The Brothers – Series Six. Simply Media DVD Review

Series six kicks off in a typically confrontational way as Edward (Patrick O’Connell) clashes with Merroney over Brian’s future. Will Brian be welcomed back onto the board? Edward wants a fair deal for his brother and – possibly surprisingly – Merroney concurs. But the reason he gives is sure to put Edward’s back up. “Because of the three of you, he’s the only true professional”.

Colin Baker still looks as if he’s enjoying himself enormously as Merroney continues to call the tune, forcing the others to dance to it. His relationship with Brian (Richard Easton) has always been complex.  He values Brian’s business acumen and knows that Brian likes him personally (which has helped create a bond between them) but it’s also plain that Merroney would drop him like a stone if he proved to be unreliable.

Somewhat Godot like, Brian has an influence over events even when he’s not on screen. The series opener, Red Sky At Night, begins with the others awaiting his return. But when he’s not on Don Stacey’s charter-flight there’s concern all round. Where is he? Is his absence further evidence of his unreliability?

When Brian (still sporting the impressive moustache he grew last year) does reappear, it’s telling that it’s Merroney he goes to see. Although both David (Robin Chadwick) and Edward have fought for their brother’s interests in their own ways, Brian clearly feels more comfortable with somebody outside of the family.

Colin Baker, Robin Chadwick and Derek Benfield

Brian’s gradual reintegration back into the business is a running theme during these early episodes as is the question of Jennifer (Jennifer Wilson) and Edward’s adopted baby, William. When the baby’s real mother decides she wants him back, Jennifer starts to feel the strain. One has to wonder why Jennifer and Edward didn’t legally adopt the child (William was abandoned by her mother six months earlier but she now feels more confident that she can look after him).

Our sympathy should be with Jennifer, but there’s something more than a little off-putting about her manic determination to hang onto William whatever it takes. Jennifer Wilson plays these scenes well and since her character’s usually so level-headed and sensible it’s an interesting change to see her put under pressure for once.

Jennifer is happy to cast William’s natural mother, Pat Hawkins (Elaine Donnelly), in a poor light, but that’s not the impression most will get when they hear her story. “Look, I’m just a girl from the local estate, okay? And I got a baby. And I couldn’t explain to my mum and dad why I wanted to keep him. So I did the only thing I could do and I gave him away”.

One might raise an eyebrow at the revelation that Pat’s husband, Alan (Ian Marter), works for Hammonds. Something of a remarkable coincidence it must be said, but this does allow Edward to be pushed over the edge a little further (like Jennifer Wilson, Patrick O’Connell seems to relish these dramatic scenes). Plus it’s always a pleasure to see the late Ian Marter, even in a small role like this.

Jennifer Wilson & Patrick O’Connell

Carleton Hobbs makes a welcome reappearance as Sir Neville Henniswode (Hobbs had appeared in series four but was presumably unavailable for series five, which led to Llewellyn Rees taking over the role). Hobbs had a decent film and television career but for me – and I’m sure for many others – he’ll forever be the definitive radio Sherlock Holmes. Just to hear the timbre of his voice is enough to conjure up images of foggy streets and Hansom Cabs ….

One of the more unlikely developing plotlines concerns the relationship between Sir Neville and Mary Hammond (Jean Anderson), the imposing matriarch of the family. At least this enables Mary to get out of the house every so often and therefore makes a nice change from her usual scenes (which tend to consist of her chivvying one or more of her sons).  Since both David and Brian are currently living with her at the family home, she’s got ample opportunity to fuss around them.

The first half of series six sees the Hammonds struggling to balance their work/private lives. Brian is still finding his way back to fitness slowly, David has never been terribly business minded anyway, whilst Edward and Jennifer are more concerned with the fallout from William’s departure than they are with Hammond Transport.

This leaves Merroney in a strong position, although Bill Riley (Derek Benfield) for one isn’t prepared to roll over for him. Bill’s rise through the ranks has been an entertaining running thread over the last few series. Initially he was a little diffident at board meetings – due to his elevation from the shop floor – but by this point he’s more then happy to speak his mind.

Derek Benfield

He’s matched in the common-sense stakes by his wife Gwen (Margaret Ashcroft). Whilst the majority of the characters in The Brothers are middle-class or higher, the Rileys are resolutely working-class and proud of it. It would be easy for them to be portrayed in a patronising light, but this doesn’t happen – meaning that there’s something charming in the way they enjoy the simple pleasures of life (an evening game of Scrabble, for instance). But they’ve not immune to pressure and Bill’s increasing workload will be seen to have a negative effect on their marriage.

Merroney’s private secretary Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam) still finds that her loyalty is divided between Merroney and David. With neither man in a regular relationship, both are content to use her as a dinner companion and confidant. Although Clare is a character designed to react to others rather than instigate her own plotlines, Mowlam still manages to give Clare a spiky sense of humour, ensuring she’s more than the cardboard character she otherwise could have been.

During S5, Merroney seemed mainly to exist in order to thwart the Hammonds at every turn. But throughout this run of episodes he’s more nuanced – whereas previously he was totally dedicated to Sir Neville and the bank, now he confesses that he’s beginning to side with the Hammonds over certain matters. Although on other occasions he’s quite prepared to steam-roller right through them, if he can ….

Brian also shows some unexpected facets to his personality (since his breakdown he’s become a more relaxed and far-thinking person). At one point he expresses his new personal philosophy. “You’ve got to feel that what you’re doing is really worth doing. Nobody makes money except the Mint. All the rest of us do is push it around a bit, trying to make sure that we get a little more than the next man. But it’s not wealth. Wealth is enriching. Making money is just debilitating. In the end it leads to a sense of personal isolation”.

When David finds himself rejected by Clare in episode eight  – The Chosen Victim – it serves as something of a wake-up call for him. All his life he’s been able to get whatever he wanted (until Clare). Will this make him a more rounded and less arrogant character? It’ll be interesting to see if his growth continues next series.

Paul Merroney and Jane Maxwell (Kate O’Mara) fractious relationship shows no sign of abating. At one point she tells him he’s “one of the lowest forms of life I’ve ever come across”. But when you learn that Merroney was castigating Jane’s ex-husband, the hard-drinking pilot Don Stacey (Mike Pratt) at the time, it’s easy to understand the reason for her anger.

Kate O’Mara

Don bows out of the series in the sixth episode, Tender (broadcast just a few months before Pratt’s death at the age of 45). Pratt’s gaunt appearance gave the running plotline of Don’s impending medical exam a bitter irony. “Sooner or later they’ll find something that creaks or groans or doesn’t react fast enough and that’s it. You can keep as fit as you like, but Anno Domini gets you in the end”. Don didn’t do a great deal (although his leaving scene was a powerful one) but he was always an amusing character and Pratt, even though he was clearly ailing, always played him with an agreeable twinkle in his eye.

As series six moves towards its conclusion, several familiar faces pop up. Clive Swift plays the shifty Trevelyan whilst Joby Blanshard (best known as the plain-speaking Colin Bradley from Doomwatch) appears as Van der Merwe.

After being somewhat subdued in the early episodes, Edward roars back into life (few sights are more impressive than that of Patrick O’Connell in full flight) whilst Brian and Jane seem to be forming something of an alliance, both personally and professionally. But Brian’s wounded psyche (he has a fear of being touched) might be a problem. Richard Easton, as so often throughout all six series, impresses here.

The sight of April Winter (Liza Goddard) who briefly appears in the penultimate installment – The Bonus – signifies that change is on the way for Merroney. His offhand comment that she’s his fiancee is a real leftfield jolt – although April’s been mentioned on several occassions (which has prepared the ground for her arrival) it’s hard to imagine the coldly efficient Merroney ever being in love. Clare is crushed by the news. Bill later tells Gwen that “the torch that girl carries for him makes the Statue of Liberty look like a candle”.

Hammond Transport has undergone substantial changes over the last few years, morphing from a wholly-owned family concern into a company with strong ties to the bank (where Sir Neville and Merroney reign). But it’s the proposed takeover bid from Kirkmans which threatens to split the Hammond family down the middle. Some, like David, would be happy to sell their shares for a handsome profit whilst Edward (and especially Mary) are resolutely opposed to the deal.

When Merroney goes AWOL (he’s in Amsterdam, meeting with Van der Merwe) the others (especially Edward) are concerned that he’s plotting behind their back. His adventures in Amsterdam are great fun, adding a touch of out-of-season glamour to the series. The sight of his discomforted face as Van der Merwe’s daughter whisks him round Amsterdam at great speed in an open-top jeep is worth the price of admission alone.

The series finale – Birthday – might be partly concerned with Mary’s birthday celebrations but business matters are also on her mind. The takeover from Kirkmans may have foundered but a merger with Van der Merwe’s company is still very much on. But Mary, frustrated at being out of the loop, begins to flex her muscles. As with previous years, the final episode finishes on a strong hook which will lead in nicely to the start of the next series.

The Brothers remains a very moreish and ridiculously entertaining series.  Richard Easton and Colin Baker especially impress, but there’s no weak links here.  Four decades on it’s still easy to see why the show built up such a large and devoted fanbase (not only in the UK but in many other countries as well).  Sharply defined and well-acted characters, placed in perpetual conflict with each other was a key part to its success and the passing of time has done nothing to dull this winning format.

The Brothers – Series Six is released on the 12th of June 2017 by Simply Media and contains thirteen 50 minute episodes across four discs.  RRP £29.99.

Patrick O’Connell, Jennifer Wilson, Richard Easton, Jean Anderson & Robin Chadwick

The Brothers – Series Five. Simply Media DVD Review

The beginning of series five finds The Brothers in something of a transitional phase.  Two key cast members (Gabrielle Drake and Hilary Tindall) had left the show at the end of the previous run, although fresh blood (most notably in the shape of Kate O’Mara as Jane Maxwell) would shortly arrive to shake things up.

The departures of both Drake (Jill Hammond) and Tindall (Ann Hammond) were used to good dramatic effect though.  Ann and Brian had gone through the relationship mill during the previous series and even though their union was now at an end, Brian continues to suffer.  But his broken marriage is just one reason why he goes severely off the rails in the early episodes.

Although Tindall was gone, her character was still alive and therefore a return was always possible (and  indeed Ann did make a fleeting reappearance in a handful of episodes at the start of the seventh and final series).  But Drake wasn’t so fortunate, as Jill is dispatched in the time-honoured way of dealing with soap actors who either can’t or won’t carry on (an off-screen accident).  Talking about this decades later in The Cult of The Brothers documentary, it seems that Drake was a little taken aback at just how ruthlessly Jill was dealt with.

Another character, Martin Farrell, had also left, which results in both personal and professional consequences.  Professionally, it means that the position of chairman is vacant – which seems tailor-made for the ambitious Paul Merroney.

And on a more personal note, it was plain that Edward Hammond’s nose was put out of joint last series by the interest Farrell had been taking in Jennifer Kingsley.  So with Farrell out of the picture, Edward rekindles his own relationship with her.  Lest we forget, Jennifer carried on a lengthy and clandestine affair with Edward’s late father.  Unsurprisingly this meant she has always been viewed with great disfavour by Edward’s mother – the indomitable matriarch Mary Hammond – but it seems that Edward has eventually summoned up the courage to defy his mother and make an honest woman out of Jennifer.  Although I’m sure there’s still going to be a few bumps ahead before they can enjoy a lifetime of wedded bliss.

The series opener, the aptly titled Life Goes On, finds Brian in a pretty poor state. This concerns the bank – they don’t want to see their investment in Hammonds put at risk because the new managing director is feeling flaky – but Paul Merroney has put plans in motion to protect their money ….

Although Merroney was a rather peripheral character during the last series, here he really starts to make his mark. For one thing, he’s gained an assistant – Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam). Apart from signifying Merroney’s increasing significance, Clare also emerges as a character in her own right – becoming close to David, for example.

Baker’s good value in these early episodes as Merroney begins his manoeuvres. Surprisingly, only the bluff Bill Riley realises that Merroney has his eye on the chairman’s job – which doesn’t say much for the business acumen of the others! There’s a delicious sense of duplicity on show from Merroney as he puts the blame for the recent ousting of Edward as managing director firmly on the shoulders of the departed (and innocent) Farrell.

The way the audience learns about Jill’s death is done in a very interesting way which makes a positive out of the fact that Gabrielle Drake was no longer a member of the cast.  Jill isn’t mentioned during most of the first episode, although that wasn’t unusual (she was absent from the first few episodes of series four).  It’s only right at the end of Life Goes On, when David runs into a friend who’s been out of town for several months that we find out Jill is dead.  This is an incredibly jolting moment which provides us with a strong hook into the next episode where her fate is discussed in detail.

The dynamic between the three brothers – Edward, Brian and David – has been the motor which has powered the series to date.  Whilst series five continues to play on their conflicts, the emergence of Paul Merroney as a major player refreshes this somewhat – as an outsider he has quite a different set of loyalties.

But the brothers still dominate the storylines especially, in the early episodes, Brian.  In many ways he’s now got everything he wished for – he’s become managing director of Hammonds, ousting Edward.  Or has he?  We’d seen in previous series that it was Ann who was the ambitious one, constantly pushing him forward.  So the fact that he’s gained in business but lost out in his personal life must come as a bitter irony to him.

Richard Easton continues to impress as Brian, especially when he starts to lose the plot (the episode title Breakdown makes it fairly obvious what’s going to happen).  As his drinking increases, Brian is encouraged to seek psychiatric help.  And always around is Merroney, plotting to oust Brian at one point and then (so the others fear) attempting to buy Brian’s shares so he can gain overall control of the company. But as we’ll see, Merroney is no cardboard villain – he may be mainly motivated by self interest but he’s also not without compassion for the stricken Brian.

As Brian, ensconced in a nursing home, retreats into the background, so other plotlines begin to develop.  The long-running will they/won’t they relationship between Edward and Jennifer is now very much back in “they will” territory and moves forward at a rate of knots.  The problem with Mary (Jean Alexander, as good as always) still has to be overcome though, as the icy disdain she feels towards the woman who conducted a long-term affair with her late husband continues to be a fruitful source of drama.  Even when Mary and Jennifer appear to be on civil terms there’s always the sense that at any moment things could change ….

Although the departure of both Hilary Tindall and Gabrielle Drake left something of a hole, two new female characters filled the gap nicely.  Clare’s divided loyalties (between David and Merroney) generate a good source of drama which plays out as the series progresses whilst Kate O’Mara makes an immediate impression as Jane Maxwell.  Debuting in episode six, Flight of Fancy, Jane is the hard-headed director of an air-freight business which Hammonds have an interest in.  As a proactive business woman she’s something of a rarity in the world of The Brothers (Jennifer might be a board member of Hammonds, but she’s a much more passive character).

Also appearing for the first time in this episode is Mike Pratt as Don Stacey, a hard-drinking pilot.  This would be Pratt’s final television role before his death in 1976 at the age of just 45.  Don would appear throughout the remainder of series five and the first half of series six. Whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Pratt, it’s rather tempered by how ill and haggard he looks.

Yet again, things conclude in the boardroom (episode thirteen, Warpath) as Merroney continues to scheme although it’s possible that in Jane he’s finally met his match (a decade or so later Baker and O’Mara would once again lock horns, this time in Doctor Who).  With Edward under pressure and Brian’s fate still uncertain, things are left nicely poised for the following series to pick up where this one left off.

By now, The Brothers had become a well-oiled machine and series five not only manages to develop the existing characters in a variety of ways but it also develops intriguing new ones as well.  It continues to be highly addictive stuff, especially as the Hammonds, Merroney and Jane jostle for power and superiority.  But there’s time for more personal stories as well (Jennifer’s longing for another child) which ensures that the series isn’t completely boardroom and business based.

The Brothers – Series Five is released by Simply Media on the 27th of March 2017.  RRP £29.99.

1990 – Series One. Simply Media DVD Review

1990, which ran for two seasons during 1977 and 1978, was set in a Britain tyrannised by the Public Control Department (PCD), a Home Office organisation dedicated to crushing free speech and any other signs of dissent.  Given the parlous state of Britain during the 1970’s, it wasn’t surprising to find a series which posited what might happen if the economy finally and irrevocably disintegrated.  And given the way things are today, many of 1990‘s themes seem eerily topical  ….

Some background to the collapse is teased out as the series progresses.  We learn that the country went bankrupt in 1983, which led to a series of swingeing restrictions from the newly-formed PCD.  These included strict rationing – not only of food, but also of housing and other essential services.  Virtually everything has been nationalised, meaning that the government has almost complete control.  Dissidents are harshly dealt with – via Adult Rehabilitation Centres – where they are treated with electro-convulsive therapy.

1990 is a grim place then, but there are still a few people attempting to resist the state.  One is Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward), a journalist on The Star, one of the last independent newspapers. The PCD, in the form of Controller Herbert Skardon (Robert Lang) and his two deputies, Delly Lomas (Barbara Kellerman) and Henry Tasker (Clifton Jones), keep him under close surveillance, which leads to a tense battle of nerves.

Robert Lang, Barbara Kellerman and Clifton Jones

Series creator Wilfred Greatorex (1922–2002) started his career writing for Probation Officer (1962) and quickly moved onto The Plane Makers (1963 – 1965) and its sequel The Power Game (1966 – 1969) where he acted as the script-editor.  Character conflict was key to both The Plane Makers and The Power Game and it’s plain to see that a similar format was carried over to 1990.  The heart of the series is concerned with the way the main characters (especially Kyle, Skardon and Lomas) interact.

Edward Woodward (1930 – 2009) had been acting since the mid 1950’s but it was Callan (1967 – 1972) which really established him as a household name.  His success as the world-weary state-sponsored killer allowed him to diversify (pursing his love of singing in The Edward Woodward Hour, for example) whilst cult films like The Wicker Man (1973) enhanced his profile even more.  Woodward was a quality actor and his central performance is one of the reasons why 1990 works as well as it does.

The series opened with Greatorex’s Creed of Slaves (“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves” – William Pitt the Younger).  Kyle is penning a piece for his newspaper on the Adult Rehabilitation Centres (ARCs) which causes Skardon considerable irritation.  But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg as Kyle is also part of an organisation dedicated to smuggling people out of the country ….

There’s more than a little touch of 1984 about the series of course (Greatorex referred to it as 1984 plus six).   This is particularly evident in the opening few minutes as we observe how the PCD are able to monitor everybody, both visually and aurally, although wise old hands like Kyle are able to give them the slip with embarrassing ease.  The relationship between Kyle and the members of the PCD is already well established before the episode begins and it’s his interaction with Delly Lomas which particularly intrigues.  Since Skardon mentions that Kyle likes her cooking, it’s plain that, despite the fact they’re on different sides, there appears to be some sort of spark between them.  Or are both simply playing games? At one point Kyle directs this comment to her. “How do you look like you do and do the job that you do?”

Edward Woodward & Barbara Kellerman

The next episode, When Did You Last See Your Father?, continues one of the plotlines from episode one, concerning Dr Vickers (Donald Gee), a man who is keen to take his wife and family out of the UK. This proves to be impossible via official means, as exit visas are severely restricted.

The banality of evil runs throughout the series. On the one hand, Skardon, Lomas and Tasker are simply bureaucrats doing a job (in their minds they no doubt see themselves on the side of law and order). It’s this blurring between “good” and “evil” which is so compelling – the PCD may be oppressive, but their public face can appear to be reasonable. This is key – if you can keep the nastiness buried then maybe you stand a chance of fooling most of the people.

The first non-Greateorex script, Health Farm, stars the imposing Welsh actor Ray Smith as union leader Charles Wainwright.  Following a disastrous trip to America in which he gave a speech littered with criticisms of the British government, Wainwright is sent to an ARC for “correction”.  The shocking change in him (from the firebrand we first meet to an adjusted patient keen to toe the party line) brings home the true horror of the ARCs.

Strong guest stars continue to appear throughout the remainder of series one, such as Graham Crowden as Sondeberg in Decoy and Richard Hurndall as Avery in Voice from the Past.

The last two episodes – Witness and Non-Citizen ramp up the conflict between Kyle and the PCD. Dr Vickers, who escaped from the UK in episode two with Kyle’s help, is persuaded to return in order to testify in a show-trial against Kyle – if he does then his family will be granted exit visas.  Prior to the trial (featuring John Bennett as the prosecutor) Kyle’s office and home are targeted by PCD thugs, which causes distress to his wife Maggie (Patricia Garwood) and children.  Woodward gives a typically powerful performance, especially when Kyle finds his family are under threat.

Edward Woodward

Series one concluded with Non-Citizen. Considering how much of a thorn Kyle has been in the PCD’s side, it’s odd they’ve taken so long to decisively deal with him. But here at last they finally seem to have broken him. With his family missing, no money, no job, no home and no status, Kyle is pushed to the limit by a sadistic Skardon. It’s not surprising that Woodward once again excels here.

Although the themes of the first series of 1990 tapped into contemporary fears and neuroses, it’s fascinating how most of it still remains topical some forty years on.  The official face presented in 1990 appears to be fair and reasonable – tribunals are held which claim to offer the public an unbiased hearing and the ARC we visit is located in a palatial country home with well-manicured lawns – but scratch a little beneath the surface and it’s plain there’s something very rotten in this state.  You don’t need jackbooted guards on every street corner to create a true sense of fear, there are far more subtle ways than that ….

The way that language, spin and bureaucracy are all utilised in order to obfuscate the truth is especially instructive.  When you hear a politician complaining that the press, in the shape of Kyle, is spreading disinformation and therefore creating disharmony about the state of the economy (i.e. disseminating fake news) then the parallels to the modern world are perfectly clear.  In many ways 1990 is something of a chess game with all the major players – especially Kyle and Lomas – engaged in a game of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre.

Barbara Kellerman & Edward Woodward

As I’ve said, Edward Woodward is a fine leading man whilst Barbara Kellerman and Robert Lang (who receive second and third billing) offer strong support.  The gravelly-voiced Lang graced many a film and television programme with his presence and is perfect as the harassed mandarin Tasker whilst Kellerman (possibly best known for playing the White Witch in the 1980’s BBC production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) is intriguing as Della, the apparently acceptable face of the PCD.  Kellerman didn’t return for series two, which was a shame, although this did allow the format to be shaken up a little.

Interviewed by the Radio Times prior to the broadcast of the first episode, Woodward said that the series was “either going to create a furore or pass without comment” (Radio Times, 17th September 1977).  Although it didn’t quite go unnoticed, the fact it was tucked away on BBC2 was probably part of the reason why it never became a mainstream hit. But it clearly impressed enough to be renewed for a second series.

Although largely forgotten today, 1990 is a series which deserves to be much better known, especially since its power to disturb and unsettle remains undimmed after forty years.  It’s pleasing to have the first series available on DVD, with the second to follow in May, and for those who appreciate well-crafted British character drama of the seventies it’s certain to appeal.

1990 – Series One is released by Simply Media on the 20th of March 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Three

treasure-03-01

Most of the crew have decided to throw their hand in with Silver.  Most, but not all.  One whose loyalty remains undecided is Tom (Derrick Slater).  He knows and respects Silver of old, but will he elect to join the others in mutiny?

The question of Tom’s allegiance brings the character of Silver into sharp focus.  Silver is fond of Tom and seeks to win him over – to this end, along with some of the others they make for the island (leaving Smollett, Livesey and the others aboard the Hispaniola, guarded by a small number of pirates).  Silver believes that away from the ship he’ll be able to talk Tom round.

Given all the quality character actors seen throughout the serial, it’s slightly surprising that the relatively undistinguished Slater was given this role.  True, Tom’s screentime is very limited, but since the confrontation between Silver and Tom allows us – and Jim – a chance to witness Silver’s ruthless side, it’s therefore a pity that Slater’s performance is on the lifeless side.

Tom tells Silver that “you’re old and honest too, or has the name for it. And you’ve money, which many a poor sailor hasn’t. Brave too, or I’m mistook. You tell me why you let yourself be led away by that kind of mess of swabs.”  During this monologue Silver has lain a friendly arm on him, but pulls away once he realises that Tom won’t be won over.  With a horrified Jim watching from his hiding place close by, Silver stabs Tom to death.  Given that the battle seen later in the episode is fairly bloody, it’s interesting that Tom’s murder occurs off camera.  We see Silver stabbing something, but we never see what it is.

Captain Smollett and the others make their way ashore.  Smollett really begins to take charge (Richard Beale is first class during these scenes) and they elect to use Flint’s old stockade as their base.  But even before they’ve secured it there’s a brief battle and Squire Trelawney’s loyal servant, Tom Redruth (Royston Tickner), lies dying.

Tom’s barely had a handful of lines, but he does get a good death scene.  Up until now it seems as if the Squire hasn’t really grasped the reality of the situation – it’s been little more than a game to him (finding a ship, employing a tailor to make him the grandest uniform, etc).  It takes the death of a loyal family retainer, someone uprooted from his settled life in Britain and fated to die a lonely death on a distant island far away from his family, to bring him back to reality.  He asks Tom to forgive him (and is insistent that he does so).  Tom, loyal to the last, insists there’s nothing to forgive and, as Trelawney recites the Lord’s Prayer, Tom gently slips away.  Beautifully played by both Tickner and Thorley Walters.

We meet Ben Gunn (Paul Copley).  He’s Irish and speaks in a remarkably high pitched voice, which is a little odd.  But then Ben Gunn’s supposed to be odd (what with his cheese fixation) and after a while his voice lowers a little, so a little bit of normality is restored.  His cave – a studio set – looks very good (another design triumph for Graham Oakley).

John Dearth was one of those utility actors who was always worth watching, even in the smallest of roles.  He was a regular during the first series of the ITC Richard Greene Robin Hood’s, playing a different role each week (and sometimes two in the same episode!)  Various personal problems meant that he later sometimes found work hard to come by, but he was lucky to have several loyal supporters – one of whom was Barry Letts.  Both Briant and Letts had directed him in Doctor Who, so like many of the cast it’s not unexpected that he turns up here.  Dearth’s character (Jeb) mainly seems to exist in order to stress how dangerous Silver is – Jeb states that the only man the vicious Captain Flint ever feared was Long John Silver.

I’ve already touched upon how good Richard Beale has been and he’s never better than in the scene where Smollett and Silver face off.  Both have their own set of demands and neither is prepared to give the other any quarter.  Alfred Burke switches from smiling affability to snarling disdain in a heartbeat.  This then leads into the sequence where the pirates attempt to storm the stockade.  It’s slightly jarring that the outside is on film whilst the stockade interior is on videotape – the rapid switching between the two is a slight problem.

But no matter, Michael E. Briant still manages to choreograph a decent action sequence with a liberal dose of blood (nothing explicit, but it still manages to create the impression that a short – and brutal – battle has taken place).  The pirates are beaten back, which infuriates Silver – so he elects to send for reinforcements from the ship ….

treasure-03-02

Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Two

treasure-02-01

Since Treasure Island is packed with character actors of distinction, it’s easy to overlook the young actor who played Jim Hawkins.  But Ashley Knight more than holds his own amongst such august company, possessing just the right amount of youthful spirit and innocence.

That he’s deceived by Silver shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since Long John also managed to fool Squire Trelawney (Thorley Walters).  But, to be fair, fooling the Squire probably wasn’t too tricky for Silver, as Trelawney (as per Stevenson’s novel) is portrayed as the sort of trusting, loose-mouthed individual you really wouldn’t want to entrust with the delicate matter of finding a ship and crew to sail to the Spanish Main in search of buried treasure.  Walters is a delight as the Squire, he may be pompous and vain but he’s also curiously lovable.

The way that Silver manipulates Trelawney into engaging him as the ship’s cook and then agrees that he can handpick the crew provides us with another opportunity to witness the apparently charming and helpful side of Silver (although he’s only serving his own interests of course).  His charm is seen again when the wily Long John takes Jim under his wing.  There’s no reason why Silver should seek to deceive Jim, which leads us to assume that his friendly stories have no ulterior motive.  But there’s a sting in the tail – at the same time he’s regaling Jim with yarns about the sea, Silver is planning to murder Trelawney, Livesey and Captain Smollett (Richard Beale) and anyone else who stands in his way.

Would he also do the same to Jim?  It’s not explicitly stated, but he does confide to Israel (the ever-watchable Patrick Troughton) that he doesn’t intend to leave any witnesses, so we can pretty much take it as read.  This dichotomy in Long John’s character is what makes him so fascinating – the other pirates make little or no attempt to hide their evil intent, but it’s the way that Silver can wear different masks at different times that makes him such an enduringly appealing creation.  And of course, in the hands of an actor as good as Alfred Burke it’s just a pleasure to watch.

Not all of the crew are content, like Silver, to wait for the right time to make their move, some want action now.  Prime amongst the malcontents is Merry (Roy Boyd) who paces the ship with a murderous look on his face, but you get the feeling that he’s never going to be any sort of match for Long John.

During this era of television, directors tended to have a “rep” of actors who they employed on a regular basis.  If you’re familiar with some of Michael E. Briant’s previous productions then names such as Roy Evans, Richard Beale, Royston Tickner and Alec Wallis will be familiar ones.  Alec Wallis has a nice little cameo as Patmore, a corrupt tailor who Silver deliberately sends along to Trelawney, just so he can denounce him before the Squire and therefore gain his trust.  Beale is suitably upright as the incorruptible Smollett, a man who sets to sea with the gravest misgivings about the crew (a pity nobody listened to him).

Before the ship sets sail there are several scenes which take place within the Squire’s cabin.  Thanks to a very simple CSO effect (bobbing waves outside the cabin window) the illusion at being on the water is created very effectively.  But there’s no substitute for the real thing and it’s the later filmwork aboard the Hispaniola, as it makes it way towards Treasure Island, which really opens up the production.

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Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part One

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Treasure Island, an evergreen classic of children’s literature for more than a century, has generated more film, television and radio adaptations than you could shake a cutlass at.  But even though there’s many versions to chose from, this one (broadcast in four episodes on BBC1 in 1977) has to rank amongst the very best.

Like the majority of the BBC Classic Serials from the sixties, seventies and eighties, the adaptation (this one from John Lucarotti) displays considerable fidelity to the original source material, although Lucarotti is unafraid to build upon the original narrative.  In a way this isn’t surprising, since the book was told from Jim’s perspective it’s inevitable that it has a somewhat restricted viewpoint.

Lucarotti’s additions begin right from the start, as Jim’s father, Daniel (Terry Scully), someone who merited only a handful of mentions in Stevenson’s original, is fleshed out into a substantial character.  Scully excelled at playing people who suffered – he had one of those faces which could express a world of pain – and Daniel is no exception.  Daniel is clearly far from well and concern that he’s unable to provide for his family is uppermost in his mind.  So the arrival of Billy Bones (Jack Watson) seems to offer a chance to extricate himself from his financial problems.

Watson’s excellent as Bones.  With his weather-beaten face and the addition of a wicked-looking scar, he’s perfect as the rough, tough, seaman with a secret.  Bones’ decision to recruit Daniel (an invention of Lucarotti’s) is quite a neat idea, since it explains how Long John Silver and the others came to learn where Bones was (Daniel heads off to secure passage for himself and Bones to the Caribbean, not realising that Silver is monitoring the port for any unusual activity).

Lucarotti also elects to bring Silver and his confederates into the story very early, making it plain that Bones has absconded with something of great value that they’d all like back.  If you love British archive television of this era then the sight of Silver’s gang will no doubt warm the cockles of your heart (step forward David Collings, Patrick Troughton, Stephen Greif and Talfryn Thomas amongst others).

Alfred Burke’s Long John Silver impresses right from the off.  He doesn’t have Robert Newton’s eye-rolling intensity, nor does he have Brian Blessed’s physical presence – but what Burke’s Silver does possess is great charm and a rare skill at manipulating others to do his will.  But although he seems pleasant enough to begin with, it doesn’t take long before he demonstrates his true colours.

Bones’ run-in with Doctor Livesey (Anthony Bate) is kept intact from the original.  Bate is yet another wonderful addition to the cast and Livesey’s stand-off with Bones is a highlight of the episode.  Lucarotti’s subplot of Daniel’s doomed night-time misadventure slots into the original story very well, as it explains why his health suddenly took a turn for the worse, which then resulted in his death shortly afterwards.

A member of Silver’s gang, Black Dog (Christopher Burgess), arrives to confront Bones.  Burgess was a favourite actor of the producer, Barry Letts, so it’s maybe not too much of a surprise that he turns up.  He and Watson step outside (and therefore onto film) for a duel, which leads to Bones’ stroke.  Watson’s particularly fine as the bedridden Bones, suffering nightmares accrued from the horrors of a life spent on the high seas and dreading the arrival of the black spot.

David Collings’ nicely judged cameo as the malevolent Blind Pew is yet another highlight from a consistently strong opening episode.

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Blakes 7 – Headhunter

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The previous episode, Animals, established the concept that Avon is keen to recruit a whole group of experts to join him in his fight against the Federation.  Alas, Justin didn’t make it the end of that episode, I wonder if top cybernetics expert Muller (John Westbrook) will fare any better here?  Gosh, that’s a tough one …..

Tarrant and Vila have drawn the short straw of escorting Muller back to base.  Tarrant teleports down to the rendezvous, but it seems obvious that Muller’s colleagues don’t want him to leave (there’s a dead body under the table, although Muller himself seems unharmed).  Tarrant takes a cursory look at the body but seems to miss the obvious point, mentioned later, that the corpse is missing its head.  You’d have thought a small thing like that would be easy to spot, but clearly not.

Muller is a man of peace, something confirmed by Vena (Lynda Bellingham) who’s back at base with Avon, Dayna and Soolin.  But when they teleport back to Scorpio, Muller goes crazy and attempts to bear-hug Tarrant to death.  Vila gives Muller a tap on the shoulder with a monkey-wrench which apparently kills him.  Muller’s brief homicidal interlude is one of several (I assume unintentional) comic highlights.

Muller went mad after Tarrant brought back a box from Muller’s workshop.  After we learn of the headless corpse it seems obvious that the box contains Muller’s head, but not so, the truth is even stranger.  Muller’s android killed his creator, cut off his head and put it on his own, android, body.  Quite why the apparently peace-loving Muller would have created a homicidal android (who incidentally wants to enslave all human life) is anyone’s guess.  But it explains the faux-Muller’s strange dress sense and robotic delivery.

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Poor Lynda Bellingham isn’t very well served by the script.  Vena spends most of her time moping that her loved one is dead, only to briefly spring back into life when it appears that he isn’t.  But her joy is short-lived as the android with Muller’s head then bear-hugs her to death.  It’s not a very dignified way to go I’m afraid.

So far, so strange, but the best is yet to come.  During the last fifteen minutes or so, Muller’s head drops off – meaning that we’re able to enjoy the vision of a headless android stomping around Xenon base, threatening to kill everyone.  There can be few funnier sights in all of B7‘s 52 episodes.

I also have to mention the wonderfully expressive hand acting from Nick Joseph who plays the headless android.  When you don’t have a head it’s hard to get your point across, so Joseph elects to waggle his hands and arms in a very emphatic fashion.  Another great comedy moment.

Muller was a protégé of Ensor, which means that Muller’s android is keen to join up with Orac in order to fulfil his dream of universal domination.  Quite how one android hopes to dominate all life is another of those small plot points which never gets adequately explained, but it does give Peter Tuddenham the chance to do a little more with Orac for once.  And indeed also with Slave, who subtly changes from servile to surly as the mysterious effect of Muller’s android takes hold.

Since Headhunter only features the regulars plus Muller and Vena, everyone – even the rather underwritten-to-date Soolin – gets a chance for a decent share of the action.  Paul Darrow elects to intone his lines with the sort of distracted, far-away delivery which would be his trademark style during S4.  He has the odd killer line (“Tarrant, what have you got up there apart from yourself, a half-wit and a corpse?”) but the best exchange is saved until the end.  After a big bang organised by Tarrant, Avon asks him what’s happened to the android.

TARRANT: Gone to the great cyberneticist in the sky.
AVON: You fool! It’s superstitious half-wits like you who hold back every advance we make.
ORAC: And arrogance, Avon, like yours and Muller’s which threaten to destroy …
AVON: Shut up!
ORAC: Yes, master!

After a less-than-serious romp, this small moment once again highlights how detached Avon has become from reality. The android, if controllable, would have been an asset, but everyone except Avon is clearly able to see that it would have been suicidal to keep it operational. Yet another example of Avon’s lack of judgement.

Whatever else Headhunter is, it certainly isn’t dull. The third and final of Roger Parkes’ scripts for the series, it falls somewhere between his other two.  It’s not as good as Children of Auron, nor is it as crazy as Voice from the Past (although it’s close).  But whatever its faults, the loopy concept never fails to raise a smile.

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