Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Four

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Once again, the Squire is forced to count the human cost of his quest for gold, since all three of his servants now lie dead. “Old Redruth. Joyce. And now Hunter. Loyal souls, all of them, who served and trusted me. I have much to account for, Livesey.”

The Doctor offers a brief word of comfort, but maybe Livesey’s gesture here is just an automatic one. It’s certainly debatable that Trelawney’s escapade can be judged to be an honourable one – as his intention was to keep the plundered gold for himself (after, presumably, sharing out a small portion to the others) he can hardly claim the moral high ground over Silver and his men.

Jim decides to take Ben Gunn’s boat and return to the Hispaniola. It’s a brave, if foolhardy venture, since it brings him into contact with the murderous Israel Hands. Patrick Troughton once again is on good form as Israel, reacting calmly to Jim’s statement that he’s returned to take possession of the ship.

Exactly why Jim decided that the pirates onboard would be happy to receive him is a slight mystery. True, Israel seems harmless enough to begin with (he’s incapacitated after a fight to the death with another pirate) but Jim wasn’to know this. You’d have assumed that after the horror of the stockade battle, with death all around him, Jim would have been a little more cautious. But if Trelawney has begun to learn the true cost of adventure, maybe Jim hasn’t.

All that we’ve seen of Israel has primed the audience to expect that he’ll turn on Jim when the moment is right, and so it proves. Israel’s pursuit of Jim is a nicely shot sequence from Michael E. Briant, especially as the pair climb the rigging to face their final reckoning.

The ever resourceful Jim returns to the island, only to find that Silver and the others have taken possession of the stockade. Alfred Burke is at his most affable, as Silver appears delighted to see the boy and offers him a chance to join them. Jim refuses and furthermore tells them all that they’ll never see the Hispaniola again.

This is something of a turning point – Jim’s life should now be forfeit, but Silver won’t kill the lad, which displeases the others intensely. Silver has been tipped the black spot, but even with his back to the wall he’s still able to run rings around the rest of his crew.

Silver, with his keen sense of self preservation, is looking to change sides and Jim is an important part of this. Ashley Knight is never better than In the scene where Livesey attempts to forcibly remove Jim from the stockade. Jim refuses, biting the Doctor’s hand at one point, because he gave Silver his word he wouldn’t attempt to escape. This action bounds Silver and Jim even tighter together.

The sting in the tail – the treasure is gone from its resting place – is the prelude for the final (albiet brief) bloody battle. Ben Gunn, of course, found the treasure nine months ago and brought it back to his cave. The reveal is done in a highly theatrical manner – a seemingly never-ending stream of coins gush out onto the cave floor as the faces of Silver, Livesey, Ben, Trelawney and Jim are overlaid. It was surely intentional that Livesey’s face was impassive whilst both Trelawney and Jim showed great pleasure.

As I said earlier, it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s something of a mystery why this excellent version of Treasure Island hasn’t appeared on DVD before, but it’s something that any devotee of this era of British television should have in their collection.

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Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Three

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Most of the crew have decided to throw their hand in with Silver.  Most, but not all.  One whose loyalty remains undecided is Tom (Derrick Slater).  He knows and respects Silver of old, but will he elect to join the others in mutiny?

The question of Tom’s allegiance brings the character of Silver into sharp focus.  Silver is fond of Tom and seeks to win him over – to this end, along with some of the others they make for the island (leaving Smollett, Livesey and the others aboard the Hispaniola, guarded by a small number of pirates).  Silver believes that away from the ship he’ll be able to talk Tom round.

Given all the quality character actors seen throughout the serial, it’s slightly surprising that the relatively undistinguished Slater was given this role.  True, Tom’s screentime is very limited, but since the confrontation between Silver and Tom allows us – and Jim – a chance to witness Silver’s ruthless side, it’s therefore a pity that Slater’s performance is on the lifeless side.

Tom tells Silver that “you’re old and honest too, or has the name for it. And you’ve money, which many a poor sailor hasn’t. Brave too, or I’m mistook. You tell me why you let yourself be led away by that kind of mess of swabs.”  During this monologue Silver has lain a friendly arm on him, but pulls away once he realises that Tom won’t be won over.  With a horrified Jim watching from his hiding place close by, Silver stabs Tom to death.  Given that the battle seen later in the episode is fairly bloody, it’s interesting that Tom’s murder occurs off camera.  We see Silver stabbing something, but we never see what it is.

Captain Smollett and the others make their way ashore.  Smollett really begins to take charge (Richard Beale is first class during these scenes) and they elect to use Flint’s old stockade as their base.  But even before they’ve secured it there’s a brief battle and Squire Trelawney’s loyal servant, Tom Redruth (Royston Tickner), lies dying.

Tom’s barely had a handful of lines, but he does get a good death scene.  Up until now it seems as if the Squire hasn’t really grasped the reality of the situation – it’s been little more than a game to him (finding a ship, employing a tailor to make him the grandest uniform, etc).  It takes the death of a loyal family retainer, someone uprooted from his settled life in Britain and fated to die a lonely death on a distant island far away from his family, to bring him back to reality.  He asks Tom to forgive him (and is insistent that he does so).  Tom, loyal to the last, insists there’s nothing to forgive and, as Trelawney recites the Lord’s Prayer, Tom gently slips away.  Beautifully played by both Tickner and Thorley Walters.

We meet Ben Gunn (Paul Copley).  He’s Irish and speaks in a remarkably high pitched voice, which is a little odd.  But then Ben Gunn’s supposed to be odd (what with his cheese fixation) and after a while his voice lowers a little, so a little bit of normality is restored.  His cave – a studio set – looks very good (another design triumph for Graham Oakley).

John Dearth was one of those utility actors who was always worth watching, even in the smallest of roles.  He was a regular during the first series of the ITC Richard Greene Robin Hood’s, playing a different role each week (and sometimes two in the same episode!)  Various personal problems meant that he later sometimes found work hard to come by, but he was lucky to have several loyal supporters – one of whom was Barry Letts.  Both Briant and Letts had directed him in Doctor Who, so like many of the cast it’s not unexpected that he turns up here.  Dearth’s character (Jeb) mainly seems to exist in order to stress how dangerous Silver is – Jeb states that the only man the vicious Captain Flint ever feared was Long John Silver.

I’ve already touched upon how good Richard Beale has been and he’s never better than in the scene where Smollett and Silver face off.  Both have their own set of demands and neither is prepared to give the other any quarter.  Alfred Burke switches from smiling affability to snarling disdain in a heartbeat.  This then leads into the sequence where the pirates attempt to storm the stockade.  It’s slightly jarring that the outside is on film whilst the stockade interior is on videotape – the rapid switching between the two is a slight problem.

But no matter, Michael E. Briant still manages to choreograph a decent action sequence with a liberal dose of blood (nothing explicit, but it still manages to create the impression that a short – and brutal – battle has taken place).  The pirates are beaten back, which infuriates Silver – so he elects to send for reinforcements from the ship ….

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Treasure Island (BBC, 1977) – Part Two

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Since Treasure Island is packed with character actors of distinction, it’s easy to overlook the young actor who played Jim Hawkins.  But Ashley Knight more than holds his own amongst such august company, possessing just the right amount of youthful spirit and innocence.

That he’s deceived by Silver shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since Long John also managed to fool Squire Trelawney (Thorley Walters).  But, to be fair, fooling the Squire probably wasn’t too tricky for Silver, as Trelawney (as per Stevenson’s novel) is portrayed as the sort of trusting, loose-mouthed individual you really wouldn’t want to entrust with the delicate matter of finding a ship and crew to sail to the Spanish Main in search of buried treasure.  Walters is a delight as the Squire, he may be pompous and vain but he’s also curiously lovable.

The way that Silver manipulates Trelawney into engaging him as the ship’s cook and then agrees that he can handpick the crew provides us with another opportunity to witness the apparently charming and helpful side of Silver (although he’s only serving his own interests of course).  His charm is seen again when the wily Long John takes Jim under his wing.  There’s no reason why Silver should seek to deceive Jim, which leads us to assume that his friendly stories have no ulterior motive.  But there’s a sting in the tail – at the same time he’s regaling Jim with yarns about the sea, Silver is planning to murder Trelawney, Livesey and Captain Smollett (Richard Beale) and anyone else who stands in his way.

Would he also do the same to Jim?  It’s not explicitly stated, but he does confide to Israel (the ever-watchable Patrick Troughton) that he doesn’t intend to leave any witnesses, so we can pretty much take it as read.  This dichotomy in Long John’s character is what makes him so fascinating – the other pirates make little or no attempt to hide their evil intent, but it’s the way that Silver can wear different masks at different times that makes him such an enduringly appealing creation.  And of course, in the hands of an actor as good as Alfred Burke it’s just a pleasure to watch.

Not all of the crew are content, like Silver, to wait for the right time to make their move, some want action now.  Prime amongst the malcontents is Merry (Roy Boyd) who paces the ship with a murderous look on his face, but you get the feeling that he’s never going to be any sort of match for Long John.

During this era of television, directors tended to have a “rep” of actors who they employed on a regular basis.  If you’re familiar with some of Michael E. Briant’s previous productions then names such as Roy Evans, Richard Beale, Royston Tickner and Alec Wallis will be familiar ones.  Alec Wallis has a nice little cameo as Patmore, a corrupt tailor who Silver deliberately sends along to Trelawney, just so he can denounce him before the Squire and therefore gain his trust.  Beale is suitably upright as the incorruptible Smollett, a man who sets to sea with the gravest misgivings about the crew (a pity nobody listened to him).

Before the ship sets sail there are several scenes which take place within the Squire’s cabin.  Thanks to a very simple CSO effect (bobbing waves outside the cabin window) the illusion at being on the water is created very effectively.  But there’s no substitute for the real thing and it’s the later filmwork aboard the Hispaniola, as it makes it way towards Treasure Island, which really opens up the production.

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Espionage – The Dragon Slayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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