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Good example of early Hitch
5 December 2017
This is a pretty good, entertaining and suspenseful early Hitch, though for some reason it doesn't really stick in the memory. It is mainly feted now for the famous Majestic Hotel ballroom shot, and it is quite clear that after that bit of legerdemain, Hitchcock loses interest and the film is wrapped up unconvincingly in five perfunctory minutes. Lots of other good things though. Nova Pilbeam is charming (Derrick de Marney less so). Edward Rigby is on good scene-stealing form, and Basil Radford's single scene is a masterly tour de force of deadpan comic acting. The two contrasting lunches of the Burgoyne family are also highlights, providing character and comedy while subtly moving the plot along, with Erica's four brothers brilliantly realised. There is lovely photography of the Sussex countryside. The scene where Erica is rescued is genuinely scary, despite being studio-bound. There are some dreadful and wholly unnecessary model shots, but at least they are better than those in The Lady Vanishes. Nevertheless, this feels like a dry run for the latter, rather than its peer.
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A typical misjudgment from John Nathan-Turner
19 November 2017
John Nathan-Turner's time as producer of Dr Who (1980-9) was a frightful mess. Clearly out of his depth, his period at the helm was characterised largely by thrashing around with gimmicks to compensate for small budgets, miscasting, poor scripting and uncertainties of tone, whose accumulation had begun during Graham William's tenure, but which accelerated dramatically from Nathan-Turner's first season (season 18) onwards.

One problem that Nathan-Turner faced was that the audience was ageing, and sci-fi nerds were beginning to define the show to the detriment of its universal qualities. It was therefore potentially a shrewd move to develop the one-off TV movie K9 and Company, coupling Dr Who's favourite companion, Sarah Jane, who still lingered in the memory, with his most asinine, for younger viewers. If this reached fruition as a series, maybe a new younger audience could be cultivated?

Of course, he muffed it. The filming does not appear to have been a happy experience, at least for Elisabeth Sladen, according to her memoirs. But the appalling script, the embarrassing public school nephew Brendan, the weedy attacker Peter, a goodly set of well-known character actors reduced to oo-arrr dialogue, and a set of unintentionally comic pagans all combine to kill it anyway. The wonderful support actress Mary Wimbush is particularly wasted. The execrable title sequence is a microcosm of the failure of the whole enterprise.

Lots of people watched it; I was one of them. I wanted to love it, especially as it came shortly after the very disappointing season 18. I hated it. I assumed I was just growing too big for Dr Who, but, now we can watch these shows again on DVD, it is clear that Dr Who was leaving its audience, not the other way round.
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5 November 2017
Much of the 1970s were spent in TV-land trying to find a starring vehicle for David Jason. Everyone agreed he was very talented and versatile, and he excelled in particular as a foil for Ronnie Barker. But that leading role escaped him. Pathos didn't work with Lucky Feller, and slapstick didn't work with Edgar Briggs.

Not that Briggs wasn't funny. Some of the stunts are wonderful, the timing excellent. The pratfalls and verbal tics come at you bam-bam-bam, Airplane-style. If there is a drink, Briggs will spill it; if there is a telephone, Briggs will get himself tangled in the wires; if there is a hat, Briggs will cram it down ludicrously on his head; if someone else has a line, Briggs will misinterpret it.

The gags are more miss than hit, but most scenes have one or two splendid moments. The verbal jousting is less effective; situations can't build up slowly and hilariously, because Briggs gets absolutely everything wrong. He forgets who he is talking to, he forgets the orders he has just given. A typical scene might involve Briggs ordering Spencer to conceal his identity and pretend to be Smith; Spencer introduces himself as Smith, and Briggs will immediately call him Spencer loudly, and wonder who Smith is.

So it's not, as some reviewers have suggested, a work of genius. Neither is it, as other reviewers have suggested, a childish load of nonsense. In style, it's probably closest to the Piggy Malone and Charley Farley strand in the Two Ronnies. It is easier to enjoy this if you're not feeling sophisticated. Its very amateurishness is quite endearing. I can certainly understand why David Jason was embarrassed to let it out. But it's fun.
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Manhunt (1969– )
Got more stunning as it developed
5 November 2017
An extraordinary series, in turn intriguing, gripping, shocking and sometimes downright mad.

It begins as a piece of superior thick ear, with an odd trio - repressed Victor, extrovert Jimmy, and traumatised Jew Nina - trapped in occupied France, trying to get back to Britain with the information in Nina's head. The series involved a series of writers, whose different strengths led to a great deal of variety among the episodes - a technique used by excellent dramas of the time including The Gold Robbers and The Guardians. One wonders whether the writers competed amongst themselves to outdo each other - most of the episodes included scenes with dialogue of great tension which could make the hairs on one's neck stand on end. Various experiments were tried - one episode in virtual silence, others being practically two-handed plays. There was a lot of violence, and a high death rate, but typically the gunfire only punctuated the complex interactions of the various people trapped in the wartime situation.

We had the leading trio - Peter Barkworth, of dual nationality, who tries to overcome his sensitivity and compassion with cold professionalism, Cyd Hayman, who begins as a beautiful victim and sex object but finds untrained and unmanageable powers of self- protection, resistance and revenge, and Alfred Lynch as the Brylcreem Boy who finds that his cavalier attitude to danger and discipline are not enough to get him through the nightmare - but also the duplicity of the Resistance, and the collaborators, and the fatal rivalry between the brutish SS, the supine French police and the Abwehr, schooled in more military virtues.

As the series becomes more profound and serious, three more characters are dropped into the mix - Lutzig, too subtle for his SS masters but still a thug, Adelaide, of ambiguous loyalties, and the extraordinary Gratz. There is no scene too small for Robert Hardy to steal, in an incredible performance. The three original protagonists are split up, and so in the second half you could never predict which of the six would appear in any given episode. In the extremity of their situation they become so obsessed with each other that passions emerge, love and abuse co-exist, and - as the codeword introduced later in the show has it, 'war is love'.

The show is not perfect. Some of the psychology stretches credibility, and one wonders what languages they all speak. But still, it's a stunning drama which builds up to a giant and profound climax.

The theme, built around the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth, became instantly associated with the series at the time of broadcast. This was a particularly brilliant idea, as the series was broadcast only 26 years after the end of the war, and many viewers would have memories of the motif being used in allied broadcasts. Why that motif? Because the rhythm, ...-, signifies the letter V (for victory) in Morse Code.
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Time Flies (1944)
Handley's film
27 October 2017
This is an amusing film, with a surprisingly early use of the concept of a time machine (Hungary's Sziriusz, from 1942, predates it), invented by professorial Felix Aylmer and crookedly financed by lovable scoundrel Tommy Handley. Thanks to a chapter of accidents, they go back in time to the sixteenth century, together with a vaudeville double act, the excellent Evelyn Dall and quite good George Moon. Presumably they hoped the film would get a US audience, as the modern-day bookends are set in a New York made of cardboard, all the money is in dollars and all the Elizabethan characters are carefully explained by Moon reading out of an encyclopedia.

Between them they give Shakespeare the lines for Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene, teach Elizabeth I how to play Find the Lady, introduce Stephane Grapelli's troubadour to jazz, and give Sir Walter Raleigh his first smoke. Tommy can't stop himself swindling people, and sells America off to the English nobility, much to the chagrin of Captain John Smith. Smith is accompanied by a statuesque and politically incorrect Pocahontas (the virtually unknown Iris Lang in a wonderful performance), who is surprisingly able to drink everyone under the table. Moore Marriott appears fleetingly in a pillory, and there is a bit more of Graham Moffatt, in their last film together.

It is a surprise to realise that Handley made so few films. As a radio comic, his trademark was idiotic double talk and lame puns strung together almost too quickly for the audience to groan. His screen time is always confident and he is obviously the star. He even dominates the opening scene from behind a curtain. It's That Man Again brilliantly realised the surreal radio series ITMA for the screen, and Time Flies, released a year later, might easily have led to a film career, but this was his last full-length picture.

The humour is of course of its time - if you don't like the highly verbal wordplay popularised by British wartime radio, then you won't like Handley's scenes very much. But Handley almost matches Will Hay in his creation of a wily, despicable, cowardly, cheating and yet wholly likable petty crook, played without the remotest hint of sentimentality.
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The mysterious case of Lee Sinclaire
2 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Run of the mill entry in Edgar Lustgarten's Scotland Yard series, enlivened by the casting of female impersonator Lee Sinclaire, as Eddie LeRoy, also playing Blondie. Sinclaire is an incredibly effective woman, undetectable. Indeed, when he disguises himself in male costume and tries to sell the loot to a jeweller on the Strand, he still looks more like a woman disguised as a man.

So, given he is so impressive, who is Lee Sinclaire? This was the one appearance in his career, and a morning's Googling reveals that there is no other reference to Lee Sinclaire apart from the man who played Blondie. He doesn't appear to have been on the stage, no television, no films. His song and dance routine is indeed hopelessly amateur, though his acting is fine. So androgynous is he that I even wondered whether the casting was something of a gag - maybe he *is* a she, a male impersonator dragging up as a woman. Listening closely, it's quite possible that both his male and female voices are dubbed. Extraordinary, given that his performance carries the picture, that he is otherwise totally obscure.
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The Worker (1965–1970)
Almost like Beckett
29 June 2017
This is an extraordinary show. Charlie Drake was never a fashionable comedian, and some of his films are abysmally sentimental and childish. Yet this wonderful comedy, which ran for five series, about an accident-prone unemployable layabout contains some of the most inventive, stylised and downright weird sequences in British TV comedy. It is almost theatre of the absurd, as the inevitable course of events unfolds in a world where failure is the only outcome, propelled by the infernal machinery of the labour exchange. The gallows humour, tragicomic outlook, theatricality and bleak minimalism recall the works of Samuel Beckett more than Drake's variety-comedian peers. Realism of sets and costume are undermined by stylised dialogue, incessant repetition, absurd situations and Drake's constant breaking of the fourth wall, looking at camera and pretending to conduct the orchestra when the theme tune begins.

Each programme had the same structure. Charlie would enter the labour exchange, and explain to a long-suffering official why he had lost his last job. The official, a regular character, was Mister Pugh (Henry McGee) from the second series on, a wonderful piece of casting and a perfect foil for Drake, humourless, choleric and hysterical. Eventually, frustrated by Drake's rambling monologues, idiotic explanations, wilful stupidity and constant mispronunciation of his name (as 'Mi'tah Poo', which became a popular catchphrase in the 1960s), Mr Pugh would grab him by his dungarees, pull him physically off his feet and over the counter, and threaten him. He would finally give Charlie the address of a firm with a vacancy, usually telling him this was his last chance.

Charlie would turn up at the firm, and announce himself using the same words each time: "Good morning, I'm Charles Drake, casual labourer of Weybridge, come for the job in the vacancy". A surreal scene with a receptionist would usually follow, and we would have the commercial break.

In the second part of the show, Charlie would be introduced to his new boss, and proceed to make a hash of the job, usually wrecking the workplace. The comedy would be once more a strange contrast of traditional slapstick and stylised, satirical spoofs of current mores, be they management fads, silly fashions, current obsessions.

This really is a unique show. It has a cumulative effect - it is easier to 'get' what is going on if you watch more than one show. A single show in isolation appears to be completely mad.
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The Fellows (1967– )
Too clever by half
29 April 2017
Literate, stylised, ambitious series from Robin Chapman in which criminologists Richard Vernon (older, suave, upper class, conservative, public school) and Michael Aldridge (younger, choleric, upwardly mobile, radical, Northern boy made good) spar with each other about theories of crime and society, while interfering at a distance with real-world criminal activity. Their philosophical musings and SCR witticisms in Cambridge are juxtaposed with the crooked action in the mean streets of England's industrial cities. Their ideas about transgression, money, conformity etc. contrast with the way these concepts play out in real-world criminal situations. They never meet their opponents, but somehow have a budget to use the police to study and interfere with the crooks' activities.

The conceit is amusing, but the implementation doesn't really work. The dons are more often irritating than dazzling, and they never really achieve anything in their investigations. Their theories don't illuminate the crooks' schemes or plans, and too many of the ideas go nowhere. It needed either to become even more intellectual and refined, or alternatively to go further in the direction of traditional thick ear, like Chapman's own (still quite stylised) Big Breadwinner Hog. This is pitched at an intermediate level, that all too often leaves the viewer thinking "what was all that for?"
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Good Durbridge fare
28 April 2017
Fans of Francis Durbridge (I include myself) will enjoy this deadpan mystery set in the Home Counties. Everyone is lying about something, nothing is what it seems, the clues mount up, inexplicable development follows inexplicable development (and not all are explained), in the course of which a fantastical plot is revealed that doesn't quite seem worth the villains' while to concoct. Several familiar faces - Dennis Quilley, Stanley Meadows, Barry Jackson, Shirley Cain - take it all very seriously. That Durbridge standard, the hotel in Maidenhead, plays a major role, and there is some historically interesting footage shot in the beautiful town of Arundel in Sussex. All very entertaining, and the low budget rather adds to the enjoyment. Later novelised, with a few minor changes - for example, Mrs Curtis is more of a shrinking violet in the novel than she is in this serial. To cap it all, there is Nigel Hawthorne playing the heavy. About as realistic as the Marat/Sade, but way more fun.
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The Committee (1968)
Surprisingly good if unmotivated
18 April 2017
A British attempt to do mysterious, unexplained and surreal. Whereas a French equivalent, like, say, Last Year In Marienbad, is aristocratic, eerie, dark and allusive, this is a white collar effort, following a strange bureaucratic process, filmed in clear daylight, with dialogue that, though straightforward on the surface, seems to refer to some reality known to the participants but not the viewer. Unusually for such a film, certain events - including the early beheading - are actually given explanations, undercutting the post-modernism with a very unexperimental model of a character acting in character. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann and just beginning a parallel acting career, does surprisingly well, though his part (as "central figure") is a mere cipher. There is of course interest with the Pink Floyd soundtrack, though they hardly stretched themselves. Arthur Brown is very good value, with a lively cameo complete with burning headgear (would never get past health and safety nowadays). Very much of its time, but without the courage of its surreal convictions. The ultra-realistic portrayal of the bizarre events can be hypnotic, but ultimately deprives the film of a real artistic punch. Nevertheless at 58 minutes it hardly outstays its welcome.
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Pardon My Genie (1972–1973)
Very pleasing
17 March 2017
Fondly remembered children's farce about a young man (Hal Adden, geddit?) finds himself in charge of an incompetent genie who doesn't understand the modern world or modern slang, and who therefore every week landed Hal in absurd trouble, usually with his boss Mr Cobbledick. Roy Barraclough excels as pompous Mr Cobbledick, who perpetually finds himself in inexplicable positions, and so over the course of two series goes ever so slightly mad. Good performances from the rest, and scripts that are more often hit than miss.

The two series are different in quality, thanks to the different actors playing the genie. The first series was blessed with Hugh Paddick, who brought his particular line of camp genius to the fray with brilliant results. Presumably unavailable for the second series and a fiendishly hard act to follow, he was replaced by Arthur White, a less subtle farceur who nevertheless wrung plenty of laughs from the genie's indomitable enthusiasm and optimism in the face of all setbacks. White also managed one of the high points of the series, a fantastic impression of Mr Cobbledick in 'Commercial Success', when - for reasons too complicated to go into - the latter has to be made unrecognisable.
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The Avengers: Something Nasty in the Nursery (1967)
Season 5, Episode 14
The Avengers confident on home territory
12 March 2017
Excellent outing for Steed and Mrs Peel, on classic territory, with incorruptible noblemen, the backbone of England, attacked at their only weak point - their childhood love for their nanny. As usual the trail leads to a school (for superior nannies) and an exclusive shop (a toyshop for royalty). A psychotropic baby bouncer sets the ball rolling, as it were, and Britain's defence secrets are at risk. There is a missed opportunity for Mrs Peel to either scold or mother the Great and the Good of the defence establishment - she is underused in this episode. But the Avengers' mild kinkiness melds brilliantly with the mild kinkiness of the childcare arrangements of England's upper class, with splendidly ludicrous results.

Final thoughts: the closing 'crystal ball' scene is hilarious; Penelope Keith is mysteriously credited though absent; there is no obvious reason why only baby bouncers can be used by the villains; isn't it lucky that all the members of the defence committee had the same nanny?
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Sky (1975– )
Space oddity
11 March 2017
In the 1970s, HTV cornered the market in quirky and bizarre fantasy half hours, always memorable, not always good. This oddity is fair, and concerns a beautiful blue-eyed blond alien with decidedly earthbound teeth who arrives on Earth at the wrong time and has to find his way to the right time zone. The Earth invokes a sort of immune system which tries to reject him, and he is pursued by the sinister Goodchild, who is perhaps a little too like a geography teacher to be wholly convincing as an avenging agent of nature. Sky's powers, and gradual loss of power, create a lot of tension, and Meredith Edwards lends a touch of class as the simple-minded Tom. Perhaps just too silly to be scary, a little too earnest to be eccentric, and with an unconvincing and predictable conclusion (you do not have to be tuned into the forces of the cosmos to work out what the Juganet is) it is still worth seeing, and all told it is not very much like anything else, which is an achievement for writers Baker and Martin.
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The Owl Service (1969– )
Slow and poor
11 March 2017
Strange that reviewers' opinion about this series is split, in that there is very little of merit in here at all, beyond Edwin Richfield's trademark twitchiness. It is extremely slow, stretched to breaking point across four hours. The three juvenile leads are extraordinarily inept and equally thumpable (well, maybe Roger is marginally worse than the others). Eerie moments are not followed up, so their effects dissipate. Mysteries are raised and never resolved. Bafflingly, the character Margaret, who is fairly crucial, is never shown; even the DVD notes fail to explain why. Some scenes have to go to enormous lengths to work around her absence; even a cardboard cut-out in silhouette would have been preferable. It is not stylish; the camera is generally static and the editing plodding. And the resolution, when it comes, resolves very little, choosing instead to wrap it all up in sci-fi gobbledegook.

And yet somehow it has become a cult classic. Go figure.
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More atmosphere than plot
11 March 2017
Wonderful HTV series for children that still sends a shiver up the spine, Children of the Stones is a masterclass in how to create atmosphere on a low budget, although the plot, largely borrowed from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, doesn't make a great deal of sense. The brilliant soundtrack of wordless choral music contributes immensely, while the Avebury setting with its weathered stones is used to excellent effect. Some reviewers have suggested it is like a kids' version of The Wicker Man - not really, this is played very straight and has none of The Wicker Man's comedy or eccentricity. Night of the Demon might be a closer comparison.

Iain Cuthbertson puts in a trademark eye-rolling performance, while the parents Gareth Thomas and Veronica Strong are a bit too like the nice teachers at school. The child actors do well, and are less irritating than most. Freddie Jones hams it up like a good 'un, and Ruth Dunning is the housekeeper from hell.

The ending is truly awful, sci-fi gobbledegook that merely provides a form of words to allow them all to stop. It is all about atmosphere, leaving logic and coherence behind at the boundary of Milbury.
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Truly horrible adaptation of The Body in the Library
11 March 2017
With the exception of the BBC series with Joan Hickson, film-makers struggle with Miss Marple. The point of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's brilliant concept, was to make her a member of the most disregarded and voiceless species of human being - the elderly spinster. Persistently underestimated, she proves herself wiser than more worldly characters - the police of course, but also her annoying nephew Raymond West, various carers and others. She was genteel, polite, cultivated, gossipy, nosy, unprepossessing, feminine, politically incorrect, conservative and traditional. The only thing that marked her out was her understanding of human evil.

This series disregards all this. The essential 'Miss' is dropped in favour of the modern-sounding 'Marple'. She is quirky, not ordinary. It is hinted that she has had an affair, as if sexual experience was necessary to make someone a whole person. She is sophisticated, not provincial. Christie's Miss Marple would hardly have taken revelations of lesbianism in her stride; she was never unshockable and never approved of metropolitan ways. Presumably these character changes are to make her 'relevant' for modern audiences. Of course, the effect is to negate Christie's feat of imagination, by turning a remarkably unremarkable character into an unremarkably remarkable one. It undoes Christie's aim of reminding us that even very ordinary people can do wonderful things, and shows immense disrespect for a generation of people and a vanished way of life.

Fuss has been made about changing the ending of this and other novels. This is not the real crime of the makers - admittedly it takes hubris to tinker with Christie's logic but there is no reason not to challenge or tease the audience. The real crime was to kill Miss Marple and replace her with a Generation X view of what a little old lady should be like. Geraldine McEwan's Marple would have celebrated the Relief of Mafeking by drinking 10 Bacardi Breezers and getting her tits out in Trafalgar Square. The best production values in the world would not turn this travesty into anything worth watching
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Not quite Miss Marple
18 February 2017
This is a wonderful piece of sheer entertainment, with the indomitable Miss Marple bulldozing all comers to solve the case. She has to start right from square one - no-one even thinks a crime has been committed at all. Margaret Rutherford gets plenty of screen time, accompanied by Ron Goodwin's brilliant theme.

The gulf between Rutherford's Marple and Christie's, noted by several reviewers, is worth exploring. Rutherford's is a comedy turn, a less subtle version of Miss Whitchurch in The Happiest Days of Your Life, constantly drawing the eye and stealing every scene from the deliberately bland supporting cast (with the exception of her one foil James Robertson Justice).

Christie's original idea was for Miss Marple to embody all the virtues and vices of the long-dismissed character of the little old spinster. The point of Miss Marple is that she is exactly the sort of person who is ignored and disregarded: dotty, old, unmarried, whose concerns are almost entirely parochial, whose views are entirely traditional, a creature irrelevant to the modern age. How could she understand such a concept as human evil, let alone face it down? It is of the essence of Christie's Marple that she was self-effacing, and that knitting, family, and gossip about the minutiae of village life contained the extent of her interests and ambitions.

The giveaway line in 'Murder She Said' is where Rutherford's Marple reveals she is a former golf champion. Christie's Marple would have seen golf as an irremediably male sphere, something that one would expect to interest men only and not a ladylike pursuit. She would certainly never compete! She was deeply conservative, not at all a modern liberal, for whom traditional gender roles were to be cherished and preserved.

For those reasons, Christie casts three roles: the witness to the murder (Miss McGillicuddy), the intrepid investigator (Lucy Eyelesbarrow), and the detective (Miss Marple). This likable and entertaining film streamlines the plot by integrating these three characters, requiring the larger than life performance from the brilliant Rutherford. Christie's Marple simply could not have done all that. The result is a minor triumph of film-making, with the loss of Christie's message that old age, femininity and parochialism should not render people useless or invisible.
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Play for Today: Penda's Fen (1974)
Season 4, Episode 16
Deep, with a contemporary resonance
8 January 2017
This splendid use of the BBC's Play for Today slot, finally released on DVD, still stands as a classic. Certainly, as one reviewer has pointed out, the pace is slower and more reflective than a modern film would be, in accordance with the style of the day.

Stephen is on the cusp of adulthood in the idyllic English village of Pinvin, blessed with absolute and martial certainty about the world and his role in it. His public (i.e. private and posh, in the English system) school has given him a classical and religious education and a role in the Combined Cadet Force, a British youth organisation based in schools conducting military training as an out-of-hours activity, sponsored by the Minstry of Defence. It is usually seen as a precursor to the Officers' Training Corp in universities, and then the army. His favourite piece of music is Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius', a major choral work which follows a dying man's journey through his death to his judgment. He is appalled at the arguments of Arne, a left-wing writer who lives in the village. His traditional views mark him out from his schoolmates, teachers and parents.

In the UK at the time (1974), politics were very polarised between left and right - at the time of broadcast, a modernising, business-oriented Conservative Prime Minister (who had taken the UK into the European Union), had just been brought down by industrial chaos induced by a series of strikes. Stephen's traditional politics, which had been dominant a decade earlier, were fast seeming irrelevant in the modern world.

Stephen is rooted in place; Elgar is not only the quintessential English composer, but also strongly associated with the city of Worcester and the nearby Malvern Hills, where Stephen lives. Stephen ticks off a signwriter who has spelt 'Pinvin' incorrectly, horrified by the error.

But this seemingly minor event causes Stephen's world to unravel. The name 'Pinvin' is derived from 'Penda's Fen', Penda being the last pagan king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia (which contained the Malverns). Like Gerontius, Stephen's journey includes encounters with angels and demons, and indeed Elgar himself - who turns out to be a lonely outsider too. One by one, Stephen's religious, political, artistic, familial and sexual convictions are unpicked, as he mistranslates the Greek maxim "know thyself" as "discover thyself" - a much more dynamic understanding of the aphorism.

At the close, Stephen confronts the conflicting forces, alternative histories and complex power relations of England at the time, and a final encounter with King Penda himself hints at dark times ahead. The world cannot be grasped from a simplistic point of view. Stephen's final lesson, perhaps even more relevant now than in 1974, is that conviction is hardly an appropriate tool for understanding the multiple identities that resonate within oneself and one's community.
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Bellamy upstages Cagney
26 December 2016
Impressively ludicrous and hyperactive Hollywood self-spoof, Cagney and O'Brien play a pair of screenwriters sponging from a studio too free with its money. Double-talk turns to triple-talk as they do battle with various opposing forces (a hapless cowboy star, a college-educated producer, an effete English extra and even Ronald Reagan) to control a baby-star whose career they created while it was still in the womb; they are only defeated by the Eternal Power of Love as Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Finds Girl Again. Cagney, a genius who always struggled to play anyone who remotely resembled a normal human being, and O'Brien speak so fast that even native speakers of English struggle to follow. They would have given the Marx Brothers a run for their manic money.

Yet the greatest lines (and facial expressions) are reserved for Ralph Bellamy, on top form as the dopey producer (presumably a caricature of some well-known figure). Only Bellamy could spin comic gold from a line like "Good Gad, you've been drinking my milk." "It's 1938" says O'Brien. "I know that," replies Bellamy, "but not everyone's an intellectual."
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Dominic (1976– )
Wonderful adventure for grown up kids
13 December 2016
Boy Dominic was a well-made, if sometimes plodding, kids' adventure set in Napoleonic (or possibly post-Napoleonic) England. A couple of years on, with young Murray Dale grown up enough to play more of a juvenile lead role, Yorkshire TV's successor Trident revisited the concept, jettisoning the soap opera aspects of the original, and turned it into a rollicking smuggling saga.

And my goodness what a treat it is. The makers had a real feel for the times, conveyed brilliantly in both the studio shots and the filmed inserts. All social strata of Yorkshire are covered, from the dotty lord to the dotty peasant. Splendidly eccentric characters, such as Jenkins and Jimmy Bells, stick in the mind. The villains are spectacularly villainous. Dominic's mentor Captain Beever is uncompromising and military - and can we really trust him?

Yet it's hardly merely a kids' tale. There are enough dark hints of unconventional sexual relationships to put a bit of spice in the plot and keep parents' interest, even if the children might not always pick them up. It would be a brave author who produced this script in 2016.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and get their teeth into the many meaty parts offered by the script. Murray Dale never made it (or never wanted to), but of the other juveniles Louise Jameson (actually 25 at the time) certainly made the breakthrough. Wendy Williams is the housekeeper from hell, and Edwin Richfield had long turned sullen twitchiness into an art form.

The standout performance, upon which the edifice sits, is Gordon Gostelow's Barty Finn, who convincingly ranges between plausible rogue, evil villain, incompetent roughneck, loving father, callous torturer, pathetic social climber and treacherous betrayer with brilliance and gusto. Not since Long John Silver had there been such a wonderfully ambivalent father figure in fiction.
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Remarkably good Wallace
9 December 2016
The Edgar Wallace mysteries could be quite tiresome, though they usually presented a fascinating glimpse of comfortable middle class life subverted by crime, hypocrisy or accident, almost always in Surrey, just before the swinging 60s hit Britain. Good acting, short running times, familiar character actors doing their shtick and pedestrian scripts with a twist at the end often but not always combined to produce a satisfactory hour or so of entertainment.

Face of a Stranger is in many ways a departure from the template. Determinedly working class, with unusually decent accents from the principals Jeremy Kemp and Philip Locke, a bit of unlikely romance, a bit of pathos - and then the twist in the tail. The acting is uniformly excellent, with small early roles for Jean Marsh as a faithless wife and Mike Pratt (Jeff Randall) as the lower-class Lothario. Bernard Archard's gamekeeper is splendidly sinister, while Kemp's own performance, sweaty insecurity clashing with outward confidence, and his gradual grasp of the sleazy possibilities of his position, is at times brilliant. Shaky documentary style hand-held camera gives a sense of verite, albeit tainted with a bit of seasickness for the audience.

It's on the slow side, but worth it for the last five minutes.
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The Corridor People (1966– )
Alienating misfire that is not as clever as it thinks it is
2 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
It is interesting to see what this legendary series now looks like on DVD. The previous reviewer sums up its positives and negatives excellently, but however many points it gets for ambition, ultimately the series is a failure, presumably the reason for its being pulled after only 4 episodes.

It badly misses its target, unlike The Avengers or The Prisoner. Comparisons are obvious, because all three were arch, stylised and absurd. But whereas in The Avengers the viewer is charmed by Steed's impossibly suave overgrown schoolboy, the utterly compelling characters of Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel and the warmth of the relationship between them, and in The Prisoner the viewer is directly engaged by McGoohan's incredible performance as No.6, the Corridor People is all about alienation effects and distancing from the audience. It is impossible to care about these people, and in so far as one does, it is the villainess Syrie van Epp who engages and evolves through the series.

Without the resource of direct identification between viewer and characters, The Corridor People could only succeed by being extremely clever or witty or satirical, which it isn't. Given that it resolutely refuses to be cosy, it doesn't supply the viewer with any other reason to watch either.

Two further problems. First, the characters fail to enthuse. Scrotty is perhaps the most thumpable leading man in television history, while Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound are merely silly. Kronk is bland - it could have done with a hammier performance like Willoughby Goddard's Sir Jason in The Mind of J.G. Reeder (or even Mother from The Avengers).

The most interesting character, June Watson's Miss Dunner, is idiotically killed off early, having been placed in a position where either she or Scrotty had to go. Choosing Scrotty's survival over that of Miss Dunner was a major strategic error.

Secondly, the casual moral relativism is shocking. Nothing wrong with disorienting the viewer, but to what end? Scrotty arranges the death of the pathetic Whitebait for no good reason beyond easing his affair with his wife in the second episode, but neither the crime nor the affair is referred to again. The programme is content to shock us, and then moves on. A harmless and innocent cinema usherette is assassinated on Kronk's orders thanks to a computer error in the final action of the series. Again, this is potentially a satirical point (especially relevant in our world of algorithms and big data), and the series ended before it could be built upon, but in isolation it leaves rather a nasty taste without any corresponding enlightenment for the viewer.

In short, a sophomoric production content to strike attitudes without deeper meaning. It quickly becomes tiresome, despite its undoubted intelligence and imagination.
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Othello (1981 TV Movie)
Uh oh, Chongo!
9 August 2016
There is controversy here about the performances of Hopkins and Hoskins as the two major protagonists, and controversy about the nature of the production.

That there is controversy is understandable - it's a very schizophrenic production, careful and understated and clipped and British for the most part, excellently acted by a tasteful cast, Penelope Wilton and Rosemary Leach outstanding. Yet the two principals are given free rein.

Hoskins' Iago is the more successful of the two, scintillating in monologue, focusing on the evil of the character, trying to convey his plausibility via his rough charm. Hard to imagine the stiff-upper- lip types of Jonathan Miller's Venice being taken in by such a fellow, entertain them though he might.

But there is more than one letter's difference between Hoskins and Hopkins. Hopkins' performance is, as some of the reviewers have pointed out, as ripe a piece of eye-rolling ham as one is likely to see. Despite other reviewers' valiant attempts, it is really not a defensible performance, rising so rapidly from suave control to chewing the scenery, persuaded far too easily by an Iago who is obviously on the make.

The exaggerations help provide a context for his tense scenes with Desdemona - we certainly know how much he is holding back. The power of the moment when he slaps her is impressive. But when he lets rip, the acting style gets closer to Chongo out of the Banana Splits than any more accomplished thespian.

The effect is not at all helped by Hopkins sporting the most extraordinary pair of trousers I have ever seen, designed by Richard Hughes. The bizarre codpiece looks like Hopkins has had a painful accident with a stapler, and his stature is seriously compromised by odd curving stripes down the legs. This produces a number of odd and unintentionally humorous effects, most awfully during Emilia's affecting death scene, where Hopkins, standing behind the bed as a witness, appears to have little tiny legs, like Toulouse-Lautrec.

Either Miller could not control Hopkins, or gave him his head. It doesn't matter which - the result is an unsatisfactory mishmash, neither one thing nor the other.
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Good time-passer, odd mix
21 December 2015
A crime movie which doesn't quite know where it is going, switching between genres, and as variable as the American accents of the New York gang of crooks who fetch up in London until the heat is off them. They want to commit a big crime but can't decide what it is to be. They amuse themselves with robbery, treachery, adultery and cold-blooded murder. Meanwhile, a big department store is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary in light comedy scenes in which the actors seem on the edge of bursting into song. One half expects Jessie Matthews to appear, or even the Marx Brothers. Nothing links these two stories, except that the copper investigating the gang happens to be vying with the nephew of the store's owner, for the romantic attention of Joan. Sometimes it appears that we are watching two separate and completely different films, each pleasant but neither gripping, an effect also increased by a title sequence that weirdly suggests a Lugosi horror picture like 'The Dark Eyes of London.' Anyway, eventually the two plots come together, via a very long coincidence, and things speed up a bit. Lots of familiar faces, Paul Cavanagh, Margot Grahame, Basil Sydney, Joseph Cawthorn, Googie Withers, Roland Culver, Ian Fleming, Peter Gawthorne, Dino Galvani and Edward Rigby enlivening their scenes.
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Voyeur (1986)
No one is sane
10 October 2014
Wonderful surreal comedy of Dutch (bad) manners, with superb playing through the entire cast of eccentrics, misfits and lunatics. Olga Zuiderhoek is excellent as the implacably doting mother Duif, obsessed with fertility and sabotaging all her husband's schemes to get their son Abel to lead a "normal" life. But the film is made by Henri Garcin as (the possibly ironically named) husband Victor, whose descent into madness is delightfully reminiscent of Herbert Lom's Inspector Dreyfus.

Only Annet Malherbe's Zus lets the side down, passive and accepting of her place on her admirers' pedestals, more cipher than Circe. Maybe her line that "all women like to be watched" seemed profound thirty years ago; not so much now.
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