Saturday, 29 June 2013

Saturday 29 June 1963

Regular readers may remember me saying a few week's back that The Desperate Diplomat (the one with Barbara Shelley as a junkie housewife) was the bleakest and most depressing Ghost Squad episode I'd seen.  Well, it's now got a rival in this week's episode, which goes by the no-frills title The Missing People.     The writer and director - Peter Yeldham and Antony Kearey respectively - aren't among the better known to work on the show, but they both do a superlative job here.

The episode begins with nightclub hostess Josie (Pamela Ann Davy) clocking off from her job at the Beverley Club (unfortunately there's no connection with Babs, Joy and Teddie as far as I can tell).  The gloriously named manager Slim Salmon (Willoughby Goddard, the fat sleazeball's fat sleazeball) attempts to waylay her but she's not interested: "I'll tell you my life story tomorrow," she says, dashing off.  "Oh no you won't", Slim growls darkly to himself.

This leads to a gorgeously noirish sequence on film as Josie hurries through the dark streets pursued by a pair of youths (Peter Fraser and Glyn Dearman).  Josie finds a hiding place, and as the thugs search for her the camera focuses on her terrified face.  Pamela Ann Davy's performance here is extraordinary - the way she sticks out her tongue and licks her lips is unforgettable.  Described like that it sounds ridiculous, but on screen it's incredibly effective and perfectly communicates the character's attempt to stay cool.  A gorgeous and massively undervalued actress whose career came to a frustratingly early end, Davy was considered for the role of Emma Peel in The Avengers (and eventually turned up in the show as a villain) and this scene gives us some idea of how she would have been in the role: by my estimation, marvellous.

Thinking the coast's clear, Josie hurries on but is pursued once more.  She slashes one of the thugs on his face and makes it back to her flat (and VT).  But there's a terrible fate awaiting her.

And that's Pamela Ann Davy's screen time come to an end, though with her astonishing performance she's managed to comfortably walk off with the episode in its first five minutes.  There's 45 more to go, and though they're not quite as memorable they still pack a punch.  It turns out that Josie was in fact Ghost Squad agent Jenny Williams, assigned by Superintendent Stock to find out what happened to a steady stream of Poles who emigrated to England and then promptly disappeared.  Determined to get to the bottom of the case and avenge Jenny's death, Stock interviews the perplexed mother of one of the missing (played by British TV's go-to worried Polish woman, Hana-Maria Pravda).

Tony Miller's given the task of impersonating Johnny Lomax, a pilot who's just got out of prison, in the hope he'll be contacted by the gang behind the disappearances. Miller's given a fake wife - and here things get a bit confusing.  She's played by Patricia Mort, who plays Ghost Squad agent Sally Lomax in episodes which were made later but have already been broadcast.  Here, Tony meets her for the first time, her name's Rose, and she's only pretending to be called Lomax.  It hurt my head just typing all that.  Anyway,Tony's rather enjoying his new domestic arrangements.

The snogging's for the benefit of Slim Salmon, who the agents have realised is hiding in their kitchen.  He offers Tony a job and takes him to see his employer.  This turns out to be hugely successful but entirely sociopathic businessman Victor Cresswell (Nigel Green).  He wants Miller/Lomax to make regular flights to Poland,and his demonstration of the need for confidentiality is rather graphic.

In a queasy demonstration of Cresswell's need to have complete power over his , he makes Miller put his slippers on for him.  He's quite the nastiest piece of work we've encountered in the series, and later we'll find out just how nasty he is.

Miller flies out to Poland accompanied by Cresswell's volatile henchman Smith (Rio Fanning).  Six illegal passengers seeking transport to England are brought aboard, but once in flight Smith insists they huddle together in the bomb bay.  The scene of their faces staring out of the dark as they sing amongst themselves to  try and distract from the awful fate they've realised awaits them is the most harrowing thing I've yet seen for this blog.

But Miller's worked out what happens on the regular flights Cresswell arranges -the passengers are parted from their money and valuables, then as the ship flies over their ocean, Smith discreetly drops them to their watery graves.  It's a horrible revelation, and Neil Hallett plays Miller's moral outrage perfectly.  After the craven Smith presses the bomb bay door control Miller forces him to confront the reality of the lives he's coldly ended.  Only when Smith's broken down from the shame he feels does Miller reveal he disabled the door control to ensure this final cargo will make it safely to earth.

Back in England, Miller shows no compunction in gunning Cresswell down.  The way Nigel Green lurches about like Frankenstein's monster after he's been shot, before finally crashing to the ground, is terrifying.

The episode ends on the usual sappy note as Stock vetoes Miller's requests to get to know "Rose" better.  But the darker elements of The Missing People linger on in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

And now, in a much lighter vein, there's a brand new show for Saturday nights from the people at ATV.

By 1963, the BBC's Dixon of Dock Green was looking decidedly old-fashioned in contrast to more thrustingly modern police shows like its BBC stablemate Z Cars (not that this affected its popularity - it would soldier on for another 13 years).  For Dixon creator Ted Willis' new series, being old-fashioned was its selling poiny.  Sergeant Cork is the detective show equivalent of The Good Old Days - the Victorian London it's set in may be riddled with crime but it's as comfy and as familiar as a  much-loved cuddly toy.  The scene is set in  unsubtle fashion by the first episode's opening exchange between two workmen: "They want some labourers in that new underground.  I might try up there."  "I don't agree with all this burrowing under the ground!"

The workmen's destination is the Crystal Dining Rooms - and what an enticing bill of fare they offer (later in the episode it's explained for the more ignorant of us that a two eyed steak is, in fact, a kipper).

The chap in the apron's the Crystal's kindhearted, dimwitted waiter Clive (Christopher Guinee).  As he goes about his task of serving various picturesque extras his employer, Mrs Oxley (Jean Trend) rushes in, announces there's something wrong with her husband and promptly faints.

It turns out that there certainly is something wrong with Mr Oxley: he's dead.

This teaser out of the way, we're introduced to Bob Marriott (William Gaunt), a rakish young toff who's failed in every job he's ever attempted: medicine, finance, journalism.  As a last resort, he's turned to the police.  As he's friends with the son of a bigwig he's welcomed into the force with open arms.

Marriott's sent to work informally with Sergeant Cork, leading light of the recently formed CID.  Cork's a fabulous eccentric, too wrapped up in new advances in the science of detection to notice much else, and played gloriously by John Barrie.  When we first see him he's trying out fingerprinting, a recent import from the US,on a befuddled elderly porter.

When Marriott finally gets the chance to explain that he'll be working with Cork, the Sergeant merrily whisks him off to the inquest into Mr Oxley's death.  The courtroom's packed with familiar TV guest actors.  Edward Burnham looks absolutely marvellous as the tetchy coroner.

Taking the witness stand as Oxley's dapper doctor is Peter Halliday, trying out a peculiar accent which I think is meant to be Welsh but could just as easily be Scottish.  He's convinced the death (poisoning with chloroform) was suicide.

Totally unconvinced of this is Oxley's loudmouth elderly mother Kate, played by the marvellous Hilda Barry, with ubiquitous giddy old lady Lucy Griffiths in tow as her friend.  Kate scandalises the courtroom by brazenly accusing her daughter-in-law of murder.

She's not alone in the belief it was murder: Cork prevails upon his superior, clueless but gloriously bemonocled Major Bradnock (Gerald Case) - surely named in tribute to The Goon Show's Major Bloodnok? - to investigate the case.  He knows it couldn't possibly be suicide, as drinking chloroform would be far too painful for anyone to manage.

Cork interviews the redoubtable Kate Oxley, who's certain her daughter-in-law's goal in the marriage was Mr Oxley's money - well, it couldn't have been his looks: "Even at his best he looked like Sunday pudden warmed up for Monday's dinner."  Kate gets all the best cod-Victorian lines: "You didn't swallow all that piccalilli about suicide, did yer?"

Meanwhile, Marriott's getting in the swing of things by testing out whether Oxley could have been poisoned while he slept.  His way of doing this is to try and force a glass of water down the throat of a sleeping tramp in the police cells (ubiquitous bit part actor Sydney Bromley, whose filmography is about 75% bewildered tramps).  The poor chap isn't best pleased.

As Mrs Oxley realises the net's closing in on her, she tries to put the blame for the crime on the unfortunate Clive, who's hopelessly in love with her.  And indeed he did administer the poison, but it was at the behest of Mrs Oxley and the doctor who are... secret lovers! I know, it's shocking stuff.

Written by Willis himself, The Case of the Reluctant Widow's a basic but hugely entertaining first adventure for Cork and his sidekick, with a wonderful supporting cast and the makings of a fantastic double act between Barrie and Gaunt.

And finally, to the world of music.  Gerry and the Pacemakers are still at number 1 with "I Like It", while the Shadows' "Atlantis" rises from the depths to number 2. The full chart's here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Wednesday 26 June 1963

Yes, Z Cars.  One of the most important and influential programmes of the 1960s: and as with so many other shows of its era, a depressingly small proportion of the episodes that were made still exist.  This is the first of several  extremely sporadic appearances the show will be making around these parts.

If you don't know the set-up of Z Cars, it concerns the groundbreakingly gritty adventures of the police force in Newtown (a fictionalised version of Liverpool's overspill town Kirkby - Liverpool itself appears in the show in the guise of "Seaport"). The force's adversaries this week are a team of "whizzers" - organised pickpockets.  The organisation consists of three men: the burly Geer (Michael Brennan, owner of one of the most menacing faces in screen history), knocks some unsuspecting sap into the gang's leader, the suave, ever-so-polite Finger (Rex Garner), who extracts the victim's wallet.

The Finger then surreptitiously passes this to the Third Man (Harry Locke), who legs it.

The Newtown police are on the lookout for the Whizzers, but PC Jock Weir (Joseph Brady) has his mind on other things: specifically the way his shifts are forever being moved round to ensure he can play in the police football matches: he's the leading light of the local team but he's getting a bit cheesed off with his participation being taken for granted.  The storyline of Jock as a reluctant sporting hero's a perfect example of the pioneering soap opera-like approach Z Cars takes to its principal characters, fleshing out their characters by giving them complicated lives outside of their pursuit of wrongdoers.  We take this stuff for granted in 21st century police shows, but it was a trail that Z Cars blazed.

Jock's partner, the dandyish PC "Fancy" Smith is played by Brian Blessed, who's disconcertingly baby-faced at this stage in his career but still manages the occasional deafening bellow.

On the lookout for the Whizzers, Smith and Weir pull over a chap who matches the Finger's description and has a similar car.  This man, Mr Broom (Gerald Anderson) turns out to be a massive headache for poor Jock.  He's appallingly snooty and shows utter contempt for Jock's questions: things get a bit heated and he and the policeman end up each calling the other a bloody liar.  Yes, strong language for telly in 1963.  The encounter ends with the scandalised Broom insisting he'll have Jock hauled over the coals for his behaviour.

Meanwhile, the real Finger's relaxing in his hotel room with his truculent missus Sandra (Jill Carson).  She's fed up with the life of a pickpocket's moll, and her assessment of their current surroundings is succinct.  "What an 'ole," she complains, like a cheap Cockney Bette Davis.  The Finger tries to convince her of the luxury of their current residence.  You can even get a chicken sent up to your room!

Sandra's requests to be allowed to leave the hotel for a trip to the seaside fall on deaf ears, as the Finger contemplates the most important thing in the world to him: his supernaturally dextrous hands.  He's terrified of going to prison because of what might happen to them there: "You know what happens to dips in stir.  They do their time the hard way, sewing mail bags and chopping rocks.  When they come out their hands are in such a state they couldn't lift a watch off a blind man's belly."

In stark contrast to Mr and Mrs Finger's hotel suite, the other members of the gang have to make do with some thoroughly insalubrious digs.

Still, at least the Geer's got something to occupy his mind:

The gang have been extremely successful, parting 14 people from their money in just three days.  Their modus operandi involves a lot of hanging around outside public conveniences.

After the gang rob one unfortunate feller in the loos, Jock and Fancy interview the lavatory attendant (the idea of going into a public toilet and being greeted by a dapper gent ready to minister to one's every need now seems peculiar and strangely disconcerting).  "Would you know them again?" Jock asks.  "Oh no," the little man says, shocked.  "I never look at their faces."

While Detective Sergeant Watt (Frank Windsor) stalks the Whizzers, Jock finds himself on trial as the Chief Constable hears Mr Broom's accusations.  Rather wonderfully, said Chief's played by Kenneth J Warren, last seen here just last week in Hugh and I in the diametrically opposed role of an escaped convict.  The Assistant Chief Constable's played by another actor who's no stranger to TV Minus 50, the always rather stern Ronald Leigh-Hunt.

Unable to stand by and see Jock's career ruined, the meek Mrs Broom (Margery Mason) utterly humiliates her ghastly husband by admitting that he swore at Jock first.  This earns Jock a stiff reprimand, but nothing more.  Hooray! Now there's the business of catching those thieves to attend to.  Fancy acts as bait with a pocketful of ink to stain the Finger's beloved hands, then duffs the Geer up good and proper.

Jock sets off in pursuit of the Third Man and eventually tackles him, the resulting injury to his knee meaning he won't be playing football for a good long while.

The Whizzers is a fascinating (though pretty headache-inducing due to its entirely unrestored image quality) watch, but more than any other orphan episode I've featured here (except maybe the Coronation Streets) it feels like it badly misses the context of being a weekly instalment of a continuing show.  Z Cars will return to TV Minus 50, but it won't be for some months yet.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Sunday 23 June 1963

What can I say about Space City Special, the episode that brings the current run of Fireball XL5 episodes to an end? It's a thing of wonder: the ultimate manifestation of the surreal lunacy that's made the show such a joy to write about over the last few months.  I'll be providing quite a lot of photographic evidence to bear out this assertion: this evidence has convinced me that Space City Special was not, as for a while I thought it must be, just a particularly bizarre dream.  Come, let me take you by the hand (or whatever the most convenient appendage is) and show you sights that will make you question your sanity (or at the very least that of Gerry Anderson and friends)...

Steve Zodiac's old enemies the Subterrains are up to no good again. Their latest nefarious plan involves the brainwashing of a hapless pilot from Earth.  Why? Because he's flying the plane taking a top brass Space General to Space City to present Steve Zodiac with the Astronaut of the Year award.  The Subterrains plant deep in his mind the order to crash the plane into Space City, which should put a damper on the ceremony, to say the least.

During the brainwashing process, we're treated to this highly unexpected shot.  I have absolutely no idea why this should be.

Yes, this is all wonderfully ridiculous - but there's more, far more to come.  Unaware of their doom heading their way from the skies, the good folk of Space City are preparing for the Astronaut of the Year ceremony. It's going to be on the telly, which Commander Zero is at first typically huffy about...

...but quickly comes round when he realises he's going to get his face on the box (though if his role in the World Space Patrol is as exalted as we've been led to believe, one might think he'd be used to making appearances in the media by now).

The pilot, now placed back among humankind, is preparing for take-off.  Sharing the trip with the general is Fireball XL5's very own Dr Venus, on her way back from picking up some new qualifications.  Before catching the plane there's time for a quick chat with Steve on the videophone.

Yes - space psychology! The mind boggles as to what, precisely, this entails, but Venus has got her diploma and she's all ready to put her new skills into action.  Her first subject is the pilot, who she notices is behaving in a rather shifty fashion.  Her first idea is to give him a quick medical exam (fortunately the airport has all the equipment on hand for her to set up a makeshift examining room in the waiting area).

She can't find anything physically wrong with the pilot, and it's not until the plane's aloft that she cottons on to what's happening.  With her newly acquired space psychology qualification she should've been able to recognise the signs of brainwashing!

Indeed you are, dear.  But more importantly, how are the preparations getting on at Space City? Aburdly, of course.  TV presenter Johnny Johnson insists that the Space Patrol personnel should put on a show of some kind after the presentation.  Fame-hungry Zero quickly aquiesces, and we learn the intriguing  information that he can play drums and Venus (clearly the Lisa Simpson of Space City) is an accomplished saxophonist. Matt insists he can play the piano, although everyone else thinks he's rubbish (only a few weeks ago we saw him playing the electrorchestra with great verve, but everyone seems to have forgotten about this).  It seems, however, that not one amongst them can sing - Matt and Lieutenant Ninety both making woeful attempts at - of course - the Fireball XL5 theme song.

As Venus decides what to do about the sweaty lunatic flying her plane...

...the TV broadcast begins:brilliantly, the station ident is a parody of the one used by ATV - the company Fireball XL5's made for.

The show gets off to a peculiar start with Johnny Jackson referring to "the fabulous World Space Patrol"(which I imagine is a bit like saying "the darling police" or "the simply divine army"), Commander Zero referencing ATV star Bruce Forsyth ("I'm in charge!") and Space City's chief engineer Jock performing a tune on the bagpipes.  I love how specific the subtitles on the show's DVD release are here.

The sound proves particularly distressing to Space City's nuisance-in-chief, Zoonie the Lazoon, who, as it becomes apparent there's a plane shortly due to kill everyone, makes the situation even more stressful by stealing Commander Zero's ray gun.  Is he about to go on the killing spree that's seemed so inevitable for so long?

Not quite - yet.

Meanwhile, Venus manages to knock out the brainwashed pilot and, thanks to Steve's instructions, guide the plane down safely.  Phew!

Johnny Jackson's ecstatic that he's managed to get a real life Space City emergency broadcast to people's tellyboxes.  But the main event is yet to occur...

To show how utterly classy the Astronaut of the Year show is, we're shown elegant black-gloved hands wafting a cigarette holder about and leafing through the programme.

The recommended after-show eaterie is somewhere I think we can all agree is the absolute height of sophistication:

Steve accepts his award - and hurrah, there are special ones for Matt and Venus too.  And now it's time for the absolute pinnacle of Fireball XL5, as the Space City players get to perform for us.  But wait, there's still no singer! Don't panic - it turns out Steve has the voice of an angel after all (or at least a voice very much like that of singer Don Spencer), so the band are able to give us a rocking performance of that old standard, "Theme from Fireball XL5".

It's worth noting that Zero's ceded his place at the drums to Robert, who certainly looks far cooler bashing away at the skins.

The theme song having been incorporated into the show itself, the episode plays out with an especially wonderful instrumental version.

And there we have it, Space City Special - sheer, glorious madness.

Fantastic a way to end the show as this would be, there are happily still a few XL5 episodes yet to be broadcast, so look out for those in the autumn.  But you don't have to wait till then for more space-age puppetry - ABC's Space Patrol, from the mind of Gerry Anderson's one-time collaborator Roberta Leigh, will be joining the TV Minus 50 roster in just a couple of weeks.

In the charts this week, Gerry and the Pacemakers have overthrown the Beatles to achieve their second number 1 with "I Like It".  Meanwhile, Manchester's Freddie and the Dreamers have reached number 3 to make it an all-North West England top 5. Full chart here.