Ghost in the Water – Simply Media DVD Review

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Tess (Judith Allchurch) and David (Ian Stevens) are set a school project which involves researching the history of Abigail Parkes. Abigail died in the mid nineteenth century, aged just eighteen, and her gravestone (inscribed “Innocent Of All Harm”) intrigues the pair of them. Tess’ interest in Abigail deepens as the story wears on – especially since Abigail seems to be calling from the grave for redemption ….

Broadcast on the 31st of December 1982, this works almost as a junior Ghost Story For Christmas (a popular BBC strand of ghostly tales which had run during the seventies). Not that Ghost in the Water is at all juvenile in tone – it may have been broadcast at twenty to five, but it could have easily have run in peak time.

Shot on 16mm film, it’s moodily directed by Renny Rye. Rye had cut his directing teeth on Rentaghost a few years earlier and would go on to helm The Box of Delights in 1984. It’s easy to see why film was chosen – as it offers a range of visual options (such as rapid intercutting) that wouldn’t have been so effective on videotape.

With a running time of only fifty minutes, Ghost on the Water has to hit the ground running, which explains why the opening scene (Tess and David lurking about the graveyard looking for Abigail’s tombstone) is intercut with flashbacks of the classroom discussion which sparked their investigation. Quite why Tess and David have to visit the graveyard late at night (and when it’s raining) isn’t made clear, but it helps to make the scene much more atmospheric ….

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A clever cut occurs after this scene, as we move to a spooky sepia shot of a horse and carriage careering down the path of a graveyard. It seems so in tone with the atmosphere already established that it comes as a shock to realise that Tess is now at home and watching an old horror movie on television! This movie might explain the strange dream she later had, but when the flashbacks become more and more regular (she seems to be present at the point when Abigail’s coffin is being laid to rest, for example) it’s plain that something very strange is occurring.

Although the cast was bolstered by some familiar senior actors (Paul Copley, Jane Freeman, Hilary Mason, Ysanne Churchman) the two main roles – Tess and David – were taken by novices. This presumably was an intentional move – it certainly helps to position them as real people (both Allchurch and Stevens are more naturalistic and unpolished than experienced stage-school trained actors would have been). Neither seem to have pursued acting careers afterwards, which makes their performances here especially interesting.

Allchurch has to carry most of the narrative. Her lack of acting experience is never a factor though, as – helped by Rye’s skilful shot choices – she’s allowed plenty of memorable moments. A few are a little eye opening though, considering this was broadcast so early in the day. The scene where Tess – lying in the bath – decides to re-enact the moment when Abigail drowned (by slowly submerging herself in her bathwater) is a disturbing one. And the follow-on to this scene – we see a back-view of a naked Tess standing up in the bath (albeit framed in such a way that her modesty is preserved) – isn’t one you’d imagine would be repeated today.

Although as touched upon, Tess and David are placed front and centre, there are good performances all the way down the cast list. Lynda Higginson (who like the principals was a novice actor) catches the eye as Tracy, a classmate of both Tess and David. She delights in teasing them about the considerable amount of time they’re spending in each other’s company.

Simply’s release looks to be a straight transfer of the 16mm master. There’s the usual intermittent signs of damage and dirt which you’d expect with material of this vintage, but overall it’s a pleasing viewing experience (the colours are quite bright and vibrant). With a running time of only fifty minutes, a little extra value is provided by a brief Blue Peter clip (a shame that it only runs for three minutes though).

Ghost in the Water may be short, but it’s always nice to see one-off plays like this exhumed from the archives. An intriguing mystery which drips with atmosphere, it’s plain to see why it made a lasting impression on so many at the time.

Ghost in the Water is released today with an RRP of £14.99 and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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The Eagle of the Ninth – Simply Media DVD Review

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The year is 119 AD.  Former Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila (Anthony Higgins) is haunted by the fate of his father’s legion, the Ninth.  Four thousand men had been dispatched to fight the Caledonian tribes in Northern England, but they all vanished without trace.  Adopting the disguise of a Greek oculist and accompanied by the faithful Esca (Christian Rodska), Marcus is determined to locate the Ninth’s Golden Eagle, which symbolises the honour of the legion, and bring it back home.

Originally published in 1955, The Eagle of the Ninth was a children’s historical adventure novel written by Rosemary Sutcliff.  A prolific author, The Eagle of the Ninth has to rank as one of her most enduring works.  And although the bulk of her output was written for a juvenile audience, Sutcliff once stated that she wrote “for children of all ages, from nine to ninety”.

That her stories had universal appeal is demonstrated by this adaptation, which ran for six episodes during 1977.  Broadcast in the Sunday Classic Serials slot, there’s no sense that it was specifically tailored for a younger audience.  As was usual for adaptations from this era, it sticks pretty closely to the original source material (whereas the recent film – The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum – took more liberties and therefore rather diluted the impact of Sutcliff’s tale).

Episode one opens twelve years after the disappearance of the Ninth.  Marcus arrives in Britain to take up charge of an isolated garrison.  He’s still a little touchy about his father’s fate, but the rebellious Britons massing outside the fort might be more of an immediate problem.

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Anthony Higgins

There’s some familiar faces lurking inside the garrison, such as the blunt Drusillus (played by Bernard Gallagher).  Gallagher, probably best known for appearing in the first few series of Casualty, gives Drusillus an entertaining dose of weary cynicism – he’s an older and a much more experienced soldier than Marcus, but it’s Marcus who’s in charge.

This first episode – Frontier – also boasts an early television appearance from Patrick Malahide, as Cradoc.  You may have to look twice to find him though, as he’s almost unrecognisable thanks to an impressive wig and beard.  Marcus attempts to foster good relations with Cradoc, a notable local, but his friendly entreaties are in vain.

Anthony Higgins impresses right from the start.  Marcus might be young and inexperienced, but he’s also honest and heroic, so it therefore seems natural that we immediately side with him against the influx of hairy tribesmen.  The episode has a generous film allocation, although the scenes of the tribesmen attacking the fort do look slightly comic (and tight camera angles have to be used in order to hide how few extras were available).  The hand to hand fighting is nicely directed though.

The injuries suffered by Marcus during the attack have left him unable to walk which means that his time as a soldier has come to an end.  Whilst recuperating at his uncle’s farm, they both elect to visit the local amphitheatre.  It’s not the coliseum, but it does introduce us to two important characters –  Esca and Cottia (Gillian Bailey).

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Gillian Bailey

Esca is toiling in the pit – locked into a fight to the death with another slave – whilst Cottia, like Marcus, is a slightly queasy spectator (both were perturbed by the sight of a bear being gored to death).  When Esca is beaten, the crowd – overcome by bloodlust – all place their thumbs downwards, signifying that Esca should be put to death.  We can forgive this anachronstic moment – since it was widely believed to be accurate at the time – although quite how Marcus was able to persuade the crowd en-masse to spare Esca is a bit of a mystery.

Marcus needs a body slave and buys Esca.  Their relationship is a key part of the story and the interaction between Higgins and Rodska works well throughout the serial.  Esca is initially reserved and bitter, but it isn’t long before the pair form a tight bond.  Gillian Bailey also impresses as the proud Cottia.  She rails against being forced to act like a Roman maiden, rather than the Iceni tribeswoman she actually is.  There’s a lovely moment when, anxious to see the ill Marcus, she bites the arm of a slave blocking her way!

The second half of the serial sees Marcus and Esca set out to find the Eagle of the Ninth.  This quest results in Marcus suddenly gaining a rather unconvincing beard (but then fake face fungus can be found in most classic serials of this era).  He’s also haunted in his dreams by the long-dead soldiers of the Ninth – in his imaginings they’re a legion of walking skeletons (a brief, but quite effective nightmarish scene).

The Eagle of the Ninth was made in the usual way for a production of this era – film for the exteriors and videotape for the interiors.  Picture quality is as you’d expect for something that’s forty years old – some of the early film inserts are a little grubby and the studio scenes are a little soft – but overall it’s quite watchable.  Production design is very sound throughout, especially the studio farmhouse which features in several episodes (nicely designed by Campbell Gordon).

Although the serial features a number of battle scenes, this isn’t an action story – it’s more of a reflective, character-driven drama.  According to this webpage, Rosemary Sutcliff not only loved the adaptation, but was so taken with Higgins’ performance that she kept a photograph of him on her writing desk for decades afterwards.

It may be true that some of the tribal antics (and beards) are a little unconvincing, but overall this is a literate and well acted production which transcends its limited budget.  Running for six 30 minute episodes (spread across two discs) it’s released by Simply Media on the 16th of January 2018 and can be ordered directly from them here.  RRP £19.99.

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Christian Rodska

Pathe: A Year to Remember (1948/58/68/78/88) – Simply Media DVD Review

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For most of the twentieth century, Pathe News produced newsreels and documentaries.  These were primarily designed for British consumption, although the topics covered ranged all over the world.  Pathe really came into their own during WW2 – since the BBC had closed their television service for the duration, Pathe ensured that the public could see (as well as hear) exactly what was going on.

The Pathe style is instantly recognisable.  A clipped, authoritative narrative style, allied to striking images (often mute and overlaid with music).  As their newsreels covered multiple events, there was never much of an opportunity to provide more than a brief soundbite of any given story, but it’s still notable just how vivid these short films can be.

As the decades wore on and television news became slicker, Pathe’s star began to dim a little.  It’s therefore interesting to compare the first three DVDs re-released here – covering 1948, 1958 and 1968 – to see if their style changed over time.  Later discs utilise BBC reports but are equally as fascinating.

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Three main areas are covered on this disc.  World affairs, domestic British affairs and sports and entertainment.  Ghandi’s funeral is a noticeable highlight from the first section – not only for the sheer scale of the event, vividly captured by the Pathe cameras, but also for the narration, which carries a certain weight and gravitas.

The British section offers rich pickings, since it mostly covers events which might not be world shattering but are rich in historical detail. The highly sedate New Years Party at the Chelsea Arts Ball is a window into another world, whilst the sight of the King and Queen touring the Ideal Homes Exhibition is a treat. Not least for the many practical crafts on display – Britain in 1948 was still a nation in the grip of austerity, so although there are consumer goods aplenty, there’s also a demonstration of make and mend skills such as basket weaving. A hand loom is also shown and we’re told what to do if wool can’t be found (simply raise silkworms instead). It truly was another time.

Royal affairs feature heavily, with a strong dollop of due deference shown. Chief attractions are the King and Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the birth of Prince Charles.

The last fifteen minutes revolves around entertainment and sport, with the likes of Joe Louis, Ronald Coleman and Danny Kaye giving brief interviews. As with all the Pathe features, time was always tight, so these soundbite moments are rarely terribly revealing (the extreme deference of the interviewers is sometimes a problem too) but having said that, the Danny Kaye piece is quite memorable.

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There’s plenty of interest across the 1958 volume. I was especially taken with the report from Expo 58 – also known as the Brussels World Fair – which served as a shop window for various counties (including Britain) to show off their technological wares. An attempt to foster harmony acrose diverse nations (although the narrator can’t help but make a slight dig against the Russians) it’s a reminder of a more optimistic age. Technological innovation – British, naturally – is something of a running theme throughout the year.

The Munich Air Crash – which saw twenty one people, including seven members of the Manchester United football team, perish – is probably the most famous piece of footage on the disc. But the sight of the stark, twisted wreckage of the areoplane, flecked by snow, still has a considerable impact. Also affecting is the way that the camera moves across a still photograph of the team, with the narrator naming each player and then informing us whether they were killed or injured.

Domestic British affairs are well covered again – with the racial tensions in Notting Hill and the rise of the teenager both standing out. The optimism of the Windrush arrivals (covered in the 1948 volume) had plainly disappated, leaving a bitterly divided community. The footage of the hip and happening teenagers (it’s all coffee bars, jazz and jiving for them) is another of those wonderful time-capsule moments which makes these newsreels so enjoyable to revisit.

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Bob Danvers-Walker, Pathe News Commentator between 1940 and 1970, introduces this disc (which suggests it was assembled at a different time from the previous two discussed). Although we’ve nearly reached the end of the swinging sixties, the Pathe style (authoritative narration, jaunty backing music) remained unchanged. This makes for a slightly odd viewing experience, but one that’s even richer in cultural nuggets. Although it’s strange that most of the material is still in black and white.

The clash between the old (the Pathe narrators) and the new (practically everything else) is very marked. There’s something slightly incongruous about seeing the bright young things of the film world – “James Fox and delicious friend” – cavorting at the Playboy Club or people lounging about on PVC furniture, whilst Bob Danvers-Walker sets the scene for us.

But elsewhere the narrators have weightier material to get their teeth into (such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy). The death of F1 ace Jim Clark is another sobering moment. The Pathe cameras were on hand to cover the race and the sight of his teamate, Graham Hill, staring at Clark’s wrecked car is something which lingers in the memory.

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With Pathe having discontinued their newsreel service in 1970, the post 1970 years mainly utilises BBC reports which naturally results in a very different feel.  A modern narrator – Kenneth Kendall – is used to place the various clips in context (he essentially replaces the studio newsreaders).

For some of the longer clips, Kendall’s narration is augmented by footage of the original BBC reporters such as Brian Barron, Martin Bell, Sally Hardcastle and Larry Harris.  This is a welcome touch as it helps to anchor the stories in the era they were produced.  On-screen captions of the reporter’s names are also appreciated, as although some faces are familiar, others are less so.

As ever, the stories range from the serious (Bush Wars in Rhodesa) to the ridiculously trivial (Oklahoma’s annual cow chip throwing contest).  Some things – such as the theft of Charlie Chaplin’s body from his Swiss grave – were new to me.  Proof that you can always learn something.

Since these BBC reports have never been as widely disseminated as the classic Pathe newsreels, I found this disc to be especially fascinating.  What’s especially interesting is how these filmed reports aren’t too dissimilar from the Pathe style (although the musical soundtrack has gone).  For obvious reasons, film lacks immediacy (there would always be a transmisson delay, since the recording had to be shipped home in order to prepare it for broadcast).  It was when television news switched to videotape more regularly for live outside broadcasts that things changed ….

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Another familiar newsreader – Michael Burke – takes over from Kenneth Kendall as the narrator of the 1988 disc.  There’s some extraordinary footage here – most notably the grenade and gun attack carried out at the funeral of the three IRA men who had been shot dead in Gibraltar by the SAS.

Entertainment (Comic Relief launches its first Red Nose Day, Ian Botham follows in Hannibal’s footsteps for another charity walk) rubs shoulders with more serious fare (Hurricane Gilbert causes devastation in the Caribbean, famine continues to cause strife in Ethiopia).  Royal stories – something of a running theme across all the discs – are well to the fore as well.

Originally assembled in the early nineties, these programmes have been released and repackaged by several different companies over the years.  Simply have brought many back into print, with these five DVDs being the most recent.  They’re obviously ideal birthday presents (it’s always interesting to see what happened in the year you were born) but they also stand up well as absorbing social documents in their own right.  The way that the reporting style changes over the course of the decades – from the clipped, deferential Pathe approach to the slightly more informal BBC coverage – is one reason why, but the front-line nature of the reportage (capturing events as they happen) is often highly compelling too.  And the variety of topics, from the trivial to the serious, ensures that there’s something of interest for everybody.

All five titles retail at £9.99 each and can be ordered directly from Simply via these links – 1948195819681978 and 1988.  They’re released on the 8th of January 2018.

And A Nightingale Sang – Simply Media DVD Review

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The 3rd of September 1939 may be a momentous day in the history of the British nation (with Neville Chamberlain shortly due to announce that the country is now at war with Germany) but not everybody has Hitler on their minds.  For example, in a terraced house in Newcastle, young Joyce (Pippa Hinchley) is debating whether to marry Eric (Stephen Tompkinson), who is shortly due to depart with his army colleagues to France.  As for the rest of Joyce’s dysfunctional family, they all have concerns of their own ….

And A Nightingale Sang was adapted by Jack Rosenthal from C.P. Taylor’s 1978 play.  Rosenthal (1931 – 2004) was one of British television’s greatest dramatists, equally adept at adapting other people’s material as he was at crafting his own.  He also slipped easily between genres – penning over a hundred episodes of Coronation Street during the 1960’s whilst also working on sitcoms and original one-off plays.

In many respects, the 1989 production of And A Nightingale Sang was a perfect fit for him – since it deftly mixed humour with drama in a way that was highly characteristic of his own output.  It’s very much a home-front drama (we may see soldiers, but only when they return home on leave).  But despite this, the war-time feel is very strong, partly due to the soundtrack.

Many of the familiar songs are delivered by John Woodvine’s character, George, on the piano.  George and his wife, known only as Mam (Joan Plowright), head an incredibly impressive core cast.  Woodvine has long been a favourite actor of mine, and George is a plumb of a part – there’s plenty of scope for humour (when at home George spends all his time in the front room, banging out tunes on the piano whilst the rest of the household ignores him) but he’s also afforded moments of drama and pathos.  George, who works at the shipyards, later breaks down in tears after he confesses to a workmate that he’s spent hours cleaning a ship which has recently arrived back from Dunkirk.

When his friend tells him that the bowels of the ship smell like a compost heap, George replies that it’s “human bloody compost. Stuck to the bulkheads like shit to a blanket. I’ve been trying to wash them off, scrape them off. Somebody’s lads, somebody’s flesh and blood”.

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John Woodvine

For Woodvine, born in South Shields, And A Nightingale Sang provided him with an opportunity to use his natural accent.  Some of the others, such as Joan Plowright, might not have been as local, but everybody manages credible accents.  Plowright, as the religious matriarch of the family, doesn’t get quite as much to do as Woodvine, but she makes every scene count.  The moment when she reacts in horror to the foibles of her family (such as George’s decision to become a communist) is very nicely done.

This was an early screen credit for Stephen Tompkinson, who had previously made several brief sitcom appearances in series such as After Henry, The Return of Shelley and Never The Twain.  It’s a substantial role, calling on him to experience a roller-coaster of emotions, but he handles it well.  Eric’s main problem is Joyce, who initially can’t decide whether she wants to marry him or not.  The cons (“he smells of bacon”) seem somewhat trivial, but the physical side of their potential union also seems to be troubling her.

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Pippa Hinchley & Stephen Tompkinson

But eventually she puts her worries behind her and they wed.  After all, with him shortly to leave for France it’s not as if they actually have to live together.  It’s only when he returns home on leave that the cracks really begin to show.  “When are you going back?” is one of her first questions (she’s also unimpressed with the French knickers he’s bought her).  Mind you, she quickly shrugs off her sexual anxieties – the only problem is that she seems to be spreading her favours very widely, with just about every American serviceman she can get her hands on ….

Pippa Hinchley and Stephen Tompkinson share some wonderful scenes together, as do Phyllis Logan (Helen) and Tom Watt (Norman).  Helen, Joyce’s elder sister, is the sensible one of the family, seemingly destined for a life where her own wishes and desires are secondary to the demands of others.  But when she meets Norman, one of Eric’s army buddies, everything changes.  In contrast to the bickering between Eric and Joyce, Norman and Helen instantly bond.  But, as you’d expect, things don’t turn out to be straightforward.  Watt, who’d recently left his signature role (as Lofty in EastEnders) and Logan are possibly at the dramatic heart of the play.  Like the rest of the main cast, they offer first-rate performances.

Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and directed by Robert Knights, And a Nightingale Sang is a glossy production with a filmic sweep.  The Newcastle locations (cobbled streets, shipyards) help enormously with this, plus it’s an ironic bonus that certain areas of the North West in the late 1980’s were so run-down and desolate that they could easily stand in for the parts of the city devastated by German bombs.

Also included on the disc are three wartime public information films – They Keep The Wheels Turning (8″15′), Britannia is a Woman (9″17′) and The New Britain (10″16′).  These are fascinating extras which help to place the main feature into its correct historical context.  Britannia is a Woman as you might expect, looks at the role played by women during the conflict (which is obliquely touched upon during the play – both Joyce and Helen work at a munitions factory) whilst The New Britain considers the future of the country and They Keep The Wheels Turning looks at how everybody has their part to play in ensuring that the wartime effort is maintained.

A sharply observed human drama, And a Nightingale Sang is a treat, featuring an excellent cast who never put a foot wrong.  It’s available from the 6th of November 2017, RRP £12.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Tom Watt & Phyllis Logan

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two. Simply Media DVD Review

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Written by Ronald Chesney and Roland Wolfe, The Rag Trade ran for three series on the BBC during 1961 and 1963 (it was later revived for two runs during the 1970s on LWT, which featured remakes of some of the original BBC scripts).  Set in a clothing workshop called Fenners Fashions, the nominal head of the business, Harold Fenner (Peter Jones), forever finds himself at the mercy of his bolshy workforce – most notably shop steward Paddy Fleming (Miriam Karlin) who’s apt to shout “everybody out!” at the drop of a hat.

Stuck in the middle between management and the workforce is the long-suffering foreman Reg Turner (Reg Varney) whilst the likes of Carole (Sheila Hancock), Shirley (Barbara Windsor), Lily (Esma Cannon) and Gloria (Wanda Ventham) are some of the more prominent members of the motley workforce.

It’s fair to say that the works of Chesney and Wolfe are an acquired taste.  I’m rather fond of Meet the Wife but rather less so of On The Buses and their later 1970s ITV sitcoms.  True, the likes of Don’t Drink The Water and Yus My Dear have a certain grisly interest but you’d be hard pushed to claim they were forgotten classics (or any good).

The original Rag Trade is sharper though, possibly because it occurred earlier in their career, although the high quality cast helps too.  Peter Jones, the original and best Voice of the Book from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, splutters with splendid comic timing throughout.  He’s matched by Miriam Karlin all the way whilst Barbara Windsor (who missed out series two but returned for series three, which sadly no longer exists), Wanda Ventham (who appeared in the second series only) and Sheila Hancock (who appears in both of the series here) all offer strong support. Hancock, as the perpetually vague Carole, is the receipient of some killer lines.

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Sheila Hancock & Reg Varney

Here’s what’s contained across the four discs.

Series 1, Disc 1

1: The French Fashions
2: Christmas Box
3: The Baby
4: Getting Married

Series 1, Disc 2

5: Early Start
6: Unhappy Customer
7: Doctor’s Orders
8: The Sample

Series 2, Disc 1

1: The Thief
2: The Dog
3: Locked In
4: The Flat
5: The Client
6: Stay-In Strike

Series 2, Disc 2

7: Safety Precaution
8: Stainproofer
9: Doctor
10: Barber’s Shop
11: The Bank Manager

The series does pretty well for guest stars, with the likes of Frank Thornton, Terry Scott, Colin Douglas, Patrick Cargill, June Whitfield, Lynda Baron, Fabia Drake, Ronnie Barker and Hugh Paddick all making appearances.

Another familiar face – Peter Gilmore (The Onedin Line) – pops up in The French Fashions. Sporting an interesting American accent, he appears in the middle of a frenetic episode which sees Carole model a rock-hard pair of slacks for Gilmore’s character (it would take too to explain why) whilst the workface later masquerades as French workers in order to snag a lucractive sales contract. None of this is terribly subtle, but there’s some typically deft comedic performances on display (Esma Cannon, as ever, effortlessly mananges to steal every scene she appears in).

Another series one show – Unhappy Customer – sees “everybody out” as the girls go on strike (Mr Fenner’s more than a little unhappy that they’re eating in the workshop, but won’t agree to build a canteen). But then he has a change of heart ….

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Reg Varney & Peter Jones

Considering that he’s supposed to be a penny-pincher, his solution – an automatic food dispenser (“anything you like. Tea, coffee, snacks”) – is a handsome gesture but Paddy’s not happy. This sort of automation might mean that their ten minute tea-break would actually only last ten minutes, rather than the ninety minutes it currently does. So their minds turn to sabotage ….

Highlights from series two include the second episode, The Dog. The pet in question belongs to Lily who brings him to work (she’s concerned about his health, so smuggles him in under Mr Fenner’s nose). This is classic Rag Trade – the workers conspiring against the hapless Fenner – enlivened by the always entertaining Esma Cannon and a lovely guest turn from the elegant Patrick Cargill.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is a straight repress of the previously released edtions by DD, which means that series one is still missing two episodes (series two is as complete as it can be – two of the thirteen episodes no longer exist).

Picture quality is variable (the opening episode of series two is probably the worst, a pretty low quality telerecording). Things are much better elsewhere, although some episodes do feature occassional brief jumps when the picture and soundtrack slips out of sync for a second (a common issue with telerecordings).

The Rag Trade stands up very well. It’s certainly one of the strongest sitcoms from the Chesney/Wolfe partnership, thanks not only to the first-rate cast but also due to the way that it comedically shines a light on British labour relations during the early sixties. Whilst it’s exaggerated for comic effect, there’s more than a kernel of truth in the way that management were at the mercy of their workers (today, the pendulum has firmly swung the other way).

A cracking little sitcom, it’s well worth your time.

The Rag Trade – Series One and Two is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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Esma Cannon & Reg Varney

Betjeman – The Collection. Simply Media DVD Review

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Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) described himself with characteristic understatement in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”.  There was rather more to him than that though – he was a writer, broadcaster and from 1972 until his death also served as the Poet Laureate.

Betjeman’s love of architecture (especially from the Victorian era) and landscape is explored in detail across the three series which make up this boxset – A Passion for Churches, Bird’s Eye View and Four with Betjeman: Victorian Architects and Architecture.

Four With Betjeman finds him indulging one of his most strongly held passions – that of the Victorian architects and the buildings they left behind.  “I have known for years and so have most of you that there were great Victorian architects, but they have never been given their due. Today, thank goodness, we can see Victorian architecture in perspective”.

This excerpt from a contemporary Daily Telegraph review articulates just why this short series was so entertaining and absorbing.  “There is a precision about his informed enthusiasm which enables one to see the most familiar buildings, such as the Houses of Parliament, in a new light … Sir John, who succeeds in making his conducted tours seem addressed to a personal friend, can move without pause from an appreciation of shape and proportion to an anecdote about an Irish peer rolling the full length of a Barry staircase”.

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Four With Betjeman contains four half-hour programmes – (Charles Barry & Augustus PuginWilliam Butterfield & Gilbert ScottAlfred Waterhouse & Norman ShawSir Ninian ComperWilliam Robinson & Sir Edwin Lutyens).

In Bird’s Eye View we, unsurprisingly, observe Britain from a different angle as we take to the air for an unusual take on the familiar.  The first programme, An Englishman’s Home, sees Betjeman waxing lyrical (with the occasional sharp barb) as the camera swoops over a diverse selection of dwellings.  From stately castle, Georgian terrace, suburban semi to looming concrete tower blocks, Betjeman has words for all.  His comments on tower blocks (“but where can be the heart that sends a family to the twentieth floor in such a slab as this?”) carries a particular resonance today, following the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

From the same series, Beside the Seaside is a treat as we tour past some of England’s most popular seaside destinations.  The somewhat faded colour print helps to give the visuals a faint air of melancholy.

A swooping seagull takes its flight
From Weymouth to the Isle of Wight
From Cornish cliff tops wild and bare
To crowds at Weston-super-Mare
The seaside seen as history
Bournemouth, Butlin’s and Torquay
Whatever paddles, surfs or sails
Braves the waves or rides the gales
A scrapbook made at Christmastime
Of summer joys in film and rhyme

The title music for Bird’s Eye View is a typically jazzy piece from John Dankworth (the incidentals are more classically inclined, all the better to compliment Betjeman’s words).

Also included on the same disc is One Man’s Country – Cornwall (1964).  This isn’t part of the Bird’s Eye View series, but since it has a similar style it fits well with the two later programmes.  The stark black and footage of Cornwall is very striking and helps to make it especially memorable.

Although he’s not on camera, these three programmes (a perfect marriage of visuals and Bejeman’s poetic prose) are probably my favourite from the set.  Both of the Bird’s Eye View programmes run for fifty minutes whilst Cornwall is shorter, at twenty five.

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A Passion for Churches (1974) sees Betjeman explore his long-held fascination with church architecture.  “What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, without church towers to recognise you by?”  His love of churches began exactly sixty years prior to this, as the eight-year old Betjeman went rowing on the River Bure in Norfolk with his father.  Delightfully, this film opens with Betjeman re-enacting this. He then moves on to take a whistle-stop tour around the area.

From Medieval stained glass and brass rubbings, to weddings and the Edwardian parish church on the Queen’s estate of Sandringham, A Passion for Churches is another leisurely treat.  As with all the programmes, the visuals are anchored by Betjeman’s measured, poetic narration.

Also included on the same disc are ABC of Churches (two episodes of approx. 23 minutes, 1961), Journey to Bethlehem (30 minutes, 1966) and a ten-minute fragment from a later edition of the ABC of Churches series (since the two complete editions only go from A – F, presumably the others were wiped).  All of these, unlike A Passion for Churches, are in black and white.

I’m sure that Doctor Who fans will appreciate the tour of Aldbourne’s church (memorably later depicted in 1971’s The Daemons) in the first edition of ABC of Churches whilst Journey to Bethlehem still captures the attention some fifty years on.

Given the age of the source materials, the picture quality is naturally a little variable.  The colour film prints are rather faded in places, although the black and white prints aren’t in too bad a condition at all.  But everything’s perfectly watchable with no major picture glitches to report.

A wonderful collection of programmes, Betjeman – The Collection should appeal to anybody interested in archive documentaries. Recommended.

Betjeman – The Collection is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of October 2017.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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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