Comics – Simply Media DVD Review

American comedian Johnny Lazar (Tim Guinee) recently arrived in the UK, observes a gangland killing on the streets of Soho. As a witness, Johnny finds he’s a person of interest from both sides of the law ….

Simply Media continues to trawl through the Channel 4 back-catalogue with this two-part serial from 1993, written by Lynda La Plante and produced by Verity Lambert.

Within the first few minutes Johnny’s character has already been deftly painted – he’s an uncontrollable loose cannon (shooting his mouth off on a top American chat show is one of the reasons why he finds himself unemployable in his own country).

Given the generous running time (two episodes each of approx. 107 minutes) it’s slightly odd that Johnny witnesses the murder so early on in the first episode. The story might have benefitted from having a little more time to set up the characters and the milieu.

But even though the first twenty minutes seems to fly by at breakneck speed, all the essentials are put in place. We meet some of Johnny’s fellow comics, such as the cynical Haggis (Alex Norton) and the firmly traditional Graham Redcar (Graham Fellows). Fellows, no stranger to comedy himself (Jilted John, John Shuttleworth) was a wonderful casting choice. Graham is a strictly old-school turn, dressed in a smart dinner jacket he seems very out of place amongst his shabbier fellow performers. His insistence that you don’t have to descend to gutter language in order to amuse (instead he puts his faith in his hand puppet) is another obvious way in which he differs from the crowd.

Whilst it’s true that Londoners are very phlegmatic, it slightly stretches credibility that somebody could be shot multiple times right in front of a crowd of people with nobody reacting. You’d have thought somebody might have screamed at least once ….

But then some of the plotting of Comics is slightly suspect. We see the murdered man, Johnny Fratelli, walking past Anthony Fratelli’s (Stephen Greif) car. Given that Johnny was shot on his cousin’s orders (and that a briefcase was the prize) why choose to murder him in such a public place? It would have been far wiser to dispose of him in secret, that way obtaining the briefcase would have been straightforward (whereas here it’s not picked up in the melee).

It’s always nice to see Stephen Greif and although he’s rather typecast as a villain, since it’s a role he always plays so well I’m not going to complain. A number of other familiar faces (some already established, others just making a start) also appear – such as Danny Webb and Lennie James.

Brian Duffield (Webb) thinks that Johnny has the potential to hit the big time. The culture clash between the two – Johnny’s never heard of the likes of Rik Mayal, Ben Elton or the BBC – is nicely done, leading us to the punchline where Brian proudly tells him that he should be able to get him a spot on the Des O’Connor show. Needless to say, Johnny’s never heard of Des either ….

One plus point of Comics is the way that it intercuts an examination of the comedy scene in the UK with a straightforward police procedural (as the hunt for Johnny Fratelli’s killer begins in earnest). There’s some spiky satire directed at the comedy world – Duffield, with his brick like mobile phone and his rampaging desire to make Johnny a star, is the archetypal manager whilst the appearance of Michael Aspel helps to anchor the serial to the real world.

Johnny’s meltdown on the Aspel show (launching into a routine about guns and sex which I assume was intended to be shocking but today seems rather tame) shows the way his mind is currently functioning, i.e. not very well. But with one of his fellow comics recently murdered (he was mistaken for Johnny) it’s possibly not surprising that he’s becoming increasingly flaky.

Tim Guinee had to tread a delicate line. Johnny is often boorish and monosyablic, but Guinee also has to make him sympathetic, otherwise Comics would be a slog with an unlikable character at its heart. Guinee succeeds in teasing out the more vulnerable side of Johnny’s nature from time to time, so overall he gives a very rounded performance.

Although a little unfocused in places, there’s still a great deal of interest to be found in Comics, especially the depiction of the seedier end of the comedy circuit featuring a disparate group of characters all dreaming of a chance to make it big. Having the likes of Graham Fellows in the cast helped to add a layer of authenticity and it’s interesting to learn that Jo Brand was also approached.

Comics features a female performer, Rebecca (Jenny Galloway), who has more than a touch of Brand about her. It looks as if the part was originally written with Brand in mind, as touched upon during this interview.

A favourite of LaPlante’s, Comics slowly ramps up the tension before climaxing with a more than satisfying conclusion (followed by a touching coda). Propelled along by a very strong cast, Comics is an intriguing drama from the earlier days of C4 and is well worth your time.

Comics is released by Simply Media on the 21st of May 2018, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

The Mad Death – Simply Media DVD Review

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It always seemed that it could never happen here, but when a cat infected with rabies is smuggled into Britain it triggers a major crisis. Facing hostility from the public (angry that some of their pets have been impounded) the authorities struggle to stop the outbreak from spinning out of control ….

Tom Siegler’s (Ed Bishop) decision to befriend an apparently benign wolf he discovers at the side of the road has far-reaching consequences. By now the audience has already been primed to expect something awful to happen, although the tension is eked out for a few minutes longer (Tom, having cut his finger slicing a lemon, then goes over and pets the fox – although at this point there’s no reaction).

The boiling point isn’t far away though. Animal wrangling must have been an issue for the serial, as attempting to depict rabid beasts would require considerable co-operation from the animal actors (which no doubt couldn’t always be guaranteed). Director Robert Young keeps the tension bubbling along though, thanks to rapid cuts and close-ups, with the result that the action scenes feel viscerally real.

Young had cut his teeth on horror films (directing Vampire Circus for Hammer in 1971) before moving into television in the early eighties. Robin of Sherwood, Bergerac, Jeeves & Wooster and G.B.H. all benefitted from his presence. Possibly it was his work on The Mad Death which made him an ideal fit later for Robin of Sherwood, as both had – at times – a woozy, non-naturalistic feel.

This is first seen in The Mad Death after Tom, by now seriously ill after being bitten by the fox, is hospitalised following a car crash. The hospital should be a place of safety and security, but instead it’s a hallucinogenic nightmare for him. The mere act of reaching for a glass of water becomes overwhelming (he’s then pictured drowning in a bed of water – a technically impressive shot) whilst other visions are equally as disconcerting (his wife and his mistress both pay him uncomfortable visits). It’s interesting that during these scenes we often switch in and out of reality (with the result that the viewer is privy to Tom’s fevered imaginings). This simply adds to the sense of horror.

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Ed Bishop

Bishop, a sometimes underrated actor, is excellent as the increasingly tortured Tom. Another stand-out scene for him occurs earlier in the opening episode when he attempts to dispose of the fox. First with a broom handle (that was never going to work) and later with his car. Eventually he does manage to drive him off, but by then the damage has been done.

Although Tom’s story dominates the first episode, the two central characters of the serial – Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) and Dr Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman) – are also introduced. They first appear during the opening few minutes in a rather clumsy way. It might have been better to cut this scene and hold them back until they actually started to interact with the main plot (for example, when Anne was dispatched to the hospital to confirm the diagnosis that Tom is suffering from rabies).

If Anne has the medical knowledge, then Michael is her equal when it comes to the veterinary angle. But he’s refusing to get involved ….

Richard Heffer was by this time a very familiar television face. A regular in several 1970’s WW2 dramas (Colditz, Enemy at the Door) he’d also made several appearances in Survivors and had appeared throughout the final series of Dixon of Dock Green. Barbara Kellerman had also notched up some notable television appearances during the seventies (The Glittering Prizes, 1990, Quatermass) and would later go on to appear in the BBC’s C.S. Lewis adaptations during the late eighties and early nineties.

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Richard Heffer and Barbara Kellerman

The beginning of the second episode brings any latecomers up to speed with a summation of the events so far, before looking ahead to the current measures being implemented to control the outbreak. This is done quite neatly via a news report (a very effective way of info-dumping).

Episode two also sees a rabid dog terrorising a group of customers in a shopping centre. With a fair number of extras deployed, it’s a good indication that The Mad Death had a very decent budget. Robert Young once again crafts some striking shots – a slow plan past several shop window dummies (stopping eventually on what initially appears to be another dummy but turns put to be a heavily suited dog handler) is especially memorable. A series of jerky cuts gives these scenes a naturalistic, documentary feel.

Anne continues to prove that she’s no shrinking violet by driving a jeep containing Michael and a number of marksmen at high speed through the shopping centre (in a desperate attempt to get to the dog). This is something of a wish-fulfilment scene, since most of us have probably wanted to do this at some point.

Inbetween the moments of terror are longer periods of reflection. Animal lovers, such as Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce), are appalled at the way their pets are being treated (chained up like prisoners twenty four hours a day, she says) whilst Michael and Anne eventually fall into each other’s arms. This always looked inevitable, but it seems sure to annoy Anne’s partner Johnny (Richard Morant). And the fact he’s an arrogant member of the landed gentry who isn’t prepared to take any precautions with his animals is guaranteed to get Michael’s back up ….

The third and final episode ramps up the action another few notches after Miss Stonecroft lets a whole pound full of dogs loose. With the animals roaming the countryside, Michael takes to the skies, coordinating a team of armed soldiers. Their instructions are clear – all animals are to be shot on sight. The filmic sweep of these scenes is another example of the serial’s healthy budget.

Meanwhile, Anne finds herself tangling with an increasingly detached Miss Stonecroft whilst Johnny, also doing his bit to deal with the dogs, eventually runs into Michael. The question is, will he use his gun on the animals or on his love rival? These interlocking plot threads help to keep the interest ticking along until the final few minutes.

Shot on 16mm film, the picture quality is generally pretty good considering the age and unrestored nature of the material. I did notice one picture glitch – at 18:38 during episode three there’s a slight picture breakdown (a brief loss of sound and a blank screen for a second or two).  After the blank screen, we see Michael raising a glass of scotch to his lips but before the glitch he wasn’t holding one, so a short section of this scene is missing (Michael being offered and then accepting a drink).  Luckily it’s not a vital moment, but If I learn any more about this issue then I’ll update this review.

Thirty five years down the line, The Mad Death is still a tense and disturbing watch, thanks to Robert Young’s skilled direction and the performances of the cast. It remains a powerful serial and is well worth adding to your collection.

The Mad Death is released by Simply Media on the 7th of May, RRP £14.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here. Quoting ARCHIVE10 will add a 10% discount to the order.

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Barbara Kellerman

Buried – Simply Media DVD Review

Lee Kingley (Lennie James) finds himself sentenced to a lengthy stretch at HMP Mandrake. Despite his lack of prison experience he seems well equipped to survive its dog eat dog world, but he’ll need to watch his back ….

Broadcast on Channel 4 in early 2003, Buried garnered considerable critical acclaim during its short run (only eight episodes were made) but this didn’t translate into decent viewing figures (it averaged around one million per episode). This seemed to be the reason why a second series wasn’t commissioned, despite the fact that it won the BAFTA for Best Drama Series in 2004.

From the same stable as The Cops (BBC2, 1998 – 2001), Buried had a similar bleak, unsentimental tone allied to a realist style. It was produced by World Productions, a company who had made this style of drama their trademark during the 1990’s and 2000’s (Between the Lines and Cardiac Arrest, for example).

Following his television debut in 1988, Lennie James began to notch up an impressive list of credits during the next decade. He was part of the short-lived but memorable BBC1 police series Out of the Blue (1995/96) whilst prior to Buried he’d begun to make regular cinema appearances (Snatch, Twenty Four Hour Party People). America would then beckon (though we shouldn’t blame him for appearing in the forgettable remake of The Prisoner). More recently, he’s been a semi-regular on The Waking Dead.

Although Lee’s sentence is for GBH and firearms offences, the opening of the first episode floats the notion that he’s been the victim of a miscarriage of justice (he’s waiting to hear about his appeal). Lee’s older brother, Troy (Dave Fishley), is the real criminal of the family and he suggests that Lee’s been targeted in order to get at him. The truth is rather more prosiac though.

There are some questions you don’t ask in prison – the reason why someone’s inside being the main one (Lee, by making this faux paus, betrays his inexperience). As a new face he finds himself being sized up by the old hands – some are clearly dangerous whilst others seem friendlier. This mix of characters (on both sides of the fence) is one of Buried’s main strengths.

Teased out during the series is the uneasy relationship which exists between the immates and the prison officers. Detente is generally maintained (in some ways it’s not dissimilar to Porridge – do your time, keep your nose clean and you’ll be alright) with an ironic tolerance often shown from both sides. Some people, like psychiatrist Dr Nick Vaughan (Stephen Walters), are keen to try and dig a little deeper, but Lee – for one – keeps his distance.

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Although he settles into prison life quite easily to begin with, towards the end of the first episode we begin to see that Mandrake is a place where violence and physical abuse between inmates is shrugged off as a regular occurrence. The sadistic Ronaldo (Francis McGee) is knifed during an argument in the showers and Lee not only shields the perpetrator (a rather pathetic, drug-addled type) but also claims responsibility for the assault. There is method in this seeming madness though – the more vicious you are, the greater respect you earn. And with Lee having already upset some of his fellow inmates, it does no harm to have his legend bulked up a little ….

Possibly the most intriguing instalment sees Troy moved into the same cell as his younger brother. It does seem odd that Troy would be transferred to Lee’s prison, but whatever the reason for the move, the simmering tension which exists between the pair is deftly drawn out.

Putting the brothers together makes sense from an official viewpoint – it’s hoped that Lee will prove to be a stabilising influence on the uncontrollable Troy – but Lee begins to suspect that there’s another reason. He’s convinced that their cell has been bugged (another character later comments on the corrosive nature of prison – how it’s a breeding ground for all kinds of paranoia).

Troy’s new found fascination with religion (he takes on the mantle of Jesus Christ) is another manifestation of this. He’s clearly a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but his ultimate fate causes Lee to despise the system even more. Whilst Troy’s abdication means that a new King – Lee – is crowned in his absence ….

Lee may now be a well-respected man but his increasing loss of personal control is a feature of episode four. This happens after one of his trusted sidemen – Kappa (James Wells) – is accused of being a paedophile. The truth of the matter is never settled, since the “evidence” (Kappa is alleged to have a picture of Lee’s young daughter stashed away) is suspect to say the least. But Lee – who’s already had to face the news that his wife has left him – isn’t thinking clearly and attacks Kappa in a bloody frenzy.

The latter part of the series continues to explore various familiar themes. Drugs remain an ever-present problem, with Nick placed under pressure due to the fact that the inmates in his secure unit – who are supposed to be clean – keep failing their drug tests. Can he find out who the supplier is? For a man who likes to believe he has the trust of the prisoners this means treading a very fine line.

Nick also has a prominent role to play in the sixth episode. Female officer DD Burridge (Jane Hazelgrove) is assaulted by a prisoner. She’s later forced to speak to Nick about her experience, but it’s hardly surprising that she’s somewhat hostile towards him (“I’m the victim, but I’m the one who’s being punished” she tells him). Hazelgrove, having skirted around the perimeters of several previous episodes, moves more into the forefront here and is very good value.

Although Buried could have gone to a second series, there’s something pleasingly circular about the final scene of the concluding episode (Lee – now an old hand – gently tells a new arrival that you should never ask anybody what they’re inside for). His journey – from an innocent new arrival to a hardened old lag – is now complete.

Buried is something of a hidden gem. The harsh tone and generally unlikeable characters might have been the reason why it didn’t capture a larger audience but fifteen years on it’s aged very well. A series which doesn’t pull its punches, Buried is an absorbing watch and comes warmly recommended.

Buried is released by Simply Media on the 16th Of April 2018, RRP £29.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Threads – Simply Media DVD Review

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Threads may be nearly thirty five years old, but time has done nothing to dent its horrifying impact. Broadcast in 1984, during a period when the Cold War was still very chilly, it portrays in unflinching detail the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Set in Sheffield, following the detonation of a 210 megaton bomb which has devastated the country and decimated the population, this docudrama (scripted by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson) follows the path of several survivors, most notably Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher).

Without fresh water or any form of sanitation, Sheffield quickly becomes a breeding ground for numerous diseases such as cholera and typhoid. And with food in short supply, a new class of scavenger criminal emerges and extreme measures – capital punishment – are applied in order to keep control.

But any form of control proves to be impossible as radiation sickness and damage to the ozone layer continues to thin an already shrinking population. Over time Britain returns to a state of medievalism – some toil in the fields using hand-held tools with the majority living in a state little better than animals. There are a few faint signs of hope – limited technology still exists – but the final scene (featuring Ruth’s daughter Jane) is as downbeat as it could possibly be.

Once the bomb drops, a remorseless, crushing feeling of despair permeates every frame as Ruth, the audience identification figure, finds herself buffeted through a series of horrendous adventures in which the normal rules of civilisation have been blown away. Images of a shell-shocked Ruth, wandering through a wrecked and nightmarish landscape, peopled with the dazed, disfigured and dying are incredibly affecting. The use of a narrator – Paul Vaughan – together with on-screen graphics and stills adds to the documentary feel and therefore helps to generate yet another level of unease. It’s also a useful storytelling device, since it enables key information to be clearly disseminated (had characters started reeling off reams of statistics it wouldn’t have worked as well).

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Utilising the real Protect and Survive Public Information Films, voiced by the unmistakable tones of Patrick Allen (he later provided something similar for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes) was a well judged move. Produced in the 1970’s (although never actually aired) they offered a fairly optimistic picture of what life after a nuclear attack would be like. So the juxtaposition between Allen’s confident tones and the reality as depicted on screen is striking and bleakly ironic.

Many images from Threads will linger long in the memory (burning cats, mothers cradling the charred corpses of their babies or the fact that rat has now become a prized foodstuff). It’s interesting to learn that Mick Jackson originally planned to use the cast of Coronation Street – how much more horrifying would it have been if we’d witnessed the Weatherfield regulars in such distress?

After the original transmission, Jackson received a letter of support from Neil Kinnock and he later learnt that President Reagan had watched the American broadcast. It’s to be hoped that copies of the current editions make their way to today’s world leaders ….

Threads has been released on DVD before (and was also released on BD in America by Severin Films earlier this year) but Simply’s two disc DVD set looks to be, at the moment, the definitive release. Although it might be assumed that Severin’s BD would have trumped Simply’s DVD, there’s some evidence to suggest that’s not the case. The BD used the TX prints (which due to their age were somewhat worn and faded) as the starting point for their restoration whilst Simply’s DVD was granted access to the fine grain CRI films (which have been in storage since 1984 and were both unfaded and undamaged).

If Simply can licence a BD at a later date (rights issues have prevented them from doing so at present) then that will be the best of all worlds, but even at the moment it seems that the upscaled Simply DVD will trump the Severin BD in terms of picture quality. The colour palette is obviously very muted and the picture displays evidence of grain, but that’s what I’d have expected (a lighter grade and the elimination of grain would be somewhat against the bleak intention of the piece).

What makes this DVD particularly appealing is the range of special features assembled. Contextual extras are always welcome on any release, but in the case of Threads – a programme of considerable significance – they become even more valuable. The two audio commentaries (one with Mick Jackson and the other with Karen Meagher) both contain fascinating production details as do the four documentaries –

Auditioning for the Apocalypse (9″ 18′)
Destruction Designer (9″ 21′)
Shooting the Annihilation (8″ 39′)
Stephen Thrower on Threads (28″ 59′)

Although in total they only run to an hour or so, a fair deal of ground is covered and together with the two commentaries ensure that pretty much all of the bases are covered. The PDF material from the Radio Times is also worth a look, with the letters pages (featuring strong opinions both for and against) being especially notable. A shame though that the Newsnight Nuclear Debate, which ran the same week as Threads, presumably wasn’t able to be licenced, as it would have been a valuable addition.

Everybody should see Threads at least once, although it’s understandable that it won’t be something which many will revisit on a regular basis. But it’s a programme that needs to be kept in circulation and – thanks to Simply’s new restoration – is now available in greater clarity than before.

Chilling, devastating and emotionally draining, this is an exceptional piece of British television drama.

Threads is released on the 9th of April 2018 by Simply Media, RRP £14.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Jossy’s Giants – Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD review

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Sid Waddell (1940 – 2012) might be best remembered as the voice of darts (“the atmosphere is so tense, if Elvis walked in with a portion of chips, you could hear the vinegar sizzle on them”) but there were several other strings to his bow – Jossy’s Giants being one of them.

Graduating from St John’s College, Cambridge with a degree in modern history, Waddell worked in academic circles for a few years before joining Granada Television in 1966 (moving to Yorkshire Television two years later). He produced the news programme Calender as well as creating the well-remembered children’s serial The Flaxton Boys in addition to the cult classic The Indoor League (which is available on DVD for the terminally curious).

The growth of darts in the late seventies kept him busy, but by the middle of the following decade he was obviously keen to spread his wings, so Jossy’s Giants was born. Running for two series on CBBC during 1986 and 1987 (both of five episodes duration) Jossy’s Giants is centred around a boy’s football team. Led by the charismatic Joswell ‘Jossy’ Blair (Jim Barclay) they may be somewhat lowly ranked when he takes charge, but he has big plans for them.

The series one opener, Hungry for the Game, establishes the parameters of the series. Albert Hanson (Christopher Burgess) is the manager of the beleaguered Glipton Grasshoppers but he’s having trouble moulding them into a cohesive fighting unit. Losing has become too much of a habit and it seems that only a miracle will save them …

But wait, who’s this singing stranger limbering up on the touchline? Why it’s Jossy, who’s been watching the Grasshoppers for twenty minutes and now ambles over to give them the benefit of his advice. He’s a plain-talking man, not backwards in handing out brickbats, but maybe this is precisely what they need.

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We also get some backstory about Jossy. A promising youth player, during his first match for Newcastle United at St James Park he was tackled from behind and never played again. So the disappointment of his own curtailed playing career no doubt makes him keen to mould the next generation of hopefuls.

But what of his raw material? It doesn’t look promising. Goalkeeper Harvey McGuinn (Julian Walsh) seems to have an aversion to handling the ball (a slight problem) and would much rather go ice skating instead. Glenn Rix and Ian ‘Selly’ Sellick (Stuart McGuinness and Ian Shepherd) are the team’s two strikers – but they’re more memorable for their outlandish haircuts than their goal-scoring skills.

Ross Nelson (Mark Gillard) is the Grasshoppers flair player – but boy, does he know it. Best to say he’s a little conceited, whilst his ambitious bookmaker father, Bob (John Judd), is a complicating factor. Captain Ricky Sweet (Paul Kirkbright) tries to keep it all together whilst their number one fan – Tracey Gaunt (Julie Foy) – is always on hand with a touch of moral support or a magic sponge. You get the impression that she’d like to play for the team, but this seems unlikely. After all, she’s only a girl ….

It falls to Tracey – easily the most proactive of them all – to ask Jossy if he’d be interested in the job of manager. Some of the dialogue is a little eye-opening (when Tracey interrupts Jossy on his jog, she tells him that she’s been waiting for him – only for him to reply that she’s a little young for him). Hard to imagine that sort of implication, even if it’s only made in a subtle way, would be repeated today.

Tracey has a convincing argument for him though. They need a nasty and bossy manager, so Jossy seems ideal! This is a lovely comic moment, typical of Waddell’s style. Eventually Jossy’s worn down and so one change of name later (to the Glipton Giants) he begins to mould them in his image.

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Foul Play sees star player Ross defect to another team (he’s disgusted at not starting their latest five a side match). Of course, Ross’ new team ends up meeting the Giants in the five a side cup final. Can Jossy’s boys win their first trophy? A lovely turn from Tony Melody as the rival manager (he’s something of a martinet) and some lengthy football action (shot on VT and cut very rapidly) are two reasons why this one’s entertaining.

The Battle of St James’ has some delightful moments as Jossy – anxious to prevent the council from redeveloping their football pitch – pays a visit to an amorous female councillor, Glenda Fletcher (Jenny McCracken), who may just be able to help. Mind you, it seems unlikely that when he goes along to her house (for some wine, nibbles and Sade on the stereo) he’d have invited the whole team plus Tracey (and all dressed in balaclavas) to maintain a watching brief outside the window. Never mind, it’s the excuse for some lovely character comedy. Unsurprisingly, the always-sensible Tracey eventually saves the day.

The Promised Land sees Glenda and Tracey take on Jossy and the boys at netball (no prizes for guessing who comes out on top). Although when Glenda is elected vice-chairman of the Giants, her female solidarity with Tracey begins to crumble (“give a dictator an inch” mutters Tracey darkly). Later, Jossy and the lads receive a guided tour of St James’ Park from Bobby Charlton. As a non-actor he’s a little stilted, but it’s still a wonderful scene.

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A couple of familiar faces – Tony Aitken and Harry Towb – guest-star in the series one closer Final Demand. There’s a big match coming up, but Jossy’s gambling (a running thread throughout the series) comes to a head here. If Jossy agrees to throw the cup final, then his gambling debts will be written off. It’s another of those plot-lines that seems a little less than credible, but the performances carry the story along.

The rejigged theme tune at the start of series two indicates that girls will prove to be more of a distraction than they were during the first series. The opening episode, The Glipton Romeos, develops this, as Jossy discovers that all of his team have been bitten by a bug (of the love variety) and so have forsaken the beautiful game. Since Jossy’s only been gone two weeks, clearly the lads are all fast movers.

Mind you, if the concept of Jossy’s Giants as ladykillers is odd, then that’s nothing to the revelation that Jossy and Glenda have become engaged (at the end of series one they were barely speaking to each other!) The love bug means that Jossy has to recruit another team for a match on Saturday (otherwise they’ll lose their ground) and so with Tracey’s assistance rounds up a scratch team of girls ….

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Like series one, the second series has a celebrity football cameo. Bryan Robson, no less, who Jossy and the Giants meet before the recording of A Question of Sport. Robson, like Bobby Charlton, is a little wooden, but that’s all part of the fun. It’s also a lovely treat to see inside the Question of Sport studio (and the legendary David Coleman too).

The Italian Take-Away find the Giants tackling a crack Italian team (although the lads are more concerned about the way these smooth-talking foreigners are making eyes at their girls) whilst Home and Away finds Jossy still attempting to corral his distracted team back into shape. Will a trip to the seaside (with plenty of fresh air) do the trick? Or will they find other distractions beside the sea?

The final episode, A Perfect Match, sees Jossy stretched to the limit. There’s a big match on Saturday, but there’s also the little matter of his wedding to Glenda on the same day. What could possibly go wrong?

Most of the youngsters weren’t terribly experienced, acting-wise, and occasionally this shows (some of the performances are a little broad). But they also feel natural and some – especially Julie Foy – handle the material very well, demonstrating real comic flair. Jim Barclay’s Jossy is the glue that binds the series together, the very experienced Christopher Burgess is another plus on the acting front whilst Tony Melody, always a joy, returns for several entertaining appearances during the second series.

Although some of the plotlines are a little unrealistic, the sheer fizz of Sid Waddell’s scripts, the number of good one-liners and the interplay between the cast more than makes up for this. Jossy’s Giants is a comic delight and comes warmly recommended.

Jossy’s Giants is released by Simply Media on the 12th of March 2018, RRP £24.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Ghost in the Water – Simply Media DVD Review

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Tess (Judith Allchurch) and David (Ian Stevens) are set a school project which involves researching the history of Abigail Parkes. Abigail died in the mid nineteenth century, aged just eighteen, and her gravestone (inscribed “Innocent Of All Harm”) intrigues the pair of them. Tess’ interest in Abigail deepens as the story wears on – especially since Abigail seems to be calling from the grave for redemption ….

Broadcast on the 31st of December 1982, this works almost as a junior Ghost Story For Christmas (a popular BBC strand of ghostly tales which had run during the seventies). Not that Ghost in the Water is at all juvenile in tone – it may have been broadcast at twenty to five, but it could have easily have run in peak time.

Shot on 16mm film, it’s moodily directed by Renny Rye. Rye had cut his directing teeth on Rentaghost a few years earlier and would go on to helm The Box of Delights in 1984. It’s easy to see why film was chosen – as it offers a range of visual options (such as rapid intercutting) that wouldn’t have been so effective on videotape.

With a running time of only fifty minutes, Ghost on the Water has to hit the ground running, which explains why the opening scene (Tess and David lurking about the graveyard looking for Abigail’s tombstone) is intercut with flashbacks of the classroom discussion which sparked their investigation. Quite why Tess and David have to visit the graveyard late at night (and when it’s raining) isn’t made clear, but it helps to make the scene much more atmospheric ….

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A clever cut occurs after this scene, as we move to a spooky sepia shot of a horse and carriage careering down the path of a graveyard. It seems so in tone with the atmosphere already established that it comes as a shock to realise that Tess is now at home and watching an old horror movie on television! This movie might explain the strange dream she later had, but when the flashbacks become more and more regular (she seems to be present at the point when Abigail’s coffin is being laid to rest, for example) it’s plain that something very strange is occurring.

Although the cast was bolstered by some familiar senior actors (Paul Copley, Jane Freeman, Hilary Mason, Ysanne Churchman) the two main roles – Tess and David – were taken by novices. This presumably was an intentional move – it certainly helps to position them as real people (both Allchurch and Stevens are more naturalistic and unpolished than experienced stage-school trained actors would have been). Neither seem to have pursued acting careers afterwards, which makes their performances here especially interesting.

Allchurch has to carry most of the narrative. Her lack of acting experience is never a factor though, as – helped by Rye’s skilful shot choices – she’s allowed plenty of memorable moments. A few are a little eye opening though, considering this was broadcast so early in the day. The scene where Tess – lying in the bath – decides to re-enact the moment when Abigail drowned (by slowly submerging herself in her bathwater) is a disturbing one. And the follow-on to this scene – we see a back-view of a naked Tess standing up in the bath (albeit framed in such a way that her modesty is preserved) – isn’t one you’d imagine would be repeated today.

Although as touched upon, Tess and David are placed front and centre, there are good performances all the way down the cast list. Lynda Higginson (who like the principals was a novice actor) catches the eye as Tracy, a classmate of both Tess and David. She delights in teasing them about the considerable amount of time they’re spending in each other’s company.

Simply’s release looks to be a straight transfer of the 16mm master. There’s the usual intermittent signs of damage and dirt which you’d expect with material of this vintage, but overall it’s a pleasing viewing experience (the colours are quite bright and vibrant). With a running time of only fifty minutes, a little extra value is provided by a brief Blue Peter clip (a shame that it only runs for three minutes though).

Ghost in the Water may be short, but it’s always nice to see one-off plays like this exhumed from the archives. An intriguing mystery which drips with atmosphere, it’s plain to see why it made a lasting impression on so many at the time.

Ghost in the Water is released today with an RRP of £14.99 and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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The Eagle of the Ninth – Simply Media DVD Review

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The year is 119 AD.  Former Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Anthony Higgins) is haunted by the fate of his father’s legion, the Ninth.  Four thousand men had been dispatched to fight the Caledonian tribes in Northern England, but they all vanished without trace.  Adopting the disguise of a Greek oculist and accompanied by the faithful Esca (Christian Rodska), Marcus is determined to locate the Ninth’s Golden Eagle, which symbolises the honour of the legion, and bring it back home.

Originally published in 1955, The Eagle of the Ninth was a children’s historical adventure novel written by Rosemary Sutcliff.  A prolific author, The Eagle of the Ninth has to rank as one of her most enduring works.  And although the bulk of her output was written for a juvenile audience, Sutcliff once stated that she wrote “for children of all ages, from nine to ninety”.

That her stories had universal appeal is demonstrated by this adaptation, which ran for six episodes during 1977.  Broadcast in the Sunday Classic Serials slot, there’s no sense that it was specifically tailored for a younger audience.  As was usual for adaptations from this era, it sticks pretty closely to the original source material (whereas the recent film – The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum – took more liberties and therefore rather diluted the impact of Sutcliff’s tale).

Episode one opens twelve years after the disappearance of the Ninth.  Marcus arrives in Britain to take up charge of an isolated garrison.  He’s still a little touchy about his father’s fate, but the rebellious Britons massing outside the fort might be more of an immediate problem.

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Anthony Higgins

There’s some familiar faces lurking inside the garrison, such as the blunt Drusillus (played by Bernard Gallagher).  Gallagher, probably best known for appearing in the first few series of Casualty, gives Drusillus an entertaining dose of weary cynicism – he’s an older and a much more experienced soldier than Marcus, but it’s Marcus who’s in charge.

This first episode – Frontier – also boasts an early television appearance from Patrick Malahide, as Cradoc.  You may have to look twice to find him though, as he’s almost unrecognisable thanks to an impressive wig and beard.  Marcus attempts to foster good relations with Cradoc, a notable local, but his friendly entreaties are in vain.

Anthony Higgins impresses right from the start.  Marcus might be young and inexperienced, but he’s also honest and heroic, so it therefore seems natural that we immediately side with him against the influx of hairy tribesmen.  The episode has a generous film allocation, although the scenes of the tribesmen attacking the fort do look slightly comic (and tight camera angles have to be used in order to hide how few extras were available).  The hand to hand fighting is nicely directed though.

The injuries suffered by Marcus during the attack have left him unable to walk which means that his time as a soldier has come to an end.  Whilst recuperating at his uncle’s farm, they both elect to visit the local amphitheatre.  It’s not the coliseum, but it does introduce us to two important characters –  Esca and Cottia (Gillian Bailey).

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Gillian Bailey

Esca is toiling in the pit – locked into a fight to the death with another slave – whilst Cottia, like Marcus, is a slightly queasy spectator (both were perturbed by the sight of a bear being gored to death).  When Esca is beaten, the crowd – overcome by bloodlust – all place their thumbs downwards, signifying that Esca should be put to death.  We can forgive this anachronstic moment – since it was widely believed to be accurate at the time – although quite how Marcus was able to persuade the crowd en-masse to spare Esca is a bit of a mystery.

Marcus needs a body slave and buys Esca.  Their relationship is a key part of the story and the interaction between Higgins and Rodska works well throughout the serial.  Esca is initially reserved and bitter, but it isn’t long before the pair form a tight bond.  Gillian Bailey also impresses as the proud Cottia.  She rails against being forced to act like a Roman maiden, rather than the Iceni tribeswoman she actually is.  There’s a lovely moment when, anxious to see the ill Marcus, she bites the arm of a slave blocking her way!

The second half of the serial sees Marcus and Esca set out to find the Eagle of the Ninth.  This quest results in Marcus suddenly gaining a rather unconvincing beard (but then fake face fungus can be found in most classic serials of this era).  He’s also haunted in his dreams by the long-dead soldiers of the Ninth – in his imaginings they’re a legion of walking skeletons (a brief, but quite effective nightmarish scene).

The Eagle of the Ninth was made in the usual way for a production of this era – film for the exteriors and videotape for the interiors.  Picture quality is as you’d expect for something that’s forty years old – some of the early film inserts are a little grubby and the studio scenes are a little soft – but overall it’s quite watchable.  Production design is very sound throughout, especially the studio farmhouse which features in several episodes (nicely designed by Campbell Gordon).

Although the serial features a number of battle scenes, this isn’t an action story – it’s more of a reflective, character-driven drama.  According to this webpage, Rosemary Sutcliff not only loved the adaptation, but was so taken with Higgins’ performance that she kept a photograph of him on her writing desk for decades afterwards.

It may be true that some of the tribal antics (and beards) are a little unconvincing, but overall this is a literate and well acted production which transcends its limited budget.  Running for six 30 minute episodes (spread across two discs) it’s released by Simply Media on the 16th of January 2018 and can be ordered directly from them here.  RRP £19.99.

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Christian Rodska