The Secret War (1977 BBC WW2 documentary). Simply Media DVD review

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In retrospect, the 1970’s was an ideal time to be making documentaries about the Second World War.  Some thirty years or so had passed since the war had come to an end, which was long enough for people to be more candid about some events and particularly (in the case of this series) for certain facts, hitherto not in the public domain, to be discussed.

Several years before, Thames Television’s The World At War had covered many areas of the conflict in detail, but one omission was the role played by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.  At the time The World At War was in production this information wasn’t public knowledge, which meant that The Secret War was one of the first programmes to describe this vital part of the war.

The Secret War was narrated and presented by William Woollard,  a familiar face from Tomorrow’s World.  It was comprised of six episodes.

Episode 1 – The Battle of the Beams.  Early in the war, British Intelligence became aware that the Luftwaffe were using a series of radio navigational aids to accurately pinpoint targets, even in the dark.  This first episode describes these developments as well as the  jamming countermeasures developed by British scientists.

This episode, like several others, relies heavily on the input of R.V. Jones.  Jones played a major part in the development of the jamming beams and his book Most Secret War is not only a fascinating read in its own right, it was also a useful guide for the programme-makers in the early stages of The Secret War’s production.

R.V. Jones
R.V. Jones

Episode 2 – To See A Hundred Miles.  This episode discusses the development of Radar as well as British Intelligence’s efforts to discover German developments in the same field.

R.V. Jones appears again, as does Albert Speer – Hitler’s Minister of Armaments.  Another key interviewee is Arnold Wilkins, co-creator of Radar.  The presence of pioneers such as Wilkins is certainly one of The Secret War’s main strengths.

Episode 3 – Terror Weapons.  The creation of Hitler’s vengeance weapons – the V1 and V2 – and the countermeasures taken to combat them.

Interviewees here include Duncan Sandys (Chairman of the War Cabinet Committee responsible for defence against flying bombs and rockets) and Raymond Baxter, Woolard’s Tomorrow’s World colleague, who describes his exploits as a spitfire pilot and his unsuccessful attempt to shoot down a V2 rocket.

Episode 4 – If.  This episode describes numerous inventions that never came to pass.  These include the Messerschmitt Me 321, a large cargo and troop aircraft which was intended for use in the German invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation Sealion.  Also discussed are German bouncing bombs.

As well as further input from R.V. Jones and Albert Speer, also interviewed were Frank Whittle (creator of the turbojet engine) and Hanna Reitsch. Reitsch was a German test pilot and the only woman to be award the Iron Cross First Class. As might be expected, her unique status makes her a fascinating interviewee.

Hanna Reitstch
Hanna Reitstch

Episode 5 – The Deadly Waves.  Episode 5 looks at the hazards of magnetic mines and the methods used to counteract them, including degaussing.

Lt Cdr John Ouvry, who defused a German mine on the shoreline at Shoeburyness is interviewed and this actual mine is used in the programme to re-enact the event.

Episode 6 – Still Secret.  As previously mentioned, when The Secret War was in production the first information about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park began to emerge.  So whilst this programme is far from complete (as much more information would emerge in the decades to come)  it’s still a very interesting watch.

Discussed are the efforts to break the Enigma Code and the role played by the Colossus computer, designed by T.H. Flowers.  In 1977 the Colossus was still on the secret list, so details are fairly sparse, but the programme benefits enormously from an interview with Flowers.  And there are also valuable contributions from others present at Bletchley Park during WW2 such as Gordon Welchman, Harry Golombek and Peter Calvocoressi.

T.H. Flowers
T.H. Flowers

Whilst there are numerous WW2 documentaries available, The Secret War is noteworthy for several reasons.  The interviews with key pioneers on both sides is a major plus as is the wartime footage, some of which had not been widely seen until this programme.  The series was produced in association with The Imperial War Museum, so the programme-makers were able to make full use of their archives to locate interesting material.

And finally, the series helps to tell some of the less familiar stories of the Second World War.  Whilst the key battles and individual acts of heroism were already well known, The Secret War was able to explain that some of the real breakthrough moments of the war came not at the front, but in laboratories, far away from the fighting.

This is a first class documentary series and hopefully Simply will delve in to the archives again to unearth similar treasures.

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Doomwatch – Simply Media DVD Review

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The Series

Created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch was an unsettling programme which ran for three series during the early 1970’s.  By this time, Pedler and Davis had been collaborators for several years – ever since Davis, working as script-editor on Doctor Who during the mid sixties, brought Pedler on board as a scientific advisor.  Although a scientist himself, Dr Christopher Magnus Howard Pedler had deep concerns about the way certain scientific advances were impacting on the world.  In Doctor Who this was given voice when Pedler and Davis created the Cybermen – today just another monster, but in their debut story – The Tenth Planet – there was room for debate about the morality of spare part surgery and where it might possibly end (would we all become emotionless Cybermen?).

Moving forward a few years, Pedler continued to be appalled by numerous scientific and ecological stories that he was reading about in the papers and various scientific journals.  Like Davis, he was concerned that mankind was slowly destroying their planet and both of them wanted to raise the public’s consciousness – and so Doomwatch was born.

Always keen that they should base their stories on science fact rather than science fiction, the pair quickly drafted a raft of story outlines.  These were then passed over to a team of writers who would flesh out Pedler and Davis’ concepts into fully fledged scripts.  Appointed as producer was Terence Dudley, who also crafted one of the series’ most memorable early episodes – Tomorrow, The Rat.  As is well known, Dudley enjoyed an uneasy working relationship with both Pedler and Davis and eventually the creators of Doomwatch were eased out as Dudley took creative control during the third  and final series.  History would repeat itself a few years later, when Dudley ousted series creator Terry Nation from Survivors and recreated that show to his own tastes.

Whilst later behind-the-scenes squabbling might have affected the show, cracks were beginning to appear as early as the second series (when one of the regulars, Simon Oates, announced he wanted to leave).  Since so little of series three remans it’s hard to really pass judgement on Dudley’s sole stewardship (although some light can shed via the book Deadly Dangerous Tomorrow which contains a number of scripts from wiped Doomwatch episodes, most of which are drawn from the final series). It currently seems to be out of print, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the publishers website (Miwk) to see if there’s a reprint in the future.

In the opening story, The Plastic Eaters, it’s explained that the Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work, nicknamed “Doomwatch”, was created by the government in response to overwhelming public concern about the dangerous side-effects of modern scientific research (such as pollution and other environmental hazards).  We’re told that the Doomwatch organisation was one of the chief reasons why the government was re-elected, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the Minster (John Barron) distrusts the small band of scientists and is keen to close them down.  Doomwatch are frequently seen to come into conflict with both the government and private companies, keen to ensure that this independent organisation doesn’t reveal truths they’d prefer to remain hidden.

They’re headed by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul) a nobel-winning scientist who remains haunted that his research work was responsible – in part – for the creation of the atomic bomb.  John Ridge (Simon Oates) is his polar opposite, as whilst Quist is methodical and stern (although with the occasional glimmer of humour) Ridge is younger, much more flippant and very much the ladies man.  Resplendent in a series of impressive cravats, Ridge is used on occasions as Doomwatch’s secret weapon.  If there’s a lady scientist to be seduced, then Quist has no compunction in letting Ridge loose!

Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) tended to be stuck in the office during the early episodes, sometimes fretting over his computer (also called Doomwatch).  Doomwatch’s secretary, Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall) remained the most undeveloped character during series one.  Presumably created to provide the series with a little bit of glamour, she spends most of her time standing around looking pretty, stating the patently obvious or beating off the unsubtle advances of John Ridge.  She does have at least one episode that allows her to shine a little though – The Devil’s Sweets – where she’s central to the conclusion of the story.

These then are the characters who Tobias “Toby” Wren (Robert Powell) meets when he enters the office early in episode one for a job interview.  Toby is young and idealistic and neatly acts as a buffer between Ridge and Quist – he’s not as playful as Ridge but he’s also not as driven as Quist.

This line-up would remain in place for series one, but there would be several changes before Doomwatch returned for a second series.  Powell had decided to leave, as he didn’t want to get tied down to a long running show, and Hall, no doubt tiring of having little to do, also departed.  Geoff Hardcastle (John Nolan) was introduced as something of a Toby Wren clone, although he didn’t have much of a character and therefore remained a fairly secondary figure.  More interesting was Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) who became a fully fledged member of the Doomwatch team.

I’ll go into more detail about the existing episodes when I start an episode by episode rewatch shortly, but there’s plenty of interest in what remains (with, it’s fair to say, a few undeniable duffers).  From series one, Tomorrow, The RatProject Sahara and The Devil’s Sweets have all long been favourites.  You Killed Toby Wren (a great performance from John Paul) and Invasion are early highlights from series two and whilst series three only exists in very reduced circumstances it’s good to have a decent copy of the untransmitted Sex and Violence.

The DVD

Doomwatch has been a desired release of many for a considerable time, but until Simply announced that they’d licenced it late last year it seemed doomed (as it were) to remain out of reach.  Four episodes were released on VHS in the early 1990’s and two of these were ported over to DVD in the early days of the DVD format.  There was also a single repeat run on UK Gold in the mid 1990’s, but after that everything went quiet.

A total of thirty eight episodes were made (thirteen episodes apiece for the first two series and twelve for the final run).  Eight from series one, all thirteen from series two but only three from the third series remain in the archives.  Ten episodes (six from series one, one from series two and all three from the third series) exist in their original PAL format whilst the remainder are now only available as NTSC conversions (the PAL tapes were converted to the NTSC picture format for sale to Canada and then back again to PAL when they were returned to the UK).

The quality of the NTSC episodes will be the main point of interest for many and it’s fair to say that they’re a mixed bag.  Although it was believed that the BBC had processed all the NTSC tapes they held in their archives with a process called Reverse Standards Conversion (RSC) and then dumped the original tapes – thereby only retaining the raw RSC output – looking at the varying quality of the NTSC episodes on this release I wonder if that was the case.

Some – like Tomorrow, The Rat – look very nice indeed, not too far removed from the original PAL master, whilst others – such as You Killed Toby Wren and Invasion – seem to be very noisy, raw RSC conversions.  But later series two episodes – The Iron Doctor, Flight Into Yesterday – might possibly be the original NTSC tapes which therefore lack the RSC process.  If so, then I find this preferable to the raw RSC look – these episodes may look a little blurry but for me that’s better than the heavy picture noise.

My main fear was that all the NTSC episodes would look like You Killed Toby Wren, luckily that’s not the case.  In an ideal world the episodes would have had extensive restoration, but it seems that little or no work was carried out.  That’s not a criticism of Simply – it’s more than likely that restoration and picture grading would have pushed the RRP to a point where the release wouldn’t have been economic.  So although some episodes do look poor in places it shouldn’t detract from the fact that we now have Doomwatch on DVD – better to have it looking a little rough around the edges than not at all.  It also has to be understood that there’s only a finite amount of work that can be done anyway – several Jon Pertwee Doctor Who DVDs include RSC episodes which have undergone a great deal of restoration work, and even those don’t look perfect.

The extras are the untransmitted episode Sex and Violence and the thirty minute documentary The Cult of Doomwatch.  Narrated by Robert Llewellyn, it’s a decent little programme which is chiefly of interest due to the interviews with Robert Powell and the late Simon Oates.

One puzzling thing about the DVD is why Simply haven’t included the episode titles, either on the packaging or on the DVD menu screens.  So if you want to watch, say, In The Dark, then it might take a little trial and error to select the right disc and then find the correct episode.  Hopefully in future Simply can provide an episode listing somewhere, it’ll make things much easier!

But apart from that minor niggle, this is an excellent release at a very decent price.  Simply’s catalogue of archive BBC releases continues to grow and this is a very worthy addition.  Highly recommended.

Doomwatch is released by Simply Media on the 4th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

The Missing Postman – Simply Media DVD Review

postman

Clive Peacock (James Bolam) has been a postman for thirty five years.  He loves his job and is shattered to be forced into early retirement by the heartless personnel manager Peter Robson (Robert Daws).  So on his final day he decides to take all the post he’s collected and, rather than drop it off at the sorting office, sets off around the country to deliver each letter by hand.  But stealing the Royal Mail is a criminal offence and he soon finds himself pursued by DS Lawrence Pitman (Jim Carter) as well as a pack of hungry journalists, led by Sarah Seymour (Rebecca Front).

The Missing Postman is, at heart, a simple story.  It features one man (Clive) who appears to take a stand against the new, faceless technological systems that will allegedly make all our lives easier.  Peter Robson is keen to tell Clive all about OCR. “Optical character recognition. A sorting machine that actually reads the addresses. I mean can you believe that? Doing the work of eight people?”  This is clearly meant to be a bad thing – the machine lacks the human touch of Clive and, worse, it’s maintained by a surly computer expert who spends most of his time with his feet up, reading the paper.  Just to hammer the point home, this “progress” is flawed anyway, as OCR doesn’t like letters with paperclips or stamps affixed the wrong way round, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be any place for Clive in this technological new world.  He’s the last remaining postie to ride a bike and Robson is adamant that bikes are old hat – they just don’t fit into the new, upmarket Royal Mail.  It’s undeniably implausible that they couldn’t have just reassigned Clive to be a walking postman (he’s told that they’ve got all the walkers they need) but you have to accept this, otherwise there’d be no story.

Clive’s friend Ralph (Stephen Moore) suggests he comes and works with him at the local burger bar.  They’d have to work in the back of course – only young people are allowed to serve out front – and this gives us another fairly broad dollop of satire.  The kitchens are manned by old people who complain about their fungal infections whilst impossibly young managers boss them around.

The unsubtle nature of these early scenes (and the jaunty music which is clearly designed to be quirky and charming) does mean that the opening fifteen minutes or so do feel rather forced.  The humour and drama needs to come from the characters, rather than the viewers being bludgeoned by the script, but things then settle down and the first-rate cast can begin to enjoy themselves.

James Bolam is The Missing Postman‘s trump card.  It’s not the easiest role to play, since Clive is a rather diffident and undemonstrative character, but Bolam is gradually able to winkle out some genuine moments of pathos as his odyssey around Britain continues.  Alison Steadman, as Clive’s wife Christine, also gives a very decent performance, managing to rise above the cliche of the woman waiting tearfully at home for news.

It seems rather strange that Clive only makes a cursory attempt to contact Christine. He does call her again later, but by then she’s decided to move on with her own life. She’ll have him back, if and when he returns, but she won’t spend her time pining for him. At this point in the story Bolam cuts a very folorn figure, as we see Clive wrapped in a sleeping blanket and stuck a phone box somewhere in the the Scottish countryside, miles from anywhere.

Jim Carter as DS Lawrence Pitman and Gwyneth Strong as WPC McMahon make an amusing double act.  Carter spends his time with a permanent long suffering, hangdog expression on his face whilst Strong has a teasing, playful nature which obviously makes her superior officer feel somewhat uncomfortable.

One of The Missing Postman‘s strengths is that it features a series of character vignettes, as Clive moves from place to place delivering his letters.  Roger Lloyd-Pack (as Ken Thompson) is a good example.  Clive stops off for a few minutes to repair his bike and falls into conversation with Ken.  Ken asks Clive who he’d like to play him in a film, Clive suggests Dustin Hoffman(!) but Ken has other ideas.  He tells Clive that Ronnie Corbett or Michael Fish would be perfect casting.  Bolam’s expression is priceless!

Considering his job, you’d assume that Clive would be an experienced bike rider, but he does seem to spend a great deal of time falling off it, gradually becoming more and more battered. This leads to a moment where he exchanges his broken glasses for a new pair that belonged to a man who’s recently died. True, he won’t need them anymore but it does feel a little off that he’d take them from the man’s still warm body.

A meeting with Linda Taylor (Barbara Dickson) offers Clive a chance to stop and reflect. Her husband was a Scottish trawlerman who was lost at sea two years ago. Clive and Linda are drawn together and he quickly makes himself at home in her guest house. Romance blossoms (pity poor Christine) although Clive remains unrepentant. He tells Linda the story of Christine’s miscarriage, which he offers as the justification for his unfaithfulness. Bolam’s never better than during this monologue and Dickson, although she has little to do except react, also commands the screen.

The conclusion is interesting.  Clive returns home to find himself accosted by a barrage of reporters – his travels were widely reported and he’s become something of a celebrity.  But he finds it impossible to articulate the reasons for his flight, denying that it was any strike against the system, and then seems more than a little hurt when the press quickly lose interest in him.  They’re much more intrigued with Christine’s skills as an interior designer, which suggests that although Clive’s trip might have been a somewhat selfish one, it’s allowed her the space to express herself and begin a new and more fulfilling career

Transmitted in two parts (72 minutes for episode one, 80 minutes for episode two) The Missing Postman provides the viewer with an entertaining travelogue around the British Isles as well as some decently observed character comedy/drama.  It may sometimes overdose on its own charm and quirkiness, but the cast always ensure that it’s worth watching.

The Missing Postman is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016.  RRP £19.99.

The Children of Green Knowe – Simply Media DVD Review

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The 1980’s saw a number of well remembered BBC children’s telefantasy adaptations of which The Children of Green Knowe, originally broadcast during November/December 1986, is a prime example.

It bears some superficial resemblance to The Box of Delights (1984).  Both have a roughly 1950’s setting and feature as its central character a young boy who’s leaving school for the Christmas holidays.  On the production side, Paul Stone – producer of Box – would act as executive producer on Green Knowe, whilst the incidental music was again provided by a stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Roger Limb on Box, Peter Howell on Green Knowe).

But although they’re both very much fantasy stories, the tone of Green Knowe is quite different to Box.  Box has an air of threat and menace whilst Green Knowe, even though strange things happen, tends to exude an atmosphere of warmth and security.

The Children of Green Knowe was the first of six interconnected novels written by Lucy M. Boston which were published between 1954 and 1976.  John Stadelman adapted the book into four episodes, each with a duration of between twenty five and thirty minutes.

Episode one opens with the rather strangely named Toseland (Alec Christie) alone at his boarding school.  Everyone else has gone home for the holidays, but with his parents in Burma it seems inevitable he’ll have to stay within the confines of the school.  But out of the blue he receives a message to say that his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow (Daphne Oxenford) has just learnt that he’s in the country and invites him to stay at her estate, known as Green Knowe.

Toseland doesn’t look terribly keen when he’s given this news, but things look up when he eventually gets there.  It’s something of a trek though – floodwaters have made it almost impossible to reach and he fears he might have to swim across to the imposing castle-like structure, before the faithful servant Boggis (George Malpas) turns up with a boat (the rain machine was clearly working overtime during those scenes).

Mrs Oldknow, who tells the boy she’ll call him Tolly, explains about the history of Green Knowe.  Their family have lived there for generations and it becomes clear from very early on that the spirits of their ancestors are still with them.  Tolly is intrigued by a painting which shows three children who lived during the reign of Charles the Second – Toby, Alexander and Linnet.

The serial is content to take its time.  Episode one sets up the location and the basic premise, but although it seems clear that Toby (Graham McGrath), Alexander (James Trevelyan) and Linnet (Polly Maberly) will manifest themselves, they haven’t done so by the time the episode draws to a close.  Tolly hears the children playing at the start of episode two, but can’t see them.  Later, Mrs Oldknow asks him to “make up a great blaze, Tolly. And I’ll tell you a story.”

HILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE, THE (1986)
Picture Shows: (L-R) Alexander (JAMES TREVELYAN), Toby (GRAHAM MCGRATH), Linnet (POLLY MABERLY) and Tolly (ALEC CHRISTIE)

Her story concerns the time young Linnet fell ill and Toby (on his trusty steed Feste) set off into the dark and stormy night to get help.  Once again the rain machine is pressed into service and this, together with the night recording, flashes of lightning and sound effects all helps to create the appropriate atmosphere.  Later stories include when Alexander sang before the King and the time Linnet wasn’t able to join the others at Midnight Mass.

Tolly continues to be frustrated that the children won’t play with him.  We catch a brief glimpse of them at the end of the second episode and again at the start of the third.  When he explains this to his great-grandmother she’s not surprised and tells him that “they’re like shy animals. They don’t come just at first till they’re sure.”  That she’s fully aware of what’s happening is interesting – it removes a layer of drama (you’d normally expect only the boy to be able to see and hear them) but it works in the context of the story.  This may be a ghost story, but they’re ghosts of a very benign nature.

A slightly more discordant note is struck in episode four with the tale of the Green Nowe – a demon tree that’s brought tragedy to the Oldknow family over the generations.  And because by then Tolly has been able to hold a brief conversation with the children, who have gradually begun to accept him, this means they’re on hand to help when the demon tree strikes (which probably looks as effective as it sounds – luckily it’s only a brief scene).

With a fairly small cast, Alec Christie has to carry a fair amount of the serial on his shoulders, but he acquits himself well and gives young Tolly an innocent and open nature.  The other children are less developed, but that’s understandable since their screen time is rather limited.  Daphne Oxenford (a regular during the early days of Coronation Street amongst many other credits) casts a reassuring presence as Mrs Oldknow.

The Children of Green Knowe, like other productions of this era, was shot entirely on videotape.  Given the large number of video effects used on The Box of Delights it was understandable why that was an all-VT production, but since Green Knowe was very light on effects it’s a pity it wasn’t made on film.

It’s a strange sort of story – lacking any genuine threat (I can’t count the tree) or mystery it succeeds by creating an aura of warmth and Christmas cheer.  But although very little actually happens it’s still a comforting watch, which I’m sure would work even better at Christmas time.  For those who have memories of watching it nearly thirty years ago it probably won’t disappoint and since it’s a solid enough production there’s every likelihood it could enchant a new generation.

The Children of Green Knowe is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016.  RRP £19.99.

HILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE, THE (1986)

Stalky & Co. – Simply Media DVD Review

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Stalky & Co. was a collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling, originally published in 1899.  It concerns the adventures of Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle, three boys who are resident at an unnamed public school.  Kipling drew on his real life experiences when writing the stories – several of the characters are based on people he knew, whilst Beetle is a version of Kipling himself.  The novel can be downloaded here.

By the early 1980’s, the Classic Serials occupied a familiar place in the television schedule.  Sunday tea-time would be the time to see efficiently adapted serials with first rate casts, but eventually their familiarity began to breed contempt.  Just a few years later there were rumblings from certain quarters that the Classic Serials were beginning to look old hat themselves.  This was mainly do to with their visual look, as – like Stalky & Co. – they were shot entirely on videotape.  Bleak House (1985) was one of the first of the modern all-film BBC adaptations and it offered the programme-makers the ability to craft images with a cinematic sweep.  Compared to this, the poor old Classic Serial began to look somewhat second best.

But whilst the Classic Serial will never have the visual gloss of a modern film production, you know that you’re going to get decent actors and a faithful adaptation, so it’s always a pleasure when another one escapes onto DVD.

Although Robert Addie (Stalky), Robert Burbage (M’Turk) and David Parfitt (Beetle) all look a little old to be schoolboys (the actors were in their early to mid twenties at the time) it’s not really a problem as you quickly become embroiled in the action as episode one – An Unsavoury Interlude – begins.  It finds the three boys fighting a war against a rival house.  Their house, Prouts, is named after their housemaster Mr Prout (John Sterland) and they’re at bitter loggerheads with Kings, led by Mr King (John Woodnutt).

Stalky & Co. have little time for their own Mr Prout, but view Mr King with even less enthusiasm.  King (a wonderfully whiskered Woodnutt) is an eternally mocking character and his jibes are taken up by his boys.  After Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle are observed heading off for a bathe (we see their bare backsides as they dive into the water – an unexpected Sunday tea-time sight!) they have to face taunts from the Kings boys that they smell.

How do they gain revenge for this jibe?  Stalky has obtained three pistols and the boys head off to shoot some rabbits.  Beetle, being rather short-sighted, bags a cat instead and it’s an obvious wheeze to deposit the dead cat as close to the Kings dorms as possible – and then sit back and wait for nature to take its course.  This casual slaughtering of defenseless animals is a bit of an eye-opener and it’s debatable whether it would be something that would sit comfortably in an early Sunday evening timeslot now, but I also doubt that many eyebrows were raised back then.

Mr Prout and Mr King team up to try and catch our heroes in the second episode, In Ambush.  Mr Prout has discovered the den in the forest used by Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle, which is a bit of a problem.  Where can they now go to smoke to their pipes in peace?  Luckily Stalky has a brainwave, and he and the others join the natural history society run by Mr Hartropp (played by Geoffrey Beevers, who like the other teachers sports an impressive moustache).  The benefits of being members of the natural history society are clear – it means they’re free to roam wherever they like in the forests.

They venture even further afield, to the woods owned by Colonel Dabney (Denis Carey).  M’Turk is appalled to see Dabney’s gamekeeper shooting a fox and rushes to the house to confront the Colonel.  Although you might expect Dabney to be somewhat put out to be buttonholed by three schoolboys trespassing on his land, this isn’t the case.  He can tell they’re gentleman and knows a little about their families and history.  This provides us with a good example of Kipling’s values and mindset – the three boys might frequently flout the school rules but they’re bred to rule, so the likes of Dabney are happy to treat them with indulgence.  Prout and King might hold a temporary position of authority over them, but Kipling’s sympathies are always directed towards Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle.

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Although Prout and King are presented as little more than bumbling comic relief, the Headmaster (Frederick Treeves) is somewhat different.  He regards the boys more in sorrow than anger and whilst he admits he has no evidence against them, decides to cane them anyway (six strokes each on their upper backs).  He tells them this will be character forming and it’s no surprise they take it like gentleman (although it’s debatable how hard the strokes were).  So Prout and King seem to have won this round, although Stalky & Co. remain unrepedant after leaving the Headmaster’s study.

Slaves of the Lamp opens with Stalky and the others rehearsing for the upcoming pantomime.  The peace doesn’t last long as King bursts in, incandescent with rage at some unflattering doggerel written by Beetle.  This infuriates Stalky, who calls a council of war to discuss how they’re going to deal with King once and for all.  Robert Addie, who a few years later would be a memorable Guy of Gisburne in Robin of Sherwood, is in dominant form here.  This one also allows John Woodnutt the chance to go soaringly over the top, which is great fun to see.  Another brilliant comic performance comes from Roberts the cart-driver (played by Morgan Shepherd) who has a rather violent disagreement with King, which involves several broken windows and many hurled insults!

The arrival of two young men, Sefton (Glyn Baker) and Campbell (Tim Faulkner), in episode four (The Moral Reformers) sows a little discord.  They’ve arrived for six months intensive cramming and they instantly rile Stalky, although he’s quick not to offend them to their face (“remember your Uncle Stalky’s motto, never fight unless you can win”).  The relationship between the Padre (Rowland Davies) and Stalky & Co. is a fascinating one.  He treats them as equals and seems quite at ease relaxing in their rooms, puffing on his pipe.  But he does have an ulterior motive – a young boy, Clewer (Matthew Blakstad), is the victim of severe bullying and the Padre asks Stalky and the others to find out who the culprits are.

Although bullying is something that seems to regarded as part and parcel of school life (all of them – especially Beetle – suffered when they were Clewer’s age) they still readily agree to hunt the bullies down.  Their identity isn’t a surprise, but it’s another chance for Stalky to demonstrate his ruthless side. The bullies are well and truly taught a lesson by Stalky and Co. (to the evident delight of the Padre).

A Little Prep features one of the perennials of public school life – rugby.  Stalky and M’Turk find themselves drafted into the school squad and perform credibly against a team of old boys.  One of the old boys, Crandall (Simon Shepherd), is able to tell Stalky and the others about how another ex-pupil, Duncan, was killed in action (he was a soldier, fighting in India).  It’s a reminder that boys in schools such as these were bred to be officers (at one point Stalky wonders what it’s like to be shot at) and given Kipling’s background it’s no surprise that Crandall’s tale is a stirring one, with Duncan maintaining a stiff upper lip right until the end.  Apart from Shepherd, there’s another familiar face guest-starring (Dominic Jephcott).

The serial ended with The Last Term.  Stalky and the others face their last term and he wonders where they’ll all be five years from now.  The Headmaster has obtained a plumb job for Beetle – working on a newspaper in India with a salary of one hundred pounds a year.  Stalky looks set for Sandhurst whilst M’Turk has plans to be a civil engineer.  But before they leave they still have the chance for a few final scrapes ….

Produced by Barry Letts, script-edited by Terrance Dicks and with music by Dudley Simpson, this was something of a Doctor Who reunion.  Although Simpson’s scores on both Doctor Who and Blakes 7 had got into something of a rut in the late seventies, his work here is quite different (and all the better for it).  Rodney Bennett’s direction was effective and unshowy, but he was able to get the best out of the cast, enabling them to mine Alexander Baron’s adaptation for maximum comic effect.

Stalky & Co. is available now from Simply Media.

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Charters & Caldicott – Simply Media DVD Review

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Written by Keith Waterhouse, Charters & Caldicott was a six part serial which aired on BBC1 during January and February 1985.  Waterhouse had by this point enjoyed a lengthy writing career (often collaborating with his friend Willis Hall). Some of their early film screenplays – Whistle Down The Wind (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963 – adapted from Waterhouse’s original novel) – were key entries in the early sixties new wave British cinema movement.  The pair would go on to enjoy further success on the small screen, not least when they created Budgie (1971-1972) – a memorable vehicle for Adam Faith and Iain Cuthbertson.

The characters of Charters and Caldicott first appeared in the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, scripted by Frank Launder and Sidney Gillatt and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, the characters instantly caught the public’s imagination.  Charters and Caldicott were two cricket-obsessed men whose only interest was to return to England to catch the final day of a vital test match.  Unfortunately they find themselves tangled up in a mysterious case of international intrigue on their train journey home ….

The pair proved so popular that they returned in several more films – Night Train to Munich (1940), Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943).  Wayne and Radford would also play very similar characters in a number of other films and radio plays (but for copyright reasons weren’t named as Charters and Caldicott).

Given the 1930’s setting of the original film you might have expected Keith Waterhouse to have scripted Charters & Caldicott as a period piece, but instead he elected to set it in the modern day.  Whilst it’s possible to imagine this was done for budgetary reasons (thereby avoiding the necessity to redress locations in a period style) I’m more inclined to think it was a deliberate choice.

It may be the 1980’s, but Charters and Caldicott still dress and act like it’s fifty years earlier and this culture clash generates a number of memorable comic moments.  One lovely one occurs in the first episode, when the pair set off to meet Jenny Beevers (Tessa Peake-Jones), the daughter of a recently deceased schoolchum.  They rendezvous in the sort of fast-food restaurant that you know will be anathema to both of them.  This is made plain when Charters strides up to the counter and requests a pot of tea for two – only to be handed two cardboard cups with milk sachets on top (which he then proceeds to spray over himself!) In a later episode they both attend a country house party and descend the imposing staircase for dinner immaculately dressed – only to find themselves in their version of hell, surrounded by 1980’s yuppies.

Although there’s a puzzling mystery at the heart of Charters & Caldicott – complete with dead bodies, people who may not be who they claim to be, coded messages and several gun-toting heavies – this isn’t the strength of the serial.  The mystery is simply an excuse for Waterhouse to spend six episodes scripting wonderful dialogue for both Robin Bailey (Charters) and Michael Aldridge (Caldicott).

Bailey and Aldridge are both a joy as they blithely navigate their way through the story.  Their contrasting characters help to generate a great deal of the humour – Charters is severe, precise and suspicious whilst Caldicott is warm, vague and trusting.  The pair exist in a never-never land of comfortable gentleman’s clubs, complete with a library where it’s considered bad form to speak and a sauna where they can complete the crossword in peace – sometimes!

But the recent death of their old friend Jock Beevers, forces them out of their comfort zone.  Jock left a trunk of papers in Caldicott’s possession which he passed over to Charters for safekeeping.  Several unsavoury types seem very interested in the content of the trunk and this seems to be the reason why Caldicott discovers a dead girl in his flat.  Initially both Charters and Caldicott believe it to be Jenny (who they haven’t seen since she was a child) but Jenny later appears to tell them that she thinks her life is in danger.  The long-suffering Inspector Snow (Gerard Murphy) is assigned to investigate the murder and drops another bombshell – could Jock have been a Russian spy?  If not, what do his cryptic messages sent to Charters and Caldicott actually mean?

Apart from the spot-on performances by Bailey and Aldridge, Gerard Murphy is wonderfully dead-pan as Snow, whilst Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably beguiling as an apparent damsel in distress.  Caroline Blakiston as Margaret Mottram also gives a fine performance – she’s an old flame of Caldicott and finds herself mixed up with the mystery after she agrees to give the homeless Jenny a place to stay.  Blakiston is gifted with some tart dialogue and she bounces off both Bailey and Aldridge very agreeably.

I was slightly surprised that this was an all-VT production.  By the mid eighties the BBC was beginning to move towards film as the medium for many series and serials and you would have assumed that Charters & Caldicott would have been just the sort of programme to benefit from the extra gloss that film would have provided.  But no matter, the serial works just as well on videotape as it would have done on film.

As I’ve said, the mystery part of the story does play second fiddle to the character interactions and there’s no doubt that over the six episodes the plot does meander somewhat.  But even if the storyline does drag in places, the pleasure of watching Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge at work more than makes up for this.

Released as a two DVD set, each disc contains three 50 minute episodes.  There’s no issues with either picture or sound and as usual subtitles are provided.

Charters & Caldicott is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £19.99

Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

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Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.