Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Singer

It was with a dreadful sadness that I heard this morning of the passing of Andy Hallett, who starred as Lorne the singing demon on the US TV series Angel, at the appallingly young age of just thirty three. Andy died last night at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles after a tragic five-year battle with heart disease. I had the good fortune to meet Andy and interview him twice when I was writing my book on Angel, Hollywood Vampire in 2004 and 2005. I found him, on both occasions, to be one of the most pleasant, genuine and decent people I've ever met - in any walk of life. Andy was the epitome of the classy New England gentleman - charming, sharp, witty, the very life and soul of the party. He was, I think, wholly unaffected by finding himself thrust, somewhat unexpectedly, into the spotlight on a hit TV show in what was his first acting role. But, by the same token, he was someone who seemed genuinely thrilled by this and amazingly grateful to the show's fans for whom he always seemed to have a lot of time and who, in return, showered him with much love and affection during his public appearances. The feeling, one always felt, was entirely mutual.

Andy, from the Cape Cod village of Osterville, Massachusettes, appeared in more than seventy episodes of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off between 2000 and 2004, being a series regular for most of the final two seasons of the show. He developed, quickly, into an accomplished actor, particularly good at dry comedy sequences and pithy, acid-tongued one-liners. But he was also a superb singer and fans of the show will fondly recall his belting renditions of songs like Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition', Tony Bennett's 'I Left My Heart in San Fransisco' and, his "theme song", LaBelle's 'Lady Marmalade' in episodes of Angel. The character he played, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan (or just plain Lorne for short) was, of course, the owner and host of a demon karaoke bar, Caritas, which gave Andy plenty of opportunity to display his musical talent. One of the finest moments in Angel is in the last episode - Not Fade Away - where Lorne sings a truly heart-tugging version of 'If I Ruled the World' before going off on one, final (unwanted) mission for his friend, Angel. He based it, he said, on James Brown's rendition of the song and blew everyone on-set away with his one-take performance.

According to legend, Andy didn't even begin singing until he was well into his twenties when Patti LaBelle herself invited him onstage at a gig in the late-90s. It was, as he would subsequently note, 'a life-changing experience.' He was working as a runner for a publishing agency during the day and singing in a Universal City blues review at night when Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, Angel's co-creators, saw Andy's stage-show and were instantly captivated by his presence and the power of his voice. They became friendly with him and, allegedly, conceived of the character - an anagogic demon who reads people's souls when they sing karaoke - pretty much there and then. Charmingly, Andy was unsure whether he would last more than a couple of episodes and so carried on with his day job for a while, until ultimately convinced to quit by Whedon and others on show. 'Once the makeup is on, it's fine,' Andy told Horror Online concerning the green-face-and-horns look that his character became known for. 'The contacts lenses [can be] irritating. I've never even worn regular contacts and these are much thicker. But I can't emphasise enough how extremely professional everybody is on the set, in every single department.' Always a generous man towards his fellow actors, Andy was especially fulsome in his praise of his co-star Alexis Denisof: 'He's so focused and dedicated to his craft,' Andy noted. 'I turn to Alexis for guidance on just about everything from memorising my lines to turning them into a real conversation.' Andy certainly made a deep and lasting impression on many who met him, including guest star Adam Baldwin who fondly recalled 'The person who made me laugh most was Andy Hallett. He's so gregarious and outgoing.'

In a 2005 magazine interview, Andy revealed that shortly after filming the last episode of Angel the year before, he had suffered what had seemed at the time to be a relatively minor tooth infection but which quickly spread and eventually led to cardiomyopathy being diagnosed. His health never fully recovered. He did not return to acting thereafter (except for a voice-part in Geppetto's Secret), but instead pursued his musical career and frequently appeared at Angel and multi-media conventions where he was always a welcome and very popular guest. In particular, I recall at our second meeting he expressed his extreme fondness for London, a city that he loved and experienced to the full when attending the Nocturnal 3K convention at Heathrow in 2001 along with many of his Angel and Buffy co-stars. 'That place is a bomb!' he told me gleefully. 'I might end up living here one day.'

Tall, handsome (albeit - charmingly - somewhat embarrassed by the shape of his nose, something that he mentioned in both interviews with me!) Andy was the kind of guy that you'd really rather like to simply have a beer with and talk about music to. We spent probably twenty minutes of the first interview, at a coffeeshop in Marina Del Ray - which was supposed to last half-an-hour but eventually went on for the best part of two hours - talking about Motown and a shared love of Brenda Holloway's voice and the bass playing on What's Goin' On? I am as saddened by Andy's passing as much for the fact that the world just said goodbye to somebody who put some unequivocal joy into it as anything else.

We lost one of the good guys yesterday and we shall miss him terribly.

Join Our Club: More Songs About Chocolate and Girls

For some unfathomable reason I recently got into a lengthy (and only marginally completely bloody pointless) e-mail conversation with my friend, Deborah, on the subject of Club biscuits. Don't ask me why, please, it's genuinely not worth knowing! Now, I really like a nice Jacob's Club®™. Deb was wondering if they still existed having not seen them in the shops that she frequents for a while and I was happy to tell her that, indeed, they do. I get a seven-pack at my local Morrison's every now and then for the singular purpose of keeping them in business. Jacob's still make the - classic - orange filled ones (in an orange wrapper, of course, see above) the version that, I think, most people reading this will be familiar with. And also, I believe, they do a fruit and nut variant (in purple) and a sort-of minty variety (in a greenish wrapper). Never been keen on either of those, personally. Not liking either fruit or mint, it's reasonable that I wouldn't.

The ones that I used to hugely enjoy scoffing as a kid were the milk chocolate brand (in red) and, particularly, the dark chocolate version (also in green but with a comforting golf-ball on the wrapper) but Jacob's seemed to stop making those sometime around 1982. Tragedy. If anybody from Jacob's happens to be reading this and is in some sort of position of authority, why'd you stop making them? They were very nice and I liked them! For some reason I always associate them with family holidays at Butlin's in the 1970s - probably because I ate lots there. Jacob's also, for while I believe, made a "chunky milk chocolate" version (in blue) but I haven't seen one of those for ages either. I seem to recall there was also a wafer version at one point (can't remember what colour the wrapper for that one was). And, apparently, during a web-search I discovered that they had a brief flirtation with a lemon and lime variant in the 1980s (in light green, and pictured). Never experienced those, myself, but I am assured they did, indeed, exist.

I still have, in my record collection, Called to the Bar a 1980 compilation vinyl LP of some great 1960s and 70s tunes - on CBS Records whom Jacob's had obviously done a deal with; I think that was probably because at that time they were using The Beach Boys' 'Barbara Ann' on a Club TV advert (slogan: "If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our Club"). The idea was that you collected about twelve Club biscuit wrappers (any sort would do) and sent them in with, like, fifty pence or something to cover postage and you got the LP in return. Bargain. The TV advert that it tied in with featured a stereotypical Teddy Boy in the dock of a court singing 'Bar-bar-bah, bar-bar-bah-club' and all the jury doing the harmonies after the usher had shouted 'Prisoner at the bar...' A - reasonably flattering - bit of artwork of the actor involved is featured on the LP's cover holding a Club orange-backer whilst the - I'm presuming prosecuting - barrister has one of the previously mentioned dark chocolate variants in his grubby mitt.

On the back cover, the judge is looking faintly groovy in a Batman-style in his wig, clicking his fingers to the sensational soaraway summery sounds thereupon. But, he has no obvious Club biscuit to hand. More fool he, I say. Fine bunch of songs on the LP, as you'll note. Why don't biscuit companies do stuff like that these days to promote their nice biccies? I think that LP might well've been the first place I ever even HEARD The Honeycombs' epic 'Have I The Right?' It was certainly the first time that I'd owned songs like 'Waterloo Sunset', 'Albatross', 'An Everlasting Love' and 'Something in the Air' on a record. In fact, apart from the thoroughly crap Dr Hook dirge on side two I reckon I still have just about everything on that LP somewhere in my CD collection. Yes, even Tina Charles.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Damned If They Do And Damned If They Don't

"They love me for what I'm not. They hate me for what I am."

I got to see The Damned United today. It's not the world-changing experience that the novel is. (How could it be?) The grabbing you by the throat and squeezing experience that David Peace achieved in his extraordinary book. The thoroughly pleasing pissing-off-some-people-who-probably-deserve-to-be-pissed-off experience that the novel, so manifestly, managed to be. But, the movie adaptation is a worthy effort and, almost, as great an achievement as its source text. Almost, but not quite. The 'almost', of course, is due to the thing that sports films generally - and football films in particular - always suffer from, the actual match scenes themselves. In this film, just as in Yesterday's Hero (remember that one?), When Saturday Comes, Goal, or The Arsenal Stadium Mystery for that matter, the recreation of football matches looks horribly stagy and fake. The day somebody can make a football movie without, actually, including any football action in it then that'll be a film well worth seeing.

I must say, I've been rather disappointed by Michael Sheen and director Tom Hooper spending most of the run-up to the movie's release seemingly in a fruitless attempt to get the Clough family onside with regard to the film. Stuff it, lads, if they don't want to know, knickers to 'em, you know? I understand the family's reasons, of course, they've got cherished memories of the man and they don't like having those interfered with. I daresay if this was a film about my dad, I might feel the same way. But, it isn't so, frankly, I don't. And I certainly wouldn't be so downright crass as to dismiss a creative work out-of-hand before having actually seen it. Besides, as previously noted, I ADORED the book and the Clough family's incessant bitching about how much they didn't only hardens my love for it. It is what it is, a novel. Just as the movie is a movie. Nobody ever said either was a documentary and nor should they even have to be.

Similarly, the BBC's Pat Murphy seeming to go out of his way to nitpick "seventeen factual inaccuracies in two viewings" - go back for more the second time, did you Pat? - deserves to be slapped down, hard. (As, indeed, Martin O'Neill did a pretty good job of doing in an interview with Murphy for 5Live available on Listen Again. Check it out, it's a very thoughtful, balanced and, ultimately, fair assessment of the film's faults and its highlights. Just the kind of thing that one would except from a knowledgeable chap like Martin, frankly.) Most of those errors cited by Murphy are minor to the point of being utterly irrelevent, though some are necessary and understandable for the purposes of containing an already sprawling plot. And the handful that aren't either are, frankly, not worth bothering with. Colin Todd was a defender not a midfielder. There wasn't a miner's strike going on the week Cloughie resigned at Derby. Etc. Etc. So? To sum up, I never knew Brian Clough personally, although I saw him on the telly a lot when I was growing up and I thought he was bloody fantastic. I wished he managed my club instead of Gordon Lee/Richard Dinnis/Bill McGarry and all of the other nonentities and also-rans that Newcastle's board foisted us with. And, I suspect, up and down the country that was a feeling which was broadly shared by many other supporters of many different clubs. I thought he should have managed England and so, seemingly, did a vast number of other people in football ... except, tragically, for a handful of craven and wretched self-interest cowards in charge at the Football Association. But, isn't that always the way - prophets are seldom as highly regarded in their own backyard as elsewhere? I delighted in Brian's achievements at Forest and was sorry that he didn't retire a couple of years earlier than he did so that his final season didn't end in relegation. And I was sad when he died because, frankly, the world was a less fun place without him in it to cast his insightful, bitingly ironic eye on the delicious ironies of life. Did either the movie or the book The Damned United change any of that perception? No. If anything they both made me admire the man even more - for what he was, what he wasn't and what he could have been.

So, to the review: It's actually a rather odd movie in some ways as it's, essentially, a (theoretical and conceptual, I hasten to add) love story between Clough and Peter Taylor - played with a fine dose of earthy sagacity by the great Tim Spall. And, of course, the other central prop in the film is the great rivalry with - and, indeed, hatred for - Don Revie (a splendid turn by one of my favourite actors, Colm Meaney). The funny bits are genuinely funny (for example, a terrific running gag involving a succession of new singings at Derby being introduced, with a wave, to their chairman). The football scenes aside, there's much humour, warmth and energy in Michael Sheen's portrayal (and, at least one bit of genuinely impressive football skill. Then again, he was offered a trial for Arsenal as a teenager). Sheen's Brian Clough (rather like Sheen's Tony Blair or Sheen's David Frost) is a complex, passionate, ambitious, sometimes obsessive man but, you sense, essentially a good person - flawed by an occasional hubris but grounded by those around him and his love for them. Essentially, the character in the book, then. Whether the reason that Brian failed at Leeds United in those forty four days in the autumn of 1974 was because he didn't have Peter Taylor with him, or that he was fatally undermined by a combination of Revie's continued presence and the players determination to get him out (the film suggests it was a bit of both) has been the subject of much debate, several books and at least one court case. I offer no observations on this except to suggest that it is genuinely interesting to reflect, perhaps briefly, upon the relative affection with which Clough is generally held in football circles as compared to the real enmity that Leeds team inspired - and continues to inspire - pretty much everywhere in the football world bar West Yorkshire. Great team, don't get me wrong. But a hard team. A spiteful team. Should the Leeds players go and see the film? Well, Johnny Giles probably won't for a kick-off although, if I was him I would. The actor playing him is about a foot taller than he was. I'm not sure if you can sue a movie-maker over height issues. If I was Norman Hunter, I'd definitely want to see it because the cush foul the actor playing him commits on Sheen in a training session is the kind of thing old Bites Yer Legs would have loved.

Ultimately, then The Damned United is like most other films about sport - I'm thinking of the better ones, here; things like This Sporting Life, Raging Bull and Ali, mainly. It's stylish, it's affecting, it's well-made and beautifully acted. It's got a few things in it that some people with an agenda will probably try to quibble over but, ultimately I believe its heart is in, roughly, the right place and so is its brain. Unfortunately, as with every football film ever made (and probably that will ever be made), it's also got both feet tied together when it's supposed to be dribbling down the wing. An almost great film, then and definitely worth your money to go and see it, even if you don't particularly like football. If you do, then you need to see this - just ignore the ten minutes where they try to convince you that Chesterfield's ground is Wembley and stick on your video of Match of the Seventies over those bits. "Players lose you games, not tactics," Cloughie once said. "There's too much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes."

Interestingly, the same thing continues to be true in the field of movie and literary reviews, Brian.

Week Fourteen: Top Dogs, Underdogs And The Long And The Short And The Tall.

Another week is, thus, come upon us, dear blog reader.

Let we, therefore, open our hymn sheets in the good book Radio Times to page forty five and raise our voices to the God of the Cathode Ray. 'Is it nearly Easter yet? I'm getting flaming desperate for some new Doctor Who. (Even if the next one has got Lee Evans in it).'

All this waiting around for a new episode of an SF icon, it's fair doing my head in, so it is. Takes me back in time - TARDIS-like - to the early 1970s when the BBC, in their infinite wisdom, were showing the cult US Sci-Fi series The Invaders ("A Quinn/Martin Production"!) at some quite ungodly hour of Saturday night on BBC2 (and, opposite Match of the Day, at that). Despite this not being a school night if I wanted to watch it (which, being the precocious and snotty brat that I was, I very definitely did) I was still required to go to bed around eight o'clock and then get woken up by my mother at, like, 10:30 (or whenever it was on). I'd emerge - pyjama'd and bleary-eyed - into the living room, usually to my father's grumbling complaints about having to switch over from Crystal Palace vs Coventry. All, to watch David Vincent (sorry, 'Architect David Vincent' ... I always wondered why they were so very job-specific on that show until somebody pointed out, rightly, that 'Sheet Metal Worker David Vincent' didn't have quite the same authority to it) taking on yet more of the 'aliens-who-looked-like-humans-but-turned-into-smoke-when-you-killed-them.' I'm anguished to report that I rewatched a few episodes of the show again about two or three years ago and was totally shocked at how badly they've aged. That's one of the main problems about growing-up. Stuff you liked when you were seven now looks, frankly, shit.

And on that shocking indictment and realisation that the passing of time leaving empty lives, waiting to be filled (as Morrissey once said) let us procede to the Top Telly Tips for Week Fourteen.

Friday 3 April
Top Dogs: Adventures in War, Sea and Ice - 9:00 BBC2 - is genuinely splendid fun, largely because it's so outrageously civilised and, you know, British. In this three-part series a trio of Top Chaps of Absolute Distinction - ace Foreign Correspondent John Simpson, arctic adventurer and former SAS commando Ranulph Fiennes and sailing circumnavigator Robin Knox-Johnson - saunter through adversity in a variety of locations and challenges. After last week's excursions in Afghanistan, tonight they attempt to round Cape Horn in a small yacht. At one point, just before the real rough stuff starts in earnest, they have a snifter of whisky on deck. 'Anyone else want ice?' asks Knox-Johnson in his thoroughly appealing and raffish Ian-Fleming-meets-Alan-Clark-down-the-Club style, before he pulls a lump from the freezing sea and hacks bits off. What's great, too, is that no-one lays on the melodrama with a fork-lift truck. All three of these men (now well into their sixties, remember) are perfectly sanguine about the serious dangers they will face - all that worries the unflappable Fiennes, for instance, is the potential seasickness (quite rightly, as it turns out), while Simpson is concerned about how he'll use the netty in a force nine gale. This is Three Men in a Boat with added gravitas and dignity – beat that Rory, Dara and Griff.

Saturday 4 April
Speaking of the Great Spirit of Adventure inherent in the British (for which read 'sheer bloody daftness') in Timewatch: In Shackleton's Footsteps - 8:40 BBC2 - a small group of British men have some unfinished family business in Antarctica. One hundred years ago their ancestors, under the leadership of the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton, tried and failed to become the first men to reach the South Pole suffering incredible hardships before they were rescued. You probably saw the excellent biopic with Kenneth Branagh a few years ago. Stirring stuff. Anyway, following in their footsteps, the team set off on a 900-mile trek across frozen wastelands. Timewatch follows their remarkable journey. The furthest a spirit of adventure gets me is up off the sofa on a trek to the frozen fridge in search of a refreshing beverage I'm appalled to confess. This looks great, anyway.

The other thing of interest on Saturday night is BBC's Match of the Day. Apparently Shearer's not doing it this week. I wonder if he's got anything else on? Anybody know?

Sunday 5 April
It's a major - by which I mean Brigadier-General - drama night on Sunday with Five Minutes in Heaven at 9:00 on BBC2. Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt star in this powerful-looking drama which explores aspects of Northern Ireland's troubled past and the challenges which the future holds in coming to terms with the events of the seventies and eighties. Powerful stuff. Or, you may prefer a somewhat gentler drama with Lewis - 8:00 ITV. In this episode, Lewis and Hathaway are called in to investigate when religious fanatic Steven Mullan is found scalded and drowned in his bath. Actually, come to think about it, that doesn’t sound all that much less torrid and nasty than the worst that Ulster had to face. Mullan had been imprisoned for attempting to murder celebrity atheist Tom Rattenbury, and had only recently been released. Lewis is drawn into the fragile but glamorous world of the Rattenbury family, and finds himself unprepared for the dark and deadly secrets that the Rattenburys are fighting to keep hidden. Think I’ll go with Liam and Jimmy rather than Wor Kev and Mr Billie Piper, personally. Both look rather good, though.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States last year - you might have noticed - was propelled, according to those who know about such things, as much by his skill as an orator as by any other factor. From the silver-tongued to the tongue-tied, Yes We Can! The Lost Art Of Oratory - 7:50 BBC2 - takes a look at the history of the political speech. Alan Yentob traces the power of oration throughout history. What makes a good speech great? How much is content, how much is presentation, how much is having the right audience and preaching to the converted? Has Obama brought eloquence back to 21st-century politics for good or is it just that, after eight years of a President who could barely form of coherent sentence that qualified as "English", he's merely reminding us of what politicians always needed the ability to do, talk their way out of trouble?

Monday 6 April
I like the look of tonight's opening pick: Channel 4's top historian, the spiky-but-rather-cuddly-when-stroked Doctor David Starkey (if I'd had a choice between him and Simon Schama for A-Level I'd've probably gone with Simon) presents a four-part biography on the psyche of a pivotal figure in British history in Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant at 9:00. In the opening episode, Starkey studies the dramatic events of Henry's childhood, which helped to shape his gangsterish personality and his attitude towards the kingship that was thrust on him at the age of eighteen. One for all fans of The Tudors, this, I think.

In Coronation Street - 7:30 ITV - Tina plans a new future for an uncertain Joe. Norris makes a shocking decision. Can Peter persuade Michelle to go on a date? I have to say I've been a bit down on Corrie of late but the story last week about Fiz discovering Chesney was being bullied at school was really rather good. Thoughtful, balanced, a proper bit of socially-aware issue-based telly just like Corrie used to do all the time twenty or thirty years ago. More of this kind of thing, please.

I suppose we have to end tonight with Bradley and co. The plot for this episode of Law & Order: UK - 9:00 ITV, the last in the current series – sounds rather small potatoes for the team since it's been murderation and rapery all the way through the six episodes so far. When gynaecologist Alec Merrick is accused of sexually assaulting one of his patients during a routine examination, the team are called in to investigate. But how can they find enough evidence when it is just one person's word against another? Prosecutors James and Alesha find themselves up against unstoppable defence barrister Phyllis Gladstone. With a paper-thin case and a dangerous level of emotional involvement they have no choice but to battle it out in court - but who will the jury believe? If I was on there and was presented with evidence collected by Bradley and his mate Apollo-from-Battlestar-Galactica, I have no hesitation in stating that I'd be spending all of my time in the jury room talking about the manifest injustice of what happened to the Guildford Four. I'd be just like Tony Hancock in Twelve Angry Men – 'does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain…?'

Tuesday 7 April
The search is on to find Britain's best young speaker in this eight-part The Speaker - 8:00 BBC2. From across the UK, thousands of 14-to-18-year-olds applied, speaking out about what really matters to them: from knife crime to teenage love; global warming to vampires; pop music to mixed race families; what's going on in their street to what's going on in Coronation Street. The judges - Jo Brand, motivational speaker John Amaechi and performance expert Jeremy Stockwell - toured the UK in their mission to find the best whilst a series of mentors – including Katie Silverton and Alistair Campbell – were on hand to offer advice. At the end of the series, one person will be crowned The Speaker. The search begins with the first regional auditions from Glasgow and London. Hmmm… Okay, I'm quite prepared to give this one a go in the name of positive presentations of youth, and all that. But, let’s be honest, this is - conceptually - The X-Factor for articulate teenagers, isn’t it?

Willie's Chocolate Revolution - 8:00 C4 – is the first of a three-part special series following chocolate enthusiast the delightfully-named Willie Harcourt-Cooze as he attempts to introduce the nation to real chocolate, creating the world's finest, purest choccy bar particularly at a time when there are sour-faced, arid and joyless voices suggesting that chocolate should be heavily taxed to aid with the fight against obesity. Bastards. I'd dip 'em in hot fudge until they'd had enough, personally. Anyway, in this programme Willie demonstrates the versatility of chocolate through a range of sweet and savoury recipies and attempts to get the funding and equipment to produce his bars, which he hopes will change the way that people think about and consume chocolate. Me, I open me gob and stuff it in. I understand that's how most people think about and consume chocolate. It'll be interesting to see if Willie suggests we've all been doing it wrong over the years. In which case I suggest that we're right and he's wrong and I've got a vat of hot fudge here if he wants to argue his corner further.

Holby City - 8:00 BBC1 – has been on rather good form of late. Quite experimental too - the episode with Joseph and Jac trapped in a cordoned-off operating theatre was really, genuinely, clever and original. With Ric away dealing with the Hewitt case, Connie (the outrageously over-the-top Amanda Mealing) sees this as a chance to push for the Director of Surgery position and, upon discovering the truth about Annalese's breath-test, persuades Jayne to come clean to Hewitt's lawyers – resulting in a charge of manslaughter against Annalese. But, the duplicitous bitch is frustrated when Michael reneges on his deal to back her for the job she seeks. Meanwhile, Martha tries to engineer some family bonding between Elliot (the excellent Paul Bradley) and Ben, but when Samson joins the party it all goes terribly wrong. 'With hilarious consequences', no doubt. And, as usual Faye (Patsy Kensit) stands around pouting a lot and acting her little cotton socks off. Tremendous stuff.

Wednesday 8 April
What is it with Five and Hunky, Rugged, Manly-types doing Big, Sweaty, Dangerous Manly-type work? They’ve got Ice Road Truckers and now, they're premiering Oil Riggers at 8:00. This follows life on the oil rigs of West Texas. We are solemnly informed that 'teams of men work long hours in tough conditions to carry out one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.' You think? Anyway, this episode follows the story of three neighbouring rigs who have fifty days to find oil. A rookie faces a trial by fire; a veteran is put under intense pressure and a driller commits a major error of judgment.

Superhuman: World's Tallest Children - 9:00 ITV – is a documentary following the lives of the tallest children on the planet as the title very much suggests. These include a thirteen-year-old boy measuring an astonishing 7ft 4in, Britain's tallest family revealing their bespoke supersized home and a divorced father who is reunited with his 6ft 9in daughter - who only came up to his waist when he last saw her. The programme discovers how such children cope with the challenge of towering above grown-ups and what effects their extraordinary height has on their health. They can grow all they like, but they’ll never get up to Robert Pershing Wadlow's level... 'Eight foot eleven point five and THIRTY-FIVE STONE!' Ah, Roy Castle, how did I ever make it beyond childhood without you?

It's clearly 'Someone in Scheduling's idea of a joke to have the previous programme on directly opposite Extraordinary People: The World's Heaviest Man Gets Married, also 9:00 on Five. This edition revisits the morbidly obese Mexican Manuel Uribe, whom Five have done several documentaries about over the last few years, as he prepares for the biggest day of his life. Biggest day of his life, do you see, it's a … oh dear. Listen kids, fattie jokes aren't funny, take if from a certified lard-arse himself. Anyway, weighing in at a peak of just a shade under 600kg (that's approximately ninety stone for those of you still using Imperial weight measurement) when he earned the dubious title of the world's heaviest man in 2006, Manuel has since shed a lot of weight (he's now down to a slimline 360kg - that just fifty stone), found love with a lady named Claudia and got out of bed for the first time in four years to get married in October last year with the cameras present. Hence this documentary. Good on yersel, Manuel.

Thursday 9 April
It's really good to have My Family back at 8:00 BBC1. This sitcom about a dentist and his family starring Robert Lindsay and Zoë Wanamaker and was, until Outnumbered came along, frankly just about the only regularly funny sitcom the BBC had produced in years. There's nothing startlingly original or different going on here, it's essentially The Good Life: The Next Generation but the show's ability to tell one-joke-after-another (most of which, usually, work) within a framework of traditional sitcom family dysfunctionality is effective and, more often than not, genuinely funny. Tonight, Janey desperately wants to keep her new man under wraps, while a suspicious Ben tries to expose an affair between Susan and a client.

DIY SOS, the home-renovation show, return to BBC1 at 8:30. Tonight, the team is in Bridgwater to help the Robinson family. David was discharged from the army for medical reasons after being injured in Iraq. With few savings he has been forced to use his own DIY skills - only to discover that, like many people, he doesn't have any. Designer Julia Kendell and gaffer Chris Frediani are challenged with righting the wrongs of David's DIY disaster. If they want a real challenge, I need a couple of shelves putting up in the bedroom.

Lastly, a serious one to finish off. The Millionaire and the Murder Mansion - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a documentary about the tragic case of the Foster family from Shropshire, who hit the headlines in August 2008 when father Christopher murdered his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie before committing suicide. With exclusive access to West Mercia Constabulary's investigation and interviews with family members and friends, the film attempts to find out what drove the self-made millionaire to murder his family and then take his own life in this rather sad-looking bit of reportage.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Medium is the Message: Revolution, Style and The Avengers.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I (co) wrote a book about The Avengers which, for a variety of different reasons, never came out quite as myself and my co-authors, Paul and Martin, intended. The first edition of the book contained (somewhere near the back!) an essay of mine - a piece of work that I was particularly proud of at the time but which, again for a variety of reasons, didn't appear in the subsequent second edition, published four years later. With the book now long out-of-print, this is an extended and reworked version of that piece.

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It is often said that if you can actually remember the 1960s then you weren't really there. Certainly, the popular perception of the era – nailed into the essential public consciousness via numerous contemporary and retrospective movies and television shows - is of one long decade of free-sex, political literacy, anti-establishmentism and a surfeit of groovy, mind-bending and illicit drugs; that, as Philip Larkin memorably wrote, ‘sex began in 1963’ (and that it ended at some point around about the time of the October 1973 OPEC oil crisis) and that everything in-between was the longest, most stylished, sophisticated and pleasantly drunken house-party in history. Or, certainly, since the Roman Empire finished. Where all gatecrashers were banned and only the very best records got played. All of which might have had an element of necessary truth about it for the occupants of the smart apartments and town houses in Knightsbridge and Chelsea but had very little to do with the average working-class family in the rest of the UK living on a council estate on a weekly wage of twenty quid.

It's important for any creative historican to remember that most works of fiction are, of course, governed by the socio-political and cultural atmospheres in which they were created. But certain works from that particular era have been elevated to such a mythical status that these sorts of considerations seem, on the surface, to have little actual substance to them. That The Avengers was a series shaped as much by the complexities of 1960s British society and its (equally complex) collective attitudes towards issues as diverse as class, conventional morality, the UK’s shaky place in the world and sexual consciousness as much as by, let us say, the Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1966 Dock Strike doesn't change the basic fact that it was a product of its era in just the same way that Coronation Street, Z Cars, Steptoe and Son and Doctor Who all were. The aesthetics may be vastly different in each case, but the cultural and conceptual conceits which helped to shape all of these - fine – television series were pretty much identical.

Possibly because of the – many - social and political barriers which were overturned during this period (or in some cases, strictly speaking, during the period immediately afterwards) and to the changes in many peoples' lives which were affected by these crashing barriers, especially among the young and more affluent, the method via which such changes were relayed to the masses (television, almost exclusively) have acquired the reputation of being in some way, not only the medium through which these changes were seen but, more specifically, to have been actually responsible for them. Which is as false a claim as any that has ever made about the 1960s. It is nevertheless certainly true to say that television reflected – sharply, sometimes accurately and, occasionally, with more than a hint of trend-setting - what was going on. That's, kind of, the nature of the beast. In Great Britain, anarchic – and disparate - movements such as the satirists, the modernists and situationalism, the rapid growth of feminism and of the radical left (and the new right, for that matter) and, the birth of 'the cult of celebrity' found a niche for themselves by using the populist medium of television to their own advantage. But television's influence was – and still is - a double-edged sword in this regard, creating a fictionalised era based, in many people's minds, upon its drama. This is probably true of the literature and visual texts of other eras, of course, but seldom has it been more acute and, in some ways, more counter-productive than it was during this period.

Which brings us to The Avengers

For many people, The Avengers IS the 1960s pretty much personified - a gloriously over-the-top, camp and technicolour excess of 'Swinging' styles and with-it attitudes. Occupying an only-marginal fictional London, its tree-lined mews and avenues paved with stolen microfilm and mad scientists; the kitsch and modernist apartments with their ultra-functional appliances battling for prominence amid art-deco flourishes and tasteful mood trappings; the élan car chases, in elegant but powerful machines, through the deserted, hedgerow-lined country lanes of green-belt Hertfordshire; the eccentrics whose names reflect their obsessions and the comic-strip wit of everyone concerned are all classic elements often cited by fans and critics alike as reasons for The Avengers' longevity. It's, again, that curious suggestion that the 1960s was essentially one long party to which everyone was - potentially - invited, but that, in reality, only those with the correct accent (be it Old Etonian/Rodean-class or Scouse/Shepherd’s Bush pop star-chic) and the manners to match could attend. You were either born with it, acquired it or had it thrust upon you and, if you didn't then, sorry, but you were, like, nowhere baby.

In terms of the myth that surrounds it, The Avengers could almost be said to have become a genuine icon of its age. Something that transcends its humble, downbeat origins and to have become a definitive "statement" on both the era and its excesses. It is somewhat ironic that the very mention of The Avengers summons up a fixed image in most viewers minds when, in fact, the series itself was, from the very start, one of television's great chameleons. Changing - almost weekly - not only with the times but, in some cases, well ahead of them.

The Avengers' mirroring of Sixties concerns has been well documented elsewhere. But, although the series sometimes gave the impression of trying to fit a square peg into a groovy hole (notably in its blinkered, and surprisingly jealous, ignorance of youth culture on several notable occasions), The Avengers tended only towards true conservatism when certain televisual norms required it to. Seen, in 1961, as a breath of fresh air to the stagnating genre of crime drama, The Avengers started off reflecting a world-view still dominated by the 1950s and all of that previous decade's suffocating one-nation conservatism, post-war gloom - notably about Britian's diminishing role in the world - and obvious internal neuroses. A world of black and white, literally as well as metaphorically. In 1961, when Sydney Newman created the show, the Cold War still raged (and it would get an awful lot colder within the following year); public perceptions of spies and spying was that of Burgess and MacLean (we didn't even know about Philby at that stage, much less Blunt). Moles within The Ministry - little men in bowler hats and umbrellas whose allegiance was to one "side" or the other. There was no middle ground in those days, no hippy-liberal sitting on the fence. Just as this was perceived to be a world of, essential, decency without crime, or foreigners, or dog-shit. You were either with us or again’ us. The Soviet Union was, to all but the most vocal of neo-Stalinists, a terrifying nuclear bogey-state, a bear of a nation run by apparent madmen hell-bent on international Communist dominance or, if they couldn’t have that, then mutually assured destruction as a valid lifestyle choice for the entire bloody world. And the Chinese were just as bad. Those spies who worked for those organs were either foreign agents, ideologues brought up within the sinister machinations of the party machine, or British double-agents, turned by misguided ideology or greed or else blackmailed whilst still at university because they were queer. Or, indeed, all three at the same time. In this climate of increasing paranoia and dread the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming were flourishing and there was even talk of movie adaptations on the horizon, Alfred Hitchcock's sophisticated spy thrillers like North By Northwest were hugely popular, and television, sensing (as television often does) an attractive trend that could be followed, created its own branch of this mini-genre.

Originally devised as something which could accommodate a multitude of different styles and inhabit exotic locations (just so long as they could be created on a Borehamwood backlot), The Avengers began in 1961 as something of a generic patchwork. There were elements of the standard 'amateur sleuth' adventure, popular with crime novelists for decades, in the character of David Keel, the series nominal "hero" figure. The mysterious quality of his partner/user John Steed's character, though, came straight from Fleming's twilight demi-monde world of gentlemen's clubs and sophisticated double-dealing. The London that Steed and Dr Keel inhabited was a very strange mixture of cod working-class criminality (see 'The Frighteners' or 'Hot Snow', for instance) and the twilight shadows of espionage (highlighted in excellent second season episodes like 'Propellant 23', 'Man in the Mirror', 'Death on the Rocks' and 'Mission to Montreal').

Even from the modern perspective, outré and extreme examples of these early episodes, it's a huge step to what we had at the end of the decade, a juxtaposition of the postmodern, surreal and bizarre trappings within a fantasy oeuvre. Yet it was a step (or, actually, a series of steps) that was achieved within a definitive framework just like all television. As has been noted previously, television is – ultimately - the business of compromise, and it is usually necessary for the medium to forsake at least some of its artistic leanings in search of true populism. That The Avengers was both critically and commercially successful during the 1960s is a useful indication that such contradictions can also be perfectly compatible.

The reason that The Avengers continues to be regarded as some kind of definitive statement on the era that spawned it is difficult to pinpoint, although it is (thankfully) true that the mid-decade episodes – The Emma Peel Years, essentially - have (for the most part) aged very well. This, in itself, is not particularly important - the kitschness inherent in many episodes is often cited, blandiloquently, as the sole reason for the affection with which the series continues to be held. Yet kitsch, as we know, normally works only in small doses. This does, therefore, begin to highlight how important The Avengers is in televisual terms.

The early juxtaposition between faux-naïf dabblings of quasi-realism and the exotic forms of revolt in style and content for which the series would become most celebrated manifested themselves, largely, during the third season with the proper establishment of the Patrick Mcnee/Honor Blackman partnership. The early steps towards kinkiness and strangeness became more pronounced (Cathy Gale's character being at the forefront of advances in both), more focused, more aggressive. See 'Mandrake', 'Man With Two Shadows', 'Build a Better Mousetrap', 'Esprit de Corps' et al. By the end of the third season The Avengers had, effectively, begun to develop its own little - insular - world: Avengersland. A world where 'the enemy' could no longer be recognised by the accent of a particular political or state system, or even by the old school tie but, rather, by the protagonists' greed, their obsessions and their lust for power, or anarchy, or both. At the same time as real-world politics was becoming more a matter of presentation than dogma, so The Avengers worked itself into the new structures of power by being disdainfully aloof to anything so casual and two-dimensionally flat as reality.

There was simply no time for any kind of radical world-view in the early seasons. Steed and Keel were members of The Establishment (the doctor possibly less so, but, for all of the righteous anger at manifest injustice which characterised his motivation to live the life he did he was still a management stooge through his relationship with Steed). Ditto, Cathy for most of the time. The series took time out to be cynical about politics and politicians (notably in the shockingly au currente 'November Five' – a story about political assassination shown just weeks before John Kennedy's murder). But, by the time that Emma arrived, a decision had been taken to actively avoid getting into overt political questions. Steed has a degree of independent thought from within the system ('The Master Minds' is a fine example, 'The Wringer' another) and spent time pondering class consciousness ('Two's a Crowd'), but, hell, if Steed wasn't a Tory then who was? Interestingly, for the entire period from the middle of season three until The Avengers ended, there was a Labour government in power. Is it possible that the series itself was an MI5 attempt to undermine socialism from within and replace it, via a coup d'etat, with Lord Mountbatten running the show? Nah, that's worthy of a Philip Levene script …

True politics, of course, is about far more than narrow shallow Westminster partyism. Cathy's horror at her given role in a man's world was manifested in the number she threw over her shoulder with somewhat gay abandon. Wonderful stuff, but not very constructive in a way forward for The Sisterhood, Mrs Gale. Emma Peel, on the other hand, displays a complete lack of any form of traditional female concerns. Both women hated being patronised and weren't above using strong-arm tactics to get their way (a line of dialogue in 'Don't Look Behind You', later reused in 'The Joker', indicates both Cathy and Emma's hatred of male smugness: 'How'd you like me to break your-arm?'). The Avengers certainly kicked a few doors open in the face of bigots, and that was – and remains - a very good thing. The fact that the series is still widely seen as having a significant role in the changing of popular perceptions of women's ability is, without doubt, one of its proudest achievements (even if it doesn't stand up to all that much hard scrutiny).

Conversely, when I was co-writing The Avengers Dossier in the 1990s, it should have been able to dispel, once and for all, the myth that The Avengers was, in any way, casually racist. It's a horrible charge to throw at anyone and it's not something that anyone likes to believe about their favourite shows. So, myself and my fellow authors really wanted to nail that claim once and for all. Sadly, it didn't proved anywhere near as straightforward as we'd hoped. A quick pop quiz will illustrate our problem: Name five Avengers pre-1965 episodes featuring a black actor. Easy: 'The Frighteners', 'Kill the King', 'Immortal Clay', 'The Gilded Cage', 'The Medicine Men'. And that’s without really thinking about it very hard. Now, second part, name five episode after 1965. Not so easy. Brian Clemens' much quoted dictate on the lack of presence of black actors in the series, and of the class conditions that he felt necessary to the creation of such a rule, have been discussed at length elsewhere and both criticised and defended in equal measure. (Paul Cornell's memorable assertion that 'sadly, the only black man you'd ever see in most of The Avengers was Honor' being a particular favourite of mine.) However, it has to be said that the fact that such a rule - however justifiable the producers could argue it to be on the grounds of distancing the series aesthetic from realism - could not and would not be tolerated today is the clearest indication that, in this regard at least, television (and life) has changed for the better since the 1960s. All wretched political correctness aside, that sort of thing has the potential, always, be viewed as little short of justifying crass and unhelpful niggerism. To be blunt, if one ignores entire ethnic groups for the sake of presenting a fiction whose audience will (presumably) include members of said groups then it's at best a trivialising of imortant social issues and, at worst, a bloody obscenity, and one that even The Avengers' greatest fans - and I'm one of them - cannot have any pride in. 'We only admit to one class and that is upper,' said the series writers' guide. Fine. The fact that The Avengers production team could not, it appears, conceive of too many situations where a black man could occupy a place in the upper echelons of such a society says an awful lot about 1960s Britain as well as 1960s television.

Society was developing and evolving not just because of the force of the changed perceptions of individual men and women. Hand-in-hand went an evolving technology and technological consumerism. The third and fourth seasons of The Avengers showed a paranoid edge when it came to the technical advance of knowledge, a rather Luddite attitude that wasn't uncommon in much 1960s television, even among ostensibly fantasy-based programmes. It was, however, unusual to have a series which seemed so keenly in-tune with the vibes on the streets coming on like a reactionary old git when it came to this week's latest 'new toy'. Criticising electronic brainwashing techniques like those used in 'The Wringer' may have been hip to the groove, but when you start attacking robotics and cybernetics ('The Cybernauts' ), computers ('The House That Jack Built') and cool invasions by man-eating-plants-from-outer-space ('Man-Eater of Surrey Green'), then the kids are entitled to ask just how 'turned-on' and 'tuned-in' you really are in the great scheme of the whatsit and the how'syerfatha. Any cultural analysis of the 1960s usually has to conclude that whilst the era produced splendid scientific wonders, the public were, almost to a man, so frightened of out-of-control technology that such advances were regarded as little more than another step towards Armageddon.

But, here's a problem. The Armageddon that the series railed against was rarely reflected in its landscapes, either emotional, institutional or architectural. The bent-out-of-shape wide-focus rocket-concrete of most mid-60s feature films may be missing from The Avengers (whose London was vaguely rural, with tree-lined Mews and no urban decay), but there is still an element of groovy-angst in The Avengers (especially in the astonishing fourth season) that lies perfectly in tune with the beat of the era. The lyrics of The Rolling Stones circa 1965 (notably in hysterically paranoid songs like 'Get Off My Cloud' and '19th Nervous Breakdown') frankly sound like lines of dialogue from Avengers episodes of the period. This was life in the fast lane, even if that particular fast lane was a twsting country bridal path travelling from Smalltown, Hertfordshire to Nowheresville, Bucks that played havoc with your Aston Martin DB5's suspension. The concerns of 1960s living, as well as somewhat extreme examples of 1960s neuroses, are visible in contemporary many episodes: the consumer society in the superb 'Death at Bargain Prices', dating agencies in 'The Murder Market', permissiveness in 'A Touch of Brimstone', dropping out (in all its forms) in 'A Sense of History' (and, later, 'Escape in Time'), indoctrination ('Something Nasty in the Nursery'), the anxiety of nightmares in the BF Skinner-influenced 'Death's Door' and, generally, the sheer pace at which life was going (brilliantly satirised in 'Dead Man's Treasure'). For all its mood trappings The Avengers showed a sense of mistrust with many aspects of modernity.

The fifth season is, perhaps, the point where it all comes together. True, for many in the cognoscenti the black and white Diana Rigg episodes of 1965-66 are the pinnacle of The Avengers creativity and skill ('Castle D’eath', 'Dial a Deadly Number', 'Too Many Christmas Trees', 'The Girl From AUNTIE', the extraordinary, headline-making 'A Touch of Brimstone' et al) but, for this author, it's what came next that really counts.

The Avengers In Colour: A caption slide appears of a carnation stuck in a revolver (how very 1960s!) Then, the title sequence - that marvellous choppy Laurie Johnson jazz tune with its left-field trumpet solo and thundering brass and string score, as Steed and Emma walk towards each other in a chic-but-minimalist setting (it could be the drawing room of a posh country house, an ultra-all-mod-conned King's Road apartment or a TV studio). Austere yet stylish, and rather charming. Classy. The title comes up, and the tune becomes jauntier. We see swordsticks, silhouetted karate moves and very (very) red carnations. A stylistic summary of the series in swiftly intercut images. Then, a teaser sequence, usually showing how the body of the murder victim that our heroes are going to investigate came to be where it is. The title and a little description: Steed Does This, While Emma Does That. After that - unknown to viewers of most syndicated repeats of the 1980s and 90s - there was always an incredibly pithy little scene in which Steed would tell Emma: 'Mrs Peel, we're needed' in a variety of unusual ways. From that surprised first caption onwards, the show luxuriated in its new found colourfulness and breathed confidence, assurance, methodology. Satisfying a smart criteria, specific, measurable, achieveable, realistic, timebound. A perfect world in miniature in which chaos is order and order is chaos. Eternal. Stone. Immaculate.

Colour had first come to The Avengers camp in the form of an extended trailer, 'The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse.' This was filmed on the set of the final season four episode, 'Honey for the Prince', and was broadcast in America as a prelude to the new series. After the transmission of most of the black-and-white Rigg episodes, it had become clear that this curious British series was becoming increasingly (outrageously) popular on primetime network TV in States. Why? Well, Diana's in leather helped but there were other factors. Because 1966 was the year when Davy Jones was the most popular of The Monkees, when The Stones were bitching about just how very unsatisfied they were with pretty much everything and The Beatles had seen it, done it, smoked it and were about to start growing moustaches just to prove it. In short, 1967 was going to be a good year to be British, a good year to be young and a good year to be a new word dripping outwards from the West Coast of America, psychedelic. Whether The Avengers actually was is pretty much a moot point but, since the previous year's big surprise US TV hit had been Batman, it might be a good idea to adopt a tongue-into-cheek approach to life in general and crime solving in particular with a dollop of comic-strip wit. Check. Check. Check(ish) and, very definitely, check. The 'unspoken-best-friends' relationship between Emma and Steed was, by now, well-established and, indeed, was seldom even referred to within the text. It didn't need to be. They no longer seemed to have any obvious history, such was the confidence of that particular batch of episodes. In America, for instance, there was no longer any need for that - quite embarrassing - explanatory voice-over from the previous year, booming out concerning our heroes' mission in life, one that they never saw fit to explain in Britain because it, quite simply, wasn’t needed. They were Steed and Mrs Peel, you dig? They did 'stuff'. It was cool. In this season, Steed simply showed up on Emma's doorstep (although, there were occasion hints that, post-coitally, he'd been there all night) and they were off, without backgrounds, motives or organisations to hinder them, and only an unspoken agreement holding them together. What a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand that something so utterly simple could conquer America.

It must be noted, in the interests of balance, that with colour came a slight decline in the subtlety and sublimeness of the caustic wit which one had come to expect of the series. Some of the 1967 episodes have, dare one say it, their odd dull or forumulaic moments. However, there was humour aplenty to be had from the actual situations with 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station', 'The Hidden Tiger' and 'Who's Who???' being riotous in, and of, themselves with the dry and caustic scripted jokes, therein, being an added bonus. As regards the Kinkiness Factor, Emma had pretty much stopped being tied to things on such a regular basis, but Steed's eyebrow-work had heightened an inch or two with some of the knowing exchanges between them. Champagne was still not the all-encompassing cultural weapon that it was later to become. The icon appears in only five of the 1967 episodes – though we hear that the body-swapping Basil and Lola have finished some off in a sixth. However, it was now all over the title sequence. The fights, however, become outrageous and vast production numbers. It was obvious from 'The Winged Avenger' that the production team had taken note of the development of this artform in Batman and acted accordingly.

The great Philip Levene wrote exactly half of the season's scripts (eight), including the first four episodes to be transmitted and he did a remarkably fine job. Three, in particular, 'Escape In Time', 'From Venus With ♥' and 'The Hidden Tiger' have many champions for being the best Avengers episodes of the lot. It is Levene's Avengersland that most people remember fondly, with one foot set firmly in the real world and the other, very definitely not. Verbal wit was an important part of what Levene did, but so to was the complete interrogation of a entire concept into the story. For example, in 'The Hidden Tiger', we get every single take on the concept of killer cats, every possible pussy joke imaginable, every pun and wink to the audience with the writer's usual bijoux comic timing to the point where you simply want to watch the episode with someone curled up in your lap purring and wanting her stomach tickled. Brian Clemens, on the other hand, was a much more direct author, who tended to present the central problem, the 'twenty-words-or-less' of American screenwriting, straight away in the opening scene and then, simply, do massive variations upon it. Clemens contributed six scripts to the fifth season which ranged from the quite wonderful – 'The Bird Who Knew Too Much' and 'The Superlative Seven' - through to the patchwork 'The Living Dead' (a cut-and-paste job from an Anthony Marriott story that bears the signs of swift rewriting and borrowed hugely from the previous years season opener 'The Town of No Return') to the horrid 'Epic'. Just what makes ‘Epic' so apocalyptically awful is worth considering for a moment. It seems, from surface evidence, to be a deliberate attempt to create a genuinely 'iconic' Avengers episode, one that Clemens could provide as an example to new writers - that he could point to and say 'that's how it should be done.' Everything that one expects in an episode from this period is present and correct. Perhaps as a direct result of this banal obviousness it come across as completely vacuous and soulless, without any heart or much individuality. This was to be the main problem in later years, The Avengers trying just that little bit too hard to be itself, and, like some neurotic impersonator, losing all confidence in the process. Of the other writers, Richard Harris contributed the very nice 'The Winged Avenger' (he would continue to be a welcome occasional contributor to the show for the next couple of years, his 'Game' being easily the highlight of the disappointing final season). One of the best scripts of 1967 was actually a rewrite: 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station' started off as a Roger Marshall script, but Marshall and Clemens are reported to have clashed over the direction that the series was taking. (Marshall objecting, perhaps farsightedly, to some of Clemens' excesses.) The pseudonym Bryan Sherriff was therefore used for the completed episode. Whether the quality of the end product is the result of a typically good and witty Marshall script or of Clemens' forceful moulding of the series into its own image is hard to decide. One actually prefers to think of it as a typical example of Avengers-serendipity, a happy accident of the kind that would soon prove to be difficult to reproduce deliberately.

Following a six-week break after the completion of 'Who's Who???' in April 1967, the production team returned to Borehamwood to complete a further ten episodes. Along with the sixteen from the fifth season, these were intended to be sold as a 26-episode package to the American networks. In the end, it didn't turn out that way. The schedule was tight as the first episode of the new batch - 'Return of the Cybernauts' - was due to go out as part of the ITV autumn package in September 1967, at which point the team would still be filming the later episodes - and if anything went wrong, the consequences could be disastrous. When something did go wrong, it came in the formidable shape of Diana Rigg.

The popular perception of the mid-60s, of course, is of an Avengers episode being completed and then Steed and Emma having a quick glass of champagne in their trailer before popping into town in the Bentley, still in-costume, to enjoy an evening at the discothèque with Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Sean Connery, The Beatles and The Who. In fact, according to Rigg, 'It was great fun to do but everyone thinks it was party, party, party. In fact it was work, work, work. You had to get to the studio at Elstree for 6.30 every morning, and you'd be working until eight o'clock every night.' She also claimed that she was earning 'less than the cameraman' and eventually issued an ultimatum to ABC, describing her working conditions as 'the life of a mole.' In the event, she got her – well-deserved - pay rise but she indicated that this would be her final batch of episodes. Having already earned more than five million dollars from US syndication rights (proudly trumpeted in an article in The Times in March 1967), the production team could, perhaps, afford to be generous towards its biggest asset.

Aesthetically, the stories from the fifth and sixth seasons are very similar, although the 'Mrs Peel, we're needed' sequences disappeared. However, something seems to have changed in the writers' bible during the summer of 1967. The new batch of episodes were much more serious in tone and aura than those of the previous few months (a trend that would continue into the following year). Philip Levene provided four of the scripts, whilst Brian Clemens worked on three and between them they began to draw Steed and Emma back from the brink of science fiction and (vaguely) into the real world again.

Ultimately, only eight episodes were completed (the season ending, somewhat prematurely, with the broadcast of 'Mission … Highly Improbable' on 18 November 1967). The episode 'The Forget-Me-Knot', begun in mid September, was abandoned before completion due to the hierarchical changes taking place behind the camera before being remounted and used as the opening episode of the following year and a bridge between the Emma and Tara eras. The point at which season six became season seven is, actually, rather difficult to establish. However, by 30 October 1967 - when The Times announced that Linda Thorson ('who is 20 and rather disarmingly admits that she has dyed her hair blonde') was 'stepping into the shoes, or boots, of two famous predecessors' and that filming had started on what was then intended to be the first full Tara King episode, 'Invitation to a Killing' - the sixth season had, effectively, been put to bed. What happened to the mysterious tenth episode is lost in the mists of time.

Of the eight episodes eventually broadcast, we have a sequel for the series' most popular foes, a (good) rewrite of an old Cathy Gale episode, a story about nightmares, a location travelogue, two 'plot device' episodes, an Emma solo adventure and an inscruitable (and punning) parody of SF nonsense. Filmed in the three months that included the release of Sgt. Peppers', the Six-Day War and the devaluation of sterling, Steed's suave Etonian charm and Emma's acid Chelsea wit were probably just what the country needed right about then. Certainly the episodes were as popular as ever, both critically and in terms of viewing figures.

We were solemnly informed by the end credits that 'the principle items of Mr Macnee's wardrobe [are] designed by Pierre Cardin', whilst Diana Rigg managed to - at last - get out of her leathers and into Alan Hughes' brilliantly designed Crimplene catsuits (dubbed 'Emmapeelers' by their creator). For Rigg herself, this was a moment of some considerable personal satisfaction. 'It meant I could move - we are talking about three-quarters of an hour to go to the lavatory, because they were so tight!' As Diana has noted, 'I was always getting tied to dentists' chairs with my legs in the air!' However, by this stage much of the inherent kinkiness had been diverted into dialogue. A case of too much talk and not enough action, perhaps? Conversely, these were possibly the best bunch of episodes for fisticuffs since Honor Blackman left the show: the sight of Mrs Peel dancing the kung-fu seven years before Carl Douglas remains, still, an awesome one.

Critique: By this stage critics were divided on the series progression into the fantastic. Carol Millington wrote that 'the programme has always suffered from a surfeit of fantasy, and in that lies much of its charm. Steed and Mrs Peel can cope placidly with the most outrageously improbable situations and introduce a touch of extravagant myth into the run-of-the-mill adventure series.' This contrasts sharply with another critic, Lesley Blake, who considered that the series was not what it once had been, and reckoned that the rot set in with Emma's pants: 'This was a cracker of a series until Mrs Peel's leather trouser suit became a fashion craze ... My heart sank when the current series began and all we seem to hear is what everyone would wear, who would design them and what the clothes were going to cost. Dianna [sic] Rigg, poor girl, hasn't half the character of Honor Blackman, anyway.' Blake concluded: ‘It's just conceivable that if they spent less on all these expensive fashion trimmings they might still be able to make a programme that was, simply, a good programme.' A fine article in The Viewer magazine coincided with the beginning of the season. Rupert Butler described in detail his visit to the set of 'You Have Just Been Murdered.' Rigg told Butler 'I had to do a deep sea fight with a sinewy villain.' It sounded, the reporter believed, 'intriguing ... in a kinky sort of way. I can reveal that, with mounting visions of swelling insurance premiums the girl just dived in and got on with it. In a masterpiece of understatement that might have come straight from an Avengers script, Diana breathed: "It was a welcome cooler on a hot day!"'

Perhaps the last word on this season should go to Steed and Mrs Peel themselves, from the tag sequence at the end of 'The Positive-Negative Man.' Magnetised by all of that 'messing around with electricity,' they find themselves firmly attached to Steed's Bentley. 'Don't fight it, Mrs Peel,' notes Steed, ‘We're inseparable.' Tragically, not for much longer they weren't. But for that beautiful, mad summer of 1967 they were. And in colour, too.

Analysing these disparate elements, then, gives scholars a hint as to the reasons for The Avengers' huge - and lasting - success. The most obvious danger of any success, of course, is that of failing to live up to it. Brian Clemens and his production partner Albert Fennell between 1965 and 1967 created a television series that will, quite possibly, live forever. The fact that someone, somewhere, in a position of authority decided that this wasn't enough and moved them off the project between seasons six and seven was one of the most crass acts of managerial interference in areas of artistic concern imaginable. Everything that possibly could go wrong, did from the moment Clemens and Fennell's hands were lifted from the series' tiller. The fact that they were only away for a couple of months before being begged back doesn't negate the problems that they collectively faced upon returning. From here, onwards, the series could never quite regain its momentum. The seventh season of The Avengers is a roller coaster ride of quality. Some of the episodes are great ('Game', 'The Super-Secret-Cypher-Snatch', 'My Wildest Dream', 'The Rotters', 'All Done With Mirrors'), a lot are quite average but with memroable set-pieces, some are pretty bad and one or two are downright bloody awful. In this respect it closely mirrors many other long-running TV series. And, when all is said and done it's important to remember that that's all The Avengers ever was or could ever aspire to be.

But ... The Avengers reflected the 1960s by taking its concerns, its neuroses and its aspirations and painted them - in broad, impressionistic cartoonesque strokes - across the canvas of popular consciousness. It's not always pretty, but it's very London. If the 1960s had a face, that face had to reflect the optimism of the age as much as the anger and the confusion and the scitzophrenia. Steed doesn't, can't, represent this. His is more the face of the 1950s: Harold MacMillan's Great Britain rather than Harold Wilson's: Solid, reliable, multi-talented of course but, ultimately, belonging very much to a pigeon-hole of an established order. But Cathy, Emma and even, to an extent, Tara do represent aspects of the 1960s face. And in making that face female The Avengers - as an entity regardless of whether it was 'just a TV show' or not - changed the world: Perhaps only to a tiny degree, but changed it nontheless. Which is as much as any television series has ever done and a damn sight more than many would even dare to try.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Week Thirteen: Robin & His Hoods Vs Hannah & The Dinosaurs

Sad to report that your kindly blogger, Keith Telly Topping - Guv'nor of the Gogglebox, is feeling 'a bit poorly' this week. (A combination of a rather nasty stomach bug, a thumping headache that won't shift itself for love or pills and a general feeling of listlessness in the 'Oh, sod it, I can't be bothered with owt or nowt today'-type category). It'll pass. Everything else I've had past my lips in the last forty eight hours has. Rapidly. But, let us not dwell upon exploding diarrhoea and projectile vomitting if we can possibly avoid it, dear blog reader, and move us - swiftly - onto some Top Telly News in the area.

We start with a bit of thoroughly FINE news. The Greatest TV Comedy Show In The History Of The World. Ever [®™] Qi finished its sixth season with an audience of 4.6 million viewers last Friday. (It started at round about the same figure in January so the BBC will doubtless be delighted with that.) This was helped, in no small part, by being on opposite the interesting-but-sadly-unwatched Moving Wallpaper for the last three weeks. Similarly, another BBC Friday nighter, Not Going Out, has been massively aided by having the thoroughly wretched (and getting worse by the episode) Al Murray's Personality Disorder as its direct opposition (3.5m/1.2m respectively last week). Keith Telly Topping likes this news greatly ... Actually, that's a thing. Has anybody else noticed that I've started to refer to myself in the third person an awful lot on his blog. Very worrying development, that.

Another ratings coup: BBC1 won the entire day, from 6am until midnight last Saturday, except for the last half hour of Ant and Dec's Saturday Takeaway beating National Lottery show and first few minutes of Casualty. When it was head-to-head with Total Wipeout, Anthony and December came a (very) poor second. ITV did have a few shocking Saturdays last year during the period when Doctor Who was on (including one memorable occasion when – for an hour mid-Saturday night - it was actually the fifth most watched of the five terrestrial channels, their programming beaten by everything including a repeat on NCIS on Five - see *) but I don't think they've ever suffered a worse face-to-face day against the Beeb, certainly not in living memory.

[*] I've just checked through the files and I note that this actually occurred twice: On 14 July 2008 between 22:00 and 22:30 and on 28 July 2008 between 21:00 and 22:30

And so, to this week's Top Telly Tips. I've actually had quite a good few days, tips-wise - that fine Cleopatra-thing with Scottish Neil Oliver-and-his-lovely-hair, The Lion Cub From Harrods (which was, genuinely, heart-warming, touching and beautiful) and then ITV's excellent Brian Clough documentary on Wednesday. All winners, just like what yer kindly Keith Telly Topping (And His Top TV Tips) stated that they would be. Let's see if I can keep it going over the weekend and into next week.

Friday 27
In EastEnders - 8:00 BBC1 - Bad Old Archie begins to realise that Danielle is a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Tiffany helps Janine understand that some secrets are worth keeping and Ian's overcomplicated scheme to help with the family business backfires. With hilarious consequences. Of course, the really big news in Walford this week is that Edward Woodward has turned up in Albert Square breaking away from his traditional steely-eyed killer roles in Callan and The Equalizer by shooting questions rather than guns. His character, Tommy Clifford, is a charming and engaging journalist who is, he says, writing a book about the early Caribbean immigrants to London and wants to talk to Patrick (Rudolph Walker) about his experiences when he first came to England in the 1950s. But, as ever in this kind of plotline, are first appearances all that they would seem to be? Still, whatever the character's motives it is lovely to have the great Edward, one of the finest TV actors of his generation, back on our screens for a bit. Even if it IS in Easties.

Saturday 28 March
We've got a real "battle-for-the-same-audience" thing going down early on Saturday evening as Robin Hood returns for a third series at 6:50 on BBC1. When Robin arrives back in England from the Holy Land to avenge Marian's untimely murder, an epic battle rages between him and Guy of Gisborne, with both determined to fight to the death. Meanwhile, Brother Tuck (David Harewood) arrives in Nottingham believing that Robin is the only man who can unite the people and bring to an end the tyrannical reign of the Sheriff (Keith Allen, still the best thing about the show when he's at his eye-rolling, scene-stealing best) and Bad Prince John. I must say I do like Robin Hood, though it's often in spite of itself. They still haven’t, quite, got the tone right – the show can be very funny and also well-dramatic but, often, you get the sense that the production team are never too sure which one they should be going for and when. (And why, for that matter!) But, the actors all give it their best shot (I particularly like the lads who play Allan A'Dale and Will Scarlett, Joe Armstrong and Harry Lloyd respectively). What I most admire about this show, I think, is that unlike similar productions – Merlin is one that springs to mind – it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Which, when you're poncing around Sherwood Forest in a pair of tights, is a good thing I'd've said.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, we’ve also got the return (and, also for the third year) of Primeval - 7:20 – delayed by nervous ITV bods because of the dreadful critical and commercial mauling that Demons got. And, seemingly, Primeval's future is in major doubt due to a combination of the expense of its special effects and because ITV appear on the verge of more-or-less giving up on creating their own Saturday family dramas and leaving the BBC to get on with it via Doctor Who, et al. That's actually a real shame because Primeval is a decent little show - like Robin Hood which it is partly up-against tonight, it has come a long way since some shaky beginnings. And, of course, it's got lovely little Hannah out of S-Club 7 in it. What's not to love? In tonight's episode, Cutter (the excellent Douglas Henshall) and the team are still reeling from Stephen's death at the end of the last season when an anomaly opens in the British Museum. A terrifying creature that resembles an Egyptian God emerges and the team must work with new Head of Security Captain Becker and Egyptologist Sarah Page to track down the creature, but are they facing an ancient curse as well? It's good to have Primeval back but, as previously noted, make the most of it now because it mightn't be around for too much longer.

Sunday 29 March
In the season finale of Time Team - 5:30 C4 - Tony and the team travel to the Suffolk coast to investigate a very special back garden. The new owners of a house in Blythburgh opened up their garden potting shed to discover a cupboard filled with human skulls. The archeologists try to work out whether the remains are connected with the nearby ruins of a medieval priory. Could this be the possible resting place of a Saxon warrior king? Or, is it merely the work of a previously undocumented serial killer? Tremendous stuff, Time Team. Relaxing on the eye, you usually learn something from it each week about some aspect of history and it's always enjoyably amiable – particular when lovely Ooo-Aaaar-Phil Harding gets going on his latest hobby horse to the caustic displeasure of poor put-upon Geophys-John and Landscape-Stu. Still, after sixteen years, one of my favourite shows, long may it continue.

Also coming to an end tonight is Yellowstone - BBC2 8:00. With winter just around the corner there are just two months for the animals to get ready or get out as a short autumn arrives. The elk move down from the mountains to find food, and beavers repair dams before ice freezes their ponds. As the snow and ice return, many animals move out from the heart of Yellowstone, away from the protection of the national park. Here, their fight is not only to survive the cold, but also to find what little wild space remains in the modern world. Truly staggering camerawork – that bit in the first episode of an arctic fox tiptoeing across the tundra, pausing to listen and then diving head first deep into the snow to emerge with a mouse in its mouth was one of THE great images of wildlife telly in years. Lovely, rich commentary - by the great Peter Firth - helps too. What with this and Nature's Great Events running at the same time, the BBC have overdosed us on national history of late. Where's our next fix coming from? Is it nearly Springwatch time yet?

Monday 30 March
Can Ken persuade the alcoholic Peter to seek help in Coronation Street at 7:30 on ITV? Also, Julie is dismissive of Kirk's plans for their future and Maria is shocked to hear about Natasha's latest conquest. My producer, Scunthorpe Steve Drayton has been badgering me for a couple of weeks to talk about Corrie again on the radio slot feeling that I've been far too dismissive concerning it of late. He reckons that the show is currently at its funniest for some considerable time. I did, dutifully, watch three episodes last week in search of some jokes ladies and gentlemen of the blog, truly I did, but I have to say it's not doing much for me at the moment.

As the number of empty properties in Britain's towns and cities looks set to top the one million mark, Jonathan Maitland investigates why so many homes remain unused at a time when the country faces an acute housing shortage in Tonight: Empty House Syndrome - 8:00 ITV. It's a problem that rears an ugly head from time to time, of course – the seventies, of course, was another period when squatting became a norm in many major cities.

The critically acclaimed drama series about drug dealers in West Baltimore and the police investigating them The Wire arrives on BBC2 at 11:20 for its long-awaited terrestrial debut. During the trial of D'Angelo Barksdale, a mid-level dealer accused of murder, the prosecution's star witness recants her testimony. After the trial, Detective James McNulty explains to Judge Phelan how he suspects that the Barksdale crew is responsible for a slew of related murders. Stars the excellent Dominic West, the second Old Etonian (after Hugh Laurie) to put on an accent and fool eighty percent of all Americans into thinking he's a native. I do admire the BBC's courage in strip-scheduling the series, five-nights-a-week. So, if you've got work in the morning, set your recording devices for this show every weeknight for the next twelve weeks and then watch them in batches over the weekend.

And, lastly, a quick reminder that Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle continues to be one of the most witty, intelligent and classy bits of comedy British TV has produced in ages. I could do without the sketches which add little to the overall show but the stand-up routines are outstanding. The opening monologue on the first episode made me laugh more than any debut sequence to a TV show since The Day Today started with the line 'Bottomley refreshed after three days on cross' in 1994. More people should be watching this brave and unusual little show. If you aren't, take a tip from me and do so ... and bring some of your friends with you.

Tuesday 31 March
All the Small Things - 9:00 BBC1 – is a rather interesting-looking new drama about the trials and tribulations of a small town choir featuring a genuinely top-draw cast that includes Sarah Lancashire, Neil Pearson (still one of my favourite actors although we don't see him on TV nearly enough as we used to back in the nineties) and Sarah Alexander. Sounding very good so far. The arrival of glamorous and mysterious soprano Layla turns local choirmaster Michael and his wife Esther's lives upside down. Ousted from her marriage and her choir, the last thing self-effacing Esther expects is to find herself leading the charge with a rival offering in the local music festival. But the needs of her troubled but gifted son give her a courage and a determination she didn't know she had.

Ever since he was at school, actor and comedian Alan Davies has hated maths. But with the help of top mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Alan is going to embark on a maths odyssey in Horizon: Alan and Marcus Go Forth and Multiply - 9:00 BBC2 - and featuring, by a mile and three-quarters, the best title for any TV show this week. Together the pair visit the fourth dimension, cross the universe and explore the concept of infinity. But did Alan's abilities to absorb and understand all this stuff peak twenty five years ago when he got his grade 'C' O-Level? It’s an interesting question – I, myself, never achieved a maths O-Level grade; I took it at CSE and got Grade Two. Twice. Some people don't have any problem with multiplication, division and, even, fractions it's when they start banging on about Cosines, Tangents and Logi that it all starts to resemble another language. That Pythagoras, what a utter swine he was… And, just don't get me started on bloody Fibonnaci and his flaming sequence...

Highland Emergency - 7:30 Five – is a rather lovely little documentary series following the work of the emergency services in the Highlands of Scotland detailing the volunteer work of those people who put their lives in danger every time some cretin decides to go hiking in the depths of winter armed only with a thermos flask, a compass and pair of shorts. Tonight, the medics at a small community hospital tend to a severely injured climber, searchers must rescue a lone hiker who is dangerously close to hypothermia and emergency back-up is called in to tend to a middle-aged man who is thought to have had a heart-attack on the mountain.

Wednesday 1 April
Here's three alternatives to the England/Ukraine match on ITV (which, I must confess, I'll be watching personally).

Waterloo Road - 8:00 BBC1 – was recently honoured by the BBC with a early renewal for next year. In tonight’s episode, a riot breaks out when a group of traveller children enroll at the school. Ooo, contentious. Have your complaint forms to hand, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been a very good couple of weeks for documentaries dealing with nostalgia subjects and there's another fine example of that tonight at 8:00 on BBC2. Ford's Dagenham Dream tells the story of the British love affair with the American dream cars made at Ford in the 1960s and 70s. These helped put the nation on wheels with fast, sexy (and affordable) cars such as the Zephyr, the Cortina and the Capri, which were pure escapist rock'n'roll and hugely appealing to the younger generation.

I’ll bet several of the Queens of British Pop featuring at 10:45 on BBC1 drove a Ford Zephyr. This is a two-part documentary celebrating twelve female singers who have 'influenced British pop music and fashion from the sixties to the present day.' The series features interviews with iconic stars including Sandie Shaw, Suzi Quatro, Siouxsie Sioux and Leona Lewis. Ah, Suzi Quatro and her tight leather pants. Got me through some long and lonely teenage winter nights did Suzi Q. She could can my can anytime she likes...

Thursday 2 April
After last night's documentary about the love affair between Britain and Ford comes Caravans: A British Love Affair - 8:00 BBC2 – a documentary about the love affair between the British and their caravans. Inevitably. Does Britain do nothing except have love affairs with various items of motor vehicle transport one simply has to ask oneself? It's hard to remember, these days but, once upon a time Britain was well-established as the world's largest caravan manufacturer during the 1960s and this fact transformed the holiday habits of generations of families. In telling the story of caravanning in Britain from the 1950s through to the present day, this film explores how changes across the years reflect wider changes in British society, in particular the increased availability of cars during the period. Of course, these days, the only time you’re likely to see a caravan featured on British TV is when the Top Gear boys come up with yet another ingenious way of destroying one, several or lots. For merriment and japery. As somebody who suffered more than one miserable summer holiday thirty five years ago on the Links at Whitley Bay allow me to say … good. Encore!

It’s all documentaries tonight. The Children of Helen House - 9:00 BBC2 – returns to the centre which provides care for children with life-shortening conditions. Helen House has revolutionised the care of sick children around the world, offering support for those with life-limiting illnesses. The philosophy of its founder Sister Frances Dominic, is that a short life does not, necessarily, have to be an unhappy one. Following the success of the previous series about the facility, the production team returned for three months during 2008 to witness the new life-and-death issues faced by the families and staff.

Finally, in December 2008, Woolworths went into administration, you might have noticed. And a nation mourned the loss of a high street institution. But Claire Robertson, who worked her way from humble Saturday girl to manager of the Dorchester branch, refused to let go. She rehired her employees, many of whom have devoted over thirty years' service to the store, and decided to set up shop once again, a story told in How Woolies Became Wellies: One Woman's Fight For the High Street - 9:00 BBC1. They now have just five weeks to return the empty shell to its former glory.