Saturday, 30 November 2013

Saturday 30 November 1963

Due in large part to the lack of consideration shown by the US president in being murdered the day before, last week's premiere episode of the BBC's new teatime adventure series didn't get the viewing figures that might have been hoped for.  So the corporation decided to show it again the week after, before the second instalment.  Watching the two episodes back-to-back enhances the feeling of disorientation, as we move from a school to a jukyard to the inside of a bizarre space-time craft and then, in part two, to the world of prehistoric politics.

It turns out that the shadow looming over the police box-shaped timeship at the end of last week's episode belongs to an understandably perplexed caveman played by Jeremy Young.  And there's more like him nearby, sheltering in a cave from the approach of winter as their nominal leader, Za (Derek Newark) tries to make fire, egged on by his consort, the rather brusquely named Hur (Alethea Charlton).  Who's Hur, the sabre-toothed cat's mother?  These grunty cavefolk may not seem the most promising of roles but they're more loquacious than you might expect, and Derek Newark in particular certainly gives his all to the part of the bitterly frustrated Za.

Some of the tribespeople think Za should cede his place as leader to a new addition to the tribe, Kal (the chap we saw earlier).  The rivalry between the wannabe chieftains gets a bit confusing as they look so alike: both are beaky and beardy, and both sport what could be misshapes from the Beatle wig factory.  Kal's just about the beakier, beardier, and wiggier of the two, and this alone stands him in good stead for becoming the leader.

In a corner of the cave, dear old Eileen Way crones it up a treat as a discontented character identified in the credits as "Old Mother".  This, and her none-too-fond recollections of Za's father the great firemaker, seem to imply that the would-be leader's her son.  If that's the case she's not the most supportive of parents, grumbling perpetually on about how everything was better before fire was invented.  We all know the type.  Perhaps you've got someone similar in a corner of your own cave.

Eventually (and it does feel like a very long time), we get back to the TARDIS.  Having been knocked unconscious when the ship unexpectedly took flight into the fourth dimension, Ian and Barbara come round to be told by its cantankerous owner that they've travelled back in time - though as his yearometer's on the blink he can't be any more specific (he doesn't say anything about space - could their location be the Totter's Lane of a hundred centuries ago?).  Ian takes some convincing that they've gone anywhere at all, even when the ship's scanner screen shows the desolate landscape outside: "Sand and rock?!" he cries, understandably underwhelmed after the old man's spiel about the ship's wonders last week.  We learn that whoever Susan's grandfather is, he's not called Dr Foreman.  "Eh? Doctor Who? What's he talking about?" the old man mutters on being addressed by that name.  Ian repeats the question to Barbara later on, just in case we hadn't got the reason for the show's title (though we're not given an explanation for why it doesn't have a question mark).

Exasperated by Ian's doubts, the Doctor still manages a touch of poetry: "If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of alien birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?"

Susan gets a wonderful little moment of triumph as the doors open on the wasteland outside and she cries "That's not on the scrren!"

The Doctor has special kit for examining alien environments which he marches off with, stopping only to note that all is not well with his ship: it's meant to change shape to match its environment , but it still looks like a police box.  "Dear, dear, how disturbing," he mutters, though considering last week's episode kicked off with the mystery of what a police box was doing in a junkyard it's safe to assume this mechanism's been on its way out for a while.

There's a very sweet little moment between Ian and Barbara as the blustery science teacher finally accepts that the peculiar pair in the police box were telling the truth all along.  "I was, wrong, wasn't I?" he sighs to a sympathetic Barbara.

This isn't the time or place for quiet reflection, though, as the Doctor discovers when he stops to light a big, ornate pipe prior to making notes on his surroundings.  No sooner has he taken a puff than out leaps Kal.

We don't see the attack in any detail, but we do hear an absolutely splendid cry of "Oooooaaaargh!" issuing from William Hartnell.  The Doctor's companions come running, but there's no sign of him, and all his paraphernalia'sbeen  left behind.  Ian and Barbara suggest that perhaps he just dropped everything to go and look at something he found especially interesting, leaving the viewer to wonder if they're in the habit of exclaiming "Oooooaaaargh!" when their interest is piqued.  Susan's distraught at her grandfather's disappearance, and it's here we start to wonder if Carole Ann Ford's been short-changed a bit with this role.  Last week she got to be all strange and otherworldly; this week she's flying into hysterics at the slightest provocation and falling over every few steps.  It's not the most edifying of spectacles.

Director Waris Hussein manages to jolt awake any viewers who might have drifted off by this point by filling the camera with this startling image, accompanied by an ear-splitting screech.

Turns out it's a skin one of the tribeschildren's crawling about in to the delight of its friends, who are trying to stab it to death with spears (they had to make their own entertainment in those days).  This is a prelude to Kal arriving with the Doctor slung over his shoulder, telling fantastic tales of how this creature made fire appear from its fingers.

Za, unimpressed, points out that Kal's trophy is just an old man wearing strange skins.  When said strange-skinned old man come round, he agrees to make fire for the tribe if they'll let him go... then realises he dropped his matches.  His subsequent refusal to help doesn't go down well with Kal.  Za finds his rival's embarrassment a right old chuckle though.

Enter Susan, making things considerably worse by leaping on Kal's back and pummeling him to within an inch of his life.  Ian and Barbara sidle in with "We've never seen her before in our lives, honest" written all over their faces.  A fracas ensues, with the time travellers eventually finding themselves the captives of the grumpy cavepeople.

Kal seems rather taken with Barbara, though the sunnily dispositioned Old Mother cries out for her blood.

It's decided that for the time being the interlopers should be removed to the ominously-named Cave of Skulls.  With them out the way, Hur's father Horg (Howard Lang), clearly an expert shit-stirrer, intimates that unless Za hurries up and starts a fire he'll let Kal have his way with his daughter.  Hur manages to keep him sweet for a bit with a promise that Za'll provide him with lots of meat - a gambit I'm sure works even today.

Meanwhile, in the titular cave, as the Doctor shows the better side of his nature for the first time by apologising profusely for the predicament he's led everyone into, Ian notices the reason for the cave's name, and that the skulls piled up everywhere all seem to have been split open...

Last week's episode of The Sentimental Agent was possibly the best to date.  This week's is the worst - possibly doesn't enter into it.

The level of inspiration in Peter and Betty Lambda's script can be gauged by the episode's title.  It's not even set in a school where people are "finished off" as in killed, it's just got a finishing school in it.  We open with a pupil, Betsy-Anne Van Doren, daughter of American millionires, apparently being kidnapped from the school, her roommate Caroline (Sonia Fox) discovered bound and gagged by highly-strung Miss Woodfall (Josephine Woodford).

What, the viewer may be wondering, has all this to do with an import-export business? The answer is, absolutely nothing.  It's just that Mercury International boss Carlos Varela is a governor of the school and so close to its principal, Lady Graffham (Helen Cherry) that she feels she can call him for help at any time of day or night.  The reason for both of these things is left unexplained, which is perhaps for the best.

We don't actually get to see Carlos Varela this week.  As I think I've touched on before, Carlos Thompson left the show before it finished its run, so he was replaced by John Turner's tedious Bill Randall (the episodes were juggled in broadcast order to conceal Thompson's departure).  And this week we're stuck with Bill, who, for no very good reason, heads to the school to help track down the kidnappers along with an unenthused Chin (Burt Kwouk's character, that is.  Bill's prominent chin always looks enthused).

There's been a ransom demand for a suspiciously low amount, which Bill takes to the local churchyard, lying in wait for the kidnappers to collect it.  A helmeted figure in racing gear nabs the cash and makes a getaway in a souped-up Hillman Imp (the fantastic chase music on the soundtrack as Bill follows is by a long way the best thing about the episode).  A young Andrew Ray plays the driver, and the fact that the passenger's face is scrupulously concealed makes it obvious to all but the dimmest observer that this is Betsy-Anne herself.

And so, after far too long a time, including a diversion to a race track where we meet Chin's cousin Ling (Robert Lee), it proves.  She's played by Annette Andre (yet another 60s face The Sentimental Agent introduced to TV), sporting a li'l ole southern US accent.  Andrew Ray's character is a gormless young racing driver with the unlikely name of Chips Kirby whom she's shacked up with in a caravan.  Unsurprisingly, she's rapidly becoming discontented with this lifestyle.

Just as Bill and Chin turn up at the caravan, Betsy-Anne makes off in the Imp, which she has a bit of trouble with.

Betsy-Anne survives the crash, and, after being ministered to by a doctor played by a briefly-seen Ballard Berkeley, she goes back to school, having learned her lesson.  And that's about it, really.  Though somehow the episode manages to lumber on for another 15 minutes or so with a subplot involving Lady Graffham trying to keep the whole business from the slow-witted local policeman.  It's woeful: the obvious death throes of a show that's got no idea what to do with itself now its charismatic star's gone.

Fortunately, there's no lack of charismatic stars in tonight's next show.

Tonight we focus on Ada Larkins' home help, Mrs Gannett.  Well, maybe help's not quite the word: her continual hymn singing, sniffing and preternatural ability to be where she's not wanted are driving the Larkins household to distraction.  Hetty in particular, is disgusted by the old woman's disdain for hygiene.

Something she herself could never be accused of.

As well as getting under everyone's feet, Mrs Gannett's taken to stirring up trouble among the Larkins by suggesting to Ada that the local biscuit factory's resident maneater Bella Trumbull (Hazel Sutton) has got her sights set on Alf.  This in spite of the cayfe patrons queueing up to romance Bella - Scouser Lofty even promising her an in with the Beatles (and gives her a tantalising taste of the Liverpool sound).

Mrs Gannett's even managed to rile Osbert, by discovering his secret stash of booze.  Hugh Paddick's sardonic delivery of the line "your transport" as he hands the furtive char her broom is the highlight of the episode.

Yet despite the fact Mrs Gannett's peeved everyone else off royally, Ada seems strangely unwilling to think any ill of her (perhaps considering that anyone who's able to annoy that shower must have something going for her).  Until, that is, she finds that the old woman's been stuffing her capacious handbag with the cayfe's prized tins of fruit: "She's got enough here to start a supermarket!"

Confronted by her employers Mrs G feigns illness, helped along by an explosive device hidden by young Georgie Larkins in the drinks cabinet (he's convinced she's in the pay of a foreign power).

Alf and Ada are now forced to look after the "cantankerous old faggot", as Ada charmingly describes her.  The doctor prescribes that they do whatever Mrs G wants.  Ada's bringing her hot roes on toast and Russian tea (lemony, spiced black tea if my research is accurate) at all hours of the day, and she's provided with a constant stream of sensational magazines (plus the local Church Times, of course) read to her by an unenthusiastic Osbert.

The only hope of getting rid of this unwanted guest seems to lie with her son Sidney.  Hetty's sent out to get him (he could be in any one of 24 pubs).  When he arrives he's played by Norman Chappell, in a role very different from the supercilious butler we last saw him playing in The Avengers a few weeks back.

Sid's plied with sausage rolls and beer to convince him to shift his mother.  Instead, he decides he'll need to stay over with her.  This lasts until he heads home with Bella Trumbull in tow, causing his mother to make a Lazarus-like recovery as she heads off in pursuit.  Ada swears she'll never get another home help in again, and sets the menfolk to doing all the housework as she and Hetty enjoy a well-earned rest.  Help Unwanted's an especially endearing episode of The Larkins, made all the more compelling by some truly bizarre laughs emanating from its studio audience.

Now, from one troublesome Mrs G to another as we come to a truly bizarre episode of The Avengers, combining an early instance of the eccentric supervillain that would become the show's stock in trade with a heavygoing script by a writer (Rex Edwards) who seems very keen to let the world know he's read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The diabolical mastermind in question is millionaire industrialist and Roman Empire obsessive Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden, his toupee brushed forward, Caesar-style), who plans to rebuild society in the image of the ancient world via biological warfare.  His chief lieutenants in this aim are Marcus (John Flint), in reality Gordon Dodds, leader of a party of aggressive fascists; and the fragrant Octavia (Colette Wilde), who Bruno plans to make empress of the world (unfortunately for him, Marcus and Octavia are having it off behind his back).

This week Cathy Gale's pretending to be from the Universal Health and Famine Relief Organisation.  She's investigating the soil dressings made by United Foods and Dressings, company owned by Sir Bruno (Steed, becomingly bespectacled, plays her boss).  They seem to have been causing a great deal of soil erosion in Asia.  Interestingly, Cathy seems to be the owner of a microscope that displays drawings of what's being looked at.

Kenneth Keeling, as grumpy United Foods executive Appleton, has a bit of a stumble over a provocative speech about the pressure to provide cheap food: "They want jam on both sides.  The housewife demands cheap food as a, er, er, er, um, necessity.  And if the farmer is compelled to supply that cheap food then he's got to use techniques that are going to keep his costs up."  Ian Shand, as PR officer Eastow, looks on in sympathy.

Thomgs take a turn for the apocalyptic as Sir Bruno's soil diseases take hold in the UK and Marcus's thugs beat up all and sundry in the streets.  Steed manages to get an audience with Sir Bruno, and is clearly fascinated with the millionaire's collection of objets d'art ("What are they doing?" he boggles of the image on one particular vase).  "Such outrageous orgies!" he muses happily.  "Yes, they certainly knew how to relax," Sir Bruno agrees.

Bruno brushes off Steed's questions about his politics, claiming it's an arena he's no longer involved in.  Unfortunately Marcus shows up at this very point, making Bruno's politics all too clear.

At a gathering of the influential chaps Bruno styles his senators, the emperor in waiting makes a toast: "One empire, one government and one Caesar!" (really he should just've said "To evil!").

Not all of Bruno's gang are entirely on board with his plans, though: Marcus especially has designs on the empire as well as the empress, and plans to drop the whole Roman charade once he's got Bruno out of the way (the fact that Bruno's being cuckolded and conspired against gets in the way of him being a proper supervillain, and almost makes us feel sorry for him.  I suspect that those with a greater knowledge of the classics than mine will notice parallels with Roman history that have gone right over my head).   Raymond Adamson, who plays Senator Lucius, was the leader of the British Nazi Party in this week's episode of The Saint.  That's some unenviable typecasting.

By this time the baddies have managed to capture Mrs Gale: "An admirable specimen," drools Bruno.  "A typical example of healthy English womanhood."  When Marcus touches her, he gets a kick to the stomach.  Hoorah!

Having persuaded a security guard to tell him where Cathy is, Steed comes to the rescue.  With Bruno's associates all dressed up for his coronation as emperor, Steed gets into the party spirit.  He wears a toga as to the manner born, of course.  There's a particularly splendid bit where he hides in a sarcophagus as he waits to ambush Lucius.

Cathy, of course, is not waiting around to be saved.

"Is this what you call a Bacchanalia?" asks a disappointed Steed when he bursts in on Bruno and chums.  The baddies are rounded up, with Bruno, of course, perishing at the end of Marcus's knife.

The episode ends with Steed and Cathy talking to each other in Latin -there's no translation for those unfortunate enough not to have learned the language.  Who do you think this show's for - plebs?

And finally this evening...

Written by John Gay (the Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter rather than the 18th century dramatist), The Light of a Friendly Star is a charming  story of a neglected little girl who finds an unusual playmate.

In East Germany, an intruder (Carl Schell) is found hanging around the grounds of the British ambassador's home.  Brought inside by security men he's given a glass of brandy (after all, we're not savages), and questioned by the ambassador himself (Ronald Howard).  Unknown to the participants, the interview is watched by the ambassador's precocious young daughter Kit (Loretta Parry).

Having mollified the ambassador with his excuses for being there (he's being hunted by the secret police), the intruder is allowed to stay the night.  Bookworm Kit's instantly developed a crush on him, imagining him as a Heathcliff-like misunderstood romantic here.  "If it really meant your life," she earnestly says to her father, "If you really had to guess, would you say he's more Richard Burton or Peter O'Toole?"

Kit's being sent back to England, where she lives with her auntie, and with more than £2 in pocket money! 

With everything packed for her late night trip to the airport, Kit curls up with a book, only to be disturbed by the ambassador's unexpected guest, who, it turns out, is a spy!

Only one course of action's open to the young man once he realises he's been seen: he kidnaps Kit and makes off with her in the car that's come to take her to the airport.

Kit's not particularly upset by any of this.  In fact, it's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her.  When they stop for a rendezvous with a fellow agent (Patricia Jessel), who's supplied a change of car for Leo (that's the spy's name), Kit absolutely refuses to be left behind (what's more she's growing increasingly fond of her captor and is jealous of any rivals for his attentions: "She has an awful lot of rouge on, doesn't she?" she asks of Jessel with guileless bitchiness).

As is always the way in these tough-guy-lumbered-with-cute-kid things, the initially hard as nails Leo gradually softens through his grudging companionship with the little girl.

But lovely as it is for the viewer to see unhappy Leo, embittered by his parents' death in the war, gradually come back to life under the "light of a friendly star", his employer (George Pravda) isn't too chuffed about it, and the poor spy ends up being shot as men sent by Kit's father converge on Pravda's HQ.

"Your light is dazzling," Leo tells Kit as he breathes his last.  Or rather, what he thinks will be his last.  Turns out he lives, and the ambassador decides not to press any charges.  It's all very lovely stuff, and the loveliest thing of all is Malcolm Arnold's truly gorgeous score.

Music now: the Beatles' "She Loves You" has returned to number 1 after a few weeks of being usurped by Gerry and the Pacemakers.  At number 3, here's an urgent request from Cliff and the Shads.