Espionage – The Dragon Slayer

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The Dragon Slayer opens in late 19th Century China.  Sun Yat-Sen (Lee  Montague) is committed to the overthrow of the ruling Manchurian dynasty.  Following heavy fighting he’s forced to flee to England, where he seeks to raise both awareness and money.  But  the Chinese government, fearful of his public profile, decides to imprison him in their London consulate. If he renounces his radical views then he’ll be set free, if not …..

Like He Rises on Sunday and We on MondayThe Dragon Slayer is based on real-life events.  Although Sun Yat-Sen probably isn’t too well known in the West, he did later succeed in bringing an end to the Manchu dynasty and served as China’s first president.  But if you do know his background then it rather saps the tension of the story, as it’s obvious that no harm will have befallen him by the end of the episode.

Although Sun Yat-Sen is just as driven as Roger McBride from the previous story, The Dragon Slayer has a more layered narrative since others challenge and contradict his point of view.  Shortly after arriving in London, Sun finds himself invited to an exclusive reception.  As he fingers his tuxedo, it’s obvious that he feels like a fish out of water, but he’s driven by his mission to find benefactors who can supply money and arms.  Sir Leslie Parrott (Peter Dyneley) seems such a man – he’s a successful businessman, so he’s certainly rich enough.

But Sir Leslie isn’t going to be swayed by Sun’s picture of a free, democratic China or vague promises of trade monopolies.  The bottom line is profit – if there’s no money to be made then he won’t take the risk.  As Sun feels Sir Leslie lose interest, the camera tracks away to settle on a well-dressed woman dripping with diamonds – a visual beat which helps to suggest that his plea is doomed to failure (in such genteel society, talk of war is made to feel very out of place).

Sun puts the blame for all of China’s problems firmly at the feet of their rulers, to which Sir Leslie responds that you can’t blame governments for everything.  And the Englishman concludes by telling Sun that he might be the menace – not the Manchu – if he leads his people into a massacre.  That not all China’s ills are due to the Manchu is a point also later made by Sun’s uncle – helping to reinforce the point that no war can ever be black and white.

I’ve yet to touch upon the area of The Dragon Slayer which will probably be the most problematic for a modern audience, namely that the main Chinese roles are played by British actors.  This was very common during the 1960’s and 1970’s – the pool of ethnic actors was so small there was really no alternative.  But it’s very strange viewing nonetheless, as a selection of familiar faces try and convince us that they’re Chinese.

Lee Montague (born in Bow, London in 1927 and still going strong today, I’m delighted to say) probably comes off best – Sun might be a fanatic, ready to spill the blood of others for his cause, but Montague manages to capture the contradictory compassion of the man as well.  On the other end of the scale there’s Patrick Cargill as Colonel Tung.  Cargill didn’t attempt to modulate his normal cut-glass tones (which to be honest was probably wise – had any of the cast attempted “me velly solly” accents that would have just made things worse) so at first you do come away with the impression that his character is an Englishman dressed up. But whilst Cargill doesn’t remotely convince as Chinese, he still manages to invest Tung with a restrained menace. Tung, acting as Sun’s jailer and interrogator, doesn’t need to rant and rave – he holds such a clear position of power that he can afford to treat his captive with amused, icy contempt.

Alan Tilvern and Cyril Shaps (both first-rate actors, but not known for their Chinese looks) are also drafted into service – playing P’Eng Pat and Lao Han respectively.  Thorley Walters also appears, but fortunately he’s playing an Englishman, Dr Cantile.

Sam Kydd impesses as Crutchley, an English servant working at the Chinese consulate. Tung tells him to take Sun his meals, but also informs him that he should ignore anything he hears. Sun tries to get Crutchley on his side by telling him that he’s a Christian, but this doesn’t cut any ice with the Englishman. “I may be a butler, but I’m a scientific man myself. You see sir, I’m a Darwinist. I believe that man is descended from monkeys. Oh no offence intended sir, but how could the world ever have been made in six days?” When Sun reveals that his captors plan to kill him, Crutchley calmly replies that as a Christian he’d have assumed that’d be something he’d look forward to! As this isn’t a story with a great deal of levity, Kydd’s scenes help to lighten the mood a little.

So there’s an excellent cast at work here, even if some performances are a little compromised.  Three writers were credited for the script, Raymond Bowers, Albert Ruben and Halsted Welles (who previously contributed the first-class story The Incurable One).  Since Ruben and Welles were American and Bowers was British it suggests that some rewriting took place.  And the committee-like nature of the writing might be one of the reasons why the story never quite seems to work as well as it could.

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Minder – A Tethered Goat

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Terry’s latest job is acting as a bodyguard for an Arab banker Bassam Sayin (Lee Montague) who has flown into the UK to transact some business deals.  Sayin and Terry don’t quite hit it off as he’s far from impressed with Terry’s skills as a bodyguard (mainly because he doesn’t carry a gun).

Naturally, Arthur’s convinced Terry that this will be easy money, so the idea that he would need to be armed instantly sets alarm bells ringing.  But perhaps he should have been, as later Terry and Sayin find themselves menaced by a group of armed men ….

A Tethered Goat is one of my favourite episodes from series one of Minder – not only for the sparkling script from Murray Smith (incredibly his only contribution to the series) but also for the first rate guest cast.  The pick of the bunch is Kenneth Griffiths as Sayin’s temporary valet, Dai Llewellyn.  Dai’s Welsh (in case you haven’t guessed) and also likes a drink (or two).  He’s pure comic relief and gets some of the best lines, such as when he spots armed men approaching the house. “Terry, shooters! Oh my god!”.  It may not sound like much, but it’s all in the delivery and Griffiths is first rate.

Lee Montague, an actor still going strong today, has a great deal of presence as Sayin.  His relationship with Terry is the key to this episode and it’s fascinating to chart how their opinions of each other change (from distrust to mutual respect).  Another couple of very familiar television faces, Michael Sheard and Nadim Sawalha, provide the menace whilst Jenny Lee-Wright (who was well-known at the time for the likes of The Benny Hill Show but is now a leading Foley artist, working on a score of major films) provides the glamour.

As for Arthur, he attempts to ingratiate himself with Sayin in such an obvious way that it’s almost painful to witness.  Sayin’s reaction to Arthur’s hustling is a joy to behold!  But you have to give Arthur credit, he keeps on trying to make a profit – even when the bullets are flying.

Dixon of Dock Green – Harry’s Back

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Harry’s Back (the third story of series twenty, broadcast on the 12th of January 1974) features a familiar plot which many police series have used from time to time.  An untouchable villain, who rarely makes a mistake, is doggedly pursued by a lone officer (even though he’s warned off by his superiors).

In Harry’s Back, Andy Crawford is the officer and Harry Simpson (Lee Montague) is his prey.  Harry’s a beloved figure in his local community (“one of the best”) and his early scenes help to establish his character.  To begin with, we see him return home, after some months spent abroad, with his fiance Marion Croft (Susan Tebbs).  He’s greeted by an old man, who offers to carry his suitcases up to his flat – Harry agrees, even though he can see the man is struggling with the weight of the cases.  Harry slips him a few notes and tells him to take his time.  Andy later bitterly reflects that Harry’s a past-master in “buying admiration” and this is an early example.

Harry then runs into Sgt. Wills and although Wills is polite, he’s obviously not delighted to see that Harry’s back.  His disdain would seem to be shared by most of the Dock Green coppers, although Andy’s the only one who actively targets him.  This brings him into something of a conflict with Dixon – although the confrontation, if one can call it that, is very mild.

Dixon’s is an old-school copper.  He’d be happy to pursue Harry if there was clear evidence of wrongdoing, but there isn’t – so he’s content to let him lie.  The inference is that eventually Harry, like all criminals, will trip himself up and that’s the time when Dixon will pounce.  Andy takes the opposite view.  He has no hard evidence (only suspicions) but they’re enough to make him want to keep a very close eye on him, which will make it easy for Harry to claim he’s being harassed.

Throughout the story we see several more examples of Harry’s largesse.  He visits the wife of one his old friends, Lenny Lane, and gives her a considerable sum of money.  This, he tells her, is simply what she’s owed, he says Lenny couldn’t give it to her himself because he’s lying low.  Later, he visits his local and buys everyone a round.  This is a scene maybe doesn’t quite work, mainly because everybody seems just a little too delighted to see him, so it just doesn’t ring true.

He also bumps into Dixon and Det. Sgt. Mike Brewer (Gregory de Polnay).  This is another interesting scene, more for what remains unsaid than what is actually said.  We’ve already had several examples of Harry’s generosity and been offered several different opinions about it.  Is he just a generous and warm-hearted man or is he attempting to buy respect and favours?

His encounters with the various Dock Green officers are noteworthy in this respect.  He offers to send Brewer’s wife some perfume and later he tells Andy that he has a nice little house he can let him have, which will save him some money (the clear inference is that he’s offering him a bribe to lay off).  It’s also obvious why he doesn’t offer to buy Dixon and Brewer a drink – you know that Dixon would politely decline.  Harry returns to his friends and a few moments later two large whiskies are sent over to Dixon and Brewer – courtesy of Harry.  A simple generous gesture or his way of offering them a small bribe?  It’s down to the viewer to decide.

Another scene that’s open to interpretation occurs when Harry meets his prospective in-laws.  He’s only known Marion for a few weeks and this, together with the fact that he’s much older than her, makes Mr and Mrs Croft concerned that the pair of them are rushing into marriage.  Mr Croft (Peter Hughes) works in insurance and when Harry tells him it’s about time he took out some life insurance (say fifty thousand) the atmosphere changes instantly.  Is Mr Croft happy because he spies a rich commission or is he reassured that Harry’s demonstrated how responsible he is?  The tone of the story may suggest the former (Harry’s offering another bribe) but the scene can be taken either way.

N.J. Crisp was an incredibly experienced writer – penning 66 episodes of Dixon between 1964 and 1975 as well as contributing to numerous other popular series, such as Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Colditz and Secret Army.  It’s therefore a slight shame that Harry’s downfall occurs via two rather clumsy plot points.

The first concerns Harry’s unsmiling number two Bernard Moss (Michael Sheard).  Moss needs a clean driving licence and he buys one from Freddie Barnet (Esmond Knight) for fifty pounds.  Freddie suspects that there’s going to be trouble but when he knows that Harry needs it, he’s reassured.  Moss uses the driving licence to hire a car that’s later used to rob a cosmetics van.  Freddie is presented right from the start as a weak link and he needs little persuading to tell the police that Moss took the licence.  Moss and Harry are known associates, so it clearly puts Harry in the frame.  Why didn’t they simply steal a car?  That way there would have been no link to Harry at all.

The second feels even more contrived.  Andy has a warrant to search Harry’s flat (for evidence relating to the robbery) but the news that Lenny Lane’s body has been found (with a bullet hole in his head) makes him also keen to pin the murder on Harry.  But Harry’s flat appears to be spotless and it looks as if he’s going to walk away empty-handed – until (somehow) Andy realises that a safe deposit key is concealed inside a footstool.  The safety deposit box contains, amongst other items, a gun – and ballistics confirm it was the weapon used to murder Lane.

The way that Andy found the key was a little hard to swallow but the notion that Harry would keep such an incriminating piece of evidence beggars belief!  We’ve already seen that Dixon doesn’t always have to give us neat, happy endings, so there were several ways this could have gone.

Harry gets convicted (as happened).

Harry walks away free, but Andy vows to get him next time (this is a familiar trope from other series who’ve used this plotline).

Harry walks away free, but divine intervention punishes him anyway (see Eye Witness for a good example of this.  Mr Colly isn’t convicted of the murder but shortly after is killed in a hit-and-run incident.  An accident or not?  Dixon leaves it for us to decide).

The second option may have been the best choice here, as finding the key and the gun occur so late in the day that it can’t help but feel something of an afterthought.

This apart, Harry’s Back has plenty to commend it, not least Lee Montague’s performance as Harry.  For most of the story he’s a relentlessly cheerful chap, but just occasionally his mask slips (such as when he suggests to Moss that the hapless Freddie needs to be persuaded not to talk to the police any more).  Michael Sheard is hardly stretched with the role of the taciturn Moss, but it’s always a pleasure to see him.

Susan Tebbs’ longest-running role was as Det. Con. Donald in the first few series of Softly Softly: Task Force.  Marion Croft is a fairly anonymous part, but since I enjoyed her appearances in SS:TF, it was nice to see her here.

Harry’s Back was one of Gregory de Polnay’s earliest appearances as Mike Brewer (and the first that exists).  He remained a regular until 1975, so as we move into a period where the archive survival rate is a little more healthy, we’ll be seeing more of him.  As a Doctor Who fan, I know him best for playing robot detective D84 in the 1977 story The Robots of Death.  But it’s only now, when I realised that he’d formally been a regular in Dixon, that it’s possible to surmise that his casting in Doctor Who was something of an in-joke!

Although the ending slightly lets it down, this is still a strong episode and it’s also notable for a late example of Dixon pounding the beat.  Soon, he’d be forced to mostly remain rooted behind the station desk.