Thursday, 30 January 2014

Wednesday 25 December 1963

Merry Christmas! I hope you got all you wished for.  I know I did.

...And what could be more festive than a Hitler impression, courtesy of Len Fairclough?

Coronation Street remains, to this day, a staple element of the Christmas Day television schedules, but things were a little bit different in 1963.  Instead of bringing long-burning storylines to a sensational climax as is usually the drill nowadays it simply centres around a festive knees-up at the mission hall.  Len and Harry Hewitt are decorating it ready for Dennis Tanner's Christmas Extravaganza.  News is buzzing round the street that the centrepiece of the evening is due to be a "This Is Your Life" for one of the Street's residents.  But who? The episode's first act revolves around how various members of the show's dramatis personae react to the possibility it could be them.  Miss Nugent seems deeply uneasy at the prospect.  Could there be some terrible secret she wants to keep hidden?

Perpetual attention-seeker Martha Longhurst, meanwhile, would love it to be her.  "Then we might hear the true story of Lillian Wilkes," suggests Ena Sharples, mysteriously.

Martha suggests that Ena could be the subject: "Well, I'd give them their money's worth, especially if they sent to Australia for cousin Letty.  I'd tell her what I thought about her and I wouldn't care who was listening."

Dennis's mother, meanwhile has one commandment for her son in case it's her he plans to spring the surprise on: "NO AMERICANS!"

As the neighbours convene in the mission hall, they receive the heartfelt thanks of Dennis's protegé Walter Potts, who's off to London to embark on a pop career under the name of Brett Falcon.

Indeed, actor Chris Sandford's role in Coronation Street led to short-lived chart success.  At the time of broadcast he was at number 17 in the hit parade with his single "Not Too Little - Not Too Much"

Dennis reveals the identity of his victim - it's Annie Walker! The most comfortable of all the Street's residents with being the centre of attention, she laps it up.  The voyage through her past begins with a recorded message from Mr Forsyth-Jones, a posh bloke who'd stayed at the Rovers some time previously.

We get to see images of the young Doris Speed (who looks almost exactly like the old Doris Speed)...

...and the backstory of the Street is sketched in, with the information that Annie and Jack took over the Rovers in February (or was it January?) 1939, with Annie cementing her place as the monarch of the Street once Jack was called up to serve in the war (Ena, who along with Minnie and Martha was Annie's first customer, is convinced it was January).

Drawing an anecdote out of Minnie Caldwell proves an agonising process for Dennis.  Eventually she remembers Annie giving she and her companions drinks on the house as she'd forgotten to bring enough money with her (Ena insists she can't remember this happening at all).

The guest Annie's most pleased to see is probably Edgar Nuttall, director of the St Agnes Amateur Operatic Society, and one of the few people to truly recognise her star quality.

Annie and Jack's children - jack-the-lad Billy and snobbish Annie clone Joan - have also made the journey back to Weatherfield, from the distant climes of Chiswick and Derby respectively.  Annie's mortified to have them apprised of her turn as Lady Godiva in the Co-Op Pageant of the Ages (which sounds like possibly the greatest event in history).

Slightly underwhelming guest of honour is regular Street returnee Esther Hayes, who it seems was the first person in the Street ever to talk to Annie.  She's bidding goodbye as she's moving to Glasgow (this doesn't stop her popping back every few years).

The show concludes with a rousing chorus of "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow", instigated by Ena Sharples, of all people.  When Martha questions this uncharacteristic show of enthusiasm for Mrs Walker her friend reveals herself to be as pragmatic as ever: "This might get us another three free drinks."

That's all I've got in the way of Christmas Day telly.  In the world of music, the Christmas number one spot is occupied by the Beatles with "I Want to Hold Your Hand".  We have to look a bit further down the charts for more overtly festive fare, with Dora Bryan and Chuck Berry at 21 and 39 respectively.

I'll  leave you with one final Christmas gift - it's a festive edition of Pat Phoenix's TV Times column!

Tuesday 24 December 1963

Christmas has come to Scott-Furlong, as you can tell from these spectacular festive displays.

The bottom picture shows Arthur Sugden's redoubtable secretary Margie Thomas (it's pronounced with a hard g, by the way) collapsing in pain due to the synovitis that's inflamed her hand and made her every waking moment an unbearable agony.  Still, she's not one to make a fuss, and it takes some persuading to get her to visit the doctor (note the "People You Know Are Blood Donors" poster featuring TV's Jack Warner in the waiting room).

It's nice that Margie gets a bit more of the spotlight than usual this week: we learn that she's unmarried and all alone in the world apart from a retired fellow spinster she spends Christmas with every year at a guest house in the country.  Sadly, this year she's in too much pain to make the trip, but after she's been operated on Big-Hearted Arthur invites her to spend Christmas with the Sugden family.

Not all Arthur's staff are as easy to please as Margie: men such as serial grumbler Nobby (Royston Tickner) have had enough of Scott-Furlong's draughty workshops and stale steak and kidney pie.  It's all a long way from the fancy nosh MD John Wilder enjoys at chairman Sir Gordon Revidge's club ("How would you react to potted shrimps?")

But sub-British Restaurant steak and kidney pie is the least of the workforce's worries.  In order to free up labour for his plan to build 12 Sovereign jets, Wilder's announced that the company's work on Red Major missiles is to be discontinued.  This is going to mean a few redundancies, which Arthur discusses with district union boss George Chadwick (Bruce Beeby).  Chadwick joshes Arthur over his rise from working man to executive - he even smokes a fancy new pipe tobacco these days (oh, if only office work still looked like this).

Could the new tobacco be the first step in a journey that will culminate in the gargantuan cigars smoked by Sir Gordon and his friend Lord Teddington? When they meet for drinks and a game of snooker, Revidge reveals that the merchant bank he chairs will be refusing to lend the money for Wilder's Sovereign project: Revidge reveals that his main aim in his chairmanship of Scott-Furlong is to get rid of Wilder, whom he despises.  So he's a tad nonplussed by Wilder's unfazed reaction to the refusal of the loan.

The cancellation of the projected 12 Sovereigns means that all 400 staff previously working on the missiles now face redundancy.  And just before Christmas, too.  Arthur's exasperated by how unconcerned Wilder seems to be by both the loss of livelihoods and the prospect of the large scale industrial action this is likely to provoke.  Deciding a strike would be the best thing for everyone, Arthur uses reverse psychology to persuade the cautious Chadwick to call the workforce out.  Here are some of said workforce, chomping at the bit to stick it to their employers.

When Chadwick gets the whole company to agree to a walkout in sympathy with their colleagues who face redundancy, the impending catastrophe forces Revidge to change his mind and approve the loan for the 12 Sovereigns after all.  And it becomes clear to a bewildered Arthur that the whole labour crisis was expertly engineered by Wilder to get what he wanted - and that, while he's been pulling Chadwick's strings, Wilder's been pulling his own.  He takes it all in pipe-puffing good humour, but Leslie Sands' superbly twisty script points up the brutal irony that Arthur's attempt to rebel against management and align himself with the workers he still wants to believe himself one of has simply led him to do Wilder's bidding more efficiently than ever before.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Saturday 21 December 1963

Hello, I hope you've had a lovely Saturday (come on, get into the spirit).  Time to settle down in front of the tellybox now.  First this evening, a slice of TV history.

This week the doors of our favourite poorly camouflaged timeship open to reveal a strange alien jungle, made to look even more strange because everything's in negative.  The vegetation's petrified, but what exactly happened to turn all these plants into plant-shaped rocks?

Susan's excited to find a perfectly preserved flower, but her dreams of keeping it in pride of place in a special case in the TARDIS are unthinking crushed (along with the flower itself) when Ian dashes off to answer a cry of distress from Barbara.

The cause of Barbara's distress is this, Doctor Who's first ever alien creature.

The creature's not much of a menace - like everything else in the jungle it proves to be quite dead.  As the Doctor examines it he concludes it was quite different to any animal Ian and Barbara are used to - for a start it's made of metal (by the way, the Doctor appears to be trying to outdo Barbara this week with a skyscraping bouffant.

With the metal monster confirming beyond all doubt that the Doctor hasn't taken the teachers home, Barbara especially is crushed by the realisation she may never see 1960s London again.  "Here there's nothing to rely on, nothing," she mopes.  "Well, there's me," says Ian, sweetly.  In story terms the pair can't have known the Doctor for much more than a day, but they talk about him as if they'd known him for, well, about five weeks ("Don't you ever wish something would happen to him?" Barbara growls when Ian suggests they should make sure he doesn't come to grief while exploring).

The travellers' explorations eventually lead them to a panoramic view of a bizarre, magnificent alien city (designed, like most of what we see in this episode, by the brilliant Ray Cusick - a bit more of a workout for his imagination than the episode of Hugh and I we last saw his work on).  The Doctor passes round his amazing binocular spectacles for his companions to get a better view (as you have to hold them up to your eyes like normal binoculars they're perhaps not a complete success).

The Doctor's characterisation's a great deal like George Coulouris's troublesome scientist anti-hero in the Pathfinders series made under the aegis of BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman during his time at ABC: he's determined to see the city close-up and only agrees to his companions' insistence they head off in the TARDIS with the greatest reluctance.  On the way, Susan finds another perfectly preserved flower - but ends up being discarded when she's disturbed by an unseen, but very clearly felt, presence...

It's a spooky highlight of a tremendously atmospheric episode, aided greatly by the ethereal sounds of Tristram Cary.

Aboard the ship Susan sulks that nobody believes she's been touched, Barbara comes down with a headache, and the regular characters all enjoy themselves together for the first time as they tuck into the miraculously-flavoured nutrition sticks provided b the TARDIS's food machine.  It's lovely stuff, the Doctor showing a gentler side as he chortles with glee over Ian and Barbara's wonderment at the unpromising morsels that taste just like bacon and eggs, jokingly defending them against charges of saltiness ("Well it shouldn't be, it's English!" he cries, betraying an identification with that country that suggests maybe he wasn't just parked there by accident when the teachers stumbled into his ship).

The Doctor may be thawing toward his abductees, but not enough to stop him deceiving them to get his own way.  The ship stalls during takeoff, and it's all down to sabotage by its mischievous pilot.  He's emptied out the fluid link, which needs to be full of mercury in order for the TARDIS to work.  Alarmingly, he claims there's no more aboard the ship.  They may not be stranded forever though: the Doctor's convinced they can find a supply of Mercury in... the city!  The dirty swine.

As the travellers begin their quest for mercury, they find a strange metal box outside the ship.  Ian establishes it's not a bomb, and finds it's full of glass vials.  As none of them contain mercury, they're dumped in the ship to be looked at later.

When they arrive at their destination, the companions split up to investigate.  Close up the city's even stranger than it is far away, with curious sliding doors and seemingly endless weirdly-shaped metal corridors.  Barbara gets lost in these labyrinthine passageways, and it becomes clear that someone or something is monitoring her progress.

She eventually stumbles unwittingly into a lift, which takes her down into the city's depths.  When the door slides open, she screams on being confronted with... a thing.  What is it? Find out next week.

It's the end of the road for The Sentimental Agent tonight, and although it's the most enjoyable episode for some weeks it's still probably just as well that time's been called on the series (I think I might have mixed a metaphor there, but never mind).

A couple of weeks ago I said we'd seen the last of the show's original lead, Carlos Thompson, but it turns out that announcement was premature.  He appears very briefly in A Box of Tricks in a couple of highly embarrassing scenes in which his image is projected behind a buxom blonde lady (Sheree Winton), supposedly his travelling companion as he swans off abroad.  He gets a few lines of dialogue of the "Hello", "Oh really?", "That's good" kind that could be inserted into any script.

The main business of the episode involves Bill Randall heading off to the Mediterranean republic of Palabria to find out why their government is resisting a substantial development grant from the Dollars for Europe Trust (the trust's represented by a fleetingly-seen Louise King, possibly popping in on her way back from this week's Saint).

It seems the trust's fallen down on not offering the members of the Palabrian government any bribes: Bill explains they're a national custom, and always worked into the budget of any dealings Mercury International has with them.  He heads off to Palabria to distribute backhanders all round.  On the way, we're apprised of Faithful Manservant Chin's new interest in conjuring, which it's safe to assume will prove significant later on.

Zena Marshall (in her second Sentimental Agent guest appearance) is also waiting to fly to Palabria (via Rome, which sounds more like Hove in the accent she's adopted).  She's Rita, the daughter of a rich Palabrian noble, and is not-all-that-reluctantly taking leave of her boyfriend to go and marry an even richer Palabrian noble.

In Palabria, Bill meets up with a chum, local politician Mateo (dead handsome Gary Raymond).  But a political rival, Souza (Walter Gotell), getting wind of what Bill's come for and opposed to the grant for reasons of his own, decides to give both the agent and the especially unfortunate Chin a hard time.

Undeterred, Bill sets to work on the other members of the government, including Rita's father, the Count de Rici (Ferdy Mayne).  Unfortunately, his plans to encourage each of them into accepting the trust's grant are hampered by the presence of Mr Dali (George Pastell and his toupee), who's investigating bribery and corruption in Palabria.

With the help of Chin's newly acquired sleight of hand skills, Bill's able to bribe most of the government under Dali's very nose.  And luckily, it turns out Dali himself is eminently corruptible.  Huzzah!

It's lightweight stuff (and morally dubious, to say the least), but it raises a smile or two.

Here, for definite this time, is our last glimpse of Carlos Varela, as he speaks his final non-committal lines down the phone to Miss Carter.

The series ends with the secretary confessing her love for Bill down the phone.  Or does she? She's on the line to Carlos at the very same time, and her facial expression when she replaces the receivers is enigmatic.  Either way, Bill's off to ask her to marry him.  Will she accept? We'll never know, and to be brutally honest, few of us will care.

Next week sees the return of Sergeant Cork, which is something I for one care about rather a lot.

The Larkins tonight becomes the first show covered by TV Minus 50 to acknowledge the impending festive season, with Alf and Osbert supervising the decoration of the caff in their own characteristically relaxed manner.

In the past few weeks the flirtation between caff dogsbody Hetty and chirpy Scouse bus driver Lofty has intensified, so it's worth noting that prior to this series Hetty had a husband and child who also regularly appeared in the show.  What has become of them is a mystery destined never to be solved.

The highlight of this week's episode comes early on with the arrival of a worryingly decrepit postal worker: "They don't half scrape the barrel at this time of year," muses Ada.

This Royal Mail revenant has, however, brought glad tidings for the Larkins.  A letter from their daughter Joyce announces that her husband Jeff (Ronan O'Casey), now a successful playwright on Broadway, is visiting London and will be spending Christmas with his in-laws (Hugh Paddick pre-empts his Round the Horne co-star Betty Marsden's future catchphrase as Osbert sighs "Many times" on being asked if Alf's told him yet another tedious anecdote about what a brilliant time he used to have with Jeff).  When the man himself finally arrives, though, it appears brilliant times will be in short supply during his stay.  A martyr to his ulcer, along with sundry other ailments, he's foresworn alcohol, and indeed anything else that might provide a moment of enjoyment.  His suitcase contains an entire medical chest.  His idea of indulgence is eating two charcoal biscuits before bedtime.  Alf and Ada are horrified by what success (and, more importantly, living on the other side of the Atlantic) have done to him.

After being accidentally locked outside by an extremely drunken Osbert ("A wandering minstrel I, a thing of shreds and patches/I've lost me bloody matches..."), Jeff's condition worsens, much to the consternation of his hosts (interesting to note Ada wears a tea cosy to bed - it's quite a cunning way to stop it being stolen).  Jeff only trusts his own American doctor, so it's lucky he happens to be in town to examine him (I say American - actor Robert Easton's accent seems to be from a continent all its own).

The doc explains it's a simple case of hypochondria, and sets Ada the challenge of tackling it.  Armed with a hefty volume on psychiatry, she sets about it ("You can 'ave it off that lot at 'arley Street or you can 'ave it off me.  But I'm cheaper!").

But it seems that, as is so often the case, the solution to the problem is alcohol.  Alf's secret weapon is a bottle of that exotic Foreign liqueur, vodka ("Ooh! I've never had that," marvels Hetty).  It's virtually tasteless, so Alf plans to smuggle it into Jeff's milk and get him legless without him even realising.

The plan seems to go swimmingly, neurotic Jeff swiftly replaced with the old, fun version with just a couple of gulps.  But in comes triumphant Ada with the revelation that she switched the glasses of milk and nobody's drunk after all.  She really is a mistress of psychology!

Now there's just the problem of what to do with Hetty...

Strained Relation's silly fun as The Larkins always is, but it's also fascinating for its early 60s working class British view of Americans as a load of uptight poseurs who'd be much better off were they to just get sloshed.

Tonight's Avengers gets off to a gripping start with the daring theft of... some mushrooms!

Somehow these mysterious fungi link in with the visit to London of the Emir Abdulla Akabar, ruler of a troubled country and a frequent target of assassination attempts.  Supposedly very elderly, the Emir's played by 33 year old Henry Soskin: it's curious how often in this period the elderly were played by much younger actors with unconvincing makeup and talc in their hair.  Anyway, possibly more interesting than that observation is the fact that Soskin later changed his name to Henry Lincoln, co-wrote a handful of Doctor Who stories and achieved a degree of celebrity in recent years for suing US author Dan Brown for ripping off his book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in his blockbuster Christsploitation novel The Da Vinci Code.  More interesting than any of this is that the Emir's majordomo Brigadier Mellor is played by the wonderful Robert James, owner of the most interesting face on television.  The Emir's comfort is being seen to by Cathy Gale, undercover at the swanky hotel where he's staying.

The Emir is a famed gourmet, and in the hotel's kitchen oleaginous head chef Mr Arbuthnot (the gloriously camp Ken Parry) is doing his best to supervise a crack team of international chefs employed especially for the visit.  Combustible continentals Lucien Chaplet (Gordon Rollings) and Umberto Equi (David Nettheim) can barely be kept from each other's throats...

...while the English member of the contingent, Sebastian Stone-Martin, looks remarkably familiar.

Yes, it's Steed of course (just in case some of you are a bit slow).  But where did this alias come from? "I got it from a bird," he explains to Cathy.  Even at this stage in the show's development it's not a very Steedish line.

Another member of the hotel's staff worth mentioning is lazy kitchen maid Josie, one of those working class women who appear surprisingly frequently in The Avengers' early days.  She's played by Coral Atkins, best known for giving up acting to set up a children's home, and achieving the distinction of being played by Sarah Lancashire in an ITV drama.

The Emir's doctor, Sir Ralph Spender, is appalled by the old man's cavalier attitude toward his health, gulping down huge brandies and rich food with aplomb.  *DOUBLE ENTENDRE ALERT* "That's rather a stiff one, isn't it?" Sir Ralph asks of Mellor.  "That's the way he likes them, Sir," the Brigadier explains.  But is the doctor as concerned about the Emir's health as he appears? Security goon Ali (Valentine Musetti) finds him surreptitiously slipping a mysterious powder into a drink.  Turns out it's his own drink, and he has a problem with heartburn he likes to keep quiet.

Anyway, what about those mushrooms? They're poisonous ones, of course, and it emerges that Lucien is in league with Mellor to dispatch the Emir with them.  His attempt to frame Umberto by planting them in his cannelloni are foiled by a suspicious Steed, however (Umberto's cry of "You great big steamin' nit!" on having his dish ruined is the first indication we get that he may not be as Italian as he'd like us to think).

Death a la Carte resolves itself into The Avengers meets Masterchef as Steed faces the challenge of cooking a roast pheasant fit for an Emir under the scrutiny of several top chefs.

And by jove, he does it! The Emir's raving about his dinner right up to the point where he, er, drops dead.

Steed and Cathy are kept prisoner in the Emir's penthouse as the police are sent for.  Determined to get to the fatal ingredient before Lucien disposes of it, Steed makes a daring rooftop escape.

Steed reaches the kitchen just as Lucien himself is being disposed of by Ali.  A fight ensues between Steed and Ali that ends in especially grisly fashion with the heavy getting a pan of hot oil chucked at him.  Cathy, of course, has effectively subdued Mellor in the interim.

It turns out the Emir died of a coronary, causing Mellor a great deal of panic as the poison wasn't due to take effect for a week.  We end with so-called Umberto dropping his act altogether as he rewards our heroes with a slap-up meal.  Could it be some lavish Italian delicacy? "Do me a favour, Mr Steed, I've 'ad that Eye-talian lark.  This is real food: fish and chips, mate.  We're frying tonight!"

Written by Avengers veteran John Lucarotti, Death a la Carte feels like a hangover from the show's previous season.  There, it would have been a highlight.  But in the past few months the show's given us episodes of stupendous quality and now it all just seems a bit blah.

I'm not covering tonight's episode of Espionage, The Whistling Shrimp.  Made in the USA with an American cast and crew, it falls outside TV Minus 50's British telly remit.  The series will return after Christmas with an episode directed by one of the finest film directors Britain's ever produced.

And now: music.  Here's the Dave Clark Five at, feeling Glad All Over at number 4.  What will the people at number 5 say?