H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – The Vanishing Evidence

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When a colleague of Brady’s is murdered and the secret formula he was working on stolen, the Invisible Man is sent on a mission to Amsterdam.  The authorities are hopeful that they’ll be able to retrieve the papers from the thief, Peter Thal (Charles Gray), and they need Brady on hand in order to verify that they’re genuine.  But when the agent tasked with recovering the papers, Jenny Reyden (Sarah Lawson), is forced to kill Thal, Brady has to somehow work out a way to get the papers out of Thal’s safe as well as ensuring Jenny is released from the clutches of the authorities ….

Thal might have gained access to Professor Harper’s (James Raglan) house on the pretext that he was a fellow scientist, but it’s pretty obvious within the first few seconds that he’s a wrong-‘un.  Even with a slightly dodgy foreign accent, Gray is his usual sinister self – best seen when Thal casually confirms that nobody else worked with Harper on the project and also that all the papers are sitting on his desk (a tad convenient, it must be said).  Once he’s satisfied about these points, he shoots Harper in cold blood and coolly walks out with the formula.

It’s a pity that Thal doesn’t stick around the episode longer (he’s killed some ten minutes in) but at least he has a memorable death scene.  After realising that Jenny is a spy rather than his contact, they have a brief struggle.  Physical violence wasn’t really a feature of this era of television (at least not in drama of this type) so it’s slightly unusual to see Thal manhandle Jenny quite so roughly (grabbing her by the throat).  But she’s no shrinking violet – she’s able to reach into her bag, pull out a gun and shoot him.

Thal takes a long time to die, it must be said.   He’s able to stagger about the room, open the window, throw the safe key out of the window, leer at Jenny in a self-satisfied way and then grab the curtains before collapsing.  If you’re going to go, then go in style ….

I don’t quite understand why Jenny, if she’s a spy, also appears to be something of a celebrity.  She’s featured on the front page of a magazine, which enables the hotel porter (played by Michael Ripper) to easily identify her.

Ripper, a very familiar Hammer stalwart, is great fun.  Subtle he isn’t, but entertaining he is.  When the gunshot rings out, the porter becomes boggle-eyed, dashing about in a frenzy.  You can also guess the way he’s going to react when Brady starts doing some invisible antics in front of him (and he doesn’t disappoint).  Michael Ripper, master of the shocked and surprised expression. For some reason, Brady elects to play two invisible people (a man and a woman) whilst lifting Thal’s flat key from under the porter’s nose – all the better to bamboozle him I guess.

Sarah Lawson had plenty of credits to her name, although for me her role as Flo Mayhew in Callan was especially noteworthy.  The always dependable Ewen Solon appears as Superintendent Van Reyneveld whilst Peter Illing somewhat chews the scenery as Inspector Strang.

This is another story where Brady’s invisible abilities are somewhat underused (yes, he breaks into Thal’s flat to get the papers, but since he took the porter along it was hardly clandestine).  It’s also a pity that the oddities of Jenny’s character are never addressed.  Not the best story then, but a substantial comic role for Michael Ripper helps to soften the blow a little.

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The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Absent-Minded Coterie

 

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Charles Gray as Eugine Valmont in The Absent-Minded Coterie by Robert Barr
Adapted by Alexander Baron. Directed by Peter Duguid

French amateur detective Eugine Valmont (Charles Gray) is consulted by Inspector Hale (Barry Linehan) of Scotland Yard.  Whilst Valmont easily manages to wrap up Hale’s little problem (a gang of counterfeiters) it leads him onto another case, which may be much harder to crack …..

The Absent-Minded Coterie was written by Robert Barr and was published in 1906.  Barr was responsible for the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs (in 1892) and followed this up with The Adventure of the Second Swag in 1904.  Although these two stories took gentle digs at the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon they didn’t affect his friendship with Conan-Doyle.  Both of these stories, along with his tales of Eugine Valmont (including The Absent-Minded Coterie) can be read here.

Although he didn’t write many Valmont stories (only eight in total) each one was an entertaining inversion of the sort of tales which had already become cliches, thanks to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes.  And at first glance The Absent-Minded Coterie does seem to be little more than a Holmes knock-off since Valmont, like Holmes, is a private detective who finds himself constantly badgered by Scotland Yard to help them solve their cases.

In Valmont’s own words, courtesy of Robert Barr –

Myself, I like the English detective very much, and if I were to be in a mêlée tomorrow, there is no man I would rather find beside me than Spenser Hale. In any situation where a fist that can fell an ox is desirable, my friend Hale is a useful companion, but for intellectuality, mental acumen, finesse—ah, well! I am the most modest of men, and will say nothing.

Alexander Baron’s dramatisation and Peter Duguid’s direction takes Barr’s source material to craft a very familiar late Victorian/early Edwardian setting – complete with fog shrouded streets.  The case of the counterfeiters rumbles along for a while, but it seems so commonplace that it’s difficult to understand why Hale should need Valmont’s help.

At this early stage the episode is nothing special, but it changes gear once Miss Mackail (Suzanne Neve) comes fully into view and Valmont’s fallibilities are laid bare.  When you understand that Valmont lost as often as he won (making the title of Barr’s book – The Triumphs of Eugine Valmont – deeply ironic) things begin to fall into place.  Both Barr’s original, and Baron’s dramatisation, take delight in using tropes familiar from the Sherlock Holmes stories and then turning them on their head.

Valmont jubilantly confronts Miss Mackail but is perturbed to find that she’s quite calm about it and gently goes onto remind him that as the only evidence he holds was obtained illegally it’s inadmissible in a court of law.  Just prior to this there’s a lovely moment where Valmont turns all the lights off, except for one directed straight at him.  As he stands in the spotlight, he grandly reveals to Miss Mackail that his name is Eugine Valmont.  Alas, the spell is broken when she admits she’s never heard of him!

Charles Gray sports an outrageous French accent as the vainglorious Valmont.  It’s interesting to ponder whether Agatha Christie was influenced by Valmont when creating Hercule Poirot.  Certainly the two share some similarities, although Poirot’s belief in his own abilities was well founded.  Gray’s performance is somewhat stagey, but it suits the material since Valmont isn’t supposed to be a rounded, three-dimensional character.

Barry Lineham gives a rather odd turn as Hale.  I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is, maybe it’s his slowness of speech, but there’s something about him that doesn’t quite click.  But Suzanne Neve is lovely as the cunning Miss Mackail and it’s a joy to watch her run rings around Valmont at the end.

The adaptation probably loses some of the sparkle of Barr’s stories (which are certainly worth a read) but it does have a lightness of touch which makes it something of a joy.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Cheers

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Charles (Charles Gray) and Peter (Freddie Jones) operate under a strictly fixed routine.  Friends since childhood, they went through the army together and now share the same house.  Charles likes to organise everything and as they enjoy their regular evening drink at the pub, he outlines how he sees the week progressing.  Friday night sounds particularly exciting.  “In here for our usual and then off home and wash our hair.  I’ll wash yours and you can wash mine, I never get all the soap out otherwise.”

Then Peter drops a bombshell – he’s getting married on Saturday.  This throws Charles into a spin, how can Peter get married when they’ve got the laundrette to do?  Peter is firm though, he’s in love and he’s going to be married at 12.00 noon on Saturday.

Charles continues to be baffled that Peter could desert him, after all they’ve been through.  “After thirty five years, school chums, brother officers, comrades-in-arms, joint lease-holders of a maisonette and an allotment – which we were going to manure on Sunday.”

But Peter wants to break free from his routine existence and do something very different.  He tells an increasingly appalled Charles that he and his wife-to-be will be “staying in South America.  We’re taking a raft up the Amazon, right into the rainforest.”

If all this sounds very unlikely, then there’s a good reason why – Peter’s made it all up.  There’s no girlfriend, no marriage and on Saturday he’ll be locked into the same old routine.  He then confesses to Charles that he created this wild fantasy in order to try and break the monotony.  Charles agrees that they should try and do something different, but it’s clear that they never will.

A bittersweet tale, Cheers is pretty good stuff, although there are a few awkward moments which do firmly place it in the 1970’s.  Charles is disgusted to see a black woman on the arm of one of the other pub regulars (Nicholas Courtney).  He mutters that such a thing shouldn’t be allowed and he declares that “I’d like to know where he gets his money from, I’m sure he’s a mercenary.”  Awkward though this is, it’s always nice to see Nicholas Courtney and whilst it’s not a large part, he makes the most of it.

Charles is also amazed to learn that people consider that he and Charles are a couple of “poofs”.  The fact they do everything together (including washing each others hair) has clearly not gone unnoticed by the other pub regulars (who call them “Pinky and Perky” behind their backs) but Charles doesn’t understand this at all.  “I don’t believe it! I don’t look anything like a poof.”

Freddie Jones gives a lovely turn as a middle-aged man yearning for escape from his humdrum life whilst the always solid Charles Gray is suitably bluff as another middle-aged man who lives for exactly the routine that drives Peter up the wall.  If anything changes, you can tell that Charles simply wouldn’t be able to cope.

If the scripting of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse so far hasn’t always been the sharpest, the star-quality of the actors has been enough to hold my interest.  Cheers is another good example of this.