Saturday, 19 October 2013

Saturday 19 October 1963

The most notable thing about this date was the announcement of Harold Macmillan's successor as Prime Minister of the UK.  In a remarkable feat of skullduggery by the outgoing PM and an inner circle of Tory grandees, the favourites are beaten to the post by a rank outsider, Alec Douglas-Home, the Fourteenth Earl of Home, divested of his title and parachuted into a safe seat specifically to take up the position.  Most commentators agreed the appointment of a Woosterish aristocrat to take the reins of a badly damaged Conservative party, let alone those of the country as a whole, was bizarre, embarrassing and potentially suicidal.  Subsequent months would show to what extent they were correct.

With news of this unexpected appointment fresh in their minds, some of the people of Britain settled down to watch the following programmes.

This week's Sentimental Agent is a full-on hoot, putting Carlos Varela into a setting most such debonair heroes find themselves in at some point : a cruise liner.  Among the passengers on this one are a charming elderly brother and sister, Abner and Mamie Adams of Nebraska (Donald Stewart and silent movie star Bessie Love), who possess an unnerving knack of winning at bridge.  We first encounter them regretfully taking their winnings from another elderly couple - and then giving a percentage of them to the ship's entertainments manager (Hugh McDermott)..

In London, Carlos Varela confirms he's the Jason King of 1963 by lumbering about hungover (he's just won a contract to distribute a line of liqueurs, and the company insisted on his trying all of them) in this eye-catching get-up:

However grotty he feels Varela's always happy to meet a pretty girl, which is good, as one's come to see him.  She's Jean Dewar (lovely Suzanna Leigh, star of The Deadly Bees, in a very nice checked cape), daughter of the couple we saw losing at cards.  The pair were left without even enough money to get home, having to pawn mummy's jewellery, and Jean's convinced they were cheated.  She's come to tell Varela as he's the booking agent for the shipping line.

Carlos's gallantry overcomes even his hangover, and he decides to join the voyage and catch the cheats out.  Popping to a bookshop, he scandalises the manager (John Glyn-Jones) by requesting a book on cheating at cards.  Pained at having to perform such a task the manager hands one over - much to his chagrin, it's their best-selling title since Lolita.  There's a particularly wonderful moment when Carlos starts reading out the section on "belly stripping" ("For a moment there I thought we'd strayed") , shocking a nearby elderly customer.

Plucky Jean insists on accompanying Carlos on the trip as his bridge partner, and ends up tending to him during a period of extreme seasickness.

Collapsing in his bunk, Carlos is flabbergasted to be revived by a hangover cure supplied by his faithful manservant Chin, who's managed to get a job on board as the chief steward's one of his many, many cousins.

Chin's an expert on gambling, so he decided his presence aboard would be invaluable in catching the crooks.  It's the first time Burt Kwouk's had a major role to play in the show and his joyous performance as Chin makes him the undoubted star of the episode.  Aspects of his performance can't help make a modern viewer cringe a bit though: his excessive servility (I know he's a servant, but still), his referring to Jean as "Missy", and most of all his absurdly exaggerated accent - it's all "plepelations" and "double-bleasted jacket".

Now Chin's successfully cured Carlos of his seasickness the Sentimental Agent and his cronies watch as Abner and Mamie sucker in another couple, making much use of "shiners" -reflective objects that enable them to see what cards are being dealt.  Mamie has her compact, while Abner has a mirror hidden in the bowl of his pipe (which Chin's able to swipe and return without him knowing).

Having worked out that entertainments manager Lyons is in on the con, Chin's sure to point out to him Carlos's "suits flom Savile Low, shirts flom Pallis", and the size of his wad of traveller's cheques.

There's an interlude ashore as Carlos and Jean visit a bookshop and she picks up a copy of Moonraker.  "My favourite hero," sighs Jean.  "Oh, I thought I was," Carlos snorts.  It's a charming moment that again shows how playful The Sentimental Agent is (though surely Casino Royale would have been more appropriate?)

Lyons happens by and introduces them to the Adamses: a game of bridge is arranged. But you might say that for Abner and Mamie, it's a bridge too far.  Carlos and Jean start off by getting the shiners out of the way: Carlos "accidentally" breaks Abner's pipe, while Jean places a cold glass of Coke on Mamie's compact, misting it up.  Bessie Love's reaction to all this, wonderfully, shows off why she was a natural for silent cinema.

Abner, meanwhile is left hot under the collar when Carlos arranges for Chin to provide a stacked deck.

Carlos and Jean win, leaving Abner near apopleptic with rage.  But Lyons suggests they steal the money back during the costume gala later that evening.  Carlos doesn't bother to dress up, but Jean wears a costume the camera's very appreciative of.

When Abner and Lyons enter Carlos's room to retrieve the dosh, Chin locks them in: Carlos has them bang to rights but agrees to let them go if they'll never get up to their tricks again: he's going to ensure every shipping line has their photos in case they do.  Without much choice, the miscreants acquiesce.  "Father always said never play cards with strangers," a deeply embarrassed Mamie sighs.

Now all that's dealt with, Carlos decides it's time he got to know Jean a bit better.

Enormous fun, the greatest achievement of Never Play Cards with Strangers is that ace writer Julian Bond manages to communicate his own clear enthusiasm for cards even to those of us with no interest in them whatsoever.

This week's Avengers gets off to an eye-catching start with a rubber catsuit-clad Edina Ronay breaking into a top-secret establishment and evading its omnipresent CCTV cameras for long enough to take photos from a microfilm reader and make her escape.

The call alerting John Steed to the break-in comes as he's entertaining Cathy Gale.  When he makes his apologies for having to dash off she offers to give him a lift: and he's taken aback to find she knows the address before he's even told her.  Actually she's been sent round to collect him: Honor Blackman's never been better than in the oft-manipulated Cathy's moment of having the upper hand.  "The boot's on the other foot now, isn't it Steed? How does it feel?"

Her triumph's inevitably fleeting, though: all she knows is that she's to accompany Steed.  They're headed for NUTSHELL (a tortured acronym of thermoNUclear Underground Target zone SHELter) - the base deep underground where the great and good of the country will head in the event of a nuclear strike.  The security procedures to get in there are pretty fierce.

43 floors beneath the ground Steed and Cathy meet NUTSHELL's chief, a tiny bespectacled man played by John Cater and hilariously referred to as DISCO (Director of Intelligence, Security and Combined Operations).  "Someone has stolen Big Ben!" he bizarrely announces.  He's actually talking about BIGBEN (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America) - a list of known double agents on both sides in the Cold War, which the girl who broke in made a copy of, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The other key NUTSHELL personnel we meet are DISCO's assistant Laura (I'm not sure what that's an acronym of), played by Patricia Haines, who nearly corpses after fluffing a line ("You git - get back here,"), and Security Chief Venner (Emergency Ward 10 star Charles "Bud" Tingwell).

The break-in must have been arranged by an insider, and Cathy stays to help Venner investigate who while Steed heads off.  This is where things get complicated: he goes to visit the girl who broke in, Swedish escapologist Elin Strindberg.  Turns out it was Steed himself who put her up the job, and is now helping her to escape the country (here he examines the bruises she's gained from the job with great interest).

Cathy's beginning to suspect Steed's up to something, leading to an exchange that perfectly sums up their relationship: "Don't you trust me?" he asks, coyly.  "Any reason why I should?" she fires back.  Appropriately enough, it's Steed and Mrs Gale in a nutshell.

Shortly, Venner finds out the identity of the burglar and goes to visit her flat, only to find her corpse.

Photographic evidence shows Steed visiting Elin that evening, making him the prime suspect in her killing.  Venner intercepts an associate of Elin's, a double agent named Jason (Jan Conrad) as he awaits a plane to get out of the country - but finds himself held at gunpoint when Steed arrives with the plane.  Jason escapes, at which point Steed amiably gives himself up.

Venner takes Steed to NUTSHELL, where he's held and interrogated.  Although in a rather dishevelled state, he's still able to appreciate NUTSHELL's excellent wine list.

This, of course, is a form of torture: as soon as the lavish meal Steed's ordered arrives it's taken away from him until he talks.  A less subtle form of torture involves him being held in a cell where the floor and furniture will be electrified at random intervals.  Cathy asks for the opportunity to talk to Steed, and he unexpectedly attacks her - though she's easily able to get the better of him in his weakened state.

And then it all becomes clear: as a fault puts the surveillance devices in Steed's cell out of action for a few seconds, Venner offers him escape and £50,000 for BIGBEN.  He's walked into an elaborate trap set by Steed, who suspected him of being a traitor based on information supplied by Jason.  As Venner and his associates (one of whom killed Elin) are taken away, Steed reveals that the roll of film Elin used to photograph BIGBEN (hidden in his grandfather clock - BIGBEN, get it?) was in fact negatives of his holiday snaps.

Supposedly the rest of them are of Cathy on a donkey in Bognor, but tragically we don't get to see those.

The Nutshell carries on the incredibly high standard with which the third series of The Avengers has kicked off: it's a gripping tale of espionage brilliantly directed by Raymond Menmuir.  Unfortunately its impact is slightly blunted as it's the third episode in four weeks to hang a question mark over Steed's loyalty.  The Nutshell was actually filmed before last week's episode, Man with Two Shadows, and its scheduling afterward feels unsatisfactory to a viewer familiar with modern TV's tendency to keep plots running between episodes.  It feels like a missed opportunity not to use The Nutshell to extend the doubts over whether Steed's an enemy doppelganger that were introduced last week, and from a story point of view it seems strange that the idea wouldn't at least have occurred to Cathy (who seemed last week to have some lingering doubts about Steed's identity).

But this is all quibbling - taken on its own merits The Nutshell is classic Avengers.  And it ends with  the most infectious moment of Steed and Cathy having a laugh yet.

And for fans of torture, there's an even bigger treat in store for you next...

North Africa in 1945: Ferno (Dennis Hopper), a drunken young US soldier, starts a fight in a bar.  He's removed from the ensuing melée by British intelligence officer Ballin (John Gregson), who brings him before a US general.  And then knocks him unconscious.

Ferno awakens in Ballin's quarters - here's a topless Dennis Hopper for anyone interested in such a thing.

Ballin asks Ferno to volunteer for a highly dangerous mission that will test his levels of endurance to breaking point.  With nothing else keeping him going, Ferno agrees.  Along with several other volunteers he's subjected to sound, light and heat torture, and proves to have the most stamina of the lot.

After passing out, Ferno comes round to find that he's the man selected for the mission, which involves informing the leader of the French resistance of the scheduled date of D-Day.  He also finds he's acquired a tattoo, which will be used both as identification and to conceal a skin graft: a suicide pill is hidden in there, and to take it he just needs to bite into his arm.

Dennis Hopper's explosive performance as Ferno is unlike anything seen elsewhere on British TV at this time, and it's juxtaposed with Gregson's stiff upper lip stoicism to startling effect.  When Ferno heads off on his mission Ballin begins the first of several letters to his wife which we'll hear in voiceover throughout the episode.  At first they seem to verge on parody in the vein of Round the Horne's Charles and Fiona - "If I didn't have you, I think I'd go mad" - but it's not longer before a much darker picture emerges, and those words seem far truer than we first suspect.

When Ferno reaches France we're given a third brilliant performance, from Patricia Neal as Jeanne, a doctor acting as his contact.

When Jeanne takes Ferno back to her apartment we quickly find that her cold professional demeanour masks a woman practically destroyed by the war.  She reaps benefits from the occupiers: supplying them with sex and drugs in return for material comforts and to cover up her work for the resistance.  But her guilt over collaborating, and breaking her hippocratic oath by turning young German officers into junkies, has driven her half-mad and led to her becoming an addict herself.

She makes herself available to Ferno, and as a virile officer starved of female company, he takes her up on the offer.

But the next morning, realising how far gone she is, he contacts Ballin in panic.  The intelligence officer hears his anguished cries but does not respond.  Now, in a letter to Ballin's wife, we learn the truth: Ferno was chosen specifically to be captured by the Nazis: because he would not crack until the very end, and when he did, they'd believe the date he told them.   But it would be a lie, and he wouldn't even know.  It's a horrifying revelation, and worse is to come as Ferno is caught and subjected to torture by Jeanne and her Nazi master (Steve Plytas).

First, Ferno is given a drug which induces schizophrenia: it's remarkable how convincing Dennis Hopper is as a man under the influence of mind-altering drugs...

The tortures build in intensity until a horrifically graphic moment where Ferno has a blowtorch applied to his lips.

Pushed to breaking point, Ferno tears into his arm with his teeth... only to find that the suicide pill was a fake: Ballin wanted to make sure he told, rather than taking the easy way out.

In the final scene, the war is over and a guilt-haunted Ballin goes to visit Ferno in the institution where he's recovering from his ordeal.  He explains to the soldier how vitally important his mission was and how many lives it helped to save, hoping for forgiveness.  But no forgiveness for his betrayal is forthcoming: Ferno's now hopelessly insane.  And there's a final twist for those thinking the story's not quite bleak enough: Ballin doesn't even have his wife to comfort him.  She died four years ago in the Blitz, and the letters he's been writing have been a way for him to try and exorcise his anguish over the fate he's sent Ferno to.  Don't have nightmares.

The Weakling is an astonishingly powerful piece of television, with only some slightly dodgy dialogue letting it down ("Men are like whisky to you").  There's yet more virtuoso direction from Stuart Rosenberg, and the episode's brilliantly edited too: one especially great moment features an almost invisible cut between Patricia Neal closing her blinds and John Gregson opening his, underlining the connection between these two morally compromised characters more perfectly than any dialogue could.

Something a little bit jollier now: the song at number 2 in this week's hit parade, The Crystals' magnificent "Then He Kissed Me".  Well I say jollier: the well-known dark side of Phil Spector, the mastermind behind the record, always casts at least a slight pall over his productions, and its juxtapostion with tonight's Espionage, with its grim relationship between Hopper and Neal, saps the joy out of it ever so slightly.


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