Christmas Night with the Stars 1964

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Jack Warner is in the chair for the 1964 Stars, introducing Billy Cotton, Dick Emery, Top of the Pops, Andy Stewart, Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd, The Likely Lads, Richard Briers & Prunella Scales, Benny Hill and Kathy Kirby.

The first observation is that they’ve not exactly splashed out with the set dressings for poor old Jack, who has to present his links in the middle of a cold and deserted studio – with only an armchair, a table, some candles, a Christmas tree and a few other assorted decorations for company.  Still, pro that he is, he soldiers on regardless.

After Billy Cotton and his band gets the show off to a rousing start (“wakey, wakey!”) we move onto film as Dick Emery, in various guises, is stopped in the street and asked how he/she plans to spend Christmas.  It’s interesting to compare and contrast Emery with Benny Hill (who later in the show also plays a variety of characters).  I’d definitely have to give Hill the edge, although Emery has his moments, especially with the man-eating Mandy. “You are awful, but I like you”.

Top of the Pops are represented by …. the Barron Knights.  Well, if you can’t afford the real groups I guess they were the next best thing.  They’d had their first taste of chart success in 1964 with Call up the Groups and their Stars appearance isn’t too dissimilar – parodying popular groups and hits of the day by changing the lyrics, here with a Christmas theme.

Andy Stewart heads up to the North of Scotland for a bit of a toe-tapper, which is followed by Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd in a seasonal Hugh and I skit.  As with the series, Patricia Hayes, Jack Haigh, Molly Sugden and the luvverly Jill Curzon provide strong support.  There’s more than a touch of Tony Hancock in Scott’s performance, meaning that it’s easy to imagine the curmudgeon of East Cheam in a similar situation – a house full of guests at Christmas that he’d sooner weren’t there (and the presence of Pat Hayes and Hugh Lloyd are obvious links to the Lad Himself).  Scott dominates proceedings as he attempts to persuade the others to take part in a parlour game.  A nice segment which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

As Jack Warner says, most of the shows and performers on CNWTS were household favourites, but The Likely Lads had only started a fortnight before – meaning that someone must have quickly spotted this was a series with potential.  And it’s definitely a highlight of the programme, as even this early on both Clement/La Frenais and Bolam/Bewes seemed perfectly comfortable with the characters.

Terry’s keen to head out for an evening’s liquid refreshment, pouring scorn on those who stay in.  “Catch me staying in. Bowl of nuts, box of dates and Christmas Night with the Stars. No thank you!”  But Bob and Terry’s evening out never gets started, thanks to an escalating argument about the name of the elephant in the Rupert annuals.  Bob maintains it was Edward Trunk whilst Terry is convinced it was Edward the Elephant.  So Terry fetches his annuals from the loft to settle the argument once and for all.

The desire of Bob and Terry to hark back to their childhood was a theme of the series that would only grow stronger when it returned in the seventies as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  This small segment demonstrates that right from the start Clement and La Frenais recognised this aspect of their characters could produce comedy gold.  A pity that it’s not available on the DVD (like many of the other Stars segments sadly) but then 2E did leave a whole episode off the original release …..

Billy Cotton introduces Ralph Reader’s Gang Show, which is followed by Benny Hill.  It’s not surprising that the picture we have today of Benny Hill is from his years at Thames.  Not only because those shows were incredibly successful worldwide, but they’re also the ones that are readily available on DVD.  His 1960’s BBC shows are less accessible (although there is a R1 compilation).  Maybe one day all that remains will be released on DVD, I hope so – since they contain some strong material which gives the lie to the oft repeated claim that Hill was a fairly low-brow performer.

His Stars segment, The Lonely One, is a good case in point.  Shot on film, Hill not only plays the central character in the short mockumentary – a juvenile delinquent called Willy Treader – but all of the other parts as well.  It’s very nicely done and Hill’s creations (possibly because he wrote the script too) feel more like real people than Dick Emery’s more broad characters did.

Richard Briers and Prunella Scales are up next in Marriage Lines.  It’s cosy and twee, but Briers and Scales make it just about worthwhile.  George and Kate Starling are expecting their first child which is reflected in their presents to each other – Kate gives him a sleeping bag (in case the baby gets too noisy, he can move to another room) whilst George gives her a maternity smock (seemingly not realising that she’s due to give birth in a month).

Although billed second, Kathy Kirby appears last to sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Chirstmas.  It’s a fairly short and low-key ending, but overall the 1964 Stars is a consistently strong show with very little filler.

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Christmas Night with the Stars 1958

1958

Running every year from 1958 to 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966) Christmas Night with the Stars brought together some of the BBC’s top light entertainment and sitcom performers for a specially recorded program of seasonal highjinks.  Only three complete editions – 1958, 1964 and 1972 – now exist and whilst the complete shows are not commercially available (although a cut-down version of the 1972 show was included on the Two Ronnies Christmas DVD) thanks to YouTube they are viewable at present.

Magician David Nixon is your host for the 1958 Stars, with Charlie Chester, the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake, Perry Como, Ted Ray, Tony Hancock, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Edwards, Billy Cotton & his Band and Jack Warner providing the entertainment.

If Charlie Chester’s remembered today it’s probably due to his later radio career (he had a Sunday R2 programme which ran until 1996).  Possibly it’s a little unfair that Chester was labelled a cut-price Max Miller, but there’s a certain similarity in style – although Miller was undoubtedly better.  Chester’s spot is amiable enough though, even if he was already looking like a relic from another age back then.

After a rather jolly song (if you don’t listen to the lyrics) from the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake makes his appearance.  Drake plays a tuneless carol singer who gets short-shrift from his potential customers.  Hmm, Charlie Drake.  The studio audience clearly love him, collapsing into hysterics at the drop of a hat, but I have to confess that his shtick has always left me cold and this sketch didn’t change my opinion.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Perry Como warbles away for a few minutes before Ted Ray and Kenneth Connor enjoy a nice two-handed sketch – Ray is a patient, convinced he’s swallowed something nasty and Connor is the doctor.  Connor had worked with Ray both on radio and television and they clearly had a good working relationship which shows in the way they interact with each other.  The material is a little thin (a view which seems to be shared by the studio audience – listen how the laughs tail off towards the end) but anything’s an improvement after Charlie Drake!

Next, David Nixon plucks the fairy off the top of the Christmas tree, which then proceeds to dance in front of his eyes.  Today, this may look a little crude but considering how limited the technology was at the time, you have to admit that it’s very nicely done (CSO/Chromakey from a decade or more later sometimes didn’t look as good as this).

Up next is a real Christmas treat, Tony Hancock.  Rather than the East Cheam skit we might have expected, Tony’s contribution is very different – he’s a budgie in a cage, less than impressed with the treatment he’s receiving from his owner.  Because it’s such an unlikely scenario, this is possibly why it works – or maybe it’s just that Hancock was so good he could deadpan his way through a scene no matter how ridiculous he looked.  With his familiar mixture of weary resignation, Hancock is on fine form.  “Not good enough, stuck here all day with nothing to eat. Haven’t had a decent piece of millet since last Thursday.”  Hancock, with just a shrug and a glance (even when dressed as a budgie) can express so much and is a delight.

David Nixon shows Vera Lynn a quick magic trick before she pops off to sing a few songs.  Then we have Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!  It’s a series that’s been in the news as three previously missing episodes have recently been found, meaning that there’s now seven in existence.  The premise of the series is something of an eye-opener (Edwards plays a headmaster who delights in caning the boys in his charge).  A Muir/Norden vehicle that’s historically interesting rather than amusing, if it succeeds at all then it’s thanks to Edwards’ performance.

Billy Cotton and his Band are on hand for a good old singalong and knees-up, he certainly seems to get the studio audience animated.  C’mon Simply/Network, etc – let’s get the remaining Billy Cotton shows on DVD, you know it makes sense!

It might seem a little odd to end in Dock Green as George Dixon (Jack Warner) toasts his family and friends around the dinner table, but Warner’s background was very much in LE – so much so that Dixon of  Dock Green was for many years made by the Light Entertainment Department rather than the Drama Department.  Warner delivers a lovely monologue and given that so little of Dixon exists, every little scrap is precious.  Maybe one day someone will scoop up all the existing B&W Dixon material to compliment the (mostly) complete colour stories released by Acorn.  C’mon again Simply/Network, etc – this makes sense too!

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958 has peaks and troughs, but overall it’s not a bad way to spend seventy minutes.

Dixon of Dock Green – Reunion

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Twenty years ago a number of officers, including George Dixon, were involved in a major operation at the Docks.  Information received suggested that a well-known villain called Trunky Small was planning to steal half a million pounds in silver from a ship called the Galveston Bay.  Trunky and his gang were caught, but the operation wasn’t without incident as one of the officers lost his life that night.

Cope (Glynn Edwards), now a detective sergeant, has organised a reunion dinner.  It appears at first to simply be a chance for old colleagues to meet up and compare notes, but Cope clearly harbours animosity against Ashe (Jack Watson).  At the time Ashe was the DI in charge, today he’s risen to the rank of Commander.  As the evening wears on it seems obvious that revelations will be made.

The final episode of Dixon of Dock Green, Reunion doesn’t acknowledge this, even obliquely, so when Dixon bades us good night at the end there’s no sense that it’s a final goodbye.  But when you consider that the last episode of the previous series, Conspiracy, was very obviously crafted as a farewell episode (Dixon’s final monologue about his life in the police, the shot of the blue lamp as the credits rolled) it’s understandable they didn’t decide to play the same trick twice.

It does place Dixon more in the centre of things though, which was reasonable enough, although even here he’s still in his familiar role as an observer – watching proceedings, occasionally asking the odd question, but never directing events.  It’s Cope who’s in charge.  He set up the dinner and also arranged for an extra place to be set (in honour of their dead colleague).  Like the rest of the evening this is for Ashe’s benefit – as is the fact that the waitress, Joyce (Jo Rowbottom), was the dead officers wife.

Glynn Edwards might be best known as the long-suffering Dave in Minder, but his CV is a long and impressive one.  He guest-starred in many popular series during the 1960’s and 1970’s, such as The Baron, The Saint, The Avengers, Public Eye, Out of the Unknown, Callan,Target and many others.  He also had a regular role in the later series of The Main Chance and appeared in films such as The Ipcress File and Get Carter.

And like many other actors he also racked up a number of credits in Dixon, playing several different characters.  He appeared as Jackie Silver in two 1963 episodes and would later play Chief Inspector Jameson in several stories during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (one of these, Jig-Saw, still survives).  The fact that he then turned up several years later playing a different copper shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it was a very common occurrence.

Alan Tilvern is another example of this.  In Reunion he plays Morrie Finn, now an ex-policeman and someone doing very nicely indeed on civvy street.  This was Tilvern’s seventh Dixon appearance, each time playing somebody different.  His previous role had only been the year before – in the wiped episode It’s a Gift (although an infamous outtake still exists, showing Tilvern sharing a scene with Victor Maddern who finds it impossible to say the words “Dock Green Nick”).

I’ve mentioned it several times before, but the guest-casts of this final series have been very strong.  Apart from Edwards and Tilvern, there’s also Jack Watson as Ashe.  Another very familiar face from both films and television, Watson pitches his performance perfectly – showing an increasing unease as the evening wears on.

The resolution of the story is quite understated and low-key.  It later becomes clear that Ashe was made aware that one of his officers had fallen into the dock.  He could have stopped and rescued him, but that would have meant Trunky Small would have escaped.  So he chose to ignore this and press on.

It’s a mystery why nobody has ever brought this up during the last twenty years, but even after it’s made public here that’s as far as it goes.  Joyce has the chance to finally confront Ashe, but there’s no anger as she tells him that “I feel sorry for you. It can’t have been easy. Not then, nor since.”  And that seems to be that, as there’s no suggestion that any proceedings will follow.  As Joyce makes clear, the burden Ashe himself carries is punishment enough.

Another piece of the puzzle is supplied by Sam Platte, a man rescued from drowning by Harry Dunne.  For most of the episode this appears to be just a secondary story, but at the end Platte’s connection to the events of twenty years are uncovered.  He’s Joyce’s father and was the man who tipped off the police that Trunky Small was planning to rob the Galveston Bay.

It’s an outrageous coincidence that Platte should turn up on the same night as the reunion dinner and it can’t help but feel like rather clumsy plotting, but Bill Dean is excellent as a merchant seaman reflecting on a lifetime of toil with little to show for it.  It also allowed Stephen Marsh (as Dunne) a chance to shine.  For the majority of this series he’s had the fairly unenviable task of operating as the junior collator (largely existing to feed Dixon lines).

Low-key it might be, but Reunion is also a satisfying fifty minutes of drama.  With one exception, it’s very pleasing to have all the colour episodes of Dixon of Dock Green available on DVD and hopefully the black and white ones will follow soon.

Dixon of Dock Green – Legacy

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After a couple of years in Wormwood Scrubs, Jack Montelbetti (Tom Adams) has an unusual homecoming after he discovers a dead body in his flat.  The dead man, Bruno Pacelli, was an old-time criminal, specialising in jewel robberies.

Jack knew Bruno well (he was engaged to his daughter Julia at one time) and though he died from natural causes that’s only the starting point of the case.  After years out of the game it appears that Bruno went back to his old tricks and pulled a diamond heist in North London and was then keen to use Jack’s skills as a fence.  The jewels were stolen from Van Heerden (John Savident) who issues Jack with a stark choice – the jewels or his life.

This was Tom Adams’ second appearance as Jack Montelbetti (the first, Jack the Lad was broadcast in 1974 and like most episodes of Dixon it sadly no longer exists).  Adams gives Jack a cool, laconic presence – he’s a man who’s rarely perturbed, even when he stumbles over a corpse.  And though he’s a convicted criminal the old-timers at Dock Green (especially Dixon) seem to have a grudging respect for him.

But a newcomer to the manor, Len Clayton, doesn’t share their views.  He knows that Jack’s a newly-released prisoner and is extremely aggressive when questioning him.  This might have been another slight attempt to toughen up the series – at one point Clayton asks him if he’d like a slap in the mouth – but equally it might have been designed to show that rough-and-tumble tactics don’t always work.

Jack doesn’t take to Len Clayton at all and doesn’t waste any time in telling him exactly what he thinks of him.  “I spent two years banged up with a pair of incontinent morons. I worked six hours a day in a laundry for ten fags and a jar of jam. I said yes sir, no sir to the biggest shower of illiterate screws you ever met in your life and then when I come home I get you. Oh brother, life can be hard.”  He goes on to say that he’s not prepared to answer any of his questions, due to Len’s attitude, so he’ll wait for Bruton to turn up instead.

Jack and Julia were estranged several years ago (at the start of the episode Julia flinches when she hears his name) but it doesn’t take too long before they re-establish their old love.  With several different plot-threads running at once there’s not a great deal of time spent on their relationship, but Adams and Gigi Gatti do their best with the limited time available .  Gatti’s film and television CV is quite small (several appearances in Survivors as Daniella later in 1976 are possibly the highlight) and her lack of credits is quite surprising as she’s an appealing presence.

John Savident makes the most of his role, affecting a Dutch accent and waving a gun around.  There’s not a great deal of menace with his character though, possibly due to Dixon‘s status as a pre-watershed series.  The Sweeney would have been able to get away with displays of violence from Van Heerden (to prove that he could follow through on his claim he would do Jack serious harm) but that would never happen in Dixon.

The ending is another example that crime sometimes does pay.  Van Heerden is arrested but Jack gets away (and it’s implied he’s pocketed the jewels).  Dixon, in his end of episode summing-up, doesn’t sound at all aggrieved about this – another sign that Dixon of Dock Green operated on a different level from most police series.

For Dixon a conviction isn’t everything – sometimes villains will walk free (especially if they’re seen as basically decent people) and there’s a tacit acknowledgment that although the strict letter of the law hasn’t been followed maybe it’s for the best.  This certainly sets the series apart from many cop shows where the “result” is all that matters.

Dixon of Dock Green – Jackpot

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Harold Tovey (Kenneth Cope) is a bookish, mild-mannered man who continually finds himself hen-pecked by his wife Margaret (Pat Ashton).  When she tells him to take a relaxing holiday abroad by himself, he’s suspicious – as he’s certain she’s involved with the smooth-talking Mickey Walker (Tim Pearce).

But if there was any fight in him, it appears to have long gone and he dutifully plods off to the airport.  However, when his flight is cancelled he heads home to see his wife and Mickey heading out together.  This is the catalyst for a series of unlikely adventures, which start when he appropriates a large sum of money previously stolen by his brother-in-law Tony Kinsley (Paul Darrow).

Jackpot is a comic treat with Kenneth Cope (Coronation Street, TW3, Randall and Hopkirk) on fine form as the bookworm who turns.  The first fifteen minutes or so constantly reinforce the notion that Harold is a complete and utter nonentity – his wife says so, Tony Kinsley says so, even the boys at Dock Green nick say so!  But even the mildest-mannered man can only take so much and his eventual revolt is a delight.

He turns up at a posh hotel, complete with chauffeur, and proceeds to take the grandest suite.  He’s also acquired a nice new suit and, best of all, a full head of hair (thanks to a very impressive wig).  Outrageously tipping the hotel porter (Eric Mason) ensures that he gets the very best service – including some female company to help him relax.  His encounter with the escort Sybil (Pamela Moiseiwitsch), is another highlight of the episode as he does everything he can to impress her.  “Do you have a bucket of caviar for dinner every night?” she asks him

The performance style of the guest-cast is best defined as “broad”.  The likes of Pat Ashton tended to play comedy anyway whilst Paul Darrow’s broad cockney accent also raises a smile, although that probably wasn’t the intention.  Darrow’s very entertaining though, even if it’s hard to accept he’s a hard-bitten villain.

The comedic antics of Harold do contrast somewhat with the more serious scenes at Dock Green nick.  The two different environments don’t really connect very well – probably because the Dock Green officers aren’t integrated into Harold’s story (in fact, we could have concentrated solely on Harold and we probably wouldn’t have missed the input of Dixon and the others).

Quite a short episode, clocking in at just over forty-six minutes, it’s another one that succeeds thanks to the guest cast, especially Kenneth Cope.

Dixon of Dock Green – Alice

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Mohinder Singh (Renu Senta) is involved in the trafficking of illegal immigrants.  Forty individuals are currently in Ostend, awaiting shipment to Britain – but they won’t be going anywhere until the captain of Dutch vessel is paid in cash.

Singh contacts a dodgy import/exporter called William Keeley (Harry Landis).  Keeley is unwilling to make the trip himself, but a likely candidate presents herself at just the right moment.  Alice Benfield (Angela Pleasence) is a gifted music student who rents a room above Keeley’s office.  She appears to be vague and lacking in any social skills, which encourages Keeley to use her as an unwitting courier.

But Alice isn’t quite as innocent as she appears and is more than willing to undertake the job, provided the price is right.  And this isn’t the only surprise that Alice springs …..

Alice takes a while to get going (the first twenty minutes or so drag somewhat) but once we get into the heart of the story things pick up nicely.  Angela Pleasence, daughter of Donald Pleasence, gives an intriguing performance as the titular Alice.  When we first meet her she’s incredibly vague and hardly seems able to string two words together.  Is this an act?  By the end of the episode (after she’s pocked the money from Singh and taunted him that he’s powerless to do anything) she’s transformed completely.

Keeley ends up as her partner in crime (Dixon’s closing piece to camera states that they later went into business together).  Harry Landis is hardly pushed, but is good anyway, as the sharp Jewish businessman not averse to accepting a crooked deal.

The one discordant note comes from Tania Rogers as Keeley’s secretary Samantha Jones.  Her jive talking (referring to white people who annoy her as “honky”) hasn’t aged well and her acting in general is rather brittle and forced.  A sample of some of her other performances during this period, such as Zilda in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, shows that she did tend to overact.

Renu Setna is much better value as Singh – a man who professes he only wants to help his fellows, but isn’t averse to making a healthy profit out of them.  Refugees and migrants remain a hot topic today – although they’re not not really the focus of the episode.  As we never see them, the migrants are only used a plot device to put the sum of money into Alice’s hands and it could have equally been drugs or pornography Singh and Keeley were dealing in.

This is an episode where it seems that crime does pay, as Alice uses the money she’s stolen from Singh to give a recital at the Wigmore Hall.  All Dixon can offer any viewers concerned to hear she’d got away scot-free is the news that the critical response was poor!

Although the opening is dull and Alice’s character transforms rather too completely over the course of the episode for my tastes, this is decent enough fare.

Dixon of Dock Green – Everybody’s Business

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Mrs Hooker (Queenie Watts) is a familiar presence at Dock Green nick.  She might be motivated by a strong sense of public duty (or could simply an officious busybody).  Her suspicious nature is a running joke with her tenants, such as Dave Palmer (Rod Culbertson) and Rita Batty (Cheryl Hall).

When Dave tells an incredulous Rita that Mrs Hooker examines their rubbish (in the hope of finding something incriminating) they decide to play a joke on her by drawing a plan of a fictitious robbery and popping it in the next bag of rubbish.  Naturally enough she finds it and goes rushing off to the station to report her latest find.

But whilst Dave and Rita are planning make-believe crimes, a real one is happening right next door.  Mrs Collins (Sylvia Coleridge) has become quite the local celebrity, following a piece in the local paper about how she discovered one of her paintings was worth forty thousand pounds.  This makes her a target and Walker (George Sweeney) and Ron Fielding (Roger Lloyd-Pack) plan to relieve her of this precious work of art.

When Ron Fielding turns up at Mrs Hooker’s house, looking for a room, it’s pretty clear from the outset that something’s not quite right.  Although he’s offered a nice, quiet room at the back he prefers the smaller one at the front.  Problem is that Rita has the front room and doesn’t want to move.  Ron spins Mrs Hooker a yarn about how his wife has moved in over the street with another man, which gives Queenie Watts a lovely moment as she purses her lips and declares that spying on people isn’t nice at all.

Of course, he’s simply interested in the room because of its location to next door and the painting.  But though he doesn’t get the room he still plans to use it – as soon as Rita leaves to work at the pub that evening.  Alas, she comes back too soon and finds herself bound and gagged by Ron and Walker.

Everybody’s Business is another good character-based story.  Roger Lloyd-Pack and George Sweeney (both to later find fame in John Sullivan sitcoms – Lloyd-Pack in Only Fools and Horses and Sweeney in Citizen Smith) exude a certain menace.  Their initial meeting, in a bleak and rubbish-filled street, is another snapshot of how grim many areas of London were back in the 1970’s.

Cheryl Hall (who would also later appear in Sullivan’s Citizen Smith, alongside her then husband Robert Lindsey) is rather appealing as Rita.  She has a mischievous streak, brought on by Mrs Hooker’s snooping, but also finds herself tramautised after spending the night tied up.  Sylvia Coleridge, who had a lengthy career largely playing eccentric old women, plays somewhat to type as Mrs Collins.

Bruton is very brusque with both Rita and Dave (it appears that he doesn’t believe her story to begin with) and this causes Dave to call him a pig, once he’s out of earshot of course.  It’s quite rare for the police in Dixon to behave quite so off-hand to witnesses, so this is possibly a sign that the series was gently trying to toughen up a little.  There’s also a very brief, Sweeney-like, bit of action at the end as we see police cars racing through the urban wasteland to nab the criminals.

With the crime only taking up a small part of the running time, Everybody’s Business is much more about character interactions and because the story is so well-cast this makes it one of the stronger episodes from this final run.