Six Dates with Barker – 2274: All the World’s a Stooge

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The year is 2274 and comedy is now a religion with Chaplin, Keaton and W.C. Fields revered as gods.  Life is an endless stream of corny jokes, but Prince Boffo (Barker), shortly to ascend to the throne, is increasingly dissatisfied with this.  His wife, Princess Hysteria (Joyce Grant), is baffled to learn that Boffo’s lost his sense of humour, but his daughter, Cheeky (Lesley Anne-Down) is more sympathetic.  Is Boffo fit to be King?  That’s for the Arch Funster (Michael Horden) to find out ….

Written by Barker (under his regular pseudonym of Gerald Wiley), All the World’s a Stooge is an intriguing and vaguely experimental sci-fi story.  No expense was spent to bring 2274 AD to life, although it’s possible this was an intentional nod to series such as Out of the Unknown, which also tended to depict future times on a shoestring budget.  And even if it wasn’t, it works anyway – flimsy looking sets and lashings of CSO just seem to be right for this type of story.

Did this obscure little playlet influence future writers?  It’s easy to see parallels in several later Doctor Who stories.  Vengeance on Varos also featured a couple who provide a running commentary on events, watching via their television screen (here it’s Joy Stewart and Victor Maddern as Tarty and Atlas).  And The Happiness Patrol could easily be depicting a sister world to this one.

Ronnie Barker loved corny gags and would later recycle many of them in the Two Ronnies Yokels sketches.  I’ve no doubt he enjoyed giving the old jokes featured here another airing, but there was also room to air a serious point.  This sort of humour becomes mechanical over time, with no joy to be gained from the responses and punchlines.  Boffo wants a world where humour is natural and unforced and it appears by the end of the episode that he’s got his wish, even if most of the planet (including his wife) don’t understand this and are simply glad he appears to be his old, funny self again.

A strong guest cast helps to enhance Wiley’s script.  Horden looks to be enjoying himself as the Arch Funster, especially when doing the Groucho walk.  Lesley-Anne Down is very appealing as Boffo’s idealistic daughter whilst Jack Tripp also impresses as the doctor who tells Boffo that his father is dead (“do you know what’s good for water on the brain? A tap on the head”).

Although it features a couple of indifferent instalments, overall Six Dates with Barker is a pretty strong series.  A few years later, after Barker moved back to the BBC, they did something similar with Seven of One, although that would produce both of Barker’s biggest sitcom successes …

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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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A Christmas Carol (BBC 1977)

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Broadcast on the 24th of December 1977, it’s fair to say that they don’t make them like this anymore.  It’s completely studio-bound and at times places characters, via the wonder of CSO, in front of illustrated backdrops.  For some, this artificiality might be an issue but I feel that the non-naturalistic moments are strengths not weakness.

One of the main pluses of this production is the quality of Elaine Morgan’s adaptation.  Dickens’ novella wasn’t particularly long and she was able to compress it down quite comfortably to just under an hour.  Everything of note from the original story (including much of the dialogue) has been retained and it’s interesting that the likes of Ignorance and Want (often removed from adaptations) are present and correct.

Michael Horden, an actor who always seemed to play bemused and vague characters, is excellent as Scrooge – although since he lacks bite and arrogance he’s better as the story proceeds (especially when Scrooge is finally presented as a humble and chastised man).

John Le Mesurier only has a few minutes to make an impression as Jacob Marley, but he certainly does.  His scenes with Horden were complicated by the fact that both weren’t on set at the same time (Marley, as befits a ghost, was only ever seen as an insubstantial presence).  This isn’t really a problem though, since both actors had such good timing they were able to make it work.

The arrival of Patricia Quinn as the Ghost of Christmas Past sees Scrooge revisit his own past.  The establishing shots of Scrooge’s schoolhouse are presented via a series of illustrated images, with Horden and Quinn overlaid.  You can either view this as a necessity, due to the production’s low-budget, or an inspired choice.  One nice moment occurs when we move into the schoolhouse and there’s another illustration – which then morphs into a real-life scene.

Almost unrecognisable, thanks to a heavy beard, is Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present (although his voice is unmistakable).  Paul Copley is slightly too jolly and irritating as Fred, but this a rare production mistep.  Clive Merrison, with an impressive wig, is a fine Bob Cratchit whilst Zoe Wanamaker is equally good as Belle.  There’s plenty of other familiar faces, including John Salthouse, John Ringham, June Brown and Christopher Biggins whilst the brief opening narration is provided by (an uncredited) Brian Blessed.

Although there’s many adaptations of A Christmas Carol available, this one is certainly worth your time – partly because of the quality of the cast, but also due to its fidelity to Charles Dickens’ original story.  Many adaptations can’t help but make various “improvements” but Elaine Morgan was content to let the strength of the tale speak for itself.