Barnaby Rudge (BBC, 1960) – Simply Media DVD Review

Barnaby Rudge was the first of Charles Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being The Tale of Two Cities).  Set during the late eighteenth century, it climaxed at the Gordon Riots of 1780.  Largely forgotten today, the Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest which quickly spiralled out of control.  A group of between 40,000 and 60,000 protestors nursing various grievances – including the increasing Catholic influence sweeping the country, high taxes, overcrowded cities and repressive laws – ran amok on the streets of London.  The riots raged on for several days until the army were eventually able to brutally restore order.  But by this point some 285 people had been shot dead with several hundred more wounded.

If the Gordon Riots are forgotten today, then a similar fate has befallen Barnaby Rudge.  Easily Dickens’ most obscure novel, this is evidenced by the fact that this 1960 serial remains the only television adaptation.   Published between February and November 1841, it came quite early in his career – which explains why it feels a little episodic and unfocused at times.

Barnaby Rudge himself (played by John Wood) is a simple-minded chap, buffeted along by events rather than directly influencing them.  It’s a difficult part to play – there’s no malice in Barnaby – but Wood is generally pretty effective as the easily-manipulated innocent. But whilst he may be the title character he’s not the central one – Barnaby drifts in and out of the narrative, appearing and disappearing as required.

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Episode one opens with a stranger (played by Nigel Arkwright) asking the local innkeeper about the nearby grand house owned by Geoffrey Haredale (Peter Williams). It’s a dark and stormy night outside – achieved via sound effects and camera trickery (simple but effective).

Arthur Brough, later best known as Mr Grainger in Are You Being Served?, here plays John Willet, the innkeeper. Puffing on a long pipe he helps to tease out a strange story which much will later become significant. The mysterious murders twenty two years ago of Geoffrey’s brother, Reuben, and Reuben’s loyal servant Rudge (Barnaby’s father) are mysteries which are still debated by the locals to this day.

Arkwright doesn’t offer a subtle performance, but it’s a menacing one as he brings out the simmering violence which powers his character. Joan Hickson, as Mrs Varden, also isn’t holding back, but this broad playing suits the shrewish character she plays.

The remainder of the Varden household are also deftly sketched out. Head of the household, Gabriel (Newton Blick), is an affable sort who’s often to be found allied with his attractive young daughter Dolly (Jennifer Daniel) against their wife and mother.

Rellgious dogma will later become the central theme of the story, although to begin with it’s teased out in a casual manner – Mrs Varden’s constant quoting from the bible or the way that John Chester (Raymond Huntley) regards Emma Haredale (Eira Heath) as an unsuitable wife for his son due to her religion – but as the serial progresses the conflict between Catholics and Protestants will become more marked. Huntley, playing to type as the austere and flinty Chester, offers a standout performance. Some others may essay broad, comic performances during the serial, but Huntley is agreeably more naturalistic.

Gabriel Varden, a locksmith by trade, has an apprentice, Simon Tappertit (Timothy Bateson), who has set his cap at Dolly (although she regards him with casual indifference). As in Bleak House, Bateson delivers a lovely comic performance, although there’s a harder edge to this character. Like many others, he possesses a simmering discontent (although with him it’s not relgious concerns, instead his ire is directed towards those he regards as his wealthy oppressors).

As the first half of the serial progresses, various plotlines are developed. Simon’s links with a group of dissident apprentices who meet in secret and dream of violent disobedience against their oppressive masters, the curious link between Barnaby’s mother and the mysterious stranger, Joe Willit’s (Alan Haywood) longing for the flitish Dolly and the forbidden love between Edward Chester (Bernard Brown) and Emma Haredale are all teased out.

Eira Heath & Jennifer Daniel

Mid way through the serial, several major new characters – such as anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon (Anthony Sharp) – are introduced as we proceed on the path to the Gordon Riots. Gordon is a fanatic, whose cry of “No Popery” quickly becomes a popular sentiment amongst the masses.

Geoffrey Haredale, a staunch Catholic, spells out what precisely what these two simple words could mean. “I have, tonight, seen an ignorant and unhappy people roused. They know nothing of what the repeal of the act means, but ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to right all their wrongs. ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to give them food, shelter, clothes, work and drink”.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it …..

The production design is very sound. Real horses (never easy to control in a studio) occasionally appear and the outside of Geoffrey Haredale’s house is depicted via a painted backdrop. This is a very theatrical way of generating a sense of depth and scale, but it works. More backdrops are in evidence when the action moves to the streets of London, whilst the later episodes are also opened out thanks to a judicious use of filmed inserts. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the riots was far beyond the means of the production, but director Morris Barry marshalled his resources well. Even with the limited number of extras at his disposal, Barry was effectively able to show the ugliness of mob violence.

It’s fair to say that some parts of the story work better than others. Edward and Emma’s romance never really sparks into life – not really the fault of the actors though, it’s simply that the two characters are never sharply defined. Barbara Hicks, as the Varden’s maid Miggs, gives a performance that can best be described as “broad”. It’s a typically comic Dickens character, but Hicks’ shrieking does become wearying after a while.

But on the credit side there are many fine performances, most notably that of Raymond Huntley. His timing is spot-on (plus his brief interactions with Timothy Bateson and Joan Hickson are rather delightful).

The introduction of Lord George Gordon is the point at which the story rapidly changes direction. This is a little jarring, but the influx of new characters does help to give the serial a fresh impetus. One notable new arrival is Esmond Knight (previously he had memorably played Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend) .  Here he appears as Dennis the Hangman, one of a number of individuals who encapsulate the baser end of society.

Like other surviving drama of this era, the source materials are telerecordings taken from the original 405 line broadcasts. The recordings may exhibit the occasional spot of damage or dirt, but overall the picture quality is more than watchable (although the concluding episode is notably poorer than the others).

Although a handful of performances are less than effective and the story feels somewhat disjointed (it’s essentially two seperate tales bolted together) Barnaby Rudge is still a serial of considerable interest. The theme of the later episodes feels eerily topical, offering a sharp change of pace from the countryside intrigues of the first half.  It’s another well-crafted Classic Serial which, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. Well worth adding to your collection.

Barnaby Rudge is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Agatha Christie on TV – My Top Six

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A recent post by Simply Media has inspired me to select my favourite Agatha Christie adaptations (due to the parameters of this blog I’ll concentrate on television only).

06. Peter Ustinov in Thirteen at Dinner (1985).  I’ve a lot of time for the 1980’s American Christie television movies.  They may take liberties with the source material (this one, for example, is updated to the present day – giving us the odd sight of Poirot guesting on David Frost’s chat show) but you can’t help but love Ustinov’s idiosyncratic and entertaining Poirot.

It boasts a wonderful guest cast – David Suchet as Japp!, Faye Dunaway in a duel role with Bill Nighy, Diane Keen, John Barron and Jonathan Cecil as the ever-loyal Hastings offering solid support.  Certainly well worth a look.

05. Francesca Annis and James Warwick in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1980).  Prior to the 1980’s, Agatha Christie adaptations on television were a rarity.  This was due to Christie and later on her estate not wishing to see her stories distorted (although given some of the, ahem, more interesting adaptations during recent years I guess the copyright holders now hold a more relaxed view).  Therefore the early 1980’s ITV adaptations were something of a trial run – with Poirot and Miss Marple off-limits, ITV had to scrabble around amongst the more obscure corners of Christie’s catalogue in order to prove that they could do her works justice.

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Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? isn’t classic Christie, but it’s a more than decent mystery.  Annis and Warwick, as Lady Frankie Derwent and Bobby Jones, team up nicely (a few years later they’d return to the world of Christie as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford).  Evans has another cast to die for – a pre-Marple Joan Hickson, James Cossins, Madeline Smith, Eric Porter and an amusing cameo from John Gielgud.  It’s maybe slightly too long, but it’s still very agreeable.

04. And Then There Were None (2013).  I may loathe Sarah Phelps’ adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution with a passion, but there’s no denying that And Then There Were None is a quality production.  The main problem I have with Witness is that it’s mostly Phelps with very little Christie showing.  And Then There Were None is more recognisably Christie, albeit with a few tweaks.  An all-starish cast helps to bring to life one of her darker works.

03. The Moving Finger (1985).  Whilst the debate about the best Sherlock Holmes isn’t clear cut, surely there can’t be much of a question about who was the best Miss Marple?  In every respect Joan Hickson wipes the floor with her ITV counterparts (as well as Margaret Rutherford – a fine actress, but no Miss Marple).  If Hickson is first-rate, then so too are the twelve BBC adaptations she starred in.  All-film productions, with high production values, they just ooze class and style.

With Roy Boulting on directing duties and some fine performances (always a pleasure to see John Arnatt and Richard Pearson, amongst others) The Moving Finger is one of the best of the early Hickson Marples.  It may not be the most taxing mystery Christie ever wrote, but it has more nuanced characters that we sometimes saw – for example, the relationship between Gerry and Megan is an atypical touch.

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02. David Suchet in The Third Floor Flat (1989).  The Suchet Poirots were clearly following in the footsteps of the Hickson Marples with a similar glossy all-film style.  That Suchet managed to film the entire canon is laudable, although it’s a little sad that some of the later adaptations began to veer severely away from the originals.  Possibly this is why I’m most fond of the earlier runs which began by concentrating on Christie’s short stories.  It’s true that some of them are a bit thin (Christie’s early short stories can be fairly perfunctory in some respects) but the television versions are nicely bulked out thanks to the sympathetic adaptations.

01. Joan Hickson in The Body in the Library (1984).  Back to Hickson for her debut as Miss Marple, broadcast on BBC1 during Christmas 1984.  Sarah Phelps has recently restarted the tradition of a “Christie for Christmas” – hopefully her next one won’t be quite so depressing though.

Allo,Allo! fans will be able to spot a pre-Crabtree Arthur Bostrom, Jess Conrad is perfect as the pearly-white Raymond Starr, Andrew Cruickshank is an intimidating Conway Jefferson whilst David Horovitch and Ian Brimble begin their careers as Slack and Lake – two police officers destined to always be at least two steps behind the elderly spinster who may look harmless but possesses a mind like a steel trap.

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H.G. Well’s Invisible Man – The Mink Coat

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Two criminals break into an atomic plant and take photographs of a series of secret plans.  But how will they get them out of the country?  When Dee, traveling to Paris with Brady, spots a shady type – Walker (Derek Godfrey) – placing something into the lining of a mink coat owned by Penny Page (Hazel Court), she realises that something odd is happening.  And soon they put two and two together ….

It has to be said that the secret plans weren’t terribly secure.  The two crooks (immaculately attired in suits, ties and hats, as befits a well-dressed criminal from the 1950’s) only have to snip through some barbed wire and they’ve gained access to the compound.  And once in, they have no trouble in locating the plans which are inside an unlocked drawer.  Maybe putting them into a safe would have been wiser.

Top marks for the security guard, who dies an impressive death.  No sooner has he rushed into the room and blurted out “who’s there?” than he gets shot (although he’s only on screen for a few seconds, the actor certainly milks it for everything he’s got).

For once, it’s Dee who’s ahead of the game and she has to keep plugging away at Brady to make him understand that something odd’s going on.  Eventually he takes her seriously, especially after Walker attempts to ingrate himself with Penny aboard the flight.  He wants to get close so he can obtain the microfilm, but Penny – an independent woman – isn’t impressed by his smooth approach.

The Mink Coat is enhanced by the appearance of Hazel Court.  She was renowned as a Scream Queen, thanks to her appearances in a string of classic horror films (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death).  Penny’s a quirky character, which is evident right from the start – before Penny boards the Paris flight she produces a puppet who converses with the customs officer.

She’s an ace puppeteer (the doll with the dolls, as her advert puts it) who plies her trade in Paris at the interestingly named Blue Jeans Club.  The Blue Jeans Club is especially noteworthy for one of the worst examples of miming I’ve ever seen (13:32 in, the trumpeter is ridiculously unconvincing).

Penny’s act (with a striptease doll) is mildly risqué, but since this was the late 1950’s everything’s terribly restrained.  This is also evident after Penny returns to her dressing room to get changed – the camera coyly moves away as she begins to undress and Brady – lurking around in his invisible state in order to examine her coat – also makes a break for the door (he’s too much of a gentleman to hang around and take advantage).

Hazel Court gets to scream a couple of times (most impressively) whilst there’s a late, dialogue-free appearance from Joan Hickson as Madame Dupont.  Hickson’s expression as she spies Penny’s husband – the juggler Marcel le Magnifique (Murray Kash) – rushing to her rescue is memorable (possibly it was his tights which caught her attention).

Thanks to Hazel Court (and Penny’s puppets) this one is highly enjoyable.  I especially like the tag scene, which sees Penny introduce a puppet Invisible Man into her act!

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Espionage – The Gentle Spies

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Gerry Painter (Barry Foster) is assigned to infiltrate a group of peace protestors who have somehow gained access to sensitive government secrets.  The government, in the shape of the Minister (Michael Horden), wants the mole identified and punished.  Gerry begins by attaching himself to Sheila O’Hare (Angela Douglas), a highly idealistic member of the group.  But his increasing feelings for her make it hard for him to concentrate on the matter in hand …..

The Gentle Spies is a fascinating time capsule of the mid sixties and also, after three very intense episodes, is quite a change of pace.  Although the topic it covers (unilateral disarmament) is weighty, it’s done in a fairly light-hearted manner.  This is best seen at the start when Gerry attempts to catch Sheila’s eye.  Foster, later to star in Van Der Valk, shows a deft comic touch whilst attempting to woo a very disinterested Douglas.

Ernest Kinoy’s script is firmly on the side of the protesters.  He takes great pains to depict them as totally non-violent – indeed, the only fracas occurs when Gerry (attempting to impress Sheila) throws a punch at a policeman.  He seems to boyishly assume this will get him into her good books, but it only serves to irritate her.  As for the information they release via leaflets (the location of the government’s secret bomb shelter, an accident involving a plane carrying a nuclear warhead) Kinoy seems to be suggesting that although they’re official secrets it’s in the public’s interest that they be released.  WikiLeaks is an obvious modern parallel.

Horden’s Minister is less forgiving though. “In a way it’s a lot worse than if the information had been leaked to a bona-fide Russian spyring. At least they’re professionals, you expect to lose a certain number of wickets to them.”  The Minister goes on to complain that he’s under pressure from Washington, so it seems that political expediency is driving his desire to find the mole.

The protestors are led by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb).  Kemble is a public figure (a former Nobel prize winner) and therefore a major thorn in the Minister’s side.  Kemble is a staunch believer in unilateral disarmament, although the rights and wrongs of this are only lightly touched upon.  Towards the end, the Minister tells him that this course of action would be suicide – if one side has the bomb, then the other must have it too.

At one point, Gerry runs into Willi Hausknecht (Eric Polhmann). Willi, an East German agent, has also attached himself to the protestors. For a moment it looks as if he’s the one supplying them with the information but it turns out that he’s aiming to find the source of the leak so he can obtain further intelligence for his masters. Nothing comes of this, as Gerry has him arrested, but it shows how idealists can be manipulated by the unscrupulous (Callan has several good examples of this).

Since the political and moral arguments of The Gentle Spies remain rather undeveloped, it’s the performances of Barry Foster and Angela Douglas that keep the story moving along.  If Foster is a strong leading man (albeit with a sense of humour) then Douglas essays a typically winsome performance.  Sheila is so whole-heartedly honest and open that it’s no real surprise that Gerry falls for her in a big way.

The reveal of the mole is practically an afterthought – it was the Minister’s wife, Sara (Joan Hickson).  Hickson, later to gain small-screen immortality as the definitive Miss Marple, holds the viewer’s attention for the last few minutes.  The Minister finds he can do nothing – which once again appears to be a demonstration of political expediency (if his wife was revealed as the mole then his career would be finished) and so the status quo remains in place.

As previously touched upon, The Gentle Spies is chiefly of interest due to the way it captures a snapshot of the mid sixties peace movement.  Sensible jumpers, placards and endless chorusus of “we shall overcome” are the order of the day.  It’s not the most complex episode of Espionage but neither is it without interest or merit.

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