The year is 119 AD. Former Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Anthony Higgins) is haunted by the fate of his father’s legion, the Ninth. Four thousand men had been dispatched to fight the Caledonian tribes in Northern England, but they all vanished without trace. Adopting the disguise of a Greek oculist and accompanied by the faithful Esca (Christian Rodska), Marcus is determined to locate the Ninth’s Golden Eagle, which symbolises the honour of the legion, and bring it back home.
Originally published in 1955, The Eagle of the Ninth was a children’s historical adventure novel written by Rosemary Sutcliff. A prolific author, The Eagle of the Ninth has to rank as one of her most enduring works. And although the bulk of her output was written for a juvenile audience, Sutcliff once stated that she wrote “for children of all ages, from nine to ninety”.
That her stories had universal appeal is demonstrated by this adaptation, which ran for six episodes during 1977. Broadcast in the Sunday Classic Serials slot, there’s no sense that it was specifically tailored for a younger audience. As was usual for adaptations from this era, it sticks pretty closely to the original source material (whereas the recent film – The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum – took more liberties and therefore rather diluted the impact of Sutcliff’s tale).
Episode one opens twelve years after the disappearance of the Ninth. Marcus arrives in Britain to take up charge of an isolated garrison. He’s still a little touchy about his father’s fate, but the rebellious Britons massing outside the fort might be more of an immediate problem.
There’s some familiar faces lurking inside the garrison, such as the blunt Drusillus (played by Bernard Gallagher). Gallagher, probably best known for appearing in the first few series of Casualty, gives Drusillus an entertaining dose of weary cynicism – he’s an older and a much more experienced soldier than Marcus, but it’s Marcus who’s in charge.
This first episode – Frontier – also boasts an early television appearance from Patrick Malahide, as Cradoc. You may have to look twice to find him though, as he’s almost unrecognisable thanks to an impressive wig and beard. Marcus attempts to foster good relations with Cradoc, a notable local, but his friendly entreaties are in vain.
Anthony Higgins impresses right from the start. Marcus might be young and inexperienced, but he’s also honest and heroic, so it therefore seems natural that we immediately side with him against the influx of hairy tribesmen. The episode has a generous film allocation, although the scenes of the tribesmen attacking the fort do look slightly comic (and tight camera angles have to be used in order to hide how few extras were available). The hand to hand fighting is nicely directed though.
The injuries suffered by Marcus during the attack have left him unable to walk which means that his time as a soldier has come to an end. Whilst recuperating at his uncle’s farm, they both elect to visit the local amphitheatre. It’s not the coliseum, but it does introduce us to two important characters – Esca and Cottia (Gillian Bailey).
Esca is toiling in the pit – locked into a fight to the death with another slave – whilst Cottia, like Marcus, is a slightly queasy spectator (both were perturbed by the sight of a bear being gored to death). When Esca is beaten, the crowd – overcome by bloodlust – all place their thumbs downwards, signifying that Esca should be put to death. We can forgive this anachronstic moment – since it was widely believed to be accurate at the time – although quite how Marcus was able to persuade the crowd en-masse to spare Esca is a bit of a mystery.
Marcus needs a body slave and buys Esca. Their relationship is a key part of the story and the interaction between Higgins and Rodska works well throughout the serial. Esca is initially reserved and bitter, but it isn’t long before the pair form a tight bond. Gillian Bailey also impresses as the proud Cottia. She rails against being forced to act like a Roman maiden, rather than the Iceni tribeswoman she actually is. There’s a lovely moment when, anxious to see the ill Marcus, she bites the arm of a slave blocking her way!
The second half of the serial sees Marcus and Esca set out to find the Eagle of the Ninth. This quest results in Marcus suddenly gaining a rather unconvincing beard (but then fake face fungus can be found in most classic serials of this era). He’s also haunted in his dreams by the long-dead soldiers of the Ninth – in his imaginings they’re a legion of walking skeletons (a brief, but quite effective nightmarish scene).
The Eagle of the Ninth was made in the usual way for a production of this era – film for the exteriors and videotape for the interiors. Picture quality is as you’d expect for something that’s forty years old – some of the early film inserts are a little grubby and the studio scenes are a little soft – but overall it’s quite watchable. Production design is very sound throughout, especially the studio farmhouse which features in several episodes (nicely designed by Campbell Gordon).
Although the serial features a number of battle scenes, this isn’t an action story – it’s more of a reflective, character-driven drama. According to this webpage, Rosemary Sutcliff not only loved the adaptation, but was so taken with Higgins’ performance that she kept a photograph of him on her writing desk for decades afterwards.
It may be true that some of the tribal antics (and beards) are a little unconvincing, but overall this is a literate and well acted production which transcends its limited budget. Running for six 30 minute episodes (spread across two discs) it’s released by Simply Media on the 16th of January 2018 and can be ordered directly from them here. RRP £19.99.
The year is 1194. Sir William of Ivanhoe (Eric Flynn) has returned home to England following the disastrous Third Crusade in Palestine. Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric (Peter Dyneley), one of the few remaining Saxon nobles in an England now dominated by the Normans, has broken off relations with his son due to Ivanhoe’s support for King Richard.
The young Ivanhoe doesn’t seem too disheartened by this familial disapproval though, as he has scores to settle – most notably with Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert (Anthony Bate), a member of the Knights Templar. They will not only clash on the tournament field but also off it and two desirable young women – the Lady Rowena (Clare Jenkins) and Rebecca (Vivian Brooks) – will both have parts to play in their bitter feud.
Meanwhile, King Richard and Prince John find themselves locked in a grim battle for control of the English throne ….
Published in 1820 across three volumes, Ivanhoe – A Romance has proven to be one of Sir Walter Scott’s most enduring works. Its mixture of Medieval derring-do and romance is an intoxicating one, with numerous film and television adaptations serving as a testament to the timelessness of the story.
Possibly one of the most notable things about Ivanhoe is how Scott’s novel helped to solidify the modern myth of Robin Hood. Robin (referred to as Locksley for most of the serial) appears throughout and his characterisation here – a freedom fighter first, an outlaw second – chimes with how we view Robin today (the Robin Hood of the earlier ballads was a much less likeable and noble chap).
Scott wasn’t the first writer to set the struggles of Robin Hood during the reign of Richard I, but this story undeniably helped to create the template which many in the future would emulate. Certain aspects of the Robin Hood myth are established here – most notably the way that Robin splits the arrow of his challenger during a test of skill. It’s also interesting how subsequent writers took aspects of Ivanhoe’s character – his return to England from the Crusades, for example – and grafted them onto Robin.
The opening episode wastes no time in creating a sense of place and time. With the rightful King of England, Richard, believed to be languishing in a foreign jail, his brother John sees an opportunity to sieze power. The downtrodden Saxons find themselves suffering under the rule of the Normans, whilst Sir Brian casts a baleful shadow over proceedings.
Right from his first appearance, Anthony Bate impresses as Sir Brian. Although Bate tended to play establishment types and professional men, he throws himself into this role – a black-hearted villain, albeit one with his own code of honour – with gusto. Eric Flynn, as Ivanhoe, is perfectly cast as the square-jawed hero. Whilst it’s true that Bate, as befits a baddy, has the more interesting role to play, Flynn has a boyish charm which suits the character.
Ivanhoe’s first acknowledged appearance is held back until the end of the opening instalment (although it’s rather obvious that the mysterious hooded pilgrim who makes several enigmatic comments throughout the episode is Ivanhoe). That he and Sir Brian (bitter rivals from the Holy Land) happen to run into each other at the castle of Ivanhoe’s estranged father is something of a coincidence ….
Clare Jenkins, as Rowena, makes for a very appealing herione (coincidentally she and Flynn had appeared together a few years earlier in the Doctor Who story The Wheel In Space). Rowena and Ivanhoe are in love but he has a challenger for Rowena’s affections, the arrogant de Bracy (David Brizley), a Norman lord.
Rebecca (Vivian Brooks), daughter of the despised Jewish moneylender Isaac of York (John Franklyn-Robbins), is somewhat taken with Ivanhoe (she nurses him back to health after Sir Brian gains the upper hand during Prince John’s tourney) but she’s doomed to be unsuccessful as Ivanhoe only has eyes for Rowena. Sir Brian later attempts to woo Rebecca, but she shuns his advances.
Ivanhoe was Vivian Brooks’ third and final television job (following appearances in Thirty Minute Theatre and Z Cars). It’s a slight mystery why she didn’t go on to have a longer career as she’s really rather good here, especially when she and Bate cross verbal swords. Brooks may have been very inexperienced compared to Bate, but she more than holds her own during the scenes where Sir Brian and Rebecca warily circle each other. Vivian Brooks certainly has the meatier of the two main female roles (Clare Jenkins’ Rowena doesn’t have a great deal to do except pine for Ivanhoe).
Although Vivian Brooks only racked up a handful of credits, most of the other main roles were filled by very familiar faces. That Ivanhoe was directed by David Maloney should be fairly obvious by taking a quick glance at the cast list. The likes of Graham Weston, John Franklyn-Robbins, Tim Preece, Michael Napier Brown, Bernard Horsfall, Noel Coleman and Hugh Walters had already appeared or would later appear in other productions directed by Maloney. David Maloney, like many other directors, tended to use a “rep” of actors – dependable people he knew would deliver the performances required.
The strength in depth of the cast is one of the reasons why this serial works as well as it does. Tim Preece entertains as the capacious and vain Prince John, Hugh Walters is pleasingly off-kilter as Cedric’s fool Wamba, Bernard Horsfall is suitably imposing as the Black Knight, John Franklyn-Robbins impresses as the persecuted Isaac and Noel Coleman is characterically strong as Fitzsurse, one of John’s advisors. Clive Graham, as Locksley, also offers a vivid performance and it’s always a pleasure to see Michael Craze, here as one of Lockley’s men (Thomas).
Graham Weston, clearly one of David Maloney’s favourite actors (apart from Ivanhoe, Maloney cast him in two Doctor Who stories – The War Games and Planet of Evil), gets a chance to display his skills with a quarterstaff when his character – Ivanhoe’s loyal servant, Gurth – tangles with the outlaws. It’s not a badly directed sequence, although like all fight scenes taped in the studio it pretty much had to be done in a single take (had it been shot on film then it could have been edited much more tightly).
With Ivanhoe injured and insensible during the middle part of the serial, other characters move to the forefront of the action. Bernard Horsfall’s mysterious Black Knight (a vision in blond wig and beard) has an entertaining tustle with Barry Linehan’s disolute Friar. The Friar, living the life of a hermit deep within the forest, may claim to exist on a diet of peas and water but the truth is rather different!
When Ivanhoe, Cedric, Isaac, Rebecca and Rowena are captured by a group of Norman knights led by Sir Brian, they find themselves the prisoners of Godfrey Front de Boeuf (Francis de Wolff). Godfrey has usurped Ivanhoe’s lands and now seeks his death in order to secure his position. de Wolff cackles with evil intent (like Peter Dyneley he’s somewhat of a stranger to subtlety).
Rebecca is later denounced as a witch by the leader of the Templars – angered by Sir Brian’s infatuation with her – and is sentenced to death. She claims the right of trial by combat and nominates Ivanhoe to be her champion. And with Sir Brian in the opposite corner it seems that the final reckoning between them is now at hand ….
Although the Classic Serials had just moved into colour, this ten part adaptation (broadcast during January, February and March 1970) maintained the same production model from the black and white days. Therefore the bulk of each episode was recorded on videotape in the studio, with film inserts used to open out the narrative. Whilst this means that it isn’t as glossy or filmic as some of the later television versions, the quality of the performances are more than adequate compensation for the occasional production shortcomings (such as the unconvincing beards and the way some battles largely take place off screen).
Although some of the turns are rather on the ripe side (there are times when it’s impossible not to be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) there are subtler pleasures to be found elsewhere – Anthony Bate, for example, is excellent throughout. Overall, this is a strong and faithful adaptation of a sprawling epic and certainly deserves a place in your collection.
Ivanhoe is released by Simply Media on the 18th of September 2017. The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Having reached the end of the series, I’ve found that a Brothers fix is still required, so I naturally turned to the 1976 long-playing extravaganza that is Christmas with the Hammonds.
Colin Baker’s website has done a wonderful public service by making it available for everybody to enjoy. If, for example, you’ve ever wondered how Paul Merroney would wrestle White Christmas to within an inch of its life, then this is the disc for you.
Without further ado, let’s jump straight in ….
Winter Wonderland, Sleigh Ride – Bill & Gwen Riley
Derek Benfield and Margaret Ashcroft favour a soft duet singing style and they also both handle individual lines with aplomb. A very solid start.
The Holly and The Ivy – Jane Maxwell
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Kate O’Mara sing before, so I wasn’t sure what expect. She can certainly handle a tune and together with a tasteful string arrangement it seems that Kate was taking it very seriously. Two out of two so far, can this good run continue?
We Need A Little Christmas – David Hammond
Robin Chadwick may be slightly flat, but how can you not love the jaunty backing track? It’s only two minutes long, which means it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The Christmas Story – Mary Hammond
Jean Anderson is spared the ordeal of singing as instead her track tells the story of the birth of Jesus. You can imagine Mary telling this story to her three sons every Christmas, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Good old Mary.
The Twelve Days of Christmas – 1: Jane 2: Bill 3: Gwen 4: April 5: All 6: Jenny 7: Ted 8: Mary 9: Brian 10: Paul 11: David 12: All
It’s tag-team time as everybody pitches in. It gives us our first opportunity to hear the vocal talents (ahem) of Patrick O’Connell and Colin Baker, whilst it also confirms that a whole track of Jean Anderson singing might have been a step too far.
Cantique de Noel – Brian Hammond
Decades later, during The Cult of the Brothers documentary, Richard Easton still seemed to regard his major contribution to the album with fondness and a little pride. And why not? He can hold a tune well and, as befits his character, adds a touch of gravitas to proceedings.
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Jenny Hammond
With only a piano accompaniment, Jennifer Wilson is a little exposed, but thanks to her breathy singing style she just about pulls it off.
Good King Wenceslas – Ted Hammond and Paul Merroney
Nice to see that Ted and Paul managed to bury the hatchet in order to contribute to this duet. It’s fair to say that neither Patrick O’Connell or Colin Baker were blessed with angelic singing voices, so their decision to keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks was the only possible option. It’s certainly memorable.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – April Hammond
It’s slightly surprising that April and Paul didn’t have a duet together. Singing is clearly not Liza Goddard’s strength, so the clip-clop backing attempts to cover some of the cracks.
White Christmas – Paul Merroney
After the delight of Good King Wenceslas, it seemed obvious that the world needed more of Colin Baker’s unique vocal talents. Fair play to the man for sharing this track in all its grisly glory (instead of claiming that it had somehow been lost). It’s three minutes which defy description (but once again I have a feeling Mr Baker wasn’t taking it entirely seriously, or possibly a little alcoholic refreshment had loosened him up somewhat). The line – “may all your days be Merroney and bright” – is sheer genius.
Good Wishes For the Season – Gwen, Bill, Jenny, Ted, Jane, Brian, April, Paul, David & Mary
This is lovely as all the cast – in character – take turns to wish the listeners the compliments of the season. Naturally enough Mary gets the last word whilst Jane (“keep the men in their place and have a fantastic time”) has the most memorable message.
A treat from start to finish, it feels a little odd to be listening to it in July, but come December I’m sure I’ll be revisiting Christmas with the Hammonds again.
Within the first few minutes of the series seven opener – To Honour and Obey – it’s plain that change is in the air. First we have a new title sequence which acknowledges that Hammond Transport is now about more than lorries (shots of swooping aircraft makes that plain).
But even more startling is the fact that we’re presented with the sight of Paul Merroney (Colin Baker) having a shave. All of the main characters (with the exception of Paul) have previously had their private lives investigated in exhaustive (and some might say exhausting) detail. Up until now Paul’s has been exempt from this – indeed the others have unkindly referred to him as a robot on more than one occasion, suggesting that he doesn’t have a private life at all.
Seeing Paul Merroney in any other setting than a purely business one is something of a jolt, but since this episode is concerned with his wedding I guess we’re going to have to get used to it. Brian (Richard Easton) is his best man, which rather implies that poor Paul is somewhat lacking in friends. Although his bride-to-be April (Liza Goddard) might make up for that. Or maybe not, let’s wait to see how their marriage plays out ….
Given Brian’s previous problems with the bottle, it’s a little strange that he got drunk at Paul’s stag party (a pity we didn’t see it, I’m sure it would have been a hoot – no doubt Paul was stuck in the corner, sipping a tomato juice). Paul then discusses his father (in the first five minutes we learn more about Paul the man than we had in the last two and a bit series).
We’re quickly introduced to members of April’s family. Her father, Lord Winter (Anthony Nicholls), has little time for his son-in-law-to-be and April’s brother, Simon (Terence Frisby), shares his disdain – although since Simon and Paul are involved in a power-struggle at the bank, at least their conflict is professional rather than personal (Lord Winter just considers him to be a dull fellow).
Brian’s children have been conspicuous by their absence for most of the series to date. Even when he and his former wife, Ann, were together we never saw much of them. So when Brian’s daughter Carol (Debbie Farrington) suddenly turns up, it’s a bit of a jolt. Mind you, that’s nothing compared to the shock when Ann (Hilary Tindall) also reappears ….
I’ve missed Ann, so it’s lovely to see her again – even if it’s only a fleeting visit. With Brian now entering a tentative relationship with Jane Maxwell (Kate O’Mara), Ann’s presence certainly helps to shake up the status quo, although Carol is the key figure here – seemingly undecided about whether to live with her mother or father.
Carol’s now a new-age hippy chick but Ann’s still the same old Ann. They both bow out in episode four, The Female of the Species, with Carol rather bamboozling Brian before she goes. And before Ann leaves she has the chance to confront Jane (Hilary Tindall and Kate O’Mara – an implacable force meeting an immovable object).
Happy marriages are something of a rarity in The Brothers. This series Ted (Patrick O’Connell) and Jenny (Jennifer Wilson) are the first to suffer a few bumps in the matrimonial road. Although they’ve always seemed well-suited, it should be remembered that as soon as they tied the knot Jenny became incredibly bossy (her ill-fated desire for a child was just one of the times when Ted – a hard-case in business but a teddy-bear at home – gave way).
This year Ted’s showing signs of mellowing on the business front. Spending time away on a business course helped him to finally release that Paul Merroney wasn’t quite the villain he always believed him to be (something the viewers twigged some time back). When he returns home, Jenny’s off to visit her daughter, Barbara, in Canada (and more than a little irritated that Ted’s changed his mind about joining her). Barbara (Julia Goodman) is another familiar face from the past to make a return this year (her marriage – surprise, surprise – has hit something of a rough patch).
A little extra spice is added to Ted and Jenny’s relationship after April, at a loose end during one of Paul’s numerous foreign trips, offers to cook Ted dinner. There’s no strings attached – it’s just a friendly offer from April who’s concerned that Ted will waste away if he has to fend for himself – but the reactions of their respective spouses are quite instructive. Paul’s coolly amused (his long-standing disdain of Ted still stands) whilst Jenny doesn’t say a great deal (although it clearly rankles, as we’ll see during the next few episodes).
Of course it was Paul who mischievously told Jenny that her husband and his wife had enjoyed a meal together rather than the hapless Ted, who no doubt would have much preferred to have kept quiet. This leads April to liken Paul to one of the Borgias – which he takes as a rich compliment!
Regular viewers will probably be expecting several long-running plot-threads to rear their heads one last time. And you won’t be disappointed as yet again Mary’s (Jean Anderson) health takes a turn for the worse, leaving the brothers to play nursemaid, although neither Brian or David (Robin Chadwick) are falling over themselves to volunteer. The sight of Brian and David tossing a coin (Brian lost, so he had to stay at home with her) is a nice comedy moment.
The saga of Gwen Riley’s (Margaret Ashcroft) new house also continues to rumble away – every time she seems to be on the verge of moving, something happens to prevent her (this time she’s been gazumped). Once again, Ashcroft (and Derek Benfield as Bill Riley) impress as the one couple who somehow manage to juggle their work and private lives without resorting to taking lumps out of each other. Ashcroft gets to flex her acting muscles a little more towards the end of the series after Bill and Gwen’s son is involved in a motorbike accident.
Later series of The Brothers tended to be shared out amongst a pool of writers who would then pen a block of consecutive episodes. For the seventh and final series this was split as follows – Ray Jenkins (episodes one to three), Brian Finch (episodes four, five and nine to twelve), Elaine Morgan (episodes six to eight) and N.J. Crisp (episodes thirteen to sixteen).
Elaine Morgan’s three scripts – Arrivals and Departures, The Distaff Side and Cross Currents – are of particular interest. Although this was her only contribution to The Brothers, her extensive career spanned the mid fifties to the late eighties with many notable credits. The Life and Times of David Lloyd George is an obvious career highlight, with top-quality literary adaptations (including The Diary of Anne Frank, Testament of Youth and How Green Was My Valley, amongst others) also featuring heavily on her CV.
Christine Absalom appears in Morgan’s three episodes as temporary secretary Judy Vickery. It’s fair to say that she and Paul don’t hit it off – possibly it’s her toy Snoopy (a good-luck mascot, she tells him) or maybe it’s because she appears to be slightly flustered (although she assures him that once she settles down she’ll be fine). As an outsider, Judy allows us to see the regulars through a fresh pair of eyes – especially the martinet Paul Merroney (the way she mispronounces his name to begin with is a lovely comedy touch).
Paul, enroute to Istanbul, calls April from the airport. She has bad news for a him (a family bereavement) and is appalled when he doesn’t cancel his flight and return home This is a key moment, as although Paul shows a spasm of pain at the news, business comes first. It’s an attitude which April finds incomprehensible and serves to sow the first seed of disharmony between them.
The unexpected arrival of Paul’s mother in The Distaff Side throws the Hammonds into a tizzy. With Paul still away and April uncontactable, Ted and Brian attempt to play pass the parcel with her. Luckily, Mrs Merroney (Norah Fulton), a plain-speaking Geordie, takes up Gwen’s offer of a bed for the night (much to Brian’s obvious relief!)
Mrs Merroney’s conversations, first with Gwen and Bill and then later with April, help to shed considerable light on Paul’s character. A sickly, bookish child, he found himself teased by the local children – therefore his drive to succeed in business was partly borne out of a desire to prove his parochial home-town rivals wrong. These are further strong scenes from Elaine Morgan.
Elsewhere, there’s a nice spark of jealously directed towards Jane by Jenny. Jane’s arrival in series five generated a certain amount of friction amongst all the members of the Hammonds board, although it was rather downplayed the following year. Quite why Jenny should be so set against the possibility of Jane becoming a Hammond (after all, that’s precisely what she did by marrying Ted) is a bit of a mystery but it helps to give Jenny a little more to work with on the character front.
Jenny’s paranoia keeps on bubbling away (she’s convinced that everybody is plotting against her). The best moment comes when she confides to Mary that Brian and David are locked in a bizarre love triange with Jane! That’s somewhat far from the truth – since Brian’s long-relationship with Jane has been platonic, David sees nothing wrong in inviting her out for a couple of meals.
The result of Jenny’s rash comment puts Mary on the warpath. She attempts to rope Ted in, but he’s less than keen to get involved – although their conversation sets up a pulsating later scene which sees Ted accuses Jenny of spewing posion. With their marriage already a little rocky, this simply adds to the pressure. Jenny has the last word as she cruelly, but maybe accurately, labels the Hammond brothers as “a lush, a failure and a has-been!” Wonderful stuff.
Everything then kicks off in typical Brothers style as Mary confronts Jane, Brian confronts David and David, in a huff, packs his bags and leaves home.
Episode ten – Celebration – is ironically titled, as Jane receives the bad news that one of her new C41s has disappeared somewhere in the Atlantic, Jenny receives a summons for dangerous driving whilst Paul and April’s marriage seems to have hit a brick wall.
Possibly this was art imitating life, as Colin Baker and Liza Goddard had married for real shortly after Paul and April tied the knot in the series. Baker would later acknowledge that their union was probably a mistake as it sadly didn’t last very long.
April is a rather passive character to begin with – content to wait at home for her husband to return from the office (although capable of becoming annoyed when he’s late). April bemoans the fact that their luxury flat has become a gilded cage for her, but she seems unable or unwilling to do anything to rectify the situation, such as finding a job. Given that the role isn’t terribly interesting for large stretches, it’s lucky that Liza Goddard was on hand to breathe a little life into her. Goddard does icy detachment better than anybody and some of her later scenes suggest that April could have developed into quite the bitch had the show gone to an eighth series.
Paul Merroney’s latest scheme is to expand into the Middle East. From a modern perspective, setting up bases in places such as Baghdad and Kuwait seems to be asking for trouble, but it’s true that it was a different time back then. Only Brian opposes the plan, whilst the others see a chance to make a handsome profit (although the risk factor is great).
Whilst the cast were confidently expecting an eighth series, I wonder if the return of co-creator N.J. Crisp to write the last four episodes was something of a sign? Crisp had only penned a handful of episodes during the previous couple of runs, so it could be that he had an inkling the series was reaching the end and wanted to be the one to conclude it.
Whilst a continuing drama can never come to a compete stop, there’s a sense that The Brothers was reaching a natural conclusion. We’ve seen over the years how Hammond Transport had changed from a privately owned company to a publicly owned one, but the Middle East scheme serves as the catalyst to finally wrest control away from the Hammond family (via a new share option which will raise much needed capital but will also serve to dilute their majority share-holdings).
But various questions remain unanswered as the credits rolled for the final time. How would Paul and April’s wobbly marriage have resolved itself? Most intriguingly, would Paul’s Middle Eastern escapade have been a disaster? If so, then he might have been eased out and maybe the Hammonds would have attempted to regain control of the company.
Although there were plenty of options for future storylines it wasn’t to be, so The Brothers came to an end on the 19th of December 1976 with The Christmas Party. Final treats include Brian’s quite astonishing moves on the dance floor and Ted’s firm rejoinder after Paul suggests that Hammond Transport Services Ltd is a rather old-fashioned name. Surely something like Worldwide Transport Services would be better?
Another strong collection of episodes, this seventh and final series of The Brothers is just as addictive as the previous runs. It’s easy to why it captivated a generation back in the 1970’s and forty years on it’s still as entertaining. If you’ve been collecting the DVDs then you’ll know how good the show is, if not then I’d strongly recommend picking up series one and making your way through a classic slice of seventies drama from there.
The Brothers – Series Seven is released by Simply Media on the 10th of July 2017. RRP £29.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Series six kicks off in a typically confrontational way as Ted (Patrick O’Connell) clashes with Merroney over Brian’s future. Will Brian be welcomed back onto the board? Ted wants a fair deal for his brother and – possibly surprisingly – Merroney concurs. But the reason he gives is sure to put Ted’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 Ted have fought for their brother’s interests in their own ways, Brian clearly feels more comfortable with somebody outside of the family.
Brian’s gradual reintegration back into the business is a running theme during these early episodes as is the question of Jenny (Jennifer Wilson) and Ted’s adopted baby, William. When the baby’s real mother decides she wants him back, Jenny starts to feel the strain. One has to wonder why Jenny and Ted 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 Jenny, 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.
Jenny 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 Ted 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.
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 Ted and Jenny 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.
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.
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, Ted 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 Ted (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 Ted) 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.
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 Ted Hammond’s nose was put out of joint last series by the interest Farrell had been taking in Jenny Kingsley (Jennifer Wilson). So with Farrell out of the picture, Ted (Patrick O’Connell) rekindles his own relationship with her. Lest we forget, Jenny carried on a lengthy and clandestine affair with Ted’s late father. Unsurprisingly this meant she has always been viewed with great disfavour by Ted’s mother – the indomitable matriarch Mary Hammond – but it seems that Ted has eventually summoned up the courage to defy his mother and make an honest woman out of Jenny. 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 Ted 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 – Ted, 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 Ted. 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 Ted and Jenny 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 Jenny 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 (Jenny 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 Ted 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 (Jenny’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.