Longford – Simply Media DVD Review


Lord Longford was a tireless supporter of prisoner’s rights. He believed that nobody was beyond redemption, but his dogged campaign to secure Myra Hindley’s release only served to bring him savage public vilification ….

Even after all these years, the Moors Murders remains a dark stain on the British psyche. And if this horrifying legacy still resonates today, how much more powerful must it have been in the late 1960’s, when Lord Longford visited Myra Hindley for the first time? But despite being dubbed by the tabloids as “Lord Wrongford” he wouldn’t be swayed and carried on tirelessly pleading her case for decades.

Even though he had to submit to several hours of prosthetic make-up each day, Jim Broadbent’s beautifully nuanced performance as Longford is nothing less than quietly stunning. It’s left to the audience to decide whether Longford was a good, innocent man or simply a gullible fool (or a little of both possibly). Broadbent certainly deserved all the plaudits and awards which came his way.

No less compelling and fascinating is Samantha Morton’s performance as Myra Hindley. As much of a victim as the murdered children, or an equal complicit partner with Ian Brady? She certainly seemed like a reformed character in Longford’s presence, but was that simply a ruse to gain his trust? As the film continues we begin to get an idea of the truth and Morton’s quiet, unshowy playing becomes increasingly more memorable.


Ian Brady’s evil is palpable though. Andy Serkis’ screentime might have been limited but he is still able to create a deeply unsettling atmosphere which lingers even after he’s left the screen. Brady’s first meeting with Longford is a typical snapshot of the short time they spent together. “How good of you not to disappoint! Wonderful, isn’t it, when people look exactly as you imagined? So this is my competition? This is what I’m up against? Myra’s new boyfriend? She certainly picks them, doesn’t she? I did a little research before our first meeting. I’d say there’s great evidence of mental instability in your past and mine”.

Brady’s contention that Hindley destroyed ‘him’ is intriguing. An example of Brady’s manipulative skill, or does the comment contain a kernel of truth? “Take my advice. Go back to your other prisoners. Nice, uncomplicated ones with broken noses and knuckle tattoos. Stay clear of Myra, because she will destroy you. Certainly destroyed me. That’s a thought you’ve not had before – that Myra egged me on”. Before Brady’s furnace of hatred, the affable and kindly Longford could do little but wilt.

Later events, such as Hindley’s confession to several subsequent murders (which she did in order to trump Brady’s own pending confession) wasn’t enough to totally destroy Longford’s faith in her, nor was her description of the first murder. “I’m trying to know the God that you know. But if you had been there, on the moors, in the moonlight, when we did the first one, you’d know that evil can be a spiritual experience too”.

Scripted by Peter Morgan (also responsible for The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Damned United) Longford is a concise ninety minute teleplay which doesn’t contain an ounce of fat. Strong supporting performances help (most notably Lindsey Duncan as Lady Longford) as does the inclusion of genuine archive television reportage. In certain clips (for example, where the real Lord Longford appeared alongside David Frost and Lord Hailsham) a skilful spot of editing ensures that Broadbent replies to the archival comments of Frost and Hailsham.

Posing the difficult, if not insoluble, question as to whether forgiveness should be extended to everyone, regardless of their crimes, Longford offers no easy answers but plenty of food for thought and therefore stands as an absorbing drama which repays repeated viewings. Highly recommended.

Longford is released today by Simply Media, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here – quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.


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


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

Betjeman – The Collection. Simply Media DVD Review

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Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) described himself with characteristic understatement in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”.  There was rather more to him than that though – he was a writer, broadcaster and from 1972 until his death also served as the Poet Laureate.

Betjeman’s love of architecture (especially from the Victorian era) and landscape is explored in detail across the three series which make up this boxset – A Passion for Churches, Bird’s Eye View and Four with Betjeman: Victorian Architects and Architecture.

Four With Betjeman finds him indulging one of his most strongly held passions – that of the Victorian architects and the buildings they left behind.  “I have known for years and so have most of you that there were great Victorian architects, but they have never been given their due. Today, thank goodness, we can see Victorian architecture in perspective”.

This excerpt from a contemporary Daily Telegraph review articulates just why this short series was so entertaining and absorbing.  “There is a precision about his informed enthusiasm which enables one to see the most familiar buildings, such as the Houses of Parliament, in a new light … Sir John, who succeeds in making his conducted tours seem addressed to a personal friend, can move without pause from an appreciation of shape and proportion to an anecdote about an Irish peer rolling the full length of a Barry staircase”.


Four With Betjeman contains four half-hour programmes – (Charles Barry & Augustus PuginWilliam Butterfield & Gilbert ScottAlfred Waterhouse & Norman ShawSir Ninian ComperWilliam Robinson & Sir Edwin Lutyens).

In Bird’s Eye View we, unsurprisingly, observe Britain from a different angle as we take to the air for an unusual take on the familiar.  The first programme, An Englishman’s Home, sees Betjeman waxing lyrical (with the occasional sharp barb) as the camera swoops over a diverse selection of dwellings.  From stately castle, Georgian terrace, suburban semi to looming concrete tower blocks, Betjeman has words for all.  His comments on tower blocks (“but where can be the heart that sends a family to the twentieth floor in such a slab as this?”) carries a particular resonance today, following the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

From the same series, Beside the Seaside is a treat as we tour past some of England’s most popular seaside destinations.  The somewhat faded colour print helps to give the visuals a faint air of melancholy.

A swooping seagull takes its flight
From Weymouth to the Isle of Wight
From Cornish cliff tops wild and bare
To crowds at Weston-super-Mare
The seaside seen as history
Bournemouth, Butlin’s and Torquay
Whatever paddles, surfs or sails
Braves the waves or rides the gales
A scrapbook made at Christmastime
Of summer joys in film and rhyme

The title music for Bird’s Eye View is a typically jazzy piece from John Dankworth (the incidentals are more classically inclined, all the better to compliment Betjeman’s words).

Also included on the same disc is One Man’s Country – Cornwall (1964).  This isn’t part of the Bird’s Eye View series, but since it has a similar style it fits well with the two later programmes.  The stark black and footage of Cornwall is very striking and helps to make it especially memorable.

Although he’s not on camera, these three programmes (a perfect marriage of visuals and Bejeman’s poetic prose) are probably my favourite from the set.  Both of the Bird’s Eye View programmes run for fifty minutes whilst Cornwall is shorter, at twenty five.


A Passion for Churches (1974) sees Betjeman explore his long-held fascination with church architecture.  “What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, without church towers to recognise you by?”  His love of churches began exactly sixty years prior to this, as the eight-year old Betjeman went rowing on the River Bure in Norfolk with his father.  Delightfully, this film opens with Betjeman re-enacting this. He then moves on to take a whistle-stop tour around the area.

From Medieval stained glass and brass rubbings, to weddings and the Edwardian parish church on the Queen’s estate of Sandringham, A Passion for Churches is another leisurely treat.  As with all the programmes, the visuals are anchored by Betjeman’s measured, poetic narration.

Also included on the same disc are ABC of Churches (two episodes of approx. 23 minutes, 1961), Journey to Bethlehem (30 minutes, 1966) and a ten-minute fragment from a later edition of the ABC of Churches series (since the two complete editions only go from A – F, presumably the others were wiped).  All of these, unlike A Passion for Churches, are in black and white.

I’m sure that Doctor Who fans will appreciate the tour of Aldbourne’s church (memorably later depicted in 1971’s The Daemons) in the first edition of ABC of Churches whilst Journey to Bethlehem still captures the attention some fifty years on.

Given the age of the source materials, the picture quality is naturally a little variable.  The colour film prints are rather faded in places, although the black and white prints aren’t in too bad a condition at all.  But everything’s perfectly watchable with no major picture glitches to report.

A wonderful collection of programmes, Betjeman – The Collection should appeal to anybody interested in archive documentaries. Recommended.

Betjeman – The Collection is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of October 2017.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.


Here’s Harry – Simply Media DVD Review


Although largely forgotten today, Harry Worth was a major television star of the sixties and seventies.  His rise to the top was neither straightforward or quick though – born Harry Bourlan Illingsworth in 1917, he left school at 14 and went straight to work down the local mine (he stuck it out for eight years, despite hating every minute of it).

As with so many entertainers of his generation, World War II was to prove defining.  Even when he’d been a miner, Worth had continued to hone his showbiz skills (practising his ventriloquism act whilst hewing coal for example).  Prior to WW2 he’d begun to ply his trade by working as a ventriloquist in the numerous working men’s clubs dotted around Yorkshire, but appearing in RAF shows gave the young Worth further valuable experience.

Following his demob, and still attempting to make it big with his wooden friends (at this point he was dubbed ‘The Versatile Vent’), Worth began his slow ascent to the top.  Like many of his contemporaries he played the notorious Windmill Theatre (“we never clothed”) as well as just about every variety theatre in the country.  During the forties and fifties the variety circuit was still thriving (although the rise of television would eventually kill it off) and Worth was able to make a living, just.

Frequently bottom of the bill, Worth’s career seemed to be heading nowhere, although a tour with Laurel and Hardy in 1952 would prove to be crucial.  After watching him from the wings, Oliver Hardy persuaded Worth that he should abandon his vent act and concentrate on becoming a comedian instead.  This was valuable advice and within a few years Worth would make his television debut, which in time would lead to his own series.

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John Ammonds, forever associated with the classic BBC Morecambe & Wise shows, would produce Worth’s debut series The Trouble With Harry (1960) and the bulk of the follow-up, Here’s Harry (1960 – 1965).  His next series, simply titled Harry Worth, would enjoy four successful runs between 1966 and 1970, at which point he decided to jump ship and join Thames (Morecambe & Wise and Mike Yarwood would later do exactly the same thing).

Like many other series of this era, Here’s Harry has a rather patchy survival rate.  Out of sixty episodes made, only eleven now exist (although it’s pleasing to note The Musician, recently recovered by Kaleidoscope, is included in this release).  Here’s what’s contained on the two DVDs –

Series Two

The Bicycle – 4th May 1961.  Featuring Wensley Pithy, Sam Kyd, Ivor Salter and Anthony Sharp.

The Holiday – 11th May 1961.  Featuring Ballard Berkeley, Ronnie Stevens, Meg Johnson and Reginald Marsh.

The Request – 18th May 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar and John Snagge.

The Medals – 1st June 1961.  Featuring Anthony Sharp and Totti Truman Taylor.

The Voice – 8th June 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, George Tovey, Sydney Tafler, Joe Gladwin and Meg Johnson.

Series Three

The Dance – 14th November 1961.  Featuring Ronnie Stevens, Reginald Marsh, Colin Douglas, Vi Stevens and Harold Goodwin.

The Plant – 21st November 1961.  Featuring Vi Stevens and Patrick Newell.

The Birthday – 5th December 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, Vi Stevens and Ivor Salter.

The Overdraft – 12th December 1961.  Featuring Gwendolyn Watts, Joe Gladwyn and Jack Woolgar.

The Last Train – 26th December 1961.  Featuring Harold Goodwin, Tony Melody, Jack Woolgar and Reginald Marsh.

Series Five

The Musician – 22nd November 1963.  Featuring Geoffrey Hibbert, Jack Woolgar and Max Jaffa.

What’s interesting about the surviving episodes is that – apart from the recently recovered The Musician – everything we have either comes from the second or third series.  Series two is virtually complete (only one episode missing) whilst the survival rate for the third series is also pretty good (five out of eight).

The various opening titles help to set the tone for the show. The iconic shop window sequence doesn’t debut until later (it’s only featured in this set on The Musician) so in series two and three we observe Harry strolling down the street, politely raising his hat to unseen passers by and almost colliding with a lampost. That he raises his hat to the lampost is a characteristic touch.

Worth, who lives in the fictional town of Woodbridge (at 52 Acacia Avenue with his cat, Tiddles, and his never seen aunt, Mrs Amelia Prendergast) is a familiar comic creation.  Buffeted by events, he rarely seems to be in control of his own destiny – instead he’s at the mercy of officialdom which is sometimes friendly and sometimes not.  But this never concerns Harry as he treats everybody with kindness and always remains totally oblivious to the fact that his presence serves as the catalyst for terrible disasters.

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Other similar character types – Tony Hancock, Frank Spencer, Victor Meldrew – can easily be brought to mind but Worth’s style is quite different as there’s a warmth about his befuddled comic persona that’s very appealing.

Vince Powell and Harry Driver were the most prolific writers across the seven series, which should allow you to gauge the general level of scripting (both were competent scribes, although hardly in the same league as Galton & Simpson or Clement & Le Frenais).  Not that this really matters as the scripts are simply the starting point – Here’s Harry stands or falls on Worth’s ability to make his shtick work (and when he’s placed in opposition to a decent performer then things chug along very merrily).

The Bicycle serves as a perfect example of the way the show operates. Harry is more than upset when a total stranger regularly decides to leave his bicycle outside his house and decides to seek legal advice, although the solicitor (played by Anthony Sharp) is naturally nonplussed about exactly how he can help. Over the course of about ten minutes Harry’s amiable idiocy is enough to reduce Sharp’s solicitor to a gibbering wreck. But when Harry learns that the bike belongs to Ivor Salter’s police constable, Harry (who’s hidden the bike in his shed) becomes frantic with worry ….

Later tangles with Sam Kyd’s postman and Wensley Pithy’s chief constable are further examples of the way Harry so often leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. The “sit” part of this comedy is remarkably slight (a missing bicycle) but it’s plain that each situation is simply the excuse for Worth to move from one authority figure to the next, each time causing mayhem.

Harry’s child-like nature and undeveloped view of the world is further evidenced in The Holiday (he believes that it’s perfectly possible to catch a bus straight from London to Monte Carlo). A long-suffering travel agent is the latest person to suffer from Harry’s presence, although he gets off relatively lightly (Ronnie Stevens’ remarkably camp photographer – tasked with the job of taking Harry’s passport photos – doesn’t fare so well). Ballard Berkeley and Reginald Marsh – both wonderful performers – are also lined up to take their dose of punishment from Mr Worth.

There’s a touch of gentle satire at play in The Request as Harry turns up at the BBC, keen to ensure that a request for his Auntie gets played on Housewives Choice. Due to a barely credible misunderstanding he gets mistaken for a singer (Worth does croon a little bit of Are You Lonesome Tonight quite well though) and then decides to roam the corridors of the BBC, causing chaos wherever he goes (such as interrupting the iconic newsreader John Snagge mid broadcast). His face may not be familiar, but Snagge’s voice is unmistakable and it’s lovely to see him end up as Harry’s latest victim.

The remaining surviving episodes of series one – The Medals and The Choice – maintain the high standard, with Anthony Sharp, this time as a Brigadier, returning in The Medals to once again cross swords with Harry.

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Amongst the surviving shows from series three, both The Overdraft and The Last Train are highlights.  A visit by Harry to the bank in The Overdraft has plenty of obvious comic potential.  He informs the long-suffering assistant that he wishes to deposit three pounds ten shillings (to enable him to draw out precisely the same amount!) This is so he can extract his money in a bewildering and precise series of coins, all the better for then depositing them in a plethora of tins (for the gas bill, newspapers, etc, etc).

The Last Train finds a festive Harry patiently waiting for his train home.  It seems a bit odd for trains to be running on Christmas Day but it helps to explain why some of the staff are rather downcast.  Harry’s not of course, he’s a regular ray of Christmas sunshine – although his well-meaning efforts to entertain and help don’t always have the results he’d hoped for.  Not that this concerns Harry who – as always – breezes through each and every situation, totally oblivious to the havoc he’s causing.

The final existing show – the recently returned The Musician – features a guest appearance from Max Jaffa.  Like John Snagge, Jaffa’s a good sport (the typically dense Harry knows that Jaffa is someone famous, he just can’t remember who).  The moment when Jaffa tells him who he is and Harry removes his hat in respect is a delight as is the way that Harry initially mistakes him for the music hall comedian Jimmy Wheeler (for good measure Harry throws in Wheeler’s famous catchphrase – “Aye, aye, that’s your lot!” – to increasingly befuddle his famous companion).

Whilst it’s undeniably formulaic, the surviving episodes of Here’s Harry are also undeniably entertaining. The combustible combination of the well-meaning but inadvertent loose cannon that is Harry and the range of authority figures he finds himself encountering (some pleasant, some not) is the reason why the show works as well as it does. The situations may often be slight, but the way that Harry and his co-stars interact is always a joy.  Something of a neglected comic treat it’s a pleasure to see it available on DVD and comes warmly recommended.

Here’s Harry is released by Simply Media on the 11th of September.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review


When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.

As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.

So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….

Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow).  A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.

Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired.   Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest.  Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD.  Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.

Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential.  Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood.  Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens.  Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).

The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.

John Tate & Christopher Guard

John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.

Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.

Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.

If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.

Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.

Francesca Annis, Maxine Audley & Christopher Guard

Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.

The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of stasis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).

Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.

The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!

Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle

Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t.  Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.

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Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).

Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught?  Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).

Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.

This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.

The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).

Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention.  Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today.  Warmly recommended.

Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Bernard Hepton & Gary Bond

The Adventure Game – Simply Media DVD Review


Created by Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver, The Adventure Game pitched celebrities and members of the public into the strange, science-fiction world of Arg, where they were forced to solve fiendish puzzles in order to win their freedom back to Earth ….

By 1980, both Dowling and Oliver were old BBC hands (Dowling had joined the Corporation in 1955, Oliver in 1962).  Oliver had cut his teeth on Late Night Line Up before working as a director on both Blue Peter and Multi Coloured Swap Shop.  Dowling, a veteran of Vision On, had been impressed by Douglas Adams’ radio serial The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and decided to create a sci-fi based game show for children with the same humorous streak.

Intriguingly, he approached Adams to see if he would be able to contribute to the series but Adams (at the time working on the television version of Hitch-Hikers) had to decline.  So Dowling worked out the format of the show himself, with Oliver also contributing ideas as well as directing the studio sessions.

Although the actors – in the first series these included Ian Messiter as the Rangdo of Arg and newsreader Moira Stuart as Darong – would have received scripts and therefore had a rough idea about what could happen, the contestants were totally in the dark and had the freedom to do as they wished.  This tended to make for long studio days and lengthy editing sessions in order to bring the episodes down the required duration.

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Messiter and Stuart didn’t return for S2, but Lesley Judd was a new addition to the regulars.  Judd had appeared as a contestant at the end of the first series, but her failure to solve the puzzles meant that she’d been turned into the Mole (whose mission was now to confuse and sabotage the efforts of the others).

Christopher Leaver, as Gandor, appeared in every episode (the only person to do so) whilst the very appealing Charmian Gradwell, playing Gnoard, featured in the first three series.  Star Wars legend Kenny Baker popped up a number of times, although as so often throughout his career he was hidden from sight (he played an aspidistra).  The astute will have probably have twigged by now that all the names of the Arg regulars were anagrams of Dragon ….

One of the most entertaining things about the series is observing how well (or badly) the contestants do. Some do flounder about more than others, although if things get really desperate then the Argonds might pop up and attempt to push them in the right direction with a friendly hint.

Given the vague educational nature of the series, it wasn’t surprising that a number of science/technology figures (James Burke, Ian McNaught-Davis, Heinz Wolff and Johnny Ball amongst others) appeared whilst the likes of Janet Fielding and Paul Darrow would no doubt have felt right at home amongst the low-budget sci-fi high jinks of Arg.

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Twenty two episodes, as well as an unscreened pilot, were made between 1980 and 1986.  Sadly, four of the transmitted episodes no longer exist as broadcast quality masters (two from the first series and two from the second). Off-air recordings of two of these (21/6/80 and 09/11/81) are included on this DVD release, with disclaimers about the picture quality. Whilst they don’t look perfect it’s certainly better to have them in this condition than not at all, so kudos to Simply for making the effort. Another off-air recording (31/5/80) apparently exists in private hands but presumably it wasn’t possible to acquire it for this release. The pilot also isn’t included, maybe this was down to clearance issues.

The format remained the same throughout all four series (although Arg would receive several between-series makeovers).  Each week three space-travellers (many of whom looked suspiciously like well-known Earth celebrities) turned up on the planet Arg.  The dragon-like Argonds may appear to be fierce (although considerably less so when they’ve morphed into human form) but by nature they’re a friendly – if mischievous – race.  Having stolen the crystal time-lock from the humans’ spaceship, the Argonds will only return it if the travellers can solve the puzzles they’ve been set.

For those of a certain age, Rongad’s (Bill Homewood) catchphrase of “doogy rev” might bring back some memories.  The only way Rongad (although really he should have been called Nogard) could communicate was by talking backwards.

The most memorable part of the show, although it didn’t debut until the second series, was the Vortex.  Brought to life thanks to the wonders of CSO, this was the final task our brave space-travellers had to face.  Failure here would mean a very long walk home ….

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Below is a brief guide listing the episodes included on this release –

Disc One – Series One

24/05/80 – Elizabeth Estensen, Fred Harris & Mark Dugdale
14/06/80 – Denise Coffey, Toby Freeman & Gary Hunt
07/06/80 – James Burke, Maggie Philbin & Pat Cater
21/06/80 – Paul Darrow, Lesley Judd & Robert Malos

Disc Two – Series Two

02/11/81 – Carol Chell, Graeme Garden & Nicholas Hammond
09/11/81 – Madeline Smith, David Yip & Derek Gale
16/11/81 – Sue Cook, David Singmaster & Phillip Shepherd
30/11/81 – John Craven, Kirsty Miller & Bill Green

Disc Three – Series Three

02/02/84 – Sarah Greene, Richard Stilgoe & Anne Miller
09/02/84 – Sue Nicholls, Duncan Goodhew & Emma Disley
16/02/84 – Sandra Dickinson, Chris Serle & Adam Tandy

Disc Four – Series Three

23/02/84 – Bonnie Langford, Paul McDowell & Christopher Hughes
01/03/84 – Neil Adams, Janet Fielding & Nigel Crocket
08/03/84 – Fern Britton, Noel Edmonds & Ray Virr

Disc Five – Series Four

07/01/86 – Sheelah Gilbey, Ian McNaught-Davis & Roy Kane
14/01/86 – Johnny Ball, Barbara Lott & Liz Hobbs
21/01/86 – Fiona Kennedy, Ian McCaskill & David Sanderman

Disc Six – Series Four

04/02/86 – George Layton, Joanna Monro & Val Prince
11/02/86 – Ruth Madoc, Heinz Wolff & Deborah Leigh Hall
18/02/86 – Keith Chegwin, Heather Couper & Adam Gilby

The tasks faced by the contestants varied – from computer-based conundrums to more logical and science-based challenges. During the first series, several teams – including James Burke, Maggie Philbin and Pat Cater – tangled with a computer which was running a text adventure. Those of a certain age will remember how frustrating these could be – frequently after typing what seemed like a brilliant suggestion, the computer would respond with the bald statement “nothing happens”.

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It’s interesting that it didn’t feature in every S1 edition. I wonder if that was because they wanted to vary the games or maybe it was more to do with the fact that certain teams weren’t very good at it? The variable running times for the four S1 episodes included (26:38, 29:55, 37:08 and 45:00) does seem to suggest that some contestants struggled with certain challenges more than others. This is pretty evident in the series one episode with Denise Coffey, which features several fades to black – indicating that some serious editing had gone on in order to remove sections where nothing much happened.

Very often our hapless contestants would be presented with a selection of random items which they would have to utilize and combine in a certain way in order to produce the desired effect.  Sometimes the solution to the puzzles does seem somewhat obscure, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that blank faces can often be seen.  Since the non-celebs sometimes tended to take charge here, I presume many were selected due to their technical or science backgrounds (which is probably just as well, otherwise a great many celebrities would probably still be languishing on the planet Arg to this very day).  What’s interesting is that they sometimes do reach a workable solution, just not one that the Argonds were expecting!

The Adventure Game is an enjoyable watch for several reasons. The regulars – especially the likes of Christopher Leaver, Charmian Gradwell and Bill Homewood – keep things bubbling along nicely whilst the variety of celebrities and the sometimes strange team-ups (Ruth Madoc and Heinz Wolff, together at last) is also noteworthy.

Amusing and charming (with the odd spot of learning thrown in) The Adventure Game still stands up today.  This is partly because it’s always entertaining to see boffins like James Burke out of their comfort zone, but also because it’s a nostalgic time-trip back to a period when computers were pretty basic (and also ran BASIC of course).  Just to observe the contestants operating a BBC B Microcomputer is sure to bring a rush of nostalgia for many.  And on that theme, a tip of the hat for the DVD menu design, which has a very 1980’s home-computer style font (although it’s a pity that the menus don’t list the celebs who appear in each episode).

My verdict?  What else can it be but doogy rev.  Warmly recommended.

The Adventure Game is available now from Simply Media.  RRP £29.99.

1950’s/1960’s BBC Charles Dickens Classics to be released by Simply Media – July 2017


It’s very pleasing to see that a number of 1950’s/1960’s BBC Classic Serial adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels are due shortly from Simply Media.  Three have been confirmed for release on the 3rd of July 2007 – Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Dombey & Son.

Below is a little more detail about them.

Our Mutual Friend.  Adapted by Freda Lingstrom and broadcast in twelve episodes during 1958/59.  Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum, Richard Pearson, Rachel Roberts and Robert Leach head the cast, whilst many other familiar faces – Rachel Gurney, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Wilfred Brambell, Melvyn Hayes and Barbara Lott – also appear.

Great Expectations.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in ten episodes during 1967.  Gary Bond, Francesca Annis, Neil McCarthy, Richard O’Sullivan, Peter Vaughan and Bernard Hepton are the major players in this one whilst there’s also plenty of quality to be found lower down the cast-list (Ronald Lacey, Jon Laurimore and Kevin Stoney amongst others).

Dombey & Son.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in thirteen episodes during 1969.  A typically strong cast is headed by John Carson as Mr Dombey with Clive Swift, Pat Coombs, Ronald Pickering and Davyd Harries amongst the other familiar faces appearing.

And with three further releases to come in late August – Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962) and Bleak House (1959) – the next few months look to be good for those who enjoy classic BBC B&W drama.

Praying Mantis – Simply Media DVD Review


Vera Canova (Carmen Du Sautoy) has hatched a cold-blooded plan to dispose of her husband, Professor Paul Canova (Pinkas Braun).  The Professor’s assistant, Christian Magny (Jonathan Pryce), is an integral part of her plot, as is Christian’s new wife, Beatrice (Cheri Lunghi), who has just been engaged as the Professor’s secretary.

Vera intends that Professor Canova and Beatrice should be placed in a compromising position, which would give Christian (Vera’s besotted accomplice) an excuse to shoot them both. And since crime passionnels are viewed by the courts more leniently than cold blooded murder, there’s a good chance he would be aquitted. But when Beatrice (known as Bea) discovers their plans, events take an unexpected turn ….

Praying Mantis was based on the award-winning novel by French author Hubert Monteilhet, originally published in 1960. Philip Mackie’s 1983 adaptation managed to keep the feel of the original, although this wasn’t straightforward since Monteilhet’s novel was constructed in the epistolary form (with the story unfolding through a series of letters, newspaper reports and diary entries).

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Cheri Lunghi & Pinkaus Braun

It’s always surprised me that Mackie (1918 – 1985) isn’t better known or appreciated, considering the body of work he assembled between the mid fifties and the mid eighties (Praying Mantis was his final screenplay).  He was skilled as an adapter of other people’s work – apart from Praying Mantis he also worked on Raffles, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and adapted The Naked Civil Servant from Quentin Crisp’s memoirs – but he also authored some notable television series.  The Caesars (1969), The Organization (1972), An Englishman’s Castle (1978) and The Cleopatras (1983) have to rate amongst his career highlights.  Three of these four are currently available on DVD, so hopefully someone will take up the challenge and release The Cleopatras in the near future.

Praying Mantis opens with a voice-over which sets the scene.  “The praying mantis is a creature who devours her mate during the act of love.”

The first episode is a slow-burn which sets up the principal characters and their intertwined relationships.  Vera is seen to be cold and manipulative and once we discover the Professor is a wealthy man it seems fairly obvious that she wishes to remove him.  But the revelation that Christian is her partner in crime comes out of the blue –  previously it was stated that he had little interest in women, although the fact we later hear his vigorous love-making to Vera (via a tape-recording secretly made by Bea) suggests otherwise.

Bea herself also seems to be somewhat manipulative – before Christian’s marriage proposal she’s quite content to conduct an affair with the Professor under Vera’s nose (although this is something which would have fitted in nicely with Vera’s plans).  And after she discovers that her new husband plans to murder her, there’s no hysterics – instead she begins to wage a war of nerves against him (replaying the taped conversations between Vera and Christian whilst pretending not to hear them).  And her plans don’t end there ….

As might be expected from the title, it’s the two female characters – Vera and Bea – who dominate the action, leaving Christian and Professor Canova as somewhat hapless pawns totally at their mercy.  But there’s several twists and turns along the way which serve to alter the balance of fortune.

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Jonathan Pyrce & Carmen Du Sautoy

It’s an interesting – and obviously intentional – touch that the title was changed from Monteilhet’s The Praying Mantises, to just the singular version for this adaptation.  This ensures that we’re left in some doubt as to who will turn out to be the deadliest (the uneasy detente between Bea and Vera during the concluding episode is absorbing).

Lunghi and Du Sautoy both sparkle with deadly intent throughout.  Bea starts off as the audience identification figure – we see the early action unfold from her viewpoint, which ensures that the audience is automatically placed on her side (although later events reveal a quite different side to her character). Du Sautoy instantly exudes more of an air of obvious menace whilst Pryce is characteristically good at capturing Christian’s sense of creeping, conflicted panic. Braun has the least developed role out of the four, but he’s still skilled at generating gravitas and weight as Professor Canova.

Although Praying Mantis retains the French locations of the original novel, given the British nature of most of the cast this either seems to suggest there’s a great many ex-pats in the area or they’re simply playing French, but without the accents.  If it’s the latter then it was probably a wise move, since adopting foreign accents can be a little distracting.

If the French locations populated with British actors is a little quirky, then so is Carl Davis’ score.  Davis’ credits are many and impressive, but I’m afraid that Praying Mantis can’t really be classed as one of his best.  The piano is the dominant instrument, with a slightly discordant melody recurring regularly throughout the two episodes – frequently popping up between scenes or when there’s no dialogue.  This does become slightly tiresome, even more so since Simply have opted to use it on the DVD menu screen.  This is one time when hitting play as quickly as possible is most desirable!

Praying Mantis boasts strong, multi-layered performances from all four main cast-members with a host of familiar faces (Sarah Berger, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Derek Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Joby Blanshard, Clive Swift and Peter Blake) making welcome appearances in supporting roles.  Apparently shot on 35mm (a rarity for this era of television – most film productions tended to be made on 16mm) it looks in reasonable shape, considering that the materials are nearly thirty five years old.

Featuring a clever, twisting plot which moves in several unexpected directions, Praying Mantis never flags during the course of its 152 minutes (divided into two episodes of 76 minutes each).  Apart from the slightly intrusive music there’s little else to fault here, with Cheri Lunghi especially impressive.

Praying Mantis is released by Simply Media on the 17th of April 2017.  RRP £19.99.

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Cheri Lunghi

Star Maidens – Simply Media DVD Review

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

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

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

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

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Gareth Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dawn Addams & Lisa Harrow

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

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

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

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

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

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Pierre Brice, Gareth Thomas & Judy Geeson

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

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

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

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

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

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The Brothers – Series Five. Simply Media DVD Review

The beginning of series five finds The Brothers in something of a transitional phase.  Two key cast members (Gabrielle Drake and Hilary Tindall) had left the show at the end of the previous run, although fresh blood (most notably in the shape of Kate O’Mara as Jane Maxwell) would shortly arrive to shake things up.

The departures of both Drake (Jill Hammond) and Tindall (Ann Hammond) were used to good dramatic effect though.  Ann and Brian had gone through the relationship mill during the previous series and even though their union was now at an end, Brian continues to suffer.  But his broken marriage is just one reason why he goes severely off the rails in the early episodes.

Although Tindall was gone, her character was still alive and therefore a return was always possible (and  indeed Ann did make a fleeting reappearance in a handful of episodes at the start of the seventh and final series).  But Drake wasn’t so fortunate, as Jill is dispatched in the time-honoured way of dealing with soap actors who either can’t or won’t carry on (an off-screen accident).  Talking about this decades later in The Cult of The Brothers documentary, it seems that Drake was a little taken aback at just how ruthlessly Jill was dealt with.

Another character, Martin Farrell, had also left, which results in both personal and professional consequences.  Professionally, it means that the position of chairman is vacant – which seems tailor-made for the ambitious Paul Merroney.

And on a more personal note, it was plain that Ted Hammond’s nose was put out of joint last series by the interest Farrell had been taking in Jenny Kingsley (Jennifer Wilson).  So with Farrell out of the picture, Ted (Patrick O’Connell) rekindles his own relationship with her.  Lest we forget, Jenny carried on a lengthy and clandestine affair with Ted’s late father.  Unsurprisingly this meant she has always been viewed with great disfavour by Ted’s mother – the indomitable matriarch Mary Hammond – but it seems that Ted has eventually summoned up the courage to defy his mother and make an honest woman out of Jenny.  Although I’m sure there’s still going to be a few bumps ahead before they can enjoy a lifetime of wedded bliss.

Patrick O’Connell & Jennifer Wilson

The series opener, the aptly titled Life Goes On, finds Brian in a pretty poor state. This concerns the bank – they don’t want to see their investment in Hammonds put at risk because the new managing director is feeling flaky – but Paul Merroney has put plans in motion to protect their money ….

Although Merroney was a rather peripheral character during the last series, here he really starts to make his mark. For one thing, he’s gained an assistant – Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam). Apart from signifying Merroney’s increasing significance, Clare also emerges as a character in her own right – becoming close to David, for example.

Baker’s good value in these early episodes as Merroney begins his manoeuvres. Surprisingly, only the bluff Bill Riley realises that Merroney has his eye on the chairman’s job – which doesn’t say much for the business acumen of the others! There’s a delicious sense of duplicity on show from Merroney as he puts the blame for the recent ousting of Ted as managing director firmly on the shoulders of the departed (and innocent) Farrell.

The way the audience learns about Jill’s death is done in a very interesting way which makes a positive out of the fact that Gabrielle Drake was no longer a member of the cast.  Jill isn’t mentioned during most of the first episode, although that wasn’t unusual (she was absent from the first few episodes of series four).  It’s only right at the end of Life Goes On, when David runs into a friend who’s been out of town for several months that we find out Jill is dead.  This is an incredibly jolting moment which provides us with a strong hook into the next episode where her fate is discussed in detail.

The dynamic between the three brothers – Ted, Brian and David – has been the motor which has powered the series to date.  Whilst series five continues to play on their conflicts, the emergence of Paul Merroney as a major player refreshes this somewhat – as an outsider he has quite a different set of loyalties.

Colin Baker

But the brothers still dominate the storylines especially, in the early episodes, Brian.  In many ways he’s now got everything he wished for – he’s become managing director of Hammonds, ousting Ted.  Or has he?  We’d seen in previous series that it was Ann who was the ambitious one, constantly pushing him forward.  So the fact that he’s gained in business but lost out in his personal life must come as a bitter irony to him.

Richard Easton continues to impress as Brian, especially when he starts to lose the plot (the episode title Breakdown makes it fairly obvious what’s going to happen).  As his drinking increases, Brian is encouraged to seek psychiatric help.  And always around is Merroney, plotting to oust Brian at one point and then (so the others fear) attempting to buy Brian’s shares so he can gain overall control of the company. But as we’ll see, Merroney is no cardboard villain – he may be mainly motivated by self interest but he’s also not without compassion for the stricken Brian.

As Brian, ensconced in a nursing home, retreats into the background, so other plotlines begin to develop.  The long-running will they/won’t they relationship between Ted and Jenny is now very much back in “they will” territory and moves forward at a rate of knots.  The problem with Mary (Jean Alexander, as good as always) still has to be overcome though, as the icy disdain she feels towards the woman who conducted a long-term affair with her late husband continues to be a fruitful source of drama.  Even when Mary and Jenny appear to be on civil terms there’s always the sense that at any moment things could change ….

Although the departure of both Hilary Tindall and Gabrielle Drake left something of a hole, two new female characters filled the gap nicely.  Clare’s divided loyalties (between David and Merroney) generate a good source of drama which plays out as the series progresses whilst Kate O’Mara makes an immediate impression as Jane Maxwell.  Debuting in episode six, Flight of Fancy, Jane is the hard-headed director of an air-freight business which Hammonds have an interest in.  As a proactive business woman she’s something of a rarity in the world of The Brothers (Jenny might be a board member of Hammonds, but she’s a much more passive character).

Kate O’Mara

Also appearing for the first time in this episode is Mike Pratt as Don Stacey, a hard-drinking pilot.  This would be Pratt’s final television role before his death in 1976 at the age of just 45.  Don would appear throughout the remainder of series five and the first half of series six. Whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Pratt, it’s rather tempered by how ill and haggard he looks.

Yet again, things conclude in the boardroom (episode thirteen, Warpath) as Merroney continues to scheme although it’s possible that in Jane he’s finally met his match (a decade or so later Baker and O’Mara would once again lock horns, this time in Doctor Who).  With Ted under pressure and Brian’s fate still uncertain, things are left nicely poised for the following series to pick up where this one left off.

By now, The Brothers had become a well-oiled machine and series five not only manages to develop the existing characters in a variety of ways but it also develops intriguing new ones as well.  It continues to be highly addictive stuff, especially as the Hammonds, Merroney and Jane jostle for power and superiority.  But there’s time for more personal stories as well (Jenny’s longing for another child) which ensures that the series isn’t completely boardroom and business based.

The Brothers – Series Five is released by Simply Media on the 27th of March 2017.  RRP £29.99.

Richard Easton, Robin Chadwick & Patrick O’Connell

1990 – Series One. Simply Media DVD Review

1990, which ran for two seasons during 1977 and 1978, was set in a Britain tyrannised by the Public Control Department (PCD), a Home Office organisation dedicated to crushing free speech and any other signs of dissent.  Given the parlous state of Britain during the 1970’s, it wasn’t surprising to find a series which posited what might happen if the economy finally and irrevocably disintegrated.  And given the way things are today, many of 1990‘s themes seem eerily topical  ….

Some background to the collapse is teased out as the series progresses.  We learn that the country went bankrupt in 1983, which led to a series of swingeing restrictions from the newly-formed PCD.  These included strict rationing – not only of food, but also of housing and other essential services.  Virtually everything has been nationalised, meaning that the government has almost complete control.  Dissidents are harshly dealt with – via Adult Rehabilitation Centres – where they are treated with electro-convulsive therapy.

1990 is a grim place then, but there are still a few people attempting to resist the state.  One is Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward), a journalist on The Star, one of the last independent newspapers. The PCD, in the form of Controller Herbert Skardon (Robert Lang) and his two deputies, Delly Lomas (Barbara Kellerman) and Henry Tasker (Clifton Jones), keep him under close surveillance, which leads to a tense battle of nerves.

Robert Lang, Barbara Kellerman and Clifton Jones

Series creator Wilfred Greatorex (1922–2002) started his career writing for Probation Officer (1962) and quickly moved onto The Plane Makers (1963 – 1965) and its sequel The Power Game (1966 – 1969) where he acted as the script-editor.  Character conflict was key to both The Plane Makers and The Power Game and it’s plain to see that a similar format was carried over to 1990.  The heart of the series is concerned with the way the main characters (especially Kyle, Skardon and Lomas) interact.

Edward Woodward (1930 – 2009) had been acting since the mid 1950’s but it was Callan (1967 – 1972) which really established him as a household name.  His success as the world-weary state-sponsored killer allowed him to diversify (pursing his love of singing in The Edward Woodward Hour, for example) whilst cult films like The Wicker Man (1973) enhanced his profile even more.  Woodward was a quality actor and his central performance is one of the reasons why 1990 works as well as it does.

The series opened with Greatorex’s Creed of Slaves (“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves” – William Pitt the Younger).  Kyle is penning a piece for his newspaper on the Adult Rehabilitation Centres (ARCs) which causes Skardon considerable irritation.  But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg as Kyle is also part of an organisation dedicated to smuggling people out of the country ….

There’s more than a little touch of 1984 about the series of course (Greatorex referred to it as 1984 plus six).   This is particularly evident in the opening few minutes as we observe how the PCD are able to monitor everybody, both visually and aurally, although wise old hands like Kyle are able to give them the slip with embarrassing ease.  The relationship between Kyle and the members of the PCD is already well established before the episode begins and it’s his interaction with Delly Lomas which particularly intrigues.  Since Skardon mentions that Kyle likes her cooking, it’s plain that, despite the fact they’re on different sides, there appears to be some sort of spark between them.  Or are both simply playing games? At one point Kyle directs this comment to her. “How do you look like you do and do the job that you do?”

Edward Woodward & Barbara Kellerman

The next episode, When Did You Last See Your Father?, continues one of the plotlines from episode one, concerning Dr Vickers (Donald Gee), a man who is keen to take his wife and family out of the UK. This proves to be impossible via official means, as exit visas are severely restricted.

The banality of evil runs throughout the series. On the one hand, Skardon, Lomas and Tasker are simply bureaucrats doing a job (in their minds they no doubt see themselves on the side of law and order). It’s this blurring between “good” and “evil” which is so compelling – the PCD may be oppressive, but their public face can appear to be reasonable. This is key – if you can keep the nastiness buried then maybe you stand a chance of fooling most of the people.

The first non-Greateorex script, Health Farm, stars the imposing Welsh actor Ray Smith as union leader Charles Wainwright.  Following a disastrous trip to America in which he gave a speech littered with criticisms of the British government, Wainwright is sent to an ARC for “correction”.  The shocking change in him (from the firebrand we first meet to an adjusted patient keen to toe the party line) brings home the true horror of the ARCs.

Strong guest stars continue to appear throughout the remainder of series one, such as Graham Crowden as Sondeberg in Decoy and Richard Hurndall as Avery in Voice from the Past.

The last two episodes – Witness and Non-Citizen ramp up the conflict between Kyle and the PCD. Dr Vickers, who escaped from the UK in episode two with Kyle’s help, is persuaded to return in order to testify in a show-trial against Kyle – if he does then his family will be granted exit visas.  Prior to the trial (featuring John Bennett as the prosecutor) Kyle’s office and home are targeted by PCD thugs, which causes distress to his wife Maggie (Patricia Garwood) and children.  Woodward gives a typically powerful performance, especially when Kyle finds his family are under threat.

Edward Woodward

Series one concluded with Non-Citizen. Considering how much of a thorn Kyle has been in the PCD’s side, it’s odd they’ve taken so long to decisively deal with him. But here at last they finally seem to have broken him. With his family missing, no money, no job, no home and no status, Kyle is pushed to the limit by a sadistic Skardon. It’s not surprising that Woodward once again excels here.

Although the themes of the first series of 1990 tapped into contemporary fears and neuroses, it’s fascinating how most of it still remains topical some forty years on.  The official face presented in 1990 appears to be fair and reasonable – tribunals are held which claim to offer the public an unbiased hearing and the ARC we visit is located in a palatial country home with well-manicured lawns – but scratch a little beneath the surface and it’s plain there’s something very rotten in this state.  You don’t need jackbooted guards on every street corner to create a true sense of fear, there are far more subtle ways than that ….

The way that language, spin and bureaucracy are all utilised in order to obfuscate the truth is especially instructive.  When you hear a politician complaining that the press, in the shape of Kyle, is spreading disinformation and therefore creating disharmony about the state of the economy (i.e. disseminating fake news) then the parallels to the modern world are perfectly clear.  In many ways 1990 is something of a chess game with all the major players – especially Kyle and Lomas – engaged in a game of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre.

Barbara Kellerman & Edward Woodward

As I’ve said, Edward Woodward is a fine leading man whilst Barbara Kellerman and Robert Lang (who receive second and third billing) offer strong support.  The gravelly-voiced Lang graced many a film and television programme with his presence and is perfect as the harassed mandarin Tasker whilst Kellerman (possibly best known for playing the White Witch in the 1980’s BBC production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) is intriguing as Della, the apparently acceptable face of the PCD.  Kellerman didn’t return for series two, which was a shame, although this did allow the format to be shaken up a little.

Interviewed by the Radio Times prior to the broadcast of the first episode, Woodward said that the series was “either going to create a furore or pass without comment” (Radio Times, 17th September 1977).  Although it didn’t quite go unnoticed, the fact it was tucked away on BBC2 was probably part of the reason why it never became a mainstream hit. But it clearly impressed enough to be renewed for a second series.

Although largely forgotten today, 1990 is a series which deserves to be much better known, especially since its power to disturb and unsettle remains undimmed after forty years.  It’s pleasing to have the first series available on DVD, with the second to follow in May, and for those who appreciate well-crafted British character drama of the seventies it’s certain to appeal.

1990 – Series One is released by Simply Media on the 20th of March 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Shackleton – Simply Media DVD Review

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was a polar explorer who made three eventful expeditions to the Antarctic between 1902 and 1917.  His story has been tackled several times (for example, the 2002 mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh) but this 1983 BBC2 drama-documentary has long been regarded as one of the most authentic retellings of his exploits.

There are several reasons why this production is noteworthy.  Shackleton covered all of his Antarctic expeditions, not just the most well-known one (aboard the ship Endurance).  And since events are allowed to unfold over a number of years, this gives time for his relationships with other characters, such as Scott (Neil Stacey), to be explored in detail.  Also, it doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of life in the polar region (the toe amputation scene is authentically grisly).

Screenwriter Christopher Railing (who won an Emmy in 1971 for The Search for the Nile) worked from Shackleton’s journals to craft as accurate a picture as possible.  With location filming in Greenland, shot by BAFTA-award winner David Whitson, no expense was spared.

Although this ensured a visual treat for the audience, some at the BBC were less than impressed.  Will Wyatt, at the time the head of Documentary Features, recalls that “most years there was some sort of crisis. The worst was a four-part drama documentary about the Antarctic explorer Shackleton, shot on location in Greenland, around London, and at the BBC’s Ealing studios. The producer, an experienced drama production manager [John Harris], was unable to say ‘no’ to the director [Martyn Friend]. Shackleton went a disastrous record-breaking 50 per cent over budget. I told the producer he was finished with us and should return to drama, and I abandoned plans for all further drama docs.”

Whilst it’s a pity that this overspend seemed to have put paid to future productions (the same team had previously mounted the well-received Voyages of Charles Darwin) at least the money spent was put up on the screen for the viewers to enjoy.

David Schofield played Shackleton.  He made his television debut in a 1972 episode of Z Cars and worked steadily in television during the remainder of the seventies and early eighties.  After appearing in Shackleton his career continued to grow (later he chalked up appearances in Hollywood films such as Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean).

DAVID SCHOFIELD as Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Schofield is given strong support from an impressive supporting cast, which includes Michael Hayward, David Rodigan, Geoffrey Chater, Robert James, Robert Lang, Victoria Fairbrother, Stephen Tate, Michael Sheard, Kevin Whately and Anthony Bate.

Episode one, A Merchant Navy Man, opens with Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1902.  Shackleton was a member of his party but due to ill health found himself sent home early.  These opening scenes sets up the tension that always existed between the pair.  Shackleton later discloses to his fiancé Emily (Victoria Fairbrother) that he found Scott to be a “button-up sort of fellow. Never manages to let his hair down.”  Shackleton, on the other hand, was approachable and friendly and seemed to be popular with the other members of Scott’s crew (there are some who contended that this was the real reason why Scott sent him home).

When Shackleton returns to London he’s invited to give several talks on their achievements and it’s here that Schofield really starts to make his mark, as Shackleton paints a vivid picture of life on the ice.  “I cannot leave you tonight without trying to convey to you something of the vast magnificence of the south polar regions. The immense forces of those contending elements – rock. wind, ice and water. The stillness of the Antarctic night. And the comradeship. The intensified feeling of life, of being alive, which men feel in those frozen wastes and which draws them back as if their souls belong there.”

With Shackleton now married to Emily and ensconced in Edinburgh, life for both of them is settled, but he regards the Antarctic as unfinished business.  With the backing of William Beardmore, a wealthy Clydeside industrialist, Shackleton mounts his own expedition, but finds that various obstacles – most notably Scott – have to be overcome first.  Scott insists he has a prior claim on the McMurdo Sound area and Shackleton agrees not to use it as his base of operations.  But when the heavy pack ice forces him into McMurdo, Scott – back in England – regards it as a personal betrayal.

The ominously titled Our Dead Bodies Must Tell The Tale sees Shackleton and his three companions, Frank Wild (David Rodigan), Jameson Adams (Kevin Whately) and Eric Marshall (Andrew Seear) set out for the South Pole.  Between late 1908 and early 1909 they made a trip of sixteen hundred miles, ending up just ninety seven miles away from the pole.  This feat turned Shackleton into a national hero and earned him a knighthood.

Rodigan is excellent throughout the series as Wild, one of Shackleton’s firmest friends and supporters whilst Seear adds a discordant note here as Marshall, a man who dislikes Shackleton intensely (he refers to him as “a moody vacillating boaster”).  A young Kevin Whately has a decent role as Adams.  There’s a nicely observed sense of desperation as the months tick by – they may have started sprightly enough (with plenty of supplies and horses to pull the sledges) but all four would have been well aware that the return trip would be the real test.

By then the horses have passed their usefulness, leaving the men to pull the sledges.  With dwindling supplies there’s a sense of anxiety that the others may have already left.  Will they return to base just to find an empty hut?  The stark beauty of the barren wastes, with Shackleton’s words in voice-over provided by Schofield, make the first half of this episode a memorable one.

Although not directly connected to Shackleton, Scott’s ultimately doomed attempt to reach the South Pole first was a key moment from this era of exploration and closes the second episode on something of a sombre note.

With the South Pole conquered by Amundsen, Shackleton needs a new challenge. He announces that he will mount a Trans-Antarctic Expedition to cover the entire continent – from a landing in the Weddell Sea, via the South Pole to McMurdo Sound.

This journey, which begins in the boat Endurance, is by far the most compelling part of Shackleton’s exploits.  Episode three, Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey, starts with Shackleton’s recruiting drive and shortly afterwards his hand-picked crew (and the odd stowaway) are making good progress after departing from South Georgia.

But it doesn’t take long before the ice pack traps Endurance solid.  It’s an awe-inspiring sight and if Shackleton did go as far over budget as Will Wyatt claims, then it was worth every penny.  Trapped fast in the ice, the crew have to find ways to while away the time (and this they certainly do – with a variety of light-hearted jinks, including dog racing and a spot of cross-dressing).

When the Endurance is lost, Shackleton and the others are left stranded on a large ice floe which they hope might drift towards civilisation.  Even in such a desperate situation, Shackleton continues to be an inspired leader and David Schofield continues to impress in the title role.

The desperate plight of Shackleton and his men continues during the fourth and final episode, Cape Horn – Or South Georgia?  It covers an especially memorable part of the Shackleton story – which begins with a hellish 800 mile journey made by himself and five others in the open-lifeboat James Caird.  But when they reach their destination – South Georgia – that’s not the end of the story as Shackleton and several others have to make a land crossing over the island (through previously unchartered territory) in order to reach the Norwegian whaling stations and safety.

With the stakes so high – if Shackleton doesn’t succeed then the rest of his crew – (stranded on Elephant Island) – are sure to die, Cape Horn – Or South Georgia? engages the attention right from the start.  It’s a suitably dramatic conclusion to the series, leaving the fate of the men stranded on Elephant Island unresolved until right before the end.

The series is split between Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations and his life back in the UK. The first instalment has the least Antarctic footage (it tops and tails the episode) but the scenes in Britain are integral to understanding Shackleton the man, so they shouldn’t be regarded as mere filler.

Not only do they document his relationship with his wife (with hints that his restless spirit has placed a burden on their marriage) but his clashes with the establishment are also key to understanding his character. And it doesn’t hurt that the establishment is represented by character actors as good as Geoffrey Chater, Robert James and Anthony Bate – all of whom excelled at playing precisely these types of stuffy, patrician mandarins.

The contrast between Shackleton’s comfortable life in Britain and the hardships endured by himself and the others in the Antarctic is teased out in several unspoken ways. Firstly, the members of the Royal Geographical Society are shown to be frequently dismissive of Shackleton – even going so far as to suggest (not to his face, at least) – that his claims of nearly reaching the South Pole were exaggerated.  How can they, stuck in their comfortable existence, even begin to understand the hazards and joys of Antarctic exploration?  And when we see Shackleton on his lecture tours, it again highlights how his audience (smartly dressed, affluent) live in a totally different world from the one he’s describing so vividly.

One of the ways you know if a real-life drama or documentary has engaged your attention is if it inspires you to seek out more information about the subject. That’s certainly the case for me here, as I get the feeling that – even with four hours to play with – the surface of Ernest Shackleton had only been scratched.  David Schofield deftly brings to life all of his key characteristics though – his anti-authoritarian streak, the way he inspired trust and loyalty amongst his crew, etc – and the fact that Shackleton’s words, via Schofield’s voice-overs, are heard throughout the four episodes also helps to bring us closer to the man.

Shot on 16mm film, it’s a pity that the print looks rather tired-looking and faded in places. Restoration or a new print struck from the negative would have been welcome, but – as so often with niche archive releases – had this been done then it’s doubtful the title would have been economically viable.  What we have is certainly watchable though – and no worse than other material of the same vintage – so once the story begins to grip, it shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Classed as a drama-documentary, Shackleton is much more drama than documentary. Although we hear a voice-over at key points, since they’re Shackleton’s words (delivered by Schofield) it doesn’t break the drama feel of the programme.

Shackleton is an engrossing tale of old-fashioned heroism and friendship. David Schofield excels as Shackleton, but in many ways the real star is the unforgiving, forbidding Antarctic (there’s no doubt that without the Greenland material it would  be much the poorer).  A quality production, it grips from beginning to end.  Warmly recommended.

Shackleton consists of four 60 minute episodes across two discs.  It’s released by Simply Media on the 13th of March 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Shadow of the Noose – Simply Media DVD Review


Sir Edward Marshall Hall (1858 – 1927) was a barrister in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras who, thanks to the media, became a well-known public figure.  The most notorious court cases of the time – especially high profile murders – were reported in great detail by the newspapers, which meant that the exploits of Marshall Hall were keenly followed by millions of armchair criminologists.

Marshall Hall’s cases have been adapted for both radio and television.  In 1996, John Mortimer presented a six-part BBC Radio 4 series starring Tom Baker.  Prior to this, in 1989, came Shadow of the Noose, with Jonathan Hyde as Edward Marshall Hall, which ran for a single season on BBC2.  All of its eight episodes are contained within this double DVD release.

Jonathan Hyde (b. 1948 in Brisbane, Australia) moved to Britain in the late 1960’s and graduated from RADA in 1972, winning the Bancroft Gold Medal.  His television career began in the late 1970’s with appearances in programmes like The Professionals, Thomas and Sarah and Agony.  Post Shadow of the Noose he continued to ply his trade in British television, in diverse series such as Lovejoy, Jackanory, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Peak Practice and Cadfael, before his profile was raised thanks to a string of Hollywood movies – Richie Rich, Jumanji, Titanic and The Mummy.

Appearing alongside Hyde in all eight episodes was Michael Feast as Edgar Bowker, Marshall Hall’s faithful assistant, whilst a host of quality actors made one-off appearances.  These include Peter Capaldi, David Bradley, Caroline Quentin, Gawn Grainger, Robert James, Sian Phillips, John Bird, David Schofield, Tony Doyle, David Rintoul, Alan MacNaughton, Michael Melia, Phil Rose, Philip Franks, Morris Perry, Derek Newark, David Graham, Tim McInnerny and Kevin Stoney.  An impressive roll call.

The series debuted with An Alien Shore (tx 1st March 1989).  Defending a prostitute discovered with one of her client’s bodies in a trunk seems like a hopeless case.  Everybody has already decided that she’s guilty, which explains why no barrister in London will take the case.  No-one, except Edward Marshall Hall.

Shadow of the Noose
Jonathan Hyde

We have to wait some eighteen minutes before sighting Hyde, but as soon as Marshall Hall is introduced the series wastes no time in deftly defining his character.  Newton (Terry Taplin), the solicitor representing the accused, Marie Hermann (Victoria Fairbrother), admits that it’s likely she’s going to hang, but tries to tempt Marshall Hall with the promise of fame (the trial is bound to be widely reported, so the defending barrister – even if he’s unsuccessful – will become a household name). He’s uninterested in fame, but is pained that Marie has no-one to defend her, and that’s why he takes the case.

When the focus switches to the courtroom then An Alien Shore, like the remainder of the series, really comes alive.  Marshall Hall thrives in this combative environment, becoming remorseless and implacable. An excellent example of this is the grilling he gives the murdered man’s son, Henry Stephens (Michael Melia).  Hyde excels whenever Marshall Hall is in cross-examining mode.

Despite the series title, not every case was a battle to save unfortunates from the gallows – for example, Noblesse Oblige finds Marshall Hall involved in a libel case. Lady Scott (Siân Phillips) alleged that her son-in-law’s marriage to her daughter foundered due to his homosexual tendencies. After a period of illness, Marshall Hall is desperate for any case to restore his fortunes, although this one is something of a comedown (and he’s not even the leading barrister).

Phillips is as good as you’d expect and the appearance of John Bird as Mr Justice Hawkins is another treat.  This episode also introduces Leslee Udwin as Henriette Kroeger, who will shortly become Mrs Marshall Hall. John Leeson, sporting an impressive false beard, pops up as a private detective.

Shadow of the Noose
Leslee Udwin

Gone for a Soldier opens with Marshall Hall’s marriage to Henriette. This was either a whirlwind romance or a great deal of their courtship took place off screen (the latter I assume). David Rintoul guests as Captain James Fairbrother, a rich and privileged military man who had a brief but disastrous relationship with his wife’s maid, Annie Dyer (Natalie Forbes). Annie’s child, born out of wedlock, is found smothered, with Annie apparently confessing to the crime. Marshall Hall springs to her defence.

It’s a strong episode in which Forbes is compelling as an unmarried mother struggling to survive in a harsh world.  Particularly affecting is the short scene down in the cells mid-trial, where Annie cradles a bundle of rags, pretending that it’s her dead child.  The case also shines a light on Marshall Hall’s character, especially his tragic first marriage.

Another first rate guest cast – Caroline Quentin, Gawn Grainger, Tony Doyle, Morris Perry, Derek Newark – are assembled for Beside the Seaside.  This week, Marshall Hall is called upon to defend Herbert Bennett (Vincent Riotta) who is accused of killing his wife Mary (Quentin).  He’s a womanizer, a conman and a spy, but is he guilty of murder?

The opening few minutes of Gun in Hand are played at an extreme pitch of melodrama, not previously seen in the series.  Edward Lawrence (David Bradley) and his mistress, Ruth Hadley (Nicola Duffett), are engaged in a violent argument.  As Ruth taunts and attacks him (a wonderfully blowsy performance by Duffett), Lawrence rushes off to find a gun, whilst the poor downtrodden maid cowers in the corridor.  A few minutes later several shots are fired and we see Lawrence cradling the dying woman in his arms.

Lawrence, a big wheel in Wolverhampton, has many influential friends – including the Mayor – so he can call upon the best, such as Marshall Hall.  Bradley has several stand-out scenes, especially before the trial where Lawrence is briefly reunited with his wife (devotees of Survivors will  be pleased to see Julie Neubert as Mrs Lawrence).  This episode has a generous amount of courtroom action, featuring Marshall Hall in full theatrical flight.  It’s easy to see why John Mortimer admired him so, and it’s clear that he borrowed certain character traits for his most famous creation, Horace Rumpole.  Both loved to bait judges and Marshall Hall’s final speech to the jury here is pure Rumpole ….

Turn Again offers a change of pace, as Marshall Hall becomes the centre of the story.  After winning a libel case for an actress against the Daily Mail, he finds himself targeted by the paper.  He declared that his client’s reputation deserved the same degree of consideration as any lady in the land, including that of Mrs Alfred Harmsworth (the wife of the Daily Mail’s proprietor).

Shadow of the Noose
David Schofield

Alfred Harmsworth (David Schofield) doesn’t take kindly to this and vows to break Marshall Hall.  Another excellent cast (Alan McNaughton, Kevin Stoney, Philip Franks, David Neal, amongst others) enhance an absorbing episode which raises some interesting points about the power of the press (which are as relevant today as they were then).  Because Marshall Hall refuses to apologise to Harmsworth he has to sit and watch the entire press pack wage an intensive vendetta against him. Hyde really hits a peak here as an embattled Marshall Hall finds himself under extreme pressure.

Next up is one of his most famous cases, The Camden Town Murder.  Peter Capaldi plays Robert Wood, tried for the murder of a prostitute called Emily Dimmock.

The opening drags a little, probably because Wood is not a terribly likeable or sympathetic character, but once Marshall Hall gets involved the pace picks up. The trial – with a typically barnstorming performance from Marshall Hall – is a memorable one (the noise from the public gallery helps to ramp up the tension) whilst the legendary David Graham, as Mr Justice Grantham, is the latest familiar face to sit in judgement.

The series concluded with Sentence of Death.  Marshall Hall’s latest client is one of the most infamous murderers of the early twentieth century – Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen (David Hatton).

Hatton makes an impression, with limited screentime, as the diffident Crippen, whilst Marshall Hall’s recreation of the night of Mrs Crippen’s death is easily the standout moment.  But there are a few problems with the episode – firstly, most people will be well aware of Crippen’s fate and secondly, Marshall Hall’s involvement with Crippen turns out to be fairly negligible (uniquely, this is the only episode which doesn’t feature a setpiece courtroom scene).   Having said that, it still poses some interesting questions – had Crippen accepted Marshall Hall’s instructions, would he have hung?  It’s more than likely that Crippen may have ended up guilty of manslaughter only and therefore would have served a relatively short prison term.

By the late eighties, although an increasing amount of drama was being shot on film, videotape was still also widely in use.  Shadow of the Noose was shot entirely on VT, although the production was far from straightforward. An asbestos scare at BBC Television Centre meant that the studios were put out of action and the series was forced to relocate to a warehouse in Bristol. But not shooting in a dedicated studio certainly gave Shadow of the Noose a different feel – for example, the lighting feels more natural. The move may have been bourne out of necessity, but it ended up working in the series’ favour.

It’s a pity that the timeline between each episode is rather vague.  In real terms, the cases we see in the series took place over a period of a decade or more, but there’s never any feeling that time has passed.  And although we see his first marriage in flashback and are present for his second, Marshall Hall’s off-duty life isn’t really touched upon.

These small niggles apart, there’s little to fault across all the eight episodes.  Shadow of the Noose is a consistently strong series, powered by Jonathan Hyde’s electric performance.  His Marshall Hall is a pure showman – delighting in taunting judges and wooing juries – whilst the uniformly excellent guest casts help to bring the stories to life.  A wonderful series which I’m delighted to finally see released on DVD.

Shadow of the Noose is released by Simply Media on the 20th of February 2017.  RRP £24.99.

Shadow of the Noose
Terry Taplin, Jonathan Hyde and Michael Feast