Last of the Summer Wine – And a Dewhurst Up a Fir Tree (27th December 1979)

There’s no reason why Christmas specials have to be set at Christmas – even though most of them are. Roy Clarke, who established a mild anti-festive tone in his previous LOTSW festive special, has his (Christmas) cake and eats it in this one – there’s plenty of Christmas talk, even though the setting is late summer.

It’s always a little jarring to revisit these early episodes and witness our three heroes doing their own stunts. The sight of Sallis, Owen and Wilde indulging in a spot of plastic bag sledging is a joy though – especially since even the normally reserved Foggy seems to be enjoying himself for once.

It’s not long before Foggy’s normal character clicks back into gear though. Back at Clegg’s house he – with typically military precision – inflicts a slide-show on the other two. Neither are exactly delighted. Compo hopes that it’s not Foggy’s holiday snaps again whilst Clegg is slightly anxious, re his curtains (“I hate drawing my curtains during the daytime. Suppose the neighbours start sending flowers”).

Foggy’s pictures reveal a dismal picture of last Christmas – after taking Compo’s advice all their Christmas shopping was carried out on the 24th of December, with the result that they had no trimmings and a rather paltry Christmas dinner (a fish finger and a chip). But the attentive viewer will know that their previous Christmas as transmitted on television wasn’t like this at all, so clearly time in LOTSW land runs in a different way to the rest of the country.

Determined not to be caught napping a second time, Foggy decides the time is right to start their Christmas shopping (but finds that festive cards and treats are thin on the ground in August). Things get no better later on after he buys himself a bargain (100 Christmas trees for just £10). The Forestry Commission are having a summer sale you see.

It slowly dawns on Foggy that he’s been had (but then if you exchange money in the pub with someone called Big Eric, what do you expect?). Poor Foggy is eventually brought back to reality when the three trek over to see his purchases – since each tree is 100 ft high, they’re going to be a tad tricky to cut down ….

Brian Wilde rather drives this episode. I love Foggy’s wistful shake of the head when Compo asks him whether MI5 had attempted to recruit him. “I dropped hints that I was available when me time was up in the army. I watched for the postman every morning since, but nothing”. The final scene – which plays over the end credits – of Foggy left alone also rather tugs at the heartstrings.

Elsewhere, Ivy and Nora enjoy a cup of tea and swop notes about the sex-pest in their lives – Compo. Over the years, as the regular female cast grew, these interludes would become a regular fixture. This one, despite being a two-hander, is still good though – Ivy advising Nora to take a spoonful of sugar occasionally (“you might find it might relax you. Keep your hands off your airing cupboard”). The mundanity of their conversation (“troublesome as men are, their old vests make for lovely dusters”) is delightful.

They then plot to stop Compo in his tracks. Nora advises Ivy to drop the chip pan down his trousers (“the sooner it gets covered in batter the safer it’s going to be”). Ouch! In the end they elect to just forcibly remove his trousers, but maybe – for the moment – it may have done the trick.

Last of the Summer Wine – Small Tune On a Penny Wassail (26th December 1978)

Small Tune On a Penny Wassail opens with Wally – still dressed in his pyjama top – briefly tasting a moment of freedom before being dragged back into the house by Nora to continue his festive obligations. A reflective Compo, observing this domestic fracas, sighs before walking down the deserted streets. This is an early sign that Roy Clarke won’t be bashing you over the head with false Christmas sentiment – that’s simply not his way.

A moment of levity then occurs when Compo spies a lad with a new skateboard. Ever the child at heart, he can’t resist having a go (as you might expect, he falls off rather abruptly). This isn’t a big set-piece moment, but it does set things up for the episode climax.

The others are also given their solo moments. Foggy, after attending church, manages to accidentally hit the vicar in a very delicate place with his stick. It’s a typical Foggy moment – for a brief moment he’s given an air of authority and respectability, which is then abruptly punctured.

Meanwhile Clegg, never one to be overflowing with Christmas cheer, has nevertheless stirred himself and wandered off to the phonebox to ring up his friend, Gordon (Larry Noble). Gordon’s not in the mood to receive yuletide greetings though, due to the fact a fire’s broken out in his shed. What caused the fire remains an unresolved mystery ….

Eventually all three meet up at Clegg’s house for Christmas dinner. Compo’s assistance in the kitchen is clearly not called for, so he stalks around the house like a bored child whilst the other two reflect on the time of the year. Clegg: “Christmas comes but once a year, it just seems longer.”

The cynical Clegg gets most of the best lines during these scenes. “I gave up smoking so that I could live longer. It’s at times like this you wonder if you’re doing the right thing”. At least the meal prepared by Clegg looks like it was worth eating – which almost makes up for the air of melancholy that’s descended over them. Although when we drop in on some conventional family units later on it’s plain they’re not having a particularly sparkling time either.

Foggy suggests they pop down the hospital to visit poor old Edgar (Teddy Turner), who there all on his own. But of course it’s revealed that Edgar’s got everything he could wish for – all the food he can eat and plenty of attention from the nurses. Compo acidly mentions later that even the man dying in the next ward is having a better time than they are.

We’re then given a little vignette showing Ivy and Sid at home in their kitchen. They’re busy feeding the hordes of (unseen) relatives who have descended on them – Ivy with an air of duty, Sid with an ever increasing sense of exasperation. There’s a matching moment with Nora and Wally, where Wally is given a killer putdown. “Why don’t you go sit down, Nora? You’ve been on your mouth all day”.

Back at Clegg’s house it’s finally time for the presents. It’s always seemed slightly odd to me that Clegg and Foggy wrapped their presents for Compo in the same type of wrapping paper (plus their presents to each other were also in identical paper, albeit different from Compo’s). If you see what I mean. It’s probably easier to understand when you watch the scene but there’s something not quite right there.

They all seem quite chuffed with their gifts, as does Ivy when she receives an unexpected present from Sid. Sid and Ivy’s café based warfare can be vicious at times but there’s clearly still a frisson of love between them, even if it’s buried very deep. Her look of pleasure at the black negligee gifted to her by her husband suggests that his luck might be in later. Or not, depending on your point of view ….

We’re heading into the era when stunts (and stunt doubles) would dominate. This episode has been much more reflective and downbeat, but I suppose you can’t blame Roy Clarke for wanting to end things on a high – so an irresistible force (Compo on a skateboard) manages to navigate his way through a seemingly immovable object (the Dodworth Colliery Brass Band).

I’ve still yet to work out how the episode title ties back to the episode itself though. Answers on a postcard please.

H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Crisis in the Desert

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Brady is approached by Colonel Warren (Douglas Wilmer) of Military Intelligence as one of their top agents, Jack Howard (Howard Pays), is being held prisoner in a Middle Eastern country.  Howard, badly injured after an abortive escape attempt, is being guarded in a high security hospital and only the Invisible Man – along with the alluring local assistance of Yolanda (Adrienne Corri) – has any chance of freeing him ….

Fictitious Middle Eastern countries, forever teetering on the edge of instability, would be a staple of ITC adventure series during the next decade or so and Crisis in the Desert is an early example of this genre.  Naturally, foreign location filming was beyond the series’ budget, so instead we have a reasonably dressed backlot (which doesn’t look too shabby, it must be said).

Ethnic actors would also tend to be in short supply whenever an ITC series headed abroad, so it’s no surprise to see British performers in all the main roles.  The eagle-eyed will spot Derren Nesbitt in the background, but the bulk of the action is divided between Corri as Yolanda, Eric Pohlmann as Yolanda’s associate Hassan and Martin Benson as the villainous Colonel Hassan.

These three, along with Wilmer, make Crisis in the Desert a very enjoyable watch.  Wilmer oozes charm as he persuades Brady (rather easily it must be said) to undertake a dangerous mission in the Middle East.  It’s interesting that Warren reacts with horror when Brady tells him he thinks he’s close to reversing his invisibility – it’s obvious that Warren needs an invisible man to rescue Howard, but it’s odd that he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that once Brady has perfected his formula it could be duplicated.  Creating a whole army of invisible agents would have obvious benefits.  Given this, it seems a little foolhardy to risk Brady’s life (and the knowledge that only he has) on this jaunt abroad.

Corri had already racked up an impressive list of credits before appearing here as the glamourous freedom-fighter Yolanda.  She looks very nice in a nurse’s uniform as well.  Pohlmann has less to do, only react to Yolanda, but he’s effective enough.  Benson is great fun as the sadistic Hassan – he opens the story by slapping Howard about and later suggests to an unfortunate surgeon (played by Derek Sydney) that he performs a little brain operation on Howard in order to make him more pliant.

Several actors black up – most notably Peter Sallis as Nesib, the ambulance driver.  This probably isn’t a performance that’s going to be at the top of his cv, but for a working actor of this era playing the most unlikely nationalities was an occupational hazard (Sallis would later appear as an equally unconvincing Chinaman in an episode of Sergeant Cork).

The main problem with Crisis in the Desert is that there’s no real need for Brady to be there at all, as although he sneaks around the hospital in his invisible state, Nurse Yolanda is in plain sight all the time.  As we’ll see, this proves to be something of a problem for the writers – often the gimmick of having an invisible man tends to be sidelined as Brady is shoehorned into plots that don’t require his invisibility skills to be utilised.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Cash and Carry

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Stock is being pilfered from a local Cash and Carry.  The two men responsible – James (David Spenser) and Fox (Roland Curram) – are quickly identified but Barlow is concerned that this relatively small-scale affair might only be the prelude to a larger crime.

Cash and Carry is one of those stories which is more than content to take its time.  We initially see Snow and Radar, passing the Cash and Carry at night, become suspicious after they spy a light inside the building.  Officers are then called out in force along with the keyholder Mr Lodge (Peter Sallis).  None of them find anything so they leave empty-handed.  By this time a good ten minutes has elapsed without the plot advancing a great deal.

The next day it’s quickly worked out how such a large amount of stock could have gone missing – James and Fox work at the Cash and Carry, driving the delivery van, and they simply pile it up with stolen stock and sleep in the building overnight, leaving the next morning as if nothing has happened.  Donald likens it to the Trojan Horse, which is a neat description.

But this crime is so humdrum that there has to be more to the story.  Barlow seems to think that an attempt will be made to rob the cashiers department on its busiest day (when there could be as much as twenty thousand pounds for the taking).  If that’s the case (and Fox and James were the gang’s inside men) then it seems very foolish for them to have jeopardised the whole operation in order to make a little profit on the side.

Possibly the weakest part of Elwyn Jones’ script is Barlow’s sixth-sense which decides that an armed robbery is the real endgame.  Just how did he work this out? The story would have probably been more satisfying if the information about the intended robbery had come from an informer and the stock pilfering section had been excised (the time spent on this dead-end part of the plot could have been used to develop the individual characters of the gang).

Barlow and Cullen clash over the potential operation.  Barlow believes that the gang stand their best chance of succeeding if they make their attempt before the security guards arrive to take the money away, i.e. when the store is still open. Cullen argues that if they let things play out then innocent members of the public could get hurt.  Barlow agrees, but he wants to catch them in the act and not just arrest them for conspiracy.  Given that Cullen has always been portrayed as strong-willed and single-minded it seems a little uncharacteristic that he reverses his opinion so quickly and allows the covert operation to go ahead.

When Donald replaces one of the cashiers it’s easy to believe this is something of a sexist move (seemingly the only woman on the Task Force working at the till).  But amusingly this is undercut just a few seconds later when Barlow tells Lodge that he plans to replace another of his cashiers with Armstrong, who he says even looks like an accountant.  And with Watt dressed in overalls, shifting boxes into the back of a lorry, there’s another brief moment of humour to be enjoyed.

Will there be an attempt to steal the cash?  Looking down the cast list, names such as Alan Chuntz, Dinny Powell and Terry Walsh should provide you with the answer. Although it’s fair to say that it’s a very long build-up for such a brief moment of mayhem (nobody’s ever going to mistake Softly Softly: Task Force for The Sweeeny).  Evans gets shot, but only in the leg, so I’ve a feeling he’s going to live.

Even allowing for a few fisticuffs, Cash and Carry concludes the second series in a pretty low-key way.  It lacks the character drama that characterised most of the other stories, so has to go down as one of the lesser entries.  But generally the standard across the twenty six episodes was very consistent and I hope that it won’t be too long before series three is available.