Sunday, 31 March 2013


Hello all.  It's Easter, time for a resurrection! I've brought back to life an old blog, where I'll be posting  any writings that don't fit within the TV Minus 50 concept (oh dear, that sounds very high-falutin').  So far I've posted all the A-Z of Britsploitation things I wrote a while back.  Hope you enjoy them, there's more on its way...

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Sunday 31 March 1963

This week, the Fireballers (as I've decided to call them) discover a mysterious chunk of debris floating in space.  It turns out to be part of the radio from the TA2, an early space vehicle that went missing 48 years earlier along with its pilot, Colonel Denton.  Steve Zodiac senses the chance to solve a long-standing mystery, and indeed before long he and the gang find the sinister-looking wreckage of the ship itself.

Steve, Matt and Venus float out to the ghost ship to investigate.  I love the way their little legs wiggle in the air as they fly about (not that there's actually supposed to be any air).

After a protracted bit of pratting about involving Matt being flung out into space by Steve hitting him with a door, they decide to head to Denton's planned destination, the planet Octan.  "The planet Octan is freezing cold and covered in ice!" warns Matt - although with his old-timey prospector accent it sounds more like he's saying it's covered in arse.  Which is certainly an interesting idea.  It seems rather optimistic to think they can just plonk themselves down and expect to find what they're looking for, but maybe it's just a very small planet.

Octan looks much like every other rocky, inhospitable world in the show, except it's sprayed white and there's the odd stalagmite about.  Still, it gives our regulars a splendid chance to show off their winter ensembles - Venus's being quite extraordinarily glam.

Venus in furs

Exploring the icy landscape Venus slips and falls (or, more accurately, flops) into a gaping abyss.

When Matt and Steve head down after her, they find themselves overcome by a mysterious gas, and awake to find themselves, along with their glamorous space doctor friend, strapped to slabs (I do love a good slab-strapping) under a roof of deadly-looking icicles.  They've been imprisoned by the natives of Octan, whose appearance is startling, to say the least.

Convinced the Fireballers have come to kidnap their king, they set the roof to vibrate, the idea being that if our heroes are guilty, they'll be impaled by the great big icicles hanging above them.  Luckily they're not - and it turns out their optimism was justified as the Octan king turns out to be none other than Colonel Denton of the TA2.  And, predictably enough, the icicle castle from Last of the Zanadus is recycled as his palace.

Denton's been ruling the Octans for so long now that he doesn't want to leave them, so wishing the XL5 crew well he sends them away.  The main plot of the episode ends quite early, which luckily (?) means there's time for a humorous coda featuring Zoonie making Commander Zero angry.  Again.

You can watch Mystery of the TA2 here:

Our second show tonight is one I'm especially pleased to feature here as I think its makers, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, were responsible for probably the most wondrous children's TV ever made - of which this is a delightful early example.

Noggin and the Flying Machine is the third adventure for Noggin, King of the Nogs and the little Viking-like folk of the Northlands, inspired by the famous Isle of Lewis chess pieces.  For its home video release in the 80s, Postgate decided to edit the six 10-minute episodes of Noggin and the Flying Machine into three longer episodes.  That's a little bit annoying for my purposes, but it's so brilliant that this still exists in any form that it would be churlish to grumble.  I'm just guessing where the original episodes end/begin so it's very likely I'm wrong - if you find that I am, please let me know.

Anyway, to the adventure.  Two of King Noggin's most trusted helpers, Court inventor Olaf the Lofty and Graculus the Great Green Bird, have together crafted a boat they claim can fly - though they're too busy arguing over whose idea it was to fully explain how it works.

"You impudent fowl! You ungrateful green chicken! You presumptuous parrot!"
"You rat-faced old lizard!"
It's interesting to note how similar Oliver Postgate's Noggin voices sound to those of some of his later characters: Olaf's bears a strong resemblance to that of Bagpuss's Professor Yaffle, while Guard Captain Thor Nogsson sounds a little like the saggy old cloth cat himself.

Olaf and Graculus's row is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious jar floating on the sea.  Noggin and Thor are curious, but Olaf is instantly apprehensive - the toes of his shoes have curled up, and this only happens when there's sorcery afoot (afoot - see? Oh, never mind).

"It smells of bad magic!"

Wonderfully, Noggin and Thor head off for tea and a game of marbles (in Postgateland even the ancient Norse are English), but later that evening both Thor and Olaf sneak down for another look at the jar - only to see it break open and reveal a tiny Arab stereotype...

And what, you may wonder, is happening in the charts this week? Well, The Shadows are still hogging the top two slots, but "Foot Tapper" and "Summer Holiday" have now swapped places, and are at one and two respectively.  Here's this week's number four - it's the maudlin country sounds of Ned Miller, with "From a Jack to a King".

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Saturday 30 March 1963

This week's Ghost Squad is another one missing its on screen title.  It's actually called The Retirement of the Gentle Dove.  Written by Philip Levene (later behind some of the most brilliant Avengers episodes), it's a workmanlike whodunnit notable for giving the lead role to Anthony Marlowe as Ghost Squad chief Geoffrey Stock for once.

A resident of Green Bay House retirement home has died of an overdose of medication.  It's a sad story, but Stock suspects foul play - principally because the late retiree was Sir Charles Ingram, a former head of the British Secret Service, staying at Green Bay House as he'd discovered it was home to the Gentle Dove, a double agent whose treachery led to the death of Ingram's son in World War 2.  Deciding the Dove was behind Ingram's death, Stock decides to track the agent down himself by going undercover at the home.  To this end, he agefies himself (a bit) to become George Pearson, a former clothes wholesaler from Cardiff - a foolhardy decision as his accent's all over the place.  Still, let's just count ourselves lucky we don't have to hear Nick Craig (posing as Pearson's nephew) attempting it.

Unfortunately, despite spending years tracking the Gentle Dove down Ingram wasn't able to find out the double agent's age, gender or nationality, meaning there are seven possible suspects at the home - all behaving equally suspiciously.

There's the hideously snobbish Miss Reeves (Olwen Brookes) - "I can't abide tradespeople"- forever reminiscing about her time working as a governess for families in Germany.

The apparently friendly Mr Tresilian (Philip Ray) - secretly the owner of Green Bay House and livid that Pearson's come to live there without his permission.

Anna Klein (Ilona Ference), the furtive German housekeeper.

Mrs Lister (Valerie White), the home's shifty matron, secretly married to Liever (Fawlty Towers' Ballard Berkeley), a mentally disturbed Austrian concert pianist.

Lonely Mrs Every (Margaret Vines), who may not be as blind as she pretends.

And gruff Major Stone (Carl Bernard) - could his frequently expressed distaste for foreigners (and Germans in particular) be a smokescreen?

While Stock's checking out this cast of eccentrics, a nattily attired Craig's happily getting to know Anna's beautiful daughter (or is she?) Siegrid (Mia Karam).

The retirement home setting's an unusual one for an adventure series, and appropriately enough The Retirement of the Gentle Dove's a more sedate affair than some of the other Ghost Squad adventures.  It's also unusually thoughtful in its treatment of older people and their various ways of coping with loneliness.

The opening sketch in Arthur's show this week steals a march on the prestigious new show launching later this evening by featuring Arthur as a psychiatrist.  As you might expect, he turns out to be far more disturbed than stressed executive Nicholas Parsons, who's come seeking his help: "You come in here, you pester me with your soppy little problems, just because you're a little bit overwrought... I have to sit here and listen to all this drivel that you people come out with every afternoon.  It's ridiculous! And I suppose you're National Health, are you?" Dr Haynes becomes slightly more accommodating on learning Parsons is a private patient, and tries to get him to relax.

Arthur demonstrates "limp"
Arthur launches into a long stream of psychobabble (obviously dubbed over a shot of the back of his head), resorting to strong language when Parsons fails to understand: "Oh you ruddy fool you!"  Attempts at hypnotising Parsons also come to no avail.

"I feel terribly inferior," Parsons confesses.  "So you should, you great big oaf you!" his shrink responds.  If nothing else the whole thing provides a tremendous catharsis for Dr Haynes' extreme persecution complex.

Tonight's second main sketch begins in jovial fashion but develops into the most darkly comic sketch I've yet seen in the show.  Last week's sketch featuring tramps Arthur and Dermot ended with them ascending to heaven: this week their lodging are more like the Other Place.  Their grim bedroom is used as both bathroom and general thoroughfare in the decaying house they find themselves in.  Dermot sleeps in the bath wearing (for some unexplained reason) a lady's nightie.  This leads a neighbouring harridan (Dorothy Dampier) to the bizarre conclusion that he's a woman Arthur's sneaked in.

"You brazen hussy!"
Dampier's role seems to have been written with Rita Webb in mind (Arthur calls her "ratbag" and "sex kitten").  She does a perfectly good job, and indeed in traditional terms her performance is probably better - but, well, Rita Webb's Rita Webb.

The sketch develops with the arrival of a doctor (Parsons) who's come to visit a pair of sick men in the house.  It turns out they're sleeping in a cupboard at a rate of ninepence a week.  Parsons' horror at the disgustingly squalid conditions that the house's tenants are living in injects a surprising tone of moral seriousness into the sketch, though Arthur and Dermot claim it doesn't bother them.

But once the doctor's gone to call an ambulance for the seriously neglected pair of men, Arthur decides he likes the sound of a week or two in hospital with fresh food and clean clothes.  So he and Dermot shove the dying men under the bed and take their place, ready to be taken away by the ambulancemen.  It's pretty dark stuff.

Considerably less dark (though perhaps no less disturbing) are the act who occupy tonight's musical slot, Welsh-Scots husband-and-wife country duo Miki and Griff, who certainly look very pleased to be on the show.

Oh, excellent facial hair, Sir
And now tonight's main event (to my mind at least): the start of a brand new series from ABC.

From the very start of the show, with Bernard Ebbinghouse's swirling, instantly memorable theme (played by John Barry's orchestra) accompanying a shadowy Herbert Lom puffing elegantly on a fag and settling down behind his desk, The Human Jungle is obviously a class act.  Made for ABC by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn's Independent Artists, whose prestige productions included Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life (and who'd later take over production of The Avengers), it's gorgeously shot on film.  This means it resembles ITC's action-adventure series (The Saint, the early episodes of Ghost Squad), but it's far more interesting than just another crime/espionage series.  The show depicts how psychiatrist Dr Roger Corder (the always wonderful Lom - here the absolute embodiment of suavity) unravels the problems of his patients: but there's more to it than that.  The Human Jungle's a show symptomatic of the early 60s, a time when the end of Empire and the decline of British industry led to Britain becoming a more insecure, introspective nation than it had been in living memory.  The problems Corder analyses aren't just those of individual patients, but those which were seen as the problems of society as a whole.

It's the problems of British industry that are central to The Vacant Chair, which is written and directed with great panache by Bill McIlwraith and James Hill respectively (it makes an interesting companion piece to the Avengers episode Six Hands Across a Table from a couple of weeks ago).  It also has a top-drawer cast of character actors.

Ronald Leigh-Hunt and Edward Evans
Lloyd Lamble and Keith Pyott
Hamilton Dyce
Geoffrey Palmer
Diane Clare
Anne Blake
John Horsley and a ridiculously young Gemma Jones
When the managing director of a large manufacturer based in the north has a fatal heart attack during a board meeting, Corder is called in to decide which of the two candidates to replace him is most suited to the role.  Should it be George Hunter (Leigh-Hunt), with his inclusive, democratic management style, or the autocratic Basil Phillips (Lamble)? This may not sound like the most potentially thrilling set-up, but the intricate relationships between the company's employees are brilliantly portrayed, and that splendid cast stop it from ever being dull.  Much of the dialogue offers a fascinating window into the state of the nation in 1963 - like Brigadier West's (Pyott) observation that "This company - in fact the country herself - is in the middle of the most terrifying battle: the battle for survival.  It's being fought not with guns but with hard sales."

The first time we see Corder he's treating a disturbed young boy, Arthur.  It's implied that Arthur isn't an especially lucrative client, but the doctor's integrity's established by the fact that he's clearly far more interested in treating everyday folk like this than the phoney business people who've engaged his services at great cost.  Corder clearly has nothing but disdain for their machinations (his eventual decision of who should become managing director is downplayed and it's obviously a matter of little interest to him), and on hearing that Arthur's in distress he drops everything to head back down to London at night to visit him.

The show's other regulars are equally likeable.  Corder's colleague Jimmy Davis (Michael Johnson) is humorous and dreamily handsome, while his daughter Jennifer (Sally Smith) at first just seems a petulant teenager but is revealed to be a highly capable and self-determined young woman.

An enjoyable subplot sees Jennifer strike up a teen romance with George Hunter's son Peter (Jonathan Burn) - here they are twisting away, as was the style at the time.

Eventually Peter takes Jennifer for a drive, only to abandon her in the middle of nowhere.  Apparently forgiving him, she joins him for another drive - specifically so she can dump him this time.  Corders Senior and Junior have an instantly believable father-daughter bond, chuckling together over their contempt for the shallow crowd they've been mixing with.

It's the female characters in The Vacant Chair that are most vividly drawn - specifically the candidates' wives.  Brenda Hunter (Hazel Hughes) is a bitter alcoholic who's spent years trying to ignore her husband's less than discreet affairs with a string of secretaries, while the glamorous Anne Phillips (Delphi Lawrence) tries to use her considerable charms to sway Corder's opinion.  The pair, predictably but entertainingly, loathe each other.  "Anne Phillips says she was a model," Brenda observes, "A word, judging from the newspapers, that seems to cover a multitude of sins."

I don't have the words to express how much I love that deer ornament

Bill McIlwraith's talent for writing venomous women would find its ultimate expression in his play The Anniversary, filmed by Hammer with Bette Davis.  He certainly leaves himself open to charges of misogyny, as this closing exchange between Corder and Davis indicates, with Corder dismissing the notion that the wives in any way affected his decision:

Corder: I don't believe that women play a dominant role in the higher strata of big business.
Davis: Oh, but in America, Dr Corder...
Corder: This happens to be England, Jimmy, and not America.

Oh dear...

Here's that ultra-cool theme tune and opening sequence in full.  Look - he's got a tape recorder! Swish!