Saturday, 31 August 2013

Saturday 31 August 1963

It occurs to me that it's ages since I've mentioned the real life news events beyond the tellybox that have been taking place in Britain in 1963.  So, in the unlikely event anyone's missed that particular feature of TV Minus 50, tonight's viewing is broadcast to a Britain in which Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler have both been sent to prison, Kim Philby's been revealed as the Third Man, the test ban treaty's been signed by the UK, the US and Russia, and the Great Train Robbery's taken place.  Meanwhile, Pedigree Toys are preparing to introduce the British public to Sindy, their sulky-faced answer to the American Barbie doll.

Anyway, that's enough of the 1960s, time to head back to the 1880s.

The second episode in a row penned by series creator Ted Willis (this time from a story by Bill McIlwraith), tonight's Sergeant Cork initially feels like a companion piece to last week's The Case of the Sleeping Coachman, attacking callous employers and the army with the same fervour as that episode did the landed gentry.  However, it soon finds its own tangent to head off on.

A strike is in progress at the factory owned by the draconian Mr Robinson (Neal Arden) and his more easy-going partners Mr Clarence (Brian Badcoe) and Mr Cook (Tom Macaulay).  The workers are massed outside the factory gates, clamouring for a pay increase.

Robinson takes the inflammatory step of calling in the army to deal with the strikers.  Clarence predicts it will end in disaster and he's not wrong: a man is shot, his body falling on a soldier's rifle...

Much to the disgust of Inspector Bird, who loves nothing more than cosying up to the rich and powerful, Sergeant Cork's chosen to investigate the death, due to him possessing the rare quality of not antagonising the working class.  Was the man shot as a horrible accident in the course of the army trying to keep order (the official line), or is there more going on?

Cork immediately finds his investigation impeded by army bureaucracy, embodied in the form of the supercilious Major Edwards (Basil Henson).  "What incident?" Edwards asks, confused, when Cork comes to see him about the shooting: the death of an "agitator" is to him entirely unworthy of comment.

It's great fun to once again see Cork walk all over an intractable opponent, contempt concealed beneath his twinkly exterior, though the confrontation with the major's essentially just a replay of his interview with the irascible Sir Henry last week.  Despite being frustratingly uncooperative, Edwards does reveal an interesting piece of information: when the shooting took place, Robinson had left the office in order to come and congratulate the Major on the job his men were doing. The Major enthuses about the factory owner:"The sort of fellow who loves a good scrap."  "Yes," Cork sardonically replies, "Especially if the other lot aren't armed."  Cork and Marriott have great fun making off with the rifle against the apopleptic Major's wishes.

Next stop is the dead man's home.  Cork offers his commiserations to the widow, Ivy Strong (Jane Wenham), but finds her already being comforted by her late husband's brother Alf (John Boyd-Brent).  The relationship between the pair seems almost suspiciously close.

The late Mr Strong was a union organiser, which Cork suspects may be related to his death.  At the Strong residence he also gets to meet union chief Ned Fisher (Charles Morgan).  "By all accounts, you're not so bad," the gruff, beardy chap grudgingly acknowledges of the Sergeant.

Marriott, meanwhile, is grilling the factory bosses.  Clarence and Cook seem more than happy to apportion any blame that's going to Robinson, who indeed proves a deeply unpleasant character.  "You've got a damned impertinence discussing me behind my back," he growls on finding Marriott chatting to his partners.  "Well, now I can ask you to your face," Bob winningly responds.  Robinson makes no secret of his hatred for Strong, and in the episode's comic highlight claims he's never wished anyone dead, only to be countered by a childlike "Ooh, that's not what you said!" from the excitable Mr Cook.

Cork finds an unexpected informant in a street sweeper (Douglas Ives), whose enthusiastic, toothless performance should bring a smile to any fans of Patsy Smart's turn as "Ghoul" in Doctor Who's The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Cork's subtle attempts to ward off the man's smell and projectile saliva are also hilarious). Despite firm denials from the factory owner, he confirms that Robinson was indeed outside at the time of the shooting.  By this time, Cork's found out it was a shotgun, rather than the rifle, that ended the man's life, and Robinson's looking like an increasingly likely suspect

Marriott, accompanied by Alf Strong, goes to visit Peter Rowlands (Brian Tipping), another worker who was injured during the strike, and is now recovering in hospital.  During the visit, we get an especially good look at a microphone as it descends into shot (and looks like it comes close to knocking John Boyd-Brent out).

Peter thinks it was he who shot Strong, falling on the gun after being shot himself.  But he's clearly not quite in his right mind.  It's always nice to see a nun, and there's an especially good one ministering to Peter.

While all this is going on, we learn that Alf and Ivy's relationship is indeed very close: he wants to marry her as soon as possible, but she insists he has to give up the union, which she's no time for.  After another visit to Mrs Strong, Cork and Marriott are attacked by a gang of thugs led by Ned Fisher.  They're no match for our wonderful policemen, of course, and Cork's able to extract some further information from Fisher: Strong had been having an affair with a toff.  When Cork finds out that this was, in fact, Mrs Robinson, and that it's her husband's shotgun Strong was killed with, the case against the factory owner seems almost watertight.

But not quite.  Ivy's dalliance with Mr Cook, who's offered her a position as his "housekeeper", makes Alf see red.  In a murderous rage, he confesses to her that it was he who killed his brother, after stealing Robinson's gun, in order to get her for himself - and now it doesn't look like that's happening, she's next.

Cork turns up just in time to save Ivy and cart Alf off.  Ivy's the star character of the episode, vividly brought to life by Jane Wenham - whose screen appearances were relatively few but include a memorable performance as the working class woman who falls victim to the callous middle class in the film version of An Inspector Calls (a pretty Cork-like narrative) - incidentally, she was also Albert Finney's first wife.  As usual, though, the potential for a progressive female character's eventually wasted, with Ivy descending into hysteria after being saved, and suffering the humiliation of having a jug of water flung over her by Cork.

As my rather confused synopsis suggests, The Case of the Soldier's Rifle is an especially involved story, which regularly trips up our expectations.  Comparing it to last week's fairly unambiguous political statement from Willis it's not quite as clear what the message is (if there is one) - though I'd guess it's all about personal squabbles among workers hampering the aims of organised labour.  Or something like that.

Anyway, over to the world of popular music now.  Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas are at number 1 in the hit parade with "Bad to Me", while a little way down the chart here's the stirring sound of Ken Thorne and his orchestra with the theme from The Legion's Last Patrol - the only thing this obscure Stewart Granger-starring Belgian/Spanish/Italian/German co-production is today remembered for.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Friday 30 August 1963

This week we see once again how fraught with danger the life of a 12th century monarch was as, on his way to a jousting tournament, Richard is forced to give up his trusty steed to a knife wielding peasant (Derrick Sherwin, whose later career behind the camera would include a stint producing Doctor Who) who threatens the life of the king's companion Blondel de Nesle (of the instant coffee making family).  The crown of England happens to be in the saddlebag too, but the ever informal Richard's more worried about his horse.

The tournament's hosted by Baron Fitzgeorge, whose son Sir Thomas fought alongside Richard in the Crusades.  He was an exceptional fighter, but Richard never saw his face beneath his visor.  Blondel did, and is shocked to realise it was that of the peasant who attacked them.  When they run into the captain of the Baron's guard, he's strangely evasive about whether or not Sir Thomas is at home.

When Richard and Blondel reach the Baron's castle (correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the exterior's a shot of Bodiam Castle, near Rye - which dates from the 14th century), the Baron (The Navy Lark's Richard Caldicot) and his wife Lady Melinda (Ellen Pollock) seem equally shifty.  They claim it's not possible for the king to see his former comrade as Sir Thomas has a terrible infectious disease.  Incidentally, we learn at this point that Queen Berengaria is busily preparing for her husband's second coronation, feeling the first one lacked "a woman's touch".

Baron Fitzgeorge explains that he has a high rate of absconding serfs due to a family tradition that if they manage to escape and avoid the Baron's men for a year and a day they're granted their freedom.  The sour-faced Lady Melinda, no respecter of tradition, wants her husband to put a stop to this foolishness and harshly punish anyone who tries to escape: "In my father's house we knew the value of thrashing!" she happily recalls.  Her keen insistence that the serf who stole Richard's horse be executed just adds to the mystery.

Light begins to be shed when Richard and Blondel happen upon servant girl Rose (Eira Heath, who was here a few weeks back doing her music hall turn in Sergeant Cork).  She's the fiancĂ©e of Alan, the absconded serf (he's the second character called Alan in as many weeks - strange to think of it as a Medieval name), and once Blondel's done with attempting to romance her, explains that, threatened with death, Alan was forced to go crusading in the real Sir Thomas's place.

Said real Sir Thomas is hiding out in an outhouse to avoid Richard.  He's not ill, it was sheer cowardice that prevented him going to war.  His mother's conniving with him, but poor Baron Fitzgeorge is completely oblivious to what's happened.

Ian Bannen lookalike Michael O'Brien, who plays Sir Thomas, makes up a superbly villainous team alongside Ellen Pollock as his dastardly mother.  Pollock's forbidding countenance would later be put to superb use in Anthony Balch's magnificently odd Horror Hospital (1973).

Alan, who's been recaptured, is brought to Sir Thomas for some great villainous face-slapping.  Richard, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what's going on, accuses Baron Fitzgeorge of setting up the theft of the crown, and demands satisfaction from Sir Thomas.  In a duel, that is.  Poor Alan is once again forced to masquerade as the cowardly aristocrat.

The jousting duel goes ahead (Richard looking especially nice in his armour), with Sir Thomas' minions cutting the reins of the horse in order to make it look like Thomas has bested him.

The pair grapple for a bit off their horses (it looks very intimate), before Alan submits to the king.  Then they walk off together (which looks even more intimate - in fact it looks like a Monty Python sketch about gay knights).

Alan having come clean, Richard reveals the truth to the shocked Baron Fitzgeorge about his wife and son.  Blondel produces the real Sir Thomas, whom he's captured in a chest, and the disgraced nobleman is disinherited and exiled by his father.

The Baron's clearly eyeing up Alan as a replacement son, and considering the revelations he's just faced about his family, it's rather callous of Richard to announce he plans to whisk the young man off to be a champion of his court in London.  A Year and a Day's one of the best Richard the Lionhearts so far, with a genuinely intriguing mystery and a pair of especially hissable baddies. It's just a shame we never find out what Lady Melinda's eventual fate is.

Over on the other side, it's time to find out what comic misunderstandings the Starlings have managed to get themselves into this week.

Kate's shocked to learn that George has stacked up some suitcases in order to provide extra bedspace, her night movements meaning it's rather limited.

Kate, who unfortunately comes across as a bit shrill and unreasonable this week, isn't best pleased to be informed of her sleeping habits.  She takes George's desire for a larger bed as a sign that he doesn't want to be close to her (he reminds her that the reason they didn't get a bigger one was that she was worried what the salesman would think about them wanting a lot of space between them).

Browsing for a bigger bed, George feels deeply uncomfortable on hearing an obnoxious young engaged couple insisting on the most intimate bed possible.

As usual, both George and Kate are convinced there's something wrong with their relationship.  And this week both make a similarly unwise choice of confidant.  Kate goes to visit neighbour Norah, on the pretext of borrowing some soap powder, but really because she wants to sneak a look at Norha's book on Marital Psychology.  We're properly introduced to Christine Finn's Nora here (she was glimpsed briefly in the first episode of the series, in an intoxicated state).  She's wonderfully sardonic, with a Joan Greenwood-like feline quality.  Expounding on the consumer offers with which companies were trying to sell their products throughout the 60s: "I never feel like I'm paying for soap powder these days.  There's always threepence off or three plastic daffodils strapped to the packet."

Nora's been married long enough to have lost the illusions that Kate still clings to.  When Kate says she thinks she and George have had three quarrels a week Nora sighs: "Enjoy them while you can, dear.  They won't last."  Initially dismissive of Kate and George's problems, she changes her tune when Kate tells her that George has "gone off the bed", and starts to share Kate's fear that the relationship's doomed.

George, meanwhile, tells all to his rather too hearty father (Geoffrey Sumner) over lunch, and comes away convinced that Kate's broody: bad news as they'd agreed not to try for a baby for at least two years.

On returning home, George fears the worst on finding the Marital Psychology book and noticing there's a whole chapter on expectant fathers.

Kate enters, having bought a bizarre assortment of things in the hope of winning George's love back, including a jar of kangaroo tail soup.

And we end with the requisite scene of misunderstandings being cleared up and the pair reconciling ("I had a good look at all the babies I saw," George informs a baffled Kate, "And some of them seemed quite reasonable").  Marriage Lines is still very amiable, but three weeks in it's already starting to feel just the tiniest bit stale.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Monday 26 August 1963

The main focus in Coronation Street has always been on its female characters: they're the heroes who carry the drama, while their menfolk are usually dullards, comic buffoons or outright villains.  This instalment, from the pen of one of TV's greatest ever writers, Jack Rosenthal, thrusts the men of the street, en masse, into the limelight.

It's the day of the Rovers darts club's annual outing to New Brighton - which is, of course, an excuse for a major piss-up for all the men of the street.  An exception is Harry Hewitt, who'll be driving the coach.  It's his last coach driving assignment - he's shortly to take up a job as a chauffeur.  Harry's wife Concepta's increasingly anxious about his new position - she's not keen on the idea of being left on her own at nights.  Concepta's stepdaughter Lucille does a deft bit of shit-stirring, planting the idea in her stepmother's head that Harry could be out with other women.  Mention needs to be made here of the remarkable stuffed dog that sits atop the Hewitt's TV set.  The tragedy of the rise of flatscreen TVs is that people are unable to perch glorious tat like this on them.

Prominently displayed in the various scenes at the Hewitt residence, this dog's one of this episode's two breakout stars.  The other is a jolly, knobbly-faced elderly extra in a hat who joins the speaking characters on their trip.  He genuinely looks like he's having the time of his life, and dominates the screen every time he pops up.  You just don't see faces like that on telly any more.

Ken Barlow, characteristically, brings a book along to read on the trip, earning the jeers of his fellow passengers.  Alf Roberts (at this point just a friend of Len Fairclough's who makes occasional appearances in the show) jests that the book is "I Was a Communist Diplomat". Jack Walker sternly informs him that Annie could be within earshot, letting our imaginations run riot over just what the very mention of Communism would do to her.  Her poisonous glare when Jack informs her the coach has broken down, won't get to New Brighton in time for lunch and he needs her to provide sandwiches for the masses is quite terrifying enough.

One person especially disapproving of the trip is, of course, Ena Sharples.  After all, it's a decent Sunday and all decent people should be just coming home from holy worship rather than making plans to fill themselves with beer.  Minnie Caldwell defends the men, who are just having a good time. Martha Longhurst  (in some especially bizarre headgear) points out that Minnie was complaining about the noise earlier on: "Oh, it wasn't their noise," Minnie clarifies, "It was Ena at the harmonium."

Brian Epstein wannabe Dennis Tanner (who memorably leaves his mother a note beginning "Dear Grumbling Gertie...") is aboard the coach with his latest protegĂ©, would-be singing sensation Walter Potter (he's from Liverpool, so that's something at least).  The older darts club members prove resistant to his beat stylings but later on, when everybody's well-lubricated, they all have a singalong to "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate".  The old man in the hat especially gets into the spirit of things.  By this point the group have given up their plans of getting to New Brighton, decamping to the pub nearest to the latest spot the coach has broken down.

It's the oldest members of the party who prove the rowdiest, with Jack Walker and Albert Tatlock especially aggressive toward the beleaguered landlord.  Jack in particular shows a complete lack of empathy with his fellow publican: "If you can't keep an orderly house you don't deserve a licence!"  Albert, meanwhile, resorts to violence.

It's 2 AM, and the men haven't returned home.  Annie, Concepta and Val Barlow are worried about what could've happened to their men.  Elsie Tanner (who earlier was rushing around trying and failing to get a mysterious message to Len), is as cynical as ever.  When Val starts musing of her husband, "I wonder where I'd be now if I hadn't met him," the older woman advises her, "Don't start thinking like that or you'll hit him on the head as soon as he comes in."  Annie drifts off into a reverie over the sparkling career she'd've had in musical comedy if she hadn't met Jack and got holed up in a backstreet boozer.  It's a gorgeously written scene, tenderly exploring the minor frustrations married women just put up with.  Elsie's observation that the other women might be better off single meets with only half-hearted defences.  "You marry them because you think it'll make everything different and exciting," sighs Val.  "At the same time you know it won't be.  Never will be, either."  Annie's pragmatic: "You get used to it, love.  After all, there's not much time for dreams when you've got three meals a day to think of."

The episode climaxes with the police approaching the rowdy coach party as they wait for Harry to fix the vehicle.  Their arrival's met by mass whistling of the Z Cars theme.  As the credits roll, a seriously worse for wear Alf and Albert find themselves under arrest for their belligerent attitude toward the forces of law and order...