Drake is in an unspecified Asian country, attempting to discover why refugees fleeing to freedom disappear somewhere along the escape route. The easiest way to find out the truth is to pose as a refugee, but that’s also the most dangerous ….
Given that we’re in Chinese territory, I have to confess to suffering a twinge of anxiety. Which Caucasian actors would be adopting the “me velly solly” roles today? But actually we get off fairly lightly with only Willoughby Goddard forced to look faintly ridiculous.
Elsewhere, there’s the usual crop of British based actors (Anthony Chinn, Ric Young and of course the sainted Burt Kwouk) who could always be guaranteed to pop up in a story of this kind and add a touch of authenticity. Kwouk, as the easily bribed hotel receptionist, gives an entertaining turn as does Anna May Wong as Miss Lee, today’s damsel in distress.
Miss Lee is one of many seeking to escape the oppressive regime of the unnamed government. She doesn’t feature greatly, but at least her presence gives Drake something to fight for.
One interesting thing to note about the episode is that Drake isn’t called upon to move the plot along via voice overs. This device has been used fairly regularly in the previous episodes and can sometimes be a little irritating, although it wasn’t uncommon during half hour series of this era, where movement from scene to scene had to be rapid (see also Dial 999, which regularly used the VO method).
There’s not a great deal of mystery in the story as the pre-credits sequence reveals what happens to the unfortunate refugees – half way across the river they’re murdered and robbed of their valuables.
This is where the finer aspects of the plot start to niggle away at me. McFadden (Willoughby Goddard) tells Drake that he believes there’s a traitor in the organisation, but it becomes plain that there’s problems at both ends of the escape route.
Dr. Bakalter (Paul Daneman) looks to be one of the white hats – arranging Drake’s escape but asking for no payment – but it’s not terribly shocking to learn later that he’s one of the baddies. This revelation causes me to ponder over more plot niggles. If the refugees don’t pay Bakalter, then how does he know whether they’re carrying anything of value? Given that we’re clearly in a Communist state, surely most of those wishing to flee wouldn’t have a great deal of money anyway (plus if you murder all of your clients it can’t be long before someone starts to notice).
Let’s be generous and assume that only certain wealthy refugees were given the machine gun treatment and the poorer ones reached the other side of the lake.
When not worrying about the plot, there’s always Patrick McGoohan’s performance to enjoy. Posing as an engineer, he adopts a very interesting accent although he doesn’t keep it going for long. I also enjoyed Drake’s interlude in the steam baths, where he luckily came up with the right answers (had he not, he might have been fried to a crisp!). His bamboozling of the local police also entertains, allowing McGoohan a chance to play broad (something which so far in the series he hasn’t been able to do very often)
Ian Stuart Black’s script is competent enough and it’s always a pleasure to see Paul Daneman, but I have to confess that The Journey Ends Halfway doesn’t really catch fire for me.
Following the death of a rich miser, his substantial fortune is willed to his estranged son, John Harmon (Paul Daneman), on one condition – that he marries, sight unseen, Miss Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker). But when Harmon is believed drowned on his journey home to England, the inheritance passes to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson & Marda Vanne), the loyal and faithful former employees of Harmon Snr.
The Boffins are good-hearted people, happy to share their new-found wealth with others. To this end they adopt Bella as their daughter and employ the one-legged pedler Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to read to them in the evenings. They also engage a mysterious young man now going under the name of John Rokesmith (who in reality is John Harmon) as their secretary.
Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ final completed novel and was originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865. The thorny topic of inheritance, a familiar Dickens theme, is a major feature of the story as is the notion that wealth can have a corrosive effect on those it touches.
Film or television adaptations of Our Mutual Friend have been fairly thin on the ground with this 1958/59 BBC adaptation by Freda Lingstrom marking the first time the novel was tackled (two further television adaptations, in 1976 and 1998, would follow).
Things begin a rather arch way, as the Wilfer family consider their lack of money. George Howe as Reginald Wifer, the nominal head of the family, has a nice henpecked comic touch but Daphne Newton, as Reginald’s domineering wife, does declaim in a somewhat stagey fashion.
The first episode also allows us an early insight into Bella’s character. She tells her father that she’s “nether reasonable nor honest. One of the consequences of being poor and of thoroughly hating and detesting it”. She then goes on to describe herself as a horrid, mercenary little wretch.
Compare and contrast her attitude with that of John Harmon. On his way back home to England via a sea journey (the onboard sequences are effectively mounted, despite the confines of the studio) he explains to a fellow traveller that his inheritance is dependent on his marrying Bella. The fact he’s returning to England suggests that he’s considering acceding to his late father’s request, but he then explains this is dependent on Bella’s character. If she turns out to be an objectionable person then he’d be happy for his old friends, the Boffins, to receive the money instead.
This might suggest that John is a wiser and more noble person than Bella, but since he has the choice of returning to his vineyard in South Africa it’s plain that he has options, whilst she doesn’t.
Both Paul Daneman and Zena Walker make strong early impressions whilst Bruce Gordon, as George Sampson, gives a nice turn as Bella’s devoted suitor. When Bella breaks the bad news that she’s planning to marry for money, he’s a picture of angst (sucking his walking stick as a child might suck his thumb!). George contributes little to the story, but can be guaranteed to pop up from time to time in order to provide a spot of comic relief.
Richard Leech casts a menacing shadow as ‘Rogue’ Riderhood, a waterman who was part of a conspiracy to murder John (another of the conspirators – Radfoot – planned to take John’s place, marry Bella and claim the inheritance). Leech gives a performance that’s somewhat on the ripe side but after a few episodes either he settles down a little or I just became more accustomed to it.
But if there’s ripeness from some, there’s subtler playing from others. Peggy Thorpe-Bates makes an immediate impression as Miss Abbey, the innkeeper of a raucous riverside tavern. Miss Abbey may be physically slight but she’s more than capable of dealing with her customers, even the intimidating Riderhood.
The first meeting between Bella and John isn’t auspicious. She later confesses that there were few people she disliked more at first sight. It might not be a surprise to learn that her feelings change as the serial wears on ….
As the episodes progress we’re introduced to all of the main characters. Richard Pearson is very agreeable as the generous and good-natured Nicodemus Boffin whilst Esmond Knight has delightful comic timing as Silas Wegg, an untrustworthy wooden-legged vagrant with a veneer of literary education. Malcom Keen (whose career began in silent movies, Hitchcock’s The Lodger amongst them) also impresses as the sympathetic Jewish moneylender Riah.
David McCallum (whom the credits inform us was appearing courtesy of the Rank Organisation) plays Eugene Wrayburn, a well-educated barrister who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam (Rachel Roberts). Eugene is a somewhat arrogant person to begin with but, as with Bella, over time he grows and develops. It can’t be a coincidence that, like John, he is nearly drowned in the river (his near-death experience seems to trigger something of a rebirth in him, just as it did with John).
Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie is complicated by Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), who is also besotted with her (although she has little time for him). This love triangle, along with John’s continuing close observation of Bella, are major main plot-threads whilst other subplots (the machinations of ‘Rogue’ Riderhood and Silas Wegg amongst others) also simmer away nicely.
Although John Harmon might be the nominal central character, the conflict between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie’s hand in marriage is another highlight of the serial (both McCallum – even though he’s sporting a silly beard – and Scott provide standout performances).
Considering the limitations of this era of television, Our Mutual Friend is a polished production. If it wasn’t broadcast live, then it would have been recorded as-live (with only limited opportunities for retakes and editing). But across the twelve episodes there’s few obvious production stumbles (fluffled lines, miscued shots, etc) which is impressive.
That studio space was at a premium can be surmised by the fact that each episode restricts itself to a handful of locations. A sprinkling of filmed material helps to open the production up a little, although a number of backdrops, used in the studio to create the illusion of scale and depth, aren’t always terribly convincing. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this serial and after a while it ceases to be an issue.
There are many fine performances scattered throughout the twelve episodes. Paul Daneman had a fairly thankless task, since John Harmon/Rokesmith is a very colourless sort of fellow (often a fate suffered by Dickens’ heroes) but he still manages to make something out of the role. David McCallum has more to work with, as Eugene is a complex, dissolute character who eventually finds redemption and love. Esmond Knight is simply a treat, meaning that whenever Silas Wegg shuffles onto the screen you know that something entertaining is going to happen.
Many strong character actors – Rachel Gurney, Basil Henson and William Mervyn, amongst others – pop up from time to time. Another brief but vivid performance comes from Wilfred Brambell as Mr “Dolls”, the alcoholic father of Jenny Wren (Helena Hughes). Hughes herself is also noteworthy as the young, crippled dolls-clothes maker who has reversed roles with her father (she calls him a “bad child” and bosses him about without mercy).
The picture quality is pretty good throughout. The telerecording might show the limitations of the original 405 line transmission, but it’s still perfectly clear (some blurring on the bottom of the frame in the penultimate episode is probably the most visible fault). The soundtrack, apart from the odd crackle, is quite audible.
Freda Lingstrom’s adaptation manages to retain the flavour of Dickens’ dense novel and the generous running time (twelve half-hour episodes) is more than sufficient to ensure that all the characters are dealt with sympathetically. The serial-like nature of the original novel is kept intact, meaning that some characters may feature heavily in one episode but then not appear in the next as others take their place. It’s true that everything gets wrapped up rather too neatly at the end, but that’s a criticism that needs to be laid at Dickens’ door rather than Lingstrom’s.
Lingstrom was a fascinating character. She created the BBC Radio strand Listen with Mother in 1950 and shortly afterwards became Head of BBC Children’s Television. Watch with Mother was a logical development for television and Lingstrom, in partnership with Maria Bird, would devise two of the most enduring of all pre-school children’s programmes – Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men. This adaptation was therefore an unusual entry on her CV (and also her final television writing credit).
It’s fascinating to observe how the production battled to transcend its limited production values (most notably the lack of studio space) and whilst it may feature a few broad performances from the minor players there’s little else to find fault with here. With so little 1950’s BBC drama available, it’s very pleasing to see Our Mutual Friend released and despite the six-hours running time the story rarely seems to flag. Highly recommended.
Our Mutual Friend is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Brady heads over to France after a story surfaces about an invisible rabbit.
That’s one of the most succinct story synopsis I’ve had to type for this series, but it seems to cover everything. I love the opening few minutes, which sees Suzanne Dumassie (Marla Landi), out walking her dog, suddenly watch with incredulity as a rabbit appears before her eyes. I think it’s the juxtaposition between the rabbit’s sudden materialisation and the dramatic music which is rather amusing.
Normally in a series like this you’d expect to see a collection of British actors putting on French accents. That’s generally what happens here, although with one exception – Marla Landi was Italian. Quite why an Italian was playing French is anyone’s guess (but I assume that genuine French actors were thin on the ground in late 1950’s Britain).
Keith Pylott, here playing Suzanne’s father, had a very long career although with my Doctor Who hat on he’ll always be the Aztec High Priest Autloc to me. Austin Trevor is another very decent actor attempting a mild French accent (luckily nobody goes overboard with comedy accents – although Paul Daneman comes closest).
As so often with the series, the mystery is easily solved. The rabbit was observed in a field opposite a large, heavily guarded, chateau. It therefore seems plain that invisibility experiments are taking place inside. But even if this were so, why would it concern Brady? Have invisibility experiments been outlawed? If not, then there’s no reason to suppose that the work in the chateau is anything but disinterested, scientific research. Of course it turns out to be part of an evil masterplan – but Brady and the others weren’t to know that …..
Rocher (Daneman) is a fascist politician who dreams of taking over the country with a handpicked team of invisible men. Given that Brady’s the expert in this field (even if his self-inflicted invisibility was accidental) it’s strange they didn’t attempt to lure him over from Britain in order to pick his invisible brains.
The plot plays out as you’d expect – damsel in distress Suzanne is abducted and taken to the chateau. Bound and gagged, she’s due to be used as an unwilling guinea pig (or white rabbit) unless Brady can save the day. Hmm, I don’t think she has anything to worry about.
Another efficient, if somewhat unremarkable, story. As touched upon before, there’s not always the time to develop characters in any depth, so Rocher remains a rather mysterious figure. He wants to take over the country because, well, just because.