Seven of One – Spanner’s Eleven

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Albert Spanner (Barker) is coach of Ashfield Athletic Football Club, a team firmly stuck at the bottom of the local league.  Their lack of success has even reached the hallowed halls of the council, so much so that Councillor Todd (Bill Maynard) presents Albert with an ultimatum – unless the team win their next match he’s out.

Although written by Roy Clarke, Spanner’s Eleven is no Open All Hours.  The concept of a hopeless non-league football team is a decent one, but for some reason the players hardly feature in the story at all (apart from a training film mid-way through, we don’t really see them emerge as characters until the last few minutes).  This is something of a wasted opportunity, especially since the likes of Christopher Biggins and Louis Mansi are amongst their number.

Unsurprisingly, since the whole series was mainly a vehicle for Barker, football-mad Albert Spanner has the lion’s share of the action, interacting with his wife Vera (Priscilla Morgan), Horace (John Cater) who covets the manager’s job and the harassed Councillor Todd.  It’s hard to really identity with Albert or to ever feel on his side.  He seems to have taken the coaching job for two reasons – firstly because he hoped it would generate a little profit for his day job (as a taxi driver) and secondly because he’s got the hot-dog concession on match days.

He’s undeniably passionate about the game (ignoring Vera, dressed in an alluring nightie, when a match is on television, for example) but given the poor string of results Ashfield have suffered it’s easy to assume he’d be happy to walk away.  Maybe he really loves the game, even at this low level, so much that he simply can’t – but this doesn’t really come over terribly well.

Bill Maynard doesn’t have much to do, but it’s nice to see him nonetheless.  John Cater, one of those naggingly familiar character actions who racked up hundreds of film and television credits during a long career, has a decent role as Horace, a man who delivers first aid during matches and – according to Albert – spends his time waiting for one of the players to have a really nasty accident!

If Spanner’s Eleven had concentrated on Albert coaching his hopeless squad then there might have been some potential in a possible series, but what we ended up with was one of Roy Clarke’s misfires.

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Zodiac – The Cool Aquarian

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Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Don Leaver

Whilst Gradley was a confirmed astrological sceptic in Death of a Crab, at the start of this episode he seems to have revised his opinion somewhat when he calls on Esther to ask her advice. Of course, it just might be that he wants to spend more time in the delectable Ms Jones’ company – which is completely understandable.

Gradley has received a tip-off that something’s going to happen on Thursday evening.  He doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know where, but he hopes that Esther will be able to provide him with the answers.  Esther is incredulous.  “You mean, 4:45 Lloyds Bank, Lower Sloane Street, a ginger-headed man with a thirty denier nylon mask and a left-footed limp? Of course I can’t. You really do have some strange ideas about astrology.”

Whilst Gradley is left to ponder on this problem, the episode develops two seperate plot-lines.  The first concerns two businessmen – Reuben Keiser (Michael Gambon) and Mark Braun (George Baker).  They’re very different types – Keiser is somewhat sharp and unscrupulous (as he says himself he’s “more barrow boy than Harrow boy”) whilst Braun is more refined and keener to do the right thing.

The second sees Gradley pay a visit on George and Paula Sutton (Bill Maynard and Betty Alberge).  Their niece, Sheila, has disappeared and shortly afterwards they receive a note to say she’s been kidnapped.  The two plot-threads converge when Kesier receives a ransom note.  He’s never met Sheila, but unless he pays one hundred thousand pounds the girl will die.

As the kidnap happened on Thursday evening, Esther wonders if this is the job that Gradley received a tip-off about.  Although that does seem unlikely, since it transpires the kidnap was a one-person job – why would they inform on themselves?

Remarkable coincidence number one is that Esther already knows Keiser and Braun (she’s supplied both of them with astrological readings).  Remarkable coincidence number two is that when Braun persuades Keiser to call the police, it’s Gradley who’s assigned to the case.

Like Death of a Crab, the solution to the mystery isn’t particularly taxing, but producing a baffling puzzle doesn’t seem to be this series’ raison-d’etre.  Instead, Marshall’s script focuses more on the characters, especially Gradley and Esther.  Just two episodes in, there’s an obvious “will they, won’t they” vibe about their relationship.

The story boasts a cracking guest cast.  Gambon and Baker are two actors that enhance any production and whilst Bill Maynard’s role is a little more serious than many of his signature parts, it’s still a pleasure to see him.  He does have one good comic scene though, when he and his wife manage to give a description of Sheila to Gradley that takes an age – mainly because they can’t agree on the most basic questions (her height, whether she’s pale or not, etc).

Also well worth watching is the ever dependable Trevor Baxter as Esther’s temporary butler, Neville.  He proves to be an invaluable help to Gradley (picking out a few clues from the ransom note) and Gradley’s way of thanking him seems to involve putting on an apron and helping him clean the silver!

Esther saves the day by casting a horoscope which leads the police to the place where Sheila is being held.  This is a slight cop-out and is probably one of the series’ main flaws.  As previously mentioned, the temptation to use Esther to pull a rabbit out of the hat can be damaging to the integrity of the narrative.

But although this is a problem and the mystery isn’t that mysterious at all, The Cool Aquarian is still an enjoyable fifty minutes.