Thursday, 31 January 2013

Thursday 31 January 1963

We've already seen characters in Fireball XL5 and The Avengers doing the twist, and if you need further proof that said dance craze was absolutely everywhere in 1962-3, A Musical Evening brings us the unforgettable (try as you might) image of Albert Steptoe merrily twisting the night away.  We'll get to that eventually.  The episode starts off in typically jolly fashion with an attempted patricide, Albert waking up just in time to avoid being smothered by his loving son.  Of course he'd never do it really - would he?

Harold's brought back an embarrassment of riches from the good folk of Shepherd's Bush, including a trio of paintings of Chastity, Virtue and Motherhood that Albert earmarks for his bedroom wall.  "I like big women," he drools appreciatively, appraising the pictures with a leer that makes Sid James look like Aled Jones.

There's also a multitude of shoes (which Albert also bags for himself).  Oh, and a bison's head, obviously.

But for Harold the star acquisition is a job lot of gramophone records.  As they belonged to a now-deceased doctor, he reasons there must be some classy stuff in there to add to his Classical music collection.  And sure enough, in amongst Bobby's Girl and The Teddy Bears' Picnic he finds the first disc of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suit": though his attempt at losing himself in the music is hampered by Albert's impromptu cobbling:

A row follows, escalating into an orgy of destruction as the pair set to smashing up each others' most cherished possessions.  Finally, Albert locks up Harold's record cabinet and flings the key out into the yard.  Unfortunately it was on the same ring as the keys to the stable, the yard and the safe, so father and son are stuck until they can find it again.

Surprisingly for Galton and Simpson, the characterisation in A Musical Evening feels a bit off.  Particularly during the search for the keys Albert behaves like a complete idiot, good for a couple of cheap laughs but miles away from his usual cunning self.  Sample exchange:

Harold (holding up a stone to represent the keys): These are the keys.
Albert (brightly): Oh, have you found them?

He also attempts to use a metal detector to find the keys among the primarily metal items in the scrapyard.  Harold, meanwhile, temporarily turns boffin as he attempts to scientifically work out the exact trajectory of the keys as they flew from Albert's hand.

Fortunately Albert recovers his usual craftiness in time to find the keys, then squat over the drain like a malevolent gargoyle, threatening to drop them in unless Harold lets him keep the ancient gramophone he's found (in order that he can play "twist records").

The episode ends with Harold locked out in the yard while Albert twists away to his heart's content (but not his hip's) indoors.

Here's A Musical Evening for you to enjoy in the comfort of your own home:

On the other side, this week's Hancock (The Man on the Corner) is the first episode I've seen that goes some way to justifying the ATV series' poor reputation.

Presumably as part of Hancock's quest for greater truth in comedy, this week we find him pointing guns left, right and centre and smashing a spy ring.  It all rings a bit hollow, sadly, although the guest cast is as top-drawer as ever.  Appearing this week: Wilfrid Lawson, Geoffrey Keen, The TV Lark's Tenniel Evans, Moyra Fraser, John Bluthal (voice of Zoonie the Lazoon) and, best of all, one of my favourite actors, the immensely tall, immensely posh James Villiers, playing a character called (believe it or not) Captain Mainwaring.

Situation of the Week features Hancock regularly hanging around on a street corner, watching the world go by ("like trainspotting, only with people"), giving passersby the benefit of his wisdom regarding the weather ("it's the bomb") and arousing the suspicion of the local police.  When he sees a shady character (Evans) whom he's convinced is a spy, people are unsurprisingly reluctant to believe him.

Nevertheless, he somehow manages to get an appointment with the secret service (represented by Keen and Villiers).

Patient Colonel Beresford (Keen) allows Hancock to think he's been engaged as a secret agent, though the contact number he gives him is in fact that of the canteen, staffed by bored dinner ladies who have great fun teasing the bewildered Hancock when he calls in to report ("What orders do you have?" "Plaice and chips twice, steak and kidney pud twice, one spaghetti on toast").

Eventually they get rid of Hancock by telling him to go round and arrest the spy.  Shady Evans does indeed turn out to be a foreign agent, and the sight of Tony Hancock threatening him with a gun is one of the stranger ones I've seen since starting this blog.

The masterspy turns out to be Fireball XL5 voice actor John Bluthal, who Hancock also apprehends, becoming a hero in the process.

There are Galton and Simpson-scripted Hancocks with storylines as ridiculous as this (particularly in the radio version of the show), but The Man on the Corner's writer, Godfrey Harrison, is no Galton and Simpson and despite the odd moment there's an air of desperation about the whole endeavour that doesn't bode well for the future.  In an earlier  episode Hancock might have had a Walter Mittyish fantasy of being a secret agent tracking down dastardly Soviets, but the fun would have come from how the misunderstanding came about.  Perhaps Harrison imagined making the spies real would be a good twist, but it all ends up feeling totally wrong.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Sunday 27 January 1963

Enticing though the thought of Steve Zodiac and chums battling Supermarionated Chinese gangsters is, that's not what this week's Fireball XL5 is about.  The Triads of the title are the inhabitants of a newly discovered planet that the folks at space city have named Triad because it's just like Earth, but three times bigger.  Several immense explosions have taken place in the vicinity of the planet (in an effect that's very impressive and is deservedly shown twice).

The Fireball XL5 gang are sent (further into space than anyone's been before) to investigate.  On arrival Steve, Matt and Venus fly down to the planet in Fireball Jr (XL5's detachable front section), but crash-land thanks to Triad's ultra-high gravity.  As you might expect, everything on Triad's enormous, and the effect of giant vegetation's achieved very simply by the use of normal-sized plants.

That's the flora.  The giant fauna of Triad's represented by a risible back-projected lion who gives Matt the fright of his life.

Our heroes use their jet packs (or whatever the technical name is) to escape into the trees, only to be plucked out of them by giant (real) hands that grab them as if they were, well, puppets.  The "Planet of Giants" storyline was old hat even back in 1963, but as in this case it works in reverse to how it would in a live-action show (the actual size props are the giant ones) it's really quite charming.

The owners of the hands are a pair of big friendly giants named Snaff and Graff (actually, Snaff bears a passing resemblance to Quentin Blake's BFG) who together comprise the personnel of Triad's space programme (yes, by a remarkable coincidence they call the planet Triad too).  Venus's verdict: "They're real cute!"

The vast explosions that brought the Fireball crew to Triad were failed attempts at sending a rocket into space - Snaff and Graff just haven't been able to get the fuel formula right for the planet's gravity.  Obviously not operating under any sort of Prime Directive, Matt cheerfully agrees to work out how they can get into space in exchange for enough fuel to get back to XL5.

Fun though it is in Fireball XL5's inimitably goofy way, there's a real lack of drama or jeopardy in this episode.  There's an absolutely ridiculous filler bit where Matt, Venus and Steve stand around in the Triad lab chatting about what Robert and Zoonie might be getting up to back at the ship (complete with impressions), followed by a scene on board ship showing them doing exactly as predicted (exactly what happens in every episode: Zoonie perplexing Robert with his sinister catchphrase "Welcome hooooome").

The closest we get to suspense is the possibility that Steve, Matt and Venus might not get back to the ship in time to feed Zoonie.  I don't know how popular the pop-eyed space sloth was with the show's young viewers, but I can't be the only person who would have been quite happy for him to starve.

The nail-biting action of The Triads is all here for you to enjoy:

And finally, here's this week's number 1 single.  The Shadows are still in the top spot but this time with a Cliffless instrumental.  Dance on, everyone!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Saturday 26 January 1963

The changes to the Ghost Squad format last week were a bit confusing, and this week's episode manages to be even more so.  Our usual square-jawed hero, Nick Craig, is nowhere to be seen - instead we follow the exploits of two other agents, Tony Miller (Neil Hallett) and Sally Lomax (Patricia Mort).  They're undercover in Cairo on the trail of diamond smugglers (if you were paying attention to my drivellings about last week's episode you might remember that one featured diamond smuggling as well).  Below, you can see them being assisted by Warren Mitchell, last seen guest starring in this very show just a couple of weeks previously.  Here he adds Egyptian to his wide repertoire of nationalities as friendly police chief Major Mahmood.

In the bar where the agents spend most of their time indiscreetly discussing Ghost Squad business, Miller spots a man he's convinced is the recently deceased sporting legend Spencer Deedes.  He doesn't look or sound like him, but he walks in a similar way.  Not surprisingly, Lomax isn't convinced, nor is Chief Superintendent Stark - who provesas talented as his predecessor Sir Andrew Wilson at being gruff down the phone.  Also not surprisingly, Miller turns out to be right, Deedes having faked his death after becoming enmeshed with the smugglers.  Miller's investigation leads us to more evidence of Saturday night ITV's strange insistence on showing men being massaged as he gets a rubdown from big Frank Olegario, who provided the same service for Steve Plytas in The Avengers a couple of weeks back.

For anyone familiar with ITC's 60s adventure series it's very much a business-as-usual runaround, but it's helped by some decent performances - Hallett and Mort are engaging, and as well as Mitchell there are top-notch guest stars in the shape of Patricia Haines as Deedes' daughter, and John Longden (star of Hitchcock's Blackmail back in 1929) as the very shifty sportsman himself.

The main insight Death of a Sportsman gives us however, is into the unfulfilling existence of a female Ghost Squad agent.  While Miller spends the episode getting into various scrapes trying to prove a dead man's still alive, Lomax gets nothing to do but sit in the bar drinking, until she gets kidnapped in the last act in order to be rescued.  It doesn't sound that bad a life really, but she's very mopey about it.

It's Egypt.  You can tell by the decor.
Next on ITV:

The highlight of Arthur's show this week is another spectacular fit of corpsing.  This time it's our eponymous star himself who's affected: he's come to visit landlord Nicholas Parsons in hospital (accompanied by his Uncle Les, whose hobby is visiting people he doesn't know in hospital and eating their chocolates), and unwisely attempts to deliver dialogue while eating an apple.  The result is a few minutes of magnificent chaos.

Later, a tramp sketch is enlivened by the appearance of the great Patricia Hayes as Arthur and Dermot's unpleasant new landlady.

This week's musical interlude features the bongotacular sounds of popular folk-pop trio The Springfields.

I rather like their charismatic lady singer.  Perhaps she should consider striking out on her own.

Now for this week's visit to Avengersland.  Like last week's episode, this one features an excursion into the world of magic: but here we're in Dennis Wheatley rather than Ali Bongo territory.

Steed investigates after scientist Peter Neville's struck down by a mysterious, stroke-like attack.  The fact he's clutching a hex symbol points to black magic, though personally I wouldn't rule out the wallpaper as a contributing factor.

Trivia: Olive Milburne (left) played James Bolam's mum in The Likely Lads
Steed consults Cathy Gale, who's an expert on black magic (as well as just about everything else). Warlock was originally intended to feature Steed and Cathy's first meeting, though the producers later changed their minds and most of the scenes featuring the two of them were re-shot.  There are still traces of the original idea though: Cathy calls her co-investigator "Mr Steed", the two of them decide to investigate independently of one another, and at one point Steed makes a clumsy drunken pass at a deeply unimpressed Mrs Gale.  Their first meeting at the Natural History museum pretty much encapsulates their prickly relationship: finding Cathy examining a skull, Steed makes the requisite Hamlet jokes: "He was a fellow of infinite jest".  "Unlike you," she acidly responds.

At this stage in its history The Avengers is generally far more level-headed and realistic than it would become in later years, but Doreen Lawrence's script for Warlock is, in its low key way, perhaps one of the show's most fantasticated ever, leaving no room for doubt that black magic works, at least on those who believe in it (including Cathy).  The leader of the black magicians in question is suave bookshop owner Cosmo Gallion (Peter Arne).  He's a memorable villain, as his recent cameo appearance in Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic series shows.  The campaign against Neville has been commissioned by foreign agent Markel (John Hollis, the go-to man for sinister baldies).  Said campaign features a charmingly primitive visual effect that looks like a bit of tinfoil being twirled about (accompanied by splendidly weird electronic music to heighten the spookiness) and ends with grim death.

Peter Hammond's direction of Warlock is nothing short of amazing.  Bizarre paraphernalia looms in the foreground of many shots (Cosmo's stuffed black cat's a particular favourite of mine), and even the less occult-tinged scenes are imaginatively shot.  The standard expository bits where Steed visits the mortuary then catches up with One-Ten are both kept interesting thanks to unusual angles and a bit of business with a pint of beer.

Warlock's an absorbing one-off fusion of the worlds of espionage and witchcraft, and it's so visually interesting that it's one of my favourite Avengers ever.  And here's a spooky thing: who's the mysterious figure lurking in the background of this shot? Is it a member of the crew who got in the way, or could it be something more sinister...? (Hint: it's not something more sinister).

I strongly recommend you enjoy this splendid episode for yourself here if you haven't already seen it: