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.

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