Saturday, 23 November 2013

Saturday 23 November 1963

I've been remiss (again) lately in mentioning the major events that were happening away from the TV screen while the shows I've drivelled on about here were being broadcast, but this evening's viewing needs to be put in context.  The programmes featured here tonight were viewed by a British public shocked by the news of the assassination of US president John F Kennedy the day before.  Or rather, some of the viewing public would have been shocked by it: it's safe to assume that plenty of others didn't feel particularly emotionally affected by the event at all.  It seems likely this included a large chunk of the intended audience for BBC TV's new family sci-fi serial, if only because they were too young to grasp its significance.

While the Kennedy assassination would have immediately seemed like history in the making, the start of that early evening serial certainly wouldn't.  50 years on, though, it's achieved a historical significance all of its own.  Beginning with a dance of weird, fluid shapes accompanied by a sound more otherworldly than anything previously heard at Saturday teatime (a theme by Steptoe and Son's Ron Grainer transformed beyond recognition by Delia Derbyshire, one of the mad geniuses of the BBC's radiophonic workshop), and a weird blurry title that keeps us in suspense about what it's going to be before finally resolving itself...

And it seems like that theme's going to go on forever: after the titles have faded and the show's begun with a policeman going about his nightly rounds, it still keeps on and on.  And it doesn't stop until another sound becomes more important: the strange hum coming from a police call box located in, of all places, a junkyard.

With that curious puzzle outstanding, we're whisked off the perfectly normal environs of Coal Hill School, somewhere in London, where frazzled history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) seeks out the sympathetic ear of science master Ian Chesterton (William Russell).

Barbara's been driven to distraction by Susan Foreman, a 15 year old prodigy whose knowledge of history leaves her in the shade: it's got to the point where she finds herself wanting to do the young pain in the arse a mischief.  Ian's having the same problem with her in his classes: it's not simply that she's an annoying swot, there's a real mystery about the girl.  Barbara suggested to her she specialise in history, but home tuition was vetoed thanks to her grandfather, who doesn't like strangers.  This seems especially odd as he's supposed to be a doctor, but even odder is what Barbara found when she went to pay the old man a visit: nothing.  The address on file for Susan doesn't exist: where it should be is just a junkyard.

Barbara's keeping Susan waiting in her classroom for a book she's promised to lend her, and with Ian along to lend moral support she decides to follow the girl home to find out just where she goes.  As played by Carole Ann Ford, the strange, ethereal Susan suits the episode's title down to the ground.  We first see her grooving along rather spookily to some chart sounds (about which Ian proves surprisingly well-informed) on her transistor radio.

Refusing a lift from her teachers ("I like walking home in the dark - it's mysterious"), Susan has a quick flick through Barbara's book (which she claims she'll have read by the following day).  "That's not right," she exclaims on scanning one of the pages.  Does she have knowledge of the past greater than the author's? Has she just spotted a typo? Or has Barbara put the wrong book inside the clearly homemade dust jacket? (Her shelves must be a nightmare if she makes these for all her books - especially as she hasn't put anything on the spine).

Waiting in the car outside the junkyard at 76 Totter's Lane, Barbara gets rather peeved by Ian's suggestion that the two of them are there because they're just a pair of busybodies.

She insists there's more to it than that: Susan's a genuine enigma. It's not really that she's a know-it-all: there are things she really should know that she seems not to.  Like how many shillings are in the pound, for instance.  Quizzed on this, Susan professes she thought Britain was on the decimal system - a system which, she recalls to herself, hasn't started yet.  The troubling thing here is not so much the lack of present knowledge or the implication she knows about the future, but the fact that she's clearly never bought anything.  Ian recalls a couple of similarly strange incidents involving science problems - including her insistence on the inclusion of the fourth and fifth dimensions: time and space.  Ian and Barbara's flashbacks here are brilliantly realised by director Waris Hussein: as we see Susan from the teachers' point of view, it feels like it's us she feels awkward and embarrassed in front of, and it's pretty unnerving.

"Funny, isn't it?" asks Barbara, leading us suddenly into horror movie territory.  "I feel frightened.  As if we're about to interfere in something best left alone."  Now Susan, entering the yard, looks like the heroine of a gothic novel, and even the junk itself seems macabre.

Down-to-Earth Ian merrily pooh-poohs Barbara's fears: "I take things as they come," he says, uttering Doctor Who's first double entendre.  But even he's perturbed by the sight, sound and especially touch of the police box we saw earlier.  "It's alive!" he cries, amping up the spooky atmosphere by channeling Colin Clive as Universal's Frankenstein.

But although Ian and Barbara clearly saw Susan enter the yard, there's now no sign of her anywhere.  There's a sublime moment of unintentional comedy as the pair hear the approach of a clearly male hacking cough and Barbara exclaims "Is that her?" Unsurprisingly it isn't: the cougher is an outlandishly dressed old man (William Hartnell), from whom the teachers hide, emerging to confront him when they hear Susan's voice, apparently coming from the box.

The old man's less than keen to help: he insists he heard no girl, and that there's nothing strange going on (a claim which is undermined a tad by his tendency to talk to himself in loud asides - "Pupils? Not the police then...").  Convinced Susan's being held in the box against her will by this unsavoury character, Ian and Barbara are about to head for the police when, hearing the girl's voice again, Barbara pushes her way into the box, and finds something she certainly wasn't expecting.

The reveal of the impossibly vast interior of the police box is one of TV's most magical moments: even 50 years later it can take the breath away.  Primarily the work of designer Peter Brachacki, the bizarre room in which Ian and Barbara find themselves is the equal of the show's opening sequence in its striking oddness.  The fusty old man, in his Edwardian garb, seems utterly incongruous within this interior but dominates it totally.  He's Susan's grandfather, and this is their home ("And what's wrong with it?" he indignantly asks in response to Barbara's astonished question of whether this is where Susan really lives).

Susan's named this impossible structure the TARDIS - it stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.  "I thought you'd both understand when you saw the different dimensions inside from those outside," she says, disappointed by her teachers' bewilderment.

Susan's grandfather only gives out information to the interlopers as it pleases him, gradually revealing that the TARDIS can travel in time and space ("This doesn't roll along on wheels, you know!") and that he and Susan originate from another time and place ("The children of my civilisation would be insulted!" he chortles cruelly when Ian complains he and Barbara are being treated like children).  "I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it," the old man snorts.  "Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet, without friends or protection.  But one day we shall get back.  Yes, one day... one day!"  Hartnell's particularly brilliant here as he drifts off into a reverie then shrugs himself out of it with that last, upbeat "One day!"

The poor schoolteachers are still having trouble crediting their senses, Barbara trying to convince Susan (in actuality herself) that it's all a game the girl and her strange guardian are playing, while Ian harrumphs "Free movement in time and space is a scientific dream I don't expect to find solved in a junkyard!" But what's to happen to them? Ian's attempt to open the door leads to a nasty shock...

Susan begs her grandfather to let them go, but he insists that if they do she and he must depart as well, the revelation of the TARDIS to the public something he could not tolerate.  Susan sulkily tells him she'll go with them as she now feels 20th century England's her home.  Susan leaving him's clearly an idea the old man can't even begin to think of, as rather than try and reason with her he simply makes the rather rash decision to take off with Ian and Barbara aboard (is he planning to chuck them out at the first stop, wherever it may be?).  As the ship thunders to life we hear another ear-bending noise, a wheezing, groaning cacophony.  Ian and Barbara are knocked unconscious, the bright lights of London zoom into the distance, and the strange shapes we saw in the title sequence take on a new significance as we see them superimposed over Susan and her grandfather's faces.

And we see the police box again, in a location far more incongruous than a junkyard - with the shadow of peril quite literally looming over it.

I don't know if there's ever been a more perfect first episode of anything than An Unearthly Child.  At the end of its 25 minute running time you really feel like you've been whisked up from your mundane existence and plonked in a new universe with entirely different rules, where absolutely anything might happen.  Next week we'll find out exactly what does.

Now, from whatever godforsaken wilderness the TARDIS has arrived in, we head to the more hospitable climes of the Bahamas.  Hospitable for holiday makers, that is - less so for a group of retirees who've bought plots of land out there to find they're little more than swamp...

The land was sold by ruthless businessman Mr Lamont (Paul "Steve Zodiac" Maxwell), but the prefab houses to go on it were supplied by Carlos Varela, who fortunately has a bit more ruth.  On learning of the potential damage the affair could wreak on Mercury International's reputation, not to mention its finances, Carlos dashes out to Nassau.  The journey out's made a nightmare by obstreperous fellow passenger Jessie Robins (scenes like this make me mourn the ground unwieldy boxes of chocs have lost to more portable forms of confectionery.

"A real live wire him," Carlos's unwanted companion comments of his rather frosty demeanour.  "If they're all like him in the Bahamas I might just as well have stayed in Blackpool."

On arrival Carlos checks in at the hotel where his secretary Susie Carter's fending off the angry attentions of swindled landowners (the desk clerk's played by jobbing actor Donald Sutherland).

Shortly afterward Carlos collides with a beautiful young woman played by up-and-coming Shakespearean actress Diana Rigg, in her first credited TV role.  She can offer nothing in the way of conversation other than profuse thanks, leading Carlos to muse to Susie, "Funny people, the English.  When they find themselves at a loss for words they keep on saying thank you.  You can almost see Charles I saying thank you to his executioner."

But when Carlos meets the young lady again in a few short minutes, she's got a lot more to say for herself.  Her name's Francy Wilde, and her father's one of those who've been cheated into buying land he can't build on.  Francy's angry, but Colonel Wilde (William Melvyn) is absolutely livid: "You're a scoundrel, Sir!" he cries.  Then punches Carlos in the face.

Carlos professes his innocence, and his intention to find a decent resolution for Lamont's dupes.  "With every failure, I die a little here," he insists, indicating his breast.  "In my wallet."

Carlos pays a visit to Lamont's office to confront the swindler (wheedling his way around the man's secretary (Dorothea Phillips), an, er, not classically beautiful woman: Has anybody told you you have the same colour eyes as Deborah Kerr?"), then delivering a gift from the Colonel when he gets to meet Lamont in person.

With Lamont refusing to reimburse those who've paid him a fortune for useless land, Carlos hatches a plan, which involves Alfie Prentice (David Healy), as absurd a comedy Texan as you could hope to find.  Despite Carlos's assurance that he wants to help her father Francy Wilde's still deeply mistrustful of him, especially with the arrival of this strange new character.  As to what that thing with sunglasses suspended from the ceiling is, I would not like to hazard a guess.

As Francy, who coolly decides to investigate just what exactly Mr Varela is up to, Diana Rigg is clearly several cuts above the usual decorative starlet cast as love interest of the week in ITC shows.  She's crying out to have a regular leading role, and the writer of A Very Desirable Plot, a Mr Brian Clemens, would play an important part in getting her one.  However, despite Francy's suspicion of Carlos, she is the love interest of the week, and so ends up snogging him despite her better judgement.

Stumbling across a discussion between Carlos and Alfie, Francy leaps to the conclusion that they've discovered gas on the misbegotten land.  Lamont, however, having sent a henchman to steal a soil sample from Alfie, is convinced there's oil under it.

It's all part of a trap Carlos has set, of course, the next phase of which involves his manservant Chin masquerading as a Chinese millionaire from Trinidad and buying up the remaining plots of land.

Next, Carlos offers to buy all the plots of land from the people Lamont sold them to - he needs a loan to do so, though - and it's provided by an anonymous donor (Lamont, in fact).  Before Carlos's plot (the episode title's got a double meaning, you see) reaches its fruition, we're treated (or not) to the sight of him having a shower.

The swindled investors gather together to sign their land over to Carlos: enter Lamont, trying to undercut his price.  This being exactly what Carlos wants, he drives the price up before surrendering to his rival.  Susie's chosen this occasion to debut a new hairstyle, but nobody pays it any attention.

Once Lamont's paid vastly over the odds for the land, he learns that there's no oil after all - Alfie's a scientist who was doing a study of marine vegetable life, the sample Lamont's man obtained was a comparative one from Texas.

Now Lamont's been roundly defeated and his victims have got their money back, Carlos and Francy decide it's time to get to know each other a little better.

Thanks to a sparkling script from Brian Clemens (as good as anything he was writing for The Avengers at the time) and adorable performances from Diana Rigg and Carlos Thompson, A Very Desirable Plot is one of the most fun episodes of a very fun series.

Nex tonight, Carlos Varela's intricate plot against Lamont seems benign in comparison to what Ada Larkins has planned...

Alf and Ada's 31st anniversary is looming, and it looks almost certain that Alf's forgotten.  Not that Ada's upset by this: as she explains to Hetty Prout, there could be no better excuse for indulging in her favourite pastime of making her husband's life hell. 

Cast your eyes for a moment over the medley of clashing patterns in that above photo.  It's just a terrible shame we're denied the opportunity of seeing them in colour.  Anyway, Hetty tries to talk Ada into giving her husband a subtle reminder, so he can arrange a romantic evening for them.  Ada, however, is unable to imagine anything much more horrific than a romantic evening with her husband.  If it didn't occur in an obscure 1960s TV show few people have seen, Peggy Mount's face in the image below would have become a meme long before now.

Ada's got no need to worry: Alf's got no idea it's his anniversary on Friday, and has arranged to play darts that evening.  It's a grudge match against the team from the Blue Boar, led by the pugnacious Vic (Victor Maddern), with whom Alf makes a bet of £50 on the outcome of the match.

Things get complicated when Hetty, fearing the worst for Alf, tries to remind him of the upcoming occasion.  She's not very subtle, but he still fails to get it.

Barging in partway through their conversation, Ada's stunned to be told "We're going out Friday."  Confronted with the possibility that Alf might actually be doing something nice for her, she changes her tune.  Strangely enough, the sight of a happy Peggy Mount is even more frightening than that of an angry one.

As his wires become uncrossed, Alf realises he's committed to both playing darts and taking Ada out for a romantic meal on the same evening.  Lodger and fellow wastrel Osbert convinces him to try and shift his date with Ada to another evening.  Despite smoking jacket, box of chocs (not on Ada's diet), flowers (that bring on her hay fever) and "genuine empire ruby red port style wine" it's not a resounding success: Alf's inability to remember the details of their first meeting doesn't help.

Friday comes, and Alf's team, including Osbert and Lofty (David Jackson, later Blake's 7's Gan) wait impatiently at the pub for him.

Plan A - Alf locking Ada in the woodshed -  has failed ("I do not want to see the dry rot in the woodshed - it's bad enough seeing you all evening"), so Osbert rushes home to try and implement an alternative, with the Larkins' nephew Georgie pretending to be ill in order to distract Ada's attentions.  However, one glance at "50,000 Curious Ailments" leaves Alf convinced he's got all of them.  

Ada, suspicious as always, locks Alf in Georgie's bedroom (which has some stupendous rocket wallpaper), his attempt to escape via the window resulting in a sprained wrist.  When Alf fesses up about the £50 in the balance, Ada heads off down the pub and single-handedly wins the darts match for him.  What a woman (mind you, although we cut to the dartboard revealing Ada's scored three trebles in a row, we clearly hear Peggy Mount's first dart bounce off the board and clatter on the studio floor).

And, happily, they get their romantic dinner, though Ada has to cook it herself.  At least the service is decent.

Lastly tonight, it's The Avengers (there's no Espionage tonight, but it'll be back next week).  Tonight's episode's not one I've ever seen listed among especially memorable ones - on watching it, that comes as a bit of a surprise.  It is to Cathy Gale what the infamous A Touch of Brimstone would later be to Diana Rigg's Emma Peel, fetishising her almost to the point of delirium.  It's not what you'd expect of a simple story of counterfeit medicine...

The episode begins in startling fashion with the murder of a woman, Tu Shu Yung, while she visits a sauna. "What was Miss Tu doing in London?" Cathy Gale asks John Steed, as if the idea she might just live there is unthinkable.  Mind you, Cathy's somewhat distracted by Steed using her legs for putting practice (he's had to take up golf rather than his preferred sport of polo as his two ponies are showing more interest in each other than the game).

Miss Tu was in fact over from Hong Kong to locate the source of cheap beauty products and medicines being passed off in the East as originating from respected British firm Willis-Sopwith (with minor alterations for copyright reasons).

But why on earth would something so mundane lead to murder? Steed wants Cathy to head down to the Regency Turkish Baths and investigate.  It's ladies only on Mondays and Thursdays.  "Today's Thursday," he responds when she asks why he doesn't do it himself.  "Precisely," she fires back.

Steed, meanwhile, pays a visit to Willis-Sopwith, meeting two generations of Willises (there are no Sopwiths to be seen).  Young Geoffrey (Peter Barkworth) runs the business machine-like efficiency - he's just fired a secretary for not cleaning the teeth of her typewriter.  His ageing playboy father John (Newton Blick) is relieved to have the running of the business off his hands, giving him more time to find thigns of his own to do with the secretaries.

One secretary John keeps his hands off is the matronly Miss Dowell (Joy Ward), just as scarily efficient as Geoffrey, and seen her positioned beneath a rather marvellous art deco-style corporate mural (The Medicine Men features some fantastic design from David Marshall).

Talking of design, Willis-Sopwith have a new look in store for all their products in an attempt to foil their imitators.  It's charming in its simplicity.

But unfortunately someone in the organisation is ferrying pictures of the new designs out to action painter Frank Leeson (Harold Innocent, whose name is a perfect match for his cherubic face and a stark contrast to his sepulchral voice), middle man for a sinister foreign power, who arranges to have copies printed by the weaselly Mr Taylor (John Crocker).  And this time there are to be no changes to the design to circumvent copyright law.

In his day job, Leeson's schtick is to create paintings via naked women rolling about on giant canvases.  While being rubbed down by masseuse Brenda Cowling (she's getting the most comprehensive treatment possible at the baths, all at Steed's expense), Cathy learns that Miss Tu had often come in covered in paint, from which we can infer she was a former model/paintbrush of Leeson's.  Cathy then takes a shower next to another paint-spattered lady, Leeson's latest muse, Fay (Monica Stevenson), who Cathy recognises as "The Lilt Girl", whose face was everywhere in a Willis-Sopwith ad campaign a few years back.

It's now Cathy's turn to visit Geoffrey Willis, in the guise of a business efficiency expert who wants to turn the company around (it's strange the way that despite them always going undercover Steed and Cathy never bother to change their names).  Geoffrey's instantly smitten with Cathy and gives her the run of the place.  Within a few minutes she's come across the body of the company's designer...

Fay may no longer be the Lilt girl but she keeps up an association with Willis-Sopwith: she's Willis Sr's girlfriend ("When she's not out spending his money she's a model for an action painter" Cathy tells Steed.  "Who provides the action?" he muses).  Fay's horrified when Leeson informs her that his current client plans to dsiguise poison as Willis-Sopwith medicines in order to stir up anti-British sentiment in a tiny but crucial Arab state.  But Fay's attempts to inform her boyfriend of what's going on are overheard by Miss Dowell, who's both the mole within Willis-Sopwith and Leeson's employer.  She arranges for Fay to be kidnapped but the unfortunate model's discovered by Steed and Cathy when they investigate Taylor's print works - after a tussle with a pair of heavies.  It's an unusually brutal fight, in which Steed bashes his adversary over the head with a cash box and Cathy ends up with a black eye from hers...  

...leading to her concealing it when she turns up at Willis-Sopwith the following day.  The sight of a leather-clad Honor Blackman is always a striking one: the addition of an eyepatch makes her look like some kind of pirate dominatrix.

It's in its final act that The Medicine Men goes completely potty.  Patrick Macnee has a splendid time in one of his infrequent comedy characterisations, as an art buyer who claims he can make Leeson "the toast of Reykjavik".  It's not often you see two astrakhan hats in the one evening.

Steed sends Cathy along to Leeson as a potential new model ("She's a very elegant young lady, if sartorially a little avant-garde".  "I'll get you a drink and then I'll... put you in the picture," Leeson drools to her when she arrives (a line you can tell he's used many times before).

Inopportunely, evil Miss Dowell now turns up, exposes Cathy, and restrains her.  I once stumbled across a rather disturbing Youtube channel devoted to female Avengers stars being tied to chairs.  I imagine its creator must get very excited indeed about this scene.

While this is going on, Steed learns the identity of the real boss behind Miss Dowell's organisation: it's Geoffrey Willis! Perhaps wisely, writer Malcolm Hulke eschews any explanations for this - instead Steed just shoots Willis, Peter Barkworth camping up his demise splendidly.

Steed gets to Leeson's studio in time to save Cathy, though this being Cathy Gale she's not doing too bad a job of it herself.

Putting Cathy in an eyepatch and focusing almost indecently on her body and (especially) her famed boots, The Medicine Men is mind-bogglingly kinky stuff.  Speaking of which, there'll probably never be a better opportunity for a bit of this:

Macnee and Blackman's effort at conquering the pop charts didn't quite work out (not until years after The Avengers had ceased being made, anyway), but what has made it on to this week's hit parade? Gerry and the Pacemakers still refuse to be budged at number one, but up a remarkable 17 places to number 2 this week it's the twangtastic sounds of John Smith and the Common Men.


  1. Much as I should be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, I just had to say that the b-side of "Kinky Boots" was much better :

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