And A Nightingale Sang – Simply Media DVD Review

nightingale.jpg

The 3rd of September 1939 may be a momentous day in the history of the British nation (with Neville Chamberlain shortly due to announce that the country is now at war with Germany) but not everybody has Hitler on their minds.  For example, in a terraced house in Newcastle, young Joyce (Pippa Hinchley) is debating whether to marry Eric (Stephen Tompkinson), who is shortly due to depart with his army colleagues to France.  As for the rest of Joyce’s dysfunctional family, they all have concerns of their own ….

And A Nightingale Sang was adapted by Jack Rosenthal from C.P. Taylor’s 1978 play.  Rosenthal (1931 – 2004) was one of British television’s greatest dramatists, equally adept at adapting other people’s material as he was at crafting his own.  He also slipped easily between genres – penning over a hundred episodes of Coronation Street during the 1960’s whilst also working on sitcoms and original one-off plays.

In many respects, the 1989 production of And A Nightingale Sang was a perfect fit for him – since it deftly mixed humour with drama in a way that was highly characteristic of his own output.  It’s very much a home-front drama (we may see soldiers, but only when they return home on leave).  But despite this, the war-time feel is very strong, partly due to the soundtrack.

Many of the familiar songs are delivered by John Woodvine’s character, George, on the piano.  George and his wife, known only as Mam (Joan Plowright), head an incredibly impressive core cast.  Woodvine has long been a favourite actor of mine, and George is a plumb of a part – there’s plenty of scope for humour (when at home George spends all his time in the front room, banging out tunes on the piano whilst the rest of the household ignores him) but he’s also afforded moments of drama and pathos.  George, who works at the shipyards, later breaks down in tears after he confesses to a workmate that he’s spent hours cleaning a ship which has recently arrived back from Dunkirk.

When his friend tells him that the bowels of the ship smell like a compost heap, George replies that it’s “human bloody compost. Stuck to the bulkheads like shit to a blanket. I’ve been trying to wash them off, scrape them off. Somebody’s lads, somebody’s flesh and blood”.

nightingale.jpg
John Woodvine

For Woodvine, born in South Shields, And A Nightingale Sang provided him with an opportunity to use his natural accent.  Some of the others, such as Joan Plowright, might not have been as local, but everybody manages credible accents.  Plowright, as the religious matriarch of the family, doesn’t get quite as much to do as Woodvine, but she makes every scene count.  The moment when she reacts in horror to the foibles of her family (such as George’s decision to become a communist) is very nicely done.

This was an early screen credit for Stephen Tompkinson, who had previously made several brief sitcom appearances in series such as After Henry, The Return of Shelley and Never The Twain.  It’s a substantial role, calling on him to experience a roller-coaster of emotions, but he handles it well.  Eric’s main problem is Joyce, who initially can’t decide whether she wants to marry him or not.  The cons (“he smells of bacon”) seem somewhat trivial, but the physical side of their potential union also seems to be troubling her.

nightingale 02.jpg
Pippa Hinchley & Stephen Tompkinson

But eventually she puts her worries behind her and they wed.  After all, with him shortly to leave for France it’s not as if they actually have to live together.  It’s only when he returns home on leave that the cracks really begin to show.  “When are you going back?” is one of her first questions (she’s also unimpressed with the French knickers he’s bought her).  Mind you, she quickly shrugs off her sexual anxieties – the only problem is that she seems to be spreading her favours very widely, with just about every American serviceman she can get her hands on ….

Pippa Hinchley and Stephen Tompkinson share some wonderful scenes together, as do Phyllis Logan (Helen) and Tom Watt (Norman).  Helen, Joyce’s elder sister, is the sensible one of the family, seemingly destined for a life where her own wishes and desires are secondary to the demands of others.  But when she meets Norman, one of Eric’s army buddies, everything changes.  In contrast to the bickering between Eric and Joyce, Norman and Helen instantly bond.  But, as you’d expect, things don’t turn out to be straightforward.  Watt, who’d recently left his signature role (as Lofty in EastEnders) and Logan are possibly at the dramatic heart of the play.  Like the rest of the main cast, they offer first-rate performances.

Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and directed by Robert Knights, And a Nightingale Sang is a glossy production with a filmic sweep.  The Newcastle locations (cobbled streets, shipyards) help enormously with this, plus it’s an ironic bonus that certain areas of the North West in the late 1980’s were so run-down and desolate that they could easily stand in for the parts of the city devastated by German bombs.

Also included on the disc are three wartime public information films – They Keep The Wheels Turning (8″15′), Britannia is a Woman (9″17′) and The New Britain (10″16′).  These are fascinating extras which help to place the main feature into its correct historical context.  Britannia is a Woman as you might expect, looks at the role played by women during the conflict (which is obliquely touched upon during the play – both Joyce and Helen work at a munitions factory) whilst The New Britain considers the future of the country and They Keep The Wheels Turning looks at how everybody has their part to play in ensuring that the wartime effort is maintained.

A sharply observed human drama, And a Nightingale Sang is a treat, featuring an excellent cast who never put a foot wrong.  It’s available from the 6th of November 2017, RRP £12.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here.

nightingale 03.jpg
Tom Watt & Phyllis Logan
Advertisements

Softly Softly: Task Force – Something Big

big-01

Detective Chief Superintendent Alan (John Woodvine) of the Regional Crime Squad asks for Barlow’s help.  He’s interested in two known criminals, Hulton (William Abney) and McBride (Godfrey Quigley), whom he believes are in the Task Force’s area.

Watt discovers they’ve been seen in the company of Peter Thornley (Jeremy Wilkin).  Thornley owns a substantial house which is packed with valuable works of art.  But Hulton and McBride aren’t interested in burglary – they want to use Thornley’s house for a high-stakes evening of gambling.  It isn’t the gambling that interests Alan though, he’s hopeful that the evening will entice a much wanted criminal, Rendell (David Morrell), into making a rare public appearance ….

I’ve not been the greatest admirer of Robert Barr’s contributions to series two and although Something Big is solid enough, there’s still something lacking.  Peter Thornley remains a rather nebulous character, since it’s never established exactly why he should decide to throw in his hand with Hulton and McBride.  It can’t be money, since Thornley inherited numerous valuable pieces (paintings by Constable, etc) from his father.  He does seem mildly besotted with Pat Anderson (Vicki Woolf), a hostess introduced to him by Hulton and McBride, but since, like Thornley, she has very little dialogue it’s a relationship that’s never established with any substance.

Thankfully John Woodvine is on hand to bring a touch of class to the story.  There’s a vague sense of combative one-upmanship between Barlow and Alan, but although Alan plays his cards close to his chest to begin with, he doesn’t leave Barlow in the dark for too long.  In truth, Alan’s dialogue is nothing special, but Woodvine has the sort of natural gravitas which is able to give light and shade to even fairly undistinguished material.

A brief appearance by Desmond Llewellyn proves to be another highlight in a fairly average story that rather splutters to a conclusion.  We’re told that Rendell could be armed and is certainly dangerous, but everything passes off without a hitch when he’s taken into custody.  Rendell is another character who barely utters a handful of words, meaning that it’s hard to feel at all invested in his fate.  A shame that they couldn’t have featured the same character in an earlier story, that way his appearance here would have had a certain impact.

As it is, his capture stirs no emotions.  We’ve been told he’s a bad ‘un, but we’ve never had the chance to witness it for ourselves.  Show not tell is a basic rule of storytelling, but unfortunately it’s not adhered to here.

big 02.jpg

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers – Simply Media DVD Review

further

Broadcast between May and September 1967, The Further Adventures of the Musketeers (based on Dumas’ novel Twenty Years After) was a sixteen-part serial which followed on from the previous years adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

Brian Blessed and Jeremy Young returned as Porthos and Athos, but there were also two important changes.  Joss Ackland took over the role of d’Artagnan from Jeremy Brett whilst John Woodvine replaced Gary Watson as Aramis.

I have to confess at not being terribly impressed with Brett’s performance as d’Artagnan, so I wasn’t too sorry he didn’t return – although it would have been intriguing to see how he would have handled the older, more cynical character seen in this story.  In The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is young, keen and filled with dreams of heroism.  It’s therefore more than a little jarring when Ackland’s d’Artagnan is introduced at the start of the first episode.

Others may continue to call him a hero, but he’s not convinced.  Although he still holds a commission in the Musketeers, it now appears to be a hollow honour – especially since his three former steadfast friends (Porthos, Aramis and Athos) have all left and gone their separate ways.  When he recalls their old battle cry (“one for all, and all for one”) it’s done so ironically and whilst he bursts onto the screen with an impressive bout of swordplay, it was only to subdue a drunk in a tavern.  Brawling in taverns seems to be something of a comedown for the brave d’Artagnan, as he himself admits.

He’s therefore keen to grasp any opportunity to rekindle the glory days of old and when Queen Anne (Carole Potter) asks for his help, how can he refuse?  Potter was something of a weak link during The Three Musketeers and her rather grating performance continues here. This may be a deliberate acting choice though, as we see over the course of the serial that the Queen is a far from admirable character – instead she’s capricious, vain and frequently misguided.

d’Artagnan pledges his allegiance to the Queen, her young son, King Louis XIV (Louis Selwyn) and Cardinal Mazarin (William Dexter).  They are the orthodox ruling establishment, but the majority of the people seem to side with the imprisoned Prince de Beaufort (John Quentin).

The question of personal morality is key, especially when understanding which side the four Musketeers support.  As we’ve seen, d’Artagnan supports the Cardinal and Queen, but is this because he believes they are the right choice for France or is it just that they’ve offered him a chance to redeem his tarnished honour?

When d’Artagnan meets up with Porthos, his former colleague quickly joins him.  Blessed, a joy to watch throughout the serial, is never better than in his first scene.  He’s the lonely lord of a manor, complaining that his neighbours consider him to be something of a peasant and won’t talk to him, even after he’s killed several of them!  So he agrees to join d’Artagnan, mainly it seems because he’s always keen for a scrap.

But Aramis and Athos are both on the Prince’s side.  They believe their cause is just and Athos regards d’Artagnan’s allegiance to the Cardinal with extreme disfavour.  Athos supports the King, but in his opinion the Cardinal is manipulating both the King and the Queen to serve his own ends. It’s telling that d’Artagnan doesn’t deny this.

Joss Ackland, from his first appearance, is totally commanding as d’Artagnan.  If Brett’s take on the role tended to see him play the character at a hysterical pitch then Ackland is much more restrained and therefore much better. As I’ve said, Brian Blessed is tremendous fun – he gets to shout a lot and has some great comic lines.  John Woodvine, a favourite actor of mine, is excellent as Aramis whilst Jeremy Young once again impresses hugely as Athos.

Although there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of this in The Three Musketeers, at the start of this serial d’Artagnan tells us that Athos was always his mentor and closest friend (essentially a second father to him) so the fact they are on opposing sides means there’s some dramatic scenes between them.

Young, a rather underrated actor I feel, is compelling across the duration of the serial. Athos’ monologue in episode five, after d’Artagnan bitterly rounds on his old friends, is one performance highlight amongst many. “We lived together. Loved, hated, shared and mingled our blood. Yet there is an even greater bond between us, that of crime. We four, all of us, judged, condemned and executed a human being whom we had no right to remove from this world. What can Mazarin be to us? We are brothers. Brothers, in life and death.”

Athos is referring to the murder of his former wife, Milady de Winter. As we’ve seen, her death still preys heavily on his mind – but he’s not the only one. She had a son, Mordaunt, who spends the early episodes vowing vengeance on the men who murdered his mother. As the serial progresses we see that his thirst for revenge makes him a formidable foe. A variety of other plot threads also run at the same time – such as the kidnapping of the boy King, Athos and Aramis’ secret mission to England to rescue King Charles I (d’Artagnan and Porthos are also in England and change sides to fight for the King) and the continuing conflict between Queen Anne and Prince de Beaufort – all of which helps to ensure that the story, even though it lasts sixteen episodes, never feels repetitious.

Plenty of quality actors drift in and out.  Edward Brayshaw (once again resplendent in a blonde wig and complete with a wicked-looking dueling scar) returns as Rochefort, Michael Gothard is suitably villainous as Mordaunt, Geoffrey Palmer is memorable during his fairly brief appearance as Oliver Cromwell, David Garth is remote and aloof as King Charles I, whilst the devotee of this era of television can have fun picking out other familiar faces such as Nigel Lambert, Anna Barry, Morris Perry, Vernon Dobtcheff, David Garfield and Wendy Williams.

The budget was obviously quite decent, as there’s a generous helping of location filming and several notable set-pieces – such as the Prince’s escape from his prison fortress, which sees him absail to safety from the castle ramparts (although the use of illustrations as establishing shots for various locations is never convincing). Generally though, Stuart Walker’s production design is impressive – for example, his studio reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral includes various architectural features from the original. Few would have missed them had they not been there, but it’s a nice example of the trouble taken to be as accurate as possible.

With a number of interconnecting plotlines, there’s certainly a great deal to enjoy in Alexander Barron’s dramatisation.  The episodes set in England may lack a little tension (as we know Charles is doomed to die) but his execution is still a powerful moment.  Athos is under the scaffold, frantically attempting to rescue the King, and is crushed when he realises that all his efforts have come to nothing.  A macabre note is created when Charles’ blood drips through the floorboards onto the numb Athos. Christopher Barry and Hugh David share the directorial duties and although there’s (possibly thankfully) few of the directorial flourishes that made The Three Musketeers notable, they manage to keep things ticking along nicely.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers looks and sounds exactly how you’d expect an unrestored telerecording of this period to look and sound.  It’s perfectly watchable, although the picture is a little grainy and indistinct at times (and the soundtrack can also be somewhat hissy).  A full restoration would have been possible, but as always it’s a question of cost.  Niche titles like this don’t sell in huge numbers, so it’s no surprise that this DVD was a straight transfer of the available materials.

But although the picture quality is a little variable, the story and the performances of the four leads more than makes up for it.  With many classic BBC black and white serials still languishing in the vaults, hopefully sales of this title will encourage more to be licenced in the future.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers runs for sixteen 25 minute episodes across three DVDs.  It’s released on the 23rd of May 2016 by Simply Media with an RRP of £29.99.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers to be released by Simply Media on 23/5/16

further

Simply Media will release The Further Adventures of the Musketeers on the 23rd of May 2016.  Review here.

Simply Media is also pleased to announce the release of another BBC classic family favourite The Further Adventures of the Musketeers (1967) on DVD for the very first time on 23 May 2016. Starring Brian Blessed (Z Cars), Joss Ackland (The Hunt for Red October) and Michael Gothard (The Three Musketeers), this classic adventure series is set twenty years on from the original and is based on Alexander Dumas’ sequel of The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After.

Sergeant Cork – The Case of the Gold Salesman

gold

Eli Klein (Derek Francis) is a moneylender who’s not averse to turning a tidy profit wherever and whenever he can.  So the arrival of a mysterious stranger (who we later learn is called Carlyon) intrigues him, especially when Carlyon offers to sell him gold at well below the market price.  This seems far too good to be true, so Klein makes his way to Cork to ask for his assistance.  But Cork knows and distrusts Klein of old – why has he approached him?

Cork continues to explore methods of categorising felons.  He offers Bob an apple and then tells him that teeth marks, like fingerprints, are a good way of making an identification. Although how many people leave teeth marks at a crime scene is open to question!

Derek Francis’ first screen credit was in 1958 – when he was thirty-five – but whilst he may have been a fairly late starter (although he’d enjoyed a healthy stage career prior to this) he racked up an impressive list of both film and television credits during the next twenty five years or so (he died in 1984, aged 60).  Francis was equally adept at playing both comedy and drama (one of my favourites was his turn as Nero in the Doctor Who story The Romans in 1965).  Klein is also something of a comic character, although Cork does slightly disprove of him (as a moneylender, he’s driven desperate people to suicide).  It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Francis plays Klein as very broadly Jewish – the cliche that moneylenders must be Jewish is a well established one, a pity that Julian Bond’s script adheres to this stereotype.

John Woodvine (Carlyon) is an actor with considerable presence.  His film and television career (like Francis’) started in 1958, although Woodvine continues to act today (his most recent credit was 2015).  Some of his more memorable appearances include New Scotland Yard, The Tripods, Edge of Darkness and Knights of God.  His role in this story is small, but memorable.

The Case of the Gold Salesman is a Cork episode with a definite comedic edge.  Cork’s plan to catch the conmen includes leasing a house and posing as an interested buyer.  No surprises that Inspector Bird becomes positively apoplectic when he learns about this – the extra expense of a servant’s uniform for Bob and a nice smoking jacket for Cork doesn’t help either!

Julian Bond’s script takes its time to put all the pieces into place.  Cork’s masquerade as the gold buyer only takes place during the last fifteen minutes, so prior to that we’ve ambled through a number of (admittedly quite entertaining) character scenes – Klein and Cork, Bird and Marriott etc.  The meeting between Bird and Marriott is noteworthy, as Bob finally receives confirmation (much to his relief) that his probationary period is over and he’s now a fully fledged detective.

But all this preamble is worth it to see Cork relaxing in his smoking jacket, being attended to by his faithful servant Bob.  The scene between Cork and the bewitching gold agent Tamara Andreyev (Jill Melford) is lovely – for once Cork seems to be slightly on the back foot, probably because alluring females aren’t really his thing.  After he bids her farewell, he mutters to Bob that Henry Irving has got nothing to worry about!

It’s not the most interesting of cases (the fake gold scam is dealt with very perfunctorily) but the character interaction between the regulars and the guest cast more than makes up for this.

Return of the Saint – Tower Bridge is Falling Down

tower 01

Jenny Stewart (Fiona Curzon) is concerned about her father Charlie (Sam Kydd), so she turns to the Saint for help.  Charlie has been having disagreements with his business partner Ray Dennis (John Woodvine).  The two of them built up a thriving building firm but Charlie is convinced that Dennis has conned him out of a substantial sum of money.

Dennis is a highly amoral figure and after a brief fight with Charlie he has no compunction in leaving him in a building scheduled for demolition.  And when Charlie’s lifeless body is recovered from the rubble Simon vows to exact the maximum amount of revenge on Dennis.  So he puts his plan into action – an elaborate con involving transporting Tower Bridge to America ……

Written by the creator of Minder, Leon Griffiths, Tower Bridge is Falling Down was his sole contribution to the series.  It’s basically Hustle, thirty years early, and it sees Simon posing as Sir Malcom Street, a top government official.  In order to hook Dennis effectively, first Simon contrives to lose ten thousand pounds to him at a rigged poker game.

And when the man he believes to be Sir Malcolm proves unable to settle his debt Dennis is slowly reeled into the con.  This involves his company being awarded the contract to demolish Tower Bridge (provided he can sweeten the deal by paying Sir Malcolm off).

All the familiar tricks from a normal episode of Hustle are present and correct.  For example, Sir Malcolm is a real person and the Saint brazenly takes over his office in order to meet with Dennis.  And as so often happens, the real Sir Malcolm returns just as the Saint is leaving (the two pass each other in the corridor).  Dennis is easy to con because, as seen in Hustle every week, he’s a greedy man.  Had he been honest then he wouldn’t have fallen for Simon’s ploy, but he sees the chance to make a quick and illegal profit and jumps at it.

It’s a pity that Leon Griffiths didn’t contribute any further scripts (although he would have been busy at the time setting up Minder).  John Woodvine is excellent as Ray Dennis.  Dennis’ lack of morality is clear right from the pre-credits sequence when he casually disposes of Charlie Stewart and although he isn’t the most complex of characters, Woodvine still manages to dominate proceedings whenever he’s on the screen.  A chilling moment occurs when he threatens to permanently disfigure Jenny if she doesn’t reveal Simon’s whereabouts.  It’s obvious from the parameters of the series that this is a threat which won’t be carried out, but Woodvine is intense enough to make you believe for just a few seconds that it might.

Alfie Bass, as Sammy, has a nice role as a con-man who works with Simon to rope Dennis in (he’s the sort of character that could easily have cropped up in Minder or indeed Hustle).  And although Simon’s involvement is down to Jenny, for once this is a very male-dominated episode and she only takes a minor role in proceedings.

It”s a pity that the con doesn’t play out to the end, since Dennis learns about Simon’s true identity.  This means there’s a more traditional conclusion (a punch up) followed by Ray Dennis’ arrest for murder.  Whether his confession about Charlie’s murder (secretly taped by Simon) would actually have stood up in court is a moot point, so it would have been more dramatically satisfying for him to have been conned.

Even allowing for this, thanks to John Woodvine and the unusual plot, Tower Bridge is Falling Down rates four halos out of five.

tower 02