Friday, 7 November 2014

Saturday 7 November 1964

Last week we left our intrepid but sadly diminished travellers staring into the eyes of a gigantic (to them) tortoiseshell cat.  Or rather, trying not to to stare into its eyes -the Doctor cautions his friends not to look into them as if the animal had Medusa-like powers.  Eventually the creature gets bored and walks off, casually slinking past the body of poor murdered Mr Farrow (Frank Crawshaw returns in this episode, and receives a credit, but spends the whole episode trying his best not to move).

Susan thinks they should try and make contact with normal-sized people, but the others think it's a terrible idea.  Ian gives her a detailed explanation that feels like a leftover from an earlier draft of the story with a more didactic purpose: "Imagine a record played at the wrong speed, Susan.  We'd sound like a little squeak to them."  More cruelly minded viewers might point out that Susan often sounds like a little squeak anyway.  Barbara worries that they'd be treated as freaks, and the Doctor's mind's on the murdered man they've encountered: "The destruction of the life force is frightful!" he oddly exclaims.

Where this story really scores is in its surrealism: "I can see a huge leg coming! Run!" exclaims Ian, and it's impossible not to admire William Russell for keeping a straight face when confronted with such an absurd line.  The same goes for "Barbara! Quick! In the briefcase!"

The late owner of the briefcase, meanwhile, is being inspected by Smithers (Reginald Barratt), an unscrupulous scientist working for unscrupulous businessman Forester and the inventor of the problematic pesticide DN6.  Forester tells Smithers that Farrow pointed the gun at him and was shot in a struggle, but Smithers doesn't really care - he just doesn't want anything to jeopardise the development of DN6: "Well, what did you expect - hysterics? I've seen people dying of starvation all over the world."  Forester suggests they dump the body over the side of Farrow's boat, which he was just setting off for a holiday aboard, to make the death look like an accident (well, maybe not an accident considering he's got a bullet in his heart), and Smithers agrees to go along with the plan in order to save his project.

The briefcase having been picked up and put on a table in Smithers' lab, Barbara and Ian are feeling a bit giddy, as well as wondering how they'll get back down.  Barbara's managed to bruise her leg on a paperclip.

The Doctor and Susan, meanwhile, have found a drainpipe which they're hoping will lead them to their friends. The Doctor clearly has no confidence in his companions' ability to deal with their current situation: "They must be constantly reminding themselves they're only an inch high - and there's only the two of us to help them!"

The dodgy back "cinema" effect from last week returns as Ian and Barbara, exploring their surroundings, gawp at some enormous test tubes.  Next they come across a pile of strange objects which an astonished Barbara identifies as grains of wheat.  Handling one she notes that "It's all covered in some sticky stuff, like toffee."

As they stop for a rest on a book of litmus papers, Ian deduces that the substance on the grains is a kind of insecticide, and warns Barbara not to touch them.  Too late...

The pair ponder how to escape, Barbara musing that "What we need is a reel of cotton.  A reel of cotton! It's all so ridiculous, Ian." Jacqueline Hill's beautiful portrayal of Barbara's disbelief at the situation is so convincing it actually makes the whole thing seem less ridiculous.

Barbara starts to feel woozy, but remains stoical and doesn't bother Ian with her possible impending death, though she tentatively suggests they should look in the suitcase for some more information on the insecticide.  Ian dismisses it as irrelevant - he just wants to find something to get them back to ground level.

Barbara looks on - oblivious to the great big fly preening itself behind her.  Then she turns around, sees it, and faints (she's normally pretty gutsy in the face of monsters, so let's assume it's the effects of the DN6 getting to her).

Back in the world of big people, Smithers has helped Forester move the body, and proves to be a monomaniac of an especially quiet, believable kind: "If there's one chance in a million of the experiment going through, of making it work, then I must do it.  I must!"

The Doctor and Susan have climbed the pipe (the chemicals poured down the sink having corroded its sides into handy footholds for them, but it's all been a bit too much exertion for the old man.

By the time Ian comes to Barbara's aid the fly has buzzed off, and alighted on the dreaded wheat, where it now lies, dead.

A terrified Barbara breaks down, but before she can explain to Ian they hear Susan calling (in another moment that seems like a leftover from a more teachy conception of the show, the Doctor has explained to her in great detail how the acoustics of the sink will amplify her voice).

It's the equivalent of 30 feet down to the plughole, but Ian and Barbara plan to climb down by connecting paperclips into a makeshift ladder (it must be said that while some of the props are excellent, others look like they belong in the giant's castle in an am dram Jack and the Beanstalk).

Forester and Smithers head inside - having got their hands literally as well as metaphorically dirty they want to wash them, and as Smithers notes "There's a sink in the lab" an ominous chord crashes in on the soundtrack.  That's the wonder of this story - the way normally dramatic things like murder and potential ecological disasters are dealt with so blandly, but something as mundane as pulling a plug out of a sink becomes a catastrophe.  For, after noting with approval that the fly has been killed with the wheat, Smithers fills the sink - Susan and the Doctor rapidly scooting back down the sink - washes his hands and then removes the plug, leaving our pin-sized protagonists at the mercy of a tremendous flood.

People have complained for years about Doctor Who going down the plughole, but never has it happened more literally than this.

That's enough of my terrible jokes, as there are professionals waiting with theirs.  Arthur Haynes' regular straight man, Nicholas Parsons, is away this week, and his place in this week's opening sequence (staff in a restaurant: Arthur uses up a crepe to prop up a wonky table) is taken by Jack Douglas (happily not in his dyspraxic persona familiar from the later Carry On films).

The version of the show that still exists looks like it's about to give us the show's title, but it rapidly cuts to the first sketch.

In this, the Parsons role is taken not by Douglas but by Navy Lark star Richard Caldicot, who plays a retired Colonel rendered apopleptic by Arthur and wife Patricia Hayes, who've come all the way from Canning Town in answer to his ad for a couple to live in.  Despite their insistence that they're decent people ("When we was courting we never did what some of 'em done, did we?") he doesn't think they're the right type.  They put it down to their 12 kids and elderly Uncle Les, and offer to get rid of them all.  But it's too late, while they were all talking the rest of the family were moving themselves in and are now busy wolfing down the Colonel's breakfast.  It's the funniest sketch in a while.

Next there's a quickfire sketch with Arthur as a struggling pawnbroker forced to pawn his own golden balls.  Balls, you see, which leads us seamlessly in to tonight's musical act, Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen, who give us their version of "Hello Dolly".

The final sketch has an idea that's Haynes-by-numbers (tramps Arthur and Dermot pitch up at Australia House with plans to emigrate to the new world), but is executed with hilarious verve and some wonderfully surreal digressions: Arthur claims to have been a mandolin player for the Hallé Orchestra (when it's pointed out that the Hallé Orchestra doesn't have a mandolin player he quite reasonably responds that this is why he's looking for a new opportunity), and asserts that Dermot could've been a great brain surgeon if only people had been more receptive to him having a go at their brains.  Arthur's "Up to me neck in muck and bullets" routine gets a heartwarming cheer from the studio audience, and it's refreshing to see someone other than Parsons in the role of harassed official: Jack Douglas is utterly exasperated with the pair rather than stroppy.

Finally it's tonight's Redcap, and after last week's star-studded guest cast we've got a much more obscure (but no less compelling) bunch of players on hand this week.

The episode opens with a man lying unconscious on the floor as a phone rings...

...then move to a dingy flat where a young soldier, Brian Staples (Gary Bond, who looks very like one Sherlock Holmes - Benedict Cumberbatch, and was for a while the partner of another, Jeremy Brett) and an older woman, Iris Pearson (Diana Coupland), who we can see from a photo in the foreground is his sweetheart (last time we saw Coupland around these parts she was paired with a  considerably older man, as she would be in her two most familiar roles as James Mason's wife in Spring and Port Wine and Sid James's in Bless This House).  The soldier reads a newspaper story we take to be about the man we just saw, and phones the police to confess to the crime.  Then speculates to the woman over whether they'll believe in his guilt...

The setting is a rain-lashed garrison town (the constant rain at the windows throughout the story gives it a uniquely oppressive atmosphere), and the script is by Roger Marshall, author of the most urbane Avengers scripts.  The health condition that requires Staples' CO, Colonel Hilden (Arthur Pentelow) to remain in a hothouse is the kind of eccentric touch we'd expect from one of Marshall's Avengers episodes, but on the whole this has a much harder edge, looking forward to Public Eye, a show of Marshall's own devising that would debut in a few months.

Hilden doesn't believe Staples is really guilty, and puts Sergeant John Mann on the case.  When he clashes with hardbitten Inspector Paish (John Collin) about the matter it seems to anyone viewing in retrospect like John Thaw is confronting his own future self.  I don't think I've yet mentioned that Redcap's script editor is Ian Kennedy Martin, who would create The Sweeney, but this seems an appropriate moment to do so.  The harsh Northern Irish accent of Brian Badcoe as Paish's subordinate, Sergeant Gooseman, adds to the gritty realism of the episode.

Mann's belief in Staples' innocence takes a knock when he realises that the soldier knows more about the incident (including the phone ringing after the man was knocked out) than was reported in the press.

Hilden's interest in Staples is due to the boy's father (Arthur Lovegrove) having been his loyal RSM for many years.  Superficially just a jovial bore, Staples Sr turns frighteningly angry when he hears of his son's supposed crime.

Learning that Iris has a long-standing reputation among the men of the regiment, Staples Sr, convinced she'll be the ruination of his son, visits her in the hair salon where she works and tries to pay her to leave him alone.  She insists they're in love, and won't have any of it.

Iris is equally adamant about her feelings to Mann.  The tea towels (?) pinned to her kitchen wall are very interesting.

Sadly we'll never know what the colours of '64 were...

Word comes that the man who was attacked has died (this is the third episode of Redcap in a row - out of a total of four episodes to date - to feature someone being assaulted and later in the episode dying: it's becoming worryingly repetitive), and Staples, suddenly looking at a charge of murder, suddenly insists he didn't do it after all, but confessed to the crime to be able to get out of going to Malaya with his regiment and, after a short prison term, begin a life of domestic bliss with Iris..  But now his innocence has to be proved - and he's at a loss to how he knew things about the attack that weren't reported.

The light dawns for Mann when another Co-Op employee, Mr Davidson (Richard Klee) mentions talking about the attack to some friends in the pub.  Mann realises that Staples must have overheard them, hence his knowledge of incidents that weren't in the papers, 

Staples is released - and now has to go to Malaya.  Before he can leave, he's subjected to a barrage of abuse from his father.  My eyes were on the poster.

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