Ivanhoe – Simply Media DVD Review

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.

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Anthony Bate

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).

Vivian Brooks

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).

Graham Weston

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.

Eric Flynn
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Here’s Harry – Simply Media DVD Review

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Although largely forgotten today, Harry Worth was a major television star of the sixties and seventies.  His rise to the top was neither straightforward or quick though – born Harry Bourlan Illingsworth in 1917, he left school at 14 and went straight to work down the local mine (he stuck it out for eight years, despite hating every minute of it).

As with so many entertainers of his generation, World War II was to prove defining.  Even when he’d been a miner, Worth had continued to hone his showbiz skills (practising his ventriloquism act whilst hewing coal for example).  Prior to WW2 he’d begun to ply his trade by working as a ventriloquist in the numerous working men’s clubs dotted around Yorkshire, but appearing in RAF shows gave the young Worth further valuable experience.

Following his demob, and still attempting to make it big with his wooden friends (at this point he was dubbed ‘The Versatile Vent’), Worth began his slow ascent to the top.  Like many of his contemporaries he played the notorious Windmill Theatre (“we never clothed”) as well as just about every variety theatre in the country.  During the forties and fifties the variety circuit was still thriving (although the rise of television would eventually kill it off) and Worth was able to make a living, just.

Frequently bottom of the bill, Worth’s career seemed to be heading nowhere, although a tour with Laurel and Hardy in 1952 would prove to be crucial.  After watching him from the wings, Oliver Hardy persuaded Worth that he should abandon his vent act and concentrate on becoming a comedian instead.  This was valuable advice and within a few years Worth would make his television debut, which in time would lead to his own series.

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John Ammonds, forever associated with the classic BBC Morecambe & Wise shows, would produce Worth’s debut series The Trouble With Harry (1960) and the bulk of the follow-up, Here’s Harry (1960 – 1965).  His next series, simply titled Harry Worth, would enjoy four successful runs between 1966 and 1970, at which point he decided to jump ship and join Thames (Morecambe & Wise and Mike Yarwood would later do exactly the same thing).

Like many other series of this era, Here’s Harry has a rather patchy survival rate.  Out of sixty episodes made, only eleven now exist (although it’s pleasing to note The Musician, recently recovered by Kaleidoscope, is included in this release).  Here’s what’s contained on the two DVDs –

Series Two

The Bicycle – 4th May 1961.  Featuring Wensley Pithy, Sam Kyd, Ivor Salter and Anthony Sharp.

The Holiday – 11th May 1961.  Featuring Ballard Berkeley, Ronnie Stevens, Meg Johnson and Reginald Marsh.

The Request – 18th May 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar and John Snagge.

The Medals – 1st June 1961.  Featuring Anthony Sharp and Totti Truman Taylor.

The Voice – 8th June 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, George Tovey, Sydney Tafler, Joe Gladwin and Meg Johnson.

Series Three

The Dance – 14th November 1961.  Featuring Ronnie Stevens, Reginald Marsh, Colin Douglas, Vi Stevens and Harold Goodwin.

The Plant – 21st November 1961.  Featuring Vi Stevens and Patrick Newell.

The Birthday – 5th December 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, Vi Stevens and Ivor Salter.

The Overdraft – 12th December 1961.  Featuring Gwendolyn Watts, Joe Gladwyn and Jack Woolgar.

The Last Train – 26th December 1961.  Featuring Harold Goodwin, Tony Melody, Jack Woolgar and Reginald Marsh.

Series Five

The Musician – 22nd November 1963.  Featuring Geoffrey Hibbert, Jack Woolgar and Max Jaffa.

What’s interesting about the surviving episodes is that – apart from the recently recovered The Musician – everything we have either comes from the second or third series.  Series two is virtually complete (only one episode missing) whilst the survival rate for the third series is also pretty good (five out of eight).

The various opening titles help to set the tone for the show. The iconic shop window sequence doesn’t debut until later (it’s only featured in this set on The Musician) so in series two and three we observe Harry strolling down the street, politely raising his hat to unseen passers by and almost colliding with a lampost. That he raises his hat to the lampost is a characteristic touch.

Worth, who lives in the fictional town of Woodbridge (at 52 Acacia Avenue with his cat, Tiddles, and his never seen aunt, Mrs Amelia Prendergast) is a familiar comic creation.  Buffeted by events, he rarely seems to be in control of his own destiny – instead he’s at the mercy of officialdom which is sometimes friendly and sometimes not.  But this never concerns Harry as he treats everybody with kindness and always remains totally oblivious to the fact that his presence serves as the catalyst for terrible disasters.

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Other similar character types – Tony Hancock, Frank Spencer, Victor Meldrew – can easily be brought to mind but Worth’s style is quite different as there’s a warmth about his befuddled comic persona that’s very appealing.

Vince Powell and Harry Driver were the most prolific writers across the seven series, which should allow you to gauge the general level of scripting (both were competent scribes, although hardly in the same league as Galton & Simpson or Clement & Le Frenais).  Not that this really matters as the scripts are simply the starting point – Here’s Harry stands or falls on Worth’s ability to make his shtick work (and when he’s placed in opposition to a decent performer then things chug along very merrily).

The Bicycle serves as a perfect example of the way the show operates. Harry is more than upset when a total stranger regularly decides to leave his bicycle outside his house and decides to seek legal advice, although the solicitor (played by Anthony Sharp) is naturally nonplussed about exactly how he can help. Over the course of about ten minutes Harry’s amiable idiocy is enough to reduce Sharp’s solicitor to a gibbering wreck. But when Harry learns that the bike belongs to Ivor Salter’s police constable, Harry (who’s hidden the bike in his shed) becomes frantic with worry ….

Later tangles with Sam Kyd’s postman and Wensley Pithy’s chief constable are further examples of the way Harry so often leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. The “sit” part of this comedy is remarkably slight (a missing bicycle) but it’s plain that each situation is simply the excuse for Worth to move from one authority figure to the next, each time causing mayhem.

Harry’s child-like nature and undeveloped view of the world is further evidenced in The Holiday (he believes that it’s perfectly possible to catch a bus straight from London to Monte Carlo). A long-suffering travel agent is the latest person to suffer from Harry’s presence, although he gets off relatively lightly (Ronnie Stevens’ remarkably camp photographer – tasked with the job of taking Harry’s passport photos – doesn’t fare so well). Ballard Berkeley and Reginald Marsh – both wonderful performers – are also lined up to take their dose of punishment from Mr Worth.

There’s a touch of gentle satire at play in The Request as Harry turns up at the BBC, keen to ensure that a request for his Auntie gets played on Housewives Choice. Due to a barely credible misunderstanding he gets mistaken for a singer (Worth does croon a little bit of Are You Lonesome Tonight quite well though) and then decides to roam the corridors of the BBC, causing chaos wherever he goes (such as interrupting the iconic newsreader John Snagge mid broadcast). His face may not be familiar, but Snagge’s voice is unmistakable and it’s lovely to see him end up as Harry’s latest victim.

The remaining surviving episodes of series one – The Medals and The Choice – maintain the high standard, with Anthony Sharp, this time as a Brigadier, returning in The Medals to once again cross swords with Harry.

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Amongst the surviving shows from series three, both The Overdraft and The Last Train are highlights.  A visit by Harry to the bank in The Overdraft has plenty of obvious comic potential.  He informs the long-suffering assistant that he wishes to deposit three pounds ten shillings (to enable him to draw out precisely the same amount!) This is so he can extract his money in a bewildering and precise series of coins, all the better for then depositing them in a plethora of tins (for the gas bill, newspapers, etc, etc).

The Last Train finds a festive Harry patiently waiting for his train home.  It seems a bit odd for trains to be running on Christmas Day but it helps to explain why some of the staff are rather downcast.  Harry’s not of course, he’s a regular ray of Christmas sunshine – although his well-meaning efforts to entertain and help don’t always have the results he’d hoped for.  Not that this concerns Harry who – as always – breezes through each and every situation, totally oblivious to the havoc he’s causing.

The final existing show – the recently returned The Musician – features a guest appearance from Max Jaffa.  Like John Snagge, Jaffa’s a good sport (the typically dense Harry knows that Jaffa is someone famous, he just can’t remember who).  The moment when Jaffa tells him who he is and Harry removes his hat in respect is a delight as is the way that Harry initially mistakes him for the music hall comedian Jimmy Wheeler (for good measure Harry throws in Wheeler’s famous catchphrase – “Aye, aye, that’s your lot!” – to increasingly befuddle his famous companion).

Whilst it’s undeniably formulaic, the surviving episodes of Here’s Harry are also undeniably entertaining. The combustible combination of the well-meaning but inadvertent loose cannon that is Harry and the range of authority figures he finds himself encountering (some pleasant, some not) is the reason why the show works as well as it does. The situations may often be slight, but the way that Harry and his co-stars interact is always a joy.  Something of a neglected comic treat it’s a pleasure to see it available on DVD and comes warmly recommended.

Here’s Harry is released by Simply Media on the 11th of September.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of his mother in childbirth, the young Oliver Twist (Bruce Prochnik) is placed in the indifferent care of the state.  His childhood is a miserable one and eventually he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he encounters the devious Fagin (Max Adrian) who has no compunction in manipulating the trusting and naïve Oliver to serve his own ends ….

Published between February 1837 and April 1839, Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel and remains one of his evergreen tales, evidenced by the numerous film, television and stage adaptations it has inspired.  David Lean’s 1948 film and the stage/film musical by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) are possibly the most memorable, although there have also been multiple television adaptations as well.

This one, broadcast between January and April 1962, was the first BBC version and as might be expected remained very faithful to the original novel.  Constance Cox had already adapted Bleak House and would go on to tackle several other classic Dickens novels during the 1960’s (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewitt, A Tale of Two Cities) although sadly out of those three only a few episodes from A Tale of Two Cities currently exist.

Bruce Prochnik, playing the eponymous Olivier, had a pretty short television career (1961 – 1965) with Olivier Twist by far his most substantial role (he had a handful of later credits in series such as Taxi! and Emergency Ward-10).  It’s interesting to note that post-Olivier he popped up a couple of times on Juke Box Jury.  Clearly this serial had been successful enough to turn him into a household name for a short time.

An early signature moment occurs when Olivier, by this point a starving inmate of the workhouse, timorously asks for another bowl of gruel. There’s a grimy hopelessness about these early episodes. Workhouse life is shown to be hard and unrelenting (with a piece of bread, once a week on Sundays, about the only thing the boys have to look forward to).

Bruce Prochnik

Mr Bumble (Willoughby Goddard), the Parish Beadle, is shocked by Oliver’s behaviour. It’s hard to imagine anybody could have been better cast as Bumble than the corpulant Goddard, who’s always a pleasure to watch.

Olivier’s insurrectionist behaviour makes him an embarrasment to the workhouse board, so they decide to remove the problem. He’s apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry (Donald Eccles), although it’s debatable whether he’s better off here than he was in the workhouse. Mrs Sowerberry (Barbara Hicks) certainly has little time for the boy (Oliver’s first meal are the cold scraps which had been left out for the dog). Hicks, who had gone way over the top in Barnaby Rudge, is thankfully more restrained in her brief appearance here.

Once this section of the story is completed, the action moves to London where the innocent Olivier falls in with the worst crowd impossible.  Two very familiar actors (Melvyn Hayes and Alan Rothwell) appear as the Artful Dodger and his wise-cracking sidekick Charley Bates. Both Hayes and Rothwell make for appealing rogues, although their roles in the story are fairly slight.

It’s the grotesque Fagin (Max Adrian) and the intimidating Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughan) who will come to dominate the narrative.  Adrian was a noted classical stage actor who also managed to carve out an impressive film and television career. Across the decades Peter Vaughan would rack up some memorable appearances in Charles Dickens serials and his portrayal of Bill Sikes is a typically impressive one – from the moment we first meet him there’s an air of menace and simmering violence in the air.

The corruption of the green Oliver (Prochnik continues to radiate a sense of wide-eyed innocence) by Fagin, Dodger and Charley is another horrifying and distubing scene. Far removed from the chirpy cockney sing-alongs of Oliver!, this adaptation accurately reflects the bleakness of Dickens’ original novel.

Max Adrian & Bruce Prochnik

As the serial progreases, the plot-threads deepen. Why does a gentleman like Monks (John Carson) consort with the likes of Fagin and why is Monks so insistent that Fagin keeps a tight grip on Oliver? Carson, later to take the lead in Dombey & Son, was one of those actors who enhanced any production he appeared in (his tortured, conflicted Monks is no exception to this rule).

Everybody we’ve met so far has either mistreated Oliver or desired to use him for their own ends, so it’s therefore jolting when he finally runs into somebody who treats him with kindness. Mr Brownlow (George Curzon) initially accused the blameless Oliver of picking his pocket (Dodger and Charley were responsible). The contrite Brownlow takes him home and nurses the emaciated boy back to health.

Now that Oliver has a benevolent benefactor, his luck finally seems to have changed. But Fagin and Sikes, convinced that Oliver intends to inform on them, are determined to snatch him back ….

Bill Sikes’ relationship with the prostitute Nancy (Carmel McSharry) runs through the middle part of the serial with Nancy’s most famous scene – her murder at the hands of a vicious Sikes – proving to be a shocking moment. Although it’s not graphically violent, Vaughan and McSharry manage to give the scene considerable resonance by their performances alone.  Sikes’ clubbing to death of the unfortunate Nancy was deemed to be so disturbing that it was later edited down before the serial was offered for sale (the prints we have here were recovered from overseas, hence the reason why they’re slightly edited at this point).

Poor Olivier is again ensnared in Fagin’s web of crime although it’s not too long before he finds himself free once more.  It slightly stretches credibility that Olivier would stumble across another well-to-do family who elect to take him in, although this sort of plotting (and remarkable coincidences regarding Olivier’s parentage) are par for the course with early Dickens.

The production – as with the other Dickens serials recently released by Simply – is very studio-based. Photographic blow-ups of buildings are used to give a sense of depth (these work pretty well, although there’s no doubt that on the lower-definition television sets of the 1960’s the illusion would have been even more convincing). Sound-effects are utilized to generate a sense of hustle and bustle whilst Ron Grainer’s incidental music is used sparingly at key moments.

If Bruce Prochnik begins to irritate after a while (his Olivier is rather squeaky and a little too clean-cut) then there’s substantial acting compensations to be found elsewhere. Apart from those already mentioned, Peggy Thorpe-Bates and the always entertaining William Mervyn help to enliven proceedings.

The telerecordings were restored by Peter Crocker at SVS (Crocker, well known in archive television circles for his work on the Doctor Who DVDs, is the very definition of a safe pair of hands). VidFIRE seemed to be out of the question (presumably because the telerecordings weren’t of a sufficent standard) but the restoration helps to make the serial a more pleasant viewing experience than it would have been before.

Whilst there’s numerous adaptations of Olivier Twist to choose from, this one – thanks to the fidelity it displays to Dickens’ original novel and the performances (especially Peter Vaughan’s rampaging Bill Sikes) – is certainly worth checking out.  Recommended.

Olivier Twist is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Melvyn Hayes, Carmel McSharry & Peter Vaughan

Barnaby Rudge (BBC, 1960) – Simply Media DVD Review

Barnaby Rudge was the first of Charles Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being The Tale of Two Cities).  Set during the late eighteenth century, it climaxed at the Gordon Riots of 1780.  Largely forgotten today, the Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest which quickly spiralled out of control.  A group of between 40,000 and 60,000 protestors nursing various grievances – including the increasing Catholic influence sweeping the country, high taxes, overcrowded cities and repressive laws – ran amok on the streets of London.  The riots raged on for several days until the army were eventually able to brutally restore order.  But by this point some 285 people had been shot dead with several hundred more wounded.

If the Gordon Riots are forgotten today, then a similar fate has befallen Barnaby Rudge.  Easily Dickens’ most obscure novel, this is evidenced by the fact that this 1960 serial remains the only television adaptation.   Published between February and November 1841, it came quite early in his career – which explains why it feels a little episodic and unfocused at times.

Barnaby Rudge himself (played by John Wood) is a simple-minded chap, buffeted along by events rather than directly influencing them.  It’s a difficult part to play – there’s no malice in Barnaby – but Wood is generally pretty effective as the easily-manipulated innocent. But whilst he may be the title character he’s not the central one – Barnaby drifts in and out of the narrative, appearing and disappearing as required.

John Wood & Isabel Dean

Episode one opens with a stranger (played by Nigel Arkwright) asking the local innkeeper about the nearby grand house owned by Geoffrey Haredale (Peter Williams). It’s a dark and stormy night outside – achieved via sound effects and camera trickery (simple but effective).

Arthur Brough, later best known as Mr Grainger in Are You Being Served?, here plays John Willet, the innkeeper. Puffing on a long pipe he helps to tease out a strange story which much will later become significant. The mysterious murders twenty two years ago of Geoffrey’s brother, Reuben, and Reuben’s loyal servant Rudge (Barnaby’s father) are mysteries which are still debated by the locals to this day.

Arkwright doesn’t offer a subtle performance, but it’s a menacing one as he brings out the simmering violence which powers his character. Joan Hickson, as Mrs Varden, also isn’t holding back, but this broad playing suits the shrewish character she plays.

The remainder of the Varden household are also deftly sketched out. Head of the household, Gabriel (Newton Blick), is an affable sort who’s often to be found allied with his attractive young daughter Dolly (Jennifer Daniel) against their wife and mother.

Rellgious dogma will later become the central theme of the story, although to begin with it’s teased out in a casual manner – Mrs Varden’s constant quoting from the bible or the way that John Chester (Raymond Huntley) regards Emma Haredale (Eira Heath) as an unsuitable wife for his son due to her religion – but as the serial progresses the conflict between Catholics and Protestants will become more marked. Huntley, playing to type as the austere and flinty Chester, offers a standout performance. Some others may essay broad, comic performances during the serial, but Huntley is agreeably more naturalistic.

Gabriel Varden, a locksmith by trade, has an apprentice, Simon Tappertit (Timothy Bateson), who has set his cap at Dolly (although she regards him with casual indifference). As in Bleak House, Bateson delivers a lovely comic performance, although there’s a harder edge to this character. Like many others, he possesses a simmering discontent (although with him it’s not relgious concerns, instead his ire is directed towards those he regards as his wealthy oppressors).

As the first half of the serial progresses, various plotlines are developed. Simon’s links with a group of dissident apprentices who meet in secret and dream of violent disobedience against their oppressive masters, the curious link between Barnaby’s mother and the mysterious stranger, Joe Willit’s (Alan Haywood) longing for the flitish Dolly and the forbidden love between Edward Chester (Bernard Brown) and Emma Haredale are all teased out.

Eira Heath & Jennifer Daniel

Mid way through the serial, several major new characters – such as anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon (Anthony Sharp) – are introduced as we proceed on the path to the Gordon Riots. Gordon is a fanatic, whose cry of “No Popery” quickly becomes a popular sentiment amongst the masses.

Geoffrey Haredale, a staunch Catholic, spells out what precisely what these two simple words could mean. “I have, tonight, seen an ignorant and unhappy people roused. They know nothing of what the repeal of the act means, but ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to right all their wrongs. ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to give them food, shelter, clothes, work and drink”.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it …..

The production design is very sound. Real horses (never easy to control in a studio) occasionally appear and the outside of Geoffrey Haredale’s house is depicted via a painted backdrop. This is a very theatrical way of generating a sense of depth and scale, but it works. More backdrops are in evidence when the action moves to the streets of London, whilst the later episodes are also opened out thanks to a judicious use of filmed inserts. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the riots was far beyond the means of the production, but director Morris Barry marshalled his resources well. Even with the limited number of extras at his disposal, Barry was effectively able to show the ugliness of mob violence.

It’s fair to say that some parts of the story work better than others. Edward and Emma’s romance never really sparks into life – not really the fault of the actors though, it’s simply that the two characters are never sharply defined. Barbara Hicks, as the Varden’s maid Miggs, gives a performance that can best be described as “broad”. It’s a typically comic Dickens character, but Hicks’ shrieking does become wearying after a while.

But on the credit side there are many fine performances, most notably that of Raymond Huntley. His timing is spot-on (plus his brief interactions with Timothy Bateson and Joan Hickson are rather delightful).

The introduction of Lord George Gordon is the point at which the story rapidly changes direction. This is a little jarring, but the influx of new characters does help to give the serial a fresh impetus. One notable new arrival is Esmond Knight (previously he had memorably played Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend) .  Here he appears as Dennis the Hangman, one of a number of individuals who encapsulate the baser end of society.

Like other surviving drama of this era, the source materials are telerecordings taken from the original 405 line broadcasts. The recordings may exhibit the occasional spot of damage or dirt, but overall the picture quality is more than watchable (although the concluding episode is notably poorer than the others).

Although a handful of performances are less than effective and the story feels somewhat disjointed (it’s essentially two seperate tales bolted together) Barnaby Rudge is still a serial of considerable interest. The theme of the later episodes feels eerily topical, offering a sharp change of pace from the countryside intrigues of the first half.  It’s another well-crafted Classic Serial which, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. Well worth adding to your collection.

Barnaby Rudge is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Bleak House (BBC, 1959) – Simply Media DVD Review

Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Colin Jeavons and Elizabeth Shepherd) are two young wards of court, enmeshed in a seemingly unending court case – that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  John Jarndyce (Andrew Cruickshank) also has an interest in it and despite being on the opposing side to Richard and Ada is happy to take custody of them both.

So Richard and Ada, along with Ada’s companion Esther Summerson (Diana Fairfax), take up their residence at Jarndyce’s country home, Bleak House.  Others, such as the nearby Lady Dedlock (Iris Russell), are also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but that isn’t the reason why the arrival of Richard, Ada and Esther impacts so dramatically on her hitherto quiet life ….

Originally published between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House is a typically sprawling work by Dickens, notable for the way it switches between first and third person narration.

It has been tackled three times for television, with two further adaptations (in 1985 and 2005) following this one.  Both of the later adaptations are, in their different ways, of interest.  The 1985 Bleak House was one of the earliest BBC Dickens productions to be made entirely on film – this glossy production style would quickly become a standard production model, signalling the death knell for the old-style videotaped Classic Serial productions which until then had been a staple of the schedules for decades.

When Bleak House next hit the screens, via Andrew Davies’ adaptation in 2005, it was hailed as innovative – due to its half-hour twice-weekly scheduling which, according to the critics, gave it a soap-like feel as well as simulating the partwork feel of Dickens’ originals.  Presumably these critics must have been unaware that the running time for the Classic Serials, broadcast between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, also tended to be half an hour …

Elizabeth Shepherd, Diana Fairfax and Colin Jeavons

It’s unfortunate that, despite a lengthy career, Elizabeth Shepherd seems fated to be remembered for the part that got away – that of Emma Peel in The Avengers.  Despite having already filmed some material for her first episode, for whatever reason it was quickly decided to dispense with her services and Diana Rigg was hastily drafted in.  Although Ada is the least developed of the main roles, Shepherd still acquits herself well. Ada’s a sweet, uncomplicated girl, with none of the subconscious dark secrets that trouble Esther.

At this point in his career, aged thirty, Colin Jeavons was no stranger to either television or Charles Dickens.  He’d played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (also 1959) and the same year had also appeared as Henry V in The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff.  Jeavons made a career out of playing slightly off-key characters and although Richard seems at first to be quite level-headed, there’s still a faint air of instability about him – something which Jeavons is well able to tease out as the serial progresses.  Richard is a young man with a bright future, but it’s precisely what that future will be which proves to be the problem.

Diana Fairfax was also no stranger to classic serials.  Prior to Bleak House she’d appeared in The Diary of Samuel Pepys whilst the next year, 1960, would see her perform in both Emma and Kipps.  Esther is the moral centre of the story, although it takes some time for her importance to become obvious (to begin with, she appears to be little more than Ada’s loyal companion).

Andrew Cruickshank might have been a few years away from his defining role – that of the curmudgeonly, but kindly Dr Cameron in Dr Finlay’s Casebook – but he’d been a familiar face on both the big and small screen since the late 1930’s.  Cruickshank is excellent as John Jarndyce – a lonely man who delights that his house has been brought back to life by the influx of three young people.

Andrew Cruickshank

As is usual, Dickens created a rogues gallery of supporting players – all of whom are gifts for any decent actor.  Timothy Bateson appeals as Mr Guppy, a young solicitor with an unrequited love for Esther. This is obvious from their first meeting when he appreciates her fresh-faced country look (“no offence”). Bateson’s comic timing is given full reign here.

It’s always a pleasure to see Michael Aldridge (playing Mr George) whilst another very dependable character actor, Jerome Willis, also enlivens proceedings as Allan Woodcourt. Nora Nicholson offers us a vivid portrait as Miss Flyte – an elderly woman now more than a little deranged from her own endless court case (if Richard and Ada pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, will they end up like her?)

He may not be on screen for too long, but Wilfred Brambell sketches an appealing cameo as the grasping Krook.  Brambell had also made a memorable appearance in the previous BBC Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, and wasn’t the only actor to have appeared in both serials.  Richard Pearson and William Mervyn also have that honour, with Pearson – here playing the dogged Inspector Bucket – also catching the eye.

Tulkinghorn, the oppressive lawyer who digs into Lady Deadlock’s long-buried secret is another key character. John Phillips doesn’t have Peter Vaughan’s menacing screen presence (Vaughan played Tulkinghorn in the 1985 adaptation) instead he essays a sense of remorseless blankness, which works just as well.

As might be expected, the serial is pretty much studio bound with the occasional brief film insert. The telerecordings are slightly muddy, but no worse than other examples from the same period. And while the prints may exhibit occasional damage there’s nothing too dramatic – meaning that the serial is more than watchable.

Lacking the visual sweep of the later adaptations, this version of Bleak House has to stand or fall on the quality of its actors. Luckily, there’s very little to complain about here. There are some fine central performances – Fairfax, Cruickshank and Jeavons especially – whilst, as touched upon earlier, there’s strength in depth from the supporting players with Timothy Bateson standing out.

Another strong early BBC Dickens serial, Bleak House comes warmly recommended.

Bleak House is released by Simply Media today. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Colin Jeavons, Elizabeth Shepherd & Diana Fairfax

The Prince of Denmark – Simply Media DVD Review

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Although largely forgotten today, Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman had a lengthy sitcom partnership with Ronnie Corbett (they ended up penning three different comedy shows for him).  First, along with Eric Idle, they created No – That’s Me Over Here, which ran for three series between 1967 and 1970 on ITV.  The first two series no longer exist, although one episode is possibly held in private hands.   Series three is available from Network.

After Corbett and Barker moved from ITV to the BBC in the early seventies, Corbett’s sitcom career continued with Now Look Here (1971 – 1973).  Rosemary Leach, who had also appeared in No – That’s Me Over Here, returned, although since she was now playing Laura, rather than Rosemary, the series clearly wasn’t a direct continuation.  Mind you, Ronnie was still playing Ronnie and to all intents and purposes was pretty much the same character (unlike his long-time comedy colleague, Ronnie Barker, Corbett tended to stick with a very similar comic persona).

Something of a precursor to Sorry!, Corbett’s most popular sitcom success, Now Look Here saw Ronnie attempting to break free from the stifling influence of his mother.  The difference was that in Now Look Here he does (albeit his new house is just a few doors away) and by the second and final series he was married to Laura.  Although a release from Simply was announced, it was then pulled due to unspecified rights issues.  Hopefully these problems can be ironed out and it’ll reappear on the schedule at a later date.

The Prince of Denmark (1974) followed on directly from Now Look Here.  This series saw Ronnie and Laura running a pub (hence the series’ title) which Laura had inherited.  Ronnie, despite knowing nothing about the pub game, blithely assumes he knows best and frequently overrides the good advice offered by those around him, with inevitably disastrous comic results.

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Ronnie Corbett & Rosemary Leach

The pub setting is a fruitful one, since it allows new comic characters to keep popping up in each show.  Making appearances were a host of familiar faces, including Derek Deadman, Richard Davies, Harold Goodwin, Mary Hignett, Claire Neilson (also a regular on The Two Ronnies) and Geoffrey Palmer. Penny Irving adds a touch of glamour as the pneumatic barmaid Polly.

The dependable David Warwick appeared in all six episodes as the long-suffering barman Steve whilst the pub also boasted several semi-regulars.  These included Mr Blackburn (Tim Barrett) who never manages to catch his train due to the fact he always stays for one more drink and a crossword addict (played by Michael Nightingale) who only talks in riddles.  The unmistakable Declan Mulholland, playing the abusive Danny, also helps to enliven a couple of episodes.

The first episode opens with Ronnie and Laura visiting their new pub incognito. Ronnie’s pedantic, uppity and pompous (complaining about the service and the fellow customers whilst also muttering darkly that there’s going to be changes) whilst Laura is much more patient and understanding. These traits will be repeated across the series time and time again.

And the price of Ronnie’s half a bitter and Laura’s small sherry? Twenty five pence, which is a bargain!

The start-up screen displays the following disclaimer. “Due to the archive nature of this material, modern audiences may find some of it editorially challenging. In order to present the content as transmitted, no edits have been made. We ask that viewers remain mindful of the period in which it was commissioned and transmitted”.

This seems to be due to the moment in the opening episode where we see a black customer, Reg (Lee Davis), tell the departing licensee, Mrs Bowman (Maggie Hanley) that her pies are disgusting (she suggests he eats a missionary instead). That’s the only slightly off-key joke I can find, which makes the disclaimer seem a little anti-climactic.

Since the first episode went out at 7:40 pm, it’s surprising to hear Declan Mulholland’s truculent troublemaker call Ronnie a bastard several times. Another interesting point is the later scene where Ronnie mistakes an ordinary customer for a Brewery bigwig and fawns over him whilst roundly abusing the real Brewery man.  Given Graham Chapman’s involvement, it’s highly likely that his old comedy partner John Cleese would have tuned in. Could this have inspired Cleese to pen the later Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors?

By the third episode things are ticking along nicely. This one boasts a strong guest cast – Richard Davies, Claire Nielson, Geoffrey Palmer – and sees Ronnie cast as a confidant and sage to his customers. The only problem is his total lack of understanding.  For example, when Davies’ character mentions that he believes in a benign oligarchy, all Ronnie can do is nod sagely. Ronnie’s increasing desperation as he’s quizzed about his views on democracy is nicely done.

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Ronnie Corbett & Geoffrey Palmer

Ronnie’s exuberant cheeky-chappy persona is precisely what Martin (Geoffrey Palmer) doesn’t need as he’s suffering from marriage problems. And when Martin’s wife, Alison (Claire Nielson), turns up, Ronnie once again puts his foot in it. Corbett and Palmer play off each other very well (is it just another coincidence that both Palmer and Nielson would later check into Fawlty Towers?). Although Corbett overplays somewhat, Palmer is a model of restraint and it’s probably their differing styles which helps to make this one flow nicely.

Show four opens with Ronnie in the kitchen, attempting (but failing disastrously) to make Laura a snack whilst she enjoys a quiet bath. Whilst it offers a change of pace from the bar scenes, the visual comedy on offer is somewhat laboured (and subject to some hard edits – one moment the pan is on fire, the next it isn’t).

Elsewhere, Ronnie’s prejudices are on display. He declares that all football supporters are hooligans unlike followers of rugby, who are gentlemen. Given this set-up, no prizes for guessing what happens when a large crowd of rugger fans turn up. The highly-recognisable Michael Sharvell-Martin pops up as Gerry, captain of the rugby team, whilst the equally-recognisable Harry Fielder and Pat Gorman (familiar background faces from this era of television) are also present.

Ronnie’s jukebox jiving in show five is a highlight and seems to briefly amuse what is otherwise a very muted audience. When Ronnie treats a couple of customers to his regular joke about the Irishman in the restaurant, the punchline doesn’t raise a titter either from them or the studio audience. This episode also seems to have the strongest Graham Chapman feel, as what begins as a quiet night quickly spins out of control. The comic escalation we see is a touch Pythonesque.

Although Ronnie’s character remains highly smackable throughout, Corbett’s timing ensures that he makes the most of the material he’s given. It’s just a slight pity that Rosemary Leach didn’t have more to work with.

This was an era where female members of comedy couples were often dominant (Terry & June, George & Mildred) and although Laura is clearly much more sensible and level-headed than her husband, she’s less well drawn than either June or Mildred. More often than not Laura isn’t called on to do much more than show exasperation at Ronnie’s latest flight of fancy.

No lost classic then, but The Prince of Denmark should be of interest to both Ronnie Corbett fans and devotees of seventies British sitcoms. Although the scripts can be a little weak in places (surprising given Cryer and Chapman’s track record) it’s still enjoyable fare, thanks to the familar faces guesting and Corbett’s energetic performance. Recommended.

The Prince of Denmark is released by Simply Media on the 17th of July 2017.  RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here

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Out of the Blue – Simply Media DVD Review

Running for two series and twelve episodes between 1995 and 1996, Out of the Blue is a somewhat overlooked police series.  Filmed in Sheffield, it’s a bleak and unsettling show which doesn’t attempt to wrap each episode up with a happy ending (or at times a definite conclusion).  The frenetic hand-held camerawork gives the series a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere at times (seemingly inspired by the likes of Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street).

If Out of the Blue has a flaw then it’s probably that there’s few surprises – many of the regulars are character types we’ve seen many times before in other police series (the unorthodox maverick, the woman making her way in a man’s world, etc).

But the fact that Out of the Blue didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel shouldn’t count too strongly against it.  One plus point is the fact that all twelve episodes were scripted by Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher (often together, sometimes apart) – this gives the series a feeling of unity whilst the strong cast (a mixture of experienced hands and younger talent) is also something to be counted in its favour.

With a large cast of regulars and only six episodes to play with, the first episode of series one has to hit the ground running.  Several cases (the murder of a man already dying of cancer, the rape of a middle-aged woman) help to bring the motely group of detectives into sharp focus.

(L-R, Back Row) DC Bruce Hannaford (LENNIE JAMES), DC Tony Bromley (ANDY RASHLEIGH), DC Ron Ludlow (PETER WIGHT) and DC Marty Brazil (NEIL DUDGEON)
(L-R, Front Row) DS Frank ‘Franky’ Drinkall (JOHN HANNAH) DI Eric Temple (JOHN DUTTINE) DC Warren Allen (DARRELL D’SILVA) and DS Becky Bennett (ORLA BRADY)

DI Eric Temple (John Duttine) has the job of keeping them in order. He generally isn’t called on to do a great deal except bark some gruff orders, but having a familiar television face (and a good actor, of course) like Duttine helps to bring Temple to life.

DS Becky Bennett (Orla Brady) is the lone female detective, meaning that she’s a source of fascination for her unreconstructed male colleagues. Her decision during series one to conduct a clandestine affair with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) will no doubt set tongues wagging …

DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) carries something of a torch for Becky, but his general persona – the nice guy who never gets the girl – suggests that he’s going to end up disappointed.

DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for a classic team. Marty is a wisecracking, unpredictable loose cannon (Dudgeon making the strongest impression during these early episodes) whilst Ron is the more dependable, solid type. Ron’s a devoted family man, although the fact that he’s still involved with his divorced ex-wife suggests he’s been taking his family duties rather too far (especially since his current wife has been kept totally in the dark).

Neil Dudgeon & Peter Wight

DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) is a high-flier, tipped for the top – although his epilepsy looks set to put paid to that. His long-suffering partner, DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James), has to take the brunt of his moody outbursts.

Although Hannah had been acting since the late eighties, Out of the Blue was his first regular television role. Almost immediately afterwards he would star as the unorthodox McCallum, which was just a slight change from playing the unorthodox Franky.  Since Franky is such a monumentally unlikeable character it’s to Hannah’s credit that he never attempts to soften his playing, instead he allows us to plainly see just what a monster DS Drinkall is.

Franky’s epilepsy and the fall-out from it, would be a running thread throughout the first series.  It’s just a pity that, due to the fact there were only six episodes, it isn’t a plotline that has too much room to breathe (we learn about it in episode one, everyone else does in episode two, etc).  A longer episode count would have enabled it to be spread out a little more, which would have worked to the series’ benefit.

Rounding off the team is DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh).  Newly transferred, he spends much of the first episode as a silent observer, but he later makes his presence felt.  A former teacher (and a devout believer in God) he makes for an unlikely copper, but his character – a patient, non-judgemental listener – will prove to be useful on occasions.

Most of the episodes tend to juggle several storylines, with many of the crimes having clear consequences for both the victims and perpetrators. One of the most striking things about the series is how the lines are blurred between the law-breakers and the law-makers. Not, for once, in the area of police corruption – instead we see that a number of serious crimes weren’t triggered by evil intent, instead the criminals were motivated by fear or boredom.  This is more disturbing than plain malice and although Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher don’t hammer the point home, it seems to be suggested that both the system and the environment has its part to play in shaping the actions of those who operate on the wrong side of the law.

Following a dramatic conclusion to the first series, Out of the Blue returned for a second and final run of six episodes in late 1996.  The cast pretty much remained the same, although Becky’s love interest had departed.  The major change saw David Morrissey fill the gap left by the departed John Hannah.  Morrissey played DS Jim “Lew” Lewyn, a maverick copper with secrets.  Mmm, not at all like Franky then ….

David Morrissey

Although Lew’s not a terribly original character, he helps to shake up the established team.  Temple might have been aware of some of Franky’s less admirable traits, but there was no doubt that he respected him.  But Lew arrives with considerable baggage and Temple isn’t prepared to cut him the same sort of slack.

Whilst Lew is treating suspects to his own unique brand of policing, the others have various personal problems to overcome.  Warren’s run of bad luck on the emotional front seems to be over after he snags a new girlfriend – Lucy Shaw (Nicola Stephenson).  But she turns out to be somewhat unstable, so Warren’s soon back to square one and not even the solicitous Becky can cheer him up (he decides he doesn’t want her pity).

Bruce is also feeling the pressure.  He’s always been tightly wound, but there are times when even an innocent remark can set him off – on one notable occasion he and Warren come to blows at the pub.

The storylines continue to be as uncompromising as ever.  Episode three, which concerns a male rape, attracted a certain amount of attention at the time whilst the fourth – featuring Neil Stuke as Tommy Defty, a seemingly untouchable drug-dealer – is a particular highlight.  The final episode (revolving around the death of a fourteen-year old prostitute) is yet another strongly-scripted and well-played story.

Out of the Blue failed to be renewed for a third series.  Possibly this was because, as previously touched upon, it wasn’t doing anything we hadn’t seen before.  This was a pity because there was potential there – maybe an increased episode count would have helped to strengthen and broaden both the format and the characters.

Shot on 16mm film, Out of the Blue looks somewhat gritty and grainy.  This no doubt chimes with the series’ aesthetic – bright colours and sunshine wouldn’t have been the correct tone – but the picture quality probably also reflects the age of the masters (although what we have is perfectly watchable).

Although it never made a great deal of impact at the time, Out of the Blue is still of considerable interest.  Not only for the strong cast, but also for the way that it generates a snapshot of the seedier end of mid nineties Britain.  Warmly recommended.

Out of the Blue is released by Simply Media on the 10th of July 2017.  RRP £34.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

David Morrissey, Orla Brady & Neil Dudgeon