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.

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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.

David Morrissey, Orla Brady & Neil Dudgeon

The Brothers – Series Seven. Simply Media DVD Review

Within the first few minutes of the series seven opener – To Honour and Obey – it’s plain that change is in the air.  First we have a new title sequence which acknowledges that Hammond Transport is now about more than lorries (shots of swooping aircraft makes that plain).

But even more startling is the fact that we’re presented with the sight of Paul Merroney (Colin Baker) having a shave.  All of the main characters (with the exception of Paul) have previously had their private lives investigated in exhaustive (and some might say exhausting) detail. Up until now Paul’s has been exempt from this – indeed the others have unkindly referred to him as a robot on more than one occasion, suggesting that he doesn’t have a private life at all.

Seeing Paul Merroney in any other setting than a purely business one is something of a jolt, but since this episode is concerned with his wedding I guess we’re going to have to get used to it.  Brian (Richard Easton) is his best man, which rather implies that poor Paul is somewhat lacking in friends.  Although his bride-to-be April (Liza Goddard) might make up for that.  Or maybe not, let’s wait to see how their marriage plays out ….

Liza Goddard & Colin Baker

Given Brian’s previous problems with the bottle, it’s a little strange that he got drunk at Paul’s stag party (a pity we didn’t see it, I’m sure it would have been a hoot – no doubt Paul was stuck in the corner, sipping a tomato juice). Paul then discusses his father (in the first five minutes we learn more about Paul the man than we had in the last two and a bit series).

We’re quickly introduced to members of April’s family. Her father, Lord Winter (Anthony Nicholls), has little time for his son-in-law-to-be and April’s brother, Simon (Terence Frisby), shares his disdain – although since Simon and Paul are involved in a power-struggle at the bank, at least their conflict is professional rather than personal (Lord Winter just considers him to be a dull fellow).

Brian’s children have been conspicuous by their absence for most of the series to date. Even when he and his former wife, Ann, were together we never saw much of them. So when Brian’s daughter Carol (Debbie Farrington) suddenly turns up, it’s a bit of a jolt. Mind you, that’s nothing compared to the shock when Ann (Hilary Tindall) also reappears ….

I’ve missed Ann, so it’s lovely to see her again – even if it’s only a fleeting visit. With Brian now entering a tentative relationship with Jane Maxwell (Kate O’Mara), Ann’s presence certainly helps to shake up the status quo, although Carol is the key figure here – seemingly undecided about whether to live with her mother or father.

Carol’s now a new-age hippy chick but Ann’s still the same old Ann. They both bow out in episode four, The Female of the Species, with Carol rather bamboozling Brian before she goes. And before Ann leaves she has the chance to confront Jane (Hilary Tindall and Kate O’Mara – an implacable force meeting an immovable object).

Happy marriages are something of a rarity in The Brothers.  This series Ted (Patrick O’Connell) and Jenny (Jennifer Wilson) are the first to suffer a few bumps in the matrimonial road.  Although they’ve always seemed well-suited, it should be remembered that as soon as they tied the knot Jenny became incredibly bossy (her ill-fated desire for a child was just one of the times when Ted – a hard-case in business but a teddy-bear at home – gave way).

Patrick O’Connell & Jennifer Wilson

This year Ted’s showing signs of mellowing on the business front.  Spending time away on a business course helped him to finally release that Paul Merroney wasn’t quite the villain he always believed him to be (something the viewers twigged some time back).  When he returns home, Jenny’s off to visit her daughter, Barbara, in Canada (and more than a little irritated that Ted’s changed his mind about joining her).  Barbara (Julia Goodman) is another familiar face from the past to make a return this year (her marriage – surprise, surprise – has hit something of a rough patch).

A little extra spice is added to Ted and Jenny’s relationship after April, at a loose end during one of Paul’s numerous foreign trips, offers to cook Ted dinner.  There’s no strings attached – it’s just a friendly offer from April who’s concerned that Ted will waste away if he has to fend for himself – but the reactions of their respective spouses are quite instructive.  Paul’s coolly amused (his long-standing disdain of Ted still stands) whilst Jenny doesn’t say a great deal (although it clearly rankles, as we’ll see during the next few episodes).

Of course it was Paul who mischievously told Jenny that her husband and his wife had enjoyed a meal together rather than the hapless Ted, who no doubt would have much preferred to have kept quiet.  This leads April to liken Paul to one of the Borgias – which he takes as a rich compliment!

Regular viewers will probably be expecting several long-running plot-threads to rear their heads one last time.  And you won’t be disappointed as yet again Mary’s (Jean Anderson) health takes a turn for the worse, leaving the brothers to play nursemaid, although neither Brian or David (Robin Chadwick) are falling over themselves to volunteer.  The sight of Brian and David tossing a coin (Brian lost, so he had to stay at home with her) is a nice comedy moment.

The saga of Gwen Riley’s (Margaret Ashcroft) new house also continues to rumble away – every time she seems to be on the verge of moving, something happens to prevent her (this time she’s been gazumped).  Once again, Ashcroft (and Derek Benfield as Bill Riley) impress as the one couple who somehow manage to juggle their work and private lives without resorting to taking lumps out of each other.  Ashcroft gets to flex her acting muscles a little more towards the end of the series after Bill and Gwen’s son is involved in a motorbike accident.

Margaret Ashcroft

Later series of The Brothers tended to be shared out amongst a pool of writers who would then pen a block of consecutive episodes.  For the seventh and final series this was split as follows – Ray Jenkins (episodes one to three), Brian Finch (episodes four, five and nine to twelve), Elaine Morgan (episodes six to eight) and N.J. Crisp (episodes thirteen to sixteen).

Elaine Morgan’s three scripts – Arrivals and Departures, The Distaff Side and Cross Currents – are of particular interest.  Although this was her only contribution to The Brothers, her extensive career spanned the mid fifties to the late eighties with many notable credits.  The Life and Times of David Lloyd George is an obvious career highlight, with top-quality literary adaptations (including The Diary of Anne Frank, Testament of Youth and How Green Was My Valley, amongst others) also featuring heavily on her CV.

Christine Absalom appears in Morgan’s three episodes as temporary secretary Judy Vickery.  It’s fair to say that she and Paul don’t hit it off – possibly it’s her toy Snoopy (a good-luck mascot, she tells him) or maybe it’s because she appears to be slightly flustered (although she assures him that once she settles down she’ll be fine).  As an outsider, Judy allows us to see the regulars through a fresh pair of eyes – especially the martinet Paul Merroney (the way she mispronounces his name to begin with is a lovely comedy touch).

Paul, enroute to Istanbul, calls April from the airport.  She has bad news for a him (a family bereavement) and is appalled when he doesn’t cancel his flight and return home  This is a key moment, as although Paul shows a spasm of pain at the news, business comes first.  It’s an attitude which April finds incomprehensible and serves to sow the first seed of disharmony between them.

The unexpected arrival of Paul’s mother in The Distaff Side throws the Hammonds into a tizzy. With Paul still away and April uncontactable, Ted and Brian attempt to play pass the parcel with her. Luckily, Mrs Merroney (Norah Fulton), a plain-speaking Geordie, takes up Gwen’s offer of a bed for the night (much to Brian’s obvious relief!)

Mrs Merroney’s conversations, first with Gwen and Bill and then later with April, help to shed considerable light on Paul’s character. A sickly, bookish child, he found himself teased by the local children – therefore his drive to succeed in business was partly borne out of a desire to prove his parochial home-town rivals wrong. These are further strong scenes from Elaine Morgan.

Liza Goddard & Colin Baker

Elsewhere, there’s a nice spark of jealously directed towards Jane by Jenny. Jane’s arrival in series five generated a certain amount of friction amongst all the members of the Hammonds board, although it was rather downplayed the following year. Quite why Jenny should be so set against the possibility of Jane becoming a Hammond (after all, that’s precisely what she did by marrying Ted) is a bit of a mystery but it helps to give Jenny a little more to work with on the character front.

Jenny’s paranoia keeps on bubbling away (she’s convinced that everybody is plotting against her). The best moment comes when she confides to Mary that Brian and David are locked in a bizarre love triange with Jane! That’s somewhat far from the truth – since Brian’s long-relationship with Jane has been platonic, David sees nothing wrong in inviting her out for a couple of meals.

The result of Jenny’s rash comment puts Mary on the warpath. She attempts to rope Ted in, but he’s less than keen to get involved – although their conversation sets up a pulsating later scene which sees Ted accuses Jenny of spewing posion. With their marriage already a little rocky, this simply adds to the pressure. Jenny has the last word as she cruelly, but maybe accurately, labels the Hammond brothers as “a lush, a failure and a has-been!” Wonderful stuff.

Everything then kicks off in typical Brothers style as Mary confronts Jane, Brian confronts David and David, in a huff, packs his bags and leaves home.

Kate O’Mara, Richard Easton & Colin Baker

Episode ten – Celebration – is ironically titled, as Jane receives the bad news that one of her new C41s has disappeared somewhere in the Atlantic, Jenny receives a summons for dangerous driving whilst Paul and April’s marriage seems to have hit a brick wall.

Possibly this was art imitating life, as Colin Baker and Liza Goddard had married for real shortly after Paul and April tied the knot in the series.  Baker would later acknowledge that their union was probably a mistake as it sadly didn’t last very long.

April is a rather passive character to begin with – content to wait at home for her husband to return from the office (although capable of becoming annoyed when he’s late).  April bemoans the fact that their luxury flat has become a gilded cage for her, but she seems unable or unwilling to do anything to rectify the situation, such as finding a job. Given that the role isn’t terribly interesting for large stretches, it’s lucky that Liza Goddard was on hand to breathe a little life into her. Goddard does icy detachment better than anybody and some of her later scenes suggest that April could have developed into quite the bitch had the show gone to an eighth series.

Paul Merroney’s latest scheme is to expand into the Middle East. From a modern perspective, setting up bases in places such as Baghdad and Kuwait seems to be asking for trouble, but it’s true that it was a different time back then. Only Brian opposes the plan, whilst the others see a chance to make a handsome profit (although the risk factor is great).

Whilst the cast were confidently expecting an eighth series, I wonder if the return of co-creator N.J. Crisp to write the last four episodes was something of a sign?  Crisp had only penned a handful of episodes during the previous couple of runs, so it could be that he had an inkling the series was reaching the end and wanted to be the one to conclude it.

Whilst a continuing drama can never come to a compete stop, there’s a sense that The Brothers was reaching a natural conclusion.  We’ve seen over the years how Hammond Transport had changed from a privately owned company to a publicly owned one, but the Middle East scheme serves as the catalyst to finally wrest control away from the Hammond family (via a new share option which will raise much needed capital but will also serve to dilute their majority share-holdings).

But various questions remain unanswered as the credits rolled for the final time.  How would Paul and April’s wobbly marriage have resolved itself?  Most intriguingly, would Paul’s Middle Eastern escapade have been a disaster?  If so, then he might have been eased out and maybe the Hammonds would have attempted to regain control of the company.

Although there were plenty of options for future storylines it wasn’t to be, so The Brothers came to an end on the 19th of December 1976 with The Christmas Party. Final treats include Brian’s quite astonishing moves on the dance floor and Ted’s firm rejoinder after Paul suggests that Hammond Transport Services Ltd is a rather old-fashioned name. Surely something like Worldwide Transport Services would be better?

Another strong collection of episodes, this seventh and final series of The Brothers is just as addictive as the previous runs.  It’s easy to why it captivated a generation back in the 1970’s and forty years on it’s still as entertaining.  If you’ve been collecting the DVDs then you’ll know how good the show is, if not then I’d strongly recommend picking up series one and making your way through a classic slice of seventies drama from there.

The Brothers – Series Seven is released by Simply Media on the 10th of July 2017.  RRP £29.99.

Patrick O’Connell, Robin Chadwick & Jean Anderson

Dombey & Son (BBC, 1969) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Paul Dombey’s (John Carson) fondest wish is for a son to carry on his thriving business.  As the story opens, his wife duly delivers a baby boy who is swiftly named Paul after his doting father.  Although Mrs Dombey dies shortly afterwards, this seems to have a negligible impact on Dombey as his son quickly becomes the centre of his life (with the result that his daughter Florence is pushed even more into the background).

When young Paul dies at the age of six, Dombey Snr is devastated.  Florence attempts to comfort him but he continues to rebuff her, which eventually leads to a seemingly irrevocable split between father and daughter ….

Originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between October 1846 and April 1848, Dombey & Son, despite being regarded by many as one of Dickens’ best works, has generated surprisingly few film or television adaptations.  In the cinema, a 1917 British silent film and a very loose 1931 adaptation (which was renamed Rich Man’s Folly and saw the action transferred to the United States) are the only examples.  On television there have been just two English-language versions – this one and a later BBC Classic Serial adaptation in 1983.

The first episode quickly defines Dombey’s character. He’s a proud, dignified and extremely humourless man who treats his young daughter, Florence (played to begin with by Vicky Williams and later by Kara Wilson), with at best indifference and at worst contempt. John Carson, an actor who was seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, impresses right from the start. Unbending as Dombey might be, Carson doesn’t play him as simply a monster, instead he offers a much more nuanced performance.

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John Carson

Although Dombey is something of a dull fellow, as compensation there’s a number of sparkling comic performances sprinkled throughout the thirteen episodes. Two sitcom favourites – Hilda Braid and Pat Coombs – form a wonderful double-act as Louisa Chick and Lucretia Tox.  Louisa (Braid) is Dombey’s sister, a woman who shares her brother’s low opinion of Florence whilst Lucretia (Coombs) is her friend, a somewhat simpleminded person who simpers delightfully over Dombey and harbours a hopeless secret desire to become the next Mrs Dombey.

William Moore, another actor probably best known for his sitcom work (for example, the long-suffering Mr Lumsden in Sorry!) is padded up as the hearty seadog Captain Cuttle. Complete with a hook for a hand, Moore gives an unsubtle, but highly entertaining performance.

The first meeting between Dombey and Cuttle is an absolute gem. Dombey, taking afternoon refreshment with Paul and Florence in a Brighton tearoom (young Paul has been sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will restore his failing health), is appalled when the colourful Captain Cuttle sidles over to his table. Cuttle is introduced to Domby by Walter Gay (Derek Seaton), one of Dombey’s clerks. The best moment of all is when Walter first mentions Cuttle’s name and the Captain raises his arm (the one with the hook, naturally) in response. Lovely!

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William Moore

Vicky Williams, as young Florence, doesn’t have a great deal of screentime (Kara Wilson would take over the role by the middle of the second episode) but she still makes an impression. The scenes where she’s lost in the city after being robbed of her clothes by an old crone, Mrs Brown (Fay Compton), are heartbreaking. Equally affecting is Ronald Pickering as young Paul. When Paul asks Dombey (in response to being told that money can buy anything) whether it can buy good health, his father is temporarily speechless.

When Dombey decides to send his young clerk, Walter, to the West Indies, it’s a story-beat which intrigues on several levels. Firstly, it’s another example of the way that Dombey cares little for other people (apart, of course, from his son) since it never seems to cross his mind to canvas Walter’s opinion first. Secondly, since Walter has shown interest in Florence, dispatching him abroad serves to sever their tentative relationship. Considering that he seems to care little for his daughters happiness, this appears to be an act of deliberate cruelty.

The fourth episode tugs at the heartstrings as young Paul begins to fade. His death is an understated moment – the camera moves away from his bed to focus on the window as the sound level reduces. The next scene, as Dombey stands by his son’s grave, is a sharp and jolting cut, but it works well.

Christopher Sandford as Mr Toots helps to lighten the mood following Paul’s funeral. Mr Toots, a former schoolfriend of Paul, is a kind-hearted, vague and twitchy young man who loves Florence dearly (but although she always treats him kindly it’s plain that she doesn’t feel the same way). But the ever-optimistic Mr Toots is never downhearted and can always be guaranteed to come bouncing back. Sandford provides a delightful comic performance in a serial which has an abundance of them.

Towards the end of this episode there’s the first hint that Dombey isn’t quite as unbending as he might appear. He decides not to send Walter to the West Indies after all, but it’s too late – his ship has already sailed, much to Florence’s anguish (which only increases when the vessel is feared to have been lost at sea).  Kara Wilson, as befits the character she plays, may be somewhat placed in the background but she still essays a subtle performance as a young woman constantly rebuffed by a father who finds it impossible to communicate with her on anything but the most rudimentary level.

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Kara Wilson

Clive Swift is yet another quality addition to the cast. He plays the bluff and hearty Major Bagstock, who seems to be Dombey’s only friend. The restrained Dombey and the ebullient Bagstock would seem to have little in common, but it’s their very differences which help to generate an entertaining spark between them.

The middle part of the serial sees Dombey remarry. He selects Edith Granger (Sally Home) who seems in every way to be an ideal choice – as she’s a skilled artist and musician as well as being a refined conversationalist. Nestling amongst some deliciously broad comic performances, Home offers a sharp contrast as the second Mrs Dombey.

Although she accepts Dombey’s proposal, it’s plain that – on her side at least – it’s not a love match. Manipulated by her mother from an early age (in order to ensnare a rich husband) Edith is a weary and embittered figure. But the one bright spark in her new life is her relationship with Florence.

Whilst some children might regard a new step-mother with mistrust, Florence is plainly overjoyed – partly because she hopes it will enable her father to find new happiness but also because there’s no doubt that her lonely existence would be enriched by a mothers love. The way that Florence instantly refers to Edith as Mama is touching (Kara Wilson is excellent again here).

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Sally Home

But any happiness that Dombey might have hoped for is short-lived, as Edith runs away with the slimy and manipulative Caker (Gary Raymond). Dombey, with the assistance of Alice Brown (also played by Sally Home) and her mother (who coincidently robbed the young Florence earlier in the serial) vows to track them down.

Gary Raymond seems to delight in playing the boo-hiss villain who, as tradition demands, meets a sticky end. And although Home plays both roles well, it probably would have been better had another actress played Alice (a woman who had a special cause to dislike Caker). This is mainly because it’s more than a little odd that no-one who ever meets Alice comments on her remarkably strong resemblance to Edith ….

Edith’s departure finally severs the already fraying relationship between Dombey and Florence. Whilst a distraught Florence is taken under Captain Cuttle’s wing (William Moore once again marvellous value at this point in the serial) Dombey faces severe business traumas due to Caker’s rash profiteering.  And as Dombey’s own health takes a turn for the worse, a now happily-married Florence attempts one final reconciliation. Will the patrician Dombey deign to acknowledge his daughter and her children?

Runnng for thirteen 25 minute episodes, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation manages to skillfully fillet Dickens’ novel and thereby retain everything of interest. A fine rogues gallery of comic performers – headed by the peerless William Moore as Captain Cuttle – helps to keep things ticking along nicely although the family drama between Dombey and Florence is never overshadowed. In general, performances across the serial are very strong although Douglas Mann as young Rob Toodle does overact somewhat (luckily his part isn’t a particularly large one).

Director Joan Craft had already helmed a number of Charles Dickens adaptations, although the survival rate of her serials is sadly quite low. Both The Old Curiosity Shop (featuring Patrick Troughton as Quilp – his favourite role) and Martin Chuzzlewit are completely missing although odd episodes from A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield do exist. More encouragingly, her 1968 version of Nicholas Nickleby remains in the archives, so hopefully a release from Simply might occur in the future.

Her directorial style isn’t dramatic or showy (there’s few of the flourishes that can be seen in Alan Bridges’ Great Expectations) but she still manages to ensure that the story unfolds at a decent pace. The production style is as you’d expect from a programme of this era – mostly studio sequences recorded on videotape, with occassional brief film inserts.

The episodes are a mixture of telerecordings and original videotape masters. The episodes which still exist on videotape are obviously the best quality ones. although since the telerecordings are also of a very high standard the jump between the different formats isn’t as great as it could have been. Overall, the picture quality (considering the unrestored nature of the source materials) is very good. The sound is generally clear although some of the telerecorded episodes (episode eleven especially) are somewhat crackly in places.

Thanks to the first-class cast who rarely put a foot wrong, Dombey & Son is another impressive Dickens adaptation.  Highly recommended.

Dombey & Son is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99.

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Gary Raymond & John Carson

Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.

As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.

So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….

Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow).  A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.

Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired.   Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest.  Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD.  Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.

Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential.  Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood.  Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens.  Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).

The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.

John Tate & Christopher Guard

John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.

Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.

Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.

If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.

Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.

Francesca Annis, Maxine Audley & Christopher Guard

Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.

The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of statis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).

Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.

The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!

Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle

Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t.  Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.

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Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).

Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught?  Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).

Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.

This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.

The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).

Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention.  Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today.  Warmly recommended.

Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Bernard Hepton & Gary Bond

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

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Following the death of a rich miser, his substantial fortune is willed to his estranged son, John Harmon (Paul Daneman), on one condition – that he marries, sight unseen, Miss Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker).  But when Harmon is believed drowned on his journey home to England, the inheritance passes to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson & Marda Vanne), the loyal and faithful former employees of Harmon Snr.

The Boffins are good-hearted people, happy to share their new-found wealth with others.  To this end they adopt Bella as their daughter and employ the one-legged pedler Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to read to them in the evenings.  They also engage a mysterious young man now going under the name of John Rokesmith (who in reality is John Harmon) as their secretary.

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ final completed novel and was originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865.  The thorny topic of inheritance, a familiar Dickens theme, is a major feature of the story as is the notion that wealth can have a corrosive effect on those it touches.

Film or television adaptations of Our Mutual Friend have been fairly thin on the ground with this 1958/59 BBC adaptation by Freda Lingstrom marking the first time the novel was tackled (two further television adaptations, in 1976 and 1998, would follow).

Things begin a rather arch way, as the Wilfer family consider their lack of money. George Howe as Reginald Wifer, the nominal head of the family, has a nice henpecked comic touch but Daphne Newton, as Reginald’s domineering wife, does declaim in a somewhat stagey fashion.

The Wilfer Family

The first episode also allows us an early insight into Bella’s character. She tells her father that she’s “nether reasonable nor honest. One of the consequences of being poor and of thoroughly hating and detesting it”. She then goes on to describe herself as a horrid, mercenary little wretch.

Compare and contrast her attitude with that of John Harmon. On his way back home to England via a sea journey (the onboard sequences are effectively mounted, despite the confines of the studio) he explains to a fellow traveller that his inheritance is dependent on his marrying Bella. The fact he’s returning to England suggests that he’s considering acceding to his late father’s request, but he then explains this is dependent on Bella’s character. If she turns out to be an objectionable person then he’d be happy for his old friends, the Boffins, to receive the money instead.

This might suggest that John is a wiser and more noble person than Bella, but since he has the choice of returning to his vineyard in South Africa it’s plain that he has options, whilst she doesn’t.

Both Paul Daneman and Zena Walker make strong early impressions whilst Bruce Gordon, as George Sampson, gives a nice turn as Bella’s devoted suitor. When Bella breaks the bad news that she’s planning to marry for money, he’s a picture of angst (sucking his walking stick as a child might suck his thumb!).  George contributes little to the story, but can be guaranteed to pop up from time to time in order to provide a spot of comic relief.

Richard Leech casts a menacing shadow as ‘Rogue’ Riderhood, a waterman who was part of a conspiracy to murder John (another of the conspirators – Radfoot – planned to take John’s place, marry Bella and claim the inheritance). Leech gives a performance that’s somewhat on the ripe side but after a few episodes either he settles down a little or I just became more accustomed to it.

But if there’s ripeness from some, there’s subtler playing from others. Peggy Thorpe-Bates makes an immediate impression as Miss Abbey, the innkeeper of a raucous riverside tavern. Miss Abbey may be physically slight but she’s more than capable of dealing with her customers, even the intimidating Riderhood.

The first meeting between Bella and John isn’t auspicious. She later confesses that there were few people she disliked more at first sight. It might not be a surprise to learn that her feelings change as the serial wears on ….

As the episodes progress we’re introduced to all of the main characters. Richard Pearson is very agreeable as the generous and good-natured Nicodemus Boffin whilst Esmond Knight has delightful comic timing as Silas Wegg, an untrustworthy wooden-legged vagrant with a veneer of literary education.  Malcom Keen (whose career began in silent movies, Hitchcock’s The Lodger amongst them) also impresses as the sympathetic Jewish moneylender Riah.

Esmond Knight

David McCallum (whom the credits inform us was appearing courtesy of the Rank Organisation) plays Eugene Wrayburn, a well-educated barrister who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam (Rachel Roberts). Eugene is a somewhat arrogant person to begin with but, as with Bella, over time he grows and develops. It can’t be a coincidence that, like John, he is nearly drowned in the river (his near-death experience seems to trigger something of a rebirth in him, just as it did with John).

Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie is complicated by Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), who is also besotted with her (although she has little time for him). This love triangle, along with John’s continuing close observation of Bella, are major main plot-threads whilst other subplots (the machinations of ‘Rogue’ Riderhood and Silas Wegg amongst others) also simmer away nicely.

Although John Harmon might be the nominal central character, the conflict between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie’s hand in marriage is another highlight of the serial (both McCallum – even though he’s sporting a silly beard – and Scott provide standout performances).

Considering the limitations of this era of television, Our Mutual Friend is a polished production. If it wasn’t broadcast live, then it would have been recorded as-live (with only limited opportunities for retakes and editing). But across the twelve episodes there’s few obvious production stumbles (fluffled lines, miscued shots, etc) which is impressive.

Paul Daneman

That studio space was at a premium can be surmised by the fact that each episode restricts itself to a handful of locations. A sprinkling of filmed material helps to open the production up a little, although a number of backdrops, used in the studio to create the illusion of scale and depth, aren’t always terribly convincing. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this serial and after a while it ceases to be an issue.

There are many fine performances scattered throughout the twelve episodes. Paul Daneman had a fairly thankless task, since John Harmon/Rokesmith is a very colourless sort of fellow (often a fate suffered by Dickens’ heroes) but he still manages to make something out of the role. David McCallum has more to work with, as Eugene is a complex, dissolute character who eventually finds redemption and love.  Esmond Knight is simply a treat, meaning that whenever Silas Wegg shuffles onto the screen you know that something entertaining is going to happen.

Many strong character actors – Rachel Gurney, Basil Henson and William Mervyn, amongst others – pop up from time to time. Another brief but vivid performance comes from Wilfred Brambell as Mr “Dolls”, the alcoholic father of Jenny Wren (Helena Hughes). Hughes herself is also noteworthy as the young, crippled dolls-clothes maker who has reversed roles with her father (she calls him a “bad child” and bosses him about without mercy).

The picture quality is pretty good throughout. The telerecording might show the limitations of the original 405 line transmission, but it’s still perfectly clear (some blurring on the bottom of the frame in the penultimate episode is probably the most visible fault). The soundtrack, apart from the odd crackle, is quite audible.

Freda Lingstrom’s adaptation manages to retain the flavour of Dickens’ dense novel and the generous running time (twelve half-hour episodes) is more than sufficient to ensure that all the characters are dealt with sympathetically. The serial-like nature of the original novel is kept intact, meaning that some characters may feature heavily in one episode but then not appear in the next as others take their place.  It’s true that everything gets wrapped up rather too neatly at the end, but that’s a criticism that needs to be laid at Dickens’ door rather than Lingstrom’s.

Lingstrom was a fascinating character. She created the BBC Radio strand Listen with Mother in 1950 and shortly afterwards became Head of BBC Children’s Television. Watch with Mother was a logical development for television and Lingstrom, in partnership with Maria Bird, would devise two of the most enduring of all pre-school children’s programmes – Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men.  This adaptation was therefore an unusual entry on her CV (and also her final television writing credit).

It’s fascinating to observe how the production battled to transcend its limited production values (most notably the lack of studio space) and whilst it may feature a few broad performances from the minor players there’s little else to find fault with here.  With so little 1950’s BBC drama available, it’s very pleasing to see Our Mutual Friend released and despite the six-hours running time the story rarely seems to flag.  Highly recommended.

Our Mutual Friend is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99.

Marda Vanne & Richard Pearson

The Adventure Game – Simply Media DVD Review

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Created by Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver, The Adventure Game pitched celebrities and members of the public into the strange, science-fiction world of Arg, where they were forced to solve fiendish puzzles in order to win their freedom back to Earth ….

By 1980, both Dowling and Oliver were old BBC hands (Dowling had joined the Corporation in 1955, Oliver in 1962).  Oliver had cut his teeth on Late Night Line Up before working as a director on both Blue Peter and Multi Coloured Swap Shop.  Dowling, a veteran of Vision On, had been impressed by Douglas Adams’ radio serial The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and decided to create a sci-fi based game show for children with the same humorous streak.

Intriguingly, he approached Adams to see if he would be able to contribute to the series but Adams (at the time working on the television version of Hitch-Hikers) had to decline.  So Dowling worked out the format of the show himself, with Oliver also contributing ideas as well as directing the studio sessions.

Although the actors – in the first series these included Ian Messiter as the Rangdo of Arg and newsreader Moira Stuart as Darong – would have received scripts and therefore had a rough idea about what could happen, the contestants were totally in the dark and had the freedom to do as they wished.  This tended to make for long studio days and lengthy editing sessions in order to bring the episodes down the required duration.

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Messiter and Stuart didn’t return for S2, but Lesley Judd was a new addition to the regulars.  Judd had appeared as a contestant at the end of the first series, but her failure to solve the puzzles meant that she’d been turned into the Mole (whose mission was now to confuse and sabotage the efforts of the others).

Christopher Leaver, as Gandor, appeared every episode (the only person to do so) whilst the very appealing Charmian Gradwell, playing Gnoard, featured in the first three series.  Star Wars legend Kenny Baker popped up a number of times, although as so often throughout his career he was hidden from sight (he played an aspidistra).  The astute will have probably have twigged by now that all the names of the Arg regulars were anagrams of Dragon ….

One of the most entertaining things about the series is observing how well (or badly) the contestants do. Some do flounder about more than others, although if things get really desperate then the Argonds might pop up and attempt to push them in the right direction with a friendly hint.

Given the vague educational nature of the series, it wasn’t surprising that a number of science/technology figures (James Burke, Ian McNaught-Davis, Heinz Wolff and Johnny Ball amongst others) appeared whilst the likes of Janet Fielding and Paul Darrow would no doubt have felt right at home amongst the low-budget sci-fi high jinks of Arg.

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Twenty two episodes, as well as an unscreened pilot, were made between 1980 and 1986.  Sadly, four of the transmitted episodes no longer exist as broadcast quality masters (two from the first series and two from the second). Off-air recordings of two of these (21/6/80 and 09/11/81) are included on this DVD release, with disclaimers about the picture quality. Whilst they don’t look perfect it’s certainly better to have them in this condition than not at all, so kudos to Simply for making the effort. Another off-air recording (31/5/80) apparently exists in private hands but presumably it wasn’t possible to acquire it for this release. The pilot also isn’t included, maybe this was down to clearance issues.

The format remained the same throughout all four series (although Arg would receive several between-series makeovers).  Each week three space-travellers (many of whom looked suspiciously like well-known Earth celebrities) turned up on the planet Arg.  The dragon-like Argonds may appear to be fierce (although considerably less so when they’ve morphed into human form) but by nature they’re a friendly – if mischievous – race.  Having stolen the crystal time-lock from the humans’ spaceship, the Argonds will only return it if the travellers can solve the puzzles they’ve been set.

For those of a certain age, Rongad’s (Bill Homewood) catchphrase of “doogy rev” might bring back some memories.  The only way Rongad (although really he should have been called Nogard) could communicate was by talking backwards.  The most memorable part of the show, although it didn’t debut until the second series, was the Vortex.  Brought to life thanks to the wonders of CSO, this was the final task our brave space-travellers had to face.  Failure here would mean a very long walk home ….

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Below is an episode guide listing the episodes included on this release –

Disc One – Series One

24/05/80 – Elizabeth Estensen, Fred Harris & Mark Dugdale
07/06/80 – Denise Coffey, Toby Freeman & Gary Hunt
14/06/80 – James Burke, Maggie Philbin & Pat Cater
21/06/80 – Paul Darrow, Lesley Judd & Robert Malos

Disc Two – Series Two

02/11/81 – Carol Chell, Graeme Garden & Nicholas Hammond
09/11/81 – Madeline Smith, David Yip & Derek Gale
16/11/81 – Sue Cook, David Singmaster & Phillip Shepherd
30/11/81 – John Craven, Kirsty Miller & Bill Green

Disc Three – Series Three

02/02/84 – Sarah Greene, Richard Stilgoe & Anne Miller
09/02/84 – Sue Nicholls, Duncan Goodhew & Emma Disley
16/02/84 – Sandra Dickinson, Chris Serle & Adam Tandy

Disc Four – Series Three

23/02/84 – Bonnie Langford, Paul McDowell & Christopher Hughes
01/03/84 – Neil Adams, Janet Fielding & Nigel Crocket
08/03/84 – Fern Britton, Noel Edmonds & Ray Virr

Disc Five – Series Four

07/01/86 – Sheelah Gilbey, Ian McNaught-Davis & Roy Kane
14/01/86 – Johnny Ball, Barbara Lott & Liz Hobbs
21/01/86 – Fiona Kennedy, Ian McCaskill & David Sanderman

Disc Six – Series Four

04/02/86 – George Layton, Joanna Monro & Val Prince
11/02/86 – Ruth Madoc, Heinz Wolff & Deborah Leigh Hall
18/02/86 – Keith Chegwin, Heather Couper & Adam Gilby

The tasks faced by the contestants varied – from computer-based conundrums to more logical and science-based challenges. During the first series, several teams – including James Burke, Maggie Philbin and Pat Cater – tangled with a computer which was running a text adventure. Those of a certain age will remember how frustrating these could be – frequently after typing what seemed like a brilliant suggestion, the computer would respond with the bald statement “nothing happens”.

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It’s interesting that it didn’t feature in every S1 edition. I wonder if that was because they wanted to vary the games or maybe it was more to do with the fact that certain teams weren’t very good at it? The variable running times for the four S1 episodes included (26:38, 29:55, 37:08 and 45:00) does seem to suggest that some contestants struggled with certain challenges more than others. This is pretty evident in the series one episode with Denise Coffey, which features several fades to black – indicating that some serious editing had gone on in order to remove sections where nothing much happened.

Very often our hapless contestants would be presented with a selection of random items which they would have to utilize and combine in a certain way in order to produce the desired effect.  Sometimes the solution to the puzzles does seem somewhat obscure, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that blank faces can often be seen.  Since the non-celebs sometimes tended to take charge here, I presume many were selected due to their technical or science backgrounds (which is probably just as well, otherwise a great many celebrities would probably still be languishing on the planet Arg to this very day).  What’s interesting is that they sometimes do reach a workable solution, just not one that the Argonds were expecting!

The Adventure Game is an enjoyable watch for several reasons. The regulars – especially the likes of Christopher Leaver, Charmian Gradwell and Bill Homewood – keep things bubbling along nicely whilst the variety of celebrities and the sometimes strange team-ups (Ruth Madoc and Heinz Wolff, together at last) is also noteworthy.

Amusing and charming (with the odd spot of learning thrown in) The Adventure Game still stands up today.  This is partly because it’s always entertaining to see boffins like James Burke out of their comfort zone, but also because it’s a nostalgic time-trip back to a period when computers were pretty basic (and also ran BASIC of course).  Just to observe the contestants operating a BBC B Microcomputer is sure to bring a rush of nostalgia for many.  And on that theme, a tip of the hat for the DVD menu design, which has a very 1980’s home-computer style font (although it’s a pity that the menus don’t list the celebs who appear in each episode).

My verdict?  What else can it be but doogy rev.  Warmly recommended.

The Adventure Game is available now from Simply Media.  RRP £29.99.