Saturday, 7 December 2013

Saturday 7 December 1963

Hello! TV Minus 50  is currently TV Minus 50 and a Month.  I'm hoping to catch up, though it might take a while - so without further ado, let's crack on.

Last time we saw the mysterious Doctor and his reluctant time travelling companions they'd just been slung into a Stone Age dungeon known as the Cave of Skulls thanks to its ominous decor of splintered crania.

While they struggle with their bonds, a figure stirs in the adjoining cave, where the unfriendly tribespeople sleep.  It's the unfriendliest of all, the grumpy hag who last week called for our heroes' execution.  Grabbing a sharp flint from one of the sleepers, she advances to the Cave of Skulls...

As Ian and Barbara try to think of a way to escape, the Doctor proves a predictably negative presence, though Susan remains touchingly convinced he'll come up with a wizard scheme to get him out.  So grouchy is he that Barbara reacts with astonishment when she realises he's actually trying to help.

We get the first example of a goof that will become endearingly commonplace in Doctor Who - a shot of the Doctor's companion screaming, then a cut to what's provoked the scream: nothing, yet.  Eventually the Old Mother makes her way into the cave, after Eileen Way has a bit of a struggle with the branches blocking the secret entrance to the cave.

Despite her previous hostility, she hasn't come to kill the travellers.  Instead, the pyrophobic old dear offers to set them free if they go away and promise not to help the tribe make fire.  They don't need asking twice.

But the conversation's being listened in to through a big stone by the tribe's unpopular leader, Za, and his girlfriend Hur.  If the strangers get away Za's chance to make fire and crush the opposition of his rival Kal could be lost forever.  So off he and his good lady trot after the escapees.

Said escapees are fleeing through the titular forest, seemingly comprised mainly of potted palms.

This week Barbara's taken over Susan's role of hysterical pain, at one point crying out "Oh, we're never going to get out of this awful place - never, never, never!", which doesn't exactly cheer everyone up.  At one point during their attempted escape through the forest Ian suggests they change the order of the party, with the Doctor and Susan in front and he and Barbara at the back.  Which is extremely odd, as this is precisely the way they've already been going (see above photo).  After the Doctor and Ian nearly come to blows ("Aren't you a tiresome young man?" "Yes, and you're a stubborn old man!"), it all proves too much for poor delicate Barbara when they stumble across a dead warthog.

This poor creature seems to have been the victim of a larger animal - possibly the same (unseen) one that attacks the pursuing Za.

Finding the injured Za and the distraught Hur, Ian and Barbara feel moved to assist (Alethea Charlton gives an incredible, genuinely animalistic performance as Hur - her beastlike cries of anguish at Za's wounding are both heartrending and deeply disturbing).  Shrugging off her moment of weakness, Barbara here asserts herself as the moral centre of the group of travellers, insisting that they help the cavepeople despite their hostility toward them ("Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs," Ian quips.  "These are human beings, Ian," Barbara responds, unamused).  Za's injury certainly doesn't look good - there's a surprising abundance of blood for teatime viewing.

The Doctor proves less than receptive to the idea of helping out his erstwhile captors.  He scoffs at the notion that he can give medicinal help (he's not that kind of doctor), and insists they get back to the TARDIS while they've got the chance.  "You're trying to say that everything you do is reasonable, and everything I do is inhuman," he indignantly complains to Barbara.  "Well, I'm afraid your judgement's at fault, Miss Wright, not mine."  The conflict between Barbara's compassion and the Doctor's cold logic is the heart of this episode, and it's electrifyingly performed by Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell.

There's clearly some truth in the Doctor's contention that their kindness is wasted on the cavepeople, with Hur proving totally unable to understand the concept of friendship.  However, the Doctor's subsequent attempt to settle the matter by braining Za with a rock may be going a little far.

While all this is going on, Old Mother falls victim to Kal's rage at learning she set the captives free, thus achieving the distinction of being the first character to die in Doctor Who.

Kal shows the  rest of the tribe Za's flint, which he used to kill the old woman, and accuses his rival of the deed (he claims he saw it all happen in a dream, and that's good enough for them).  I like the two less-than-convincing lady extras in this shot - I wonder if one of those is the supporting player Jeremy Young recalled being disappointed by the job, after being told she was doing "something with furs".

Kal leads the tribesmen as they head off to recapture the travellers, providing a nasty surprise for our quarrelling foursome when they reach their destination...

Next tonight, it's the final appearance of Carlos Thompson as Carlos Varela, The Sentimental Agent.  There are still a couple of episodes yet to be broadcast but those both feature unsatisfactory replacement Bill Randall.  Sadly, Carlos's last outing's a bit on the mediocre side.

After an opening bit of nonsense featuring a St Bernard and his tailor (Frank Thornton) Carlos is visited by a pair of American archaeologists (William Sylvester and Alan Gifford), with a tricky request: they want Carlos to accompany them to the hostile Al-Dina region of Morocco, and get them access to a fabled scroll once handled by Mohammed.  They insist its historical importance, rather than its extravagantly bejewelled case, is the reason for their request.  For a fee of $5000, Carlos agrees.

In Morocco, Carlos meets up with an old acquaintance, Prince Mahmood (Clifford Elkin), wayward son of the Sheikh of Al-Dina, and offers him $2000 to help him keep the affections of a chipmunk-faced belly dancer (Lisa Peake) in return for his father's permission to see the scroll.

Due to the Sheikh's especial dislike of Americans (due to their failure to find oil in his dominion), the professors are browned up so they can pass as Arabs.  In fairness, they look no less Arabic than any other member of the cast.

And that includes Patrick Troughton, who's cast as the Sheikh.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this episode is the truly excruciating performance given by John Dimech as the Sheikh's other son (notably, alongside his five screen credits, IMDB lists under his other works "Catering, for 30 years, Security for 16 years").

The Sheikh proving unsympathetic, Prince Mahmood takes the archaeologists to the tomb himself.  And then finds himself facing the blame when they steal it.

Through judicious use of rope and psychological torture, Carlos manages to obtain the scroll from the crooked profs, saving Mahmood from a death sentence and earning the gratitude of his father.

Lacklustre as Scroll of Islam might be, it sends Carlos Varela off in tremendous style, winking at the camera as he heads off to visit another sheikh, who he's hoping to offload a mound of dodgy goods on.

1963 was, undoubtedly, the year of the Beatles.  Their chart domination reached astonishing levels this week, with "She Loves You" the number 1 single and their latest release, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" at number 10.  Over on the album chart, they occupied both the top spots, their debut album's reign at the top spot for the majority of the year ended only by the arrival of their new LP, With the Beatles.  Near the other end of the top 40 singles chart, at 37, Dora Bryan charted with her novelty single "All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle".  The national familarity with the Liverpudlian quartet this number traded on also saw parodies of the Fab Four become a frequent sight on the TV, tonight's edition of The Larkins being an example.

As is often the way with The Larkins, it takes a little while to get to the main business of the episode (the show has an unusual running time of 35 minutes, and sometimes you really feel that extra five).  Georgie Larkins (who looks like Murray Melvin playing Harrry Potter) has been driving his Auntie Ada to distraction with the health and safety nightmares that are his science experiments.  The latest is a burglar alarm to which Hetty Prout falls distraught victim.

Ada bans Georgie from any form of experimenting, encouraging him to take up the pursuits of a normal, healthy lad instead.  After a trip to the cinema with Alf to see Frankenstein Meets the Man of Horror ends with Georgie walking out in disgust at the scientific inaccuracies, his family try to get him to make friends with some local boys.  Unfortunately, they're all exactly like him.  But they're still red-blooded youths (at least, I think so.  It's hard to tell in black & white), and the arrival of Scouse caff regular Lofty's sister Judy (Annette Robertson) perks up their interest (among other things, if the "boiiiiing" noise on the soundtrack's anything to go by).

Clearly unable to find any more interesting youths locally, Judy attempts to teach the boys how to twist.  The results are about as nice to look at as her attempts to teach Georgie to speak Scouse are to listen to.

In an effort to impress Judy, who's increasingly disgusted with how provincial London is compared to Liverpool, centre of the known universe, Georgie and his chums form their own beat combo, christened The Boffins.  Despite the episode's title, Georgie's animated performance at the microphone's rather more Mick Jagger.

Audience reaction is decidedly mixed.

Obviously the Boffins are miming (to songs by obscure beat groups the Redcaps and the Bruisers) - but, you see, they're meant to be: Georgie's hidden a tape recorder in one of the guitar cases.  So it bodes ill when Osbert and Alf decide that between them they can make the boys into stars.  Just prior to their big unveiling of their discovery to such tastemakers as Pete Murray (for which Ada's chosen an especially interesting garment to wear), Judy discovers the truth - and sabotages the performance by setting the tape to play at the wrong speed.

The performance is not a success.  As Pete Murray prepares to take his leave of the shamed Boffins, the episode ends in mind-boggling fashion with the arrival of a new pop act eager to catch his eye: it's Ada and Hetty in plastic raincoats tunelessly belting out Gerry and the Pacemakers' "How Do You Do It?"

Don't have nightmares.

In the unlikely event that you're especially bothered, here's one of the records that the Boffins mime to.

Next stop: Aldershot, where a trio of familiar character actors in uniform (Tenniel Evans, Warren Mitchell and Barry Linehan.  It's not clear what they're up to, but it looks like they're fleecing the army...

The scene changes to a swanky Chinese restaurant, where Steed's brought Mrs Gale for an evening out.  She's understandably suspicious: "I've learnt from experience that whenever you've wined and dined me as well as this it's always been the prelude to some hideous adventure."  The dialogue's instantly recognisable a the work of the wonderful Roger Marshall, who shares the writing credit with one Phyllis Norman.  As she seems never to have done anything else I'd be fascinated if anyone has any information on her.

Cathy's scepticism seems well-founded.  The restaurant's proprietor, Mrs Kwan (Yu Ling) is playing host to Mr Lo, a notorious international gold smuggler.  He's played by Robert Lee, who's been lumbered with old age makeup which makes him look like he's got an unfortunate skin condition.

The cloakroom attendant, meanwhile, is played by the belly dancer from this evening's Sentimental Agent! That's two ethnicities in one evening - and she's not very convincing as either.

When Steed and Cathy return to the former's flat for a nightcap Steed realises he's come away with the wrong coat: "If you paid a little more attention to the coat and a little less to the girl, you wouldn't get the wrong one," advises Cathy.  But here's a find: there's a cheque for £5000 in the pocket, made out to a George Jason.  Steed decides to let Jason come to him, and before long he does: he's the Warren Mitchell character we saw earlier.  When Steed lets it slip to Cathy that he knows all about Jason and his connection to Mr Lo, she realises that she's been drawn into another one of his schemes.  And reacts with violence, and  a sage proverb: "He who does not tell truth gets cushion in eye."

Don't worry, though - they're friends again in a matter of seconds (it's a funny relationship), with Cathy collapsing in giggles when her gift's returned.  It's a lovely moment.

But Cathy cries off helping Steed with his investigation: she's got a job: "Oddly enough, my rent doesn't pay itself."  "I did suggest an alternative arrangement," says Steed.  The big sleaze.

When we learn Cathy's new job is cataloguing the collection of a military museum our suspicions are raised, and when we see who she's working for, they're confirmed: it's Tenniel Evans, and the job's clearly been secured for her by crafty old Steed.

As Cathy starts to work this out, Captain Jason tracks down an old comrade, James Jones (Michael Hawkins), who's stolen a great deal of money from Jason and his cronies and refuses to give it back.  It's not long before he meets a nasty fate at the hands (or rather the wheels) of Mr Lo.

There's some characteristically great direction from Peter Hammond as Steed arrives on the scene, with the camera following his point of view.

Steed encounters the grieving widow, who turns out to be the cloakroom girl from the restaurant.  Suddenly her throwaway lines earlier in the episode about knitting her husband a jumper seem incredibly poignant.

At the army camp, we learn that Jason and his gang are smuggling gold out of the country on Mr Lo's behalf, disguising it as bullets.

Steed and Cathy swoop on the crooks, capturing them as per.  There's a marvellous bit at the end as the Avengers learn that Jason's a financial wizard, and suggest he could have put his skills to better, and more legal, use.  He responds that his one and only desire has always been to help out soldiers who the army's left down and out after their discharge.  It's great to see Mitchell playing someone other than another funny foreigner here, and he's absolutely brilliant.

We round out our evening with another visit to the world of Espionage.  And it's not for those of a sensitive nature.

In London, a group of British and American officials (including Jack May as an especially arsey British one) meet to discuss building a dam in the Levantine republic.  US attaché Crawford Layton (William Smithers) isn't keen on the idea.  Seemingly innocent tealady Mary (Katharine Page) heads off to whisper about his opposition to a bloke in the pub, and it's not long before it reaches the ears of the Levantine ambassador (Ferdy Mayne).

Determined to see the dam built, the ambassador decides that Layton must be got out of the way, with...

Unaware that his doom's being plotted, the newlywed Layton and his bride Annie (Louise Sorel) are preparing for an ambassadorial soirée.  And it's taking him forever to decide which cufflinks from his peculiarly vast collection to wear.

At the party, which the Levantine ambassador also attends, it becomes clear that his poison is of the metaphorical kind, as he begins to spread mealy-mouthed rumours about the "emotional instability" Layton showed while he was working in his country.

As Annie endures chit-chat with the wives of the American and French ambassadors (Georgina Cookson and Irene Prador), we're given a clue to what these hints amount to when they insinuate that Crawford's immaculate collection of cufflinks isn't terribly masculine.

It's not all innuendo, though.  Daringly, the word "homosexual" is actually uttered twice.  Here's voice of Mr Magoo Jim Backus, as the US ambassador, uttering it as he emphatically refutes his wife's suggestion that Layton could be one.

Nonetheless, the seeds of doubt have been sown, and for both Ambassador McAvoy and Annie Layton certain things about Crawford suddenly appear in a new light.  Among these is his friendship with his former roommate John Parsons (Michael Kane), a highly flamboyant interior decorator (Crawford's assertion that he knows more about antique furniture than John ever will seems to act as a big red flag to Annie - it seems that in 1963 this was as clear a sign that someone's gay as you could get).

After a row about one such antique, John insists they meet up with James Burton-Jones, one of Britain's top experts, who happens to be a close personal.  They rendezvous in a club called - yes! - the Purple Beatle (I told you they were everywhere), a hangout of known artistic types.  Mr Burton-Shaw himself is played by indefatigable character actor Charles Lloyd-Pack.  He and his guests are being observed...

Insistent that Layton isn't "of that particular persuasion", the ambassador nevertheless sets a junior aide, Sidney Locke (Donald Harron) - who's clearly eyeing up Layton's job, to make some inquiries (homosexuals being an unacceptable security risk, of course).  Burton-Jones is highly amused by Locke's attempts to prise information from him: "Are you some kind of amateur sleuth? It's obvious you're an amateur of some kind"...

...while John Parsons proves thoroughly hostile, insisting that he and Crawford have never discussed each other's private lives.  Which seems pretty bizarre - isn't that what a friendship's for?

When Locke presents McAvoy with a long list of circumstantial "evidence" pointing to  Layton's sexual orientation, the ambassador confronts the embarrassed attaché, who categorically states that he is not that way inclined, and vows to help find the source of the rumour.  Eventually Mary is fingered and the Levantine ambassador's humiliated.  McAvoy demonstrates his faith in Layton's heterosexuality by giving him a hug.

It looks like there aren't many hugs on the menu at home though, with Annie's faith in her husband apparently shattered for good by the rumours.  If he's not a homo (and there's definitely some ambiguity remaining over whether he is or not), you feel he's not got much to lose by giving it a try.

A Tiny Drop of Poison may have lost something as a piece of drama since its original broadcast, but it's gained a huge amount of historical interest.  The fact that, to a gay man in 21st century Britain, the whole thing seems absolutely baffling is surely a welcome sign of how far we've come.

Well, that's tonight's telly seen to.  I leave you now with the country's third most popular song of the week.