Little Sir Nicholas – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following a terrible tragedy at sea, Sir Walter Tremaine, his wife and their four-year old son Nicholas are all feared lost. Six years later, Lady Tremaine (Rachel Gurney), still mourning the loss of her son and grandson, is now considering the question of inheritance (the Tremaine family are one of the wealthiest in the land).  To this end, she advertises for any relations of Edward John Tremaine to come forward.  The ambitious and grasping Joanna Tremaine (Bernice Stegers) is delighted when her young son Gerald (Jonathan Norris) is declared the nearest blood relative and is therefore chosen to inherit the family title, estates and fortune.

But no sooner have Gerald, his sister and his mother become accustomed to their new and privileged surroundings than the rug is pulled from under their feet as Little Sir Nicholas (Max Beazley) is discovered alive and well, living in obscurity in a French fishing village …..

Broadcast in six episodes on CBBC1 during January and February 1990, Little Sir Nicholas is an efficient adaptation of the novel by C.A. Jones, originally published in 1892.  It’s an all-film production, which is slightly surprising (it was still common for the cheaper alternative of videotape to be used at the time). But the filming adds a welcome extra gloss, so I’ve no complaints.

In the pre-credits sequence for episode one we witness the shipwreck which drowns Sir Walter and his wife. It’s impressively mounted, mixing model shots and a full-sized ship, which was presumably shot in the water tank at Ealing studios. An elaborate scene like this wouldn’t have come cheap, so it’s an early indication that Little Sir Nicholas has a very healthy budget.

A caption then tells us that events have moved on six years – we see Lady Tremaine speaking to Mr Apted about the possibilities of finding an heir. Rachel Gurney will, of course, always be best remembered for playing the refined Lady Marjorie Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs.  Her television credits were rather scarce after leaving UpDown in 1973, and Little Sir Nicholas (her penultimate screen role prior to her death in 2001) was one of her most substantial roles post 1973.

Barry Jackson has a nice cameo as the kind-hearted shoemaker Mr Nolan, who points out the newspaper advertisement which leads to Gerald’s new-found fortune. It’s telling how both Gerald and his mother immediately dismiss him from their life as soon as they move upwards (neither seem inclined to settle their debt with him either). It’s left to Gerald’s kind-hearted sister, Margaret (Louisa Milwood-Haigh), to thank Mr Nolan for all he’s done for them and ensure he isn’t out of pocket. Margaret is the conscience of the family and stands as a sharp counterpoint to her more selfish mother and brother.

The second episode concerns itself with the twelve-year-old Sir Gerald adapting to his new life as a baronet in Cornwall. Gerald and his mother continue to act in a thoughtless manner (we can maybe excuse Gerald because of his age, but it takes a lot longer before we understand what motivates his mother). Mrs Tremaine is rude to Lady Tremaine and dismissive to the dignified family retainer Robinson (the always immaculate Jack Watson). Gerald and Margaret meet William Randall (Christopher Villiers), a friend of the family and a portrait painter (his painting of the four-year old Sir Nicholas hangs in the Tremaine’s hall). It’s rather hard to swallow that shortly after this meeting, Randall, on a painting trip to Britanny, identifies a young French lad as the missing Sir Nicholas.  But such a stunning coincidence has to be accepted in order to bring Nicholas back into the story.

In the third episode, Sir Nicholas returns to Cornwall to claim his inheritance, but finds the environment to be extremely unwelcoming. Although Randall has the best intentions in returning Nicholas to England, it’s a heart-breaking moment when he has to leave his adopted mother and sister behind. There’s a nice bit of banter between the maid Dulcie (Cathy Shipton) and Bootle (Philip Whitchurch) who’s come hot-foot with a telegram for Lady Tremaine with the news that Nicholas is alive. Since he decides to wait for a reply, he’s clearly read the telegram beforehand!  After she’s received the amazing news, Lady Tremaine doesn’t throw Gerald, Margaret and their mother onto the streets – instead she’s more than generous, settling substantial sums of money on all of them and insisting they continue to live in the big house with Nicholas. Needless to say, Mrs Tremaine isn’t satisfied with this ….

Episode four features the wonderful James Ellis as the old sea-dog Mr Penfold. He’s made an impressive toy boat which he intends to give to Nicholas. This irritates Gerald who wants the boat himself. It’s true that Gerald loves the sea whilst Nicholas fears it, but given that he watched his parents drown that’s quite understandable. Gerald calls him a coward, but luckily Margaret is on hand to show Nicholas unconditional love and understanding. The Christmas celebrations see Robinson entertain the household with stirring tales of exploits on the sea (another fine scene for Jack Watson).

Nicholas’ wretched life continues in the fifth episode as his pet pony Peterkin, one of his few friends, vanishes. Gerald, still smarting at the way Nicholas is always first in line, rides Peterkin away and hides him. And when Margaret leaves for boarding school, poor Nicholas feels even more isolated.

The sixth and final episode sees Mrs Tremaine’s hatred of Nicholas boil over. Nicholas and the now-reunited Peterkin have run away, although rather conventially Mrs Tremaine is able to easily track him down. But instead of taking him home, her scornful taunts drive him away again. Lady Tremaine is forced to accept that due to her mild disappointment with Nicholas, she was happy to leave him in the care of a woman who clearly despised him. Lady Tremaine and Mrs Tremaine face each other in a dramatic scene. Mrs Tremaine admits that she’s ill-treated Nicholas, but it was out of a fear that she’d have to return to London, penniless. “I am what poverty made me. I couldn’t be poor again.”

The story concludes in a dramatic fashion as Gerald and a local boy called Joe are stranded on a rock in the middle of the sea. Nicholas is forced to confront his fear of the sea as (rather unbelievably) he’s the only one who can row a boat out to save them. Mr Penfold rather succinctly sums it all up. “Well I’ll be jiggered.”

This may have been a children’s serial, but there’s no shortage of quality acting talent on display.  Any devotee of archive television will have no trouble in recognising the likes of Rachel Gurney, Christopher Villiers, Jack Watson, James Ellis, Barry Jackson and Noel Johnson.  Julian Fellowes doubles as an actor and co-adaptor, turning up as Mr Apted in three episodes. It’s true that some of the child actors – not just Jonathan Norris and Max Beazley but the minor players as well – are a little stilted at times, but that’s not uncommon with period dramas of this type. But the oldest of the juvenile actors, Louisa Milwood-Haigh, is very assured as the compassionate Margaret.

Little Sir Nicholas is an impressively mounted, well-acted serial which deals with universal themes such as greed, loneliness and childhood jealousies.  Unseen since a repeat run in 1992, this may be an obscure production, but it’s also an engaging, heart-warming and thoroughly rewarding one.

Little Sir Nicholas is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  RRP £19.99.

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Nightingales – Silent Night

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Nightingales is an archetypal cult programme.  It ran for two series, in 1990 and 1992, which were broadcast on Channel 4 late at night and therefore attracted a very small audience.  Apart from a re-run a few years after their first transmission, I don’t think it’s been seen anywhere on British television for the last twenty years or so.  This is a little surprising, since it stars three very familiar faces – Robert Lindsey, David Threlfall and James Ellis.  But it’s available on DVD, so anybody who’s curious can investigate further.

What I love about the series is how it plays with typical sitcom conventions.  The premise seems quite straightforward – Carter (Lindsey), Bell (Threlfall) and Sarge (Ellis) are three night-watchmen in a big office block.  As you’d expect, they’re very different characters – Carter is a would-be intellectual, Bell seems to have a limited level of intelligence whilst the Sarge is a constantly cheery fellow who tries (and fails) to keep the other two in order.  The clash of their three personas would be enough to fuel many sitcoms and the opening minutes of each episode seem normal enough (meaning that if you’d ever tuned in for the first time, you’d be lulled into a false sense of security).

But after the initial scenes, writer Paul Makin spins each episode off into unexpected directions.  In Silent Night (broadcast on the 30th of December 1992) it’s Christmas Eve and the Sarge asks the others to join him in their annual carol service.  Carter moans that nobody ever comes – he’s invited the Pope and Harold Pinter for several years but they never show up.  When there’s a knock at the door, the Sarge wonders if it’s Harold.  Carter is dismissive.  “Harold wouldn’t knock like that. That wasn’t a playwright’s knock. That had the Vatican written all over it.”

It’s not the Pope or Harold though – it’s a young woman called Mary (Lia Williams) who’s going to have a baby.  Carter’s not happy.  “It’s Christmas Eve, right? We have a pregnant woman, right? Called Mary, right? Ring a bell? What we have here is an allegory.”  Mary insists it isn’t an allegory and offers them fifty gold sovereigns (!)

She gives birth – but not to a child.  She starts by giving birth to a goldfish, then produces an ever-growing collection of consumer products, including a toaster, a toy dog, a set of golf clubs, a collection of VHS tapes, a pool table and a washing machine to name just a few.  The Sarge is appalled by what Mary is going through and decides to pray.  Shortly after, the cry of a baby is heard.

But when they ask her what she’s going to call it, they’re taken aback when she names him Jesus.  So it was an allegory after all!  She explains that her allegory was “all about how we’ve lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas, how every year we drown under an ever-increasing pile of consumer goods.”  This leaves the three of them disheartened, but Harold Pinter and the Pope turn up for the carol service, so not all is lost.

Not your run-of-the-mill sitcom fare then, which may explain why it received something of a nonplussed reception when it was initially broadcast (although as I’ve said, the late-night slot didn’t help).  But it’s something that’s only improved with age and whilst I like to dig out Silent Night each December, the rest of the series is equally as good and something I enjoy revisiting on a regular basis.  If you’ve never seen it then I’d certainly recommend it.

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Z Cars – Collection 2 (Acorn DVD 2014)

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For those who subscribe to a strictly linear view concerning British police drama it is possible to draw a line something like this –

In the beginning (the 1950’s) there was Dixon of Dock Green. It was fine for its time, but the launch of Z Cars in 1962 made it an obsolete dinosaur. Z Cars was fine for its time, but the launch of The Sweeney in 1975 made it an obsolete dinosaur, etc.

Of course, the true picture isn’t nearly as straightforward. Acorn DVD’s recent releases of the majority of existing Dixon episodes from the early to the mid seventies reveal a series of considerable interest. And whilst the 1970’s Z Cars lack the edge and spirit of the earliest episodes from a decade earlier, they also have merit and in many ways point towards the style and format of later series, such as The Bill.

A brief potted history of Z Cars. It was created in 1962 by Troy Kennedy-Martin, who spent a period of illness confined to bed and listening to police messages on his radio. The range of calls that they answered, from trivialities to more serious matters, convinced Kennedy-Martin that there was considerable scope for drama which had hitherto been untapped.

Assembling a first rate cast, including Stratford Johns as DCI Barlow, Frank Windsor as DS Watt, Brian Blessed as PC Fancy Smith and James Ellis as PC Bert Lynch, the series was an instant success and ran until 1965. Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor went into the spin off Softly Softly and Z Cars itself was revived in 1967 in a twice weekly soap opera format of 25 minute episodes twice a week. In 1972 it returned to a weekly 50 minute format and stayed that way until the final episode was transmitted in 1978.

Like many series of the 1960’s and 1970’s there are some gaps in the archive, although it fares better than Dixon which only has 30 or so episodes in existence from over 400 transmitted.

From around 800 episodes made, Z Cars has just under 400 present in the archives. Certain years are hard hit (patchy selections from 1967, 1969 and 1970, nothing at all from 1968 or 1971) whilst other years are virtually complete.

With so much available, there’s plenty of scope when selecting episodes for DVD. And whilst the logical choice might have been to choose a run of episodes from the first series, Acorn instead have chosen to start at July 1972.

The first DVD, released last year, contained episodes from July – September 1972 and this new DVD contains the next six episodes, which takes us up to the end of October 1972. With the survival rate being rather poor for the next year or so it will be interesting to see what Acorn do next (provided of course there is another release). But one plus point of releasing a run of consecutive episodes is that we can get a handle on the nuances of the regular characters, something that is harder to do with the Dixon DVDs due to the large gaps in the archives.

It’s 1972 and the Z Cars team continue to patrol the fictional Newtown. Back in 1962 the name was well chosen, as it was a new town, with newly built housing estates where the working classes found themselves rehoused. A decade later there’s a general feeling of decay which is quite prevalent in a considerable amount of early 1970’s television, particularly the Dixons of this time. Everything looks grimy and rundown and there’s a feeling that people are just hanging on.

First episode on the set is Witness by David Ellis.  This episode, like many others, juggles several plot lines at once, something which would be a hallmark of later series like The Bill.  The main plot concerns the witness to a forthcoming trial facing intimidation and threats whilst the second plot line sees Det Sgt Stone (John Slater) face an unwelcome visitor from his past.  George Appleton (Campbell Singer), a now retired colleague of Stone’s, decides to pay Stone a visit.

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John Slater

Stone is a middle-aged copper who seems to have reached his peak, career wise.  This he puts down to the efforts of Appleton in years gone by, whose constant belittling seems to have irrevocably damaged Stone’s confidence.  Slater is one of the stand-out performers of this era of the programme, and whilst this plot thread is fairly minor, thanks to Slater it’s the best part of the episode.

Next up is Takes All Sorts by Leslie Duxbury.  Inspector Pratt (Graham Armitage) is a by-the-book officer who is despised by some of the more maverick coppers, such as PC Yates (Nicholas Smith).  Yates is an old-fashioned bobby who sees nothing wrong in dishing out a bit of summary justice or accepting the odd drink or meal whilst on the beat.  This brings him into direct conflict with Pratt, although there’s plenty of other things happening on this night shift, such as the theft of a yellow dumper truck and the arrival at the station of Jean Knight (Gwyneth Powell) who has evidence that will put her criminal husband away for a long time.

Takes All Sorts, thanks to the interweaving plot threads, is one of the best episodes on this release.  Nicholas Smith (well known for playing Mr Rumbold in Are You Being Served?) is good value here, and also in several other episodes on the DVD.

The last episode on disc 1 is Sins of the Father by Bill Lyons.  There are two main plot threads – a robbery at a local supermarket and the travails of a mother and her wayward son.  Like the majority of the stories of this era, the crimes are fairly low key, but it’s a solid enough episode.

Damage by P.J. Hammond is the first story on the second DVD.  It does stand out from the episodes around it, which is no bad thing, thanks to it’s slightly unusual tone.

Burglar Terry Moon (John Shedden) gets more than he bargained for when he attempts to break into a house in Newtown.  He finds his hand trapped in the door, tied up with string and then burnt with matches.  Stone doesn’t consider that the woman who carried out the attack was responsible for her actions – rather he blames the parents for their treatment of her.  This is a chance for Slater to shine again, particularly at the end of the episode.

Day Trip by Bill Barron sees the return of Det Sgt Haggar (John Collin).  As soon as he’s back in Newtown he spots a familiar face – Dilly Watson (Hilary Tindall).  Dilly’s a known thief, only petty thefts, but a irritant nonetheless.  Haggar thinks he’s run her out of town, but Dilly returns and together with Rose (Elisabeth Sladen) plans a job to embarrass Haggar.

Chiefly notable for the appearance of Sladen, this is a somewhat forgettable episode that has all the elements, but doesn’t ever quite click into life.  Elisabeth Sladen would appear several times in Z Cars (each time playing a different character) and it was this flexability that would later impress Barry Letts and prove to be a major factor in his decision to cast her as Sarah-Jane Smith in Doctor Who.

Final episode on the set is Public Relations by Leslie Duxbury.  Ken Knowles (Gareth Thomas) runs a news agency and is distinctly ambitious.  Upset that Haggar never seems to tip him off when a big case breaks, he decides to go and find his own.

The clash of wills between Knowles and Haggar is the highlight of the episode, and Gareth Thomas (and his coat!) are very impressive.  A good story to end this release on.

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Ian Cullen

Apart from the actors already mentioned, both James Ellis (Sgt Lynch) and Ian Cullen (PC Skinner) are solid presences throughout all the episodes.  Ellis had been with the series from the start and would remain firmly in place until the final episode.  Cullen would leave a few years later, not by choice – as he discusses in a newly shot interview on disc one, which is one of a number of short interviews with cast members produced for this release.

For the hardened archive television fan, if you have the first release and enjoyed it then this is definitely worth purchasing.  If you are more selective, then I would recommend either of the Dixon DVDs or series one of Softly Softly Task Force (provided you can find a re-released copy and not the original release with the major encoding fault) ahead of this.

Apart from Damage, there’s nothing stand-out here, but the humdrum cases were the bread and butter of Z Cars.  If you want squealing tyres and armed robbers then try The Sweeney.  The cases in Z Cars are much more low-key but they’re not without interest for a number of reasons, particularly the quality acting – both from the regulars and the guest casts.