Thursday, 28 November 2013

Thursday 28 November 1963

"Where's that dreadful noise coming from?" asks Colonel Raeburn, which seems a rather harsh way of describing F C Judd's electronic music until we realise he's referring to a peculiar buzzing sound permeating the whole of Space Patrol HQ.  The Colonel asks a passing robot named Mac about the noise, and receives a rather grumpy response: "I cannot hear anything, but everyone is asking me the same question".

But if the noise is a nuisance for Raeburn and his colleagues, it seems to be at its worst in - of all places - France, whose panicked Lady President contacts Raeburn for help.  The noise has rendered the population of France incapable of working, and this has led to the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre! And the thieves come from space!

One person who hasn't even noticed the noise is Professor Haggerty, who's too busy working on his latest invention to pay attention to such things.  He's created a time machine! Sort of.  It's actually something he calls a "time watch" (I don't think he's fully thought that one through), which slows down time for whoever's wearing it, meaning they're able to do everything at incredible speed.  Space Patrol being a children's programme, the application for this invention everyone's most excited about is it means children can accomplish all their schooling within just a couple of years.  Haggerty demonstrates the watch on his daughter Cassiopeia, who he sends to tidy up his lab within a minute (but hang on a minute, with women getting all their housework done in just a few minutes what are they supposed to do with the rest of their time?)

Meanwhile, more art thefts have taken place all over the world - and the culprit is revealed as Tara, a Venusian millionaire who lives on Jupiter's moon Callisto.  He lives, surrounded by art treasures, with a big-haired companion who we last saw working as a henchman of Slim's evil uncle (the puppet for whom is also used for Tara, funnily enough).

Wicked Tara refuses to give the stolen art back when requested by Raeburn.  So it's up to Larry Dart to go and get it - aided by the time watch (time watch - I ask you).  He learns about the device at a launch party Professor Haggerty's holding for it.  The Prof's home looks very swish indeed, but it doesn't look like much of a party.

Raeburn tests out the watch by going for a ride in a monobile while wearing it (which sounds thoroughly dangerous to me, though he gets back in one piece).  Dart sets off for Callisto, planning to slow down time for the two minutes Tara's palace doors are open when he goes on his daily inspection of his gold mines.  Highlight of the episode is the lawnmower-like contraption Dart piles paintings up on willy-nilly to wheel them out (we're later told he managed to get a load of sculptures out of the palace too.  The mind boggles).

The Galasphere escapes with the art treasures aboard, but Tara sends missiles after them (I don't think Gerry Anderson's got anything to worry about here).

Fortunately Dart and his crew manage to outpace the pursuing rockets and return the art treasures safely to Earth.  So that's the end of another 20-odd minutes of agreeable nonsense.  I'll leave you with plain-speaking crewman Husky's thoughts on art to ponder on: "The Mona Lisa's nice to look at, but I'd much rather eat a Martian sausage."

A dramatic change of tone now, from both the previous show and what the next one's normally like.  This week Simon Templar's not swanking about in a glamorous location like Paris, Rome or Stevenage.  He's in Trafalgar Square, during a rally held by a far right organisation who (clearly no mincers of words) call themselves the British Nazi Party.  21st century viewers might wish to replace these in their mind with a present day party of the same initials.  Their leader, Norton, is played by Raymond Adamson, spouting the kind of ha flanked by everpresent TV heavies John Hollis and Joe Robinson.

Simon's opening address to the viewer is far more stern than usual this week as well: "Less than 20 years ago, we won the fight against Nazi tyranny.  And today, the spectre is emerging again.  It's the same shabby doctrine: race hatred, survival of the fittest, brutal intimidation of the opposition.  I've heard it before and it sickens me."

I've never read any of Leslie Charteris' original Saint stories, so I don't know to what degree the prose version of The Saint Plays with Fire differs in tone from his other novels.  As filmed, it feels like an episode from an entirely different show, with a moral seriousness that's more the kind of thing you'd expect from an Espionage play.

Also present at the sickening spectacle in Trafalgar Square is one of the many old friend's Simon's forever bumping into, Harry Jackman (Robert Brown), crusading editor of The New Nation (The New Statesman?).  He introduces Simon to his star reporter John Kennett (Tony Beckley, in his second Saint appearance of recent weeks), who's currently at work on an exposé of Norton's party.  Here's Kennett at work, living the kind of life I aspire to (I don't smoke, but if 1963 ever came back I'd jolly well have to learn).

Kennett's receieved an invitation from an acquaintance, Lady Valerie Woodchester, to spend a weekend at Whiteways, the suggestively named country home of wealthy Nazi Party supporter Sidney Fairweather.  Going must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but unsurprisingly it doesn't pan out very well for poor Kennett.

By coincidence (or is it?) Simon Templar happens to be driving past Whiteways later that evening when he notices the house is ablaze.

As the conflagration rages, Sidney Fairweather (John Robinson, TV's second Professor Quatermass) watches helplessly outside with his guests Sir Robert and Lady Sangore (Geoffrey Denton and Margaretta Scott).  Another visitor to Fairweather's home, German industrialist Kane Luker (Joseph Furst) bravely rescues lissome Lady Valerie (Justine Lord) from the blaze.

But when Simon arrives on the scene it's the welfare of the absent John Kennett he's worried about.  In a tremendously exciting scene, he rushes into the house to rescue the reporter, only to find his bedroom door locked.  And before he has a chance to break it down his way's blocked by burning beams.

As he prepares to attend the inquest into Kennett's death, Simon becomes increasingly convinced foul play was involved, and confides these suspicions to Jackman, the very image of journalistic integrity with his pipe and horn-rimmed specs.

In a chat with Simon before the inquest, Lady Valerie admits she received an incentive from Fairweather to bring Kennett down for the weekend (a sports car, in fact), but insists she knew nothing of any plot against the reporter.

The coroner (or "curroner", as ultra-plummy John Robinson insists on pronouncing it), is played by Keith Pyott and seems suspiciously keen on reaching a verdict of misadventure.  Simon's searing speech to the contrary does not go down well with him.  For the viewer, however, it's wonderful seeing Roger Moore brim over with righteous indignation - a rare indication that he's more than just a raised eyebrow.

Misadventure is indeed the verdict brought in, though Simon's determined to prove it wrong.  He gets off to a good start by discovering the bruised and battered body of Ralph Windley (John Kelland), an informant of Kennett's within the Party.  As is always the case when Simon happens upon a body, he's swiftly discovered in this compromising position by Inspector Claude Eustace Teal.

Meanwhile, we learn that Kane Luker is the real power behind the party, Joseph Furst giving his usual unfettered performance as he castigates Norton and his underlings for the blunder of killing Windley.

The one spot of fun in an otherwise unusual heavy adventure is provided by the wonderful Justine Lord as languid Lady Valerie.  "Don't you think I'm awfully clever?" she asks Simon of her way of getting money out of men. "I mean, compared to all those poor little shopgirls trudging their feet off for £10 a week?" And yet, even she has a dark edge imparted to her by the sinister bedfellows her carefree amorality's made for her.  Perhaps literally, if her behaviour with Sidney Fairweather's anything to go by.

When Simon explains to Valerie that an envelope Kennett gave her contains the text of an article which could destroy the British Nazi Party, we expect her to transform into the kind of tedious love interest the show usually provides.  But she doesn't: she just decides to blackmail Fairweather over it.  Unfortunately, this just leads to both her and Simon being kidnapped by the BNP thugs.

They're hidden in the basement at Sir Robert Sangore's house, which Luker has brutally taken over.  Margaretta Scott, usually the very definition of a formidable woman, here plays a wife so naive she hadn't even considered that her husband's self-identification as a Nazi might eventually lead to violence.

Simon and Valerie try to burn through their bonds using a lighter, though this just leads to some nasty burns.  It's pretty grim stuff.

Eventually, Valerie's threatened with torture unless she reveals the whereabouts of the article.  Again confounding our expectations of Simon's popsy of the week, she complies.  Fortunately Simon's arranged for Teal to be at Valerie's flat to nab Luker, but that doesn't help his own immediate situation, with he and Valerie both about to be killed by Nazi hoodlums.

Simon frees himself in time to tackle Joe Robinson, and just as John Hollis is about to pull the trigger on the unfortunate aristocrat he's shot dead by Sir Robert himself.  "Don't say a word," he angrily urges Simon.

What becomes of Norton, Fairweather and the Sangores we never learn.  The episode ends with Lady Valerie announcing her intention to take Simon and Inspector Teal out for a slap-up meal, and promising she's learned a valuable lesson.  We don't believe her for a second, and in its own way that's rather wonderful.

The Saint Plays with Fire is so far above most of the show's episodes in quality that you wonder why it can't be like this every week.  Although if it was, this episode wouldn't be quite so special.  Although there's one thing especially odd about it: Luker's actions throughout are motivated by fear that Kennett's article will get out and discredit the British Nazi Party.  It seems legitimate to wonder just how much discrediting a party with the word "Nazi" in its name would really need.

1 comment:

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