbing is the order of the day.

Starring Peter Egan, Anton Rodgers, Donald Sinden and Bernard Hepton, and with the likes of Gretchen Franklin, Jon Laurimore and Norman Bird in supporting roles, it has the sort of cast to die for.

Not seen in the UK since the C4 repeats back in the 1980’s, I look forward to becoming reacquainted with the series very shortly.

Network announce new BBC deal

Heralded by a short, enigmatic video (which seemed to suggest they’d be offering old copies of the Radio Times for sale!) Network have announced that they’ll be releasing some choice archive gems from the BBC archive.

With Network having recently signed long term deals with both ITV PLC and Fremantle, this is another intriguing announcment – although it’s slightly tempered by the fact that a slew of proposed ITV DVDs announced last year have gone back into limbo (possibly this is why they mention that delays may occur with certain titles).

The lack of new archive releases from Network recently has been slightly puzzling, but the BBC deal is encouraging news.  Their announcement is reproduced below –

They’re Back! – BBC Announcement

The early days of our fledging label saw us rescuing Robinson Crusoe, crossing borders into Communist-state fairyland and presenting some old public information films to a baffled 21st century audience. It all looked just a bit weird on paper.

These unusual and now almost library-standard releases led us, inevitably, to ask for more of the same but we instead got ’The Goodies’, ‘Ripping Yarns’ and ’Till Death Us Do Part’ for our troubles.

So now we are almost back where we started, having recently concluded an agreement with the BBC to revisit some of our older releases as well as bring a lot of new material to add to our range.

Towards the end of the year and beyond we’ll be releasing complete series box sets of shows that we’d distributed many years ago including ‘The Goodies’, ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ and ‘Sykes’ amongst rarer fare like ‘All Passion Spent’ and ‘Johnny Jarvis’, some Screen Two presentations such as ’The Vision’, bafflingly unreleased classics like ’The Life And Times Of David Lloyd George’ and much more.

We’ll be sharing news on these releases with you as we work through them but you’ll need to be patient. There are substantial technical and clearance issues to attend to but it is underway as we write. The first titles will appear before the end of the year, hopefully sooner.

 

Quatermass (John Mills 1979) – Network BD/DVD Review

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After rewatching Euston Films’ 1979 production of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass a few months ago I mused that it would be nice if Network were able to acquire the rights and release a restored version on BD.  And just to prove that wishes do sometimes come true, Quatermass will be released by Network on BD and DVD on the 27th of July 2015.  It’s especially welcome since the previous release, long since deleted, was only available on DVD and the picture quality left more than a little to be desired.

Quatermass was an unusual project for British television at the time, due to the fact it was filmed on 35mm.  Filmed programmes were becoming more common, but by the late 1970’s they tended to be shot on 16mm.  Because Euston wanted to recut the series for theatrical release in the US, it was obviously decided that it was worth investing the extra money to shoot on 35mm stock and that’s very good news.  Network have already released several impressive BDs sourced from 16mm material (The Professionals, The Sweeney, Robin of Sherwood) but since this was a 35mm series the resulting PQ will be even better.

Network were able to access the original film elements (the ClearVision release was only sourced from a 16mm print).  It’s interesting to compare screen caps from the ClearVision DVD against the Network BD.  Greg Bakun’s From The Archive blog has a number of examples and looking at the caps, the colours on the Network BD seem to be very muted compared to the ClearVision DVD.

Having watched the BD in motion I’m now more reassured – it is a less vibrant grade but it suits the nature of the story.  Quatermass was a bleak, post-apocalyptic tale so it shouldn’t really look bright and summery (and it’s probable that the ClearVision DVD was over-saturated anyway).  Colours on the BD look natural, which is the most important thing.

I’ve already written quite extensively on the programme starting here, so we’ll move on to look at the special features.  The key one is the 100 minute movie edit, The Quatermass Conclusion.  This basically cuts the running time in half (most of episode three is excised, for example) and it also includes some alternative footage and music.  It’s displayed in what I assume was the original theatrical ratio of 1:78:1 and it’s therefore interesting to compare some of the same shots against the 1:33:1 framing of the television series.  Possibly Network could have released the series in 1:78:1 as well, but since they’re sticklers to keeping to the original A/R it’s no surprise they didn’t (and it’s the right call, in my opinion).

The Quatermass Conclusion obviously loses some detail and character development, but on its own terms it works very effectively.  It’s certainly a very different proposition from the “movie edits” of series such as UFO, which bolted several unconnected episodes together and attempted to paper over the cracks with new incidental music.

Textless titles, (mute) episode recaps and a mute trailer for The Quatermass Conclusion are inessential, but nice to have anyway.  The image gallery runs to 2:51 and contains a varied selection of on-set photographs as well as some behind the scenes pictures.  Music only tracks across all four episodes are a very welcome extra as is the thirty-six page booklet of production notes by Andrew Pixley.  As might be expected, Pixley has been able to unearth a wealth of fascinating production detail.

The bleak tone of Quatermass might not be to everybody’s tastes but I’m glad that it’s finally back in circulation (and with such good picture quality) so that people can experience it for themselves.  A few more special features (commentaries, documentaries) would have been welcome but it’s still a very decent package at a good price (especially when ordered direct from Network) and is warmly recommended.

Callan: Under The Red File by Andrew Pixley. Network book review

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Callan: Under The Red File by Andrew Pixley is an exhaustive guide to the production of this classic television series and is now available for purchase via Network’s website.

For anybody who has an interest in British archive television, Pixley’s name should be well known.  He’s produced viewing notes for many Network titles over the years (most recently The Professionals) as well as for various BBC titles (such as their short-lived science-fiction releases).  He also penned the Archive feature in Doctor Who Magazine for many years.

The bulk of the research in the book was carried out some years ago and the intention was that the book would form part of a Callan boxset, together with all the existing episodes and some additional special features.  For one reason or another, the boxset has yet to appear – so now we have the opportunity to buy the book by itself.

If you’re familiar with Pixley’s work then you’ll know what to expect.  This is a highly factual, production-based work.  If you’re looking for a glossy, well-illustrated tome then this may not be for you.  But if you want facts, you’ve certainly got them here.

Callan is one of those programmes that has never really been examined in great detail before.  I can’t recall any previous books published on the show (although there is another, from Miwk, due out later in the year).  This means that there’s a wealth of material that was new to me – especially about the early (sadly incomplete) black and white episodes.

If you love Callan, this is an essential purchase.  It can be ordered direct from Network’s website here.  Network’s blurb on the book is below.

Nearly ten years in the writing, Callan: Under the Red File has been a labour of love for both Network and the book’s author, Andrew Pixley. Anyone familiar with Network’s releases will know our history with Andrew is a long one and he has done some excellent work for us over the years – with his books on The Prisoner, Danger Man, Public Eye and The Professionals all raising the bar for this type of archive research. Ahead of our upcoming Callan documentary, you can now buy Andrew’s new book exclusively from networkonair.com.

Initially a cult success before becoming one of British television’s most watched programmes, Callan brought the gritty, downbeat angle of Cold War espionage to 1960s British television. In stark contrast to the glamour of James Bond and the stylized capers of The Avengers, the man known as David Callan was a highly skilled killer, tasked by the Government to eliminate threats to national security. This reluctant, conscience-wracked assassin was brought to life in a remarkable performance by Edward Woodward, cementing his popularity as an actor many years before he achieved major international success in both Breaker Morant and The Equalizer.

This exhaustive book is the definitive look at the creation, production, broadcast and reception of all four series. From its conception as a one-off BBC play, through its development by ABC Television, its success as one of Thames Television’s highest-rated programmes, its subsequent ATV revival and its expansion into novels, short stories and movies – this single volume covers every aspect of James Mitchell’s most successful creation.

Whodunnit? – Series Five – Forthcoming from Network

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After something of a gap (mainly due to Network negotiating a new ten year licencing deal with ITV Studios) it’s pleasing to see a number of archive television titles are listed as forthcoming on their website.

Whodunnit? – Series Five is particularly welcome – it’s a lovely slice of 1970’s nostalgia with many familiar faces (both on the panels and featured in the playlets).  After a somewhat shaky start (I love Edward Woodward but he was never best suited to the role of panel-game host – see series one for evidence of this) the programme was firmly in the groove by this time, helped no end by Jon Pertwee.  As ever with Network, there’s always the possibility that release dates will slip, but at present it’s scheduled for release at the end of April 2015.

Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee is your host in this highly popular, light-hearted panel game which invites viewers to play detective – pitting their wits against a panel of celebrity sleuths to solve a fictitious murder mystery.

Devised by comedians Jeremy Lloyd and Lance Percival, the show’s brilliantly original formula presents short dramas laden with clues – and a few red herrings – to be pieced together by the panellists who, having grilled the suspects, point the accusing finger at the likely felon…

A star-studded guest panel for this volume includes Prunella Scales, Connie Booth, Liza Goddard, Terry Wogan, Dinah Sheridan, Patrick Mower and Jimmy Jewel; Françoise Pascal, Kate O’Mara, Josephine Tewson and Denis Lill feature among the casts.

Filmed in Supermarionation (Network Blu Ray/DVD Review)

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Filmed in Supermarionation is a glorious two-hour documentary from director/producer Stephen La Rivière which tells the story of how a small company based in Slough were able produce some of the most iconic children’s television series of all time.

Central to the story, of course, is the late Gerry Anderson.  Happily he’s well represented throughout the documenatry via an extensive interview.  Also present is Gerry’s ex-wife, Sylvia, who was a key figure in the sucess of AP Films/Century 21, not least for voicing Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds.  Sadly, the divorce of Gerry and Sylvia was very bitter, which meant that during Gerry’s lifetime she was persona non grata – so it’s good to have her contribution appreciated here.

Apart from Gerry and Sylvia, there were a whole host of unsung heroes who brought these shows to life and celebrating their work was one of the main reasons why Stephen La Rivière wanted to make this documentary.  Many of the surviving creative team have been interviewed (others who have passed on, like Barry Gray and Derek Meddings, are represented by archive footage) and there’s some lovely moments – such as when a group of puppeteers return to the location of the studio in Slough to be confronted with a immaculate recreation of a studio set, complete with puppets.  Also very touching is the moment towards the end, when David Graham (the voice of Parker) takes a moment to thank his wooden friend for making such an important contribution to his career.

Amazingly, Parker and Lady Penelope hardly look a day older than when we first met them in 1964.
Amazingly, Parker and Lady Penelope hardly look a day older than when we first met them in 1964.

Filmed in Supermarionation is presented by Lady Penelope and Parker (voiced, as in the original series, by Sylvia Anderson and David Graham). This allows a few affectionate jokes to be made, as well as giving us the chance to see Parker turn up in some odd places (on the set of Captain Scarlet, for example).

The documentary proceeds in strict chronolgocal order, so the first hour or so is devoted to the early series, such as the two made with Roberta Leigh (The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy) before moving onto Anderson’s early solo efforts, such as Four Feather Falls, Supercar and Fireball XL5.  For those waiting to get to the likes of Thunderbirds, this may feel slightly drawn out, but personally I enjoyed the detail on these earlier, and to me, less familiar series.

Both Stingray and Thunderbirds are well covered, with the largest section of the documentary concentrated on Thunderbirds.   This isn’t surprising, since it was clearly the peak of Supermarionation and the pride felt by those who worked on it comes over very well.  Captain Scarlet is dealt with quite quickly (although there’s some more material contained in the deleted scenes package) and after a brief look at Joe 90 (with its slightly sinister theme of brainwashing a nine-year old child each week) and the frankly bonkers The Secret Service (a lovely anecdote from Gerry who describes how aghast Lew Grade was at the gibberish-speaking Stanley Unwin!) the story comes to a sad end as the company is sold off and the sets and puppets are broken up and chucked into skips.

But while the company came to an abrupt end, the programmes they made still endure today and this is down to the group of men and women who constantly sought to innovate and experiment.  The effects in an average episode of Thunderbirds wouldn’t look out of place in a feature-film and that was always a hallmark of AP Films/Century 21.  Filmed in Supermarionation, with its interviews, archive footage and re-creations is able to explain how they made it all happen.

Also on the disc is twenty minutes of deleted scenes, two short featurettes (three to four minutes each) which look at the modelwork created for the documentary, home movie footage featuring Gerry and Sylvia in America, archive behind-the-scenes material from Tomorrows’ World, Something for the Children and Parade as well as a brtief clip of the Lord Mayor visiting a fairly life-size Thunderbird 3.

Thunderbirds titles in HD

Network continue to count down to Filmed in Supermarionation, due later this month, by releasing HD versions of the titles of various Anderson shows on their YouTube page.  More details can be found here. Below are HD titles for Thunderbirds.

Below are some previews of Filmed in Supermarionation.

In other Thunderbirds news, the Guardian has a very positive review of the new ITV remake. It’s due for broadcast in 2015 and features, amongst others, David Graham reprising his role as Parker and Rosamund Pike as the voice of Lady Penelope. It can be read here.

Captain Scarlet, Stingray and Joe 90 titles in HD

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As a teaser for the forthcoming Filmed in Supermarionation releases, Network have released HD versions of the titles of various Gerry Anderson series on their YouTube account.

Filmed in Supermarionation is a new two hour documentary from Stephen La Riviere and looks to be a must watch for all Anderson fans. There are various different purchasing options, more details can be found here.

The YouTube compression means that obviously some quality is lost, so we won’t be able to see the full HD quality of the selected episodes until later this month. Time will tell whether complete HD series releases will follow in the future.

The Professionals – Mk II – Network Blu-ray review

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The Professionals – Mk II is now available on Blu-ray from Network. The reason why they haven’t branded these releases as series is probably due to the somewhat haphazard way the programme was shot – with certain episodes made during one production block and then not transmitted until several years later!

There were five series broadcast on LWT in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but it does seem that Network will follow the path trodden by Contender’s DVD releases by releasing four sets in production, rather than broadcast, order.

Anybody who has previously bought the Contender DVDs or has ever caught a re-run on ITV4 will be well aware just how poor the episodes looked. This was because the previous home video releases and tv broadcasts were derived from twenty year old duplicated prints, which weren’t in the best of shape to begin with.

For many years it seemed that this would be the best we could possibly have, as the location of the camera negatives was something of a mystery. To cut to the chase, Network have been able to locate the negs and strike new prints – and the difference in picture quality is simply night and day.

Whether you buy the BR or the DVD (the DVD of Mk II has been delayed, but will be released early next year) for anybody familiar with the washed-out prints which have done the rounds for decades, the improvement here is nothing short of staggering. The Professionals was only shot on 16mm, so obviously there’s not the same level of detail that 35mm would have offered, but it’s still such a major upgrade in picture quality that it’s an essential purchase.  And if you’ve never seen the series before, then these releases are the ideal way to start.

Whilst The Professionals hit the ground running in series one, it certainly picked up more momentum with the episodes in this set. There’s plenty of good stories here, but if I had to pick one, then First Night is a cracker, full of the moments that made the series what it was – Bodie and Doyle’s banter, Cowley’s withering put-downs and some top-notch action.

As with MK I, there’s exhaustive production notes from Andrew Pixley that help to place these programmes in context and they contain a great deal of information that was new to me.

Warmly recommended.