The Champions – The Fanatics

c1

The world has been rocked by a wave of political assinations. A mysterious organisation known as The Fanatics are responsible and Richard – masquerading as a killer called Richard Carson (David Burke) – infiltrates the group.

Matters are complicated when the real Carson escapes from prison. And then it’s discovered that the Fanatics will be targeting Tremayne next …

Today it’s Richard who steps up to the front. The episode gives William Gaunt a good opportunity to do some acting – to begin with there’s a fine two-hander between him and Donald Pickering (as Colonel Banks). Banks is the army officer responsible for detaining Carson in a military prison – he has little time for Carson and it seems even less for Richard.

Now posing as Carson, Richard is rescued by the Fanatics. It’s done in a very blood-thirsty way (the handful of military police officers travelling with him are either killed or badly injured). This is a slightly jarring moment, but it does reinforce the notion that the Fanatics do mean business.

Colonel Banks later gets to confront Craig and Sharron. He wonders if they have the deaths of the military policeman on their conscience. Craig angrily replies that “in our job justification and conscience are luxuries that we can’t afford”.  This feels a little more of a real-world monent than we often see in the series.

Gerald Harper (Croft) and Julian Glover (Anderson) are amongst the top actors enriching today’s episode. Croft is the boss of the Fanatics whilst Anderson (sporting a natty moustache) is his number two.  Harper is icily effective as the implacable Croft. Glover doesn’t get a great deal to do, alas.

Richard suffers a bloodless long-distance spot of torture, designed to establish if he really is Carson. Odd that Croft wasn’t in the room with him, surely the scene would have a little more punch if Gaunt and Harper had been able to make eye contact. But no matter, things are redeemed by a later scene where Richard and Croft face off. It’s wonderfully tense, with both actors impressing.

Given that It’s a Terry Nation script you might have expected a bit more of a science fiction feel (or indeed a character called Tarrant). Instead we get a fairly straightforward script which doesn’t really utilise the Champions’ powers.

And after the action-packed pre credits sequence, the episode does becalm into a rather talky run-around. But it’s by no means all bad, mainly thanks to Gaunt and Harper, and things do pick up towards the end.

It’s amusing and eye-opening to see how both Richard and Craig squabble to take the attractive female assassin into custody at the conclusion of the episode. Craig is the lucky one, with Richard muttering that his friend will be well capable of handling her (a line simply dripping with innuendo).

Slightly patchy, but I’ll still give The Fanatics four out of five.

c2

The Champions – The Experiment

c4

Each episode of The Champions opens with the Nemesis map – the camera zooming into the area where the story is set. Which exotic location will we be in today? Ah, Wiltshire ….

At least it means that Wiltshire will look something like Wiltshire, even if the pre-credits sequence has a particularly poor example of day for night filming (the filter can do little to disguise the bright blue sky).

There’s a deliberate nod back to the opening of The Beginning. A research establishment is targeted by a mysterious figure dressed in black – but it’s not one of our heroes. And in an interesting twist he seems to possess the same sort of super-powers they do. That’s a more than intriguing hook, which teeters into Department S territory when the man is later discovered inside the base, but now with the mind of a two year old.

This is a story packed with good actors, some of whom only appear fleetingly. Such as Philip Bond, who pops up in the first few minutes as one of the officers guarding the base. Nicholas Courtney has the small role of Doctor Farley whilst Robert James doesn’t even make the end credits.

Like The Interrogation, this story features a rather shifty Treymayne – he sends Sharron to England on an assignment, but tells Richard and Craig that she’s gone away on holiday.

She’s met by Major Cranmore (Allan Cuthbertson) who claims to work for DI6. Cuthbertson is – of course – excellent value as the smooth-talking Cranmore who clearly knows a great deal more than he’s telling. Sharron winds up at a country house stuffed with supermen and superwomen, run by Doctor Glynd (David Bauer).

Trapped with the rather creepy Dr Glynd and forced into taking tests against his crop of super-humans (including Caroline Blakiston as Marion Grant) Sharron gets to handle most of the action today. The first demonstration we see of Glynd’s super-people is their ability to play a mean game of ping pong. Not a very useful trait.

Bastedo and Blakiston then change into gleaming white sport kits as the tests begin. Sigh ….

These’s something a little disturbing about the way that Dr Glynd treats Sharron like a laboratory rat. Indeed, the whole tone of the episode is unsettling – as we don’t know why Glynd is doing what he’s doing until we get towards the end.

The reveal is quite a neat twist, but it does beg one question – how has Glynd been able to discover that Sharron, Richard and Craig are more than human whilst Tremayne remains clueless? Also, the way we discover Tremayne has been a hapless dupe rather than a manipulative puppet master is another mark against his ability as Nemesis’ boss.

Craig and Richard get a late fight scene. It’s good fun to watch them both briefly slug it out with Marion. Not the most convincing spot of fisticuffs ever.

For putting Alexandra Bastedo right in the thick of things, the excellent guest cast, the strong script by Tony Williamson and the downbeat final scene, I can’t give this one any less than four and a half out of five.

c5

The Champions – The Iron Man

El Caudillo (George Murcell) is the autocratic former leader of La Revada (got to love those fictious ITC South American states). A vain womaniser, he’s been exiled to the Costa Brava, but his life is still in danger. Posing as hired helps, the Champions do their best to keep him alive …

We open in La Revada (really Borehamwood of course, shot day-for-night and with a few exotic ferns dotted about). A cabal of movers and shakers are plotting the death of El Caudillo.

Post opening credits, the Champions are fleecing a casino at roulette – although eventually Sharron comes unstuck. Which is just as well, since cheating with their special powers just isn’t cricket.

El Caudillo might be a fairly hopeless type, but compared to the current regime ruling La Revada (a ruthless military junta) he doesn’t seem all that bad. As so often with politics, it’s a choice between bad and worse.

Our three heroes are all given their undercover assignments. Sharron will be El Caudillo’s secretary, Richard is crestfallen to discover he’s the cook (nice spot of playing from Gaunt here) whilst Craig has the plumb job of bodyguard (Damon deadpans delightfully as Craig wonders if he’s supposed to guard against Richard’s cooking!)

Togged out in a gleaming white chef’s outfit, William Gaunt is in his comic elemenr today. I love Richard’s ever growing enthusiasm as he begins to really relish his role. 

The military junta have developed some whacky plans to kill off El Caudillo. Deadly cigars for example, which contain an incurable poison. This seems a bit far-fetched, but then you remember real-life gadgets such as the poisoned umbrella ….

George Murcell is excellent value. El Caudillo is largely played for laughs (he’s shown to have the mentality of a small child who hates to lose at anyrhing) but there’s also the lingering sense that his capricious nature has a darker side. Patrick Magee is solid as Pedraza, El Caudillo’s right hand man, although it’s a role lacking in flamboyance.  

But it’s interesting the way that Pedraza skulks about, looking guilty. Is he in league with the junta? It seems not, as nothing’s mentioned about this at the end of the episode, but I wonder if this was a spot of subtle scripting, sowing a seed of doubt about El Caudillo’s long term future.

We’ve already seen that El Caudillo loves to chase women (his maid tends to end up hiding in cupboards) so the anticipation has been stoked for the first meeting between him and Sharron. It doesn’t disappoint – she flashes a bit of leg and looks on adorably as he demonstrates just how many press ups he can do.

The Iron Man has some lovely character interactions between the Champions and El Caudillo. His whispered suggestion to Sharron meets with a stern rebuke from her, which makes it easy to guess exactly what it was he was asking.

And the way he throws away Richard’s immaculately prepared food is like a dagger to the heart of our new chef. Richard takes out his frustrations on some clay pigeons (a pity that the first was suspended by a very noticeable wire).

Even allowing for the themes of assassination and corruption, The Iron Man has a light, comic feel. Gaunt, Damon and Bastedo are all interacting very well and this is one reason why I’ve always enjoyed this one. The Iron Man rates a score of three and a half out of five.

The Champions – The Dark Island

Tony Williamson’s script has something of a Bondian feel. It’s set on a small Pacific island containing a warhead which the ever so slightly mad Max Kellor (Vladek Sheybal) plans to fire at America. His hope is that they will believe the Russians were responsible.

Several familiar faces make brief uncredited appearances. Not only Anthony Ainley and Nick Tate but also stuntmen Alf Joint and Alan Chuntz (both playing native guards).

Today’s post credits sequence sees a very smug Richard and Craig demonstrating that their incredible super powers ensure they’re dab hands around the golf course. But at least they’re only taking money off each other, which is better than fleecing unsuspecting members of the public.

Once we’ve got past that spot of fun and games, our three heroes head out to the island. All previous attempts to find out what’s happening there have met with zero success (and very often death). But the Champions have a plan – Craig and Sharron masquerade as a pair of shipwrecked mariners whilst Richard parachutes down incognito …

Both Craig and Sharron look very cute post faux shipwreck. There’s something very appealing about their ever so slightly wet and disheveled look. Poor Richard gets the rough end of the stick with a canary yellow parachute outfit that doesn’t do him any favours. Thank goodness he soon ditches it.

Richard then gets to demonstrate a new super skill – hypnotism. He also handles quite a bit of the rough stuff, tangling with Kellor’s guards and receiving something of a duffing for his pains. In many ways this is Richard’s episode, he certainly gets the lions share of interesting things to do.

I have to say that the jungle set couldn’t really look any more fake. I’m not quite sure why, but maybe slightly lower lighting may have helped.

Vladek Sheybal is a major plus point in the episode’s favour. If you wanted to cast a villain, then you couldn’t really do much better than him. He delivers every line (even the most innocuous ones) with a delightful dollop of menace. Plus his presence helps to reinforce the Bond feel.

Character interactions aren’t very subtle. In addition to Kellor, Kai Min (Andy Ho) is also present on the island. The clear power behind the throne, the reveal that the Chinese are attempting to start World War III generates a decent advert break cliffhanger. Even if the immediate question is why ….

The Dark Island offers us a rather crude take on international politics, but then The Champions was never really the sort of programme able to tackle weighty issues in any depth. But it does what it does (plenty of action for William Gaunt, a cracking guest turn from Sheybal) very well.

A full blooded romp, this episode is never less than very entertaining and so rates a mark of four out of five.

The Champions – The Search

A group of Nazis infiltrate the Holy Loch naval base in Scotland and hijack a nuclear submarine. They demand a ransom of five million dollars – if not, London will be destroyed. Noted nuclear physicist Dr Rudolf Mueller (Joseph Furst) goes missing at the same time – deciding there must be a connection, the Champions track him down en route to the sub. But is he a helpless victim or a willing collaborator?

It’s stock footage ahoy as we open the episode. Switching between location material shot in London, studio scenes and Scottish stock footage requires a certain amount of belief to be suspended. Oh, and the way those dastardly Germans manage to capture the submarine with embarrassing ease is another of those hmm moments.

John Woodvine and Reginald Marsh are amongst those playing Nazis today. Woodvine’s granite features are ideally suited to this type of humourless role, although it’s slightly harder to believe that Marsh is a rough, tough submarine captain. Mind you, watching him pull stern faces is quite good fun.

Once we get through the lengthy pre-credits sequence (showing the submarine being captured) there’s another of those moments which serves to bring any new audience members up to speed about the incredible super powers our three heroes now possess. This one takes place in a library, with Sharron speed-reading War and Peace

Poor Richard is playing catch up today. He bounds into the office, beaming, to be greeted by the glum faces of Tremayne, Craig and Sharron. Even when he’s told that a submarine with four nuclear warheads has been stolen, his only response is that “these shoplifters, they get everywhere”!

With the submarine now toddling about somewhere in the North Sea (Craig and Sharron are on its trail), the middle part of the episode does rather slow to a crawl. A touch of suspense is generated when the news breaks that Dr Mueller appears to have been kidnapped, but the later reveal that he’s a willing participant (at least to begin with) does pose more questions than it answers.

Since he was a vital part of the plan (without him to arm the warheads, the threat to destroy London would be meaningless) surely it would have sensible for him to be present when the sub was snatched?

Craig seems certain that he knows where the submarine has gone. Is this an example of his special powers or just a hunch? The Champions always had to tread a delicate path in this respect – if the super powers were used too often then there would be no tension, but if they didn’t feature at all then the USP of the programme would feel devalued.

This episode isn’t very tightly plotted. Nemesis has acquired a photofit of Lt. Kruger Haller (Woodvine) and by a remarkable coincidence he just happens to pop into the seaman’s drinking haunt which Sharron and Craig are staking out. Of course, had anyone else from the sub popped ashore then our heroes would have been none the wiser.

It’s nice to see Craig and Sharron teamed up for once. And by the way she lays a friendly arm around his shoulders, they seem to be getting on very well.

Going back to plot oddities … when Craig gets shot, why does Richard (miles away in London) feel a twinge instead of Sharron, who’s much closer? Ah well, at least this scene gives as an opportunity to see Tremayne in his dressing gown.

A pity that Joseph Furst doesn’t get a little more to do (Dr Mueller is a very lightly drawn character). But on the plus side, our three regulars all get a good crack of the whip (by this point, they’re bouncing off each other rather delightfully). Watchable, but not edge of the seat stuff,  The Search rates two and a half out of five.

The Champions – The Interrogation

Returning from a mission in Hong Kong, Craig is captured and subjected to a brutal cross examination. Pushed to the limit by a nameless interrogator (played by Colin Blakely) and pumped full of drugs, his grip on reality begins to falter ….

Television of this era loved a clip show (not least for the fact it helped to balance the books). Although it was one of the last episodes to be broadcast, it’s fifth in Network’s DVD release, suggesting it was one of the first to be filmed.

In story terms this makes sense of the late reveal – the whole interrogation is a charade arranged by Tremayne, who is worried that Craig’s recent missions have been just too perfect (triggering fears that he might be a double agent). A theme of these early stories is Tremayne’s puzzlement about how our three heroes manage to pull off such tremendous successes time after time – although these moments have, until now, been handled lightly.

The recycling of clips from the first few stories might have tried the audience’s patience had this episode been transmitted early on, so that might explain why it was held back.

But holding it back creates another problem (it makes you wonder why Tremayne has waited so long before investigating this issue). Also, his method of obtaining information does seem out of character – up until now he’s been portrayed as a fairly faceless, quite affable sort of chap.

Mind you, the jolting realisation that Tremayne is prepared to go to extreme lengths does work well (any time that a formulaic series manages a swift gear change will always meet with my approval) but the downside is that the anger felt by Craig, Richard and Sharron towards their boss will vanish very quickly.

This type of series – designed to be broadcast and rebroadcast in virtually any order – simply didn’t have the capacity for story arcs or character development. So in the next episode you know that the Champions and Tremayne will once again be the best of friends. The same goes for Craig and Richard, who share a very tense and spiky scene at the end of the episode.

But for today we can savour the sight of a shifty Tremayne, abruptly shutting down Richard and Sharron’s fears that Craig is in danger. At this point we don’t know that he’s simply down the corridor at Nemesis HQ. Hmm, that seems a little odd – surely it would have been better to have stashed him out of the way somewhere?

With Colin Blakely the only guest star and most of the action taking place in a single set, there’s an obvious feeling of claustrophobia. Craig’s prison cell is a wonderfully designed creation with more than a hint of Ken Adams’ James Bond sets. It has a very ominous spider-like feel ….

Colin Blakely was obviously the go-to guy when you needed a brutal interrogator (he’d fufilled the same function in a classic Man in a Suitcase episode). He’s excellent throughout this one and so is Stuart Damon – both of them clearly relishing the opportunities in the script.

It’s interesting to wonder how the story would have played out had either Gaunt or Bastedo taken the lead (an even more intriguing notion would be all three receiving parallel interrogations). Indeed, that’s one obvious story flaw – why has only Craig been selected for this treatment whilst Richard and Sharron have been left alone?

Minor quibbles apart, this is a stand out story for me and rates an almost flawless four and a half out of five.

The Champions – A Case of Lemmings

Three Interpol agents commit suicide in Paris. A strange coincidence or was there outside interference? No surprises that it’s the latter and soon the Champions are heading out to Rome in order to confront Mafia kingpin Del Marco (Edward Brayshaw) …

I do appreciate the spot of local colour we see during the second of the three deaths. This unfortunate Interpol chap is suddenly struck with an uncontrollable urge to jump from a fast-moving train – which he does whilst a baguette-chomping young lady looks on in horror. Nothing says France like a nice baguette.

Once again, The Champions comes up trumps with its guest stars. Edward Brayshaw may forever be associated with Rentaghost but there were plenty of other strings to his bow. For example, I’ve always loved his loopy turn in Moonbase 3, a series which I enjoy with a slightly unhealthy passion.

Brayshaw oozes oily villainy, easily suggesting that underneath Del Marco’s suave exterior something rather nasty lurks. And after spending the last few episodes doing very little, it’s nice to see Sharron back in the thick of the action. After receving a new hairdo she’s sent to seduce Del Marco (this does rather reinforce the notion that Sharron’s prime function is decorative though).

But at least it means that all three regulars are given an equal share of the action. Sharron vamping it up in the casino (where she meets Del Marco) is the highlight for me, although Craig’s entertaining overacting (for a few minutes he’s the dead spit of Jimmy Cagney) is also a wonder to behold.

Del Marco invites Sharron back to his apartment for a spot of champagne and …. well you know.  But their canoodling is interrupted by Craig lurking outside (this is all part of their masterplan). Our heroes reason that if one of them can upset Del Marco, he’ll unleash his suicide trick on them.

I can see one or two flaws here. What happens if Del Marco decides that a bullet would be quicker? You also have to question the wisdom of Del Marco using his suicide drug on so many people ….

Richard doesn’t get much of a comedy turn this time round, but he does get to indulge in a spot of investigative questioning. Indeed all three do this early in the episode, which gives the impression that the episode could have slotted quite easily into a number of other ITC series. 

John Bailey, as Umberto, adds a little touch of class even if his Italian accent (like Brayshaw’s) isn’t the most convincing you’ll ever hear.

Del Marco is an unforgiving boss. After Craig fails to succumb to the suicide drug, the Don has no compunction in killing Umberto (its creator). That seems a tad harsh given all the good work Umberto had done for him. Still, it means that Umberto’s dying act proves to Del Marco in a rather permanent way that the drugs still work. I love a bit of poetic justice.

Is it just me, or does the backlot used for Paris look very much like the Rome one? I know they were the same, but surely a spot of redressing could have made this less obvious.

A Case of Lemmings isn’t the most complex of episodes, but it slips by quite agreeably and is worth a score of three out of five.

The Champions – Operation Deep-Freeze

Reports of a mysterious explosion in Antarctica have reached Nemesis. Several scientists from the nearby Scott Base sent to investigate have failed to report back. When Craig and Richard arrive they discover that the scientists have been murdered and also run across General Gomez (Patrick Wymark), the despotic ruler of a small Central American state.

He’s established a secret Antarctic base stocked with atomic weapons and plans to establish his country as a great power on the world stage, unless Craig and Richard can somehow stop him ….

Operation Deep-Freeze is another episode enlivened by a first rate guest star.  I assume most visitors to this blog will be familiar with both The Plane Makers and The Power Game (if not then you should check them out straight away).  Wymark bestrides both series as the amoral businessman John Wilder, giving a performance which has provided me with many hours of entertainment.

He also seems to be enjoying himself today – Gomez is hardly a three dimensional character, but Wymark was always a very watchable actor and his full-throttle turn is certainly a memorable one. Subtle no, memorable yes.

It’s very much a boy’s own adventure today as Richard and Craig get to handle all the action. I like the playful banter during their briefing with Treymayne (Richard promises to bring him back a penguin). It’s little moments like these which ensures their characters are slightly less cardboard than they otherwise might be.

Lashings of stock footage and some fairly effective studio work helps to create the illusion that we’re in Antarctica. Craig, Richard and Hemmings (Robert Urqhart) set out across the frozen wastelands, unaware – to begin with – that Jost (Walter Gotell) is stalking them.

It’s strange that Craig suddenly becomes realises they’re being followed whilst Richard remains ignorant. An example that all three Champions have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their powers, or a simple plot contrivance?

Robert Urquhart gives a nice performance as Hemmings (you get the sense that he’s not going to make it to the final reel). Walter Gotell made a career out of playing menacing types (well, apart from Softly Softly Task Force) and he’s typically good value in a fairly nothing role. The strength in depth of the cast is highlighted by the fact that George Pastell, no stranger to playing memorable villians himself, only has the briefest of brief roles.

The story picks up momentum in the last ten minutes or so after Craig and Richard are captured by Gomez. Before this happens, the boys stumble across the General’s stash of atomic weapons and decide it would be a good idea to set a timer and detonate them all. Yes, okay. I’m no expert, but I don’t think this will do the local environment any good.

Forty minutes in and we finally see Sharron. Hurrah! Stuck in Nemesis HQ, she suddenly gets a mental image that Richard and Craig are in danger.Treymane isn’t buying it – he doesn’t quite pat her on the head and tell her not to be so silly, but it’s not too far removed from that.

Her sole scene isn’t really necessary as the plot could easily have moved on without her interjection. Possibly it was decided that Sharron had to be present somehow and this brief scene was the best they could come up with.

For the way that Richard and Craig have started to function as a wise-cracking double act, not to mention Patrick Wymark’s scenery chewing performance, I’ll give this episode four out of five.

The Champions – The Invisible Man

An amoral medico called John Hallam (Peter Wyngarde) has devised an ingenious plan to make himself a very rich man – he’s created a small device (the “invisible man” of the title) which when placed in someone’s ear can be used to relay instructions (and cause extreme pain).  Hallam uses it to force Sir Frederick Howard (Basil Dingham) to steal ten million pounds worth of gold bullion from the Bank of England.

Nemesis are on the trail, but bringing Hallam to justice won’t be easy – especially once Craig finds himself under the control of his own “invisible man” ….

The Invisible Man has a tip top guest star – Peter Wyngarde – which is a definite plus point in its favour. He’s not the dandy of the later Jason King years though – to begin with he’s smartly togged out in a three piece suit (he gets more causal later on). Wyngarde’s icily calm line delivery and stillness is very effective.

Screenwriter Donald James penned eight episodes of The Champions as well as various other ITC series including The Saint, Department S, The Protectors and The Adventurer. His list of writing credits (he was active between 1963 and 1981) tended to lean quite heavily towards the adventure series market, but he also wrote for Emergency Ward 10 and General Hospital.

You have to say that Hallam likes to make things complicated – melting down such a large stash of gold is a big job (couldn’t he have got Hallam to steal some diamonds instead?). Ah well, best not to worry about plot logic too much.

Sir Frederick has the pre-credits sequence to himself, but it’s not long before we clap eyes on Craig and Richard. Both are working out in the gym, when a muscle man (played by the instantly recognisable Dave Prowse) pops in and begins to preen himself. In response, Craig can’t help but show off a little. This rather makes a mockery of the fact they’re supposed to be keeping their super powers secret.

This is a Craig-centric episode, although Sharron and Richard do appear from time to time. It does mean that I’m feeling a little Alexandra Bastedo deprived today – especially since it would be easy to imagine Sharron going undercover as a nurse at Hallam’s private clinic. A missed opportunity ….

Craig gets a chance to use his super powers when – after escaping from Hallam’s clutches – he dives into a lake and holds his breath underwater for several minutes (thereby managing to convince Hallam that he’s dead). A pity he didn’t think about doing that when Hallam gassed him earlier in the episode. These super powers, they tend to come and go.

Hallam remains a rather nebulous character. We never really learn too much about him – why he wants to steal a fortune in gold, for example. Presumably we’re just supposed to accept that he does so because he’s a baddy and that’s what baddies do.

He’s given a sidekick – Charles (James Culliford) – who mainly exists as a line feed. But there’s an interesting moment when an irate Hallam slaps Charles quite hard. Knowledge of some of Wyngarde’s other roles gives the scene a faint homoerotic subtext. Hallam later tells Charles to use the vibrator on Craig, but luckily this is all quite family friendly.

Wyngarde’s performance helps to make both the character of Hallam and the episode in general a little more compelling than it otherwise would have been. Adding on an extra 0.5 for Peter Wyngarde, I’ll give The Invisible Man an above average score of three and a half out of five.

 

The Champions – The Beginning

The Champions rolled off the ITC production line in the late sixties (although it had been sitting on the shelf for a little while). It’s hard not to draw a comparison between it and Department S –  which also featured a team of two men (one an American) and a single woman – although the difference here is that none of our heroes have the flamboyance of a Jason King.

Craig Stirling, Sharron Macready and Richard Barrett are all agents in the employ of Nemesis, a United Nations law enforcement organisation based in Geneva. They seem an oddly mismatched trio in some ways, but that’s the world of ITC for you …

William Gaunt proved in Sergeant Cork that he had a flair for comedy, and as the series progresses sometime he gets little moments to demonstrate that skill once more (the same goes for Stuart Damon, who can deadpan very nicely). Alexandra Bastedo, as the token female, tends to get pushed into the background as the boys usually handle the more exciting rough stuff. We’ll keep an eye on that as the series progresses.

Despite the long working days, by all accounts it was a happy production with no clashes of egos between the leads. It’s always been a series that I’ve enjoyed revisiting, so let’s go back to the start once more with the aptly named The Beginning.

We open in China (although it’s more likely to have been Borehamwood). Our old friend – day for night filming – is in operation as our intrepid heroes (dressed in black and with camouflaged faces) wait outside a sinister looking research base. Why is Sharron the only one wearing a hat? These are the sort of questions which flit through my mind as Richard and Sharron, once they’ve snuck inside, very slowly extract a few bugs from a glass case.

All seems well, but then they’re rumbled. Cue plenty of Chinese extras running about with guns and the soundtrack going into bongo overload. One plus point about these scenes is that there’s no British actors yellowing up as Chinese (something which happened a lot during the sixties and seventies). The familiar face of Anthony Chinn is seen – albeit uncredited – as the guard commander.

There’s a wonderfully unconvincing bit of back projection as Richard, Sharron and Craig drive a jeep rather rapidly back to their waiting plane. The model plane also doesn’t quite convince, but you have to accept this sort of thing – ITC might have had decent budgets (they were still shooting on 35mm at this time) but buying a full-sized plane was clearly beyond them.

Craig – an ace pilot – gets them off the ground but they’ve sustained damage from the barrage of shots fired at them by the irate guards, so it doesn’t look like they’re going to be up in the air for long. Sharron goes to pieces immediately (wailing that they’re going to crash).

A pity (but maybe not surprising) that it’s the female who cracks first. Although there’s a spot of dialogue later on explaining that this is Sharron’s first mission, which makes her reaction a little more understandable.

The plane crash-lands in the Himalayas, meaning we end up in an icy, studio-bound wilderness complete with lashings of fake snow.  Felix Aylmer pops up in a dressing gown (clearly his character doesn’t feel the cold) to assist the wounded trio.

This part of the story isn’t explained in any depth but you can fill in the blanks – a super civilisation patches up Craig, Richard and Sharron, giving them super powers in the process (well it would be rude not to).

Sharron and Craig decide to head off home (strolling through the snow as if they were simply out for a Sunday walk). Let’s be generous and say that post-op they now have considerably more endurance than they used to. Richard decides to remain, in order to find the mysterious city, but comes to the aid of his friends after they get captured.

Burt Kwouk (hurrah!) plays the implacable officer tasked with tracking them down. He might be good, but he’s no match for the Champions – especially after they learn to use their super powers.

This opening episode may be fairly simplistic in plot terms, but it does the job. We need to get to know our regulars and we also have to learn about the changes they’ve undergone. Dennis Spooner delivers this to us, the only downside being that there’s little for the guest cast to do (apart from Felix Aylmer, who shares a fine scene with William Gaunt).

The action’s fairly comic book stuff, although having said that it’s jarring to see Craig machine gun half a dozen or so Chinese extras. Once you’ve seen the episode, if you have the Network set don’t forget to switch on the commentary track with Damon, Gaunt and Bastedo – it’s a really fun listen.

I’ll give this episode a solid three out of five.

Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

kin

Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Gold Salesman

gold

Eli Klein (Derek Francis) is a moneylender who’s not averse to turning a tidy profit wherever and whenever he can.  So the arrival of a mysterious stranger (who we later learn is called Carlyon) intrigues him, especially when Carlyon offers to sell him gold at well below the market price.  This seems far too good to be true, so Klein makes his way to Cork to ask for his assistance.  But Cork knows and distrusts Klein of old – why has he approached him?

Cork continues to explore methods of categorising felons.  He offers Bob an apple and then tells him that teeth marks, like fingerprints, are a good way of making an identification. Although how many people leave teeth marks at a crime scene is open to question!

Derek Francis’ first screen credit was in 1958 – when he was thirty-five – but whilst he may have been a fairly late starter (although he’d enjoyed a healthy stage career prior to this) he racked up an impressive list of both film and television credits during the next twenty five years or so (he died in 1984, aged 60).  Francis was equally adept at playing both comedy and drama (one of my favourites was his turn as Nero in the Doctor Who story The Romans in 1965).  Klein is also something of a comic character, although Cork does slightly disprove of him (as a moneylender, he’s driven desperate people to suicide).  It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Francis plays Klein as very broadly Jewish – the cliche that moneylenders must be Jewish is a well established one, a pity that Julian Bond’s script adheres to this stereotype.

John Woodvine (Carlyon) is an actor with considerable presence.  His film and television career (like Francis’) started in 1958, although Woodvine continues to act today (his most recent credit was 2015).  Some of his more memorable appearances include New Scotland Yard, The Tripods, Edge of Darkness and Knights of God.  His role in this story is small, but memorable.

The Case of the Gold Salesman is a Cork episode with a definite comedic edge.  Cork’s plan to catch the conmen includes leasing a house and posing as an interested buyer.  No surprises that Inspector Bird becomes positively apoplectic when he learns about this – the extra expense of a servant’s uniform for Bob and a nice smoking jacket for Cork doesn’t help either!

Julian Bond’s script takes its time to put all the pieces into place.  Cork’s masquerade as the gold buyer only takes place during the last fifteen minutes, so prior to that we’ve ambled through a number of (admittedly quite entertaining) character scenes – Klein and Cork, Bird and Marriott etc.  The meeting between Bird and Marriott is noteworthy, as Bob finally receives confirmation (much to his relief) that his probationary period is over and he’s now a fully fledged detective.

But all this preamble is worth it to see Cork relaxing in his smoking jacket, being attended to by his faithful servant Bob.  The scene between Cork and the bewitching gold agent Tamara Andreyev (Jill Melford) is lovely – for once Cork seems to be slightly on the back foot, probably because alluring females aren’t really his thing.  After he bids her farewell, he mutters to Bob that Henry Irving has got nothing to worry about!

It’s not the most interesting of cases (the fake gold scam is dealt with very perfunctorily) but the character interaction between the regulars and the guest cast more than makes up for this.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of Ella Barnes

ella

At first, the death of Ella Barnes looks like a simple case of drowning – but Mrs Sinkins (Wynne Clark) isn’t convinced.  She’s a member of the women’s protective league and had persuaded Ella to give evidence at a House of Lords enquiry into sweated labour.  Could the girl have been murdered to prevent her from attending?  Cork and Marriott venture into the slums of the East End to find out the truth.

Ella had worked at a sweat shop run by Brandel (Robert Cartland) who tells them that she was the ringleader of a recent strike.  All the other girls were fired and replaced with even cheaper (non English) labour but Brandel, for some reason, chose to take Ella back.

Although Brandel’s workshop is a pretty desperate place, Cork doesn’t rush to condemn him.  “In a way he’s just as much a victim as the people he employs. Brandel and the thousands like him who run these workshops don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. To turn out a cheap product you’ve got to have cheap labour. If you don’t turn out a cheap product you don’t survive.”

The cheapness of life is made clear after Cork speaks to several of Ella’s former work-mates.  One of them, Barbara Ellis (Rosemary Ashford), tells the Sergeant that she’s known several girls who’ve been fished out of the docks, so finds it hard to express sorrow over Ella’s death.  Mrs Brandel (Isa Miranda) later sums up the hopelessness of East End life.  “Work, work, work, for what? To eat, then more work. Maybe she’s more happy where she is. There is not much happiness here.”

Like many of the episodes we’ve already seen, as the victim is dead at the start of the episode Cork and Marriott (as well as the audience) have to build up a picture of them from the testimony of witnesses.  Whether they’re a saint or sinner will be determined from the facts they can uncover.  The news that Ella was four months pregnant, and her husband Alfred Barnes (James Kerry) had been absent for six, could be a vital clue (or it could just be a red herring).

The Case of Ella Barnes, like the earlier episode The Case of the Soldier’s Rifle, has a light dusting of social history (poor working conditions) but once again this is subordinate to the whodunnit part of the story and it’s true that Eric Paice’s script never quite succeeds in developing the misery and desperation of the sweat shops as fully as they could have been.  The guest cast is decent, although there’s a lack of stand-out performances.  But the solution to the mystery is well handled – the identity of the guilty party seems obvious, but things are not always as they seem ……

This is a fairly run of the mill episode then, although it’s enlivened by the usual high-quality production design (designer Anthony Waller creates a series of dock-based workshops in the studio very effectively) and there’s also some nice banter between Cork and Bob.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Public Paragon

paragon 01

Mrs Manley (Yvonne Coulette) returns home to find a mysterious man standing over the body of her husband.  Gerald Manley was a man of some substance (he was a member of parliament) so when it’s discovered that he’s dead it’s no surprise to find Cork is assigned to the case.

The opening scene is pitched at an intense level.  Mrs Manley’s maid Jenny (Natasha Pyne) becomes hysterical after the body is discovered and has to be slapped hard by her mistress.  Had time permitted it would have been a good idea to do a retake – the scene would have played better if the performances had been ratcheted down a little.  The guest appearance of a microphone boom is another problem that a retake could have rectified.

Sir Gervase Walworth (Jack Gwillam) pays Manley a fulsome tribute. “He was a man carved out by destiny for a brilliant career in politics. He was the soul of gentleness, the essence of integrity and the truest friend a man could have. Manley was a paragon.”  Cork doesn’t react to this, but when Walworth tells him that Manley didn’t have any enemies, the Sergeant counters that he hasn’t dismissed the possibility he was killed by a friend!

The nasty underbelly of seemingly respectable Victorian society is the theme of the episode, so it’ll come as no surprise to learn that Manley is not the paragon he’s been painted to be.  Cork and Marriott find a stash of photographs in Manley’s study and Bob reacts strongly to them.  “Those are pretty disgusting. I don’t mind a bit of honest sex but those … they’re enough to turn your stomach. They’re sickening.”

Manley had attempted to take compromising photographs of his maid Jenny (Walworth was also in attendance).  Although Manley’s now dead, Walworth is very much alive and he uses his considerable influence to remove Cork from the case.  Cork, of course, won’t be dissuaded and he continues digging – revealing a web of prostitution that’s linked to some of the most important people in the land.

When Cork confronts Walworth, he attempts to justify his actions.  “These girls, what are they? Street arabs. Bred in ignorance and reared in poverty, they’d jump at the chance to earn money.”  Cork counters that corruption comes from those who offer it.  John Barrie is at his implacable best in this scene.

The Case of the Public Paragon was an early screen credit for Natasha Pyne (she would later be a regular in the popular sitcom Father Dear Father) and despite her youth – she was seventeen at the time the episode was recorded – it’s an impressive performance.  Jack Gwillim had a very decent cv (film appearances included Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for all Seasons) and whilst he’s cursed with rather unconvincing facial hair (something of a continuing problem for the series) he also gives a fine turn.  Sir Gervase Walworth is initially presented to the audience as an honest, upright man (just like his friend Manley).  But as Cork’s investigations continue, it becomes clear that both reveled in the corruption of teenage girls and Walworth ends up a broken man.

The first of eight Cork scripts by Bill Craig, this is a powerful and rather disturbing story.

paragon 02

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Soldier’s Rifle

rifle.jpg

The army are called in to keep the peace during an industrial dispute – but when one of the strikers is shot dead it falls to Cork to investigate.  However, what appears to be a straightforward case turns out to be much more complicated.

Cork is the only man for the job, according to Supt. Nelson.  This irritates Inspector Bird who offers to lead the investigation himself – the way Nelson hurriedly turns down his kind offer is a clear indication that Bird (whilst Cork’s superior in rank) is decidedly his inferior as a police officer!  After Cork leaves, Bird has to grudgingly admit that he’s a decent officer, but believes (as does the audience, no doubt) that his abrasive manner will not go down well with the army bigwigs.  Nelson does give Bird another reason as to why he chose Cork.  Apart from his undoubted investigative qualities, Cork’s public profile continues to rise and his verdict, when reprinted in the newspapers, will carry more weight than most.  It’s another indication that the Sergeant enjoys something of a celebrity status, although it’s not something he trades on.

Like Cork and Marriott, the audience comes to the investigation with no knowledge as to exactly what happened.  Although the episode opens with the strikers confronting the army, when the shot was fired the camera was elsewhere.  Was the murdered man an agitator (as Major Edwards says), in the wrong place at the wrong time or killed for another reason?  Edwards (Basil Henson) makes his position clear from the start.  “The army doesn’t have to give reasons for what it does, it conducts its own investigations and I advise you to leave well alone before you find yourself in trouble. Clear?”  No surprise that Cork isn’t at all intimidated and instead continues to ask questions.

The murdered man, Strong, had been keen to stand up for his rights.  His brother Alf (John Boyd-Bent) makes this point forcibly to Cork and the union leader Ned Fisher (Charles Morgan) agrees (Morgan would become a very familiar face in the later run of the series, he returned for a lengthy spell as Supt Rodway).  The resentment felt between the workers and the management is spelled out by Fisher.  The workers were striking for an extra four-pence a day – and with the fruits of their labours (luxury furniture) being sold for a healthy profit, this seems a reasonable request.

Although Major Edwards and Cork didn’t exactly hit it offer when they first met, they do reach a rapprochement after Cork proves that the private soldier who claimed to have shot Strong couldn’t have done so.  Strong was killed by a revolver bullet, not one fired from a rifle, and the soldier had lied to cover up that he’d lost his rifle in the melee.  So could the factory owner Charles Robinson (Neil Arden) be responsible?  His dislike of Strong was well known and his death certainly seemed to meet with his approval.  If not Robinson, then Cork will have to cast his net even wider – maybe one of Strong’s fellow strikers pulled the trigger?

It’s probably not too surprising that the murderer turned out to be someone close to home – Cork was a fairly traditional series and a straightforward theme of social unrest would have been rather outside the series’ remit.  Instead, we have a reasonably satisfying whodunit with a light dusting of social history (poor working conditions, the army called in to keep the peace, etc).

The Case of Soldier’s Rifle was the second of two scripts by Bill Macllwraith (the first was The Case of the Two Drowned Men).  Interestingly, Macllwraith would later work on another Victorian detective series – Cribb.  Based on the novels by Peter Lovesey, it would be easy to imagine that Lovesey had been influenced by Cork (although he’s never said so).  But for anyone who enjoys Cork, Cribb is also well worth your time.

John Boyd-Bent (Alf) gives a rather broad performance, as does Jane Wenham as Strong’s widow, Ivy.  I wonder if this was more down to Macllwraith’s scripting, since The Case of the Two Drowned Men also had its fair share of histrionics?  The whodunit angle isn’t as satisfying as some of the other episodes, as the characters aren’t as well drawn (so don’t invite our sympathy or interest) but it’s still an amiable enough way to spend fifty minutes.

 

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Sleeping Coachman

coachman

The Case of the Sleeping Coachman opens with Cork attempting to pack his suitcase.  He and Bob are heading down to Wiltshire to investigate a murder, the news of which seems to please Cork’s landlady Mrs Fielding (Carmen Silvera) who tells Bob “that’ll be nice for you. Make a change to do your investigations in the country, won’t it?”  This opening scene serves several purposes – Mrs Fielding’s curiosity about the reason for Cork and Bob’s trip allows them to make a none too subtle info dump but it also shines a rare light on Cork’s off duty life.  We see that he appears to be a hopeless organiser when it comes to simple matters like buying socks (he’s constantly being chivied about such things by the kind-hearted Mrs Fielding).  It’s also characteristic that we see Bob lounging around with his feet up, not concerned in the slightest that Cork is rushing about frantically.

They’ve been sent to investigate the murder of Nellie Bishop, a servant girl in the employ of Sir Henry Melrose (Mark Dingham).  Sir Henry is dismissive of the Scotland Yard men, and his son George (Philip Bond) is even more so.  Bond (father of Samantha) was good at playing disinterested, upper-class types and George is no exception.  His open contempt for Cork and Bob is shown when he insists they use the servant’s entrance (instead of entering through the front door).  Cork, of course, comes in through the front regardless!

Sir Henry is allowed a few minutes for his character to be well established.  He has a complete and unshakable belief in his own authority and this makes it clear that as soon as he and Cork meet, sparks will fly.  When Cork is asked why he didn’t enter through the servant’s entrance he casually mentions that only last month he had the privilege of entering Windsor Castle by the main gates.  It’s an indication that Cork is something of a public figure – earlier on this was confirmed by Lady Melrose (Beatrice Kane) who mentioned that she’d read about several of Cork’s more prominent cases in the newspapers.  When Sir Henry leaves, Inspector Armstrong (John Harvey) makes his feelings known to Cork.  “We’ve been treated as children or usurpers, never as responsible police officers.”

The first meeting between Bob and George is another nicely written and played moment.  At the same time that Cork was upstairs, irritating Sir Henry with his questions, Bob was downstairs in the servant’s hall, enjoying a hearty meal and seeing what facts he could learn from the servants.  When George arrives, bristling with indignation and flourishing a riding crop, he assumes Bob is a friend of one of the servants and asks him, none to politely, to leave.  Bob refuses and George then sees that he’s wearing a Winchester school tie.  It’s the same school that George went to and it staggers him to learn that Bob is a policeman (“on probation” mutters Cork).  The unspoken inference is that the police-force is no job for a gentleman.

After questioning Nellie’s parents and some of the servants, Cork makes an astute observation.  “I’ve got a feeling we’re travelling back into history. Fifty, a hundred miles away, the world is changing so fast you can’t keep pace with it.  Yet here, it’s like a book isn’t it? The lord of the manor, the arrogant son, the peasants on the estate. As though you’d frozen a calendar.”

Cork manages to get under the skin of both George and his sister Victoria (Rosalie Crutchley) to say nothing of the constant irritation he causes Sir Henry.  His relentless enquiries are one of the key pleasures of the episode and everything culminates in a classic drawing room scene as he brings the family together to reveal the murderer.

There’s plenty of good performances to savour – including Philip Bond and Rosalie Crutchley (the incestuous relationship that’s hinted between them is an interesting one to see in a popular drama of this era), John Harvey (sporting an impressive set of whiskers) and Patricia Clapton as Sarah the maid (who Bob takes something of a shine to).  All this, plus another outing for Cork’s special country suit!

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Persistent Assassin

persistent

Prince Frederick of Sileasia (Garfield Morgan) has arrived in London for a three day visit.  Sileasia, a small country bordering Russia, is a potential political hotspot which would be ignited by Frederick’s assassination.  Cork is assigned the task of keeping him alive.

Prince Frederick is strong-willed and initially disdainful that he’s in any danger.  This is a dramatically obvious choice, as an unpredictable subject is much more interesting than a compliant one.  Morgan, a familiar television face (well known for playing Haskins in The Sweeney) gives an icy turn as the Prince.  It’s not the most nuanced of performances but as the episode progresses we do start to peel away the layers of Frederick, the man.

The studio-bound limitations of Cork are more evident in this story than some of the others – the first assassination attempt is a good example of this.  Frederick walks to the window and is lucky to avoid a rifle bullet.  After the shot is fired the camera focuses on nothing for a few seconds before we cut back to the action.  This was always a hazard of multi-camera studio recording – since editing had to be in done in real-time it was easy to miss something.  The small amount of recording time meant that retakes only tended to occur when something went dramatically wrong, so whilst this looks a little clunky it clearly wouldn’t have been judged important enough to merit recording the scene all over again.

At one point Cork mentions that he plans to consult the dynamite section.  Terrorist attacks with dynamite and other explosives weren’t uncommon during this period (see here for some real life examples) and The Case of the Persistent Assassin serves as a painless history lesson.

Frederick tells Cork that he wishes to return to his country and end the division and bloodshed.  Irene Stone (Liane Aukin) who attempted to blow him up with a bomb sees him in quite a different light.  “You butcher! You murdered my three brothers because they tried to speak against you. You put my mother and father in jail. You’ve turned Sileasia into a prison house!”  It’s quite telling that Frederick doesn’t attempt to contradict her – although it’s unlikely he would have recalled Irene’s family, he acknowledges that many innocent people have suffered in the past.  It does pose the question as to whether he’s quite the benefactor he claims to be – this is firmly answered at the conclusion of the story.

With Cork and Bob somewhat pushed into the background, this is one of the lesser episodes of the first series.  The telerecording is notable for a black blob that’s present during most of the episode.  It’s not quite as distracting as the fly that wanders across one of the telerecordings of The Avengers but it comes close.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Slithy Tove

tove.jpg

The death of an ex-villain called Trumble provides Cork with a puzzling mystery to unravel.

Trumble was well known to Cork and the news of his murder is greeted with sadness by the Sergeant.  His attitude is in sharp contrast to Inspector Bird, who views Trumble’s modest house with distaste and asks Dr Stuart (Robert James) “what is a case like this to do with people like us?”  Trumble’s death has caused unrest in the East End and the police are struggling to maintain order.  This also irks Bird.

The arrival of Cork changes things.  Unlike Bird, he’s happy to talk to the unruly crowd and he tells them that Trumble was just as much his friend as he was theirs.  His bluff way does the trick and the crowd disperse – although it’s noticeable that Bird doesn’t acknowledge this.

Cork brings the police photographer Perryman (John Junkin) to the crime scene.  This is something else that irritates Bird – why waste resources on such a squalid case?  Cork reminds him that photography is now becoming standard (a sign that the police are slowly beginning to embrace modern technology).  Fingerprints, one of Cork’s hobby-horses, are also mentioned, although Bob reminds him that they can’t be used in evidence.

Rex Firkin spent most of his career working as either a producer (Emergency Ward 10, The Planemakers, The Power Game) or an executive producer (Budgie, Upstairs Downstairs) but he did direct from time to time.  His sole Cork credit is unusual, as he didn’t have a production role on the series (unlike most of the other programmes he directed).  Based on the evidence of this episode it’s a pity he didn’t direct more.  The opening scene is especially interesting – the camera moves from the street (studio-bound, naturally) into Trumble’s house and then back out again.  Following Trumble’s death the camera follows a young urchin (John Barnham) as he ducks out of sight (Firkin is able to make full use of Anthony Waller’s well designed street set).   Sound effects (horses’ hooves, barrel organs) also help to create the illusion of a busy thoroughfare.

The Case of the Slithy Tove has a very strong guest cast.  Ann Lynn is vulnerable as Trumble’s daughter Nora and the always dependable Robert James has a decent role as Dr Stuart.  It’s a pity that James never returned as the doctor as he would have been a good semi-regular,  but James does have two further Cork credits (playing different characters).  Peter Fraser (probably best known for playing David Campbell in the Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth) is slightly wooden as Nora’s fiance, Sam Manners and whilst it’s always nice to see  John Junkin, he has little to do as Perryman.  Bruce Beeby, who amongst various roles played Mitch in the radio serial Journey into Space, is the enigmatic Lake.

The identity of Trumble’s murderer is a mystery until the end.  Cork, who’s fond of quoting poetry during the episode, declares that he’s a slithy tove. Earlier, for the benefit of the audience, he’d explained that “a slithy tove is a slippery customer, it’s only when you turn your back you’re sure he’s behind you. Face him and he’s faceless.”

Cork does eventually run him to ground, but the story he has to tell is unexpected.  This leaves something of an open ending – Bob asks Cork what he plans to tell Inspector Bird, but Cork doesn’t answer.  It was common for Sherlock Holmes to decide at the end of a case that no further action would be taken, but he was a private individual and not bound by the law.  Would Cork feel it was his duty to report everything he knew to Bird or would he decide that things were best left as they are?

The first of eight Cork scripts by Bruce Stewart (who would later pen three of the four Timeslip serials) The Case of the Slithy Tove is another very enjoyable series one episode.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Respectable Suicide

respectale

By all accounts Mr Bertram was a pious, god-fearing man – so why did he commit suicide?  Cork is asked to investigate and discovers that even the most respectable-looking people can have secrets …..

The Case of the Respectable Suicide allows us to take a peek behind the veneer of Victorian respectability.  Although our first sight of Bertram is his lifeless body, the reading of his will allows the audience to grasp his character very quickly.  To his servants he leaves an engraved bible and five shillings to be donated to the charity of their choice.  To his estranged wife Sarah (Joy Stewart) he bequeaths his “bible and instruments of self discipline in the earnest hope that inspired by the one and spurred on by the other she may yet turn away from the life she has led and stand before the throne of judgement a repentant sinner.”

The main beneficiary of Bertram’s will is his housekeeper Mrs Holland (Diana King) who is left the house and the residue of his estate.  This is a powerful motive for murder, although Sarah must also be considered since Bertram refused her a divorce and she’s been “living in sin” for the past five years.  But his death means that she’s now free to remarry.

Bertram wasn’t quite the man he seemed to be though.  Just before he died he’d read the front page of a scandal magazine called The Pillory which had a headline alleging he’d assaulted a child twenty years ago.  The facts beyond this are never elaborated upon, although several characters read on and express various emotions.  The owner of The Pillory, the Reverend Septimus Barrow (Norman Scace), is an interesting chap.  He maintains that he prints such stories in order to smite the Lord’s enemies whilst the cynical Cork is of the opinion that he runs nothing more than a crude blackmail operation.  This front page never made it to press, so Cork wonders if it had been given to Bertram to encourage him pay hush money in order to suppress it.

It’s possible to view Bertram as a hypocrite – keeping a public face of piety whilst hiding this skeleton in his cupboard.  But his estranged wife Sarah shows true Christian compassion towards him.  She’s suffered more than most from his actions, but has come to see that he’d spent the last twenty years attempting to make amends for his one lapse.  Unfortunately he chose to do this in such a harsh and uncompromising way that he’d poisoned their marriage almost as soon as it had begun.

Diana King was an incredibly experienced actress with numerous television and film credits.  She’s very watchable as Mrs Holland, someone who appears to have much in common with the respectable Mr Bertram.  Although it’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that she has secrets as well ….

Stand-out performance in the episode though comes from June Watts as Betram’s maid Polly Read.  Watts only had a handful of credits between 1961 and 1966 and it’s a mystery why she never enjoyed a much longer career.  It’s clear that Polly knows more about matters than she’s letting on and from the time Cork enters the house he plays with her, rather like a cat plays with a mouse.  This is first seen after he observes her listening at the keyhole during the will reading – he proceeds to question her in the hallway and every time he asks a question he moves towards her, forcing the girl to retreat.  It’s an effective way of making what would otherwise be a fairly static scene into something more visually interesting.  Later, Bob catches her trying to burn the scandal paper and she’s marched off to the station for questioning.  Once she’s told them all she knows we see Cork’s softer side as he throws her a coin for her bus fare home.  Although Polly is a fairly conventionally written character, Watts makes something of the role and certainly lifts the story up a level.

At the start of the episode we meet Inspector Bird (Arnold Diamond).  Bird has nothing to do with the main story, but it’s the first time we’ve seen any of Cork’s superiors and it’ll come as no surprise to learn that he enjoys an uneasy relationship with the testy Sergeant.  Bird is presented as a bean-counter – always fretting that too much money is being spent – whilst Cork bemoans the fact that lack of resources are hampering his investigations.  That Bird has no confidence in Cork’s progressive attitude is made clear when the Inspector tells him that microscopes don’t catch villains, policemen do.

This was the first of Julian Bond’s eight scripts for the series.  Bond would contribute to many popular series of the era (The Saint, Ghost Squad, Redcap, Public Eye, Armchair Theatre, Out of the Unknown, Upstairs Downstairs) and this story is up to his usual high standard.  Possibly not the most taxing mystery ever, but it’s a joy to watch for several reasons – not least for the continuing relationship between Cork and his willing young disciple Marriott.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Stage Door Johnnie

stage

Kate Seymour (Eira Heath) is a music-hall performer who’s caught the attention of the Hon. James Stratton (Michael Meacham).  Stratton is infatuated with the girl and plans to marry her, much to the dismay of his well-heeled friends (one of whom warns him that “you can’t make a napkin out of a dishcloth”).  And those closest to Kate, such as her mother Bessy (played by Cicely Courtneidge), are just as keen to put a spike in their union.  Bessy has a low opinion of the male of the species anyway, bluntly telling her daughter that “if you look hard enough you’ll find something rotten in all of them.”  The delivery of anonymous letters to Kate, alleging a string of infidelities on Stratton’s part, is clearly designed to break up their intended marriage and the infuriated Stratton sets off to request the cooperation of the police.

The Good Old Days (BBC, 1953- 1983) painted an unforgettable (if rather idealised) picture of the Victorian/Edwardian musical hall and The Case of the Stage-Door Johnnie taps into a similar nostalgic atmosphere.  Presumably it was lack of budget that prevented Cork from filming in a real theatre (and even if they had, no doubt they would have struggled to hire enough extras to make it look full) so they had to recreate it in the studio.  It’s a decent effort, although a little suspension of disbelief is required.

Part one is set in and around the theatre and is notable for the absence of Cork and Marriott.  But it does enable Stratton and Kate to be brought into sharp focus as well as giving Cicely Courtneidge some pithily delivered lines.  We also see a young David Burke, who plays Arthur Stephens – one of Kate’s old flames.  Some twenty years later Burke would return to the Victorian era to play Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes.

When we eventually get to see Cork, he begins by ranting at the hapless Chalky.  “Do you know the crime figures are rising? Do you realise we’re hampered, harassed and neglected? Do you realise we fight on so that you and your family can sleep safe in your bed at night? And you tell me that you’re too busy to make the tea?”  But there’s a sense that his treatment of the unfortunate Chalky is done with his tongue in his cheek (although whether Chalky sees it the same way is another matter!)

If his bad mood was genuine then it seems to have dissipated by the time he meets Kate.  He apologies that he’s got a piece of stickjaw toffee stuck in his teeth and offers her some for later.  They both rhapsodise about favourite sweets, with Cork telling her that “a lady in Chapel Street I know makes them, all home made. Humbugs, winter warmers, acid drops …”  Their chit-chat is only brought to an end when Stratton gently reminds Cork that they’ve come to the theatre on business.  It’s yet another nice character moment for Barrie.

Cork’s continuing disdain for the niceties of the social hierarchy is demonstrated during his interview with Stratton’s friend Lord George Creighton (Jeremy Longhurst).  Creighton, not happy with the tone of the interview, asks Cork to remember who he’s talking to.  “Personally I don’t care a damn who you are” responds the Sergeant.  Remarkably Creighton isn’t too upset at this sharp retort and goes on to say that Stratton shouldn’t marry outside of his own social strata – he believes that to do so would help to weaken the aristocracy’s bloodline.  Creighton is something of a hypocrite, he’s happy to sample the joys of working class girls but wouldn’t ever consider marrying one of them.

The Case of the Stage-Door Johnnie is a fairly low-key story, but Sergeant Cork wasn’t a series that always had to have a serious crime at its heart.  Cork deduces who wrote the letters and after he confronts them is happy to consider the matter closed.  Richard Harris (later to co-create Shoestring amongst many other notable credits) provided his one and only script for Cork and it’s a well-observed character piece.  Courtneidge tends to steal the show as the indomitable Bessy, keen to live her own dreams through the success of her daughter, but Eira Heath also impresses as Kate.  We’re later told that Kate is never going to be the next Marie Lloyd (despite what her mother thinks) and Heath has to tread a fine line to show that Kate is a competent, but not outstanding, performer.  Michael Mecham has less of a sharply-defined role, but does the best that he can whilst David Burke is far from subtle, but entertaining, as Arthur Stephens.  Another good episode.