The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e01 – The Vulcan Affair


Uncle

After the best part of a year spent watching a British espionage series dedicated to a grounded and realistic vision of spying as a grim, nasty and brutish business, what greater contrast than to move on to its polar oposite, a light, flashy, fantastic, America thriller version of the same thing that was its almost exact contemporary?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was another of my parents’ favourites that we all watched in the mid-Sixties, a bright whirl of action, adventure and snappy lines from Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin, the two leading Agents of the United Network Comand for Law and Enforcement, whose assistance in the making of the programme was always so assiduously thanked over the closing credits. That was in black and white, although only the first season was filmed as such. In the Nineties, BBC2 rebroadcast in, on Friday nights, to my great delight, allowing me the chance to watch it again in colour.

At the moment, all I have is the first, black and white season, it being surprisingly hard-to-impossible to get later seasons on DVD without paying ridiculous sums for Complete Seasons box-sets, but that’s the next six months of Tuesday mornings sewn up and who knows, the horse could always learn to talk.

‘The Vulcan Affair’ was a slightly re-filmed pilot episode for when the series was going to be called ‘Solo’. As such it is very much a solo affair for Solo, with Ilya and Mr Waverley enjoying less than five minutes of screen-time put together. Indeed, Leo G. Carroll, as Mr Waverley wasn’t even in ‘Solo’, and was substituted for Mr Allison, played by Will Kuluva.

The pilot is much more serious and straightforward than the U.N.C.L.E. I remember. It sets itself up immediately as a clash between U.N.C.L.E. and its opposite number, THRUSH, clearly derived from James Bond’s SPECTRE, who will be the eternal antagonists, thus placing it at one remove already from any politically oriented espionage. All the episode titles will be ‘(such-and-such) Affairs’ and it kick-starts the U.N.C.L.E. formula by which each episode will feature a guest star playing an ordinary person who gets swept up into whatever foul plot Messrs Solo and Kuryakin are out to foil.

In this first episode, the guest is Pat Crowley, of whom I’ve never previously heard, a genuinely lovely looking and very game lady, as Elaine May Donaldson. Mr Waverley has been advised of the intended assassination of President Ashumen (William Marshall) of a newly-forged independent African country. This is to occur on the visit of Ashumen and two of his patriotic ministers to America, whilst inspecting a chemical plant owned by Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), a senior THRUSH agent. Vulcan is a recluse, last known to have had a girlfriend at college, the afore-mentioned Elaine May, now a happily-married mother of two, but the only person who can get Solo near to Vulcan.

Elaine May becomes glamorous and lovely (and how) widow, Elaine May van Early, finding that whilst she’s stirring up old emotions in Andy, she’s also stirring up old emotions about him. Mixed in with finding it impossible to believe what Solo says is true – until THRUSH try to kill him – Elaine May also finds herself attracted to being attractive, to being the best-dressed, most beautiful woman at a Washington party, among movers and shakers.

It’s a complex situation for her but, like any decent, god-fearing American mother, she buckles down to helping Solo, even if it ruins her hairdo and gets her all sweaty. The day is saved. The assassination is not of Ashumen but his two Ministers, who would oppose Ashumen handing their country to THRUSH to take advantage of diplomatic immunity, armies and the like. In the end it’s Vulcan and Ashumen who die, Elaine May goes home happily to her family and Solo tries it on with the beautiful stewardess. We’ve already had a sunlamp and bikini shot of Victoria Shaw as the communications girl in Channel D, inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to keep up the glamour level.

So. On one level a disapointment in being a straightforward thriller with little of the fantasy of U.N.C.L.E. with which I’m familiar, but still a well-made, down-to-earth episode, especially the tense and professional open, as THRUSH agents break into U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to attempt to kill Mr Waverly. Or Mr Allison. Not what I expected, more like Danger Man at its best. Let’s treat that as a bridge.

Sunday Watch: The Office s01 e05/06 – New Girl/Judgement


Office

I have never seen the American version of The Office, except for a couple of cl;ips, mostly from YouTube. There are some things about it that I think I would enjoy, especially the relationship between their version of Tim and Dawn. Then I watch even five minutes of the original and I could never accept the American show as an equal. There is both ice and poison at the heart of The Office, and it is those two factors that make it the work of genius that it is.

Most of it is David Brent. By episode five the audience is conditioned by expectation and dread to almost freeze the momenmt he appears, insinuating himself into the background of a scene that has nothing to do with him, but walking forward to pull everything about him, the only worthwhile subject of anything, the natural centre of gravity and attention. And you watch in absolute fascination, pre-cringing about what he’s going to say next, oh God, he didn’t, no, oh fuck, I would die.

And Brent’s not the only monster, just the King of Embarrassing Beasts, a tragic figure when contemplated from afar, with an objective head, all thoughts of which flee the moment he is near you and you’re in a permanent state of pre-wince. There’s Gareth Keenan, an Empty Space incarnated in awkward flesh, full of firm, in-command opinions that vanish in a flash to be replaced by polar opposites, a walking talking classic no-hoper that imagines itself as capable of anything, especially the having of any woman he sees even as he’s rejecting them as slags or loose women, and you don’t go there.

Even Tim Canterbury, the sane one, the intelligent one, the fish in concrete, the one I identify with inescapably, is in his own way a monster. Tim is out of place. He doesn’t like his job, he is understretched by it, he doesn’t like the people he works with, with one sweet exception, he is offended by the OTT laddishness of Brent and his mate Finchy, and Gareth, the hanger-on, with their crude and sexist language and attitudes, their sheer boorishness. And most of all he doesn’t like himself, for his inability to act, to go, to do something better, something fulfilling, because Tim’s self-confidence is solely based in the knowledge that he is better than everyone else at Wernham Hogg in Slough and shot through with the fear that, in another context, where he might not be the only one who can snap and snide at the likes of Gareth, come out with sardonic digs that go over the heads of everyone else, he might be out of his depth.

I said I identify with him.

And then there’s Dawn, who is sweet, and nice, and likes Tim, likes his compsany, but who is engaged to and living with a jumped-up thug, a warehgouseman with no more anbition than to shag and pint it up, and bang her up. Tim is evidently superior to Lee, amd Dawn knows that, but she’s with Lee, and she can’t yet imagine herself out of that, any more than she can get away from Wernham Hogg or the dead-end of being a Receptionist. She’s not a monster, except towards herself, taking the path of least resistance. Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of finding aomething worse.

These two episodes finished The Office‘s stupendously brilliant first series. The first, ‘New Girl’, split itself into two phases, the first where Brent, in the face of the threatened down-sizing, decides his importance is such that he has to have a secretary. He interviews two candidates, one a bloke, the other a decently pretty blonde woman, Karen Roper. You know exactly what’s coming and it’s as horrifying as you expect, though only Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s imagination extends to Brent toying with a football and accidentally elbowing her in the face.

The second phase is the regular Wednesday night down the club, drinking till one o’clock, pinting it desperately, birding it with equal energy, fearful of loneliness, of insignificance. Gareth pulls a woman who makes all the running, he being unable to respond – she’s a loose woman, remember, and he doesn’t want to catch knob-rot (he is so much the charmer) – until he discovers she’s here with her husband, and he isn’t going to get involved in a threesome, well, maybe two birds. There isn’t, if you stop squirming long enough, an original word in there but bloody hell, Gervais and Merchant and McKenzie Crook get every moment spot on, like a butterfly pinned to a slide, only without the beauty.

And behind all of this is Tim, determined to quit, go back to University, study philosophy, and it’s not because he asked Dawn ut and was turned down in front of everybody else, and anyway it was just as friends, not girlfriends. Already we know he won’t do it, because he hasn’t done it, he’s going to do it, which signals he isn’t going to do it, he’s waiting for a face-saving reason to just do nothing. Always keep tight hold of nurse…

But it’s the final episode that’s the stunner. Gervais and Merchant have the courage to cut down on the comedy and allow the underlying horribleness of the situation to dominate, in a manner that is all the more pertinent in 2021 than in 2001. The time has come to decide the branch’s future. Downsizing will take place. Despite Brent’s public insistence that he will save everybody’s jobs, jobs will be lost. But…

The big but is that Jennifer Taylor-Clark is being promoted. Her job is open. There are two candidates for her replacemenmt and these are the two managers of the regional branches at Slough and Swindon, David Brent and Neil Godwin. And by a 5-2 majority, the Board has voted for Brent. Of course, if he accepts the job, and 5-2 is practically a landslide, and it’s a 71.4% majority, Slough will be shut down, its staff reduced and merged into Swindon.

It’s good news and bad news and Brent just can’t imagine why no-one is celebrating the good news or, as Malcolm outs it, the irrelevant news. Tim is indifferent, Dawn wants to be made redundant, to be kicked up the backside into doing something career-wise, Gareth is in tears at breaking up the old team, unwillingly aware that the limited and pathetic powers he has are wholly derived from Brent and that without him he is exactly nothing.

Don’t eworry though, there is a happy ending. Slough will survive. Everyone will keep their jobs, and Tim will be promoted to Senior Sales Clerk, with the prospect of taking Brent’s job in, maybe, three years, just the excuse (Lucy Davis’ ambiguous look at this news is genuinely unfathomable). Why for? Well, Brent only told them to stick their job up their arse, and now Swindon will be down-sized and merged into Slough. Hip hip hoorah for David Brent!

It’s about as unbelievable as a 45p coin, of course, but Slough has been saved, not by Brent’s hitherto unguessed at altruism but, as Malcolm has ferreted out, because he failed the medical due to High Blood Pressure. Faked, of course, just for the occasion, or so Brent claims. Heh heh.

I think I might not leave it so long before turning to the second series.

Preston Front: s03 e01 – Hodge’s Driving Test


Preston

It’s all back to Roker Bridge for a third and, alas, final time, with the start of series 3 picking things up in Central Lancaster six months on, and starting with a dream sequence. Hodge is taking his driving test. It’s very important to him because he’s being allowed to take his god-daughter Kirsty (actually his real daughter as only Eric and Dawn know) out on his own for the very first time on Saturday. But he’s failed, as the dry litany of mistakes is quietly reeled off by the examiner, including reversing through a supermarket window – at which point we twig we are not in Roker Bridge’s own specialised form of reality – only for the examiner to rip up the Fail sheet in time for a hallucinogenic congratulations sequence as even Stirling Moss (the real one) tells him he is a better driver.

Then he wakes up.

For the third and final series there are cast changes. Lucy Akehurst, aka Laura, has dropped out, and will appear only briefly in a later episode as a guest star. Carolyn Pickles replaces Susan Wooldridge as Jeanetta, Kieran Flynn, Ozzie Yue and Holy Grainger are all listed and there are two newcomers in Oliver Pickles as Declan (no last name given), a plastic surgeon and Jeanetta’s new ‘boyfriend’, and Angela Lonsdale as Mel, who plays a somewhat detached role in the first episode.

‘Hodge’s Driving Test’ isn’t quite as fuinny as previous episodes, though it contains a great deal of banter, farcical fun and confusion, not to mention my favourite Preston Front gag of them all (there’s another, nearly as good, later in the series).

The TA, under the puffed-up orders of Sergeant Polson (whose elevation by blackmail still rankles with Lieutenant Rundle and Corporal Minshull, aka Ally, since it’s them he’s blackmailing), are being trained in mine detection. Deisel assumes sophisticated ultrasound devices but the reality is glorified knitting needles, placed across the forearm and inserted into the ground – carefully – at a 30 degree angle.

Lloydy doesn’t like the prospect of this and starts chunnering. Polson describes the standard insertion from a prone position, but there’s also a two-foot extension so it can be done standing up. Lloydy immediately suggests a two hundred foot extension so it can be done standing up in Bradford. Next thing, he’s face down in the ‘minefield’, proding carefull, with Spock and Deisel immediately behind. He’s still chunnering. He asks why the Army can’t train moles to do this? Spock sighs and says they tried but it didn’t work. And Deisel agrees. It didn’t wiork because they had to have their desks too near the blackboard…

But whilst that, and many other things, like Lloydy facing down a tank, are wonderfully funny, that doesn’t for one moment obscure the fact that this is an episode filled with a tremendous amount of pain, and it’s that same pain we know from throughout the series, namely that Kirsty is Hodge’s daughter, and that she not only doesn’t know he’s her father but she must never know. Hodge wants to be a Dad, but cannot be in the way he wants, and, as the episode demonstrates, is far too wound up about being a Dad to be relaxed enough to be a good one.

In series 2, we had Jeanetta’s ex-husband, Greg Scarry, a very successful businessman, as the Hodge-that-might. Rich, handsome, a magnet for women. Hodge saw him as a rival, especially as he was making a play for Laura, but mostly as the image of a real Dad for Kirsty, even though she was none of his.

Now enter Declan, to be a new and even more serious rival. Not over Jeanetta, who’s clearly very comfortable with him (and Carolyn Pickles brings a very ready smile and an overall more relaxed and cheerful aspect to the role), but over Kirsty, who is also clearly very comfortable with him. Because Declan has an overwhewlming advantage above and beyond his craggy handsomeness, his wealth and his horse. Paradoxically, by not being Kirsty’s father or having any pretentions to be, he can play the part of a father with relaxed ease and comfort. No wonder Hodge hurts all over inside from the moment he meets him.

That’s all I’ll say for now. That alone would be enough to sustain a seven-part series without all the other subplots bubbling away in the background, but I’d better mention Mel. Mel, a very obviously Geordie girl, appears out of nowhere in the TA. Whilst trying to get her cigarette lit, she inadvertently directs Jeanetta’s car too far back and into a hole. She turns a palette into an escape ramp but doesn’t get all the nails out. She doesn’t tighten the nuts properly when she changes the wheel so the car has to be towed away… Oh, and when Jeanetta is gazing fondly at the departing Hodge, she makes a misassumption, and says, “Got a cracking arse, hasn’t he?”

We’ll get to know more about Mel over the next six weeks. Welcome back Roker Bridge.

Danger Man: s04 e02 – Shinda Shima


danger

Here is where the story ends. Danger Man‘s second and final episode in colour, and it’s last ever episode, is, like its predecesor, set in Japan, to make the most of the location footage ATV’s camaremen had shot. The continuity of background was a fortunate factor in enabling the two episodes to be edited together as a feature film.

There’s an uncanny moment at the start of the film as electronics expert Edward Sharp is arrested on arrival at Tokyo Airport. Sharp is an agent for a branch of British Intelligence, occupying a sensitive post, who has abruptly resigned without a reason and who has gone off to do whatever he now chooses. I didn’t expect it at all, yet there’s probably a very simple and logical explanation, namely the presence of George Markstein as Danger Man‘s new Script Editor, the man who, allegedly, came up with the initial iidea for The Prisoner. Still, I had not realised there was so immediate a link betwen the two series.

Anyway: John Drake replaces Edward Sharp to see where he was going, what he was doing and who he was selling out to. There is the first of several long, time-consuming sequences as he comprehensively – and fasinatingly – takes Sharp’s case apart to discover multiple hiding places for electronic components, to be used to construct a code-breaking machine.

Starting with a jigsaw puzzle of a two-tailed dragon, Drake is led to an island off the mainland, Shinda Shima, the ‘Murdered Island’: unpopulated after a curse killed three leading family heads without a sign. We already know from the open that the curse consists of a skin diver attacking a pearl fisherman and killing him with an underwater karate blow, so we’re not surprised to find that the island has been taken over by another cult organisation consisting mostly of caucasian’s again, who are paying ‘Sharp’ to break the UN’s fiendishly complicated ‘Unicode’.

Before that, we’ve had our second long diversion in the form of Kenneth Griffith as Richards, a beachcomber type whose status is blurred. He breaks up the story by offering Drake a drink and telling him about the island in a stilted, highly mannered and above all unnecessarily slow monologue. You can feel time grinding to a halt whilst he does this.

Anyway, Drake arrives where Sharp was going, amongst another cliche tableau of Japanese cult terrorists. Amongst them is Miho, a small, dark-haired woman who is actually an infiltrator, out to kill the organisation that killed her sister in Tokyo, namely the British Agent killed in the open to the first episode, who was also played by Miho’s actress, Yoko Tani. She plans to kill Sharp but Drake catches her. Her intended execution forces his hand and they escape together by swimming to the mainland.

The next time-stretching scene is an awkward one where Drake exhorts the exiled islanders to mount an attack to take their island back despite it being populated with expert men with martial arts skills, guns and bows and arrows and these being pearl divers (at least there’s a diversity, as both male and female islanders join the attack, the women – except for Yoko Tani, in the shortest skirts the series ever showed).

Sadly, this is where the episode descends into farce, with a clumsy, overlong fight scene using half-learned kung fu moves. Still, the good guys win, the day is saved, and the series, and all of Danger Man finishes on an elegiac scene of boats laden with people and belongings setting out to return to their home. It’s by far the best moment of the episode and a high note on which to finish.

After this came The Prisoner, which you can find elsewhere on this blog, if you search. Despite the quite disappointing falling-off of quality as it neared its end, I shall miss Danger Ma, as I always do when i reach the end of a long series. It’s the loss of a comforting familiarity, the rhythm of Tuesday morning being devoted to such-and-such, and having to develop a new mindset for something else. What that something else will be has been decided a long time ago and it’s an appropriate successor to this series. Join me next week to discover what it will be.

Sunday Watch: The Thick of It – s01 e01-03


thick

What better follow up to last Sunday?

These three episodes represent the entire first series of The Thick of It, from 2005, when it starred a pre-fall Chris Langham as hapless Minister for Social Affairs Hugh Abbott, as well as introducing Peter Capaldi’s immortal Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker, based very heavily on the real-life advisor to Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, and supportred by the unholy trinity of James Smith, as Glen Cullen, Joanna Scanlan as Terry Coverley and Chris Addison as Ollie Reeder.

The thing is, alerted by the press description of it as a Yes Minister for the 2000s, I started to watch the first episode but didn’t even make it to the end. I just didn’t find it funny and I found the constant profanity off-putting. I was just completely out-of-tune to the general atmosphere, unable then to appreciate the often poetic quality of the swearing – Tucker’s first line was to tell someone over the phone that they were ‘as much use as a marzipan dildo’, which makes me laugh out loud now, just typing that. So I quit it, prematurely.

I didn’t start to appreciate the show until I borrowed the DVD of In the Loop from the library, had a whale of a time with it and decided to get into the show proper, which was by then halfway through series 3. Subsequently, I bught the complete The Thick of It, four boxsets in a presentation pack got up to look like a Ministerial Red Box. Now I’m back at the beginning.

The first series is extraordinarily difficult to summsarise, or even analyse, and I find myself falling back on the factors that distinguishe it from Yes Minister (there’s the swearing, to begin with). Except that they are both set in the realm of Government, there sare very few points of contact. There’s the hapless, inadequate Minister, the same kind of Ministry with amorphous responsibilities that no-one could define, and the same polar opposite who’s the real star of the show. But that’s where The Thick of It kick-starts its own groove.

Instead of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the smooth, quiet pillar of the establishment, we have Malcolm Tucker, the journalist-turned-enforcer, violent of temper and tongue, issuing not guidance but directives. The key difference: Yes Minister was about the battle with the Civil Service, The Thick of It about the battle with Image and Perception. So, instead of structured episodes about a fcussed subject, we get an uncontrolled, impressionistic flurry of confusion, in which there is no stable ground. This is reflected in the filming, done by handheld camera that goes all over the place, unable to settle, looking from person to person, distracted by corners, swinging from side to side, up to down, corner to corner.

It’s as if the camera is an invisible person in the scene, its glance darting hither and yon as it’s ADHD interest is caught by what’s going on. It’s unusual, it’s off-putting, it’s even seasickness-inducing until you adjust to it but it brilliantly captures the uncertsainty Armandi Ianucci wants to portray. Everything is built on shifting sands, disturbable at a second’s notice, or less. In this political word, nothing has any solid footing.

Of course this could not be like Yes Minister. There was an is a massive difference between the politics and the Britain of the change from the Seventies into the Eighties and that of the mid-2000s. Inanucci is too perceptive and brilliant a satirist not to understand this, nor to portray it any way except accurately. The series is chaos loosely grouped into segments: Press Conferences that, despite the presence of cameras, don’t show what Malcolm Tucker briefs has been said, a hopeless Minister who flip-flops from struggling to survive to being bent on resignation and welcoming survival. Everybody is on their own, arguing at all times, directly rude and offensive to people’s faces. It’s an environment I could never survive in as I’m constitutionaly incapable of telling someone to Fuck Off to their face and then carrying on working with them – and I’m not referring here to Tucker, who is the overwhelming monster who is unchallengeable, but to the peons – and it’s simultaneously fascinating and horrifying in its depiction.

Especially as we understand it as being real all along.

The swearing. Oh yes, the swearing. I was brought up in a very staid atmosphere. I’ve grown out of that, a long times back, I use ‘bad language’ but I don’t use it indiscriminately, every third or fourth word. I use it for impact and effect. Repeat Fuck too many times and it just becomes a sound, and thus useless. The plethora of swear words – there was a solitary, half-swallowed use of the C-word in episode 1 – sometimes appears crude and juvenile: dockers’ language, fish-market language as it would be termed when I was young, and it did repel me a little, even today.

But it’s also an accurate reflection of the mindset of these people, masters of the Universe in their own minds and so licenced to talk as they wish, even as they can’t act as they wish. Big boys grown up, look, I can say Fuck. It’s juvenile, and it’s an integral part of what they are. And I can find it funny.

Overall, series 1 isn’t that good. I like Chris Langham, and he’s good here – everybody is good – but I can’t watch him now without being conscious of his flaws. Capaldi is of course monstrous, and monstrously good, and the rest are tight and sharp. But the show is learning about itself at this stage, it doesn’t quite understand itself. It will be back, and it will be better. Another Sunday.

Zodiac: e06 – The Horns of the Moon


Zodiac

I could just say that acquiring Zodiac was a potentially interesting but ultimately failed experiment on my part but that’s more or less what I’ve been saying over this past six weeks so why bother? Is there any real point to reviewing the final episode, especially as it was the worst of the series, albeit with the strongest all round supporting cast?

Well, I suppose I’d better say something. ‘The Horns of the Moon’ never got beyond the level of silly. Peter Jones played General Sir Horace Mannering-Weston, chairman of a private Merchant Bank and martinet and Preter Egan, all nervous energy, jumping to unfortunate conclusions and generally being utterly irritating from his first appearance, his ineffectual son, Tony, a client of Esther Jones. Throw in Michele Dotrice, all faux slinky in backless dress and little girl voice, doing amateur dramatics as the General’s bit of stuff and you had more than you ever wanted.

So, the General is murdered. Tony’s the obvious suspect, especially as he appears to have embezzled £200,000. Grad suspects him from the start on no better grounds than, well, it’s obvious. Esther insists Tony’s birth chart makes him incapable of murder but that doesn’t stop Grad from arresting him, if only to shut Esther up (that’s a motive that will stand up in Court, oh yes).

Anyway, the real embezzlers are the other three members of the Board, one of whom is played by Graham Crowden, who naturally turns out to be the real killer, Q.E.D.

Once again, the only highlight was Amouska Hempel, tall and slender, with her ash-blonde hair framing her face and her tasteful silk clothing, whether in pants or kneelength skirt paired with dark tights. Esther looked good but this series was a flop and a cheap flop at that. Why it was never renewed is hardly a mystery.

Danger Man: s04 e01 – Koroshi


danger

After two series in its revamped form, Danger Man (UK)/Secret Agent (US) was such a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic that Lew Grade, boss of ATV, increased the series’ budget to ebable series 4 to be filmed in colour. This would prove to be a somewhat ironic decision.

The first thing to note was how utterly strange and wrong Danger Man in colour felt, especially the opening negative scene, and the second was that how bad the colour balance was for the open and the credits, with far too much orange saturation. Furthermore, the theme music had been re-recorded for the opening credits so as to take all the energy out of it (although the closing credits were as before). The omens were not good.

Nor, sadly, was the episode. We are suposedly in Tokyo, further from England than John Drake, or radion reporter ‘Basil Edwards’ has been before, wvhich in practice meant some location stock shots, mostly of Japanese neon and drunken Japanese men at night, to supplement studio sets that were far too cardboard to trigger enough suspension of disbelief.

The story was basic and unexceptional. A new murder organisation, reviving an old Japanese sect, bent on fascist rule of the world, plans to assassinate a UN Mediator in New York. Ako Nakamura, M9’s local top agent, a Japanese woman in traditional dress, sends a message of warning via a radio transmitter concealed in a flower before being gassed to death from another flower. Enter Drake.

This being the Far East, we expect to see Burt Kwouk and the programme does not disappoint us for here he is, Embassy driver, sent to fetch ‘Mr Edwards’ to a gramaphone shop to meet cultural attache Potter (Christopher Benjamin), yes, he and they of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’. Potter’s a clown: there, I’ve said it.

This being the Far East, we expect to see Burt Kwouk and the programme does not disappoint us for here he is, Embassy driver, sent to fetch ‘Mr Edwards’ to a gramaphone shop to meet cultural attache Potter (Christopher Benjamin), yes, he and they of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’. Potter’s a clown: there, I’ve said it. Drake works on his own, totaly in the dark, starting with Rosemary Wiley (Amanda Barrie), an English student who has taken over Ako’s apartment and who blithley leads him to Philip Sanders (Ronald Howard), an Englishman who is head of this new Assassination business.

Why she does this and why he lets her is a bit of a mystery, only explicable by noting that this is Amanda Barrie we’re talking about, playing Rosemary the same way I’ve only ever seen her play any role, as a ditzy brunette with an odd hairdo. She even grumps at one point that being a traitor isn’t as much fun as she thought it would be.

The thing is that we may be supposed to be in Japan but it’s very noticeable that, with the exception of one brief non-speaking cameo, this resurrected sect of Japanese cultists, steeped in ancient Japanese traditions and devoted to Koroshi, the ‘poetry of death’, are exclusively English. Talk about cultural imperialism.

Needless to say, the dumb brunette Rosemary, whose only saving grace is dancer’s legs, leads Drake to the sect and he brings them down. She gets away unscathed, though the episode makes a bit of a hash of that: the close sees Drake sat morose in the airport awaiting his flight home whilst Kwouk tries to distract him with suggestions of things he could get, but Drake is thinking of what can’t be got – a brave and intelligent woman. Since we’ve been dealing with Amanda Barrie up until a minute of screentime ago, I initially took this as a reference to her having been killed, which we hadn’t seen. But the description of brave and intelligent should have clued me in sooiner to it being Ako Nakamura Drake was mourning.

A final moment of confusion to further downgrade an unsatisfactory episode.

Sunday Watch: Yes Minister s01 e04-06 – Big Brother/The Writing on the Wall/The Right to Know


yes

The decision to return to Yes Minister today was based not only on the length of time it is since I first dipped into the programme but also the need for something clear, confident and clever – it isn’t easy following Sir Humphrey’s monologues, you know, even when you’ve grown up on Danny Ross as Alfie Hall in The Clitheroe Kid – to persuade my brain into some sort of operational function.

The three episodes today, two of which did not end on the closing line, “Yes, Minister” re-demonstrated various things about the series. Firstly, it’s obvious intelligence, a heady and nostalgic appeal given the state of Government we now endure forty years later. The intelligence applies to the leading three actors, Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne (of course) and Derek Fowlds, who play their parts to perfection but most of all to the writers, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Making fun of Government and the Civil Service is always fun and is also very easy – look at the skill with which the current lot do it – but drawing it together into coherent, well-thought out plots that make their political points without any overt partisanship is not. Jim Hacker is a gruesome foreshadowing of nowadays, but even he is a sympathetic character, out to make the country better in his own weak-willed manner.

‘Big Brother’ was ostensibly about the creation of a National Integrated Database on all the country’s citizens. In a totally different fashion, it’s a counterpart to Patrick McGoohan’s concerns in The Prisoner, and I’m sure Jay and Lynn chose it deliberately, but it’s the McGuffin to the episode’s central element, namely the ongoing clash between the Minister and the Civil Service, Hacker and Humphrey (interesting that in shorthand we automatically think of the Minister by his surname and the Permanent Secretary by his first name, which is usually a sign of closer affection – for the ‘villain’).

The suspicion of such things being far greater then, there’s an overwhelming concern for safeguards. Hacker wants them, Humphrey is delaying things. Hacker believes they’re a genuine need, and not just because he’s booby-trapped on the BBC by real-life Political Interviewer Bob McKenzie over them, Humphrey is opposed. No specific reason is given, other than the traditional Civil Service inertia, based on a complete refusal to accept Innovations, but I can see Sir Humphrey opposing out of conviction the idea of anything limiting or restricting the Civil Service’s powers.

The deeper issue of the episode is that, after only three episodes, Hacker is ‘house-trained’. He’s the Department’s mouthpiece, presenting its policies to Parliament, arguing them through and securing their budget. He may have policies and ideas of his own but part of Bernard Woolley’s duties (to the Civil Service) is to keep him so busy that he hasn’t got time to think, let alone formulate policies.

Appropriately, it’s a wholly innocent remark by Bernard that enables Hacker to score his first victory over Humphrey. Hacker’s already obtained detailed safeguards as developed under the previous Minister, now in Opposition (the Opposition-in-exile as opposed to the Opposition-in-residence, i.e., the Civil Service) from the ex-Minister along with a crash course in Humphrey’s stalling tactics. But it’s when Bernard tells him he can’t get out of an ITV interview about the Database because it’s already been announced, it’s in the programme, Hacker gets a brilliant idea. On the show, he confidently announces a complete safeguards package and that the Civil Service are so efficint, they will have everything worked out in time.

Of course, it’s the one they developed under the previous Minister and the one he’s let Hacker have. The tables are turned and Hacker’s position is strengthened. But we know it’s only temporary.

Nevertheless, it spills over to some extent into ‘The Writing on the Wall’. Hacker believes the Civil Service is overmanned and must be reduced by 200,000 jobs. For some reason, no matter how clearly he explains it to his advisors, the draft Committee evidence they produce always comes back saying the opposite. Humphrey is of no assistance, suggesting another redraft (Bernard, pedantically, challenges the notion that there have been three redrafts so far on the grounds that the first was a draft so only the other two are redrafts: thank you, Bernard).

So Hacker decides to redraft the evidence himself and only present it to Humphrey, using a wonderful reverse of his locquacious and accumulative stalling phrases, when it’s too late to be redrafted. This forces Humphrey into direct opposition of the policy and even into direct language, in one of those many aphorisms Jay and Lynn produced that echo in the mind forever: “If you must do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.”

The effect is obvious. Not only do Hacker’s proposals at Cabinet (which he’s not read before Cabinet) include shutting down the Land Registry, but the outcome is that the Prime Minister’s Principal Political Advisor delightedly explains that administrative overmanning will be addressed boldly – by abolishing the Department for Admoinistrative Affairs.

Cue mouch mournful anticipation of future fates – Hacker to the House of Lords, Humphrey to Ag & Fish and Cod Quotas and Bernard to the DVLA in Swansea – and overuse of the word appalled, but salvation comes Hacker’s way, not from the genuine alliance with his Permanent Secretary that Humphrey, in desperation, proposes, but from the chance dropping of a secret proposal from the Foreign Secretary.

It’s that entirely anti-British notion of an Identity Card, the Europass (interesting to see the EEC, as it then was, being used as the villains less than ten years after Britain joined, though it’s allied to the chilling but accurate explanation that Foreign Policy has always been to ensure a disunited Europe so we had to join the EEC in order to wreck it from within: we’re still trying to do that from without now). The public won’t have it for one second (bet they will, if not now then very soon) but the PM’s up for the Napoleon Prize and won’t drop the policy until he;s secured that. It would put the PM in an awkward position if a hypothetical back-bencher were to be fed a premature Parliamentary Question by a hypothetical Minister…

But of course, if that same hypothetical back-bencher should raise a Question asking the PM to squash rumours about the Department of Administrative Affairs being abolished…

I can’t help thinking that in many ways Yes Minister played a big part in our cynicism about Government and governing.

The last of these three episodes, ‘The Right to Know’, shows Hacker unwittingly giving Humphrey the ability to reverse the slide. Hacker’s getting bold enough now to consult with Assistant Secretaries and the like, direct, by-passing Sir Humphrey. This is outrageous: if Hacker does this he might hear facts that would lead him to see options over and above the two or three the Department officially offers to him, in the grand old three card trick manner of clearly forcing one on him. That would never do.

Bernard’s doing better at filling Hacker’s diary with trivia, such as an Animal Rights Committee badgering him on his proposal to unify management and proection of natural resources countrywide that involves removing formal protection from certain very small and uneconomic places such as a Warwickshire spinney supposedly home to a badger colony.

Hacker is again appalled by being booby-trapped like this. Why was he not informed? It must not happen again. He rejects utterly Humphrey’s argument that sometimes there are things which it is better not to know. In future he must be told everything. As a result, he gets buried in Departmental information all the way down to stationery requisitions. It’s playing into Humphrey’s hands like a dreaam.

Unfortunately the spinney won’t go away. Enter Hacker and Annie’s daughter, Lucy, played by Gerry Cowper, not long since co-star of a six part ITV serial about two teenagers going on the run to avoid being separated, which I watched avidly then. I don’t remember anything but the barest details of her performance in that but frankly, Cowper’s acting here is appalling. She comes over as amateur dramatics leval at best, weak, unconvincing, not a naturally delivered line. In her defence, she’s given some of the worst material in the entire programme, horribly thin characterisation, the cliched rebellious daughter, a sociology student going out with a Trotskyite, leading to sterotypical comments that are absolutely unworthy of Jay and Lynn.

Lucy finds out about the spinney issue and makes a meal of it, planning a 24 hour vigil to be announced to the Press at 5.00pm. Oh, by the way, it’s to be a nude vigil. The Press will love it.

At the last minute, Humphrey saves the day, advising Lucy that there has been no evidence of badger presence for eleven years, that the Council want to build a Further Education College on the land but if it stays protected they’ll spend the money on something else than, in twelve months time a local Property Developer will reveal about the badgers, get the Protection lifted and build office blocks and luxury apartments instead, and besides everyone’s using it as a rubbish dump and so the place is infested with rats.

It’s a beautifully designed bit of overkill, drawn from the files, and it kills off the vigil to Hacker’s great relief. He’s so happy he wants to read the file himself but Humphrey suggests it’s better for him not to. Was any of that true, Hacker asks, the light dawning on him several minures after the audience. Do you really wish me to answer that question, Humphrey posits, mildly. And as you don’t, perhaps you’d agree that sometimes there are things it is better for a Minister not to know?

The beauty of Yes Minister even this far on is not merely the intelligence with which it is written, and not merely that it is making revelatory comedy out of a very serious and weighty subject but also that, despite the passing of forty years and the consequent shifts in political interests, attitudes and requirements, it is still absolutely up to date.

To our utter despair and misery.

Zodiac: e05 – Sting, Sting Scorpio


Zodiac

I suppose, if anything, I ought to be grateful. There are twelve astrological signs in a Zodiac and six episodes in this Zodiac, one sign gets to dominate two episodes and it’s my sign. Somehow, I do not feel signally honoured. Whatever drew me to this short series back when I was eighteen, apart from a couple of scenes of Anouska Hempel in a bikini, I am completely unable to tell, and it’s only getting worse.

Part of the series’ appeal is supposed to be the banter between those two opposing types, the rationalist Detective Inspector and the quasi-mystical Astrologer. In reality, what gets us through the first episode in reasonable comfort has worn beyond thin by episode five. Gardley sneers but is outflanked by Esther’s success, at a consistency level way above any normal astrological level, whilst she gets infuriated by his condescension but always talks him into a corner. Frankly, they must be having amazing sex just to stick together at all, the way they go on at each other.

The set-up for today is that pretty little blonde Peggy, a hotel chambermaid (played by Susie Blake, Victoria Wood’s announcer in As Seen on TV) decides, for a laugh, to have her fortune told by Tarot by Madame Lavengro, who tells her her boyfriend, Brian Godfrey (Robert Powell in a one-note psycopath mode) is the Brighton Hotel Robber. Madame is a friend and mentor of Esther, who discovers her dead in the shop, of a heart attack, frightened to death.

Esther, frustrated at the Brighton Police’s inability to solve the case, takes over the lease, much against Gradley’s opposition to her playing copper. She attracts Peggy’s attention, as a result of which she’s murdered by drowning, then Brian turns his attention to her, intent on the same end, until Esther manages to clue Grad in that she’s being menaced at knife-point by a meaningful phrase that he actually over-interprets. There’s almost a touching moment between the pair, as they are holding on to one another and she’s prepared to lay one mega-smooch on her but he puts her off (damned idiot) so they can have some more boring banter.

Really, that’s all I’m going to say. It was a flop, rewatching it, bikini bits aside, was a bad idea, the show was ill-conceived and ill-executed on every level, it’s not worth snarking vigorously, there’s one left. There will be something far better in this slot in two weeks’ time.

Danger Man: s03 e23 – Not So Jolly Roger


danger

Thus ended the third series of Danger Man, the last black and white episode, with an unintended slice of history and a trivial tale lacking in mystery but heavy on the wrong sort of atmosphere, notable only for the unique sight of a fight between the two female guest stars and the landing by one of them of some pretty hefty and masculine punches. Yet more evidence, I’m sorry to say, as to why Patrick McGoohan was not prepared to film a fourth full series, colour or no colour.

‘Not So Jolly Roger’ was an immediate, and hardly subtle, signal to the boys and girls of 1966 that we were delving into the controversial world of Pirate Radio, Radio Jolly Roger that is, broadcasting on 219 metres in the Medium Wave from a clutch of abandoned sea forts outside the three-mile limit, rendering them impervious to action by the British Government. The episode used a lot of location footage at Red Sands Fort, off Whitstable in Kent, and was indebted to a genuine Pirate, Radio 390, of whom I’ve never heard.

The story is simple. A DJ finishes his programme, goes outside, radio-telephones that the station is sending coded signals to enemy submarines and is shot and killed. That’s it, basically. There’s no mystery to be teased out, no enemy to be uncovered. DJ Johnnie Drake joins the crew, of whom everybody but two are in on the plot, goes through the usual technical routine of setting up this week’s elaborate spy gadgetry, plays DJ when the part requires – the patter is convincing enough but Patrick McGoohan as a DJ takes a lot of swallowing – gets into fights with the burly heavy, Mullins, and ends up cleaning up the culprits as we always knew he would. There’s not a great deal more to it and story-wise it’s a bit of a flat send-off.

What we do get is little bits of character play. Station manager and owner, Marco Janson (Edwin Richfield) is insistent the schedule be kept to, rigidly. He also seems suspicious of his wife, Linda (Lisa Daniely) who seems to have an eye for handsome younger men. The cook, Corrigan (Wilfred Lawson, a notorious lush) is a notorious lush, so much so that you suspect him automatically of playing a part, as indeed he is. Radio Engineer Jerry Summers (Jon Rollason) doesn’t want to get involved until JD the DJ forced him to be and is promptly killed, and the cast is made up by the only other DJ on the station, Susan Wade, played by Patsy Ann Noble, an Australian Actress beter known as Trisha Noble, who’s a dull DJ but fills out a rib-knit sweater conspicuously, and who’s the one who will swing them at the sardonic Linda.

All the story logic you’d normally want, like what secrets are being passed, how they’re obtained in the first place, who they’re being passed to, are no more than cardboard outlines, leaving the ‘story’ to get on with itself whilst removing its point.

I found it very difficult to get into. This was because the show simply could not allow itself to set up the right atmosphere for a Pirate Radio Station in 1966. There was a lot of music being played, more than half a dozen songs introduced, from artists I’ve never heard of, under tirles genuinely representing the songs we then part heard. One record, the closer, ‘He Who Rides a Tiger’, was certainly real, because it was a single by Patsy Ann Noble herself. Were any of the others ‘real’? Given the cost in paying copyright fees for broadcast, I can only assume not, and take them all to be created by musical director Edwin Astley (a hint was that one track was credited to ‘Ted Astley’) in which case kudos for so much creativity, but minus marks for the overall sound.

I’ll repeat that this was 1966. Obviously the show is not going to play, and it doesn’t even mention The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Animals, The Small Faces, Cliff Richard, Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, etc., etc., etc., because it can’t afford to pay for the music and because it won’t condescend to recognise the pop music of the day – so juvenile compared to Jazz – in a show for adults, but in tuen that means that the music is out-of-date. nothing played or created shows the least sign of being infected by the energy, the freshness, the enthusiasm of the pop of the time. It’s a pre-Beatles sound, bloodless, inoffensive, lacking in any feel: 1962 and earlier. It’s incongruous, even though that kind of sound is only a handful of years back, and was still there, although it was fighting a dying cause. For anyone like me, the episode simply cannot be believable, because the music is in no sense convincing.

And that was (almost) that. What remains are the two colour episodes, which I shall watch individually, even though they were subsequently edited together as a full-length film, which is also available on the DVD box-set. We will soon be looking for a new subject for Tuesdays: I am already prepared.