Betjeman – The Collection. Simply Media DVD Review

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Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) described himself with characteristic understatement in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”.  There was rather more to him than that though – he was a writer, broadcaster and from 1972 until his death also served as the Poet Laureate.

Betjeman’s love of architecture (especially from the Victorian era) and landscape is explored in detail across the three series which make up this boxset – A Passion for Churches, Bird’s Eye View and Four with Betjeman: Victorian Architects and Architecture.

Four With Betjeman finds him indulging one of his most strongly held passions – that of the Victorian architects and the buildings they left behind.  “I have known for years and so have most of you that there were great Victorian architects, but they have never been given their due. Today, thank goodness, we can see Victorian architecture in perspective”.

This excerpt from a contemporary Daily Telegraph review articulates just why this short series was so entertaining and absorbing.  “There is a precision about his informed enthusiasm which enables one to see the most familiar buildings, such as the Houses of Parliament, in a new light … Sir John, who succeeds in making his conducted tours seem addressed to a personal friend, can move without pause from an appreciation of shape and proportion to an anecdote about an Irish peer rolling the full length of a Barry staircase”.

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Four With Betjeman contains four half-hour programmes – (Charles Barry & Augustus PuginWilliam Butterfield & Gilbert ScottAlfred Waterhouse & Norman ShawSir Ninian ComperWilliam Robinson & Sir Edwin Lutyens).

In Bird’s Eye View we, unsurprisingly, observe Britain from a different angle as we take to the air for an unusual take on the familiar.  The first programme, An Englishman’s Home, sees Betjeman waxing lyrical (with the occasional sharp barb) as the camera swoops over a diverse selection of dwellings.  From stately castle, Georgian terrace, suburban semi to looming concrete tower blocks, Betjeman has words for all.  His comments on tower blocks (“but where can be the heart that sends a family to the twentieth floor in such a slab as this?”) carries a particular resonance today, following the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

From the same series, Beside the Seaside is a treat as we tour past some of England’s most popular seaside destinations.  The somewhat faded colour print helps to give the visuals a faint air of melancholy.

A swooping seagull takes its flight
From Weymouth to the Isle of Wight
From Cornish cliff tops wild and bare
To crowds at Weston-super-Mare
The seaside seen as history
Bournemouth, Butlin’s and Torquay
Whatever paddles, surfs or sails
Braves the waves or rides the gales
A scrapbook made at Christmastime
Of summer joys in film and rhyme

The title music for Bird’s Eye View is a typically jazzy piece from John Dankworth (the incidentals are more classically inclined, all the better to compliment Betjeman’s words).

Also included on the same disc is One Man’s Country – Cornwall (1964).  This isn’t part of the Bird’s Eye View series, but since it has a similar style it fits well with the two later programmes.  The stark black and footage of Cornwall is very striking and helps to make it especially memorable.

Although he’s not on camera, these three programmes (a perfect marriage of visuals and Bejeman’s poetic prose) are probably my favourite from the set.  Both of the Bird’s Eye View programmes run for fifty minutes whilst Cornwall is shorter, at twenty five.

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A Passion for Churches (1974) sees Betjeman explore his long-held fascination with church architecture.  “What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, without church towers to recognise you by?”  His love of churches began exactly sixty years prior to this, as the eight-year old Betjeman went rowing on the River Bure in Norfolk with his father.  Delightfully, this film opens with Betjeman re-enacting this. He then moves on to take a whistle-stop tour around the area.

From Medieval stained glass and brass rubbings, to weddings and the Edwardian parish church on the Queen’s estate of Sandringham, A Passion for Churches is another leisurely treat.  As with all the programmes, the visuals are anchored by Betjeman’s measured, poetic narration.

Also included on the same disc are ABC of Churches (two episodes of approx. 23 minutes, 1961), Journey to Bethlehem (30 minutes, 1966) and a ten-minute fragment from a later edition of the ABC of Churches series (since the two complete editions only go from A – F, presumably the others were wiped).  All of these, unlike A Passion for Churches, are in black and white.

I’m sure that Doctor Who fans will appreciate the tour of Aldbourne’s church (memorably later depicted in 1971’s The Daemons) in the first edition of ABC of Churches whilst Journey to Bethlehem still captures the attention some fifty years on.

Given the age of the source materials, the picture quality is naturally a little variable.  The colour film prints are rather faded in places, although the black and white prints aren’t in too bad a condition at all.  But everything’s perfectly watchable with no major picture glitches to report.

A wonderful collection of programmes, Betjeman – The Collection should appeal to anybody interested in archive documentaries. Recommended.

Betjeman – The Collection is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of October 2017.  It can be ordered direct from Simply here.

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Here’s Harry – Simply Media DVD Review

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Although largely forgotten today, Harry Worth was a major television star of the sixties and seventies.  His rise to the top was neither straightforward or quick though – born Harry Bourlan Illingsworth in 1917, he left school at 14 and went straight to work down the local mine (he stuck it out for eight years, despite hating every minute of it).

As with so many entertainers of his generation, World War II was to prove defining.  Even when he’d been a miner, Worth had continued to hone his showbiz skills (practising his ventriloquism act whilst hewing coal for example).  Prior to WW2 he’d begun to ply his trade by working as a ventriloquist in the numerous working men’s clubs dotted around Yorkshire, but appearing in RAF shows gave the young Worth further valuable experience.

Following his demob, and still attempting to make it big with his wooden friends (at this point he was dubbed ‘The Versatile Vent’), Worth began his slow ascent to the top.  Like many of his contemporaries he played the notorious Windmill Theatre (“we never clothed”) as well as just about every variety theatre in the country.  During the forties and fifties the variety circuit was still thriving (although the rise of television would eventually kill it off) and Worth was able to make a living, just.

Frequently bottom of the bill, Worth’s career seemed to be heading nowhere, although a tour with Laurel and Hardy in 1952 would prove to be crucial.  After watching him from the wings, Oliver Hardy persuaded Worth that he should abandon his vent act and concentrate on becoming a comedian instead.  This was valuable advice and within a few years Worth would make his television debut, which in time would lead to his own series.

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John Ammonds, forever associated with the classic BBC Morecambe & Wise shows, would produce Worth’s debut series The Trouble With Harry (1960) and the bulk of the follow-up, Here’s Harry (1960 – 1965).  His next series, simply titled Harry Worth, would enjoy four successful runs between 1966 and 1970, at which point he decided to jump ship and join Thames (Morecambe & Wise and Mike Yarwood would later do exactly the same thing).

Like many other series of this era, Here’s Harry has a rather patchy survival rate.  Out of sixty episodes made, only eleven now exist (although it’s pleasing to note The Musician, recently recovered by Kaleidoscope, is included in this release).  Here’s what’s contained on the two DVDs –

Series Two

The Bicycle – 4th May 1961.  Featuring Wensley Pithy, Sam Kyd, Ivor Salter and Anthony Sharp.

The Holiday – 11th May 1961.  Featuring Ballard Berkeley, Ronnie Stevens, Meg Johnson and Reginald Marsh.

The Request – 18th May 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar and John Snagge.

The Medals – 1st June 1961.  Featuring Anthony Sharp and Totti Truman Taylor.

The Voice – 8th June 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, George Tovey, Sydney Tafler, Joe Gladwin and Meg Johnson.

Series Three

The Dance – 14th November 1961.  Featuring Ronnie Stevens, Reginald Marsh, Colin Douglas, Vi Stevens and Harold Goodwin.

The Plant – 21st November 1961.  Featuring Vi Stevens and Patrick Newell.

The Birthday – 5th December 1961.  Featuring Jack Woolgar, Vi Stevens and Ivor Salter.

The Overdraft – 12th December 1961.  Featuring Gwendolyn Watts, Joe Gladwyn and Jack Woolgar.

The Last Train – 26th December 1961.  Featuring Harold Goodwin, Tony Melody, Jack Woolgar and Reginald Marsh.

Series Five

The Musician – 22nd November 1963.  Featuring Geoffrey Hibbert, Jack Woolgar and Max Jaffa.

What’s interesting about the surviving episodes is that – apart from the recently recovered The Musician – everything we have either comes from the second or third series.  Series two is virtually complete (only one episode missing) whilst the survival rate for the third series is also pretty good (five out of eight).

The various opening titles help to set the tone for the show. The iconic shop window sequence doesn’t debut until later (it’s only featured in this set on The Musician) so in series two and three we observe Harry strolling down the street, politely raising his hat to unseen passers by and almost colliding with a lampost. That he raises his hat to the lampost is a characteristic touch.

Worth, who lives in the fictional town of Woodbridge (at 52 Acacia Avenue with his cat, Tiddles, and his never seen aunt, Mrs Amelia Prendergast) is a familiar comic creation.  Buffeted by events, he rarely seems to be in control of his own destiny – instead he’s at the mercy of officialdom which is sometimes friendly and sometimes not.  But this never concerns Harry as he treats everybody with kindness and always remains totally oblivious to the fact that his presence serves as the catalyst for terrible disasters.

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Other similar character types – Tony Hancock, Frank Spencer, Victor Meldrew – can easily be brought to mind but Worth’s style is quite different as there’s a warmth about his befuddled comic persona that’s very appealing.

Vince Powell and Harry Driver were the most prolific writers across the seven series, which should allow you to gauge the general level of scripting (both were competent scribes, although hardly in the same league as Galton & Simpson or Clement & Le Frenais).  Not that this really matters as the scripts are simply the starting point – Here’s Harry stands or falls on Worth’s ability to make his shtick work (and when he’s placed in opposition to a decent performer then things chug along very merrily).

The Bicycle serves as a perfect example of the way the show operates. Harry is more than upset when a total stranger regularly decides to leave his bicycle outside his house and decides to seek legal advice, although the solicitor (played by Anthony Sharp) is naturally nonplussed about exactly how he can help. Over the course of about ten minutes Harry’s amiable idiocy is enough to reduce Sharp’s solicitor to a gibbering wreck. But when Harry learns that the bike belongs to Ivor Salter’s police constable, Harry (who’s hidden the bike in his shed) becomes frantic with worry ….

Later tangles with Sam Kyd’s postman and Wensley Pithy’s chief constable are further examples of the way Harry so often leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. The “sit” part of this comedy is remarkably slight (a missing bicycle) but it’s plain that each situation is simply the excuse for Worth to move from one authority figure to the next, each time causing mayhem.

Harry’s child-like nature and undeveloped view of the world is further evidenced in The Holiday (he believes that it’s perfectly possible to catch a bus straight from London to Monte Carlo). A long-suffering travel agent is the latest person to suffer from Harry’s presence, although he gets off relatively lightly (Ronnie Stevens’ remarkably camp photographer – tasked with the job of taking Harry’s passport photos – doesn’t fare so well). Ballard Berkeley and Reginald Marsh – both wonderful performers – are also lined up to take their dose of punishment from Mr Worth.

There’s a touch of gentle satire at play in The Request as Harry turns up at the BBC, keen to ensure that a request for his Auntie gets played on Housewives Choice. Due to a barely credible misunderstanding he gets mistaken for a singer (Worth does croon a little bit of Are You Lonesome Tonight quite well though) and then decides to roam the corridors of the BBC, causing chaos wherever he goes (such as interrupting the iconic newsreader John Snagge mid broadcast). His face may not be familiar, but Snagge’s voice is unmistakable and it’s lovely to see him end up as Harry’s latest victim.

The remaining surviving episodes of series one – The Medals and The Choice – maintain the high standard, with Anthony Sharp, this time as a Brigadier, returning in The Medals to once again cross swords with Harry.

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Amongst the surviving shows from series three, both The Overdraft and The Last Train are highlights.  A visit by Harry to the bank in The Overdraft has plenty of obvious comic potential.  He informs the long-suffering assistant that he wishes to deposit three pounds ten shillings (to enable him to draw out precisely the same amount!) This is so he can extract his money in a bewildering and precise series of coins, all the better for then depositing them in a plethora of tins (for the gas bill, newspapers, etc, etc).

The Last Train finds a festive Harry patiently waiting for his train home.  It seems a bit odd for trains to be running on Christmas Day but it helps to explain why some of the staff are rather downcast.  Harry’s not of course, he’s a regular ray of Christmas sunshine – although his well-meaning efforts to entertain and help don’t always have the results he’d hoped for.  Not that this concerns Harry who – as always – breezes through each and every situation, totally oblivious to the havoc he’s causing.

The final existing show – the recently returned The Musician – features a guest appearance from Max Jaffa.  Like John Snagge, Jaffa’s a good sport (the typically dense Harry knows that Jaffa is someone famous, he just can’t remember who).  The moment when Jaffa tells him who he is and Harry removes his hat in respect is a delight as is the way that Harry initially mistakes him for the music hall comedian Jimmy Wheeler (for good measure Harry throws in Wheeler’s famous catchphrase – “Aye, aye, that’s your lot!” – to increasingly befuddle his famous companion).

Whilst it’s undeniably formulaic, the surviving episodes of Here’s Harry are also undeniably entertaining. The combustible combination of the well-meaning but inadvertent loose cannon that is Harry and the range of authority figures he finds himself encountering (some pleasant, some not) is the reason why the show works as well as it does. The situations may often be slight, but the way that Harry and his co-stars interact is always a joy.  Something of a neglected comic treat it’s a pleasure to see it available on DVD and comes warmly recommended.

Here’s Harry is released by Simply Media on the 11th of September.  The RRP is £19.99 and it can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.

As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.

So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….

Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow).  A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.

Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired.   Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest.  Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD.  Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.

Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential.  Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood.  Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens.  Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).

The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.

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John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.

Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.

Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.

If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.

Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.

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Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.

The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of statis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).

Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.

The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!

Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle

Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t.  Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.

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Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).

Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught?  Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).

Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.

This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.

The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).

Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention.  Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today.  Warmly recommended.

Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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The Adventure Game – Simply Media DVD Review

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Created by Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver, The Adventure Game pitched celebrities and members of the public into the strange, science-fiction world of Arg, where they were forced to solve fiendish puzzles in order to win their freedom back to Earth ….

By 1980, both Dowling and Oliver were old BBC hands (Dowling had joined the Corporation in 1955, Oliver in 1962).  Oliver had cut his teeth on Late Night Line Up before working as a director on both Blue Peter and Multi Coloured Swap Shop.  Dowling, a veteran of Vision On, had been impressed by Douglas Adams’ radio serial The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and decided to create a sci-fi based game show for children with the same humorous streak.

Intriguingly, he approached Adams to see if he would be able to contribute to the series but Adams (at the time working on the television version of Hitch-Hikers) had to decline.  So Dowling worked out the format of the show himself, with Oliver also contributing ideas as well as directing the studio sessions.

Although the actors – in the first series these included Ian Messiter as the Rangdo of Arg and newsreader Moira Stuart as Darong – would have received scripts and therefore had a rough idea about what could happen, the contestants were totally in the dark and had the freedom to do as they wished.  This tended to make for long studio days and lengthy editing sessions in order to bring the episodes down the required duration.

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Messiter and Stuart didn’t return for S2, but Lesley Judd was a new addition to the regulars.  Judd had appeared as a contestant at the end of the first series, but her failure to solve the puzzles meant that she’d been turned into the Mole (whose mission was now to confuse and sabotage the efforts of the others).

Christopher Leaver, as Gandor, appeared every episode (the only person to do so) whilst the very appealing Charmian Gradwell, playing Gnoard, featured in the first three series.  Star Wars legend Kenny Baker popped up a number of times, although as so often throughout his career he was hidden from sight (he played an aspidistra).  The astute will have probably have twigged by now that all the names of the Arg regulars were anagrams of Dragon ….

One of the most entertaining things about the series is observing how well (or badly) the contestants do. Some do flounder about more than others, although if things get really desperate then the Argonds might pop up and attempt to push them in the right direction with a friendly hint.

Given the vague educational nature of the series, it wasn’t surprising that a number of science/technology figures (James Burke, Ian McNaught-Davis, Heinz Wolff and Johnny Ball amongst others) appeared whilst the likes of Janet Fielding and Paul Darrow would no doubt have felt right at home amongst the low-budget sci-fi high jinks of Arg.

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Twenty two episodes, as well as an unscreened pilot, were made between 1980 and 1986.  Sadly, four of the transmitted episodes no longer exist as broadcast quality masters (two from the first series and two from the second). Off-air recordings of two of these (21/6/80 and 09/11/81) are included on this DVD release, with disclaimers about the picture quality. Whilst they don’t look perfect it’s certainly better to have them in this condition than not at all, so kudos to Simply for making the effort. Another off-air recording (31/5/80) apparently exists in private hands but presumably it wasn’t possible to acquire it for this release. The pilot also isn’t included, maybe this was down to clearance issues.

The format remained the same throughout all four series (although Arg would receive several between-series makeovers).  Each week three space-travellers (many of whom looked suspiciously like well-known Earth celebrities) turned up on the planet Arg.  The dragon-like Argonds may appear to be fierce (although considerably less so when they’ve morphed into human form) but by nature they’re a friendly – if mischievous – race.  Having stolen the crystal time-lock from the humans’ spaceship, the Argonds will only return it if the travellers can solve the puzzles they’ve been set.

For those of a certain age, Rongad’s (Bill Homewood) catchphrase of “doogy rev” might bring back some memories.  The only way Rongad (although really he should have been called Nogard) could communicate was by talking backwards.  The most memorable part of the show, although it didn’t debut until the second series, was the Vortex.  Brought to life thanks to the wonders of CSO, this was the final task our brave space-travellers had to face.  Failure here would mean a very long walk home ….

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Below is an episode guide listing the episodes included on this release –

Disc One – Series One

24/05/80 – Elizabeth Estensen, Fred Harris & Mark Dugdale
14/06/80 – Denise Coffey, Toby Freeman & Gary Hunt
07/06/80 – James Burke, Maggie Philbin & Pat Cater
21/06/80 – Paul Darrow, Lesley Judd & Robert Malos

Disc Two – Series Two

02/11/81 – Carol Chell, Graeme Garden & Nicholas Hammond
09/11/81 – Madeline Smith, David Yip & Derek Gale
16/11/81 – Sue Cook, David Singmaster & Phillip Shepherd
30/11/81 – John Craven, Kirsty Miller & Bill Green

Disc Three – Series Three

02/02/84 – Sarah Greene, Richard Stilgoe & Anne Miller
09/02/84 – Sue Nicholls, Duncan Goodhew & Emma Disley
16/02/84 – Sandra Dickinson, Chris Serle & Adam Tandy

Disc Four – Series Three

23/02/84 – Bonnie Langford, Paul McDowell & Christopher Hughes
01/03/84 – Neil Adams, Janet Fielding & Nigel Crocket
08/03/84 – Fern Britton, Noel Edmonds & Ray Virr

Disc Five – Series Four

07/01/86 – Sheelah Gilbey, Ian McNaught-Davis & Roy Kane
14/01/86 – Johnny Ball, Barbara Lott & Liz Hobbs
21/01/86 – Fiona Kennedy, Ian McCaskill & David Sanderman

Disc Six – Series Four

04/02/86 – George Layton, Joanna Monro & Val Prince
11/02/86 – Ruth Madoc, Heinz Wolff & Deborah Leigh Hall
18/02/86 – Keith Chegwin, Heather Couper & Adam Gilby

The tasks faced by the contestants varied – from computer-based conundrums to more logical and science-based challenges. During the first series, several teams – including James Burke, Maggie Philbin and Pat Cater – tangled with a computer which was running a text adventure. Those of a certain age will remember how frustrating these could be – frequently after typing what seemed like a brilliant suggestion, the computer would respond with the bald statement “nothing happens”.

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It’s interesting that it didn’t feature in every S1 edition. I wonder if that was because they wanted to vary the games or maybe it was more to do with the fact that certain teams weren’t very good at it? The variable running times for the four S1 episodes included (26:38, 29:55, 37:08 and 45:00) does seem to suggest that some contestants struggled with certain challenges more than others. This is pretty evident in the series one episode with Denise Coffey, which features several fades to black – indicating that some serious editing had gone on in order to remove sections where nothing much happened.

Very often our hapless contestants would be presented with a selection of random items which they would have to utilize and combine in a certain way in order to produce the desired effect.  Sometimes the solution to the puzzles does seem somewhat obscure, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that blank faces can often be seen.  Since the non-celebs sometimes tended to take charge here, I presume many were selected due to their technical or science backgrounds (which is probably just as well, otherwise a great many celebrities would probably still be languishing on the planet Arg to this very day).  What’s interesting is that they sometimes do reach a workable solution, just not one that the Argonds were expecting!

The Adventure Game is an enjoyable watch for several reasons. The regulars – especially the likes of Christopher Leaver, Charmian Gradwell and Bill Homewood – keep things bubbling along nicely whilst the variety of celebrities and the sometimes strange team-ups (Ruth Madoc and Heinz Wolff, together at last) is also noteworthy.

Amusing and charming (with the odd spot of learning thrown in) The Adventure Game still stands up today.  This is partly because it’s always entertaining to see boffins like James Burke out of their comfort zone, but also because it’s a nostalgic time-trip back to a period when computers were pretty basic (and also ran BASIC of course).  Just to observe the contestants operating a BBC B Microcomputer is sure to bring a rush of nostalgia for many.  And on that theme, a tip of the hat for the DVD menu design, which has a very 1980’s home-computer style font (although it’s a pity that the menus don’t list the celebs who appear in each episode).

My verdict?  What else can it be but doogy rev.  Warmly recommended.

The Adventure Game is available now from Simply Media.  RRP £29.99.

1950’s/1960’s BBC Charles Dickens Classics to be released by Simply Media – July 2017

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It’s very pleasing to see that a number of 1950’s/1960’s BBC Classic Serial adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels are due shortly from Simply Media.  Three have been confirmed for release on the 3rd of July 2007 – Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Dombey & Son.

Below is a little more detail about them.

Our Mutual Friend.  Adapted by Freda Lingstrom and broadcast in twelve episodes during 1958/59.  Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum, Richard Pearson, Rachel Roberts and Robert Leach head the cast, whilst many other familiar faces – Rachel Gurney, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Wilfred Brambell, Melvyn Hayes and Barbara Lott – also appear.

Great Expectations.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in ten episodes during 1967.  Gary Bond, Francesca Annis, Neil McCarthy, Richard O’Sullivan, Peter Vaughan and Bernard Hepton are the major players in this one whilst there’s also plenty of quality to be found lower down the cast-list (Ronald Lacey, Jon Laurimore and Kevin Stoney amongst others).

Dombey & Son.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in thirteen episodes during 1969.  A typically strong cast is headed by John Carson as Mr Dombey with Clive Swift, Pat Coombs, Ronald Pickering and Davyd Harries amongst the other familiar faces appearing.

And with three further releases to come in late August – Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962) and Bleak House (1959) – the next few months look to be good for those who enjoy classic BBC B&W drama.

Praying Mantis – Simply Media DVD Review

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Vera Canova (Carmen Du Sautoy) has hatched a cold-blooded plan to dispose of her husband, Professor Paul Canova (Pinkas Braun).  The Professor’s assistant, Christian Magny (Jonathan Pryce), is an integral part of her plot, as is Christian’s new wife, Beatrice (Cheri Lunghi), who has just been engaged as the Professor’s secretary.

Vera intends that Professor Canova and Beatrice should be placed in a compromising position, which would give Christian (Vera’s besotted accomplice) an excuse to shoot them both. And since crime passionnels are viewed by the courts more leniently than cold blooded murder, there’s a good chance he would be aquitted. But when Beatrice (known as Bea) discovers their plans, events take an unexpected turn ….

Praying Mantis was based on the award-winning novel by French author Hubert Monteilhet, originally published in 1960. Philip Mackie’s 1983 adaptation managed to keep the feel of the original, although this wasn’t straightforward since Monteilhet’s novel was constructed in the epistolary form (with the story unfolding through a series of letters, newspaper reports and diary entries).

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Cheri Lunghi & Pinkaus Braun

It’s always surprised me that Mackie (1918 – 1985) isn’t better known or appreciated, considering the body of work he assembled between the mid fifties and the mid eighties (Praying Mantis was his final screenplay).  He was skilled as an adapter of other people’s work – apart from Praying Mantis he also worked on Raffles, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and adapted The Naked Civil Servant from Quentin Crisp’s memoirs – but he also authored some notable television series.  The Caesars (1969), The Organization (1972), An Englishman’s Castle (1978) and The Cleopatras (1983) have to rate amongst his career highlights.  Three of these four are currently available on DVD, so hopefully someone will take up the challenge and release The Cleopatras in the near future.

Praying Mantis opens with a voice-over which sets the scene.  “The praying mantis is a creature who devours her mate during the act of love.”

The first episode is a slow-burn which sets up the principal characters and their intertwined relationships.  Vera is seen to be cold and manipulative and once we discover the Professor is a wealthy man it seems fairly obvious that she wishes to remove him.  But the revelation that Christian is her partner in crime comes out of the blue –  previously it was stated that he had little interest in women, although the fact we later hear his vigorous love-making to Vera (via a tape-recording secretly made by Bea) suggests otherwise.

Bea herself also seems to be somewhat manipulative – before Christian’s marriage proposal she’s quite content to conduct an affair with the Professor under Vera’s nose (although this is something which would have fitted in nicely with Vera’s plans).  And after she discovers that her new husband plans to murder her, there’s no hysterics – instead she begins to wage a war of nerves against him (replaying the taped conversations between Vera and Christian whilst pretending not to hear them).  And her plans don’t end there ….

As might be expected from the title, it’s the two female characters – Vera and Bea – who dominate the action, leaving Christian and Professor Canova as somewhat hapless pawns totally at their mercy.  But there’s several twists and turns along the way which serve to alter the balance of fortune.

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Jonathan Pyrce & Carmen Du Sautoy

It’s an interesting – and obviously intentional – touch that the title was changed from Monteilhet’s The Praying Mantises, to just the singular version for this adaptation.  This ensures that we’re left in some doubt as to who will turn out to be the deadliest (the uneasy detente between Bea and Vera during the concluding episode is absorbing).

Lunghi and Du Sautoy both sparkle with deadly intent throughout.  Bea starts off as the audience identification figure – we see the early action unfold from her viewpoint, which ensures that the audience is automatically placed on her side (although later events reveal a quite different side to her character). Du Sautoy instantly exudes more of an air of obvious menace whilst Pryce is characteristically good at capturing Christian’s sense of creeping, conflicted panic. Braun has the least developed role out of the four, but he’s still skilled at generating gravitas and weight as Professor Canova.

Although Praying Mantis retains the French locations of the original novel, given the British nature of most of the cast this either seems to suggest there’s a great many ex-pats in the area or they’re simply playing French, but without the accents.  If it’s the latter then it was probably a wise move, since adopting foreign accents can be a little distracting.

If the French locations populated with British actors is a little quirky, then so is Carl Davis’ score.  Davis’ credits are many and impressive, but I’m afraid that Praying Mantis can’t really be classed as one of his best.  The piano is the dominant instrument, with a slightly discordant melody recurring regularly throughout the two episodes – frequently popping up between scenes or when there’s no dialogue.  This does become slightly tiresome, even more so since Simply have opted to use it on the DVD menu screen.  This is one time when hitting play as quickly as possible is most desirable!

Praying Mantis boasts strong, multi-layered performances from all four main cast-members with a host of familiar faces (Sarah Berger, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Derek Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Joby Blanshard, Clive Swift and Peter Blake) making welcome appearances in supporting roles.  Apparently shot on 35mm (a rarity for this era of television – most film productions tended to be made on 16mm) it looks in reasonable shape, considering that the materials are nearly thirty five years old.

Featuring a clever, twisting plot which moves in several unexpected directions, Praying Mantis never flags during the course of its 152 minutes (divided into two episodes of 76 minutes each).  Apart from the slightly intrusive music there’s little else to fault here, with Cheri Lunghi especially impressive.

Praying Mantis is released by Simply Media on the 17th of April 2017.  RRP £19.99.

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Cheri Lunghi