Saturday, 5 October 2013

Saturday 5 October 1963



We begin this week with what we can guess is a fairly standard beginning of the working day for Carlos Varela.  His flashy car pulls up outside Mercury International's not-so flashy HQ and he emerges, looking suave as always but ever-so-slightly rumpled and bearing traces of the previous night's company.


Having made himself more presentable, it's time for Carlos to greet his minions.  "Good morning Mr Varela., had a nice evening?" enquires a cheerful packer.  "Delightfully rough, yes," his boss enigmatically responds.  Miss Carter (I don't think she's any relation of Ghost Squad's Jean Carter, by the way) draws his attention to one of the more unusual items of post to arrive that day: half a Korean banknote.  Carlos recognises it immediately as having been sent by Dickie Farell, an old Korean war comrade of his (he's got the other half, of course).  Carlos swiftly calls up the Lisbon hotel the note was sent from to talk to his chum.  Dickie's played by Canadian actor Bill Mitchell, whose increasingly gravelly voice in later life would become an advertising cliché that's still widely imitated/spoofed to this day. Blink and you'll miss him though, as during the call he's discreetly shot dead.


Realising something bad's happened, Carlos swiftly heads out to Lisbon to find out what the dickens is occurring.  His tussle with the hotel's bored desk clerk (Artro Morris) is great fun.  "We're full up."  "Surely you don't think I'd want to stay here, do you?"


In some ways, Carlos Varela's a kind of proto-Jason King figure, though of course his opera capes and fedoras pale in comparison to Peter Wyngarde's eye-bleedingly flamboyant 70s wardrobe.  Leaving the desk clerk with an acidulous parting shot ("You really should take the Hilton management course, you know"), he heads up to Dickie's room, which has been thoroughly trashed.  In the bathroom he discovers the beautiful Anna (Lubna Aziz, a major star in her native Egypt).  Their dialogue (by the wonderful Julian Bond) anticipates the playful acknowledgement of the crime/adventure series' conventions which would reach its finest flower in the Diana Rigg Avengers episodes:

"I've been waiting for you."
"How flattering."
"Don't you want to know why?"
"You're bound to tell me."


But Anna swiftly vanishes, to be replaced by local police inspector Colonel Vasco da Gama Santos (a dreary performance from Michael Godfrey), who puts a stop to the frothy North by Northwest-esque mood by reeling off a load of dull exposition, breaking the news of Farell's death and explaining that in recent years Carlos's friend had become a smuggler, a black marketeer and a drunk.


Deciding he will stay at the grotty hotel after all, Carlos goes exploring and discovers Anna again in the casino she operates, where she tells him that Farell owed her a great deal of money, which she's hoping to retrieve from a safe deposit box Dickie kept at the bank.  She tries to seduce Carlos ("Your nose is shining," he tells her) in the belief he was sent the key.  This is all news to him.


And Anna's not the only one after this phantom key.  Carlos returns to his hotel room to be confronted by the reliably seedy Aubrey Morris (no relation to Artro) as gun-toting Henry Rattan.  He doesn't pose much of a threat to the Sentimental Agent, who swiftly grabs his gun and stamps on his pince-nez.



Rattan's in the employ of the fiendish Baron Klaus (TV Minus 50 regular Derek Francis, made more corpulent than usual in order to play Sydney Greenstreet to Morris's Peter Lorre).  Klaus reveals that Anna's been lying - it's not money in the safe deposit box, but plans for stabilising laser light (or "lasser light" as Klaus calls it) to create "A death ray, whose peaceful application could revolutionise communication" - these plans having been given to Dickie by an ex- Nazi scientist he'd been blackmailing.  Klaus is very keen on getting his sweaty hands on it, and isn't inclined to believe Carlos doesn't have the key.


Carlos starts to wonder himself, and paying a visit to the bank learns that their safe deposit boxes all have combination locks - and correctly guesses that the combination for Dickie's box is the numbers on the banknote.  Carlos offers to sell it to Klaus for $50,000 but when everyone descends to the bank vault he learns that the contents of the box isn't quite what he's expecting.  Carlos knows he's in no danger, though - they need an attendant to let them out, and he's hardly likely to do so if he sees Carlos's dead body.


With the real plans safely at the British embassy (there's nowhere in the world they could be safer, of course), Carlos returns home, where his manservant Chin promises to make him a "combination breakfast-lunch".  If only someone could think of a snappier name for it.


The Beneficiary is a lot of fun, but after last week's delightfully bizarre series opener it just seems a bit too much of a generic ITC runaround.

Next tonight, something ever so slightly more bonkers.



It looks like hard times for the funeral attendants of the title, as when we first see them their leader Mr Green (Howard Goorney) seems to be providing his own corpse, sneaking up on Patrick Holt and shooting him.  The coffin's all ready to go...

Meanwhile chéz Gale, Steed and Cathy are back to normal after their apparent split last week - Steed's off to New York and is offloading his perishables on Cathy - including a tin of jellied bumblebees from Japan: "If there's one place they know how to jelly a bumblebee it's good old Nippon."  Cathy, who's clearly been through this routine before, reminds Steed that if he's going to send a postcard he should put a stamp on it this time.


It's not purely a pleasure jaunt - Steed will be escorting the eminent Professor David Renter, who has apparently solved the problem of high speed industrial fuel.  However, on arrival at Renter's home he's greeted by the Professor's highly eccentric wife (a stupendously enjoyable performance from Lally Bowers), who insists her husband's gone into retirement.  The clues about what's really happened to him are not exactly subtle: "He went rather suddenly!" Mrs Renter informs Steed.  "In the course of time," she replies when he asks if she'll be joining her husband.


When a highly baffled Steed departs, Mrs Renter resumes helping the mysterious Mr Lomax (Lee Patterson, Canadian star of innumerable British B-movies) train a retired actor in playing the role of her husband...


Lomax, who employs Green and his undertakers, is also friendly with Mrs Renter's next door neighbour, Paula Madden (Jan Holden) - though not so friendly with Paula's stepdaughter Daphne (former child star Mandy Miller, not to be confused with the identically-named star of Emannuelle in Soho), who's less than happy with Paula's carryings-on behind her father's back.


This family melodrama aspect sticks out rather uncomfortably in the otherwise merrily bonkers The Undertakers, but Jan Holden's clearly relishing her role as the wicked stepmother - and she communicates a genuine erotic thrill when she embraces her lover.  All her scenes are stolen by the enormous wig that seems to be placed very precariously atop her head.


Steed sets to investigating why Professor Renter's suddenly decided to give up on the world, and tracks him down to the beautifully situated Adelphi Park rest home.  Unfortunately, he's unable to get past the grim-faced matron (Marcella Markham), who won't let him in without a yellow card.


Once again there's intrigue afoot the moment Steed departs, as the matron gets on the blower to her husband... Mr Lomax!

Steed's next port of call is Green's Funeral Directors, having seen them performing their duties at Adelphi Park. In an early version of a scene that would become familiar, Steed baffles Green by posing as a travelling funeral supplies salesman, touting all the latest products and lingo ("Resting places, Mr Green!" he winces when the undertaker dares to breathe the word "graves").  Green shows off the latest example of his work - which Steed is rather surprised to see is Mrs Lomax.


...and Mrs Lomax's place at Adelphi Park is due to be taken by Mrs Renter, as Steed discovers when he calls on her to try and get hold of some of her husband's papers.  She promises to look through his things at the home.  "Why not just ask him?" Steed enquires, suspiciously.  "That's exactly what I meant!" Mrs Renter brightly, but confusingly, replies.

Cathy, meanwhile, has got the whole complicated set-up worked out.  Consulting the electoral role has revealed that all of Adelphi Park's inhabitants are millionaires. Death duties on £1,000,000 would mean the millionaire's beneficiaries would get just £200,000 ("There's always national assistance," Steed chimes in as she explains).  So a lot of millionaires sign their assets over to their spouse before death - but this needs to be done more than five years in advance to evade the tax.  The tenants of Adelphi Park are really dead, but made to appear legally alive in order to preserve the inheritance intact.  Got that? Anyway, Steed's got a new job for Cathy - she's going to be Adelphi Park's new assistant matron.

Cathy's new boss, Mrs Renter, gives the game away about her dead husband straight away - but it doesn't matter, as she's been told by nice Mr Steed at the agency all about Cathy's criminal record.  And besides, "Everyone would be on our side if there were any trouble!" she insists, secure in the belief that death duties are completely unfair to helpless millionaires


Meanwhile, at the funeral parlour, something's stirring...



It's the character played by Patrick Holt we saw shot at the beginning of the episode, risen from the grave to get a refill of tea.  Turns out he's Mr Madden, wife of Paula and father of Daphne, and the real brains behind the undertaker gang.  Lomax commanded Green to get him out of the way, but Green decided he much preferred having Madden as a boss.

It all comes to a head at Adelphi Park: Madden shoots Lomax, and Steed and Cathy have an epic shoot-out with Madden and Green among the hedges and statuary of the house's beautiful grounds.  It all looks splendid, but the fact that it's shot on film, and obviously without diegetic sound, is pretty jarring.


The baddies defeated, Steed gets a moment to cop a feel.


Despite her obvious complicity in the Undertakers' dirty deeds, the glorious Mrs Renter comes up smelling of roses at the end, Steed and Cathy letting her go with the proceeds of her husband's invention - round about a million.  "Dollars or pounds?" she swiftly inquires, her aura of daffiness evaporating whenever money's mentioned.  The episode ends with a disconcertingly sweaty Steed reminiscing over the statues at Adelphi Park: "They were very big girls..." Eurgh!


Despite its thoroughly confusing plot The Undertakers is great fun and would prove influential, its funereal imagery cropping up many more times in the show,  not least when reused by writer Malcolm Hulke in his episode The Grave-Diggers the following year.

And that's not all for this evening.  Lew Grade and his tireless minions at ITC have provided us with a brand new Saturday night entertainment: an exciting Anglo-American adventure anthology entitled:


A stern American (Steven Hill) arrives at London airport, where the customs officials interrogate him in the politest of ways: "Are you carrying any weapons?" asks one, in the same tone he'd probably use to enquire if you'd like a nice cup if tea.


A US army Major, Andrew Evans, he's called for a chat in the passport control office when he espies the familiar face of character actor Michael Gwynn in another room and dashes out into the corridor (below is a shot of the corridor before he arrives, so you can appreciate the marvellous BOAC posters)...




A change of scene, to the heart of sleazy Soho, seedy astrologer Martin Miller is being consulted by the seemingly mousy Celeste (early Ingmar Bergman muse Ingrid Thulin).  She's unable to sleep.  He suggests they "meet in less formal surroundings" to discuss her problem, specifically his flat, and it seems he's got more than the rising moon in Uranus on his mind.  Celeste, however, seems more interested in quizzing the sage about his life in Germany before the war, and his move to London after.



Leaving the astrologer ("He's a fake," she growls at an anxious old lady waiting outside), Celeste enters a nearby strip club, and relieves several patrons of the wallets, presenting them to the club's greasy manager (Maxwell Shaw), with whom she seems to be romantically as well as professionally entangled.




Exiting the club, Celeste is pursued through the streets of Soho by Evans, closing in on her despite his pronounced limp.  He finally catches up with her on a piece of waste ground.  Despite her initial resistance, the two snog - and we immediately flash back to the war, when they were lovers, embracing on the same streets.



Andrew reveals he's come to London just to find Celeste, having been incomplete without her.  They head off for a cup of tea.  The Incurable One is a hypnotic piece of drama, but it would be worth watching just for its many glorious shots of early 60s London.  Here's a sample: it's a bin full of pig's heads!


Celeste's reunion with Andrew sends her into a reverie of flashbacks which slowly piece together the story of their relationship.  When they first met she was a far cry from the haggard pickpocket she's become: a Danish countess living in the lap of luxury whom he approached to help with some essential war work.


Instantly attracted to him, she accepted, and was soon accompanying him on dangerous assignments.  At one stage, he was badly wounded and begged her to kill him, the important information he possessed meaning it would be disastrous for him to be captured.  She refused, instead stabbing an approaching Nazi to death.


When Celeste is recalled from her memories to the dingy caff she and Andrew are seated in, there's a remarkable exchange of dialogue between the pair as they discuss the psyche of postwar Britain (writers Albert Ruben and Halsted Welles, were American, and it's an illuminating outsider's perspective).  "Do you ever watch the faces of Londoners in the evening rush hour?" asks Andrew, "Dull, and flattened somehow by routine.  Sometimes I think that they've never been quite as alive as they were during the war.  Then, at least, they had comradeship, excitement.  It's probably the only time in their lives they really knew where they were going, what they were doing."

Celeste's bitter refutation of Andrew's thesis is startling: "The war didn't bring them one single thing worthwhile.  Because if it did, they wouldn't look dull, they'd still be enjoying it.  Because war doesn't end.  That's a big myth, that you can end a war by signing a treaty.  But you can't.  The war goes on."

A horrible explanation for Celeste's views is provided when Andrew wearily submits to a meeting with the man he earlier ran from, a British intelligence officer who has some grave news about his former lover.  The information that, along with petty theft and living off the proceeds of crime, Celeste has recently murdered at least two men, is all the more jolting for the fact that it's revealed with little in the way of fanfare.  One of her victims is known to have had Nazi connections, the other isn't.  She killed them both with cyanide gas.  A horrified Andrew sums it up for us: "Most people kill in wartime because they're ordered to, and when they're ordered to stop, they stop.  Well, what if you kill out of conviction? What if you truly believe the enemy is guilty of crimes that can't go unpunished? And what if you train yourself, and study, and think of nothing else but to inflict that punishment?"

We return with the terrifyingly crazed Celeste to the astrologer.  As they talk, she has more flashbacks, of more Nazis she killed during the war - one of whom is played by a young Andrew Sachs.




To Sachs, a Jew who escaped with his family from Nazi Germany, it must have seemed a blackly ironic role to be cast in, but in a curious way it's appropriate.  Once Celeste's claimed her latest victim we're alerted to just how far astray her demons have led her by a shot of the dead astrologer's wrist...



Purchasing an antique army knife identical to the one Celeste made her first kill with on the way, Andrew goes to visit his old love in the dingy flat where, heartbreakingly, keepsakes from her privileged past are still scattered about.  In a rather too obvious analogy, Celeste flashes back to the time she shot her dog (a former Nazi guard dog she retrained) when it attacked Andrew.


Next thing you know, she's the one being put out of her misery.



Andrew tenderly says his goodbyes and goes to meet the police who are waiting for him.

The Incurable One is horribly stark and utterly compelling, animated by an incredible performance from Ingrid Thulin.  ITC shows usually relied for their directors on leading lights of the British film industry whose careers had foundered - John Paddy Carstairs, who helmed tonight's Sentimental Agent, is a case in point (Michael Powell, possibly Britain's very greatest director, is another - he was engaged for several forthcoming episodes of Espionage), but for The Incurable One the job was given to an up-and-coming American, Stuart Rosenberg.  Making this episode of a British TV series feel like an action movie (certainly the most cinematic thing I've yet covered here), he was clearly destined for bigger things: in a few years time he'd make his feature debut with Cool Hand Luke.

2 comments:

  1. The Undertakers is great fun. I knew it was going to be as soon as Lally Bowers appeared. As you say, the lack of location sound is distracting. I suppose audiences of the time were used to this limitation, just as my generation (a little later) was used to the switches between studio VT and grainy film.

    One of the pleasures of these near-as-dammit-live episodes is watching Blackman coolly dealing with fluffs from other actors, including Macnee. She barely bats an eyelid.

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