Saturday, 9 November 2013

Saturday 9 November 1963

Our Saturday night televiewing this week begins with a trip to the Greek island of Athos (fictional, of course), where the unfortunate Mr Andrea (Raymond Ray), an agent for Mercury International, is being menaced by hoodlums Patrick Allen and Charles Farrell.  Shortly afterward the poor chap gets hit by a truck.

The news of Andrea's demise reaches Carlos Varela in London, and he's shattered by it.  Andrea was a very old friend, and Athos is a place very dear to his heart, as well as one that was instrumental in the setting up of his business.  For a while before Andrea's suspicious death he'd been troubled by the total lack of any trade on the island, and he decides to abandon what could be the biggest deal of his career to go and investigate.  For once he takes both Chin and Miss Carter with him, though neither of them get much to do.  Even Carlos Thompson's sunglasses manage to turn in a more memorable performance than poor Clemence Bettany.

The first native of the island who greets Carlos on his arrival is Andrea's elderly secretary Miss Mithras, played by the marvellous Eileen Way.

It's seven years since Carlos last set foot on the island, and none of his old friends seems willing to meet up with him.  Like the island's mayor (Martin Miller), they all seem to be under the thumb of Allen's character George Petrides, a native of Athos recently deported back from the US, where he enjoyed a career as a gangster known as Georgie the Greek.  Deciding that being a big fish in a small pond's better than nothing, he's set his heart on crushing all other business on the island.

Just about the only person happy to see Carlos is café proprietress Melina (Zena Marshall, who gives a very exuberant performance to say the least).

Melina's the (very) long term fiancee of Athos's unofficial ruler, bandit king Ridou, an old friend and key business associate of Carlos.  Baffled by Ridou's apparent acquiescence to Petrides' reign of terror, Carlos pays him a visit, only to find that the dashing bandit he once knew is now a lazy lush in the rotund form of Patrick Newell.

Ridou's been flattered into believing he's the real power behind Petrides, though it's clearly the other way round.  Carlos realises the only way to fire Ridou up to rid the island of this new menace is to exploit his feelings for Melina.  So he makes sure Petrides gets a good look at him cosying up to her.  Then, when Petrides is informed of this and comes after Carlos, he engineers it so it looks like Petrides is trying to get fresh with her.

As master manipulator Carlos planned, Ridou springs into action and turns the people of the island against Petrides for good.

A Little Sweetness and Light is only a middling Sentimental Agent episode, carried by Carlos Thompson's irresistible charisma.  He's especially brilliant in the episode's climactic scene at Petrides' auction house, taking over the gavel and jollying the great and good of the island along to throw off their chains and - most importantly - bid for his goods.

Finally, a couple of additional cast members worth pointing out: in the small role of a waiter is Louis Manzi, later to find fame as Herr Flick's sidekick Von Smallhausen in 'Allo! 'Allo!

And there's a glimpse of the face behind the voice of Space Patrol's Colonel Raeburn, with Murray Kash cast in the role of the regular auctioneer.

Next tonight, a show brand new to TV Minus 50, but not to TV.  Popular ATV sitcom The Larkins is back after a break of three years, announcing itself with a charmingly crude set of animated titles.

There have been some changes to the sit of this particular com, and we kick off with Alf Larkins (David Kossoff) explaining these to an old mate over of a cup of tea in a caff.  He has a bit of trouble to start off with, though: "I'm not at st - I'm still not at, ahhhh, Sycamore Street, you know."

Once he's managed to get his teeth back in, Alf reveals that he and wife Ada's brood have all left home, he's taken early retirement ("Ooh, they must've wanted you out the way real bad" is the response on hearing about the golden handshake he received), and he and Ada are now running this very caff (or "cayfe" as Ada insists it be pronounced): "There's just a matter of eightpence for the two teas..."

Meanwhile, Ada (Peggy Mount) is busy in the kitchen making up for the inadequacies of her lazy husband and gormless help Mrs Gannett (Hazel Coppen) by running the cayfe practically single-handed.

Despite being a dragon of the first order in the kitchen, Ada still possesses the ability to win over her customers (mainly bus drivers of diverse ethnicities) with promises of "Steak and kidney pie, brussels sprouts and green peas."  "Your spuds are out of this world!" one satisfied customer rather cheekily informs her.

As well as a cayfe, Ada's trying to run her new business as a boarding house as well.  This venture isn't going so well, with only one lodger to date, retired Major Osbert Rigby-Soames (the wonderful Hugh Paddick).  Despite his having not even mentioned rent in the four weeks he's been residing with the Larkins, Ada's in awe of him as a man of true breeding.

Judging by his interest in the Larkins' bookcase, he's also a man of great intellect.  Though it's possible there may be other reasons he keeps returning to it - such as his enjoyment of a stiff one.

Ada dreams of running an establishment much classier than a greasy spoon, and the Major's clearly the man to help her achieve this aim: "We've got to give something absolutely new, slightly offbeat, sort of mad exotic".  His suggestion: they run the place as a caff by day, but a classy Spanish restaurant by night (I can't help feeling that writer Fred Robinson came up with the title pun first then wrote an episode around it).  Alf's unsurprisingly sceptical, but Ada immediately falls in love with the idea.  And there's certainly no lack of ambition between her and the Major: they decide to open their new venture the very next evening.

Ada's just sorry there's no drink in the house to toast with.  Aha! The Major pulls out the hidden bottle he found.  "Perhaps it was the fairies," he chuckles mischievously.  Incidentally, the garment sported by Peggy Mount in this scene is truly awe-inspiring.  What is it? A dress? A housecoat? A sofa cover?

Hetty Prout (Barbara Mitchell, a brilliantly funny actress with Olive Oyl-like physique), the Larkins' next door neighbour in the previous four series, now works in the caff, and is sent out to Soho to buy a plethora of exotic ingredients for that evening's Spanish feast.  It's a traumatic experience for her: "Ooh, if you'd seen me, fighting my way through that square mile of vice.  Every shop I went in I thought I was going to wind up in Buenos Aires."  She's brought back everything required except for the octopus: "It sat there looking at me, with all its rotten legs twiddling.  I told the man straight, I said, I'm not walking that home on a bit of string."

The vicar and his wife (Charles Lloyd-Pack and Helena McCarthy) are coming as guests of honour, entertainment has been arranged (in the form of a tramp brought in off the street to play the fiddle), the Major looks the part as head waiter, and Ada's even agreed to serve wine.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, Hetty's attempt at flamenco dancing perhaps isn't quite what Ada anticipated, and nor is Alf's translation of the menu: "That means surprise eggs.  Well, it's more of a shock, really."

Just when it looks like there'll be no other customers that evening, a  decidedly surly Spanish friend of the Major's arrives (played by John "Zoonie the Lazoon" Bluthal).  He's less than satisfied by the ambience, and his "authentic Spanish" style of drinking is not a success when imitated by the vicar.

The evening ends in a massive punch-up after Alf brings a crowd back from the pub, their suspicion of the foreign muck on offer provoking John Bluthal and his gang.

The arrival of the police breaks up the fight, but then there's the matter of an unlicensed caff selling alcohol and a vicar stinking of wine...

Café Olé is just as corny as you'd expect an ITV sitcom of the 60s (or, indeed, of any time) to be, but it's great fun, has a fantastic cast, and revels in its working class atmosphere in a way completely unknown in 21st century TV.

This week's Avengers starts off almost as a replay of The Nutshell from a few weeks back, with Cathy leading Steed through the mind-boggling security arrangements of an underground vault.  This one holds £3 million in gold, and Cathy's got a plan to steal it.  That's just the first of many surprises this gloriously twisty episode has in store for us...

The eyes beneath the episode's title belong to Patrick Magee, who's been a bit of a regular around these parts in recent weeks (not that I'm complaining - too much Patrick Magee would be an impossibility).  He gives a bitter, snarling performance as criminal mastermind J P Spagge, a modern day Moriarty now supposedly in retirement, scooting about his luxurious home in his wheelchair all day and feeling sorry for himself.  But John Steed has a proposition for him: to put together a crack team who can steal that £3 million.

Spagge initially seems uninterested, but once Steed's left he consults his butler Fleming (Norman Chappell), a walking sartorial encyclopedia, on his opinion of Steed.  Fleming's in no doubt that he's a man of impeccable taste and breeding.  "Could he have been carrying a gun?"asks Spagge.  "In that suit, Sir?" replies a shocked Fleming.  "He couldn't have carried another fountain pen."  "I do believe you're a snob, Fleming," his employer later snorts.  "Naturally Sir," the butler responds, "That's what I'm paid for."  The script, of course, is by the incomparable Roger Marshall.

In a premonition of the job Honor Blackman would eventually leave The Avengers for, Cathy's learning all about gold.  She needs to be able to pass as a long term employee of the bullion firm the gold's due to be stolen from and, as such, listens non-stop to a recording of her own voice reciting gold facts.

It's all part of an extraordinarily elaborate scheme of Steed's to snare Spagge, who apart from one seven year jail term has managed to evade justice throughout his entire nefarious career (Steed suggests that he may even have been the brains behind the then-recent Great Train Robbery).  "You're becoming a proper slave driver," Cathy comments to him as he gees her along.  "I've got my whip on the kitchen table," he promises.  However, a hitch suddenly appears in the form of a pair of detectives (Fredric Abbott and Alan Heywood), who turn up to arrest Cathy - for the murder of J P Spagge (I told you this one was full of surprises).

Next thing we know, Cathy wakes up in a cell at Holloway Prison (it's her second time there - see last series' Intercrime), where a kindly wardress with just a touch of the Peggy Mount about her (Margo Cunningham) - "'ere, you're not the baby strangler, are you?" informs her that her trial's already taken place - and she's been sentenced to death.

Cathy's bewildered that she can't remember any of her trial, but her suspicion that all is not as it seems is first piqued by the prison chaplain (Edric Connor), who misattributes a verse from Mark to Matthew.  And why are both he and the wardress so keen to know all about Steed? Cathy manages to stick to her story that she works for the bullion firm - though how true what she says about Steed is ("I don't know him that well.  He's a man about town.  He seems to have lots of money and does precious little for it") we're left to wonder.

Eventually Cathy's called to a meeting with the governor.  She's led up the stairs by the wardress... and astonished to find herself in a cavernous artists' studio occupied by the chaplain, the detectives who arrested her and various other men unknown to her.  These are the men assembled by Spagge to assist in stealing the bullion, and they've been playing a game with Cathy to test her resolve (the wardress is the actress sister of one of them).

The erstwhile chaplain, in reality Abe Benham, a sculptor, scrap dealer and occasional thief, is the leader of the gang.  There's an intriguing directorial flourish from Bill Bain as we see Abe and his men introduce themselves from Cathy's somewhat hazy perspective.

One of the gang, Hammond (Martin Friend), nicknamed "Daisy", seems to be a little over-interested in Cathy's boots.

But that's by the by.  Cathy's accepted into the gang and they begin to plan the bullion heist.  Meanwhile, Fleming delicately breaks the news to the conspicuously living Spagge that Steed has been in contact with the police: "I took the liberty of having his telephone instrument tapped, Sir".  A hit is rapidly arranged, the sound of Steed's dog Katy whining as the show goes into the break an especially disturbing touch.

Unaware of her associate's apparent demise, Cathy's having a whale of a time leading her very own criminal gang - the camaraderie between the men is infectious, and she and Abe seem to be getting quite close, what with him deciding to immortalise her in clay.  Cathy's plan is to pump gas through the vault's air conditioning system, incapacitating the guards so the gang can nip in and get the gold.

The scenes of the gas snaking through the vents and overcoming the unsuspecting personnel at the vault are pretty eerie stuff.

The theft of the bullion goes off without a hitch, but a reckoning is due, Spagge's arrival at Abe's HQ, having learned of Cathy's treachery too, imaginatively filmed from below.

Abe's clear fondness for his new colleague makes Spagge's instruction that he kill her all the more chilling (though, lets face it, she was only going to betray him anyway).

But of course Steed turns up in the nick of time (he wasn't dead after all, you may be surprised to learn) and between them he and Cathy polish the villains off.

We end with Steed quite literally wheeling Spagge off to the police, the information that there's a ten per cent reward for the return of the bullion making him so excited he transforms into Frankie Howerd.

Appropriately enough, The Gilded Cage is solid gold Avengers, with a top-notch script from arguably the show's finest writer, first rate guest stars (Magee and Chappell especially) and what must be one of Honor Blackman's finest performances.  Bravo.

Next tonight, it's another history lesson from the Espionage team.  This week we're whisked back to the 1890s and the revolt against China's Manchu dynasty.  The events depicted may be a bit more historically accurate than those in last week's version of the Easter Rising, but the programme's certainly not without its problems...

Chief among these problems is that, while there are many genuine Asian actors in the episode, none of them play the major Chinese characters.  Sun Yat-Sen, the prime figure in the revolution and the Dragon Slayer of the title, is played by Lee Montague.  He's certainly not the least convincing European actor I've ever seen made up to look Chinese, but that's not really the point.  We first see him observing the beheading in the street of an unfortunate chap because he's not wearing the pigtail that proclaims fidelity to the Manchu.  Wielding the sword is the always very camp Eric Young.

Some time later (it's not specified how long), Sun is now leading the uprising against the Manchus.  His position exposed, he goes to get help from his old teacher, British surgeon James Cantlie (Thorley Walters).  Pretending to be a patient, he has to undergo the beginnings of an unnecessary appendectomy until suspicious Eric Young becomes too squeamish to watch.

Cantlie takes Sun back to London with him, where he intends to set him up as a fashionable society doctor.  Meanwhile, we're introduced to London-based Manchu secret service official Colonel Tung, the play's most unfortunate piece of casting.  The spectacle of Patrick Cargill dressed up like he's about to go on stage in an amateur production of Aladdin, drawling in impeccable RP his frustration that the British think of all his countrymen as homogenous "Chinky Chinky Chinamen" goes several degrees beyond camp.

More of him shortly.  First we follow Sun on his introduction to London society at a party where he's immediately looked up and down by a woman possibly wondering why he's wearing so much eye makeup.

Despite Cantlie's entreaties, Sun's not ready to give up on his countrymen for a life of luxury in London.  Straightaway he buttonholes millionaire Sir Leslie Parrott (Peter Dyneley), appealing for funds for the revolution. Sir Leslie's not exactly enthuused by the cause: "Frightful business, I'm sure," he murmurs on being told of the recent slaughter of 40 million Chinese people.

Frustrated with the indifference that's greeted his appeal, Sun feels he has just one place left to turn: he heads for Limehouse and the grim eaterie operated by his elderly uncle (Cyril Shaps in the least convincing makeup of the episode - which is saying a lot).

Sun begs his uncle to help him get access to the leaders of the secret societies that run London's opium dens.  Reluctantly, the old man agrees - though it's by no means certain these dangerous men will let Sun go with his life.  Unsurprisingly, the leaders' spokesperson is played by an English actor, Alan Tilvern.  The rest are an especially ropey looking bunch of extras.

The societies, who consider they're already doing enough to fight the Manchu, refuse to help Sun any further - though they do refrain from killing him.  However, shortly after leaving their presence he's set upon by a gang of men led by massive, all-purpose menacing exotic Milton Reid (his character's name is given in the credits as Big Pedestrian).

Awakening, Sun finds himself the prisoner of Colonel Tung at the Chinese Legation.  Cargill, as always, makes for a perfect silky-voiced villain, and the script gives him some wonderfully sardonic lines - "Dr Sun, I think I should say at once that I can think of many more amusing ways to spend the afternoon than in here talking to an arrogant fanatic", but the casting just grates - particularly when a great many of the play's lines are devoted to challenging simplistic Western views of the Chinese.  This noble intent's displayed further by the clear condemnation of the open racism of Tung's butler Crutchley (Sam Kydd), who we're obviously meant to find repugnant.  To 21st century eyes at least, there seems precious little difference between Sam Kydd doing "slitty eyes" and Lee Montague or Patrick Cargill doing it in a more elaborate, better-intentioned way.

Crutchley's a brute who beats his wife (Gwen Cherrill), and sells a note Sun gives him to take to Cantlie to Tung for booze money.  Hours before he's due to be deported to China and given the agonising treatment meted out to traitors, Sun turns to Mrs Crutchley as a last resort.  The highly-strung housemaid makes it clear she doesn't want to be involved, but when she sees the prisoner brutally knocked out by his jailer she realises something must be done.

Mrs Crutchley takes a note to Cantlie, who rapidly arrives at the legation with officials ready to cause a great deal of embarrassment for Tung and his colleagues.  The Colonel, for his part, regretfully sets Sun free, but, noting that the news of his internment is likely to strengthen the cause against the Manchu, seems rather smug that a man as free of morals as himself should have provided the impetus for change.  The Crutchleys lose their jobs, but Mrs Crutchley's regained her self-respect.

Well, that's it for another Saturday.  Here's The Searchers, at number 4 in the hit parade, to play us out.

1 comment:

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