dinnerladies – Christmas

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Following directly on from the previous episode, Christmas finds the relationship between Bren (Victoria Wood) and Tony (Andrew Dunn) deepening – although the dramatic cliffhanger from last time (Tony and Bren enjoyed their first kiss, only to be interrupted by Bren’s estranged husband) has to be addressed first.

Although the first series of dinnerladies was traditional sitcom fare (in that each episode had a fairly linear plot) it’s clear that Victoria Wood had more ambitious plans for the second and final series.  Sitcoms with continuing storylines aren’t unique (Brass is a good example of a show with a strong serial theme) but they are unusual.

The growing attraction between Tony and Bren is one of the major plot-threads of series two, but all of the main characters have their own individual story arcs which peak at different times.  Drama mixes with comedy here, as Bren finds herself plagued by self doubt.  She can see a possible future with Tony, but her life to date (exemplified by her disastrous first marriage) makes her convinced that she’ll “bugger it all up” somehow.

Tony initially reassures her that nothing’s changed between them, but then later he becomes distant and distracted – which suggests that he’s lost interest.  He hasn’t of course (instead he’s rushing around attempting to organise an impressive Christmas and Birthday treat for her).  It has to be said that this is a slightly clumsy piece of plotting, since it demands that Bren has to jump to the wrong conclusion several times.

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With Victoria Wood doing the heavy-lifting, drama-wise, the rest of the cast get all the best jokes.  Anita (Shobna Gulati) has her usual stream of bizarre conversational non sequiturs (today involving Disco Monks, thoughts of Michael Aspel, Sooty’s suitability as James Bond and bacon) whilst Jean (Anne Reid) and Dolly (Thelma Barlow) continue their gentle game of one-upmanship.  Jean’s latest attempt to roll back the years (she’s wearing an all-in-one bodyshaper but is having a spot of trouble with the studs) causes much merriment amongst those waiting for bacon – most notably Bob (Bernard Wrigley).

Bob later returns with Jane (Sue Devaney) for a spot of singing and dancing which draws a round of applause from the studio audience.  The unexpected arrival of Bren’s mother, Petula (Julie Walters), also – as always – entertains the audience.  With Janette Krankie in tow as her equally down-at-heel friend, Janice, Petula causes her usual amount of strife and discord, although there’s a nice sense of community as everybody else – in Bren’s absence – elects to send her packing.  If Bren has commitment issues then it’s in no small part due to her mother, who dumped her at an orphanage when she was a child (“I had her too early, there was too much going on. You can’t jive with one hand on a pram handle”).

There’s not a great deal of Stan (Duncan Preston) in this one, which is a shame, although he does have one lovely and typically bizarre monologue.  “Did I ever tell you about the day I had to go to casualty with a dart in me head? If you take my head as a dartboard it went in here (pointing to his chin) low score. Double top I’d have been dead”.  Although there’s method in his madness as he’s attempting to distract Bren, who’s on the verge of leaving Tony and the canteen forever.

But then it’s revealed that Tony hadn’t forgotten to get her a present – in fact he’s managed to smuggle the Black Dyke Band into the canteen ….

This is another of those moments where you have to suspend your disbelief somewhat – not only that Tony could persuade the Black Dyke Band to give up their Christmas Eve but also that they were able to get Bren out of the way just long enough to sneak them all in.  Well it’s Christmas, so let’s be generous.

Slightly iffy plot mechanics aside, it’s still a touching moment and had the series ended here then it would have seemed like a natural conclusion.  But there were four more episodes to come, meaning that everybody’s stories still had a little time to run.

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Telly Addicts – 1989 Christmas Special

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Back in those far off, pre-internet days, Telly Addicts was required viewing since it offered brief, tantalising glimpses into a television past that was otherwise pretty much off limits (look! A clip of Arthur Haynes …).  Today, of course, the archive clippage is less compelling, but it’s still an entertaining quiz.

As was usual, the Christmas special is something of a celebrity fest.  The Crackers (Graeme Garden, George Layton, Liza Goddard, Frank Carson) find themselves locked in a bitter battle with the Clowns (Chris Tarrant, Barry Cryer, Jessica Martin, Jim Bowen).  For some reason (self indulgence maybe) Noel Edmonds dubs each of them with a fictitious soap opera name.  Cryer is gifted the moniker Hugh Jampton, and no doubt he – and the older members of the audience – would have immediately understood the reference.

Memorable rounds include Guess Who, which sees ordinary members of the public stopped in the street and asked to describe a television favourite.  This sounds fair enough, but pretty much everyone picked looks a little, well … odd.  You have to assume that the television crew let the ordinary looking people pass by – it was the nutters they wanted ….

Sing the Sig is also good fun, whilst a clip from the Golden Girls seems to demonstrate that nobody on the Clowns team ever watched it.  We also get to see just the mildest amount of needle between Chris Tarrant and Noel Edmonds whilst Frank Carson (for him) is fairly subdued – although his exasperation in the final round (“why ask me? What’s wrong with them?”) is a joy.

The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1985

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Right from the start, the 1985 Christmas Special suffers from something of a dance overload.  Paul introduces us to his two assistants (Kate Bellamy and Donald Waugh.  Yes, Hughsey from Grange Hill) who he proceeds to lock into two individual cabinets which have been made to look like chimneys.  So far, so predictable.  But then Paul ambles off the stage as the Brian Rogers dancers move onstage and proceed to leap about in a highly energetic manner.  They add a bit of glamour – albeit on the cheesy side.

As the orchestra grinds out a version of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, the dancers take over the illusion – some of  them start to slice the cabinets up whilst the more attractive lady dancers are content to preen themselves.  This is all very odd, although there is a reasonable payoff when we see Paul – clearly deciding that he should get a little more involved in proceedings – mildly berates them for mixing up the boxes.  This means that the assistant’s clothes are revealed to have been swopped once the boxes are reassembled (a neat extra trick to go with the puzzle of where they disappeared to in the first place).

If Paul largely sits this one out, then he doesn’t really contribute a great deal to the remainder of the show.  There’s a few close-up illusions – the three card trick (done with four cards!) and a trick with a fifty pound note – but otherwise he’s fairly inactive until the end of show spectacular.  More on that in a minute.

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The Jazzy Jumpers come from America and are a young, energetic skipping troupe.  Not the most exciting of speciality acts, but undeniably skilful.  Lance Burton (direct from Las Vegas) offers us a reasonably good performance of the substitution trunk (created by Maskelyne, popularised by Houdini) although it’s odd that we never actually see the person inside the trunk who Burton had swopped with. Zhou Shurong offers eye-watering feats of flexibility.

It’s always fun when two great magicians meet – and so it is here as Paul comes face to face with Sooty.  Yes it’s Sooty, making a rare return to the BBC (and mistaking Paul for Terry Wogan – easy to do) whilst causing havoc with a miniature fountain.  This is apparently a scaled down version of an illusion performed by Dante and although it’s only a bit of throwaway fun it’s still appealing.  It was nice to see Sweep as well (oh, and Matthew Corbett too I guess).

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We then have a cutesy overload as Paul proceeds to tell a young chap called David all about Snow White. David looks too neat and scrubbed up to have been pulled out of the audience, so presumably he was selected well in advance (not that this really matters, as David’s main function is to react with wonder as the story of Snow White comes to life).

This is the cue for the return of the Brian Rogers dancers and there’s more dancing to come as we meet Snow White – who just happens to be played by Debbie.  It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the whole closing sequence had been designed in order to show off her dancing talents (you may not be surprised to hear that Snow White gets the chance to do a spot of hoofing).  A few illusions are thrown in but they’re all rather secondary to the showbizzy razzle dazzle (the seven dwarfs are played by children, for that extra awww factor).  It’s nice to see Fenella Fielding as the wicked Queen though.

The showbiz feel is maintained right until the end as each performer returns to the stage in order to take their bows.  As a Christmassy extravaganza this is decent enough fare, but as a magic show it’s something of a disappointment.

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The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1984

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The 1984 Christmas Show comes front-loaded with celebrities as Clare Francis, Anneka Rice, Bonnie Langford, Val Doonican and Larry Grayson are brought on for a spot of banter and magic.  All receive a warm reception from the studio audience but it’s Grayson who generates the most whoops and cheers by far.

Both Bonnie and Anneka are very eye-catching (Bonnie sports a silver pair of trousers whilst Anneka has a sparkly top and a  very short skirt).  Paul was never slow in appreciating female beauty, so it’s no surprise that he seems a little smitten with Anneka (“lovely leg, shame about the other one”).  Although I’m not sure whether his mispronunciation of her first name was deliberate or not ….

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This is a nice, relaxed opening to the show – allowing the likes of Larry Grayson to camp it up a little (unsurprisingly).  He’s also selected to wear a bag on his head (in order to check that when Paul puts it on, he can’t see out of it).  Given that Paul’s still wearing the wig, I was slightly concerned they’d be an accident, but everything passes off without a hitch (although it’s noticeable that when Paul removes the bag, he does instinctively check that everything’s still in place).

There are two speciality acts on the show.  Both are perfect for Christmastime viewing (maybe one day somebody might decide that a variety show on Christmas day would be a good idea – stranger things have happened).  First up is Kris Kremo.  I love a juggler, and they really don’t come any better than Kremo – who not only juggles with his hands but also his feet to begin with.  His act climaxes with the juggling of three cigar boxes – a familiar sight, but Kremo’s dexterity is something special.

George Carl has to slowly work the audience – his style of silent clowning proves to be something of a slow burn – but by the end he seems to have won everybody over (at the start, laughter is more sporadic – meaning that it’s possible to pick out several very distinctive hearty laughing types).

Debbie is now a part of the show.  She doesn’t have a great deal to say, but it’s plain that she’s higher up in the pecking order than Paul’s previous assistants (she appears in one of the six picture boxes on the end credits).

When I wrote about the 1980 special, I mentioned that there were no big illusions.  That’s redressed here, as Paul contrives to vanish one million pounds under the watchful eyes of Owen Rout (the general manager of Barclays Bank) and Robert Maxwell.  Maxwell’s later misdeeds gives this whole illusion something of a bleak irony.  It certainly proves hard to take your eyes off him.

When Paul announces that the money is shortly to enter the studio, it’s impossible to miss the way that Maxwell’s eyes light up.  Maxwell also can’t prevent himself from getting involved every step of the way (instinctively reaching for the safe key, constantly wanting to touch the money, etc). And then there’s the moment when Paul refers to Rout and Maxwell as men of integrity ….

As an unashamed television geek, one of the reasons I love this part of the show is that the cameras are allowed to shoot off the edge of the set.  So we get to see the studio cables, monitors and doors as well as the orchestra (who rarely, if ever, appeared on screen).  The money arrives in the studio to the strains of The A Team (no, me neither) and then the long process begins – opening the safe, extracting another safe containing the money, checking that the money is genuine, moving the safe with the money into a clear Perspex container.

This is one of those illusions where you know right from the start what’s going to happen (and also that it’ll only take a few seconds) but in order to have any impact the whole thing has to build very slowly.  Therefore some twenty minutes (the climax of the show) is spent on this trick – a considerable amount of time, but it never feels drawn out.  Luckily, after all the preamble it turns out to be a baffling mystery – no doubt if I searched hard enough I could find the solution, but discovering how tricks work is much less enjoyable than wondering how it was achieved.

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The Paul Daniels Christmas Magic Show – 1980

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Paul Daniels notched up fifteen consecutive Christmas Specials on the BBC between 1979 and 1993, a staggering feat which no other performer has come close to matching (unless I’ve missed someone blindingly obvious).   Daniels’ sometimes abrasive performing style (forged in the white heat of the Northern Working Mens Clubs) and his outspoken opinions on numerous subjects always ensured that he seemed to be as loathed as he was loved, but there’s no denying the influence he had on modern magic.

Following his death, most of the great and good of the magic world queued up to pay tribute – although it’s also fair to say that many were equally as fulsome when he was alive.  This clip from Penn and Teller: Fool Us never fails to bring a smile to my lips, not least for the obvious respect that both Penn and Teller – but especially the ebullient Penn – had for Paul.

Rewinding back to 1980, this was Daniels’ second BBC Christmas Special and the first to be transmitted on Christmas day itself (surprisingly he’d only manage this feat a further three times – in 1981, 1982 and 1985).  It’s the early days of the series, so the lovely Debbie McGee has yet to appear on the scene.  Daniels’ assistants here are equally as attractive – and sport some remarkable costumes – but are never allowed to speak.  Paul’s wig is still very much in evidence (as is, in the opening few minutes, a remarkable red velvet suit).

Another feature of these early series was “the jury” – a group of handpicked members of the studio audience who were allowed to get up close and personal (their job was to try and work out exactly how the tricks worked).  But it was also useful in another respect, as it meant that Paul didn’t have to trudge out to the wider studio audience in order to find his next hapless victim.

The first trick – involving Peter and his watch – is typical Daniels.  He borrows Peter’s watch in order to do a clever trick which inevitably goes wrong.  All appears lost and Peter seems resigned to losing his precious timepiece, until Paul miraculously pulls it out of the middle of a Christmas cracker (well this is a festive show).  Although Paul gives his victim a slightly hard time, you know that everything will work itself out in the end, so the joshing never seems particularly cruel or unkind.

I like the mentalism trick which he performs with a rather attractive young woman from the jury.  It’s another neat piece of close-up magic and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.  Paul’s next turn – in the Christmas Bunco Booth – is possibly the most memorable part of the show.  Not because it’s a decent trick (in fact, there’s no trick at all) but simply because it demonstrates how some things never seem to change …..

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Paul opens by bemoaning the fact that since the economy is going through something of a rough patch, plenty of people are feeling the pinch (which plays equally as well in 2017 as it did in 1980).  But then he tells us his solution – separate Scotland from England and give the Scots their own currency.  Eerily prescient stuff.  As I said, there’s no trick here – just a clever piece of number juggling which allows him at the end to turn to camera and tell Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe that’s how they should be running the country!

Guest-wise, Lilly Yokoi’s bicycle act is very impressive (a pity it wasn’t a little longer).  Whereas during Michael McGiveney’s quick change act I did wish it was a little shorter.  There’s no denying the ability of McGiveney (acting out a scene from Olivier Twist, playing all the characters) but after you’ve seen one quick change you’ve seen them all (and it’s fair to say that McGiveney’s a better quick change artist than he is an actor).  Compagnie Philippe Genty offer diverting, but not riveting, puppet fun.

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Paul never seemed threatened by other magicians, as the appearance here of Harry Blackstone suggests.  Blackstone performs the sawing a woman in half trick – although by using a circular saw it creates a heightened sense of anticipation.  It’s the one major illusion in the show, which makes it all the more surprising that Paul didn’t perform it – but he was obviously happy doing the smaller stuff.  Other illusionists might have been tempted to throw in blood and screams, but Blackstone – possibly mindful of the Christmas Day audience – keeps it clean.  The camera’s close enough to see the saw apparently slicing through flesh though, so it’s still slightly disquieting.

Paul ends the show by pulling out a bewilderingly large number of Christmas presents from a very small box.  It’s a cute ending (although I’m not sure that they’d get away with using live animals today) and although there’s no staggering illusions in this 1980 Special it’s still a very convivial way to spend fifty minutes.

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Doctor Who – The Edge of Destruction. Episode Two – The Brink of Disaster

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The previous episode ended with the Doctor being attacked by a mysterious assailant.  It’s therefore something of a letdown to learn that it was only Ian – trying to warn the Doctor not to touch the controls, as they would have given him an electric shock.

Ian had two choices of course.  Choice number one would have seen him tell the Doctor not to touch the controls whilst choice number two is to throttle the Doctor into submission.  Yes, he goes for choice number two.

But why Ian would think the controls would be dangerous (and how he managed to awake from his drugged sleep) is a bit of a mystery.  Yes, Susan was attacked by the console in the previous episode, but we saw the Doctor touch the controls later on with no ill effects.

For a few minutes, the Doctor is still convinced that Ian and Barbara are the cause of his problems, but eventually the penny drops that something is wrong with the ship.  Barbara decides that the TARDIS has been trying to warn them.  “We had time taken away from us and now it’s being given back to us because it’s running out” is just one of her baffling utterances which make no sense at all.

And the reason why the TARDIS acting so oddly? The Fast Return Switch was broken (a faulty spring!) and is hurtling the ship towards destruction. But rather than issue a conventional warning, the TARDIS decided that a series of oblique and bizarre moments would be just the ticket.  Also, it’s impossible not to love the fact that somebody has written “fast return switch” in felt-tip on the console!

Hartnell has quite a long monologue which is designed to wrap the mystery up.  Even at this early stage he was never keen on lengthy speeches – due to the worries he had with remembering lines.  He is a bit wobbly in this story from time to time, but he’s pretty much perfect when it comes to this sequence.  Although his reaction when receiving the script (“Christ! It’s bloody Hamlet!”) strongly implies that he needed some persuading to learn it!

I know. I know. I said it would take the force of a total solar system to attract the power away from my ship. We’re at the very beginning, the new start of a solar system. Outside, the atoms are rushing towards each other. Fusing, coagulating, until minute little collections of matter are created. And so the process goes on, and on until dust is formed. Dust then becomes solid entity. A new birth, of a sun and its planets.

It was very possible that this would have been the final episode of Doctor Who.  If so, then it would have ended with a more mellow Doctor finally beginning to appreciate his two new companions.

DOCTOR: I’d like to talk to you, if I may. We’ve landed on a planet and the air is good, but it’s rather cold outside.
BARBARA: Susan told me.
DOCTOR: Yes, you haven’t forgiven me, have you.
BARBARA: You said terrible things to us.
DOCTOR: Yes, I suppose it’s the injustice that’s upsetting you, and when I made a threat to put you off the ship it must have affected you very deeply.
BARBARA: What do you care what I think or feel?
DOCTOR: As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.
BARBARA: Perhaps.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes. Because I accused you unjustly, you were determined to prove me wrong. So, you put your mind to the problem and, luckily, you solved it.

It also reinforces the notion that all four members of the TARDIS crew have something to contribute.  It was Barbara who solved the mystery in this story, Susan returned to the TARDIS to fetch the anti-radiation drugs in The Daleks, Ian made fire in An Unearthly Child, etc.

This might be something of a ramshackle story, but at only two episodes it doesn’t outstay its welcome and apart from a few decent character moments it’s mainly memorable for the subtle reshaping of the Doctor’s character.

Doctor Who – The Edge of Destruction. Episode One

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This is odd.   A mysterious explosion in the TARDIS has robbed everybody of the ability to act.  William Hartnell’s the luckiest, as he spends the first ten minutes unconscious on the floor whilst Jacqueline Hill doesn’t come off too badly (she’s been positioned as the sensible one since the first episode and that carries on here).

It’s William Russell and Carole Ann Ford who get the rough end of the stick.  Whether it was as scripted or Russell’s choice, but for the first half of the episode Ian’s lines are spoken in a numbing monotone whilst Ford enjoys violent mood swings as Susan goes somewhat loopy.

There’s a number of bizarre moments, but one of my favourites is at 7:21 when Susan tries the controls of the TARDIS and extravagantly plummets to the floor.  “She’s fainted” says Ian afterwards, blindingly stating the obvious.

This was the first story to use stock music rather than specially composed tracks.  Eric Siday was the composer and one of the cues should be familiar (as it was later reused in The Moonbase).  But the problem is that there’s not enough music and ambient sound effects used – meaning that for long stretches there’s nothing but the raw studio sound.

A prime example is when Susan comes back into the console room and notices that the TARDIS doors are open.  This is clearly a dramatic moment – the ship hasn’t landed so it shouldn’t happen – but it’s played out to a totally dead atmosphere – no music, no effects.  It’s possible that this was intentional (to highlight something was wrong with the TARDIS).  Or possibly not.  It all depends how generous you want to be, I guess.

After fainting, Susan threatens Ian and later stabs her bed with a pair of scissors in a notorious scene which was somewhat controversial at the time.  Why Susan is acting irrationally (and why Ian doesn’t seem to be acting at all!) is never made clear – was this due to the explosion at the start or is it part of the TARDIS’ defence mechanisms (which we’ll discuss during the next episode).

This is an interesting exchange –

SUSAN: I never noticed the shadows before. It’s so silent in the ship.
BARBARA: Yes. Or we’re imagining things. We must be. I mean, how would anything get into the ship, anyway?
SUSAN: The doors were open.
BARBARA: Yes, but, but where would it hide?
SUSAN: In one of us.

It’s a red herring as nothing did get into the ship, but the concept that an alien invader might be hiding in one of them is a powerful and disturbing one.

The Doctor’s now up and about and is convinced that Ian and Barbara have sabotaged the TARDIS. It’s not possible to say for certain that the Doctor is acting irrationally (like Susan) because he’s been a very changeable character since episode one.

I think it was simply the Doctor being his usual suspicious, arrogant self – but it gives Barbara the chance to tell him some well deserved home truths. Jacqueline Hill is wonderful in this scene, as she is throughout the episode. Whilst the others have been erratic, Barbara remains strong.

BARBARA: How dare you! Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you’d have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn’t made fire for you?
DOCTOR: Oh, I.
BARBARA: And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city.
DOCTOR: But I, I.
BARBARA: Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude’s the last thing you’ll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.

Frankly it’s worth sitting through the episode for that exchange alone.

We end with the Doctor having drugged(!) the others so he can examine the TARDIS in peace. But somebody then attacks him. Or do they? Possibly it’s just a very contrived cliffhanger.  All will be revealed when we reach The Brink of Disaster.