It's Saturday, which by TV listings magazine logic means it's the start of the week. Britain's still in the grip of the coldest winter in living memory, and stunned by the unexpected death the previous day of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. But let's turn our minds away from such matters, and our eyes toward the wonders provided for us by ITV.
There's also been a change of cast (with no explanation offered for it): Sir Andrew Wilson's gone, replaced as Craig's boss by Chief Superintendent Stock (Anthony Marlowe), who's just as grumpy but has far weedier eyebrows - though he tries to compensate for this by affecting a bow tie and a tweed hat. There's no travelling to far-flung places and escorting beautiful princesses for Craig this week: he spends The Big Time chasing round London in search of a tramp. True, he's a tramp who's snatched a bag containing thousands of pounds worth of uncut diamonds, but it still seems rather a comedown. What's more, Craig's even got a new hairdo, his once proud quiff now sloppily plastered over his forehead.
Also after said tramp, Dan Rooney (Ghost Squad takes place in a world of stereotypes where all tramps are Irish and, consequently, dim) are the diamond smuggling gang led by the rather sexy Mr Welcome (Derek Waring), who happily takes over from Craig in the impressive quiff stakes.
With all these confusing changes, it's good to see that Craig's attempts at going undercover are still as lame as ever. This week he's pretending to be another Irish tramp, Joe O'Farrell, with an accent as unconvincing as his five o'clock shadow.
The director of The Big Time is Peter Sasdy, who'd go on to make films for Hammer as well as a lot of classic TV. He helps make the show nice to look at despite a rather ho-hum plot, with interesting shots like this:
There's even an unexpectedly gruesome moment when the gang finally catch up with Rooney:
But the difference in production values from the earlier Ghost Squad episodes is emphasised most strongly when a microphone descends briefly into shot in one scene, something almost unthinkable in an ITC film series (that's always-popping-up-in-shows-like-this actor Geoffrey Chater on the right, as suave, cigarette holder-clutching Mr Jason, the real brains behind the gang):
If, like me, you're fascinated by 1960s Britain, the highlight of the episode is a lengthy montage sequence that sees Craig purposefully striding about London in front of some great background details.
More tramps on the menu in tonight's next offering:
Tonight's sketches underline the extent to which Arthur and Johnny Speight's humour is of a class-based kind that doesn't really exist any more, at least not in mainstream TV shows (and Arthur's hugely popular show couldn't have been more mainstream). Exasperating and belligerent they might be, but Arthur's characters are mainly real working class heroes, standing up for the common man against supercilious toffs who take it as read that they know best (invariably embodied by Nicholas Parsons). Nowhere is this better displayed than in this edition's main two sketches (the show's format: two short sketches, two long sketches and a musical interlude now seems pretty strange). In the first, Arthur wanders off the street into the offices of eminent architect Sir Nickle-Arse Parsons, and proceeds to tell him exactly where he's going wrong with his new tower block schemes. Arthur is, of course, well qualified to comment on architecture: "I'm very interested in buildings. It's because I've always lived in buildings."
|"It'll be bigger than that, won't it?"|
Later on Arthur, in tramp guise alongside Dermot Kelly, squats in the grounds of a ducal residence ("these aristocrats, they live like lords this days") and comprehensively winds up estate controller Parsons by refusing to recognise police authority or the very concept of private property. The sketch ends like a socialist Beano strip, with the monocle-wearing duke arriving, revealing he's been reading Tolstoy and cordially inviting the tramps in for a slap-up breakfast and a discussion of how best to implement the Russian author's ideals - as Parsons fumes outside.
Singing for us tonight is Susan Maughan, of "Bobby's Girl" fame. She performs her new single, "Hand a Handkerchief to Helen" (a gloating reference to her brief chart ascendancy over rival Helen Shapiro) and then gives us a blast of "I'm Just Wild About Harry", perhaps for the benefit of older viewers intimidated by all the yeah-yeah-yeah-ing in the hit parade.
Ghost Squad's not the only show tonight with a change of personnel:
No Cathy Gale tonight: instead Steed's accompanied by her occasional replacement, nightclub singer Venus Smith (future Playschool presenter Julie Stevens). This is Venus's third appearance in the show, and she's had a bit of a makeover since last she turned up. Previously a bewigged, Peggy Lee-type chanteuse, she now seems a lot younger thanks partly to a becomingly elfin blonde crop and Mary Quant-type fashions, and partly due to being written with a far more girlish personality, a mild Northern accent and a Penfold-like tendency toward exclamations like "bloomin' eck!" that all seems like a deliberate attempt to distinguish her from Mrs Gale.
Box of Tricks is an odd little tale that unites the seemingly disparate worlds of cabaret, national security and alternative medicine. We're taken on a brief tour of real Soho nightspots, ending up at the not-real Gemini, where Venus is currently singing every night in her inimitably jolly style (an engagement arranged, unbeknownst to her, by her friend John Steed).
The assistants of the club's extremely camp magician have a worrying tendency to die on stage - and what are the strange voices Venus has been hearing backstage, seemingly including that of national security advisor General Sutherland (Maurice Hedley)? Steed sweet-talks Venus into doing some investigating for him, helped by the fact that she's an old friend of the general's daughter Kathleen (Jane Barratt), a great fan of the dodgy Dr Gallam (Edgar Wreford), and his little boxes of minerals which can supposedly cure any ill. To try and solve the mystery of leaking secrets Steed goes undercover in not one but two different guises, and Patrick Macnee has great fun hamming it up in the roles of the general's chatty masseur and a millionaire hypochondriac seeking the doctor's help.
|More startling Avengers nudity|
For me, the thing that makes Box of Tricks stand out is that, apart from Maurice Hedley (the prime minister in A for Andromeda) I don't think I've ever seen any of the episode's guest cast in anything else. Which considering the amount of time I've spent goggling at old British films and TV seems quite incredible really. Out of the episode's performers though, the undoubted star is this elderly gent, briefly seen twisting the night away like his life depends on it at the Gemini. It really is quite a sight.
|That's not Susan Hampshire, sadly (I mean the girl, although the man's not Susan Hampshire either)|