The Crunch and Other Stories – Network DVD Review

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The Crunch and Other Stories collects three short plays by Nigel Kneale, broadcast between 1964 and 1988.

Studio 64: The Crunch (1964).  Harry Andrews stars as a prime minister attempting to avert a nuclear catastrophe in London; Maxwell Shaw, Anthony Bushell and Peter Bowles are among his co-stars.

Unnatural Causes: Ladies’ Night (1986).   A chilling story of misogyny as members of a gentlemen’s club turn on a woman who ridicules them; a strong cast includes Alfred Burke, Ronald Pickup and Bryan Pringle.

The ITV Play: Gentry (1988). Roger Daltrey stars in a blackly comic suspense drama in which a couple buy a shabby house in an up-and-coming area but find themselves drawn into the aftermath of an armed robbery.

This is the third in a series of curated DVDs under the ‘Forgotten TV Drama’ banner (the first two were The Frighteners and The Nearly Man.  The following excerpt from the press release for The Frighteners provides a little detail about the aims of these releases.

Broadcast only once (or at most twice) in a time before on-demand, catch-up or the video recorder, most of the drama made for British television up until the early 1980s has lain unseen for generations. Since 2013, The ‘History of Forgotten Television Drama in the UK’ research project at Royal Holloway, University of London, has existed to investigate and celebrate the tremendous wealth of neglected dramas made for British TV, unearthing forgotten treasures and presenting them again to new audiences.

Forgotten TV Drama’ is a new range of DVDs presented by Network Distributing Ltd in association with the project. Selected and curated by TV experts Lez Cooke, John Hill and Billy Smart, the collection will make a wide selection of unseen titles from the ITV archive available once again. The range aims to encompass a broad spectrum of plays, series and serials; comic and tragic, realistic and fantastical, film and videotape, lavish and intimate.

The Forgotten TV Drama blog is worth checking out – hopefully some of the programmes discussed there might feature on future releases.

Nigel Kneale rose to prominence in the 1950’s via the Quatermass trilogy and his controversial adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.  In the decades to come he would occasionally return to the series or serial format (BeastsKinvig, a fourth and final Quatermass story) but he tended to concentrate more on one-off plays and adaptations.

Adaptation wise, his retooling of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is well worth tracking down (a R2 DVD release is long overdue). Sharpe wouldn’t have been the sort of series you’d have expected to have recruited Kneale as a writer, but he did contribute an episode – Sharpe’s Gold – which, unsurprisingly, jettisoned most of Bernard Cornwell’s original novel in favour of something much odder and off-kilter.

Although Kneale is fated to always be remebered primarily for Quatermass, it can often be rewarding to dig through some of the more obscure nuggets from his back catalogue – and the three plays on this release all qualify on that score.

The Crunch opens on what appears to be a normal London street.  We see a man walking his dog, a woman riding her bike and a milkman making his rounds.  But these signifiers of normality clash uneasily with the constant honking of car horns in the distance.

Within a matter of minutes it becomes clear that all three people were part of a military operation designed to penetrate the Mekagense Embassy.  Mekang, an ex-colonial state, is demanding reparation for the way its natural resources were plundered for British gain.  And if the British don’t accede to their requests then a nuclear device will destroy London ….

Although we’re not privy to the wider London scene, the continual sound of car horns in the distance (and occasional television reports) help to reinforce the general state of panic.  The power of the media is amusingly demonstrated after a reporter broadcasts that the emergency seems to be over.  A group of soldiers, watching the television from their command post just around the corner from the Embassy, are delighted – seemingly more willing to believe what they see on screen as opposed to their own military intelligence!

The Crunch centres around three characters – British prime minister Goddard (Harry Andrews) and two members of the Mekagense government – President Jimson (Wolfe Morris) and Ambassador Mr Ken (Maxwell Shaw).

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Andrews plays a pleasingly pro-active prime minster who’s right in the thick of action (he goes alone into the embassy to negotiate).  This might be a little far-fetched, but no matter.  Sadly, some of the themes of the play are just as relevant today as they were some fifty years ago. Goddard is aghast to learn that Ken is prepared to sacrifice himself and his wife and children (not to mention the rest of London) for the sake of his beliefs.  Goddard finds it hard to believe that any religion could support such a monstrous action.

Ken does have his reasons and he articulates them well.  Shaw offers a very still, nuanced performance (which is particularly apparent when he’s placed opposite Wolfe Morris’ blustering, unhinged President) and is easily able to command the screen.  Ken’s vision of Mekang – a desolate country which will turn into a utopia once they’ve received reparations from the British – sounds too good to be true, so it possibly won’t surprise you to learn that things don’t turn out quite the way he planned.

Although The Crunch seems to be a straight, contemporary drama, during the last few minutes it lurches into telefantasy.  The final shot – held for what seems like an age – reinforces this sudden change in emphasis (as does the fact we then cut to the credits – there’s no mopping up scene to contextualise what we’ve witnessed).

The cast offers strength in depth.  Anthony Bushell, who had memorably portrayed the blinkered Colonel Breen in Quatermass and the Pit, appears as another military man here – Lt. Gen. Priest.  Priest might only have a fraction of Breen’s screentime but there’s more than a hint that he’s a character drawn from the same cloth.  A young Peter Bowles is the enthusiastic Captain Buckley (forever itching to storm the embassy single-handed) whilst the unmistakable sound of Frank Crawshaw’s whistling speech impediment makes him an actor who can be identified by sound alone.

Picture quality is pretty good (the location scenes, recorded on videotape, are a little smudgy though) and the soundtrack, whilst hissy, is pretty clear.  A nice bonus is the 35mm insert for the climatic scene – ideally it should been dropped back into the programme but having it available as an extra is the next best thing (as the sequence on the telerecording is, naturally enough, not nearly as sharp).

When considering forgotten television drama, it’s hard not to think of Alfred Burke.  There can be few actors so beloved by archive television fans yet so totally under the radar of modern television watchers.  Possibly his final role, as Professor Dibbet in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, may have brought him a smidgen of late recognition, but his lengthy career seems to be comprised of programmes which have now faded from view (even Public Eye, a major success for a decade but not a series that’s endured in the memory of the general public).

But for those who like their television programmes old, Burke continues to be cherished and he’s a major attraction in the second play in this set – Ladies’ Night.  Broadcast by Central in 1986, Burke is the crusty Colonel Waley, outraged that his beloved Hunters Club allows ladies through its hallowed portals every Monday evening.

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Burke’s in good company – Brian Pringle, Ronald Pickup, Nigel Stock and John Horsley also appear – whilst Fiona Walker, as Evelyn Tripp, plays the rather annoying wife of James (Pickup).  Evelyn’s presence proves to be crucial as she and her husband have a somewhat violent disagreement which then involves all the other members.  Directed by Herbert Wise (I Claudius), Ladies’ Night, like I Claudius, favours long takes which allow the actors to remain in control.

It’s unusual to see Burke essay such a grotesque performance, but it suits the surroundings of the Hunters Club – the Colonel, like the club, is mired in the past and totally unable to accept the realities of the present.  Women are just one of his problems – the decline in the club’s finances mean that a merger or a sale of part of the building is desirable.  But Colonel Waley is not a man who can countenance any form of change.

If Burke is excellent, showing how Waley grows ever more unhinged as the evening wears on, then he’s matched by the rest of the cast (especially Ronald Pickup).  This extends down to the minor roles such as Abigail McKern’s frightened and flustered Ann Holroyd (although she’s much more relaxed when she’s drunk).  The members can’t help rolling their eyes at her choice of drink (a tequila sunrise) whilst she makes the mistake of attempting to pat the stuffed aardvark which sits forlornly in the entrance hall.  All members have to touch the aardvark on arrival and any who don’t are firmly reminded by the Colonel. But any women attempting to take such a liberty will face the full force of his fury.

A dark (and occasionally violent) comedy, Ladies’ Night isn’t subtle, but Kneale’s script, the performances and Wise’s direction all combine to produce a bracing, if uncomfortable, fifty minutes.  It’s good to finally have it available on DVD.

Following The Who’s first farewell tour in 1982 (apart from a couple of one-off performances they wouldn’t tour again until 1989) Roger Daltrey found he had plenty of time on his hands to restart his acting career.  He’d already appeared in a handful of films during the seventies and early eighties (Tommy obviously, Listzomania and most notably McVicar) but during the mid to late eighties he really began to rack up the credits.  In Gentry (1988), Daltrey plays Colin, an East End gangster who clashes with the upwardly mobile Gerald and Susannah (Duncan Preston and Phoebe Nicholls).

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The gentrification of the East End of London is one of the obvious themes of this play.  The first few minutes shows us various well-heeled types (walking dogs, stowing golf clubs into their car) who have begun to infiltrate this once run-down area.  Gerald wants to be the next – although Susannah’s far from happy that he’s already bought a house (for just under one hundred thousand) without telling her.  When they discover the seller upstairs in the bath (very, very dead) it’s the first sign that their day is not going well …

Colin and his gang (Michael Attwell as Slatter, Tim Condren as Doug) are old-school criminals (Gerald, a solicitor, is also corrupt – but his criminality doesn’t involve violence).  Gerald may initially appear to be in control, but it’s not long before his pompous, self-important persona is pricked.  This is very apparent when Colin and the others come calling – it’s Susannah who remains calm whilst he rather goes to pieces.

The first part, concentrating on Gerald and Susannah, offers some amusing comic moments but it’s the arrival of Colin (initially concealed behind a scarf – masking his recent injuries) just before the first advert break which moves the story up several gears.  Daltrey offers a magnetic performance – alternating between charm and violence – and commands the screen whenever he’s on.  Attwell is amusingly over the top as the homicidal Slatter.

The lead performances of Daltrey, Preston and Nicholls ensures that Gentry holds the attention – the brief bond formed between Colin and Susanna (he’s pining for the old East End which she gently tells him has gone forever) is just one of several interesting areas developed.

Including a booklet featuring a foreword by Gentry director Roy Battersby and concise but insightful viewing notes by Billy Smart, The Crunch and Other Stories is an attractive package which showcases some of Nigel Kneale’s lesser-known works.  Recommended.

The Crunch and Other Stories is available now from Network and all good retailers.

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A Choice of Coward – Blithe Spirit

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Charles Condomine (Griffiths Jones), a successful novelist in the process of writing a new book about the occult, is keen to experience some authentic colour.  To this end he invites the eccentric medium Madame Acarti (Hattie Jacques) to hold a séance at his house.  Madam Acarti is so obviously a fake that nobody – not Charles, nor his second wife Ruth (Helen Cherry) or their friends – expect the evening to generate anything more than a little light mockery at Madame Acarti’s expense.

So when the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Joanna Durham) is conjured up from the other side, he’s more than a little taken aback.  Especially as he’s the only one who can see or hear her …..

Coward had been mulling over writing a play featuring ghosts for a little while, but it wasn’t until his flat was destroyed during the Blitz that he decided to turn these vague notions into reality.  Holidaying with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmerion (later immortalised in The Prisoner) he rapidly churned out the play in a mere six days and afterwards would comment that with “disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success”.

Premiering in mid 1941, with Cecil Parker as Charles and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Acarti, the play was an immediate success (until the juggernaut run of The Mousetrap, Blithe Spirit was the longest-running non musical West End production).  Rather wonderfully, a few years ago a telegram from Coward to Christie, congratulating her on beating his record, was discovered.

Coward was aware that some people might find the notion of a play revolving around ghosts to be a slightly distasteful subject to pitch during wartime, but he had a ready reply.  Although a comedy, it was deliberately written as a heartless piece.  “You can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story”.

This is certainly true.  Neither Charles, Ruth or Elvira are in any way admirable characters.  We open with Charles and Ruth discussing his first wife.  Charles, a befits a professional writer, is smooth with his compliments (and able to not commit himself when Ruth asks him if Elvira was prettier than her) but there’s a brittleness to this conversation.

When Elvira unexpectedly pops up the cracks begin to get bigger.  Although it takes a little while for Ruth to believe the truth of the situation, once she realises that Charles isn’t mad or drunk she becomes rather jealous of her dead rival.  After the initial shock, Charles adjusts relatively quickly to Elvira’s presence, but it’s hard to argue that the ghostly Elvira is a symbol of an idyllic past marriage.  Evidence is provided that their relationship was somewhat rocky.  Elvira reminds him that he hit her with a billiard cue (only gently, he says) whilst neither seems to have been totally faithful.

But in her own way she still loves him and so decides to kill him, as that way they’ll both be spirits and together once more.  But it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that her plans backfire and, after tampering with Charles’ car, she ends up killing Ruth instead (quite how a non-corporeal spirit could do such a thing is a question which the play quite rightly ignores).

This then sets up the denouement, which sees Charles haunted by both of his wives (in mounting desperation he requests that Madame Acarti’s perform an exorcism).  Jacques may not have the largest role, but she’s wonderful comic value whenever she’s on the screen.  With a boundless enthusiasm (Madame Acarti is almost beside herself when she learns that her séance actually conjured a manifestation) Jacques wrings every last comic moment from the script.

Joan Kemp-Welch (who directed all four plays in this short season) appears to have given Jacques her head.  It’s not a subtle performance – Madame Acarti leaps about like a giddy schoolgirl as well as being prone to sudden dramatic swoons – but it’s certainly an eye-catching one.  Coward himself approved, commenting that it was the first time someone had done something with the role that could bear comparison to Margaret Rutherford’s imposing stage and film performances (she reprised the part of Madame Acarti in David Lean’s 1945 movie).

The ending of this adaptation stays true to the original play (unlike Lean’s film, which Coward disliked) and sees a carefree Charles – once Elvira and Ruth have been reduced to silent, invisible spirits – head out for a lengthy holiday aboard, happy in the knowledge that his ghostly ex-wives won’t be able to follow him.  It’s not exactly what you could call a happy ending, but it fits in with the general tone of the piece.

As acknowledged by Coward, it’s hard to warm to any of the characters (apart from the deliciously dippy Madame Acarti) which is probably the reason why Blithe Spirit never quite engages as fully as it could have done.  Amusing, but icy.

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A Choice Of Coward – Present Laughter

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Like many of his contemporaries, Noël Coward found the 1950’s to be a critically lean period.  He may have created a string of hit plays during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, but in the brave new world of the angry young men his style seemed to be hopelessly dated.

But everything comes round again eventually and by the mid sixties the Coward revival was in full swing.  His new plays continued to attract only polite interest, but revivals of his classics tended to garner both popular and critical acclaim.

Therefore 1964 was the ideal time for Granada to turn their Play of the Week strand over to Coward for four weeks.  Featuring introductions from the Master himself before each of the four plays, A Choice of Coward kicked off with Present Laughter.

Written in 1939 and first staged in 1942, Coward’s introduction makes it clear that the play was written with a single thought in mind – to provide him with a star vehicle.  The character originally played by Coward – Garry Essendine – is the centre of the play and the recipient of most of the best lines.  There’s obviously a strong sense of autobiography at play (which wouldn’t have been lost on the audience at the time) as Garry is a fortyish, elegant, dressing-gown clad figure, who continues to deliver bon mots with practised ease even as his world descends into chaos.

Garry isn’t the only character to have a clear real-life counterpart.  Garry’s loyal and long-suffering secretary Monica is a straightforward analogue of Coward’s equally devoted secretary, Lorne Lorraine, whilst Garry’s almost ex-wife, Liz, is said to be partly modelled on Joyce Carey, who played Liz in the original production.

Garry Essendine (Peter Wyngarde) is the bright star around which his devoted satellites – Liz (Ursula Howells), Monica (Joan Benham), manager Morris (Danvers Walker) and producer Henry (Edwin Apps) orbit.  But it would be wrong to call Garry a despot, he appears to be much more affable than that.  Although as he’s an actor it’s difficult to know whether any of the emotions he exhibits are genuine.  This might have been a fruitful area for the play to examine, but as this is a lightweight confection (albeit with the odd barb) it tends to steer clear of psychological analysis.

The play opens with Daphne Stillington (Jennie Linden) exploring Garry’s flat.  A would-be actress and a devoted admirer of Garry, she has stayed the night (albeit in the spare room).  When Garry eventually rises, he firmly, but charmingly dispatches her (an early sign of how he tends, almost absent-mindedly, to pick up and then discard people at will).  Linden is very appealing as the naïve and fresh-faced young woman besotted with the stylish Garry.  Daphne exits but returns later, when she helps to raise the comic tempo.

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Daphne’s presence doesn’t faze Monica, no doubt it’s something of a regular occurrence.  Coward may have given Garry most of the best lines, but he didn’t forget his co-stars completely and Monica is the recipient of some good lines, as is Liz.  Liz and Garry may be separated but she’s still part of his inner circle and very much involved in every part of his life.  That she too regards Daphne will cool disinterest speaks volumes about her husband and their strange relationship.

James Bolam is great fun as Roland Maule.  Maule is an earnest young playwright, entranced and repulsed by Garry’s star quality in equal measure.  Maule is flattered to be in Garry’s presence but is forthright in explaining how Garry’s work in the commercial theatre is totally without artistic merit.  Coward, who always valued popular success over critical acclaim, plainly uses Maule to take a not-terribly subtle dig at his detractors.

By the time Barbara Murray appeared here as Joanna (Henry’s wife) she was a familiar television face thanks to her role in The Plane Makers as Pamela Wilder.  Joanna wouldn’t really have been too much of a stretch for her, since both characters share similar traits – not least a desire for male conquests.  Joanna is already conducing an affair with Morris and now she sets her sights on Garry.  Wyngarde and Murray both cross verbal swords in a very appealing manner with Garry eventually forced to succumb to the inevitable ….

By now the plot is simmering away nicely and this leads into the frantic conclusion which sees Garry – about to set off for a theatrical tour of Africa – learn to his horror that Daphne, Morris and Joanna have independently bought tickets for Africa as well and are all dead-set on accompanying him.

Eventually matters are resolved, although those expecting the characters – especially Garry – to have learnt anything will be disappointed.  As touched upon earlier, this an exercise in farce, not realism.

Adapted by Peter Wildeblood, it runs to just over seventy minutes, so a certain amount of filleting had to be done in order to bring it down to the required length.  This means dropping some characters, such as Garry’s valet Fred, and cutting some decent lines, but on the plus side this editing means that it zips along at a fine pace.

Peter Wyngarde dominates of course.  He would later become well-known for playing a similar womanizing character, Jason King, so Garry Essendine could almost be said to be a dry run.  Clearly relishing Coward’s dialogue, Wyngarde’s a treat from beginning to end.

One of Coward’s evergreen classics (over the years it’s been revived numerous times, with Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Rik Mayall and Albert Finney amongst those taking on the role of Garry) this cut-down version of Present Laughter is an impressive production.

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Probation Officer to be released by Network – January 2017

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Volume One of Probation Officer (containing the twelve earliest surviving episodes) can be pre-bought now at Network.  Payment will be taken immediately, although the DVD won’t be dispatched until late January. For Doomwatch fans, it’s a chance to see a young John Paul, but it also looks like an absorbing, black and white videotaped drama in its own right, with a mouth-watering roster of guest actors.

An early hit for ATV, this absorbing, rigorously researched and very human drama series centres on the work of a team of probation officers based in London, and the lives of the men and women of all ages and backgrounds who come under their care. Drawing on the documentary skills of creator Julian Bond and produced by Emergency – Ward 10’s Antony Kearey, Probation Officer was broadcast at a time – a time when the service was increasingly coming into focus as a progressive response to rising crime.

Future Doomwatch star John Paul stars as newcomer Philip Main, alongside The Avengers’ Honor Blackman as Iris Cope, the team’s only female officer. Guests include Alfred Burke, Susan Hampshire, Charles Lloyd Pack, Richard Vernon and Peter Vaughan – while Earl Cameron and Lloyd Reckord star in a blistering tale of racism and intolerance which features one of the earliest interracial kisses ever broadcast on British television.

Probation Officer does not exist complete in the archive – this volume contains the twelve earliest surviving episodes from series one.

Espionage – The Light of a Friendly Star

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Leo (Carl Schell) attempts to break into the British Embassy. He claims to be a refugee and pleads for political asylum. The ambassador, Arnold Morely (Ronald Howard), listens sympathetically to his tale and agrees he can stay for a while.

But Leo is a spy for “the other side” and after aquiring some secrets he makes his escape. He doesn’t go empty handed though, as he takes a hostage, the ambassador’s ten-year old daughter Kit (Loretta Parry), with him …..

The Light of a Friendly Star has a slightly odd tone. From the first time Kit sets eyes on Leo, she’s very taken with him – telling her father that his (made up) story of persecution is tragic and also that his dark, dark eyes (“darker than Heathcliff, darker than Captain Ahab”) are very compelling. This initial speech demonstrates that Kit is a most precocious child, but her infatuation would have worked better if she had been older, say in her late teens.

Is Stockholm Syndrome at play here? Kit could have escaped from him on several occasions, but didn’t. Instead she uses manipulation (sabotaging his car, mentioning that if she was picked up by the police she’d have to tell them all she knew) to make him realise she’ll be less of a danger if he takes her along.

Her father doesn’t seem terribly surprised to learn that Kit may have been kidnapped and confides to one of his aides, Wilson (Donald Pickering), that Leo may have been forced to take her. He doesn’t elaborate, but we’ve already had numerous examples of how strong-willed the girl is.

Kit later sadly confides to Leo that she’s over educated, the inference being that emotionally she’s a woman trapped in a girl’s body. But she still has childish traits, telling Leo that she knows he won’t hurt her because of his eyes. “I think anyway one’s eyes are really what one is”.

Poor Leo never really stands a chance, as the hapless spy finds Kit running rings around him. And when we later learn that the secrets he obtained were out of date and therefore worthless, it makes his efforts seem all the more futile.  Incidentally, the British Embassy seems to be the sort of place where guests can wander about at night, unchallenged, and go where they wish. Have they never heard of security?

It could be that the story was attempting a Hayley Mills/Tiger Bay vibe, but there’s only one Hayley Mills and Loretta Parry’s performance does begin to grate after a while. This could be intentional though – she’s not supposed to be a victim in Leo’s power, if anything Kit’s the one in control ….

If there’s a point to the story, then it seems to come when the mismatched pair are forced to shelter from the rain in a barn. Kit asks him why he spies and he tells her that it’s an honest profession which appeals to him. He begins to open up a little and mentions that he has no family, they were killed by a bomb years ago. The incidental music swells in sympathy and Kit places her hand on his arm. It’s a nice touch that as soon as he shrugs her off the music stops.

Leo seems to be a totally isolated figure, although Kit senses this is nothing more than a fraud. She tells him that he could love someone if he wanted – even her. Again, this is a strange conversation for a ten-year old girl to be having with a grown man.

Carl Schell gives a self-contained performance as Leo, the man with friendly eyes. The supporting cast is characteristically strong, with Ronald Howard (a former Sherlock Holmes) providing a reassuring presence. The likes of Donald Pickering and George Pravda are always worth watching even if, as here, they only have small roles.

Largely a two-hander, The Light of a Friendly Star does have a few interesting points to make about espionage. Leo sees himself as a professional spy – with no national alligence – which is confirmed when it’s revealed he used to spy for the British, leaving Wilson to dismiss him as someone who’ll work for the highest bidder. Is this a purer, more honourable form of spying than if it’s done in the national interest? Leo seems to think so, but as a professional dissembler can we ever trust anything he says?

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Callan: This Man Alone – Network DVD Review

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Callan: This Man Alone is a three disc set released in 2015 by Network.  The feature attraction, This Man Alone, is an exhaustive 130 minute documentary which covers every aspect of the character – from the Armchair Theatre pilot, the four series, the spin-off short stories and novels, the 1974 film and the not terribly well received one-off revival in 1981.

A host of key personnel who worked on the series (both in front of and behind the cameras) – Reginald Collin, Mike Vardy, James Goddard, Piers Haggard, Patrick Mower, Trevor Preston, Clifford Rose, Robert Banks Stewart, Ray Jenkins – were interviewed for the documentary, whilst Dick Fiddy is on hand to set Callan in its cultural and historical context.  Another very enlightening interviewee is Peter Mitchell, the son of Callan‘s creator, James Mitchell.  The pride he feels in his father’s legacy is palpable and, like the others, he has plenty to contribute.

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Although a number of people, including James Mitchell, Edward Woodward, William Squire and Russell Hunter, are no longer with us, they are represented via archive material.  This is mainly derived from a series of audio interviews conducted in 1987.  Presumably these were intended for transcribing purposes and not for broadcast as they’re a little indistinct in places.  Although Woodward sadly passed away before the documentary came to fruition, there’s still a family connection as This Man Alone is narrated by Peter Woodward, Edward Woodward’s son.

All of the key parts of the production – developing a series from the pilot, casting the regulars (and in the case of Hunter, numerous re-castings), moving from ABC to Thames, from black and white into colour, the public’s reception of the show and the decision to bring it to an end – are all covered.  Possibly the only aspect that I was surprised wasn’t discussed concerns the reasons for writing out Cross, Patrick Mower’s character, in series four (I’ve always assumed it was done in order to facilitate the return of Meres, played by Anthony Valentine).

Although the pair do have a brief cross-over period, it seems that once Valentine was available again (he’d declined to appear in series three) it was decided to write out Mower.  It would have been interesting to hear from Mower as to whether he thought that was the case, or if he was happy to leave on a high (his final story certainly was a dramatic one).

Unlike some series, Callan seems to have been a very harmonious production, so there aren’t too many story of back-stage bust ups.  The second Hunter, Michael Goodliffe, found the role not to his liking and was quickly written out, whilst Woodward wasn’t entirely sure that promoting Callan to Hunter in series four was a good idea, but that’s about it.

With an additional twenty five minutes of interview footage that didn’t fit into the documentary, disc one is as comprehensive as you’d might hope.

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Disc two has new transfers of two episodes, the Armchair Theatre pilot  A Magnum for Schneider and the first story of series one, The Good Ones Are All Dead.  The previously issued version of A Magnum for Schneider came from the transmission tape, but since the story was transferred to film prior to transmission (a not uncommon practice for VT programmes at the time, as it offered more flexibility for editing) Network were able to locate the original film recording and have produced a new transfer from it.  Both episodes offer a considerable upgrade on the previous versions issued on DVD.

Also on disc two is the complete studio tape for The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw.  Running to 78 minutes, this offers the viewer a unique chance to see how an episode of Callan was recorded, as all the takes and re-takes are included.  To be honest it sounds more interesting than it actually is, but it’s obviously nice to have.

Disc three has a real curio – the only surviving episode of The Edward Woodward Hour.  It’s taken from a domestic recording, so the picture quality isn’t quite broadcast standard, but that’s no problem.  It offers us a chance to see Woodward flex his singing muscles and the unforgettable comedy sketch in which Callan and Lonely meet the cast of Father Dear Father!  This bizarre encounter is touched upon in the documentary, with both Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter (especially Hunter) remembering it with a distinct lack of fondness.  Amusing or toe-curling?  I think that’s up to personal taste.

Semi-mute rushes of James Mitchell from 1969, recorded for A World of My Own, are also featured on disc three, but the main attraction is the extensive PDF archive.  All the scripts for the series are included (many of the early ones have both rehearsal and camera versions) whilst there’s also the original series outline, publicity material, audience research, etc.  There’s certainly a wealth of reading here and most importantly it’s lovely to be able to read the scripts for those episodes which are missing from the archives.

Whilst Callan: This Man Alone might feel like a three disc set of special features, if you have all of Network’s previous Callan releases (the monochrome series, the colour series, Wet Job, Andrew Pixley’s book) then it’s the perfect companion piece.  Quite why all these individual elements haven’t been collected into a boxset is a slight mystery, but no matter – if you love the series then it’s a very worthwhile purchase.

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Espionage – To The Very End

to the very end

The scene is a Paris cafe.  Paul (James Fox), Jacques (David Buck) and Nicole (Heather Fleming) are three young people who react with scorn and disfavour at the news that France now has atomic capability.  Their vocal disapproval catches the attention of two soldiers and, after a few choice insults are exchanged, a fight ensues.

The three friends manage to make their escape, aided by a young American called Bob (Michael Anderson Jr).  Bob quickly becomes friendly with them and they decide – spurred on by the intense Paul – to try and reason with France’s top nuclear scientist, Professor P.J. Moreau (Clifford Evans).  But Paul has a hidden agenda of his own ….

From the outset it’s plain that Paul is the driving force.  The others, especially the affable Bob, are simply caught in his orbit.  Bob reacts with unease when Paul abducts Moreau from his flat at gunpoint, although Nicole seems quite calm about it.  She tells Bob that whilst she didn’t know Paul had a gun, nothing he does surprises her.  Yet this may not be the strict truth as she later backtracks a little.

Moreau is taken to a deserted house where’s he forced to watch a film documenting the human suffering inflicated by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.  This footage, albiet brief, lingers in the memory, although it doesn’t seem to have the desired effect on Moreau.  Possibly Paul was expecting the Professor to be repulsed, but he calmly tells them that “I spent two months in Hiroshima and believe me these pictures only give a second-hand idea of the effects of gamma radiation on the human body.” He begins to explain about the devastating effects of the blast, but is cut short by Paul, no doubt irritated that he’s no longer in control.

Moreau is summed up by Bob as having a mind like a steel trap.  The American sees no point in hanging onto him since his views (France must have the bomb, since others have it) appears to be inflexible.   But Paul, who was his star pupil, professes to know him better.  “He’s full of specious arguments and he doesn’t believe any of them.”

Whilst the British actors playing Chinese characters in The Dragon Slayer seemed to be careful to speak in their own normal tones, there’s no such rule in place in this episode as ripe French accents are the order of the day.  James Fox, under his real name William Fox, had been a child star in the early 1950’s, and his role here was a fairly early one in his adult career.  Paul is a simmering mass of resentment from the off and – as various revelations are made – he becomes more and more frayed around the edges.   It’s a fairly unsubtle turn, but Fox is still very watchable.

Perhaps wisely, Clifford Evans doesn’t attempt a French accent.  Probably best known for playing the wily Caswell Bligh in The Power Game, Evans is characteristically solid as Moreau (even if he’s a very Welsh sounding Frenchman!)

The, forgive the pun, power game between Paul and Moreau is at the centre of the story.  Paul blames Moreau for the fact that his father (also a scientist) died in disgrace, but Moreau is adamant that Paul’s father was a Nazi colloborator.  Paul reacts angrily to this and presses on with his plan to force Moreau to resign.

Essentially a five-hander, To The Very End is a claustrophobic tale.  There’s space for a debate on the rights and wrongs of atomic weapons, but the suspicion that Paul is simply out for revenge also means there’s a conventional crime-story feel.  It’s fair to say that it does lack a little suspense or tension – as the kidnappers (even Paul) seem misguided rather than fanatical and Moreau, puffing away contentedly on his cigarettes, doesn’t spend a great deal being treated as a prisoner.

But is there a twist in the tale? Their plans come to naught, so Paul decides to kill Moreau.  The final scene between Fox and Evans is played at an intense pitch (cross-cutting between close-ups of the two actors).   The resolution probably won’t come as a surprise, but it feels like the right decision. A fairly low-key entry then, but Fox and Evans do their best to raise the stakes.