The Office: s02 e03/04 – Party/Motivation


Office

The funny thing is. But I’m talking, as my Dad used to distinguish it, not about funny ha-ha but about funny peculiar. I find it next to impossible to watch more than two episodes of The Office back to back but, almost as soon as I’d finished writing last week’s blog, I wanted to watch more. It’s been difficult restraining myself for a whole week. But the moment episode 3 began, I was twisting about in the same manner, alternating between laughing and whimpering in sheer embarrassment, and not always alternating.

Again, the two episodes formed something of a unit, linked as they were by David Brent’s disastrous foray into the world of business seminars and motivational speaking. In episode 3, Brent is approached by guest stars Tom Goodman-Hill and Jennifer Hennessy as Ray and Jude, representatives of a company that do business seminars and training. At first, Brent’s casual, overacting that his time is valuable, better things to do, in short being bloody rude. His tone changes when they explain that they’re not offering to do Wernham Hogg’s training but want him to do training for them, as an expert. For £300 for fifteen minutes speaking. Nice work if you can get it, and even nicer if you can keep yourself from pointing out to everyone that can’t get away far enough fast enough that that adds up to £1,200 an hour. And episode 4 shows what Brent made of it.

On one level the thing’s highly predictable. You know it will all be a disaster, that Brent will make a holy show of himself, it will fall flatter than the Nevada Desert, but it’s like Morecamble and Wise at their peak: you knew what was going, and you could even predict some of the lines, but you still laughed your head off. But Gervais and Marchant turn the screw to the point of bursting. It’s not just an absolute disaster, but a disaster pinned down and butterfly-mounted in every line, every gesture and, most of all, in every background extra.

I mentioned this in relation to Lucy Davis last week, but this week it was clear that she’s merely primus inter pares (Martin Freeman is nearly as good but his expressiins are more comically overt) but one of the greatest aspects of this show is the precision in which the silent extras, and even the more sane stars, react, without words, with only minimal expressions, emphasising the sheer grotesquerie of what you’re experiencing. Without that visual representation of your own WTF responses, the show couldn’t be as funny as it is.

And it’s not just Brent. Gareth Keenan, in a completely different manner, is only marginally better. You cringe at practically everything Brent says or does but Gareth, whose range of monstrosity is so much narrower, you would walk away from, unable to subject yourself to his witless meanderings any longer. This is particularly acute in the multi-angled compressed triangles of Tim/Rachel/Dawn, Tim/Rachel/Gareth and Tim/Dawn/Lee. On the one hand, Gareth is trying to get himself into Rachel’s knickers by the only way he knows, namely crude, oblivious and horribly real and depressing, whilst Tim’s flirtations with the eager Rachel are open and enthusiastic, winding Gareth up and depressing poor Dawn, who very evidently is interested in him far more than she lets on to herself, whilst you’ve got the orthodox triangle involving her fiance Lee, from the warehouse, who pig ignorant chauvinist pigs would look down upon and sneer at for a pig ignorant chauvinist pig.

Episode 3 is centred around Trudy’s birthday and how the risque gifts she’s been bought by her colleagues drag the episode down, or should that be up, into a rompish thing of cheap sex jokes and innuendo so blatant as to not even be single entendres. It’s pitch-perfect, whilst the scene in which Brent winds up waggling a grotesque pink vibrating dildo that he can’t work out how to switch off is priceless. Not that the motivational talk isn’t infinitely more pointed but this just had me howling.

Underlying all of this is the ongoing slide of the series towards the moment of inevitability. I said last week that the series’ one true flaw is that it’s difficult to the point of impossibility to imagine how this David Brent could ever have gotten to the height of Branch Manager. I quoted the Peter Principle, that every man is promoted to the level of his own incompetence, and judging by that it is possible to see Brent as a decent salesman, hard-working and focussed, promoted to a level he’s genuinely unsuited to, and between egotism over having his abilities recognised and the subconscious fear of being found out, he’s constructed this elaborate monster of not just adquacy but brilliance to hide from himself that he is a five foot man in a six foot bog.

Brent’s performsance is sliding rapidly. He’s getting worse. Neil can see that as plainly as we can. He just isn’t up to it. And every little thing that Neil says or does is being challenged in a display of petulance that would embarrass a four year old. It’s going one way. Brent is not only being given ample enough rope with which to hang himself, he’s simultaneously building the scaffold. The pond water may be turbid and murky, but we can see through it clearly enough.

Due South: s01 e19 – Heaven and Earth


Due South

It’s late at night, distorted picture, distorted movements, two young girls, walking, talking and laughing. Constable Fraser, reaching out an arm, calling desperately. The girls split up. One gets spooked. |She’s attacked, grabbed by the throat. Her heart-shaped gold locket snaps its chain, falls unnoticed to the ground. She’s thrown into a trunk. Is she dead? A balding man, with sad eyes and a fringe beard, looks terrified.

It’s an unusually brief open for Due South, leading into a tense and mostly serious episode. The girl is a missing person, kidnapped for ransom. By a curious coincidence, she’s being played by Karyn Dwyer, as recently seen in Better than Chocolate. Detective Vecchio’s got the case, has been working it three days solid, getting nowhere. He is not interested in his buddy Bennie working towards trying to cler his conscience without actually telling. until, that is, Bennie mentions that it’s about Francesca. You know, Ray’s sister, Ramona Milano, turned up late two episodes back in some underwear…

That’s the main comedic role in the episode, which also featured a return engagement by our two FBI nudnicks, Agents Ford and Deeter, still the same self-important clowns, taking over Vecchio’s case and getting everybody’s back up, with the exception of Detectives Huey and Louie, who relish anything that gets in Vecchio’s way. They don’t want Ray or Bennie anywhere near the case, except that we know that isn’t going to happen, not when the need to get this young girl back alive is so important.

Key to this is the bearded man. He is a homeless guy called Garret, played by Jonathan Banks (he was instantly familiar: I would swear I’ve seen him before, in a role that stood out, but a review of his career turns up no likely candidates, unless I’m remembering this role from the first time). Garret sees visions. He doesn’t want to, he wants nothing more than to be left alone. It’s not his responsibility. But Bennie takes him seriously, against everybody else’s dismissal, and in the end not only will Garret lead them to where the girl is being kept, in a pit whose unstable bounds are disintegrating and gradually threatening her with burial alive, but he will leap in to haul her up far enough to be rescued.

Did Fraser sleep with Francesca? That’s the $64 question, and our Mountie is too chivalrous of a lady’s reputation, any lady’s, least of all his best friend’s sister, to confirm or deny (myself, I don’t think he did, but I also recognise that, given his basic politeness, he may not have found it possible to humiliate her by turning her down). Francesca ain’t talking either, least of all to her big brother, though she does acknowledge that he’s looking out for her, and she accepts that someone like Bennie isn’t going to marry her anyway.

So we’ll never know that. It was a useful theme to have for the comic element as the main story did not lend itself to the patented Due South absurdism. Despite that, it was a good, solid episode, if lacking somewhat in twists and turns, and Banks was excellent in his part. Next week, another two-parter.

The Office: s02 e01/02 – Merger/Appraisals


Office

Here we are again: I couldn’t wait any longer.

When writing about The Office‘s first series, I commented that I could not watch more than two episodes at a time because the series was too intense in its portrayal of David Brent, manager and monster. This time round, I nearly had to stop after just one episode. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have taken their writing to another level, or perhaps the more appropriate word is depth, both in terms of excrutiatingly accurate detail and the moral level of the series, and Gervais’ performance as Brent, supported briliantly by the rest of the cast, down to those who are only there to try to keep from looking aghast at what they’re seeing, makes lasers look blunt.

Of the two episodes here, the underlying ‘story’ is of the integration of the ‘Swindon lot’ into Slough branch and Brent’s attempts to impress on them how wonderful he is, leading to extended scenes of toe-curling horror, not to mention introducing from the start the main point of the series as will be seen by the final episode.

It starts in a moment of surreal genius that is not simply funny for funny’s sake but underlines another character development. At the end of series 1, Tim Canterbury (the glorious Martin Freeman) was promoted to Senior Sales Rep, deflecting him from his intention to quit and go to university to study Psychology (a deflection we quite quickly see was what he was hoping for). Tim’s at his desk, working. Gareth Keenan (McKenzie Crook) arrives and, for no apparent reason, starts singing ‘Mahna Mahna’. He’s quickly joined by Ben and, seeing something going on where he’s not the centre of attention, Brent. Throughout, Tim looks bemused. He’s trying to act more grown-up, be responsible and serious, and this is going on around him, in an office, a workplace. He’s the (in his own mind) adult, wondering what the hell he’s doing surrounded by children.

I’ve started with Tim so let me continue (both episodes are beautifully constructed and detail-dense that you could spend three times the length of the programme on the subtlety of practically every line). Tim makes sure he’s ok with receptionist Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis, who does more with background glances and expressions than most actresses do with a mountain of dialogue), after the embarrassment of asking her out and being turned down, but then, in his superior role, starts actually like a bit of a twat to her, reminding her of her duties. When she says she’s bored, nothing to do, and suggests winding up Gareth, he reprimands her.

But Tim is Tim. I’ve read several condemnations of him calling him the worst character in the series, for his evident assumption of superiority to everybody and his sarcastic put-downs and whilst you can see him that way, remember that he’s working for David Brent, and alongside Gareth. There are strains of pond-life that would be entitled to think themselves superior to that pair. In comparison, Tim, though in many ways he hasn’t grown up either, is the adult in the room. But he can’t keep it up. After putting down Dawn in that disappointing manner, he picks up his diary, crosses back to her and, still in his serious mode, tells her that he and she have overlooked a scheduled work item. He has twenty minutes set aside for winding up Gareth with Dawn. Her grin says it all.

I could go on for hours yet about what this episode, and the next, say about their relationship but I need to give time to Brent. It’s two weeks since the end of series 1. Swindon office has been closed down and six former members there have been transferred to Slough, starting more or less today. Enter Patrick Baladi as Neil Godwin, formerly manager at Swindon, Brent’s equivalent, now Regional Manager and Brent’s superiorl, a factual distinction that Brent tries to wave away by dissimulation that now reminds me of Boris Johnson (oh God).

Neil’s suave, intelligent, composed, popular and above all competent. He is the Anti-Brent. He is the adult in the room. He is going to be the series’ villain, by virtue of being, like Jennifer Taylor-Clark, the serious character. Baladi has the difficult job of being a normal, sensible, popular but business-minded manager, and David Brent’s nemesis. He spends much of episode 1 in slow, but carefully-concealed realisation of just what Brent is. A lot of that is disbelief that someone so lacking in any of the essential requirements of his job could ever have reached that level.

Which brings up a point that the audience needs to consider. The Office is styled as a mockumentary, a fly-on-the-wall depiction of a paper business, showing the gloom and generally depressing and soporific effects of working in an office on a job that is in no way fulfilling save for its pay. How does someone like Brent get that far to begin with? No doubt it’s san example of The Peter Principle, that every man is promoted to the level of his own incompetence, but in this series, Brent is so extreme…

I’m avoiding writing about his performance, aren’t I? Circling it, like Indians around a wagon train. It’s horrific to the nth degree, and none of the so-called Swindon lot can believe what they’re seeing and hearing. And Brent, with his unique combination of thick and thin skin, redoubles his efforts to convince them that he is a great boss, a chilled-out entertainer, an inspiration to them all, the longer they sit in shocked silence. They laugh at Neil’s jokes, not just out of familiarity with him but because he’s relaxed, genuinely amusing and commands respect. Brent’s feeble and clixhed material falls flat, and the longeer it does, the more he blames his audienc e. it’s not a good start.

And it gets worse when he tells a horribly racist joke. This gets him carpeted by Jennifer and Neil, which he attempts to shrug off as her having no sense of humour. The Swindon lot include one black guy and one woman confined to a wheelchair. Brent hasn’t the faintest idea how to talk to either. His assumption that Oliver (Howard Saddler) is part Jamaican leads not another hideous embarrasment when he starts advocating Jennifer smoke ganja, and of course another carpeting.

This leads to a prolonged period of Brent in the background, sitting in his office, seething, that little half-bared expression on his face. A chance for contemplation, for self-assessment? No way. Just a prelude to a demand to know who complained about him that reveals it was two women, not Oliver, and exposes him to challenge when he tries to pretend that because the ‘black guy’ wasn’t offended by a racist joke, it was ok. Do you wonder that this is a difficult episode to try to get through? Yet, in amongst the cries of horror and despair at what you’re watching, the whole thing feels real instead of being an exaggeration, the writing is pointed, spare and accurate, the performances rock-solid and the damned thing is still funny.

But, as if all of this has not been enough, there’s an ending striking like a cobra from a different angle. Tim’s buzzing. He’s been complimented by Jennifer. He’s back on level tracking with his friend Dawn. One of the Swindon lot, Rachel (Stacey Roca) is a bit of a cracker, and she’s showing signs of being interested in him, even though Gareth has ‘claimed’ her. He starts dancing with Dawn, a mock waltz, nothing meant by it, just as her fiance Lee comes up from the warehouse to take her home. And Lee slams Tim up against the wall.

A moment of crunch. Tim tries to be cool and collected about it but Dawn has shot off after Lee, and Gareth is still there, not to mention everybody else and the floor resolutely refusing to open up and swallow him… Yes, series 2 has started, and it’s not going to get any lighter.

The second episode continues the underlying themes. It starts with Dawn leading Lee to apologise to Tim, with a bottle of no doubt cheap wine, for his behaviour. Tim tries to brush it off, unable to handle confrontation even when the other guy is backing down. Or is it Lee’s evident, and bone-headed assumption that Tim is no threat?

It’s staff appraisal time and some of the interviews are horribly funny. Brent is his usual, supposedly wise philosophical self with Tim, who, irritated by the banality of the process and refusing to let Brent bracket them as guys in their thirties, exposes that he’s reading these wise sayings off a crib sheet, Confucius via Brent. Keith (Ewen Macintosh) comes into his comic own, a mountain of a bloke, round of face, big round glasses, moustache and goatee, jaws in perpetual motion, working on chewing gum that must have lost its flavour sometime around the foundation of the Protestant Church, with no interest in anything. His totally uninterested exchanges with Brent on the Q&A are hysterical, all the more so for Keith being the exact antonym of hysterical: even Brent has to concede defeat. And Dawn reveals that her true interest in life is in art, her ambition to have become a children’s illustrator having slowly retreated until instead of being an illustrator who did reception work she now tells people she’s a receptionist. Typically, Brent is more concerned with badgering her to make him her Role Model, and pays only lip service to her ambition, whilst calling them ‘doodles’ and effectively saying she’d never succeed.

But it’s with the ‘Swindon lot’ that the episode once again enters the bathysphere and heads unerringly for the Tuscarora Deeps. They’ve only been there a week so he can’t appraise them but he gets them together to chat over how they’re adjusting. no-ne wants to come out and say to his face that they despise him,, but they don’t respond to his self-portrayal as the entertainer, nor ro the ‘chill’, ‘laid-back’, ‘have a laugh’ atmosphere. They’re used to working hard. Here in Slough, they’re bored.

The response is, in hindsight, inevitable. Thus challenged, Brent invites them all down the pub to get to know him as he really is, not that they haven’t already got his number. It’s a disaster, which Brent blames on them not making the effort, and storms back to the office. He interrupts a game in reception of French Cricket, Neil having the bat. Everyone, including Gareth, is clearly having exactly the kind of fun he’s failed to create. Petulantly, he orders everyone back to work, sneering, calling it ‘pathetic’. Which very speedily leads to a confrontation with Neil in his office, trying to discover what problem Brent has with him, being calm, professional as non-confrontational as he can be, but at the same time making it plain that he will not put up with Grent – or anyone – speaking like that to him in front of his staff. Trapped out on a limb of his own building, already half-sawn through, Brent is reduced to silence. Gervais’s expression is tight and resetful.

And as soon as Neil has left he’s out there, lying like a Prime Minister, spreading poison, claiming he was the victor in that confrontation (after carefully checking no-one’s heard what was really said), and that Neil was slagging off Gareth and Tim, calling them rubbish, when it’s the ‘Swindon lot’ who are shit. Two episodes, only.

There’s still more to this episode. The new girl, Rachel, quite clearly is interested in Tim, checking with Dawn, of all people, if he’s available. Lucy Davis once again says more with her silenvce than with words, though it’s the audience who read it, not Rachel, who later invites |Tim to join her and a couple of mates afterr work, to which he responds enthusiastically.

I let Gareth off very lightly in relation to episode 1 because, by that time, I couldn’t go on but here he gets a scene that will live forever in infamy when it comes to discussing the relationships between men and women. It starts in the kitchen, where Rachel has just made herself a cuppa. Gareth approaches and asks her out after work, an invitation she politely declines, saying she can’t, she’s going out with Tim. That’s the last point at which the horror is kept at bay. Because Gareth asks if he can come too and, when refused, goes on to explain that if she doesn’t have it off it Tim, he’d still be interested. Rachel, unable to believe her ears, resoponds as if she’s taking Gareth’s ignorance seriously and, no, I can’t go on any further. It’s a miracle of male attitudes that, thanks to Crook’s splendidly unaware portrayal, becomes excrutiatingly funny instead of excrutiatingly offensive. That bit above when I talked about the floor not opening up and swallowing Tim? It’s just the same here, though this time it’s the audience wanting several floors, one below another, to open up and swallow Gareth. Who even comes back for one final egregious comment in front of someone else who’s checking if there’s still any milk left…

You may be thinking, how on earth an episode 2 top that, or rather bottom that. Oh, ye of little imagination. Remember me mentioning the woman in the wheelchair, Brenda, played by Julie Fernandez? We get Brent at the pub moving her chair backwards and forwards and sideay so he can pass, without aword, acting as if he sees the chair only. That’s nothing. Earlier on, there’s a fire drill, everyone out, don’t use the lifts. Oliver’s assisting Brenda but is overruled by Brent and Gareth. Together they lift her wheelchair down a couple of flights of stairs. It’s hard workl, sweaty and achey. So, what the hell, it’s only a drill, there’s no fire. So they leave her, on a quarter landing, between flights. On her own. In her wheelchair. It isn’t funny. But then it wasn’t meant to be.

The Office, series 2. When things start to get darker.

Due South: s01 e18 – An Invitation to Romance


Due South

A farce. A pure farce from start to finish. And I mean that in a good way.

All RCMP Constable Benton Fraser had to do was deliver a letter, a Party Invitation, in fact, though the Canadian Consul also wants him to stop being so nice and helpful to everyone because this is ruining his aspiration to make Canada feared by the USA. Not that this makes any difference since our man Fraser can’t keep himself from escorting old ladies and nuns across busy Chicago streets nor from rugby-tackling attractive young blonde women to prevent them from being knocked over by a truck whilst on the way to the Post Office and simultaneously learning French.

Actually, it’s only one attractive young blonde woman, and her name is Katharine Burns and she’s being played by a young Jane Krakowski long years before 30 Rock. And Ms Burns is, from one angle, an airhead, and from another a self-centred monster who neither observes the world about her nor listens to anyone trying to treat it as a well-ordered place, and in either aspect talks continually until you start wondering what the heck she sees out of those baby blue eyes, and Krakowski is absolutely brilliant.

What can go wrong when all you have to do is deliver a letter? You have to ask? Well, what about you save a blithering idiot’s life, she doesn’t notice and in picking up her scattered letters you get one of hers and she gets yours? A long, convoluted but always ridiculous in a good way, chase ensues.

You see, Miss Burns is getting married tomorrow, to Nigel Ellis (Nicholas Campbell) – I didn’t know they had Nigels in America – a sanitation businessman of doubtful probity and extreme jealousy. By an implausible coincidence of the kind that’s practically mandatory in stories like this, the invitation Fraser is delivering turns out to be to the said Nigel at his home, where Miss Burns has momentarily come to rest, thus causing her, and more fatefully him to assume that Fraser has fallen violently in love with the lady and is following her. Unfortunately, Nigel, being as I have mentioned of the jealous kind, instantly assumes his ever-loving finacee is doing a turn behind his back and has his henchman Perry follow them, the idea being that if Nigel’s suspicions turn out to be correct, or if an unbelievable sequence of unfortunate and momentary incidents create the suspicion that he’s correct when in fact he isn’t, then he’s going to blow the heads off both of them.

The episode isn’t quite a Fraser solo but Ray Vecchio is mostly a supporting role. It’s his day off and he’s planning to watch the baseball only he’s doing this fsvour for his Canadian buddy, ferrying him around on an increasingly convoluted trail, until he accepts Fraser’s suggestion he go home. But having been asked to deliver Fraser’s message that he’s going to be a bit late, Vecchio ends up dressing in Fraser’s spare uniform and taking his place as doorman to the party, in a most un-Fraser and un-Canadian-like fashion.

By now, the main story has seen Fraser be spotted at Miss Burns’ bridal shop when she’s trying on her wedding dress (a proper meringue, as my ex-wife would have described it), leading, naturally, to the two of them winding up in the honeymoon suite of a Bridal Hotel, where Miss Burns, having already consumed at least one bottle of champagne, becomes the first woman to get to kiss Constable Fraser, as well as making indelicate suggestions as to the use of a heart-shaped waterbed. Don’t worry, Nigel and his shotgun disrupt things leading, once again, naturally, to the non-engaged pair winding up in the dumpster and being driven away to a place where Nigel intends to do the deadly.

Where you’ve got Vecchio using his last bullet uselessly so that he doesn’t have to shoot his car again to create a diversion. But the lovely Katherine actually talks Nigel down, pointing out how hurt she is by his lack of trust in her, especially as she’s marrying him tomorrow. And, do you know what? He actually says sorry and puts his gun down. He really loves her. Then she goes and says she’s realised she doesn’t love him and she won’t marry him, so we get an action ending after all, no matter how brief.

And a coda in which Cinderella Burns goes to the Ball on Prince Not-So-Charming’s invitation, and we end with Fraser waltzing her round the floor, and if anything else happens, you’re going to have to imagine it for yourself, not that personally I would give you six-for-five on any romantic sparks flying. A farce, as I said. Feydeau will not be worrying yet, but definitely funny.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e29 – The Odd Man Affair


Uncle

And that was the last of them. 29 is a very strange number for a season of American TV, but that’s what The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s first year came up with and we’ve finally reached that point.

I’ve been disappointed with the series, which has rarely lived up to my delighted memories, but I’m happy to say that the season went out on a high note, with a well-written, well-acted and almost wholly serious story, one that was dominated by its guest stars, Martin Balsam and Barbara Shelley, as two former agents re-uniting under the colours one final time. This gave the episode an elegant, elegiac overtone that, whilst completely uncharacteristic of the series, dealt with mixed emotions that left a tangible impression.

The episode opened with Ilya as a passenger on a plane, surreptitiously watching a mysterious passenger wearing a hat, moustache and dark glasses under dim light (dark glasses were in evidence throughout the episode with Ilya even commenting on their use under subdued lighting whilst in a Soho strip club that looked nothing like any Soho strip blub I’ve ever seen – on TV, I hasten to add!). When confronted by the pilot over a warning message that has been received, Monsieur Raymond, lifelong assassin, terrorist leader and master of disguise, shoots him with his camera, locks himself in the toilet and blows himself out of the plane with plastic explosive that he’s been using to keep his trousers up. Add to that a grenade disguised as an electric shaver and we look like we’re in for fun, not to mention a spiritual crossover with Danger Man.

But no. Raymond was due in London to meet with fellow terrorists to discuss a grand alliance to promote their aims in overthrowing Governments (later this will be portrayed as an ‘alliance with the left’, which is odd because that’s where most terrorists come from in the first place). We already know, from eavesdropping on Mr Zed (Ronald Long), that Raymond is against this so someone will have to impersonate him by turning up in London: it’s convenient that no-one knows Raymond’s true face.

In order to learn enough about Raymond to successfully do this, Mr Waverley leads Napoleon and Ilya to the home of retired U.N.C.L.E. Agent Albert Sully (Balsam), ex- of the Filing Section but, more pertinently of the OSS in WW2, where he had ample contact with the aforementioned Raymond. It’s implied that Sully was demoted to Filing because he was crap at Agenting, but the guy has the hankering to be back in the game. He won’t help tutor Napoleon on how to be Raymond, for one thing he’s too young. No, instead he’ll impersonate him himself. Caught over a barrel, Mr Waverley agrees.

Sully, wearing a false moustache and a hairpiece covering his high forehead, flies to London with our two top Agents keeping close watch on him. Napoleon surreptitiously attaches a homing pin to Sully’s trouser cuff, unaware that Ilya has already even more surreptitiously attached one to the man’s hatband, plus a microphone: one up to the Russian. This proves to be necessary as Sully gives them both the slip at the airport, having yet more surreptitiously than all stuffed Solo’s suitcase with bottles on liquor and dobbed him in at Customs.

Is Sully a traitor? Is he playing a double-game? He heads straight for an unlikely pub where he puts on a deliberately comic cockney accent to order ‘half and half’ and ‘fish and chips’ which are delivered to him inside thirty seconds. There is a woman sat at a table, a middle-aged but still presentable woman, who has agreed to meet him there. She is Bryn Watson (Shelley), once an expert courier for the OSS, twenty years ago, and an old flame, now content in retirement, out of the game, a widow with two school-age children.

Balsam and Shelley are superb in their contrasting roles. Together and alone they take over the episode, Sully eager to bring back the past, play the game once more, Bryn out of it and determined not to be sucked back in after so long. What their relationship was in the past is left to the audience’s imagination, quite briliantly so: Balsam and Shelley’s quiet enjoyment of each other’s company allows us to infer something that was once very strong and very secure, whether it be comradeship or romance.

This is where the shoe drops. Sully never met Raymond, never knew him, but Bryn did. He wants to pump her for every detail. This little bombshell upsets Napoleon, who is cleaerly aggrieved. Ilya just goes to the bar, orders and drains a pint of stout, without a Russian care in the world. As we knew shewould, Bryn joins the pack, to help keep Sully from instant exposure by feeding him info at every turn.

This is the second time we’ve been in the land of my birth in recent weeks and I’m bound to say that this time the programme does a better job of it. Admittedly, our Agents catch up with Sully by travelling in a New York taxicab, but they do manage to catch a proper British black cab when next they need transport, and the cab is driving on the left. There’s a real Policeman’s helmet on show, not to mention the ubiquitous red London bus (no doubt the same one from ‘The Gazebo in the Maze Affair’ two episodes back) and the show is actually populated with British actors with real British accents that are not comedy ones.

‘Raymond’ is supposed to pick up his directions at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. I have never been to Hyde’s Park but I nevertheless doubt the perfect authenticity of the scene. In the midst of his peroration, Mr Wye accuses ‘Raymond’ of going on to a certain Soho strip club. It gets a bit confusing here, as Wye is associated with Zed and so is Ecks, who’s supposed to kill ‘Raymond’ except that Napoleon and Ilya get to him first. They all run off to hop onto the bus, with its open platform at the rear. Wye catches the bus too and shoots Solo in the shoulder before the versatile Bryn smacks him sideways with her purse.

This surprised me, for the last episode, to take Robert Vaughn off the board about halfway through. This leaves David McCallum in charge en route to the strip club where a very attractive young lady does a hula dance whilst signalling an address to ‘Raymond’ using deaf-and-dumb hand signals that Bryn can read. Unfortunately, Sully then blows his cover by lighting up whereas Raymond is allergic to tobacco. They’ve already bluffed their way past the Baroness, an ex-lover of Raymond, with Bryn providing the cues and Sully improvising brilliantly. Now Ilya has to start a melee, claiming the Baroness is his wife, running off with her lover, punching the bodyguard onto a table of drunken sailors (whenever you want a melee, just add a table of drunken sailors), whilst the increasingly versatile Bryn – has she really been a housewife for twenty years? – rips the woman’s dress off (she wears a slip beneath it) and that’s that for her.

So despite Sully’s insistence that she stay in the cab with Ilya whilst he goes into the plush home of the meeting’s host, Mr Zed, Bryn insists on following and continually prompting him as to who it is he’s meeting (has she really been out of the game for twenty years?). Ilya spots that Zed has switched ‘Raymond’s blue badge for one stuffed with plastic explsive, but Sully’s going great guns by now and switches it back. Once Mr Wye spots Bryn however, the game is up. She welters him with her purseand a shooting match ensues, killing bodyguards galore through a locked door. Zed detonates the badge, except that it’s stuck behind his lapel, and Sully persuades the rest of the group that Zed was the traior. And he shuts down the alliance proposal.

The sting in the tale is that Sully then refuses to leave. As long as he can maintain his pose as Raymond, he can help direct the various groups into traps by U.N.C.L.E. and slowly reduce the menace. How long he will last is another matter. The question of whether he will last at all is not directly addressed.

So to the close. Napoleon is back, his left arm in an appropriate black sling. He and Ilya are flying back but first stop sat the pub to let Bryn, who has clearly been drinking more than she should at lunchtime, that their French colleagues report so far so good with ‘Raymond’. Shelley dismisses it: her pessimism is, we understand, well-justified. She anatomises Sully very succinctly as a man who cannot live without knowing that death is at his elbow, forwhom only risk enables him to live fully. She tells Messrs Solo and Kuryakin that they are that kind of man. She also challenges them to a game of darts but they’re smart enough not to play. As they shuffle out, Napoleon can only, weakly and ineffectually, deny her charge. We don’t believe him.

A downbeat ending, played to the reality of the situation. When the screw turned, Sully and Bryn played to the height of their abilities, and frankly played a more real hand that the Men from U.N.C.L.E. It was that which made the episode, and both were exact and wonderful in their parts. For me, they outshone every other guest in the entire series.

Next week we’ll have a change of series and of mood. The chances of getting later U.N.C.L.E. series to compare is still on the unlikely side of unlikely but who’s to say: I have Lottery tickets unchecked. It’s been a disappointment overall over twenty-nine weeks, but that’s the way it sometimes goes.

Due South: s01 e17 – The Deal


Due South

This was a strange episode, or rather it had a strange, very much out of character ending that threw the audience, mainly because it felt like a cliffhanger ending for a two-part story of which part two didn’t exist. Until then, it had been an intense episode that set up Ray Vecchio for a role more central to the story than usual, a role he had to take on, on one level because Benton Fraser had been badly beaten by the bad guy’s goons, and on another by the force of guilt that drove him into a desperate but determined act.

Typically, the episode started with an open that played on perfect comedy, but which was almost immediately cut through with a sense of danger. Father Behan’s Church is full of young ladies, all wishing to join the choir, all scantily or tightly-clad, including the odd bare midriff, dressed to kill, or at least seriously maim. And for why this sudden onrush of Catholic devotion? Could it have anything to do with how Ray’s ‘persuaded’ his Mountie pal, Bennie to sing? You bet your sweet bippy. They’re all clustering around Fraser, trying to get the seat nearest to him. And enter Ray’s sweet and sexy young sister, Francesca (Ramona Milano) barging her way practically onto his lap, ignoring the singing to chat him up, dispensing with the niceties of romance and courtship and ending, just as the hymn ends, with the direct question, “Do you want to have sex with me?”

But this has already been intercut with the appearance below of a homeless-looking guy, who we will learn is Joey Paducci (Rod Wilson), here simply to pray, and the rather less innocent conversation between an older and a younger man. The younger man is Frank Zuko (Jim Brachitta) and we don’t need a Ph.D in coded conversations to understand that he is the local extortionist, and the older guy one of the ‘clients’ he protects, unhappy at even more pips being squeezed out by the jumped-up, superficially suave, nasty little thug they’re dealing with. On the way out, Frankie pushes a C-note into the Poor Box. Joey uses a curious small claw-like device to force it open and steal the contents. Fraser pursues, but in vain. Cue credits.

So far, so Due South. And what follows is an archetypal first half, mainly comedic. A crime has been committed and Fraser is analysing the assault on the Poor Box. On the other hand, Vecchio is typically dismissive of a crime involving the theft of only about $40. Until he’s assigned to the case by Lieutenant Walsh, spurred on by a formal complaint from a prominent local citizen, hoping this attack on the community will not be overlooked. The prominent citizen is Frank Zuko.

Or Frankie, as he was when Ray Vecchio knew him, twenty years ago, in school, when they used to shoot hoops together. Their paths have taken different courses, ever since the time Frankie, a competitive character who didn’t like to lose, had two guys hold down Marco, a complete basketball klutz who invariably caused whichever team he was on to lose, and dribbled a basketball on his face. For thirty minutes.

We learn this from Ray but we see it for ourself when we meet Frankie. Bracchitta plays him perfectly as an outwardly concerned and successful citizen but inside a raging monster, full of ego and the thrill of power, the power to do unto others what you will, because you are (you think) smart and tough and unbeatable, because you are Frank Zuko and you’ve inherited your father’s ‘business’, and think you’re smarter than him and more modern, but you don’t understand how much of that power isn’t personal but derives from the mob you command. You are respected by all, but only because they’re scared shitless of you.

And Constable Fraser draws a distinction between respect and fear and, in a line that underwrites the entire story, reminds Frankie that fears can be overcome.

Anyway, the tracking down of Joey takes up the first half of the story, by a typical Due South/Benton Fraser process that at one point, for very sound criminological reasons, has a very attractive young woman running a bras and knickers shop, unbutton her blouse to reveal a hand-made leather corselette beneath, being seriously stretched, which she allows – allows? welcomes – Bennie to sniff it at rather close quarters.

All this detection leads to Joey and his story. Joe’s an ordinary Joe, a shoemaker who had a shop and a wife and kid. Joey was ‘requested’ to pay $50 per week ‘dues’ to the ‘Neighbourhood Association’. It was a struggle to begin with, befote the ‘dues’ went up, and up, and up. Until Joey lost the shop, and his family. He attacked the Poor Box for the $100, figuring he was getting some of his own back. A crime, to be sure. Ray had to apply the law, however little he wants to.

But that’s not the point. Father Behan won’t press charges. Someone anonymously pays Joey’s bail. Frankie’s grateful to Fraser for locating this stain on the community, grateful with hard and soft furnishings for Bennie’s spartan apartment, less than grateful that Bennie won’t accept them. We all know it. Joey’s dead. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Bennie and Ray try to get Joey out of Chicago. Ray’s pulled in a favour from a guy at the bus company to get him away, unseen, but Frankie’s clearly pulled an even bigger favour in and it’s a set-up. For once, Ray is the hero, saving Joey’s life, and it’s Bennie who gets trapped, by four hired muscle, and gets a beatdown, with brass knuckles A message from Mr Zuko is about to be delivered, with a gun, when Ray saves the day again.

This leads to an odd scene, as Elaine Besbriss, the station’s Civilian Aid, applies something like iodine to Fraser’s facial cuts and bruises. It’s a tightly-shot scene, the camera up close, showing the two faces close together, as if this was a romance scene. Elaine’s being as gentle as she can, and Bennie’s being strictly honest about the pain every dab causes.

I feel sorry for Catherine Bruhier (who looks very lovely indeed in this scene). She’s supposedly part of the cast of this first season but really she’s a bit part, appearing minimally even in the episodes where she appears at all. Her character is basically a dogsbody, there to supply instant answers when Ray and Bennie need background information (a very limited forerunner of one aspect of Harold Finch in Person of Interest) and otherwise to wisecrack slightly over Bennie, like all the other women. She’s hardly a fundamental part of the series, any more than Detectives Huey and Gardino are, and there’s no sign of her role being developed at all.

So Bennie’s been beaten badly and is, to all intents and purpose, hors de combat for the rest of the episode. It’s all on Ray’s shoulders. They can’t get Frankie Zuko for this. They can’t even get Joey protective custody for more than a token 48 hours. He’s going to be killed and there’s not a damned thing they can do about it. Ray’s frustration is rising, and rising fast. It’s been rising for twenty years, ever since he stood by and let Frankie make mush of his friend’s face and he said and did nothing.

And the episode swims out into deep waters. Ray goes down the gym where Frankie’s shooting hoops. He’s all chipper and confident, challenging Frankie to some one-on-ones, predicting he’ll kick his ass. Frankie don’t like to lose, Frankie’s King of the World. He’ll even send his two goons for a capuccino, at which point Ray locks them out. No frills, no fusses, no improbably consistent long-range baskets like Fraser threw. He just punches Frankie in the face. Not once but half a dozen times, calling him a coward. Because that’s what Frankie is. On his own, he couldn’t handle the skin of a rice pudding. Ray could literally beat him to death. Because Fraser was right. Fear can be overcome.

Instead, Ray offers a deal. In exchange for Frankie calling off the hit on Joey, letting him reopen his shop, no ‘dues’, Ray will not tell the world about hos he kicked Frankie’s ass, left him bleeding and gasping on the floor. They both give their word on that. Frankie reminds |Raty he hasn’t promised him his safety. Ray says he didn’t ask for that, and leaves. One of Frankie’s henchmen appears on the balcony, looking down on Frankie’s battered mug (nice bit of psychological staging, looking down). When Frankie wants to know what he’s looking at, the guy pauses for several seconds before saying, “Nothing,” but there’s an inflexion to his voice that says he isn’t necessarily obeying orders to be blind.

So to that ending. Frankie doesn’t like being beaten. He’s been threatened, he knows Frankie is the revengeful kind. His service weapon is on his bedside table. The camera angle includes the window from which any surreptitious attack would come. But he removes the magazine from the pistol, and locks the gun in his bedside cabinet, where he can’t instantly get to it.

Cut to Fraser’s now once again spartan apartment. He’s bruised and has his ribs strapped. He’s reading from his Dad’s journals again, Gordon Pinsent’s voiceover, about going t o bed disturbed about a threat of revenge, about fear destroying a man from the inside, and about releasing it, bit by bit, until it was all gone and he slept long and refreshed. The window’s in shot behind Fraser all this time. He blows outthe lamp, lies down in the dark. A sound attracts his attention. His door opens and someone approaches his bed. It’s Francesca, dressed in something that’s come from the bra and underwear shop I mentioned before, which doesn’t cover all that much of her.

“Don’t be afraid, she says. Cue end titles.

A very strange ending indeed. To some extent, the Frankie Zuko threat left damgling is standard mainstream TV fare, which will be forgotten next week and ever after, even on Canadian TV (though a quick check through imdb confirms that Frankie returns in season 2, also that this was Jim Bracchitta’s first television credit). But Francesca is a recurring character, one who will ascend to Cast in later seasons. It will be interesting to see how this is followed up.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e28 – The Girls of Nazarone Affair


Uncle

Another episode slips by. I’m torn by disappointment at finding out that season 1 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t half as wonderful as I remember it being and frustration at not having access to season 2 to see how that compares after a change in producers. Certainly, as season 1 slips towards its conclusion there’s an overall sense that the people making it have given up on logic and coherence and are just setting up something to allow Robert Vaughn and David McCallum to do their oneupmanship double act.

And in this penultimate episode to flood the show with beautiful blondes, one of whom spent the entire show wearing nothing but a heavy sweater (on the French Riviera?), black knickers and black tights with a seam. She would have been a simple pleasure to the male eye but for the fact that this bit part was being played by Sharon Tate, who would be murdered by followers of the cult leader Charles Manson little more than four years after this episode was filmed.

The episode’s title was an obvious play on the big hit war film, The Guns of Navarone, though the film itself had no bearing on the story. It began with a champagne-sipping gardenia seller being approached by two blonde women in a car, one of whom takes his photo, slips him a surreptitious envelope later established as containing 25,000 francs and ‘accidentally’ jabs him with a needle. No-one of any intelligence should be surprised that he shortly after collapses and dies of poison.

Why has he been killed? Here are our two top agents, entering the hotel outside which the gardenia seller sits and drinks. They are seeking a Dr Kelvin, inventor of a superserum that promotes incredibly rapid recovery from injury, up to and including half a dozen bullets to the torso, who seeks to put himself under the protection of U.N.C.L.E. By now, it’s well-established that U.N.C.L.E. can only successfully protect the innocents that Messrs Solo and Kuryakin constantly dragoon into extreme danger, but actually the good doctor has already been kidnapped before the boys even get there. By THRUSH, of course, acting under the leadership of Dr Egret (of The Mad Mad Tea Party Affair).

Here, the Doc is operating under the name of Madame Alceste Streigau and, instead of being played by Lee Meriweather, she’s being played by the older Marian Moses which, no disrespect to the lady, is a bit of a come-down. At the end, she escapes but not before ripping off her hat, her wig and her plastic face mask without us seeing her ‘real’ face. She never appears again because the new producers decided not to have recurring characters.

Accompanying her as driver is Lucia Nazarone (Danica d’Hondt), world famous lady racing driver, here to compete in the forthcoming Cannes Grand Prix, which I can’t help but imagine as some sort of cross between fast laps and slow fades. Nazarone, as she is known throughout, is there to be shot dead, willingly, by Madame, be rushed to the clinic of Dr Baurel, receive the serum and, the very next day, be hale and hearty and easily capable of administering a beat down to Napoleon Solo. Actually, this is a masochist’s wet dream of an episode as he spends practically the entire episode being beaten up by blondes who, as a gentleman and a star actor in a 1965 TV primetime series, he can’t hit back. Even Ilya gets worked over and thrown down a well, but he only has to undergo that once.

Where does our Innocent fit in to this muddle? She is Miss Lavinia Brown (Kipp Hamilton), a midwestern spinster teacher of Geography and History. As Miss Hamilton is not exactly glam, certainly not when set alongside Mesdames d’Hondt, Tate and Kathy Kersh (as Madame’s assistant, and the most attractive looking woman in the episode), she gets to play her part as the kooky woman, shouting her lines rather than saying them.

Not that she’s unjustified in said shouting. Miss Brown is in her dressing gown, relaxing after unpacking in her hotel room when she discovers that two men have entered and are searching it, without a word to her, refusing to leave when she orders them to go. Matters are made worse when the Porter is called and he accepts a large bribe to leave her with these two potential rapists. No wonder she’s pissed off, to the point of being terribly sarcastic with Napoleon in particular.

And of course she’s the natural foil for when our two heroes having reported total failure to an unimpressed and offscreen Mr Waverley come up with the idea of redeeming themselves by keeping THRUSH in town for a few days so they can, maybe, somehow, if they ever come up with a plan, steal the formula back. The means of doing so is to give dear Lavinia $25,000 to go on a spending spree and dob her in to the baddies via their hidden microphones that Lavinia has the other copy of the formula.

Things do not go smoothly. Lavinia falls into Madame’s hands, to be tortured for something she hasn’t got. Napoleon and Ilya get beaten up. Napoleon and Lavinia are strapped to mattresses and left to sink in the swimming pool: at least it’s a comfortable way to go. Ilya gets his own back on the blonde bruisers in the only way possible, by pushing two extras into the swimming pool. Everyone goes tearing off in fast cars (Ilya and Napoleon both get to drive an E-type Jag, which made me profoundly jealous).

This last point comes of Nazarone’s increasingly strange behaviour. She’s bursting with life, with vitality and energy, manically training in a heavy sweater, black knickers (slightly less visible than Sharon Tate’s, she not being a bit part) and black tights, her pair being non-seamed. It’s all getting a bit wierd, not to mention creepy. She kidnaps Dr Borel for a high speed drive. No-one can stop her. Until her car stops and we find she’s dead, as respresented by streaky make-up meant to suggest she’s aged to death.

Yes, that’s the snag in the serum. It accelerates your metabolism to achieve rapid recovery, but it doesn’t stop there. It burns you up, and you die even more elegantly wasted than Keith Richard.

Anyway: Napoleon’s nicked the E-type to follow Egret/Streigau to Nazarone’s garage where the only copy of the formula is being kept, in a safe whose ingenious unlocking mechanism appears to require you dropping a necklace of pearls into the slot: expensive security or what? Napoleon arrives and is set upon by Kersh and Tate whilst Egret does her disappearing act, after which the two blondes seem to just give up fighting. Perhaps they just got bored, having it all their own way?

We wind up back in the hotel. Lavinia’s going home. It’s been a very short holiday for her, all the way from Montana to the French Riviera for what, I calculate, was three days, maximum, which, if her pre-enlistment appearance was anything to go by, she intended to spend in the hotel bar, drinking champagne morosely. Still, she gets to keep the stuff she pigged out on with U.N.C.L.E.’s money so it hasn’t been a total dead loss.

Napoleon is despondent. He didn’t get the formula, he didn’t get Dr Egret. Mr Waverley is going to be disappointed with him, in fact he is going to be gruff. That is, until dear, sweet, innocent, kooky Lavina lets slip that the formula is a bust and you’d actually want THRUSH injecting everyone they’ve got with it. I admit, I laughed out loud at Ilya’s insincere apology for not mentioning that before.

And then there was one left.

Due South: s01 e16 – The Blue Line


Due South

This was pretty much the perfect Due South open. It began with Bennie and Ray in Ray’s new identical-to-the-other-one 1971 Buick, and Ray having great fun winding Bennie up by making turns without indicating. Then Bennie stops Ray, urgently, because he’s seen a guy going into a liquor store. No, he doesn’t suspect a robbery, instead it’s Mark Smithbauer (Rick Rossovich), a fellow Canadian, star Ice Hockey player for Chicago’s team (Ray is so not into hockey). Bennie follows him into the store to get his autograph, for Diefenbaker, he’s such a fan. He’s quickly followed into the store by a guy in a motor-cyclist’s helmet: he is attempting a robbery. Bennie talks him down and he runs out. Bennie turns to assure the store there’s nothing to worry about, just before Ray tackles him to the ground, because every customer in the store has drawn their own gun and is pouring a hail of bullets after the rapidly-vanishing robber, blasting the storefront and windows to bits. Gun control? Pah! Bennie gets up, approaches Mark to reassure him and gets belted round the head by a champagne bottle, that does not crack open the way it would if similarly welted at a newly-launched ship. Mark skedaddles out the back door. As Ray helps the not-even-concussed Bennie back to his feet, our favourite Mountie lets slip that Mark Smithbauer is his best friend. Go, theme music.

After the credits, we start to learn more about the adult superstar Mark Smithbauer. Such as, he’s loud, arrogant, snotty, self-centred, sneery and an all-round arsehole. Seriously, you want to imagine a sportstar behaving badly, you could paste ol’ Mark into your scrapbook. He has even forgotten Bennie completely, though the show doesn’t need to develop much further before providing a counterblast to such unCanadian behaviour, pointing out through Mark himself that he is surrounded by ‘friends’, people who shook his hand once and now claim to be his best buddy, who seem to think that Mark’s success, despite being all his own work, somehow entitles them to a piece of it.

The truth is that Mark has recognised Bennie, and does remember their past as boys, playing ice hockey every night outside Mark’s Dad’s barn for as long as they could. He’s just basically been conditioned to spell ‘friend’ l-e-e-c-h.

Besides, he’s demanding protection. The guy wasn’t out to rob the store, he was out to kill Mark. Why? Because Mark’s a hero, a National Treasure, because he’s worth it. At first we take this as superstar paranoia, especially after he tries to hire Bennie as the bodyguard the Police won’t provide. But there is someone sending threatening letters…

Bennie’s unique form of detection, using neighbours and friends, is both brilliantly effective and totally hilarious in the way it conflicts with Ray’s reliance upon Police forensics. A hockey fanatic neighbour with hours of games on VHS enabling Bennie to pinpoint a moment when a stick breaks and the angry Mark hurls it into the crowd. A profoundly deaf opera loving neighbour who cam lip-read expertly to identify a shout of ‘You hurt my kid!’. A video store clerk who’s both a massive film enthusiast and can blow up a scene (cue reference to the David Hemmings-starring film of the same name, also to The Yardbirds appearing in it) enables him to identify the man’s seat and, as a season ticket holder, his name and address. Since the guy intends to return the broken stick to Mark, presumably in a manner that will cause pain and hurt, Bennie and Ray have to intervene and catch him. Threat over, in only 21 minutes.

That’s a lot of episode left because this guy is the red, or rather pink herring. His little kid did get hurt, his beef is genuine, but he’s the wool being pulled over our eyes. And he points out, not that anyone except the audience are listening, that the stick didn’t simply break. The break was too straight. It had been tampered with to make sure it broke.

Right about now, Mark starts acting with a bit of contrition towards Bennie, reminiscing with him about the days when they were kids. They last saw each other when they were both 13 and now Mark’s 33 (which means Bennie is also 33). Mark’s changed. People do, especially ones who go through the kind of hothouse atmosphere Mark has. It’s not special pleading, seeking to justify his behaving like an asshole, just a reminder of what that kind of world does. Especially when, like Mark, it can all be taken away from you very swiftly. Mark’s slowing up. He’s blown his knee out more times than he can count, and the next time will probably be the last time. Ice hockey has been his life: he hasn’t got anything else.

The episode does well by simply brushing across the surface of all this, by showing Mark as still having the decent guy inside him, saying a couple of things, allowing the deeper implications to sink in on their own, under the cover of the re-bonding. But Mark is still being pursued by those who wat to do him harm, and this time things are considerably more serious. Not just in terms of the threat but in what has set it off.

Bennie knows Mark is still lying, by omission if nothing else. His refusal to engage until Mark tells him the truth forces the latter, who really needs his old buddy now, to come clean. About being approached by a betting syndicate boss, Turk Broda, to throw a game, and about refusing: hell, he scored the winning goal in the last seconds!

Bennie believes him. Ray is more sceptical, or shall we say cynical. He warns Turk off, and in turn gets a pretty strong hint as to the real, bedrock truth. Which Mark finally admits to Bennie as they’re trying to escape on ice skates from a car of gun-blasting hoods that ain’t doing that well on ice themselves. The truth is, and Mark doesn’t say why but he’s already said enough about the imminent end of his career for us to know why, he took the money. Played his part for 59 minutes. And then, as the crowd started chanting the seconds down, the game took him back. What had bound him to the sport for more than twenty years couldn’t be abandoned. He won the game. Turk was unhappy. Giving the money back didn’t make a difference.

Anyway, it turned out that a Mountie on ice-skates was more than a match for three gun-toting goons (you’d have thought they would have known that now), and there was a lovely bit of slow-motion ice-ballet-and-slapstick with police cars crashing into each other but there was still a serious point left. Bennie knew. Would he tell? The show left it in the air after a pregnant talk between Bennie and Mark, but cut to the next scene, reporters discussing Mark’s punishment: a lifetime suspension.

The implication was that he’d turned himself in, in fact the show all but said it. What Mark would do next was the question, and the answer was that he had no idea. At least he would go into that future with clean hands and composure, to adapt one of Harlan Ellison’s favourite sayings. On a deeper level, you might say that he faced that future with his soul cleansed. In the short term, Mark reminded himself of his teenage days alongside Bennie, slamming pucks into a snowbank, before playing a two-v-two game, under the lights of Ray’s Buick, Canadians versus Americans. And that was good enough for fadeout.

I liked the episode, but that must be obvious. It balanced out comedy and deeper issues, mostly relating to friendship vs celebrity by implanting ideas ito the audience’s mind and letting them think things through rather than beating them over the head with a hockey stick. It stuck two fingers up to those who loathe sentimentality, but held that sentimentality in check. It even featured Gordon Pinsent in voice, as Bennie read his father’s notebook, as a counterpoint to Mark’s decision, about how every man has a line inside that they will never allow themselves to cross, but that that man may not know where he has drawn his own line until he has crossed it… Mark told on himself. Fraser Sr. as good as said it.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e27 – The Gazebo in the Maze Affair


Uncle

With only two episodes left, I think that I am on safe ground in nominating this episode as the absolute worst of the first season. And I don’t think that I’m overly prejudiced by the story taking place in my own country, or rather that special version of England that exists only on American TV of a certain age that bears about as much resemblance to the land I live in as the surface of Neptune does to a bowl of Rice Crispies.

It’s absurdly easy to describe the plot. Seven years ago, former British Army General G Emory Partridge, played by George Sanders with a combination of condescending sang-froid and self-loathing that he is reduced to playing roles like this, had taken over and was running a small South American country until U.N.C.L.E., in the form of Napoleon Solo, overthrew him. Now he wants revenge.

Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a Briton of Partridge’s generation and social level – the man is of the veddy highest class – having been christened Emory or, even less likely, retaining a first name reduced to an initial in the American manner, this is the closest we come to anything serious or realistic, if we exclude the fact that he’s waited seven years to do so. Still, they say that revenge is a dish best served cold, don’t they?

The open sets the scene, though not in a way that the scripter intended. Ilya in his sports car pulls up in the street outside Del Florio’s, though not in any manner that suggests he’s ever been introiduced to parking parallel to the curb. Hurriedly, he slides across to the pasenger seat and thrusts the door open, hitting the briefcase carried by a distinguished gentleman, who’s just passing, knocking it from his jand and spilling papers everywhere. Since Ilya’s legs are still under the driver’s wheel, he instantly understand that this is a contrived accident, that our favourite Russian is going to pocket one of the papers he hurriedly gathers and shoves back into the gentleman’s briefcase. Only he’s not. It’s a genuine accident, at least as far as Ilya is concerned. How Partridge has managed to to contrive it, except by gambling on Ilya acting like a complete dick, is impossible to see.

Completely unperturbed, Partridge brushes the incident off (you see, such class) and pleads a need to catch his bus. Ilya spots he’s left a book behind and goes chasing after the bus, jumping aboard to return the precious object, out of the goodness of his heart. He fails to spot, or at least attach any significance to the fact that the bus is a bright red London Transport double-decker mrked Eastsnout Express. Any possibility that this might be some sort of trap eludes him until he’s jabbed in the back of the neck with an umbrella tip and rendered unconscious. At which point, Partridge, eschewing any notions of cliche, instructs the bus driver using the words ‘Home, James’.

Inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, no-one seems in the least concerned that Ilya is an hour MIA. Mr Waverley simply assumes he’s lurking around the building somewhere, probably smoking a crafty Russian cigarette. That is until Partridge’s message is dropped off on Reception. For no apparent reason, it is a bird in a miniature artificial tree, playing a nonsensical recording. Despite the fact that the rest of the story will be completely free of turtle doves, French hens, calling birds and, thankfully, pipers piping, it is a partridge in a pear tree. The last hope that anything that will follow will make sense flies out the window.

The rest of the story takes place in England, in a place called Eastsnout. You may think me prejudiced but the very name offended me. We get Ilya being given a lengthy tour of Porlock Hall and its gardens, unbound and escorted only by a man in his Sixties and an unarmed butler and acting like escape is impossible. Perhaps he’s stunned into disbelief at what the writer has come up with, David McCallum being British after all. We’re talking the whole set-up, perfectly preserved Cromwellian manor house, unchanged since the Commonwealth (where they went around constructing manor houses every day of the week) except for the installation of electricity by the previous tenants that Partridge and his slightly dotty wife Edith (Jeanette Nolan) haven’t yet had time to rip out. Mrs Partridge is one of those fraying at the edges ladies who exist in a world of their own, always doting on handsome young men who can dance the rumba, preferably in military uniform. When you put it like that, no wonder Ilya can’t believe his eyes.

Then there’s a maze. Of course there’s a maze, there’s always got to be a maze, and if you’ve surmised that it’s full of death-traps, to be seen at closer range in Act 4, take a tick on your homework. As assured to us by the episode title, there is a gazebo in the centre of the maze, giving access to dungeons beneath, equipped with all mod cons, such as a rack, an Iron Maiden, a bed of nails and of course a skeleton hanging from manacles on the wall. Ilya is manacled next to him. The chitchat is a bit one-sided.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Mr Waverley has decided to follow this up, as opposed to, say, leaving Ilya in the lurch. It’s this kind of decision making that has got him to be U.N.C.L.E.’s Chief, folks. So Napoleon arrives in Eastsnout by train (steam, naturally, this is Britain in 1965). The locals are, as you would guess, sullen, taciturn and unhelpful, refusing to either taken him or give directions to Porlock Hall. Except for Partridge’s chauffeur, who tries the umbrella dodge again only to be beaten into unconsciousness by Napoleon, who steals the car and drives off in it, all under the nose of a station master (of a station that would have been one of the very first to have got the axe from Dr Beeching, earlier in the decade) whose on;ly response is a dismissive, “American tourists.”

Because he doesn’t know where the Hall is, Napoleon stops off at the Pub (he knew how to find that) where, oh surprise, no-one will even talk to him. The gamekeeper from the Hall is playing darts and regularly scoring triple bulls (one hundred and fifty!) with a dart-throwing action that can only be described as sidearm, which in real life wouldn’t send the dart high enough to hit within three feet of below the board.

Enter the young woman. She is Peggy Durrance, played by Bonnie Franklin in what she thought was an English accent. Peggy is the glam for the episode though as glam goes she’s muted, what with her severely parted wig and low calf-length skirts that suggest we’re not missing anything. Peggy is the daughter of the late gamekeeper, who died as a result of a terrible accident (your imagination required here) and who, having nowhere to go and despite hating and fearing Partridge, stayed on at the hall as Companion to Edith (a usually unpaid position for spinsters combining the roles of chaperone and total dogsbody). Peggy will at least speak to Napoleon, even though her conversation is limited to the word ‘No,’ in response to his request to be directed to the Hall.

Nevertheless, and doubtless overwhelmed by his raw, sexual magnetism, she sneaks him in through security, shows him a secret passage to the dungeons that she knows abut but Partridge doesn’t (how? Don’t be silly). Napoleon followed her directions so faithfully he winds up first in Partridge’s study, then in the dungeon up against the wall, separated from Ilya only by the skeleton, and then on the rack, being tortured by Edith, who is more than she seems (she couldn’t possibly be less).

You see, what Partridge wants, to further progress his revenge on U.N.C.L.E., is for Napoleon to call Mr Waverley and have him come here, completely on his own. Yeah, sure, like that’s going to happy, El Supremo of U.N.C.L.E., head honcho, go to an operational scene dominated by a tricky enemy, withut bodyguards, security or even an elderly dachshund as back-up? Edith waves red hot poker not nearly near enough to the cute face of Peggy, Napoleon caves and Waverley agrees to be at Eastsnout Station in 24 hours, showing an appreciation of British Rail timetables that’s far faster than anything online.

It’s time to dispose of Napoleon, except that he grabs a broadsword from over the fireplace (the legendary one, used to kill the first Earl of Eastsnout, set up earlier by Sanders as the Gun in the First Act but here used as any old hunk of metal), fights off everyone, frees Ilya and Peggy, races through the maze evading the traps – taking time out to chide his Russian colleague for inattention by setting off the trap Ilya nearly set off and rather luckily failing to impale him on a spike – before arriving back at the gazebo (you see, what you do is to trail your hand along the left hand wall and yu will eventually get out) where Partridge is waiting with a shotgun to blast all three to smithereens.

How do our intrepid agents get out of this trap? Why, by Edith pushing open the trapdoor from below, even though she’s a woman in her late fifties at best and it’s got both a chair and George Sanders weighting it down, causing him to overbalance, the shotgun to miss everything and he to complain petulantly about her messing things up. Limp with relief, the audience applauds not having to watch any more of this outrageous tripe.

But that’s not all. The serious point, about how atrocious the story is, contemptuous of sanity, logic or anything to do with the way human beings behave, has been made simply by reciting the plot. I have barely had to exaggerate what happens in the slightest. I haven’t, however, yet mentioned a disturbing scene that introduced a weird psychosexuality to the plot, instantly forgotten, that had nothing to do wih Robert Vaughn. This occurred when young Peggy is found spying on the dungeon and gets chained to the wall. Suddenly, Partridge goes off on this bizarre rant at her, shouting “These wenches are all alike. … Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been trying to do to me, flaunting yourself about the place, trying to catch my fancy.” It’s some kind of creepy fugue without the least support from anywhere in the rest of the episode, yet in a left-handed way it fits perfectly. There is nothing remotely sane about this evidence, as confirmed in the close when, Napoleon having forgotten to countermand Mr Waverley’s trip to England, wholly unprotected, his boss arrives on time, no-one to meet him and, after standing there for over an hour, borrows a bictcle, and bicycle clips, and turns up seeking an explanation that Ilya has already sensibly dobbed Napoleon in to deliver (serves you right for dropping Ilya in it in Paris, pal) whilst Ilya, blithely explaining that in the spy business you can’t trust anyone, drives off with Peggy who, in the space of twenty-four hours, has refreshed her wardrobe, learned to dress like a modern American girl, removed her wig and fluffed her hair up. It’s nuts, I tell you, completely nuts.

Not wishing to speak ill…


I’ve just read a report on the death, aged 88, of television writer Eric Chappell, a successful writer of sitcoms, most notably celebrated for the 1970s series, Rising Damp, starring the late and brilliant Leonard Rossiter as the mean, miserly, prejudiced landlord, Rigsby.

If you follow the link, you csan read the many tributes being paid to Chappell and his work. The praise is high. I wouldn’t normally go around raining on anyone’s parade, especially not at a time like this, but the level of praise being accorded Chappell surprises me. Because I have a completely different opinion.

Let’s go back, firstly, to Rising Damp. In its way, it was a very strong sitcom. Rossiter was, of course, the star, a true monster, in his way only little exaggerated as a cheap landlord of cheap accomodation, but the strength of his three supporting members can’t be stressed enough. Frances de la Tour played Miss Jones, a spinster, Richard Beckinsale was Alan, a long-haired, naive medical student, and Don Warrington was Philip, smooth, suave, self-confident and more than a match for Rigsby’s cheap and pathetic racial prejudice.

I loved the series. It was very funny. Until, for some reason, perhaps obeying a subconscious concern, I experimented with one episode. I forced myself to ignore the performances and instead focus only in the dialogue. My stars, the contrast was explosive. There wasn’t a funny lkine in the entire episode. Nothing ingenious or unexpected, nothing with wit in it. Just cliched comedy lines, lowest common denominator stuff, punchlines you could see approaching from a rooms-width away. The whole bloody show was obvious, in the worst way. It was all in the acting.

Unfortunately, a thing once seen can no longer be unseen. Rising Damp was spoiled for me, irreversibly. And Chappell’s next, and wholly inexplicably successful sitcom, Only When I Laugh, set in a hospital ward, horrified me. It lacked a Leonard Rossiter to fuill it with pent up energy and so relied solely on its dialogue, which was even more predictable and dull than Rising Damp. After that, whenever a new sitcom appeared on ITV, I checked for who was writing it and, if it was Eric Chappell, gave it a wide berth. And if it came from Yorkshire TV, it was invariably his work, they didn’t seem to have another writer.

To be honest, Chappell was perfect for ITV in those decades. The commercial channel, dependent upon advertising, had to pitch for the largest possible audiences, which in the field of sitcoms meant broad, unoriginal, full-of-cliche comedy. It was significanmt that the BBC sitcoms were always far better, more sophisticated, more individual, better written.

I read the praise for Eric Chappell’s writing and I can’t believe it. It’s praise far beyond any of his comedies were worth. He was the archetypal ITV writer of the time, who would give the audience what they wanted and only what they wanted, namely everything they had heard before. The truly great writers don’t do that. They don’t give the audience what they want, they give them what they don’t know they want until they get it.

Apologies to anyone offended, but I had to get that off my chest.