Saturday, 18 May 2013

Saturday 18 May 1963

Hello! Leave any mirth you might be carrying with you at the door as it's an especially downbeat Saturday evening on ITV this week, starting off with easily the bleakest and most depressing episode of Ghost Squad to date.

The diplomat of the title is Clive Errington (Derrick De Marney), and the reason for his desperation is his wife, Margaret (Hammer horror fave Barbara Shelley).  Margaret's recently returned from a stay abroad at a rest home after a supposed nervous breakdown.  In truth, she's a heroin addict.

Initially seeming to have beaten her addiction, Margaret's since relapsed.  Clive lays the responsibility for this at the door of Margaret's "close friend" Neville Shand, proprietor of the Black Orchid club.

The first in a series of limited edition Doctor Who matchbooks
The hissably evil Shand is played with wicked relish by Ferdy Mayne, of The Fearless Vampire Killers and, oh, loads of other stuff fame.  His unconvincingly Italian associate Anna's played by Naomi Chance, who last appeared in Ghost Squad just a few weeks ago, in the strikingly similar role of a drug dealer's moll.

Clive pays an ill-advised visit to Shand, and threatens him with a gun that's not even loaded  Unsurprisingly this doesn't much faze the club owner, who just sets his burly henchman on the weedy diplomat.  Shand's now got the Erringtons even more firmly in the palm of his hand - if it comes to light that Clive's threatened to kill someone it'll spell even more definite doom for his career than having a junkie wife.

Much against Clive's will, the Ghost Squad become involved in his domestic troubles as they attempt to put a stop to Shand's activities.  This week Nick Craig's impenetrably disguised himself as a telephone repairman.

Anna, we discover, is an exclusive dressmaker who gets rich, bored clients like Margaret  hooked on heroin and then forces them to do favours for Shand.  Poor old Clive's forced to resign when it turns out Margaret's been smuggling drugs into the country in his diplomatic luggage.  Craig doesn't get the chance to talk to the unfortunate Anna, though, Shand deciding to make sure she doesn't talk.

As well as a deeply depressing episode, The Desperate Diplomat's an unusually hard-hitting one, mincing no words in its stark portrayal of drug addiction among the most unexpected members of society.  The episode's dominated by Barbara Shelley's extraordinary performance as Margaret.

As her work for Hammer showed, Shelley's special talent lies in playing seemingly upright women whose dignity crumbles under the weight of uncontrollable desires.  Her performance in The Desperate Diplomat is as intense and horribly compelling as those in Dracula Prince of Darkness and Quatermass and the Pit.  The most memorable part of the episode comes when she explains to her husband how the tedium of her life as a prosperous lady who lunches led her to relapse into drug abuse.  There's the faintest glimmering of a feminist subtext to all this.  If you squint.

Margaret's treatment at the hands of Shand is unremittingly brutal throughout, and at the episode's climax, while Nick Craig gathers the evidence he needs to convict the club owner, Margaret attempts to turn the tables on her tormentor.

But by this point she's too weak to do anything but take it as Shand simply laughs and puts her out of her misery.

The episode ends with Craig and Superintendent Stock walking away as a broken  Clive, his life and his career ruined, sobs over his wife's body. I told you it bleak.  On a lighter note, there's more strangeness with the Ghost Squad timeline tonight as we're introduced to treasury boss Sir Thomas Glanville (Richard Caldicot) for the first time - despite the fact that we saw him standing in for Stock as chief of Ghost Squad a few weeks back.  It's all very confusing.

There's very little in the way of light relief in tonight's Man of the World, I'm afraid...

This week Michael Strait's on an assignment in Vietnam (a couple of years before the US began to send troops out there).  After getting shot, he's taken to a field hospital run by strictly neutral Italian surgeon Moretti (Anthony Quayle).  Strait spends his convalescence concentrating on his beautiful nurse, Souen (Tsai Chin, Christopher Lee's co-star in the increasingly dodgy Fu Manchu films).

Soon the camp's invaded by Communist troops led by John Meillon as Major Teong and everyone's favourite baldie baddie John Hollis as Lieutenant Hang.  Both actors are plastered in horrifically unconvincing Asian makeup.  Mind you, the use of real footage from Vietnam at the beginning of the episode only serves to underline how un-Vietnamese even the genuinely Asian actors in the episode look.

Under the new regime, the medical camp is supposed to treat only Major Teong's soldiers - a rule Moretti blithely ignores.  The troops mount a campaign of terror, snatching bibles from nurses as they read them to children and putting a brutal stop to Strait's attempt to teach the kids baseball (this all seems eminently sensible to me, I must admit).

The lack of co-operation from Moretti and his staff's more than the highly-strung Major Teong can cope with, and he embarks on a shocking frenzy of slapping.

But it turns out the Major's not the heartless baddie we've been led to suppose.  When he receives orders to put Moretti to death his conscience won't let him do it, so he ends up helping the doctor, the journalist, the nurses and various non-speaking extras escape.  To his own great cost, obviously.

The Enemy's not especially memorable, but the setting makes it worthy of interest - by placing the episode in a genuine place of contemporary conflict (rather than a similar but fictional one as was usually the case with shows like this) it automatically feels a lot more real and less escapist than the majority of ITC dramas.  The setting looks surprisingly convincing, too.

Despite the limitations of the ridiculous makeup and Dalek-like accents of the officers, John Meillon gives a decent performance as the surprisingly complex Major.  And Anthony Quayle's great as the genuinely heroic Moretti.  Unfortunately I'm unable to ever see Quayle without being reminded of Tom Baker's hilarious remembrances of how deathly boring he was.

Continuing tonight's viewing, at least The Human Jungle starts off in cheery mood, with young married couple Penny (Jane Merrow) and David (Philip Gilbert - later to achieve cult immortality as the voice of The Tomorrow People's computer) celebrate their first anniversary.  Penny stuns David by revealing she's completely refurnished the dining room as a surprise for him.

But obviously a picture of domestic bliss doesn't make very good material for a psychological drama series, and it quickly emerges that, while Penny claims to have splashed out on the new furniture (and a new car, and various other things) using a legacy from an aunt, various surly men insisting she pay them seem to think otherwise.

Penny's already a patient of Dr Corder's, having been sent to him by her GP to help with her insomnia.  The always astute psychiatrist suspects Penny isn't being honest with him about the reasons she can't sleep, and alarm bells ring when she brazenly asks if he can lend her £25.  In the belief it'll help reveal more about her problems, Corder takes the extremely unprofessional step of doing what she asks.

Corder draws the line at accepting tickets to the races from Penny, but happily gives them to his daughter Jennifer, who's accompanied to the track by Jimmy Davis.  And they have a splendid day out.

At the bar, however, Jimmy spots Penny (who's blown Dr Corder's money on a horse) behaving very suspiciously, hiding money in her binoculars case.

This turns out to be winnings which she's stolen from a friend who's had better luck than her.  When he notices they're missing, the police are called in.  And then David goes to use the binoculars...

The devastatingly embarrassing scene that results drives Penny to drastic measures.

With Penny admitted to Dr Corder's hospital, David tries to get in touch with her well-to-do parents in East Africa (who he's never met) to get them to pay a visit - only to find there's no record of their existence.  Penny goes missing, and David and Corder eventually track her down to a country manor.  There's a shock in store for all when it turns out that Penny's parents aren't the owners of the house, but the servants.  What's more her name's not really Penny, but... Brenda!

The shame she feels for her lowly origin has caused Penny to create a whole new persona for herself, and her descent into debt and theft is the result of trying to back it up with the appropriate material goods.  The issues Robert Banks Stewart's script interrogates - Britain's class barriers and the "live now, pay later" lifestyle, were red hot at the time the episode was made, and they've never gone away.  However, despite fantastic performances from Merrow and Gilbert, combining the separate issues in this way eventually proves too ambitious.  The episode ends in deus ex machina style when Corder calls in Penny's father-in-law, Northern millionaire Sir Harry Branch (Richard Warner).  David and Sir Harry haven't spoken for years after a disagreement, but rather than an ogre he turns out to be a kindly chap who bitterly regrets the feud and eases Penny's class anxieties by revealing his own origins to be just as humble as hers.

With Penny getting a suspended sentence for the theft, her self-esteem patched up, and the implication that she and David will get out of their financial hole with the help of Sir Harry, everything's wrapped up nicely.  The episode ends with the three of them riding off as passengers in the jaunty vintage car belonging to the friends Penny shamed herself in front of at the races.  It's a glib, unsatisfying ending, but strangely heartwarming nonetheless.  And the last thing we wanted to end tonight's viewing with was another dead housewife.

There's a bizarre comedy interlude tonight as Jimmy's eccentric patient Mr Mandelbaum (Harold Berens), an enthusiastic amateur artist, shows off some of his vast body of work.

"Trees Hanging Upside Down"
"Berta in Orbit"
I really hope this becomes a regular feature.

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