The Cleopatras – Episode Three

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Episode three opens with Theodotus continuing to teach the young Cleopatra about the history of her strange and bloodthirsty family. At this point in his story, Pot Belly is approaching death. I’m going to miss him (and Richard Griffiths too of course). Griffiths has been a constant source of delight during the series so far, thanks to the entertaining dialogue provided by Philip Mackie. His opening words here are a case in point. “I wonder if I ought to be dying more publically? In a more public place, under an awning with a vast multitude hanging on my every word. Filled with admiration at the sight of how nobly a truly good man could die.”

Griffiths, like the rest of the cast, didn’t make any effort to do “noble” acting. Instead, everyone plays in a modern conversational style, which is quite unlike, say, the more stilted delivery of Biblical classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood. This may be another reason, along with the camera effects and impressionistic sets, why the series received such a muted reception.  The Cleopatras doesn’t feel like the traditional historical drama that many were no doubt expecting and it’s mixture of ripe acting and dark humour seemed to have caught many by surprise.  Make no doubt, it is a funny series.  Some may contend that it’s unintentionally so, but I think that both Philip Mackie and director John Frankau knew exactly what they were doing.

The scene where Cleopatra’s eldest daughter (Sue Holderness) and her husband Chickpea (David Horovitch) visit the dying Pot Belly is a good case in point.  They bound into the room, hand in hand, to ask how he is.  When he tells them that he’s dying, she bursts into hysterics.  Her histrionics are so utterly false (and Pot Belly isn’t taken in for a moment) that you can view this moment one of two ways – either Sue Holderness was indulging in some ripe overacting or she was playing to the script (which strongly implies that everybody’s constantly playing games with everybody else, but etiquette means that they can’t publicly say so).

It’s highly entertaining to see Marlene and Chief Inspector Slack in such unusual garb and there’s some other familiar faces who find themselves with shaven heads and remarkable – and brief – costumes.  Alexander (Ian McNeice) is another of Pot Belly’s sons who, like Chickpea, has his eyes on the throne.

Pot Belly’s dying words (his death scene is another hysterical moment) creates a storm of controversy, which is exactly what he wished.  He commands his wife to choose which of their two sons should rule.  By right of succession the throne belongs to Chickpea, but Cleopatra chooses Alexander instead.  This sparks a storm of protest and Cleopatra is forced to back down.  The discontent of the mob and their delight when Chickpea is confirmed as ruler is largely achieved via sound effects.  It’s a theatrical – and low budget – solution, but it works.

I love David Horovitch’s impossibly wet Chickpea.  Horovitch plays him as a thoroughly decent sort of chap, which means he’s totally out of his depth in Cleopatra’s court, where everybody seems to be plotting against everybody else.  Eventually Cleopatra orders his death and sets the mob on him.  His reaction when he’s told this by a loyal servant is another comic moment – he changes in a minute from an autocratic ruler to a lost child.

If The Cleopatras lacks the depth of I, Claudius (characters feel more insubstantial) then there’s still plenty of incidental pleasures to be enjoyed along the way.  Ian McNeice’s impressive dancing at the end of this episode being a case in point!

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The Cleopatras – Episode Two

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The studio-bound nature of the series meant that it would have been difficult to illustrate battles or major upheavals convincingly, so The Cleopatras tended not to bother.  With Theodotus on hand to push the story along you just have to fill in the blanks yourself.

So at the end of episode one Cleopatra’s mother ruled Egypt, whilst Cleopatra and Pot Belly were exiles.  In the space of a few seconds at the start of this episode Theodotus informs us of a total reversal – Cleopatra and Pot Belly have regained the throne whilst Cleopatra’s mother is the one who now finds herself in exile – in Syria.

Needless to say, she’s not best pleased about it and Elizabeth Shepherd continues to wring every last drop of emotion from the role.  I can’t honestly say it’s good acting, but she’s highly entertaining.

One of the joys of the series is that there’s a constant stream of first-rate actors who pop up for an episode or two.  Due to the amount of fake facial hair (for the men, anyway) it’s sometimes hard to identity them immediately, but their voices tend to be a giveaway.  One notable new arrival is Stephen Greif as Demetrius, the King of Syria.  Greif’s excellent as the weak-willed king, easily manipulated by Cleopatra’s mother into attempting to invade Egypt and dispose Pot Belly.  It’s not a success, alas, and Demetrius finds himself deserted by his men and then executed.

Demetrius’ widow, Cleopatra Thea (Caroline Mortimer), is a chip off the old family block.  Her elder son Seleucus (Nicholas Greake) has automatically ascended to the throne, but this doesn’t please her.  Her younger son, Grypus (James Aubrey), seems to be much more malleable, so she decides to poison Seleucus.  She does so in such a blatant way that it’s more than a little surprising that nobody seems to twig.

Richard Griffiths continues to impress.  Pot Belly is a curious mixture of diplomat and tyrant (somewhat similar to Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius).  He agrees to Cleopatra’s mother’s request to return as Queen for one key reason.  “The people are tired of chaos. Oh it’s fun for a time, throwing people out of windows, rioting, looting, burning, refusing taxes. But eventually the people long for peace. And what better symbol can there be of the return to orderly life than the reconciliation of those two great enemies, their King and Queen?”

A peculiarity of the series is that although years have passed since the events of the previous episode, nobody looks any older.  This is particularly noticeable when we see Cleopatra and Pot Belly’s children, who are now grown up. When Cleopatra’s daughters look as old as Cleopatra herself it’s slightly odd.  She does have a little bit of make-up applied in the next episode, when Cleopatra is an old woman, but Pot Belly (on his deathbed) looks pretty much as he did in the first episode.

Most amusing picture transition in the series so far occurs forty five minutes in, as the picture contracts into a ball and appears to disappear down Cleopatra Thea’s throat!

Bird of Prey (BBC 1982). Episode Four – Printout Urgent

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The last in a four-part thriller for the electronic age featuring Richard Griffiths
Episode 4: Printout Urgent
Henry is at bay. His home in ruins, his allies and hard-won evidence all destroyed. Face to face with the gathering strength of ‘Le Pouvoir’ and the grandiose scheme of its protégé – Euro MP Hugo Jardine.
(Radio Times Listing, 13th May 1982)

With Henry believing that one of the explosions from the end of part three killed Anne (instead it was the unfortunate Tomkins who perished) he moves into attack mode.  He substitutes himself for Jardine’s chauffeur and drives him to an abandoned warehouse.  His original plan is to kill Jardine and then make as much trouble as he can for Jardine’s organisation before his own death – but when he learns that Anne is still alive he agrees to a swop.

There’s no denying that Henry’s abduction of Jardine stretches credibility as it’s difficult to believe that such a powerful man would travel with no protection at all.  Jardine (Christopher Logue) is a good example of the banality of evil, which makes his confrontation with Henry very interesting.

When Henry first speaks to Jardine he believes that Anne is dead – but Jardine professes not to know about her death or any of the others.  He tells Henry that “I know nothing of the names you mention. I have people imposed upon me. I have no say in their methods. Because your heart is broken does not license you to stop mine”.  How much of a pawn Jardine is in other people’s plans is a matter of conjecture, but it does highlight that there never seems to be a single person sitting in total control at the top of the pyramid – everybody always seems to answer to somebody else.

Elsewhere, Bridgnorth explains to Hendersly exactly what Jardine’s scheme is, in a scene that would be an unbearably egregious info-dump if it wasn’t for that fact that Nigel Davenport was such a good actor well able to rattle off such exposition-heavy dialogue with great aplomb.

Jardine, along with the shadowy Italian conglomerate, has tabled a bid to build a deluxe Channel tunnel.  Bridgnorth says that it will create “125,000 new jobs in construction and engineering. 50 or 60 thousand new service and retail jobs. Only Jardine has the political will and the financial clout to stitch a deal like this together. Road and rail links side by side. The Rolls Royce solution to the Channel link”.  With a potential fortune to be made, trouble-makers like Henry would appear to have a very limited life expectancy.

The hand-over between Jardine and Anne goes ahead – although not quite as some of the players might have expected.  Henry and Anne are safe though, but their future seems less certain.  Henry was able to broker a deal with Rome – he agreed not to release the files he has on them and in turn they pulled out of the Channel bid.  And if Henry doesn’t input a counter-instruction code every three months, the files will be released to every government computing centre across Europe.

This will keep Henry and Anne safe for now, but he’s well aware that they’ll try to break his code and if they do then their lives will be rather short (which sets us up nicely for the sequel Bird of Prey II).

Overall, this is a very decent thriller.  Although trailed in the Radio Times as a story for the electronic age, computers really don’t feature very significantly at all (except for the ending, where it’s the information contained within the computer that’s keeping Henry and Anne alive).  Production-wise, it’s typical of the era – VT interiors and film for exteriors.  If it had been all-film (like an increasing number of serials during the early to mid 80’s) then it might have been more stylish.  As it is, the direction is workmanlike but rather flat, with only the odd moment standing out.  Instead, it’s the actors (rather than the camerawork) which makes the story.

Richard Griffiths shines as the undemonstrative Henry and Nigel Davenport is impressive as his main rival.  As the DVD was deleted some time ago it now tends to sell for silly money – but if you can track down a reasonably priced copy then it’s certainly worth a look (particularly if you like drama of that era).

Bird of Prey (BBC 1982). Episode Three – Process Priority

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A four-part thriller for the electronic age featuring Richard Grifiths
Episode 3: Process Priority
One name recurs in Henry Jay’s single-handed investigation into the affairs of ‘Le Pouvoir’ – Euro MP Hugo Jardine. With British Intelligence now implicated in the cover-up, Henry has a story to sell – if he can stay alive long enough.
(Radio Times Listing, 6th May 1982)

Generally, the third part of a four part story is a bit of a problem. You’ve set up the plot and characters in the first two parts but you’re still one away from the conclusion – so part threes generally involve a good deal of running on the spot.

While it’s true to say that Process Priority does conform to this rule, on the plus side it introduces an interesting new character, Rochelle Halliday (Ann Pennington).  Rochelle runs a commercial intelligence consultancy and she had contact with Henry when he was drafting his report on computer fraud.

She’s a playful, irreverent character, which is highlighted when she asks Henry to read the notes she made about him after their previous meeting.  “First impressions are that he would be out of his depth in a car park puddle, but first impressions may be deceptive. Give him a couple of months then try sex or straight cash. Say five hundred. He shouldn’t be expensive”.

Ann Pennington is a major reason why this part three doesn’t feel too draggy.  It’s a pity that this is her only episode – but as has been mentioned before, many characters in Bird of Prey have a very short shelf life.

Rochelle sends Henry off to speak to Julia Falconer (Mandy Rice-Davies).  Julia is the proprietor of a high-class call-girl agency which has links to Hugo Jardine.  She’s able to fill in a few blanks, but these scenes are of primary interest due to Mandy Rice-Davies herself, since along with Christine Keeler she will be forever remembered for her role in the Profumo affair.  It could be regarded as stunt-casting, but since she’s a decent actress I wouldn’t say so.

Elsewhere, Hendersly (Jeremy Child) is starting to have his doubts about Bridgnorth (Nigel Davenport).  It’s been a fairly thankless role for Child so far, as his character has been drawn as a colourless, yes man.  But now the worm turns and he tells Bridgnorth that he’s compromised his career “to protect Hugo Jardine, who you advised me is risking his life in a long, drawn out and elaborate intelligence operation. On a need-to-know basis, you’re the only person I’ve had any contact with. As this operation staggers from one blunder to the next, I’ve just kept my head down and assumed that you’ve known what you’ve been doing. I find myself questioning that now. And even more seriously, questioning who it is that I’m ultimately working for and with whom your loyalties lie”.

After a speech like that (and given what we’ve already seen) it’s interesting to ponder what his life expectancy will be …..

As the end of the episode approaches it’s clear that matters are building to a head.  The cliffhanger is certainly arresting – as we witness two separate explosions (although the second is admittedly a little weedy).  Both explosions help to thin out the cast a little more but Henry is still unscathed and he appears to be heading for a showdown with Jardine.

Next Episode – Printout Urgent

Bird of Prey (BBC 1982). Episode Two – Mode Murder

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A four-part thriller for the electronic age, featuring Richard Griffiths.
Episode 2: Mode Murder
Murder and the power to subvert officialdom: Henry Jay has good reason to believe in ‘Le Pouvoir’ and its link with the growing evidence of a financial conspiracy. A dead detective’s legacy is a file pointing to a Euro MP and a girl in Brussels – which leaves Henry no option but to pick up the trail.
(Radio Times Listing, 29th April 1982)

Henry needs answers – so he sells his stamp collection and uses the money to rent a room under an assumed name and also buy a computer.  It’s the latest model and the salesgirl informs him that it has “64K memory, disk drive main, storage for 120,000 characters”.  Which was cutting edge stuff in 1982!  Henry’s computer hacking also raises an eyebrow – since it consists of him ringing up various people and asking for their passwords.

Whilst this will either seem charmingly naive or rather clumsy (depending on how forgiving you are) it does allow Henry to track down Hannah Brent (Sally Faulkner).  Hannah was the girlfriend of Louis Vacheron (a crook murdered in episode one) and Henry hopes she’ll have a lead that will lead him closer to the heart of the conspiracy, so he flies out to visit her in Brussels.  Before DI Richardson was murdered, he left a file for Henry (inside were clippings which mentioned a European MP and businessman called Hugo Jardine).  Hannah doesn’t recognise the name but promises to try and find out what she can.

A hallmark of a good conspiracy thriller is that nobody can be trusted.  Hannah Brent would have known about a simple code that Vacheron taught her (the Owl and the Pussycat in French).  The girl with Henry doesn’t, so he knows she’s not the real Hannah Brent.

This revelation moves us to the heart of the episode as we’re introduced to Charles Bridgnorth (Nigel Davenport). Bridgnorth works for British Security and the faux Hannah Brent works for him. As for the real Hannah? Bridgnorth surmises she’s “in the foundations of a Brussels office block most likely”.

Bridgnorth tells Henry that Jardine works for them and is part of a project stretching back several years – and that both his and Richardson’s investigations may have compromised Jardine’s safety. He also explains to Henry a little more about the Power (the mysterious force alluded to by Vacheron).

The Power is more a loose federation of people than a solid structure. People who temporarily find it an advantage to work with each other to repay each other for favours past and future. There’s a grey area in this sort of business, Henry. Terrorism shades into organised crime, into police undercover operations, into how the state security apparat responds to the chaos which mobile internationally-minded crooks and politicos have been creating since the early ’60’s, especially in Europe. Even those who did the killing may be unaware of what favour they are repaying to whom.

Henry doesn’t find this particularly comforting – so Richardson and Vacheron may have been killed by criminals or possibly by members of the police and security services.  Bridgnorth is pretty non-committal, but tells Henry that his involvement is over.

Get out of here, civilian. This is where the dirty work gets done. Dirty work that means that people like you can catch the 8:15 every morning and lead your boring little lives. Be thankful for the 8:15, Henry. Be thankful for your boring little life and the fact that we allow you to go back to it in one piece … or at all.

It’s a convincing story, but as it’s only the end of episode two there must be more revelations to come.  Henry knows they’re lying to him and explains to Anne that “an exceedingly elaborate construct has been made up of all the bits and pieces and odds and ends they know I know about. It concerns one of the many branches of Intelligence claiming Jardine for their own. They lied about Richardson going to Brussels. I had a computer agency check the relevant flight listings and he never made it”.  It’s only a small point, but Henry has to go on – he has to know if that was the only lie or if the whole story was false.

The episode ends with a few more bodies – DS Eric Vine (Richard Ireson) and the Department’s security officer Trevor Chambers (Trevor Martin) have been waiting for Henry to return to his rented flat.  Chambers is killed by someone who calls him Mr Jay, which adds another layer of mystery.  Bridgnorth has been keeping close tabs on Henry, so he knows exactly what he looks like.  Therefore it appears there are new players in town.

Next Episode – Process Priority

Bird of Prey (BBC 1982). Episode One – Input Classified

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Henry Jay: Civil Servant, mid-30s, good head for detail
Prospects: Steady promotion. Index-linked pension
Hobbies: Philately, Hi-fi
Current Project: Computer Fraud Report for Whitehall Trade Ministry.
Altogether a seemingly puny obstacle to a massive financial conspiracy – with the bureaucratic clout to silence the inquisitive.
(Radio Times listing, 22nd April 1982)

Bird of Prey, written by Ron Hutchinson, was a four-part conspiracy thriller broadcast in 1982.  It starred Richard Griffiths as Henry Jay, who is a mild-mannered, middle-aged civil servant and therefore just about the last person you would expect to be caught up in the middle of a vast and dangerous conspiracy.

That, of course, is one of the reasons why it works so well – had Henry been a more conventional hero (either in looks or approach) then the dramatic tension would have been far less.  But since Henry seems so ill-suited to the role of a crusading hero, it creates an interesting dynamic.  Whether the story manages to keep a sense of credibility as the bodies start to pile up, we’ll have to wait and see – but let’s start by taking a look at the first episode.

Henry Jay works for the Department of Commercial Development and has a special interest in computer security.  At the start of the story he has the following info-dump speech which he delivers to his boss Hendersly (Jeremy Child).

The Americans are considering restricting the publication of research into cryptography – code breaking. Well, you see, telephone networks are now, more or less, computer networks, as are modern office accounting and money transfer systems, and the Americans have only just woken up to the security aspects of the unregulated publication of research into cryptography because it offers ways of breaking into those networks.

Since Bird of Prey is commonly regarded as a computer thriller, it’s noticeable that we don’t see a single computer in the first episode.  Henry’s office, which he shares with Harry Tomkins (Roger Sloman), is computer free – instead there’s just typewriters and plenty of conventional files.  It’s certainly a window into a vanished world, where computers were still something of a rarity.

But if the possibility of everyone either owning a computer at home or using one in work was still a slightly alien concept in 1982, there certainly was a feeling that computers were beginning to have an increasing influence on people’s daily lives – hence Bird of Prey came out at the right time (even if the technology we’ll see in later episodes now looks rather quaint!).

The opening and closing titles are rather nostalgic for anybody of a certain age, since they mimic the computer graphics common at the time.  Dave Greenslade’s title music and score is also very evocative of the era.

It’s Henry’s report, “Fraud And Related Security Problems In The Age Of Electronic Accounting”, which is the catalyst for all of his problems.  He’s been liaising with Detective Inspector Richardson (Jim Broadbent) who shares his concerns about computer fraud and Richardson has been passing him information to use in the report.  One piece of information concerns a recent attempted bank fraud centered on Turin and London.

Louis Vacheron (Nicholas Chagrin) was caught at the London end, but he tells Richardson that he’s confident he’ll be released in a matter of months as their organisation has connections at the highest levels.  He mentions le Pouvoir (the Power) but when Vacheron is killed, it’s clear that the Power has silenced a weak link.  And Richardson believes that the Power will also remove any other links (which is a problem for Henry, since there’s a reference to this fraud in his report).

Of course, nobody, especially Henry’s wife Anne (Carole Nimmons), believes him at first.  Their marriage is best described as frosty and she spells this out quite succinctly.

I do a routine and boring job as well, only I don’t have to manufacture drama and excitement out of it. Some are born civil servants. Others achieve being civil servants. Others have being civil servants thrust upon them. You were born. Now after seven years of marriage, I accept that and the fact that you will never change or be anything else, so if you’re trying to make your job sound desperately important and exciting for my sake, don’t bother. When I said yes to you, I settled for cocoa, not champagne. Now I’m prepared to live with that. Sourly at times, mostly with mute acceptance.

Shortly afterwards, Henry is accused of soliciting an underage boy, although it’s clearly a set-up (which is confirmed by the two police officers as they leave Henry’s house).  Henry sees this as a warning – leave well alone or the next time they’ll make the charges stick.  Unfortunately for the shadowy conspiracy, they then send another policeman along to tell Henry that a woman at his office has made a complaint that he’s been following her.  But as Henry says –

So, how was I fitting in my importuning of young boys in public toilets whilst pursuing Miss Callaghan? I mean, how common is this condition I’m suffering from, that renders me such a menace to young people of either sex indiscriminately?

The first episode ends with the murder of Richardson at Henry’s office (Bird of Prey and its sequel does have a pretty high body count – so it’s best to get used to the idea that many characters won’t last the series out).  Quite why he was murdered isn’t clear at present – although the fact that they can strike at Henry’s office means that he’s not safe anywhere.

So Henry is literally on the run, armed with only a few files from the office as he tries to stay one step ahead of the people who want his head.

Next Episode – Mode Murder