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

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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

1950’s/1960’s BBC Charles Dickens Classics to be released by Simply Media – July 2017

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It’s very pleasing to see that a number of 1950’s/1960’s BBC Classic Serial adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels are due shortly from Simply Media.  Three have been confirmed for release on the 3rd of July 2007 – Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Dombey & Son.

Below is a little more detail about them.

Our Mutual Friend.  Adapted by Freda Lingstrom and broadcast in twelve episodes during 1958/59.  Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum, Richard Pearson, Rachel Roberts and Robert Leach head the cast, whilst many other familiar faces – Rachel Gurney, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Wilfred Brambell, Melvyn Hayes and Barbara Lott – also appear.

Great Expectations.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in ten episodes during 1967.  Gary Bond, Francesca Annis, Neil McCarthy, Richard O’Sullivan, Peter Vaughan and Bernard Hepton are the major players in this one whilst there’s also plenty of quality to be found lower down the cast-list (Ronald Lacey, Jon Laurimore and Kevin Stoney amongst others).

Dombey & Son.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in thirteen episodes during 1969.  A typically strong cast is headed by John Carson as Mr Dombey with Clive Swift, Pat Coombs, Ronald Pickering and Davyd Harries amongst the other familiar faces appearing.

And with three further releases to come in late August – Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962) and Bleak House (1959) – the next few months look to be good for those who enjoy classic BBC B&W drama.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Six – Hob

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All three of Nigel Kneale’s 1950’s Quatermass serials had ambitious final episodes.  However, since no visual or audio copy of the last episode of The Quatermass Experiment exists, we can only surmise how good the climax was.  Kneale’s description of how they achieved the creature’s final manifestation in Westminster Abbey does sound endearingly low-tech though!  He recalls that somebody “bought a guidebook to the [abbey] and blew up one of the photographs and cut a couple of holes in it.  Then I stuck my hands through, which were draped with rubber gloves and various bits and pieces, and waggled them about.  It looked very good, actually, surprisingly effective.”

The last episode of Quatermass II had to be made on the cheap (since most of the budget had already been used for the previous five installments).   Unfortunately this meant that some parts of the finale were rather compromised – for example the surface of the asteroid was created by covering some chairs with a tarpaulin!  Once you know this, it’s difficult to watch those scenes without it being very apparent.

By the time Quatermass and the Pit went into production, lessons had obviously been learnt.  Hob brings the story to a very effective conclusion – and there’s no signs of penny-pinching here.  It, like the rest of the serial, had a very generous amount of film work (which really helped to give it a glossy, expensive look).  It’s a pity that all of the series wasn’t made on film, as the film sequences we do have demonstrate how good a director Rudolph Cartier was.

However, an all-film production was clearly outside of the BBC’s budget at the time – although it’s slightly curious that they didn’t mount all the pit sequences in Hob on film.  The majority are, but there’s the odd scene back in the studio – and the cuts between the two are rather jarring.

Notwithstanding this little niggle, Hob is a good exercise in making the limited resources you have stretch as far as possible.  It’s possible that when Rudolph Cartier received the script he may have despaired – as Kneale was asking for feature-film production values (we see London in flames after the majority of the inhabitants find themselves under Martian control and forced to re-enact the “wild hunt” – a purging of anything or anybody not like themselves).

But Cartier is able to achieve this very well with only a limited number of extras, stock shots of cities in flames (presumably from WW2) and other clever story-telling devices – such as the observations of a pilot above the city.  The pilot is able to describe to us what he can see, and whilst it’s an old trick (somebody telling us about something, rather than seeing it ourselves) it still works.

With London devastated, what’s happened to Quatermass and the others?  The Professor had been deeply affected by the signals from the pit and it took Roney some time to bring him back to normality.  Roney, like Potter and Fullalove, isn’t particularly affected – but they’re very much in the minority.

It’s somewhat disturbing to see Quatermass quite so disheveled and lost.  He’s been the logical, calm centre of the story – so when he’s incapacitated it’s quite a shock.  Colonel Breen is dead – he remained transfixed by the object in the pit and the last time we see him he’s been calcified.  Miss Judd and Captain Potter both make it out alive and the romantic in me likes to think that their relationship blossomed afterwards (there certainly seemed to be an interest on Potter’s side – whether this was scripted or business added by John Stratton in rehearsal isn’t clear).

The crisis is brought to an end by Roney making the ultimate sacrifice.  And the story ends with Quatermass broadcasting to the nation.  It’s a key scene, which concludes the serial terribly well – especially after Quatermass has finished and we see him walk away (leaving the other people looking slightly nonplussed).  Amongst them are Sladden and the Vicar, and it’s a nice touch that they’re both there (even though neither of them speak a word!)

Quatermass and the Pit is an amazing programme – script-wise, acting-wise and also technically.  It’s hard to believe that most of it went out live, since everything ran so smoothly.  Compared to the slightly more rough-and-ready Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II it’s certainly on another level.  Morell is superb and he’s supported by a quality cast.

Mark Gatiss once said that Quatermass and the Pit  “with its brilliant blending of superstition, witchcraft and ghosts into the story of a five-million-year-old Martian invasion – is copper-bottomed genius.”  I see no reason to disagree with this.  If you’ve got it on your shelf but haven’t seen it for a while, maybe it’s time for a re-watch.  If you don’t own it or have never seen it, then you’re missing out on a true television classic.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Five – The Wild Hunt

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Quatermass returns to the Museum and tells Roney about the meeting he’s just had at the War Office.  Needless to say, he’s not best pleased and concedes that the Minster is “scared stiff.  Scared of the press, scared of being blamed for something, scared of his colleagues.  All he wants are easy answers.”  As we saw in the last episode, the Minister is happy with Breen’s theory that the object is a German propaganda weapon and that the insects are fakes (Quatermass ironically says that if you look closely enough, you’ll be able to see little swastikas on them!)

There’s no time to brood though, as Barbara Judd arrives and tells them both about the strange experience in the pit.  Shortly after this, Quatermass and Barbara set off for the vicarage where Sladden has ended up.  The conflict between religion and science is a familiar one in science fiction and it’s played out in this episode.  The Vicar (Noel Howlett) is convinced that Sladden has been in contact with spiritual evil (later he comes to the pit with an exorcism kit – “bell, book and candle” as Fullalove says) but although Quatermass agrees that they are dealing with evil, he simply disagrees about the nature of it.  For the Professor, there’s a rational, scientific explanation.  The Vicar also has an explanation – but for him, it’s a matter of faith.

The scene in the vicarage is nicely lit (with a flickering fire) and Cartier’s use of close-ups on the agitated Sladden really help to focus the audience’s attention on his plight.  In a rather incoherent fashion he’s able to explain what happened.  “I remember.  It started and then … then I couldn’t see anything but them!  Like you took out of the hull!  With eyes and horns!  They were alive!  Hopping and running.  Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds!”

Quatermass is convinced that Sladden had a vision of life on Mars – five million years ago (a race memory that may lay dormant in all of us).  He plans to record these visions via an invention of Roney’s (the optic encephalograph).  It was mentioned in passing a few episodes ago and now we can see that it wasn’t a throwaway moment – as it’ll have a fairly important role in this episode.  When attached to a user, it can record visual impressions in the brain and Quatermass uses it (via Barbara Judd) to record a “wild hunt”.  The Doctor Who story The Ark in Space would later use a very similar device to establish how the insect-like Wirrn came to be aboard the Ark.

Quatermas later arranges for the film to be shown at the War Office, in front of Colonel Breen, the Minster and various other interested parties.  He tells them that “you’re going to see a race purge, a cleansing of the hives.”  The short sequence (a nightmarish series of shots of the insects) is very effectively done (and is as good, if not better, than the similar sequence mounted for the Hammer film a decade later).

The Minister receives it with mild interest (“most curious”) but once more he’s able to rationalise it away.  Miss Judd has been in a nervous and excited state and therefore he considers the pictures to be nothing but hallucinations.  So again Quatermass is unable to make him understand just how dangerous the situation is.  The aliens may have died millions of years ago but there’s still a lingering power remaining – which is able to unleash primal forces.

It’s all to no avail though and that evening the press, radio and television are invited down to the pit.  We switch to film once more for the final few minutes of the episode (so we can guess that another set-piece sequence is about to begin).  This scene is also of interest as we see a typical BBC outside broadcast vehicle and camera (which does demonstrate just how bulky and cumbersome the cameras of this era were).  It’s also nice to see John Scott Martin (who would spend the best part of twenty five years playing many Doctor Who monsters, including the Daleks) as the tv technician.

There’s a cracking confrontation between Quatermass and Breen.  “Is Colonel Breen an imbecile or a coward?  Is Colonel Breen afraid of something, so afraid that he resorts to the thinnest rationalisations?”  Sadly, there’s no time for the argument to heat up any more as there’s been a death inside the capsule.  The last shot is rather oblique – “something” seems to be growing inside the capsule.  But we’ll have to wait until the next and final episode to find out what.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Four – The Enchanted

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The discovery of three insect-like creatures sends Colonel Breen into something of a tale-spin.  His moods have fluctuated wildly so far (although at the end of the last episode he seemed more reasonable and coherent) but coming face to face with these creatures clearly does nothing for his peace of mind.

He asks Roney why, if they’ve been dead more than a few years, they haven’t decomposed.  Quatermass explains to him that the “compartment was sealed.  If the things inside were completely sterile, without bacteria of any kind, they’d be free from corruption.  They could stay in there for a year or a million years.  Remain as they are, unchanged, until our atmosphere got in.  Filthy London air.  Then they’d rot as they have done.”  Needless to say, Breen doesn’t believe him.

Another sign that he’s starting to lose his grip is demonstrated when he orders Potter to eject Fullalove from the pit area.  It’s reasonable that Breen wouldn’t be keen on the presence of the press (although it’s equally understandable that Quatermass is keen for the story to get out) but it’s the way he does it – barking the order to Potter (who looks slightly askance at him) – which is quite telling.

We then move to the museum, where Quatermass and Roney muse over the creatures.  Roney points out that their antennas look somewhat like horns, something which Quatermass finds significant.  “Yes.  The horned demons in those old prints and manuscripts.  Do you remember?  As if that image were somehow projected into men’s minds.  That face, it’s like a gargoyle.  Roney, that’s not just a simile.  Haven’t you seen it before carved on walls in a dozen countries?  Is is somewhere in the subconscious?  A race memory?”

Fullalove’s exclusive – “Monster insects found”! – causes consternation at Whitehall, so Quatermass and Breen are called to the War Office to explain.  This scene demonstrates Kneale’s jaundiced view of politics and government as both Quatermass and Breen offer explanations – and the Minster chooses to believe Breen’s version.  Actually, it’s probable that he didn’t believe it, instead it was the story he felt would be most acceptable to both his political masters and the general public at large.  As the saying goes, in war, truth is the first casualty.

In Quatermass II, the Professor also made various assumptions about the threat that faced them – though back then he didn’t preface his remarks by conceding that he might be wrong.  At least here, Quatermass is a little more honest.  “You’re demanding explanations that I can’t give or prove.  All I can give you are guesses.”  It’s another splendid scene for Morell, who paces around the desk – hands in his waistcoat pockets – as he delivers his theory.  Five million years ago, there may still have been life on Mars.  If the Martians knew their planet was doomed, what would they do in order to perpetuate their existence?

Quatermass’ theory is that, on numerous occasions, they visited the Earth and took ape specimens (which they then experimented upon) before returning them back into the wild.  In time, these augmented apes would become the dominant species, and the Martian influence would live on, but in another race and on another planet.  The Minister isn’t pleased with this – the idea that the human race owes their existence to alien interference would clearly be a hard sell, so Breen’s suggestion that the object is a German V2 weapon (complete with fake aliens to create panic) is much more palatable to him.  This allows him to announce that the panic is over, reports can be distributed to state that the object is a fake and the bomb disposal team can pack up and go home.

But with two episodes to go, we clearly haven’t got to the end yet.  The last four minutes or so of The Enchanted are shot on film and they’re a real highlight of the serial.  Rudolph Cartier’s studio direction was always hamstrung by the bulky and unresponsive television cameras (like all productions of this era, they were slow to manuouvere and couldn’t zoom in or zoom out – that had to be done manually).  But shooting on film allowed him a much greater freedom and it’s the film sequences which contain many memorable and stylish visual images.

Sladden, the last man left in the pit, has entered the capsule to retrive his equipment.  As he’s doing this, Miss Judd comes back to collect her notes from the hut.  Then, as it were, all hell breaks loose.  Objects move by themselves and Sladden is deeply affected by this – exiting the pit in terror.  He has to run in such a way that seems to have been designed to mimic the aliens’ movement (a race memory coming to the fore?).  On the one hand it looks comic, but it’s played totally straight which gives it a sense of menace.  The night-shooting is incredibly evocative and once again we can be grateful that the original film inserts were kept.  Eventually, he ends up in the grounds of a vicarage.  As the lays on the floor (looking for sanctuary?) the ground around him ripples.

It’s a striking sequence, very well performed by Richard Shaw, and once again Nigel Kneale concludes an episode with a memorable cliff-hanger that lives long in the memory.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Three – Imps and Demons

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The unfortunate Private West (John Walker) has seen something strange inside the capsule.  His collapse agitates Breen considerably – it’s another inexplicable happening and therefore something that the Colonel hasn’t been trained to deal with.  But it is interesting to see that later in the episode he does calm down and his relationship with Quatermass, whilst still a little spiky, is more settled.

Quatermass is intrigued by the composition of the capsule.  “Ceramic material of some kind, resistant to heat to over three thousand degrees, harder than diamond.  It’s what every rocket engineer has been searching for.  A heatproof casing to get through the earth’s atmosphere.”  Although the inference is plain that this is some kind of spaceship, it’s not overtly spelled out at this time – as with six episodes to play with, there’s no need to rush.  Quatermass is also able to mock Breen’s faint hope that it may be a German device.  “You think the Germans made it in 1940 and then lost the secret?  Ask them.  Ask von Braun.”

Observing the activity around the capsule, Corporal Gibson (Harold Goodwin) wonders if Quatermass knows what he’s doing and decides that “he doesn’t.  None of ’em do this time.”  This is quite true as Quatermass is as much in the dark as everybody else.  By the time we reach the end of the story we’ll be able to consider just what the cost of Quatermass’ scientific curiosity was.  He wants to see inside the sealed chamber (as does Breen) and it’s this desire which causes all the problems from hereon in.  But, of course, had he not then the story would have been a good deal shorter!

Quatermass and Breen agree that a borazon drill might have a chance of making an impression on the door.  It would mean hiring a civilian contractor, but it’s judged to be worth the risk.  Sladden (Richard Shaw) turns up and prepares to set to work.  He’s a cheerful chap, although subsequent events wipe the smile off his face somewhat, especially in the next episode.  Sladden’s initial drilling certainly generates a reaction – creating an unearthly sound which affects everybody – especially Sladden, Quatermass and Breen.  Quatermass grabs Roney and leaves the pit area in a hurry, urging Potter to tell Breen not to continue with the drilling until he returns.

Whilst this is going on, the press (in the shape of James Fullalove) begin to take more of an interest.  The character of Fullalove had featured in The Quatermass Experiment and it had been hoped that Paul Whitson-Jones would reprise the role, but as he was unavailable Brian Worth took over.  Fullalove attaches himself to Quatermass and Roney and the three of them set off to do some research.  In the previous episode, we saw how Hobbs Lane had featured in the newspapers (back in 1927) when the story of the ghost surfaced.  Imps and Demons delves even further back into the past as it becomes clear that mysterious sightings and disturbances have been recorded for centuries, dating back to medieval times.

Returning to the pit, Quatermass finds that a hole has been made in the capsule, but not by Sladden – it just simply appeared.  Breen is still attempting to find a logical explanation for this strange occurrence.  “I suppose the vibrations of the drill must have affected all this material in some way.”  But even he can’t explain what he sees within the chamber.  He allows Quatermass to look and the Professor is equally surprised and shocked – there’s a telling moment between the two of them (for once, we see no bluster from Breen – he simply has to accept the evidence of his own eyes).

When the door is finally opened, the occupants of the capsule are exposed for the first time in five million years.  Quatermass reassures Breen.  “It’s all right.  They’re dead.  They’ve been dead for a long time.”  It’s another striking cliff-hanger which only adds another layer of mystery to the story.  If the strange inhabitants are dead, where do the centuries worth of disturbances emanate from?