Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1958/59) – Simply Media DVD Review

Following the death of a rich miser, his substantial fortune is willed to his estranged son, John Harmon (Paul Daneman), on one condition – that he marries, sight unseen, Miss Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker).  But when Harmon is believed drowned on his journey home to England, the inheritance passes to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson & Marda Vanne), the loyal and faithful former employees of Harmon Snr.

The Boffins are good-hearted people, happy to share their new-found wealth with others.  To this end they adopt Bella as their daughter and employ the one-legged pedler Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to read to them in the evenings.  They also engage a mysterious young man now going under the name of John Rokesmith (who in reality is John Harmon) as their secretary.

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ final completed novel and was originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865.  The thorny topic of inheritance, a familiar Dickens theme, is a major feature of the story as is the notion that wealth can have a corrosive effect on those it touches.

Film or television adaptations of Our Mutual Friend have been fairly thin on the ground with this 1958/59 BBC adaptation by Freda Lingstrom marking the first time the novel was tackled (two further television adaptations, in 1976 and 1998, would follow).

Things begin a rather arch way, as the Wilfer family consider their lack of money. George Howe as Reginald Wifer, the nominal head of the family, has a nice henpecked comic touch but Daphne Newton, as Reginald’s domineering wife, does declaim in a somewhat stagey fashion.

The Wilfer Family

The first episode also allows us an early insight into Bella’s character. She tells her father that she’s “nether reasonable nor honest. One of the consequences of being poor and of thoroughly hating and detesting it”. She then goes on to describe herself as a horrid, mercenary little wretch.

Compare and contrast her attitude with that of John Harmon. On his way back home to England via a sea journey (the onboard sequences are effectively mounted, despite the confines of the studio) he explains to a fellow traveller that his inheritance is dependent on his marrying Bella. The fact he’s returning to England suggests that he’s considering acceding to his late father’s request, but he then explains this is dependent on Bella’s character. If she turns out to be an objectionable person then he’d be happy for his old friends, the Boffins, to receive the money instead.

This might suggest that John is a wiser and more noble person than Bella, but since he has the choice of returning to his vineyard in South Africa it’s plain that he has options, whilst she doesn’t.

Both Paul Daneman and Zena Walker make strong early impressions whilst Bruce Gordon, as George Sampson, gives a nice turn as Bella’s devoted suitor. When Bella breaks the bad news that she’s planning to marry for money, he’s a picture of angst (sucking his walking stick as a child might suck his thumb!).  George contributes little to the story, but can be guaranteed to pop up from time to time in order to provide a spot of comic relief.

Richard Leech casts a menacing shadow as ‘Rogue’ Riderhood, a waterman who was part of a conspiracy to murder John (another of the conspirators – Radfoot – planned to take John’s place, marry Bella and claim the inheritance). Leech gives a performance that’s somewhat on the ripe side but after a few episodes either he settles down a little or I just became more accustomed to it.

But if there’s ripeness from some, there’s subtler playing from others. Peggy Thorpe-Bates makes an immediate impression as Miss Abbey, the innkeeper of a raucous riverside tavern. Miss Abbey may be physically slight but she’s more than capable of dealing with her customers, even the intimidating Riderhood.

The first meeting between Bella and John isn’t auspicious. She later confesses that there were few people she disliked more at first sight. It might not be a surprise to learn that her feelings change as the serial wears on ….

As the episodes progress we’re introduced to all of the main characters. Richard Pearson is very agreeable as the generous and good-natured Nicodemus Boffin whilst Esmond Knight has delightful comic timing as Silas Wegg, an untrustworthy wooden-legged vagrant with a veneer of literary education.  Malcom Keen (whose career began in silent movies, Hitchcock’s The Lodger amongst them) also impresses as the sympathetic Jewish moneylender Riah.

Esmond Knight

David McCallum (whom the credits inform us was appearing courtesy of the Rank Organisation) plays Eugene Wrayburn, a well-educated barrister who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam (Rachel Roberts). Eugene is a somewhat arrogant person to begin with but, as with Bella, over time he grows and develops. It can’t be a coincidence that, like John, he is nearly drowned in the river (his near-death experience seems to trigger something of a rebirth in him, just as it did with John).

Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie is complicated by Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), who is also besotted with her (although she has little time for him). This love triangle, along with John’s continuing close observation of Bella, are major main plot-threads whilst other subplots (the machinations of ‘Rogue’ Riderhood and Silas Wegg amongst others) also simmer away nicely.

Although John Harmon might be the nominal central character, the conflict between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie’s hand in marriage is another highlight of the serial (both McCallum – even though he’s sporting a silly beard – and Scott provide standout performances).

Considering the limitations of this era of television, Our Mutual Friend is a polished production. If it wasn’t broadcast live, then it would have been recorded as-live (with only limited opportunities for retakes and editing). But across the twelve episodes there’s few obvious production stumbles (fluffled lines, miscued shots, etc) which is impressive.

Paul Daneman

That studio space was at a premium can be surmised by the fact that each episode restricts itself to a handful of locations. A sprinkling of filmed material helps to open the production up a little, although a number of backdrops, used in the studio to create the illusion of scale and depth, aren’t always terribly convincing. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this serial and after a while it ceases to be an issue.

There are many fine performances scattered throughout the twelve episodes. Paul Daneman had a fairly thankless task, since John Harmon/Rokesmith is a very colourless sort of fellow (often a fate suffered by Dickens’ heroes) but he still manages to make something out of the role. David McCallum has more to work with, as Eugene is a complex, dissolute character who eventually finds redemption and love.  Esmond Knight is simply a treat, meaning that whenever Silas Wegg shuffles onto the screen you know that something entertaining is going to happen.

Many strong character actors – Rachel Gurney, Basil Henson and William Mervyn, amongst others – pop up from time to time. Another brief but vivid performance comes from Wilfred Brambell as Mr “Dolls”, the alcoholic father of Jenny Wren (Helena Hughes). Hughes herself is also noteworthy as the young, crippled dolls-clothes maker who has reversed roles with her father (she calls him a “bad child” and bosses him about without mercy).

The picture quality is pretty good throughout. The telerecording might show the limitations of the original 405 line transmission, but it’s still perfectly clear (some blurring on the bottom of the frame in the penultimate episode is probably the most visible fault). The soundtrack, apart from the odd crackle, is quite audible.

Freda Lingstrom’s adaptation manages to retain the flavour of Dickens’ dense novel and the generous running time (twelve half-hour episodes) is more than sufficient to ensure that all the characters are dealt with sympathetically. The serial-like nature of the original novel is kept intact, meaning that some characters may feature heavily in one episode but then not appear in the next as others take their place.  It’s true that everything gets wrapped up rather too neatly at the end, but that’s a criticism that needs to be laid at Dickens’ door rather than Lingstrom’s.

Lingstrom was a fascinating character. She created the BBC Radio strand Listen with Mother in 1950 and shortly afterwards became Head of BBC Children’s Television. Watch with Mother was a logical development for television and Lingstrom, in partnership with Maria Bird, would devise two of the most enduring of all pre-school children’s programmes – Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men.  This adaptation was therefore an unusual entry on her CV (and also her final television writing credit).

It’s fascinating to observe how the production battled to transcend its limited production values (most notably the lack of studio space) and whilst it may feature a few broad performances from the minor players there’s little else to find fault with here.  With so little 1950’s BBC drama available, it’s very pleasing to see Our Mutual Friend released and despite the six-hours running time the story rarely seems to flag.  Highly recommended.

Our Mutual Friend is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Marda Vanne & Richard Pearson

H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – The Big Plot

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When a crashed foreign airliner is found to contain parts which could form an atomic bomb, the authorities fear that further attempts might be made to smuggle parts into the UK.  So Peter Brady is put on the case ….

This is a rum old story and no mistake. Thanks to a very unconvincing piece of stock footage we see Helen Peversham (Barbara Shelley) triumph in a big golf tournament in France. Helen’s heading back to Britain, but by the shifty way her chauffeur – Hanstra (Terence Cooper) – is behaving, it’s obvious that he’s stashed something inside her golf bag.

The authorities have clearly moved at lightning speed since the custom points have now been fitted with Geiger counters, thereby allowing all luggage to be scanned. Hmm, okay then. When MacBane (Edward Hardwicke) checks Helens golf bag the counter goes crazy.  He doesn’t say anything to her, but quickly gets on the phone to Sir Charles (Ewan McDuff) at the Ministry.  Sir Charles then tells Peter that Helen was carrying a canister of Uranium 235. Sorry? How exactly did he work that one out?

Helen’s husband, Lord Larry Peversham (John Arnatt), is an ardent peace campaigner, but he’s been duped into helping the baddies. They’ve told him that atomic bombs will be placed in the capital cities of all the major powers (in order to create an atmosphere of stalemate) but they’re obviously lying and he was remarkably trusting to believe them ….

Rather wonderfully, the bomb is installed in the basement of the Peversham’s house, which allows a shocked Helen to discover it. By now I have to confess that nothing in this loopy story could possibly surprise me.

Barbara Shelly and John Arnatt help to paper over the cracks as does William Squire. He plays Waring, the Peversham’s valet, who – like Hanstra – is also involved in the plot. Is every person on Peversham’s payroll a baddy? It would be a remarkable coincidence if so, but this story has something of an “end of term” feel, so maybe logical thought had taken a slight holiday. Squire’s good fun as the glowering Waring anyway – he was always an actor you could depend upon to provide a spot of top-class villainy.

Brady is, ahem, rather invisible in this one and does little which the authorities couldn’t have done themselves. Which in a way rather sums the series up. By not concentrating on Brady’s invisible plight, the show instead tended to shoehorn him into generic crime/thriller plots where he didn’t always fit.

Few of the stories are valueless – the guest casts are always worth watching at least – although it’s fair comment that the show does sometimes settle into a rut.  But whilst it can be a little samey and predictable, it’s also well-made and entertaining. It’s certainly one that I’ve enjoyed revisiting and no doubt I’ll come back to it again in the future.

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H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Shadow Bomb

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When a light-sensitive bomb malfunctions, Brady (because he doesn’t cast a shadow) is the only one who can disarm it before darkness makes it detonate ….

It’s slightly eye-opening that Brady is more than happy to work with the military on this new bomb (he’s responsible for designing the detonator).  It was obviously a very different time – WW2 would have been a very recent memory for most – but it’s hard to imagine a modern series featuring a scientist quite so keen to design weapons of destruction.  True, it’s suggested that the shadow bomb would be ideal for clearing a path through minefields – but it could just as easily be used for offensive purposes.

You’ll have to forgive me if I’ve been something of a stuck record throughout these posts, but once again we’re treated to a wonderful cast of players.  The previous year Anthony Bushell had memorably appeared as Colonel Breen in Quatermass and the Pit – here he’s the rather similar General Martin.  Martin is slightly less pigheaded than Breen, but since he possesses the same bite and aggression it’s rather hard to distinguish between the two.

Conrad Phillips is the dashing Captain Barry Finch, who ends up being trapped by the bomb, whilst Jennifer Jayne adds a touch of glamour as Captain Betty Clark.  Walter Gotell is pressed into service as the latest Man from the Ministry whilst Ian Hendry pops up as Lieutenant Daniels.  As I said, a pretty decent cast ….

When Brady hears the news of Finch’s plight, he’s so agitated that he rushes out to the test ground without applying his bandages – which presents the strange sight of an apparently empty suit of clothes bobbing about.  We didn’t see this happen too often (no doubt because it would have been hard to realise) so this is a noteworthy little sequence.

Shadow Bomb has one pretty obvious problem.  If the bomb explodes then Brady goes up with it (thereby bringing the series to a rather abrupt conclusion).  But although we can guess that everything will work out fine in the end, the maximum amount of tension is still generated during the closing minutes (we’re presented with multiple close-ups of Finch’s anxious, sweaty face).

Co-written by Brian Clemens (under the pen-name of Tony O’Grady), this isn’t a story that springs any surprises, but a race-against-time to diffuse a ticking bomb is always a good source of drama – as it proves here.

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H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – The Rocket

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Ronald Smith’s (Glyn Owen) heavy gambling debts make him susceptible to an approach from Reitter (Russell  Waters).  Smith is the transport officer responsible for the movement of a new rocket (due in Scotland for further tests) and when his information allows it to be stolen en-route, the Invisible Man sets off in pursuit ….

The first few minutes sees Smith sweating at the casino table, losing heavily at baccarat.  A favourite game of James Bond (it was featured heavily in Ian Fleming’s debut novel Casino Royale) possibly it was felt that the rules were already well-known, since they’re not explained here  Smith draws an eight and is understandably pretty confident (only a nine could beat it) although his later downcast expression confirms that’s exactly what must have happened.  An uncredited John Standing makes a brief appearance as the croupier.

Smith then decides to throw himself off a nearby bridge, but the coolly seductive Reitter stops him.  We never learn precisely who Reitter works for (an unfriendly foreign power no doubt) but he’s quickly able to convince Smith that his debts could be cleared if he divulges the following information – the time and route that the rocket will take.  Reitter insists that no suspicion will fall on Smith, although as we’ll see, Smith rather betrays himself ….

The rocket test scenes in London with Brady, Professor Howard (Robert Brown) and (somewhat oddly) Smith are very evocative of the era.  The surroundings are rather tatty and makeshift (old-fashioned telephones and a general feeling of decay) but the message seems to be that British ingenuity has made up for a lack of money and facilities.

There’s also a delightful later scene when Brady and Howard demonstrate the rocket to a number of Military and Whitehall bigwigs. None of them speak, so they were either deeply impressed by the brilliance of the invention or were non-speaking extras (the latter I guess).  Keep an eye on the gentleman on the far right, who throughout the demonstration wears an expression of shock.  I assume he was aiming for an engrossed countenance, but didn’t quite manage it.

Sally pops up for a single scene in which she and Brady are attempting to knock down a series of wooden skittles.  Brady, being invisible, cheats terribly and when Sally points this out he appears to give her an invisible smack on her bottom.  Which wasn’t fair or friendly, poor Sally (and Deborah Watling didn’t even merit a credit for this appearance, which seems a little odd).

There’s one major plot-hole with the story.  Despite the fact that Smith’s been told he only has to pass on the transport details of the rocket, he decides to advance its departure time, thereby bringing intense suspicion on himself.  Had he not done this then the baddies would probably have succeeded.

I love the fact that the lorry carrying the rocket is so poorly guarded (one single motorbike rider!).  Mmm, given that we’ve been told how terrible it would be if the rocket fell into the wrong hands, I’ve a feeling that a touch more protection would have been advisable.

The second half of the episode follows a predictable route – Brady tracks the villains down, gives them an invisible beating and wraps everything up by the time the end-credits roll.  But whilst this part is less compelling, I’ve still got a lot of time for The Rocket.  Glyn Owen doesn’t have a great deal to do, but he still manages to sketch Smith’s character very effectively (Smith’s conscience later kicks in and he ends up redeeming himself).  It’s also nice to see Robert Brown (later to star as M in the 1980’s Bond films) although his role is also pretty slight.

Some nice location work, decent actors and a good punch-up.  There are worse ways to spend twenty-five minutes.

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H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Man in Power

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The small Middle Eastern country of Barat is in crisis.  The hard-line Army leader, General Shafari (André Morell), wants to see them break their agreements with the West and then play East and West off against each other.  When the moderate King disagrees, Shafari has him brutally murdered.  No doubt Shafari hopes that the new ruler, Prince Jonetta (Gary Raymond), will be more pliable – but Jonetta (known as Johnny) has a powerful ally – Peter Brady, the Invisible Man ….

We’re once again heading off to a fictitious ITC Middle Eastern state, so expect to see British actors browned up and lashings of stock footage.   But our stay in Barat is made very bearable by the presence of André Morell .  Morell was one of those actors who could have read the phone book and made it worthwhile (although fortunately his character here is slightly more interesting than that).

Only just though.  Shafari is never developed in any great detail – we do learn that Barat is a poor country and no doubt Shafari hopes that an alliance with the East would be more profitable for them (or more likely, just him) but beyond that he’s a nebulous figure.  This doesn’t really matter though, since Morell invests every line of dialogue he’s given with gravitas and meaning and even when Shafari has nothing to say, Morell still captures the eye by glowering memorably in the background.  Without him, this one would probably be much more of a struggle.

Gary Raymond is perfect as Johnny – he’s boyish, open and honest (making it perfectly plain that he’s keen to put the interests of his people first and would turn out to be an enlightened and progressive leader if he’s given the chance) whilst Nadja Regin as Johnny’s sister, Princess Taima, is on hand to provide a touch of glamour, moral support for her brother and to function as this week’s damsel in distress.  When Taima is kidnapped by Shafari, he no doubt hopes it will serve as the lever to force Johnny not to accept the throne – but luckily Brady’s on hand to dish out some invisible fisticuffs and so he calmly rescues her.

If Regin seems familiar, then it’s probably due to her several small, but eye-catching, appearances in the early James Bond films.  The most memorable one came in the pre-credits sequence for Goldfinger where she acted as the decoy for Alf Joint’s swarthy assassin.  “Shocking”.

It’s something of a treat to see two Professor Quatermasses sharing the screen.  Not only Morell (who played the Professor in the television version of Quatermass and the Pit) but also Andrew Keir (who would later play the Prof in the Hammer film adaptation of Pit).  Keir’s role of Hassan, a supporter of Johnny, isn’t terribly interesting but it’s nice to see him nonetheless.

As so often, we’re left with a rather pat ending.  After Shafari is captured and led away we’re led to believe that the crisis is now over.  But this supposes he was the only bad apple and that the rest of the army will now be loyal to Johnny.  Real-life would suggest he’s got troubles ahead, but Man in Power elects to close on an optimistic note.

Although some of the stock footage really stands out (it’s so scratchy that it doesn’t convince for a minute) the presence of André Morell adds more than a touch of class to the episode. Another very enjoyable twenty five minutes.

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H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Man in Disguise

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After a crook masquerades as the Invisible Man in order to smuggle a supply of cocaine from Paris to London, Brady teams up with the police, in the form of the attractive Sergeant Winter (Jeanette Stark), in order to run them to ground ….

There’s a nice touch of continuity here as Man in Disguise clearly follows on from the events of the previous episode.  Brady, heading home to England after solving the case of the vanishing rabbit, is waylaid at the airport by a conniving femme-fatale, Madeline (Leigh Madison).  It’s plain to see that she’s a wrong ‘un – maybe it’s the fur coat that does it – and within a matter of minutes she’s allowed her associate Nick to nip off with Brady’s bag (and passport).

The smugglers – Madeline and Nick (Tim Turner) – have clearly identified Brady’s Achilles heel (he can’t resist helping a damsel in distress).  So when Madeline pretends to faint,  Brady instantly dashes over to lend his assistance.  Luckily for them, he kept his passport in his bag (if he’d had it in his pocket then their brilliant plan wouldn’t have worked).

It’s surprising that more criminals haven’t attempted to impersonate Brady.  All you need are some bandages, dark glasses and a hat and voila – you’re instantly transformed into Peter Brady, the Invisible Man.  Thus disguised, Nick finds he can waltz through the customs at London, since the officer knows that Brady wouldn’t be mixed up in any drug shenanigans.

Tim Turner, of course, voiced the Invisible Man for the majority of the series (there’s the odd episode where Brady sounds rather different, so presumably other actors occasionally stood in).  It’s therefore rather neat that Turner plays Nick since not only does it allow us to see, for once, the man behind the voice but it ensures that Nick’s masquerade is quite convincing.

Brady’s eye for the ladies is once again evident after he’s introduced to Sergeant Winter.  Along with Sergeant Day (Howard Pays) the three of them go undercover as they hit London’s fashionable nightspots to investigate the drug trade.  This is an irresistible part of the story as it’s just so polite and of its time.  The fantastically named Golden Monkey nightclub is where the action is and Sergeant Winter (after transforming herself into a well-heeled addict) infiltrates the joint.

If Tim Turner was something of a voice expert (in addition to this series he also narrated a considerable number of Rank’s Look at Life cinema documentary short films) then so was Robert Rietty, here playing the club’s waiter, Victor.  For many, he’ll probably be best remembered for dubbing a number of characters for the James Bond films (most notably in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice).

When the drug smugglers realise that Brady’s after them, they become desperate.  They plant a bomb in his car but unfortunately they choose to do this in broad daylight and with the inquisitive Sally watching on.  This leads into my favourite line in the episode as Sally picks up the phone and informs the caller that her uncle is otherwise engaged. “I’m afraid he’s busy. He’s taking a bomb out of his car”.

Man in Disguise is able to pause for a few seconds to consider the cost of the drug trade (when flicking through a series of photographs in order to identify the woman who stole his bag, Brady is shocked to see that many of them are very young) but apart from this brief reflection, the episode is pretty straight-ahead fare.

The criminals might be bumbling and written rather broadly, but the time-capsule aspect of this one makes it very appealing.  Certainly one of the stronger episodes from the later run of the series.

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