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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Tate & Christopher Guard

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca Annis, Maxine Audley & Christopher Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Hepton & Gary Bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilfer Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esmond Knight

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

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

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

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

Paul Daneman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marda Vanne & Richard Pearson

The Adventure Game – Simply Media DVD Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disc One – Series One

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

Disc Two – Series Two

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

Disc Three – Series Three

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

Disc Four – Series Three

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

Disc Five – Series Four

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

Disc Six – Series Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brothers – Series Six. Simply Media DVD Review

Series six kicks off in a typically confrontational way as Edward (Patrick O’Connell) clashes with Merroney over Brian’s future. Will Brian be welcomed back onto the board? Edward wants a fair deal for his brother and – possibly surprisingly – Merroney concurs. But the reason he gives is sure to put Edward’s back up. “Because of the three of you, he’s the only true professional”.

Colin Baker still looks as if he’s enjoying himself enormously as Merroney continues to call the tune, forcing the others to dance to it. His relationship with Brian (Richard Easton) has always been complex.  He values Brian’s business acumen and knows that Brian likes him personally (which has helped create a bond between them) but it’s also plain that Merroney would drop him like a stone if he proved to be unreliable.

Somewhat Godot like, Brian has an influence over events even when he’s not on screen. The series opener, Red Sky At Night, begins with the others awaiting his return. But when he’s not on Don Stacey’s charter-flight there’s concern all round. Where is he? Is his absence further evidence of his unreliability?

When Brian (still sporting the impressive moustache he grew last year) does reappear, it’s telling that it’s Merroney he goes to see. Although both David (Robin Chadwick) and Edward have fought for their brother’s interests in their own ways, Brian clearly feels more comfortable with somebody outside of the family.

Colin Baker, Robin Chadwick and Derek Benfield

Brian’s gradual reintegration back into the business is a running theme during these early episodes as is the question of Jennifer (Jennifer Wilson) and Edward’s adopted baby, William. When the baby’s real mother decides she wants him back, Jennifer starts to feel the strain. One has to wonder why Jennifer and Edward didn’t legally adopt the child (William was abandoned by her mother six months earlier but she now feels more confident that she can look after him).

Our sympathy should be with Jennifer, but there’s something more than a little off-putting about her manic determination to hang onto William whatever it takes. Jennifer Wilson plays these scenes well and since her character’s usually so level-headed and sensible it’s an interesting change to see her put under pressure for once.

Jennifer is happy to cast William’s natural mother, Pat Hawkins (Elaine Donnelly), in a poor light, but that’s not the impression most will get when they hear her story. “Look, I’m just a girl from the local estate, okay? And I got a baby. And I couldn’t explain to my mum and dad why I wanted to keep him. So I did the only thing I could do and I gave him away”.

One might raise an eyebrow at the revelation that Pat’s husband, Alan (Ian Marter), works for Hammonds. Something of a remarkable coincidence it must be said, but this does allow Edward to be pushed over the edge a little further (like Jennifer Wilson, Patrick O’Connell seems to relish these dramatic scenes). Plus it’s always a pleasure to see the late Ian Marter, even in a small role like this.

Jennifer Wilson & Patrick O’Connell

Carleton Hobbs makes a welcome reappearance as Sir Neville Henniswode (Hobbs had appeared in series four but was presumably unavailable for series five, which led to Llewellyn Rees taking over the role). Hobbs had a decent film and television career but for me – and I’m sure for many others – he’ll forever be the definitive radio Sherlock Holmes. Just to hear the timbre of his voice is enough to conjure up images of foggy streets and Hansom Cabs ….

One of the more unlikely developing plotlines concerns the relationship between Sir Neville and Mary Hammond (Jean Anderson), the imposing matriarch of the family. At least this enables Mary to get out of the house every so often and therefore makes a nice change from her usual scenes (which tend to consist of her chivvying one or more of her sons).  Since both David and Brian are currently living with her at the family home, she’s got ample opportunity to fuss around them.

The first half of series six sees the Hammonds struggling to balance their work/private lives. Brian is still finding his way back to fitness slowly, David has never been terribly business minded anyway, whilst Edward and Jennifer are more concerned with the fallout from William’s departure than they are with Hammond Transport.

This leaves Merroney in a strong position, although Bill Riley (Derek Benfield) for one isn’t prepared to roll over for him. Bill’s rise through the ranks has been an entertaining running thread over the last few series. Initially he was a little diffident at board meetings – due to his elevation from the shop floor – but by this point he’s more then happy to speak his mind.

Derek Benfield

He’s matched in the common-sense stakes by his wife Gwen (Margaret Ashcroft). Whilst the majority of the characters in The Brothers are middle-class or higher, the Rileys are resolutely working-class and proud of it. It would be easy for them to be portrayed in a patronising light, but this doesn’t happen – meaning that there’s something charming in the way they enjoy the simple pleasures of life (an evening game of Scrabble, for instance). But they’ve not immune to pressure and Bill’s increasing workload will be seen to have a negative effect on their marriage.

Merroney’s private secretary Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam) still finds that her loyalty is divided between Merroney and David. With neither man in a regular relationship, both are content to use her as a dinner companion and confidant. Although Clare is a character designed to react to others rather than instigate her own plotlines, Mowlam still manages to give Clare a spiky sense of humour, ensuring she’s more than the cardboard character she otherwise could have been.

During S5, Merroney seemed mainly to exist in order to thwart the Hammonds at every turn. But throughout this run of episodes he’s more nuanced – whereas previously he was totally dedicated to Sir Neville and the bank, now he confesses that he’s beginning to side with the Hammonds over certain matters. Although on other occasions he’s quite prepared to steam-roller right through them, if he can ….

Brian also shows some unexpected facets to his personality (since his breakdown he’s become a more relaxed and far-thinking person). At one point he expresses his new personal philosophy. “You’ve got to feel that what you’re doing is really worth doing. Nobody makes money except the Mint. All the rest of us do is push it around a bit, trying to make sure that we get a little more than the next man. But it’s not wealth. Wealth is enriching. Making money is just debilitating. In the end it leads to a sense of personal isolation”.

When David finds himself rejected by Clare in episode eight  – The Chosen Victim – it serves as something of a wake-up call for him. All his life he’s been able to get whatever he wanted (until Clare). Will this make him a more rounded and less arrogant character? It’ll be interesting to see if his growth continues next series.

Paul Merroney and Jane Maxwell (Kate O’Mara) fractious relationship shows no sign of abating. At one point she tells him he’s “one of the lowest forms of life I’ve ever come across”. But when you learn that Merroney was castigating Jane’s ex-husband, the hard-drinking pilot Don Stacey (Mike Pratt) at the time, it’s easy to understand the reason for her anger.

Kate O’Mara

Don bows out of the series in the sixth episode, Tender (broadcast just a few months before Pratt’s death at the age of 45). Pratt’s gaunt appearance gave the running plotline of Don’s impending medical exam a bitter irony. “Sooner or later they’ll find something that creaks or groans or doesn’t react fast enough and that’s it. You can keep as fit as you like, but Anno Domini gets you in the end”. Don didn’t do a great deal (although his leaving scene was a powerful one) but he was always an amusing character and Pratt, even though he was clearly ailing, always played him with an agreeable twinkle in his eye.

As series six moves towards its conclusion, several familiar faces pop up. Clive Swift plays the shifty Trevelyan whilst Joby Blanshard (best known as the plain-speaking Colin Bradley from Doomwatch) appears as Van der Merwe.

After being somewhat subdued in the early episodes, Edward roars back into life (few sights are more impressive than that of Patrick O’Connell in full flight) whilst Brian and Jane seem to be forming something of an alliance, both personally and professionally. But Brian’s wounded psyche (he has a fear of being touched) might be a problem. Richard Easton, as so often throughout all six series, impresses here.

The sight of April Winter (Liza Goddard) who briefly appears in the penultimate installment – The Bonus – signifies that change is on the way for Merroney. His offhand comment that she’s his fiancee is a real leftfield jolt – although April’s been mentioned on several occassions (which has prepared the ground for her arrival) it’s hard to imagine the coldly efficient Merroney ever being in love. Clare is crushed by the news. Bill later tells Gwen that “the torch that girl carries for him makes the Statue of Liberty look like a candle”.

Hammond Transport has undergone substantial changes over the last few years, morphing from a wholly-owned family concern into a company with strong ties to the bank (where Sir Neville and Merroney reign). But it’s the proposed takeover bid from Kirkmans which threatens to split the Hammond family down the middle. Some, like David, would be happy to sell their shares for a handsome profit whilst Edward (and especially Mary) are resolutely opposed to the deal.

When Merroney goes AWOL (he’s in Amsterdam, meeting with Van der Merwe) the others (especially Edward) are concerned that he’s plotting behind their back. His adventures in Amsterdam are great fun, adding a touch of out-of-season glamour to the series. The sight of his discomforted face as Van der Merwe’s daughter whisks him round Amsterdam at great speed in an open-top jeep is worth the price of admission alone.

The series finale – Birthday – might be partly concerned with Mary’s birthday celebrations but business matters are also on her mind. The takeover from Kirkmans may have foundered but a merger with Van der Merwe’s company is still very much on. But Mary, frustrated at being out of the loop, begins to flex her muscles. As with previous years, the final episode finishes on a strong hook which will lead in nicely to the start of the next series.

The Brothers remains a very moreish and ridiculously entertaining series.  Richard Easton and Colin Baker especially impress, but there’s no weak links here.  Four decades on it’s still easy to see why the show built up such a large and devoted fanbase (not only in the UK but in many other countries as well).  Sharply defined and well-acted characters, placed in perpetual conflict with each other was a key part to its success and the passing of time has done nothing to dull this winning format.

The Brothers – Series Six is released on the 12th of June 2017 by Simply Media and contains thirteen 50 minute episodes across four discs.  RRP £29.99.

Patrick O’Connell, Jennifer Wilson, Richard Easton, Jean Anderson & Robin Chadwick

1950’s/1960’s BBC Charles Dickens Classics to be released by Simply Media – July 2017

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It’s very pleasing to see that a number of 1950’s/1960’s BBC Classic Serial adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels are due shortly from Simply Media.  Three have been confirmed for release on the 3rd of July 2007 – Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Dombey & Son.

Below is a little more detail about them.

Our Mutual Friend.  Adapted by Freda Lingstrom and broadcast in twelve episodes during 1958/59.  Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum, Richard Pearson, Rachel Roberts and Robert Leach head the cast, whilst many other familiar faces – Rachel Gurney, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Wilfred Brambell, Melvyn Hayes and Barbara Lott – also appear.

Great Expectations.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in ten episodes during 1967.  Gary Bond, Francesca Annis, Neil McCarthy, Richard O’Sullivan, Peter Vaughan and Bernard Hepton are the major players in this one whilst there’s also plenty of quality to be found lower down the cast-list (Ronald Lacey, Jon Laurimore and Kevin Stoney amongst others).

Dombey & Son.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in thirteen episodes during 1969.  A typically strong cast is headed by John Carson as Mr Dombey with Clive Swift, Pat Coombs, Ronald Pickering and Davyd Harries amongst the other familiar faces appearing.

And with three further releases to come in late August – Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962) and Bleak House (1959) – the next few months look to be good for those who enjoy classic BBC B&W drama.

The Brothers – Series Five. Simply Media DVD Review

The beginning of series five finds The Brothers in something of a transitional phase.  Two key cast members (Gabrielle Drake and Hilary Tindall) had left the show at the end of the previous run, although fresh blood (most notably in the shape of Kate O’Mara as Jane Maxwell) would shortly arrive to shake things up.

The departures of both Drake (Jill Hammond) and Tindall (Ann Hammond) were used to good dramatic effect though.  Ann and Brian had gone through the relationship mill during the previous series and even though their union was now at an end, Brian continues to suffer.  But his broken marriage is just one reason why he goes severely off the rails in the early episodes.

Although Tindall was gone, her character was still alive and therefore a return was always possible (and  indeed Ann did make a fleeting reappearance in a handful of episodes at the start of the seventh and final series).  But Drake wasn’t so fortunate, as Jill is dispatched in the time-honoured way of dealing with soap actors who either can’t or won’t carry on (an off-screen accident).  Talking about this decades later in The Cult of The Brothers documentary, it seems that Drake was a little taken aback at just how ruthlessly Jill was dealt with.

Another character, Martin Farrell, had also left, which results in both personal and professional consequences.  Professionally, it means that the position of chairman is vacant – which seems tailor-made for the ambitious Paul Merroney.

And on a more personal note, it was plain that Edward Hammond’s nose was put out of joint last series by the interest Farrell had been taking in Jennifer Kingsley.  So with Farrell out of the picture, Edward rekindles his own relationship with her.  Lest we forget, Jennifer carried on a lengthy and clandestine affair with Edward’s late father.  Unsurprisingly this meant she has always been viewed with great disfavour by Edward’s mother – the indomitable matriarch Mary Hammond – but it seems that Edward has eventually summoned up the courage to defy his mother and make an honest woman out of Jennifer.  Although I’m sure there’s still going to be a few bumps ahead before they can enjoy a lifetime of wedded bliss.

The series opener, the aptly titled Life Goes On, finds Brian in a pretty poor state. This concerns the bank – they don’t want to see their investment in Hammonds put at risk because the new managing director is feeling flaky – but Paul Merroney has put plans in motion to protect their money ….

Although Merroney was a rather peripheral character during the last series, here he really starts to make his mark. For one thing, he’s gained an assistant – Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam). Apart from signifying Merroney’s increasing significance, Clare also emerges as a character in her own right – becoming close to David, for example.

Baker’s good value in these early episodes as Merroney begins his manoeuvres. Surprisingly, only the bluff Bill Riley realises that Merroney has his eye on the chairman’s job – which doesn’t say much for the business acumen of the others! There’s a delicious sense of duplicity on show from Merroney as he puts the blame for the recent ousting of Edward as managing director firmly on the shoulders of the departed (and innocent) Farrell.

The way the audience learns about Jill’s death is done in a very interesting way which makes a positive out of the fact that Gabrielle Drake was no longer a member of the cast.  Jill isn’t mentioned during most of the first episode, although that wasn’t unusual (she was absent from the first few episodes of series four).  It’s only right at the end of Life Goes On, when David runs into a friend who’s been out of town for several months that we find out Jill is dead.  This is an incredibly jolting moment which provides us with a strong hook into the next episode where her fate is discussed in detail.

The dynamic between the three brothers – Edward, Brian and David – has been the motor which has powered the series to date.  Whilst series five continues to play on their conflicts, the emergence of Paul Merroney as a major player refreshes this somewhat – as an outsider he has quite a different set of loyalties.

But the brothers still dominate the storylines especially, in the early episodes, Brian.  In many ways he’s now got everything he wished for – he’s become managing director of Hammonds, ousting Edward.  Or has he?  We’d seen in previous series that it was Ann who was the ambitious one, constantly pushing him forward.  So the fact that he’s gained in business but lost out in his personal life must come as a bitter irony to him.

Richard Easton continues to impress as Brian, especially when he starts to lose the plot (the episode title Breakdown makes it fairly obvious what’s going to happen).  As his drinking increases, Brian is encouraged to seek psychiatric help.  And always around is Merroney, plotting to oust Brian at one point and then (so the others fear) attempting to buy Brian’s shares so he can gain overall control of the company. But as we’ll see, Merroney is no cardboard villain – he may be mainly motivated by self interest but he’s also not without compassion for the stricken Brian.

As Brian, ensconced in a nursing home, retreats into the background, so other plotlines begin to develop.  The long-running will they/won’t they relationship between Edward and Jennifer is now very much back in “they will” territory and moves forward at a rate of knots.  The problem with Mary (Jean Alexander, as good as always) still has to be overcome though, as the icy disdain she feels towards the woman who conducted a long-term affair with her late husband continues to be a fruitful source of drama.  Even when Mary and Jennifer appear to be on civil terms there’s always the sense that at any moment things could change ….

Although the departure of both Hilary Tindall and Gabrielle Drake left something of a hole, two new female characters filled the gap nicely.  Clare’s divided loyalties (between David and Merroney) generate a good source of drama which plays out as the series progresses whilst Kate O’Mara makes an immediate impression as Jane Maxwell.  Debuting in episode six, Flight of Fancy, Jane is the hard-headed director of an air-freight business which Hammonds have an interest in.  As a proactive business woman she’s something of a rarity in the world of The Brothers (Jennifer might be a board member of Hammonds, but she’s a much more passive character).

Also appearing for the first time in this episode is Mike Pratt as Don Stacey, a hard-drinking pilot.  This would be Pratt’s final television role before his death in 1976 at the age of just 45.  Don would appear throughout the remainder of series five and the first half of series six. Whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Pratt, it’s rather tempered by how ill and haggard he looks.

Yet again, things conclude in the boardroom (episode thirteen, Warpath) as Merroney continues to scheme although it’s possible that in Jane he’s finally met his match (a decade or so later Baker and O’Mara would once again lock horns, this time in Doctor Who).  With Edward under pressure and Brian’s fate still uncertain, things are left nicely poised for the following series to pick up where this one left off.

By now, The Brothers had become a well-oiled machine and series five not only manages to develop the existing characters in a variety of ways but it also develops intriguing new ones as well.  It continues to be highly addictive stuff, especially as the Hammonds, Merroney and Jane jostle for power and superiority.  But there’s time for more personal stories as well (Jennifer’s longing for another child) which ensures that the series isn’t completely boardroom and business based.

The Brothers – Series Five is released by Simply Media on the 27th of March 2017.  RRP £29.99.