Saturday, 13 April 2013

Saturday 13 April 1963

This week's Ghost Squad begins with the kind of tantalisingly absurd scene that The Avengers would later make its own.  An establishing shot tells us we're in a Middle Eastern country - we then fade in to a building decked out in conspicuously Scottish decor, with a big, burly Scot, Henry Cameron (Archie Duncan) practising the bagpipes.  There's a knock at the door, and he goes to answer.

At the door there's an extravagantly-accented woman named Gertrude (Mary Mackenzie), who claims to have with her the plans for an anti-British rebellion, and begs for safe passage to London.  Henry lets her in and then swiftly converts his bagpipes into a transmitting device and begins tapping out a message in morse code, the episode's title appearing an episode at a time as he taps.

It turns out that Gertrude is an exotic dancer-cum-double agent, a walking disaster area who's caused more than her fair share of international incidents.  Nick Craig reluctantly heads out to anti-British Bel Sannah (at war with pro-British Atarah) to get her, posing as her husband.  Neither are particularly impressed with their newly acquired spouse: "They send a boy to do a man-sized job?" Gertrude exclaims.

Like The Heir Apparent, Gertrude is an out-and-out comedy episode.  The episode's script, by Human Jungle writer Bill McIlwraith, includes some decent laughs at the expense of the rituals of espionage (Craig greets Henry with the code phrase "Are the McDonalds still fighting the Campbells?" only to get the blankly uncomprehending "Why, should they be?" in response) and international relations (at one point Bel Sannah and Atarah seem set to swap their pro- and anti-British stances, but the powers that be in Britain aren't bothered as at least they'll still have an ally) - but any chance of subtlety is ruined by Mary Mackenzie's ridiculous performance.  And her histrionic delivery and goggling facial expressions seem to inspire Douglas Wilmer (in fez and gravy browning as the episode's main antagonist) to compete with her in hamming it up something bonkers.

At the episode's climax, when it's revealed that Gertrude is in fact a triple agent working against the British, the pair have a moment of shared diabolical laughter that couldn't be more panto if Puss in Boots entered stage right.

And if that's not enough the cast also includes the ever-flamboyant Steve Plytas as an Ataran chasing after Gertrude for marrying and abandoning his son.

These severely overdone performances help to make Archie Duncan's Henry, a quiet, peace-loving chap completely unsuited to the life of a spy, even more likeable than he might otherwise have been.    When Nick Craig finds that Henry's revolver is missing, the weary Scot's response is "I hope somebody has taken it, because I can't stand violence."

Superintendent Stock's away once more, and his replacement this week, Sir Thomas Glanville, is played by Richard Caldicot - aka The Navy Lark's Captain Povey.  Given the thorough daftness of Gertrude, it's entirely appropriate casting.

There's yet another new title sequence for The Arthur Haynes Show tonight, with Arthur trying on hats in his dressing room mirror before deciding on the one that tells us he's once more starting the episode off as his (literally) disturbing weirdo character:

The weirdo sketches have been a bit lacklustre in recent weeks, and this is the first since the original train sketch with a satisfying combination of the silly and the genuinely sinister.  Nicholas Parsons is trying to read his paper in the park, but Arthur won't stop staring at him.  It turns out Arthur initially mistook the thoroughly male and Caucasian Parsons for an Indian girl he used to know.  This leads to speculation on Parsons' ethnic origin: "European - with a little Algerian... look, you're blushing.  Now you could be mistaken for an Indian.  A red Indian!" Arthur apologises for any offence he's given.

"Make up, make up, never do it again...
...otherwise you get the cane!"
Things get even more bizarre as Arthur insists on playing games...

...and eventually ties Parsons up and forces him to play the Yes-No game from popular TV quiz Take Your Pick.  It's all a bit like Freddie Francis's classic 1970 film Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly in its sinister childishness.

"You said it again! Oh, you are a little silly billy!"
Parsons eventually wins Arthur's hat as a prize, leading to him being carried away by the police, alerted by a woman previously disturbed by Arthur.  She soon realises her mistake, though...

"I'll be Mother and you be Father!"
At the grim boarding house Arthur and Dermot call home, Arthur's apparently given up his dreams of writing a stage success and found a new interest: medicine.  He's managed to acquire a stethoscope from somewhere, and diagnoses Dermot with woodworm - somehow he also seems to have got coal dust in his chest.

Dermot's modesty is nearly compromised when the local Tory parliamentary candidate turns up (played by Nicholas Parsons, obviously) - and immediately trips over his lines, referring to "the solid and squardid" conditions the pair live in.

Predictably enough Arthur's got no time for Parsons' capitalistic chat, while Dermot's just interested in what he plans to do about occupied Ireland.  Landlady Rita Webb's been listening at the door to Arthur badmouthing her as per, and insists on her respectability.

"I've always kept men at arms' length!"
Arthur thinks Rita's parrot might have a tale or two to tell: "talk about Lady Chatterley".  To much scoffing from both Rita and Nicholas, Arthur reveals his ambition to become a doctor, and Dermot's to become an MP: "he's been down to the labour exchange and put his name down for a seat, and they won't give him one."

Our musical guest tonight is the one and only Miss Cleo Laine, helping to add a touch of class to proceedings.

Now to The Human Jungle, which tonight takes inside the conflicted mind of a religious fanatic.

A religious meeting at Hyde Park.  The preacher exhorts his flock to confess their sins.  Harry Fowler plays a heckler in the congregation ("have you seen this tart here?" he cries when a lady puts her hand up).  A haunted-looking man (Derek Farr) suddenly runs off when the preacher asks if he has anything to confess...

Finding his way to Dr Corder's Harley Street office, the uneasy chap claims to be called Brian Carnadine, and to have committed a terrible sin - only he can't remember what it was.  He also has an intermittently paralysed arm.  Corder installs the patient in his private hospital (I'm especially taken with the doctor's splendid office at the hospital).

"He's wrestling with a ghost - that's all we know", Corder's assistant Jimmy Davis dramatically announces.  Brilliantly, the sound of a wailing theremin starts up on the soundtrack whenever the  new patient's religious mania becomes apparent: it manifests itself in a creepy obsession with Corder's daughter Jennifer and her relationships with boys: "She wears dresses for them that show off her body, just enough of her body."

It quickly turns out that Brian Carnadine is in fact the name of the preacher we saw in Hyde Park - Corder's patient is Frank Hewitt, a man whose religious obsession even Carnadine's intimidated by.  Hewitt's recently married another member of the congregation, dress shop owner Erica, who Jimmy tries to get in touch with - only to find she seems to have vanished.  Could Erica have met the same fate as the dismembered mannequin Jimmy discovers?

Eventually Erica (Iris Russell) re-emerges, and Hewitt, who's absconded from hospital, goes to see her.  It doesn't end well, though she just about manages to stop him strangling her.

Eventually the puzzle's pieced together for us: the terrible sin Hewitt's committed is bigamy.  His first wife, Gloria, turned out to be a shameless tart shortly after they were married and now she refuses to give him a divorce.  Hewitt's now living "in sin" with Erica, pretending they're married in order to make their relationship appear respectable.  However, their religious scruples won't allow them to consummate the pretend marriage, and it's sexual frustration that's driven Hewitt to the brink of madness, and rendered his arm useless.  Gloria's played by the striking Andree Melly, sister of George, and best known for a stint in Hancock's Half Hour on the radio and playing the most memorable of Hammer's Brides of Dracula (she was also the first contestant to talk for the whole minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation on Just a Minute, fact fans).  She very nearly becomes a victim of her estranged spouse's frustrations.

What better way than glass clowns to show someone's common?

The episode's exploration of the contradictory rules religion forces on people is powerful, and Farr, Russell and Melly all turn in splendid performances.  The show's attitude toward women is still questionable though, particularly in the case of Gloria, a complete bitch who seems to acquire husbands just to ruin their lives.  She's too much of a caricature, and the virginal Erica isn't much better - more of the women's perspective on events would have been welcome.  Once again it's up to Sally Smith as Jennifer Corder to fly the flag for intelligent, independent women.  On first seeing Hewitt she immediately diagnoses what's wrong with him - and his proved to be right.  The interplay between her and her father is great, as she puts him in the chair as her patient.

The smaller parts in this week's episode are interestingly cast.  Gerald Sim has a tiny, uncredited role as a police constable, while Erica's busybody neighbour ("I think I can say I've brought a ray of sunshine into more than one life") is played with great brio by character actress Anita Sharp-Bolster, whose career included a spell in Hollywood during its golden age (her roles included Edward G Robinson's maddeningly shrewish wife in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street).  The part of Hewitt's sister, meanwhile, is performed by Jenny Laird, who was in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus and later found lasting infamy with a remarkably incompetent guest performance in Doctor Who.

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