Bleak House (BBC, 1959) – Simply Media DVD Review

Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Colin Jeavons and Elizabeth Shepherd) are two young wards of court, enmeshed in a seemingly unending court case – that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  John Jarndyce (Andrew Cruickshank) also has an interest in it and despite being on the opposing side to Richard and Ada is happy to take custody of them both.

So Richard and Ada, along with Ada’s companion Esther Summerson (Diana Fairfax), take up their residence at Jarndyce’s country home, Bleak House.  Others, such as the nearby Lady Dedlock (Iris Russell), are also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but that isn’t the reason why the arrival of Richard, Ada and Esther impacts so dramatically on her hitherto quiet life ….

Originally published between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House is a typically sprawling work by Dickens, notable for the way it switches between first and third person narration.

It has been tackled three times for television, with two further adaptations (in 1985 and 2005) following this one.  Both of the later adaptations are, in their different ways, of interest.  The 1985 Bleak House was one of the earliest BBC Dickens productions to be made entirely on film – this glossy production style would quickly become a standard production model, signalling the death knell for the old-style videotaped Classic Serial productions which until then had been a staple of the schedules for decades.

When Bleak House next hit the screens, via Andrew Davies’ adaptation in 2005, it was hailed as innovative – due to its half-hour twice-weekly scheduling which, according to the critics, gave it a soap-like feel as well as simulating the partwork feel of Dickens’ originals.  Presumably these critics must have been unaware that the running time for the Classic Serials, broadcast between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, also tended to be half an hour …

Elizabeth Shepherd, Diana Fairfax and Colin Jeavons

It’s unfortunate that, despite a lengthy career, Elizabeth Shepherd seems fated to be remembered for the part that got away – that of Emma Peel in The Avengers.  Despite having already filmed some material for her first episode, for whatever reason it was quickly decided to dispense with her services and Diana Rigg was hastily drafted in.  Although Ada is the least developed of the main roles, Shepherd still acquits herself well. Ada’s a sweet, uncomplicated girl, with none of the subconscious dark secrets that trouble Esther.

At this point in his career, aged thirty, Colin Jeavons was no stranger to either television or Charles Dickens.  He’d played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (also 1959) and the same year had also appeared as Henry V in The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff.  Jeavons made a career out of playing slightly off-key characters and although Richard seems at first to be quite level-headed, there’s still a faint air of instability about him – something which Jeavons is well able to tease out as the serial progresses.  Richard is a young man with a bright future, but it’s precisely what that future will be which proves to be the problem.

Diana Fairfax was also no stranger to classic serials.  Prior to Bleak House she’d appeared in The Diary of Samuel Pepys whilst the next year, 1960, would see her perform in both Emma and Kipps.  Esther is the moral centre of the story, although it takes some time for her importance to become obvious (to begin with, she appears to be little more than Ada’s loyal companion).

Andrew Cruickshank might have been a few years away from his defining role – that of the curmudgeonly, but kindly Dr Cameron in Dr Finlay’s Casebook – but he’d been a familiar face on both the big and small screen since the late 1930’s.  Cruickshank is excellent as John Jarndyce – a lonely man who delights that his house has been brought back to life by the influx of three young people.

Andrew Cruickshank

As is usual, Dickens created a rogues gallery of supporting players – all of whom are gifts for any decent actor.  Timothy Bateson appeals as Mr Guppy, a young solicitor with an unrequited love for Esther. This is obvious from their first meeting when he appreciates her fresh-faced country look (“no offence”). Bateson’s comic timing is given full reign here.

It’s always a pleasure to see Michael Aldridge (playing Mr George) whilst another very dependable character actor, Jerome Willis, also enlivens proceedings as Allan Woodcourt. Nora Nicholson offers us a vivid portrait as Miss Flyte – an elderly woman now more than a little deranged from her own endless court case (if Richard and Ada pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, will they end up like her?)

He may not be on screen for too long, but Wilfred Brambell sketches an appealing cameo as the grasping Krook.  Brambell had also made a memorable appearance in the previous BBC Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, and wasn’t the only actor to have appeared in both serials.  Richard Pearson and William Mervyn also have that honour, with Pearson – here playing the dogged Inspector Bucket – also catching the eye.

Tulkinghorn, the oppressive lawyer who digs into Lady Deadlock’s long-buried secret is another key character. John Phillips doesn’t have Peter Vaughan’s menacing screen presence (Vaughan played Tulkinghorn in the 1985 adaptation) instead he essays a sense of remorseless blankness, which works just as well.

As might be expected, the serial is pretty much studio bound with the occasional brief film insert. The telerecordings are slightly muddy, but no worse than other examples from the same period. And while the prints may exhibit occasional damage there’s nothing too dramatic – meaning that the serial is more than watchable.

Lacking the visual sweep of the later adaptations, this version of Bleak House has to stand or fall on the quality of its actors. Luckily, there’s very little to complain about here. There are some fine central performances – Fairfax, Cruickshank and Jeavons especially – whilst, as touched upon earlier, there’s strength in depth from the supporting players with Timothy Bateson standing out.

Another strong early BBC Dickens serial, Bleak House comes warmly recommended.

Bleak House is released by Simply Media today. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Colin Jeavons, Elizabeth Shepherd & Diana Fairfax
Advertisements

Charters & Caldicott – Simply Media DVD Review

cc

Written by Keith Waterhouse, Charters & Caldicott was a six part serial which aired on BBC1 during January and February 1985.  Waterhouse had by this point enjoyed a lengthy writing career (often collaborating with his friend Willis Hall). Some of their early film screenplays – Whistle Down The Wind (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963 – adapted from Waterhouse’s original novel) – were key entries in the early sixties new wave British cinema movement.  The pair would go on to enjoy further success on the small screen, not least when they created Budgie (1971-1972) – a memorable vehicle for Adam Faith and Iain Cuthbertson.

The characters of Charters and Caldicott first appeared in the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, scripted by Frank Launder and Sidney Gillatt and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, the characters instantly caught the public’s imagination.  Charters and Caldicott were two cricket-obsessed men whose only interest was to return to England to catch the final day of a vital test match.  Unfortunately they find themselves tangled up in a mysterious case of international intrigue on their train journey home ….

The pair proved so popular that they returned in several more films – Night Train to Munich (1940), Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943).  Wayne and Radford would also play very similar characters in a number of other films and radio plays (but for copyright reasons weren’t named as Charters and Caldicott).

Given the 1930’s setting of the original film you might have expected Keith Waterhouse to have scripted Charters & Caldicott as a period piece, but instead he elected to set it in the modern day.  Whilst it’s possible to imagine this was done for budgetary reasons (thereby avoiding the necessity to redress locations in a period style) I’m more inclined to think it was a deliberate choice.

It may be the 1980’s, but Charters and Caldicott still dress and act like it’s fifty years earlier and this culture clash generates a number of memorable comic moments.  One lovely one occurs in the first episode, when the pair set off to meet Jenny Beevers (Tessa Peake-Jones), the daughter of a recently deceased schoolchum.  They rendezvous in the sort of fast-food restaurant that you know will be anathema to both of them.  This is made plain when Charters strides up to the counter and requests a pot of tea for two – only to be handed two cardboard cups with milk sachets on top (which he then proceeds to spray over himself!) In a later episode they both attend a country house party and descend the imposing staircase for dinner immaculately dressed – only to find themselves in their version of hell, surrounded by 1980’s yuppies.

Although there’s a puzzling mystery at the heart of Charters & Caldicott – complete with dead bodies, people who may not be who they claim to be, coded messages and several gun-toting heavies – this isn’t the strength of the serial.  The mystery is simply an excuse for Waterhouse to spend six episodes scripting wonderful dialogue for both Robin Bailey (Charters) and Michael Aldridge (Caldicott).

Bailey and Aldridge are both a joy as they blithely navigate their way through the story.  Their contrasting characters help to generate a great deal of the humour – Charters is severe, precise and suspicious whilst Caldicott is warm, vague and trusting.  The pair exist in a never-never land of comfortable gentleman’s clubs, complete with a library where it’s considered bad form to speak and a sauna where they can complete the crossword in peace – sometimes!

But the recent death of their old friend Jock Beevers, forces them out of their comfort zone.  Jock left a trunk of papers in Caldicott’s possession which he passed over to Charters for safekeeping.  Several unsavoury types seem very interested in the content of the trunk and this seems to be the reason why Caldicott discovers a dead girl in his flat.  Initially both Charters and Caldicott believe it to be Jenny (who they haven’t seen since she was a child) but Jenny later appears to tell them that she thinks her life is in danger.  The long-suffering Inspector Snow (Gerard Murphy) is assigned to investigate the murder and drops another bombshell – could Jock have been a Russian spy?  If not, what do his cryptic messages sent to Charters and Caldicott actually mean?

Apart from the spot-on performances by Bailey and Aldridge, Gerard Murphy is wonderfully dead-pan as Snow, whilst Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably beguiling as an apparent damsel in distress.  Caroline Blakiston as Margaret Mottram also gives a fine performance – she’s an old flame of Caldicott and finds herself mixed up with the mystery after she agrees to give the homeless Jenny a place to stay.  Blakiston is gifted with some tart dialogue and she bounces off both Bailey and Aldridge very agreeably.

I was slightly surprised that this was an all-VT production.  By the mid eighties the BBC was beginning to move towards film as the medium for many series and serials and you would have assumed that Charters & Caldicott would have been just the sort of programme to benefit from the extra gloss that film would have provided.  But no matter, the serial works just as well on videotape as it would have done on film.

As I’ve said, the mystery part of the story does play second fiddle to the character interactions and there’s no doubt that over the six episodes the plot does meander somewhat.  But even if the storyline does drag in places, the pleasure of watching Robin Bailey and Michael Aldridge at work more than makes up for this.

Released as a two DVD set, each disc contains three 50 minute episodes.  There’s no issues with either picture or sound and as usual subtitles are provided.

Charters & Caldicott is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £19.99

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Four

tinker 04

In many ways Michael Jayston is the glue that holds Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy together.  With Smiley remaining in the shadows until the end, it’s Peter Guillam who has to act as Smiley’s leg-man (for example, venturing into the Circus) to obtain the information that he needs.  Guillam isn’t a showy part, but Jayston is perfect casting.  When Smiley’s People was made a few years later, Jayston presumably wasn’t available – so the role of Guillam was played by Michael Byrne.  Byrne’s a decent actor, but Jayston’s loss was keenly felt.

In episode four, Guillam is able to successfully liberate the Testify file from the Circus file-room, but his hopes for a quick getaway are scuppered when Toby Esterhase collars him in the corridor.  “Peter, I am very sorry to disturb you, but we have a crisis. Percy Alleline would like a word with you.”

Guillam finds himself confronted by the Circus’ top-men, with Alleline very much on the warpath.  He tells him he’s been seen with Ricki Tarr.  Guillam denies this and it becomes obvious that Alleline doesn’t have any proof – it’s more of a fishing exercise.  Source Merlin has divulged that Tarr’s wife and child are en-route to England, so logically Tarr must be here as well. And it’s clear that Alleline doesn’t believe Guillam’s denials.

Alleline: What the hell are you shrugging at us like that for? I’m accusing you of playing hooky behind our back with a damn defector from your own damn section, of playing damn-fool parlour games when you don’t know the stakes! And all you do is shrug at me? There’s a law, Guillam, against consorting with enemy agents! You want me to throw the book at you?

Guillam: I haven’t seen him! If anybody’s playing parlour games it’s not me, it’s you! So get off my back!

It’s another scene that throws the main suspects into sharp relief, especially Alleline, who is shown to be both patronising and condescending.  And when Guillam wonders exactly what use Tarr would be as a double-agent, Alleline can only respond with bluster.  “Well never mind what sort.  Muddying pools, poisoning wells maybe.  That damn sort.  Pulling the rug out.”

Whilst waiting for Guillam to return, Smiley and Mendel discuss him.  Mendel’s slightly concerned, since he’s heard some details about Guillam’s past operations – but Smiley remains confident in him.  It’s a scene that helps to give Peter Guillam a little more depth.

Mendel: He does sound jumpy. He might have overdone it a bit there. He was very loud. I’ve seen it all before, tough ones who crack at forty. They lock it away, pretend it isn’t happening, all of a sudden you find ’em sat in front of their desks, the tears pouring on the blotter.

Smiley: I think Peter will manage. You heard something about his murderous assignment in French North Africa, I suppose?

Mendel: Something. Whispers.

Smiley: Peter was over-matched, and lost. His agents were hanged. No one recovers entirely from that sort of thing. That is, I wouldn’t trust a man who did.

Later, Smiley and Guillam discuss Karla (Patrick Stewart) the man who is undoubtedly running the mole.  Smiley reveals that he met him once – in the mid 1950’s, long before Karla became the legendary figure he now is.  In the flashback scene of their meeting it’s notable that Stewart doesn’t have to utter a single word – Guinness does all the talking.

Look, I am not offering you money or hot women or fast cars, you have no use for such things. And I am not going to make any claims about the moral superiority of the West. I’m sure you can see through our values, just as I can see through yours in the East. You and I have spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in each others systems. I’m sure each of us experienced innumerable technical satisfactions in our wretched Cold War. But now your own side is going to shoot you, for nothing. For misdemeanors you have not committed, because of a power struggle within your own kind, because of someone’s suspicions or sheer incompetence.

Karla (Patrick Stewart)
Karla (Patrick Stewart)

Karla remains unmoved by Smiley’s offer and eventually returns to Moscow, where he wasn’t shot  – instead during the next few decades he was gradually able to increase his power-base.  When Guillam reflects that Karla’s fireproof, Smiley angrily responds that he’s “NOT fireproof!  Because he’s a fanatic! I may have acted like a soft dolt, the very archetype of a flabby Western liberal but I’d rather be my kind of fool than his. One day that lack of moderation will be Karla’s downfall.”

As there’s still three episodes to go, there’s a certain sense on running on the spot – but there’s still some important matters to be discussed.  The news that Irina has been executed in Moscow causes Smiley some concern.

Smiley: Ricky Tarr mustn’t know. It’s vital that he gets no wind of this! God knows what he would or would not do if he found out, and we may need to make further use of him.

Guillam: Do you really believe all that guff about Tarr being in love with her? The little homestead in the Highlands? The avenging lover, the honourable Ricky Tarr?

Smiley: He may be compelled, Peter, everyone has a loyalty somewhere. He mustn’t know.

It’s a moment that once again raises the question whether Ricky had any feelings for Irina or if he was purely interested in her for the information about the mole.  And Jim Prideaux has been tracked down (he’s teaching at a minor prep school) and it’s clear he’s somebody that Smiley needs to talk to urgently.  It’s emphasied that Prideaux and Bill Haydon were great friends.  Since this has been mentioned several times before, it’s obviously a point of some importance.