Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: e01 – The Friends of English Magic


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Where do I begin?

That’s the first question anybody engaged in adapting a long and mysterious book into a visual form must ask themselves, and how they ask it and what is the selected answer goes a long way towards determining the success of the translation. The book of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, written by Susannah Clarke, is a lengthy volume, one that took me years to read, devoured in long chunks on train journeys where there was nothing easier to distract me.

The same thing goes for Peter Harness’s adaptation for the BBC, in seven hour-long episodes. Compression, visualisation and atmospherics. The first two of these belong to the tv series but the last is the key note of the novel, and it is the thing that musy be most carefully and accurately transferred, in order for things to work.

What we have here is a story about Magic, set during and influencing the Napoleonic Wars, most particularly that part of which was being conducted in Spain. The War is real, but this is not our England, as seen out of our (Nineteenth Century) windows, but another England, an England in which Magic exists, always has existed, was openly practiced and celebrated until about three hundred years ago, when it all seemed to vanish. Nevertheless, Magic remains a natural part of life, if not entirely Respectable. That is, Theoretical Magic, the study of the same, its History and its practitioners of old, is Respectable. A Practical Magician is beyond the pale, no better that a street conjurer, a charlatan and a vagabond.

Susannah Clarke can establish a world like this beautifully, by writing in an archaic, formal style that conjures up atmosphere by itself, but which is bonded to an absolute conviction about the fantastic world she is creating and makes it not just believable but completely natural. She’s got the infinite power of words and 800 plus pages of them. Unless he wants to regurgitate great chunks of the novel to spoonfeed the audience, Harness has to find a way to convey all that, literally in front of our very eyes.

So he sets about building this by some abslutely masterful set design, which flawlessly creates both look and feel of Georgian England, by intelligent use of the correct dialogue from the book, by a brilliant cast who are encouraged to centre their characters by means of their inherent energy of character and purpose, but most of all by trusting the audience to survive on Inference, not Implication, and working out what is going on for themselves without a Powerpoint presentation.

Like all first episodes, this is all about set-up. It has been long-prophecied, in one of the few Magic books not collected and hoarded by the reclusive Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) at his home near York, where he is directed by his servant Childermass (Emzo Cilenti), that two Magicians will arise in England, that they will be enemies, but that they shall both fail. Mr Norrell is one such. He is a small, withdrawn man, with a strong streak of stubborn arrogance, who is determined to make Magic respectable in England, through the person of himself, rather than by its actual performance. Norrell can perform Magic. He induces the Society of Friends of Magic in York to cease to profess or name themselves as Magicians by causing half a hundred statues in York Minster to come to life, move and talk, all save Mr John Segundus, who believes in Norrell and will not commit himself.

Yet this feat is misrepresented in London, made a foolish lie by the leech-like Drawlight, who seeks reflected glory by introducing Norrell to Society and the performaance of tricks. Norrell has come to London for one purpose only, to assist his Government at War, but he is turned away, unkindly, by Minister of Defence Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) and proposes to leave. He is accosted by the street-conjurer – and frequent drunk – Vinculus (Paul Kaye, splendidly OTT), who tells him there are two, not one Magicians.

And when Sir Walter’s fiancee, Charlotte (Alice Englert) dies of comsumption, Mr Morrell executes a dangerous bargain with The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren) to restore her to life, although she loses a ginger in the process. It is a miracle, and we all know that miracles are not necessaril;y unalloyed blessings.

But this is only one of our two Magicians, even if he is the First, and has the lion’s share of screentime in this episode. Mr Norrell is an existing Magician, a man of middle years, a student of decades. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a younger man, heir-in-waiting to a stern, bleak father, a man in love with Vicar’s sister Arabella (Charlotte Riley), who loves him back but won’t even listen to a marriage proposal because Jonathan is a man without occupation, veering dangerously close to being a wastrel, even after his father dies of an apoplexy.

But Jonathan, bright, cheerful, entertaining and almost silly, is the Second Magician, identified as such by Vinculus, sold penny spells that come from Norrell, and performing the one that sows him what his enemy is doing. That enemy is Norrell.

So certain building blocks are put in place, time is spent carefully and a structure of conviction and atmosphere is created before our very eyes. We know it’s all trickery but do we Know it? The next six weeks will tell us how long the spell can be maintained. And the damage it may do.

Danger Man: s03 e12 – The Man on the Beach


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Much as I love Danger Man, both then and now, it’s becoming apparent that it’s third series – the second in the fifty minute format – has its fair share of episodes that fall short of the overall standards and I’m afraid that ‘The Man on the Beach’ is another one of those. It all goes to support Patrick McGoohan’s position when he left the show after two episodes of series four, claiming it had run out of good stories.

This latest episode, set in the West Indies, suffered from the lack of a cohesive story with a focussed sequence of events. Given how Danger Man used to provide tightly-organised plots, this is a serious let down. Drake, as John Drake, is introduced enjoying himself with sand, scenery, drinks and indolence, which is causing friction with his local superiors, Simon Howes, an irascible station head who is demanding he return to London, and his number two, Wykes (the very familiar Glyn Houston). Drake claims to be investigating CIT, whatever that is, whilst giving off the impression that he’s not putting in much effort, in order to extend hs holiday.

This very much gets up Wykes’ nose, but then Wykes is an officious little toerag to begin with. Drake’s real assignment, given him directly by Sir Alan Grose (David Hutcheson), to whom he reports on the beach, is to identify a double agent and it comes as no surprise that it should be Wykes.

But the story meanders. Drake has no discernible plan of investigation. He spends the first half of the story being stalked by the beautiful, slinky Cleo (the beautiful, slinky Barbara Steele), though her serious flirtatiousness runs up against McGoohan/Drake’s abrasion, although after a (studio) beach scene in which she’s wearing a backless swimsuit paired with thigh-revealing cycle shorts in which she reveals she’s married to one of the villains, she drops out of the story exactly as if she’s gone through a trapdoor.

But she’s set Drake up to appear, to Howes and Wykes, to be a double agent himself. Sir Alan has impressed upon him that the most important thing is that his presence in the Caribbean must be the deepest secret, but the momet he’s accused of treachery and threatened with arrest, Drake caves, gives up Sir Alan’s name and whereabouts and is left further up the creek when Grose’s hostess, the beautiful, cool blonde Lady Kilrush (the beautiful, cool blonde Juliet Harmer) denies even knowing him.

So, one slightly extended fight wrecking Howes’ secret office later, Drake flies to Grand Cayman but is refused entrance to the Kilrush hoiusehold. Wandering the beach, he gets involved with beach girl Mary Anne (Dolores Mantez), who is living with thug Lyle, who is working with Wykes.

Now, Mary Anne has a part to play, firstly confirming Sir Alan was staying with Lady Kilrush, after the Lady has denied even knowing him, then producing the abandoned belt from his beach robe, plus his mini-recorder later, as well as showing Drake where he can find the drowned body. But she’s just a plot convenience who doesn’t fit except as this tool. And she and the scripter beg the question of how Sir Alan, this senior andresourceful figure whose presence is known only to Drake, is identified, kidnapped and killed entirely offscreen, before Drake admits to his presence.

Once the robe belt is prduced, Lady Kilrush caves and admits everything. We can infer, from her reference to her husband – not here until next week – being a jealous man, that she’s been having fun to go with the sun, but she too is little more than a cypher. When Wykes turns up to arrest the clearly disturbed and dangerous Drake, who’s bleeding from a machete to the upper right arm that didn’t stop him defeating its weilder in a pond, she is ineffectual until Howes turns up in Wykes wake.

At which point, Drake stands up, silently plays a recording he’s made with the late Sir Alan’s marvellous mini-recoreder, of Wykes plotting to kill him, sadly incriminating or what, eh? At which point he keels over in a dead faint through loss of blood and we can go to Edwin Astley and the credits.

So, no. A badly constructed story whose plot elements were like the Curate’s egg of legend: good in parts but not enough to make up an actual egg. McGoohan must have had things like this in mind when he walked off to the Village of legend.

Preston Front: s02 e06 – Lloydy’s Ark


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Without being a minute longer than the standard 48, the last episode of Preston Front‘s second series managed to fit in enough stories to suggest something three times as long whilst leaving most of them so far up in the air that for a third series to do with them as it chooses. And whilst the comedy kept coming, it was rising from a bedrock of near universal pain, commonplace, everyday, garden-level pain that is the condition of people’s lives and which the comedy serves to disguise, but not alleviate.

Wow, that was a heavy sentence, wasn’t it?

When I first started writing about All Quiet on the Preston Front, I mentioned that I had watched about twenty minutes of the first episode and then switched off, not finding it funny. For some reason, having come to that conclusion, I ended up watching the last episode of this series and became hooked without really understanding the people involved, but recognising the depth from which the comedy arose.

It’s not very promising as an introductory episode, but then that’s not the ideal role for a series finale, in which developing threads are tied together in a practical knot, which is an ironic note as the only involvement of the RA this week was a session learning how to tie knots. This gives us our chance to mention the only minor and disconnected strand of the episode, as Rundle is still struggling over his attraction to Ally, Ally is losing the battle to keep things on an it-was-nothing keel and Polson, in pursuit of his ambition to get that Sergeant’s stripe, let’s it be known that he is aware of a certain person of higher rank stroking the hair of another person of lower rank. The last person I saw who looked that stunned was Kim Hughes after Edgbaston 1981 so kudos to Kieran Flynn.

But everything else was wrapped up into the spinal story, which was about Lloydy, that great, hulking clown of a figure, the human funny bone. Adrian Hood is perfect in the role, but this episode, without disturbing the surface an inch, showed him as human underneath, and every bit as screwed up as the rest of us. Anthony Lloyd is the only son of two market traders, busy and popular in their own right, whose customers are less customers than friends who buy things off them, who still feel looked down upon and wanted more for their son, like all good parents.

But Anthony wasn’t made of that stuff to be more. He hasn’t got it up there (points to head), but his parents paid 10% of their income to send him to a private school where he stands out so far that a coat of orange fluorescent paint would only serve as camouflage. Lloydy is, in objective terms, a wash-out, a failure, a son with no aim in life. Not even his riches from ‘Ghurka Tank Battle’ (at which, in another strand not a million miles away, little Kirsty wipes the floor with Hodge and her Mum) impress them, because he’s used the money to buy cars instead of putting himself through business school, or buying somewhere nice to live.

Stung, through even that thick skin, the product of being a laughing-stock to everyone, Lloydy sells the cars and buys what will impress his Mum and Dad, who loved their long ago holiday so much, namely a canal boat. To live on. Everybody takes the usual piss out of him (even Eric and Dawn, who have ‘broken their duck’ and are all over each other to the near total exclusion of every other sensory input), everybody has something better to do than take a trip with him on Saturday morning, and everyone turns up, though Hodge is late through trying not to attend at all.

Yes, Hodge. Hodge has lost his girlfriend to Greg Scarry, but he’s content, because he can see Kirsty whenever he wants. Yes, only he and Jeanetta (and Eric. And Dawn) know he’s her father, and though it must forever remain a mystery to the whole world, and especially Kirsty, it’s enough for him to know. Which he says, and means, then. But there’s a brick wall looming in the very immediate future, once he’s promoted to Staying for Tea and Reading a Bedtime Story. Hodge is reading The Wind in the Willows but Kirsty breaks his heart. He can’t marry her Mum and become her Dad because she’s already got a Dad, he’s in Australia raising lots of sheep (last week he was a pilot, because she’d been on a school trip to Manchester Airport). Thsat’s bad enough for Hodge, whose face is getting slowly more frozen, but there’s worse. A hiding place in a closet. A box. An old magazine with a photo of a successful couple. ‘Dad’ has a face. He has a name. And they’re both Greg Scarry.

Who is entertaining Laue Delooze, poor dumb Laura, w ho still thinks these are business meetings, even if the latest one is a Friday night on a yacht. Not a big yacht, but bigger than any Hodge has got. Greg Scarry may be a millionaire with a yacht and choice of big cars but he’s still in a pissing contest with scruffy nobody Hodge, a fact Laura points out when all her dumb delusions about why Greg is interested in her are exploded by his kissing her. She’s the last to realise what’s going on, to hear the cynicism in his willingness to set her up in business, but for the first time since we saw her singing at Mr Wang’s Laura becomes a likeable person. Because whatever Hodge is, or rather isn’t in comparison, he doesn’t lead people on. He’s emotionally honest, and Laura wants to go back to him.

Typical of Laura, that last insight isn’t her own but Jeanetta’s, although she recognises, welcomes and finds comfort in the fact of it. By which we can foresee the absolute disaster is yet to come. Everyone’s on the canal boat, off for an idyllic tripo through fields of waving corn or, as is the case, Dawn and Ally being det\ailed to open the lockgates. And Ally’s foregone a trip to London with Frasier, and sitting in a hotel jacuzzi, to do something they used donkeys for.

And there’s Lloydy, only Lloydy’s depressed. That’s why he’s brought 48 cans of Guinness and a ridiciulous change of clothing (I refuse to repeat the slogan on the t-shirt), one to get drunk with and the other to change into when he falls in the canal being drunk. Even Laura’s there, waiting for Hodge: she’s his girlfriend.

As for Hodge, he’s being picked up by Eric in the Noodle Van, thirty miles away, heading for Rochdale. Hodge is depressed too, but Hodge’s depression takes the form of anger and the desire to run away. He’d gone straight downstairs, out of the door, not a word of goodbye, not to Jeanetta, which doesn’t matter so much but not to Kirsty, which does. Jeanetta’s in Roker Bridge, trying to find him. And Lloydy’s navigation has liked the canal boat into an abandoned mill-basin where everybody converges, like the library scene, except that more than just the identity of the murderer is going to be revealed.

Because Laura wants to find Hodge. Because he means more to her that pretentious liar Greg Scarry and she wants his honesty and is prepared to meet it with his own. And Jeanetta doesn’t want Hodge walking out, on her almost as much as Kirsty, despite that insuperable issue between them. But knowing it himself is no longer enough for Hodge. It’s bloody Greg Scarry. He’s the other Hodge, the one that became the success, he’s Hodge’s rival for both his girls and he’s taken both of them away. He’s heard all Jeanetta has to say, and his head might understand but his heart is screaming too loud for his thoughts to be heard, and it’s all or nothing, even as he knows that the ultimatum is impossible.

The scene is familiar. Laura accused Greg of being in a pissing match with Hodge, and Jeanetta identifies that Hodge is in a pissing match with Greg, except that it’s one he has no chance of winning because, sure, yeah, Hodge is the failed Greg, on whose alimony Jeanetta lives so that Kirsty can have a decent life, until Jeanetta cannot stand it any more and all but screams at him that if Greg was more like Hodge, she would never have divorced him in the first place.

It isn’t fair. But whoever said that life is supposed to be fair in the first place, or that it can’t knee you in the balls whilst you’re doubled up from it kicking you in the stomach, because despite Eric’s attempts to run interference, Laura finally finds Hodge. With his arms round Jeanetta, holding her very tight. She can see that, very clearly, though she can’t see that it’s because Jeanetta is crying her eyes out. The scales fall from Laura’s eyes, though they only reveal another set of scales beneath: if both the men fighting over her are liars she might as well be with the one who doesn’t pretend he’s not lying.

And Lloydy. His Mum and Dad have folowed them all the way. He might not be the son of their aspirations, but he’s the son they still love, and they’re ashamed and upset that they have railed at him, especially as they didn’t know Anthony had only bought the boat so that they could retire onto it and he’s take over their sweet stall and become a businessman after all: they are over the moon with him. Yes, Spock explained it so well to them, whilst Lloydy showed his intelligence by standing there and keeping his mouth shut about how he didn’t know a word of this…

This is the kind of thing you can do with a series when you know you’ve got anotrher series in the bag. Tim Firth had the luxury of breaking things into pieces and throwing them in the air so they can be put back together in different shapes next time. And the wit to end on the gang, sprawled on a hillside, with tons of sweets, having gentle friendly fun in the moment, Eric and Dawn chasing each other around like mad kids having fun.

No wonder I fell for this series, belatedly. We shall return to series 3 in the future but let’s leave them like that for now, they deserve it.

Danger Man: s03 e11 – To Our Best Friend


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I was all set to acclaim this as one of the very best Danger Man episodes ever but it blew it by not being able to follow up on its own logic. I suspect that was the difference between 1965 and 2021, but if the show had had the courage of it convictions, or been allowed to go for the most downbeat of endings, it could have been near perfect.

‘To Our Best Friend’ was written by series creator Ralph Smart himself, and directed by Patrick McGoohan. This version of Danger Man was revised to take advantage of the espionage boom generated by the James Bond films yet to be its opposite: realistic, grounded and gritty. So we could have a nicely played open in which an Englishman passing on secrets to a suposed Russian connection could reveal that the M9 agent in Baghdad is a double agent. Which in turn led to John Drake being assigned to go out there and deal with it, a mission he initially refused adamantly but, recognising that only he could complete it fairly. Because the agent in Baghdad is Bill Vincent (Donald Huston). And he is one of Drake’s best friends.

And once he arrives, out of the blue, it turns out that not only Bill is John’s friend but his wife Lesley (Ann Bell, who I’ve only otherwise seen as the wife in Baby Doll). Good friends, long-term friends, so pleased to see him that Drake gets a hug – really, body contact – from Lesley, as well as, later on, a kiss on the cheek. This is racy stuff for McGoohan.

But, less humourously, it’s very serious stuff. This is where Danger Man plies its trade, in that dark spectrum where no-one can be trusted, not even your best friend. Drake doesn’t want to brelieve Bill’s gone double but his trap works: a seeming mission involving raiding a leftist agitator’s home for incriminating documents, known only to Drake and Vincent, except that men with guns are waiting for Drake (who, having been prepared for this, has his gadgets set up). It’s worked: Bill Vincent has to be dirty. Though he seems more angry that his friend doesn’t trust him.

Bill throws Drake out but Lesley, distraught, persuades him to stay. She admits to knowing his and Bill’s real job: Bill had had to tell her, to save their marriage. This opens up another avenue of enquiry for Drake, except that he’s officially been taken off the case, ordered home and replaced by the Colonel (Jack Allen) from another section, the General’s section. They clear up matters quietly, inconspicuously. People suffer accidents. Drake continues his investigation but now there are aditional layers to it. If it’s not Bill, who could it be? Unfortunately there’s only one answer to that.

Even before Drake started noting some unusual behaviour I’d begun to suspect Lesley. And the net closed on her and the story that came out was dirty, very dirty, with unwanted levels of betrayal and manipulation. Drake laid it out for us and Lesley: a young girl, born ‘north’ of here, exceptionally talented at languages, taken from her parents, trained intensively. Taken to a remote place, to what appears to be an English town in the middle of nowhere (a wonderful piece of continuity, referring to Colony 3) where she spends five years learning to talk, think and dream like an Englishwoman. Taken to London, pointed at a man named Bill Vincent, ordered to marry him.

Then the trapdoor that drops us even further into the darkness beneath the surface of the world we know: she fell in love with him for real. Two loyalties, and the balancing of them when they cannot, not ever, be balanced to suit everybody.

Enter Ivan, her contact. He has a gun, checks Drake for one. The famous line: ‘I don’t carry one. They’re noisy and they hurt people. Besides, I do very well without.’ The latest gadget, the – seriously – exploding cigar. Lesley will clear out. She asks Drake to say her goodbyes for her to Bill.

It’s done. Drake clears Bill. B|ill can’t lkeave it at that and goes after Lesley. The Colonel’s dogs report he’s running: they’re to follow orders. Only after that does Drake tell the Colonel that Bill Vincent has been cleared, 100%. But it’s too late.

You see where this is going. You know what’s going to happen. You don’t want it to, but alea jacta est. Drake drags the Colonel off in hot pursuit. Bill catches up with Lesley, they hug, they cry, he takes her on towards the border, but in gis car, wedhed under a seat, is now a canister releasing an undetectable gas. It’s not poison. It’s rather somnolent. It makes you laugh, you lose concentration, lose control. Drake’s car comes up behind but it’s too late , the Vincent’s car is weaving all over the road, any moment now it’ll crash, bringing this cruel, nasty, sordid matter, this fruit of espionage to a bitter but inevitable conclusion.

Or so you think. This is the moment the episode blows it, and blows it good. The Colonel takes the wheel, draws level, Drake leaps onto the other car, wrestles it to a stop, chucks the cannister far away. It is a blunder of extraordinary magnitude. It leaves us with a silent ending at the border as Lesley returns home and Drake drives Bill away, and can you say that that is in any way comparable to what it could have been because I’m damned sure I can’t. What a disappointment, what a letdown.

Preston Front: s02 e05 – Deisel’s Out-of-Body Experience


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For one reason or another, I found it difficult to get too invested in this week’s penultimate episode. It followed the pattern the series has used successfully so far, of a central story featuring one of our gang – in this instance Tony Marshall getting a rare chance to step out of the background – whilst interweaving ongoing plot strands developing the various issues of everybody else, but something about it failed to grab.

Part of it was that Deisel’s story was not only too thin to hold up but also too easy to explode. It began in the open, when the Church spire popped on the roof of the garage suddenly lurched left and basically brought the whole shebang down, demolishing said garage and, not unincidentally, Deisel himself. It’s alright, it’s nowt but concussion, but Deisel returns from the dead, in his own mind at least, with a vision. A vision of a dark tunnel, with a bright light at the end of it, in which forms the image of a white figure, his arms outstretched, smiling, welcoming. But Deisel has come back, awed by his experience.

In fact, he’s gone a bit doolally about it. Spock, the arch-sceptic, is anxious to get his mate’s feet back down on the ground, whilst Lloydy is only concerned with the fact that Deisel is happy, and in Lloydy-world that’s the one thing that matters. Don’t die with fun in the bank, he proclaims. Unfortunately, Spock’s idea of defusing things involves getting a vicar to talk Deisel out of it is not best executed because the Vicar is Deisel’s Vicar, at the Methodist Church where Deisel’s late parents were stalwarts, and he falls upon Deisel’s shoulders as proof, not just faith, but proof of miracles and afterlifes, and pretty soon Deisy-boy is doing a tour of elderly people, recounting his experiences to their greater comfort, delight and relief.

But that’s where the problem lies, and it’s two-fold. One is that Deisel’s account, which is entirely honest, can’t go anywhere. He can’t expand upon it. He can only increase his audience, and the element of drama in how he tells it, but he can’t go anywhere else. And behind it all is the certainty, which is never good for a comedy-drama, that it’s all going to be exploded in his face. Deizsel might be 100% honest in his belief but we know the speedbump is coming. Personally, I expected the vision to have been an ambulanceman or something similiar, but it took Lloydy (of course), practicing the spookiness of lying where a dead man was lying, to point out that it was the garage’s Hot Food machine and it’s drawing of a chef with welcoming arms…

So that undermined the central story. The fact that this was the penultimate episode had the effect of making the evolving storylines feel, well, a bit schematic, as if they were holding patterns, unable to land because that has to be reserved for the finale. There’s Dawn, frustrated that she’s now living with Eric, who she loves, but because of the overlapping schedules of their two jobs, never seeing him. There’s Polson being Polson about his wife walking out on him, acting all casual and impervious male when she calls to talk. He’s pased Senior Brecon but has to wait for Rundle’s decision on which of him and Degsy to promote to ergeant. In the meantime, out of non-male-bonding with Eric after last week, he’s promoted Eric to acting Lance-Corporal for the weekend exercise, only for Eric to drop the, again totally expected, bollock because he’s distracted by Dawn, who really really does want to get him in betwen her… sheets.

Then there’s Ally and Rundle and that kiss. Ally’s being all dismissive of it, it meantt nothing – though it clearly gave her a kick – and insisting that it mean nothing to Rundle, and he should forget it, not scupper a good friendship, and stop acting like an awkward schoolboy around her. Except it didn’t mean nothing to Rundle, he can’t get it out of his head, especially as he wants to do it again. All very personal, with echoes of memories I’d rather not retain, and it would be all that. Except that a brooding Polson, checking the long-range night-scope on his rifle, sees two fellow TA members, one a Captain and the other a non-com, standing very close to one another in the dark, he with his hand carressing the side of her face. Oops.

But the most substantial secondary story was Hodge and Laura, their relationship on a clear and obvious downwards path. Hodge is jealous of the time Laura’s spending with Greg Scarry. His real problem is that he’s an angry and insecure jealous, and his aggressive reacyions are pushing Laura away in a manner that’s completely understandable, Hodge is digging the ground out from under his feet in his reverse-snob resentment of Greg, polished, urbane, rich and capable, and his overt treatment of Laura as a stupid, naive, idiot who can’t see that Greg isn’t interested in her opening her catering business to him, only her legs.

Lord knows, Laura is a foolish, self-centred, self-deceiving person, but when Hodge tries to force her to walk home from Mr Wang’s like they usually do, instead of accepting a lift in Greg’s chauffeur-driven Bentley, he leaves her no option but to assert her independence, refused to be told what to do, and open up a fault-line the size of the San Andreus Fault.

Mix’n’match. The lack of endings, of completions, was for once too schematic, and I was sadly too aware of it. Next week wil;l see where everything leads to…

Danger Man: s03 e10 – Are You Going To Be More Permanent?


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Except in one undoubtedly positive aspect, this latest episode of Danger Man fell far short of the standard I’ve come to expect. Whilst the concept of the story was promising, its execution, especially in the writing, was weak and confusing, even more so in respect of the ending, which relied on a totally improbable last minute reversal, whose motivation, insofar as you could guess at it, took things into James Bondian fantasy. That positive? Guest star Susan Hampshire, just for being Susan Hampshire.

The episode started off in style, with a silent open, leaning heavily on the suspense pedal. Two men wait in a ruined house for a third to arrive, late at night. When he enters, he is downed by a drugged dart and strapped into a man-sized trunk, to be shipped off somewhere with a Russian name.

After the credits, enter Drake, turning up to be briefed, not at the usual World Travel offices but an underground Film and TV company in Wardour Street. The kidnapped man is Jordon, M9’s Geneva Controller, responsible for running three contacts with impeccable records. The funny thing is, Jordon’s only been in place a month, having replaced Aldington. Who also disappeared without a trace. Jordon’s replacement in Geneva, with that absurd high spouting fountain that I remember so vividly from The Champions, is to be John Elliott, aka Drake.

The official theory is that one of the three contacts is a double agent, but which one? The choices are Josef Laclos, waiter (Howard Goorney), Wolf Kronenbourg, flambuoyant tailor (Maxwell Shaw) and Russian attache’s mistress, all bright, blonde, bubbly and mid-Sixties delight, Lesley Arden (no prizes for guessing that this is Susan Hampshire).

The episode’s duty is therefore to sift through this trio, who have no connection with or apparent knowledge of each other, and that’s where the writing fell flat. Wolf’s chatty, importunate for money, as gay as television dared portray in 1965, and winds up not delivering the goods. Josef is nervous but solid, yet he sets up a rendezvous with Drake at the exact same place Jordon was taken, same scenario inch for inch, except that Josef winds up either dead or drugged (the show doesn’t think it important to distinguish) and Drake escapes.

This is where the story logic veers wildly off-beam. Josef sets Drake up in exactly the same way Jordon was, which is impossible to explain if he is not the traitor but Drake ignores this as completely as if it had never happened and continues to try to determine which of Wolf and Lesley it is. As you may be guessing, Wolf is the red herring.

It was not difficult to anticipate Lesley as the double agent from the moment Susan Hampshire first appeared onscreen. She’s set up as the glamour, to impress Drake, or so the episode wants us to think, and Miss Hampshire, without once trying hard, does exactly that… for the audience, at least. It’s a wonderfully natural performance from a truly beautiful lady, presenting the surface of a light-minded Sixties dolly-bird lit from beneath by the cynicism that a role like that which Lesley Arden plays must require in order to survive.

She’s meant to be irresistible, and I for one shamelesly find her so, but although Patrick McGoohan has shown himself capable in this role of indicating genuine interest in an attractive female, none of that is deployed here. He says the words, and serious words they are, not merely pretty, but they are empty, and his delivery is mannered and staccato, breaking sentences down. Into short phrases. And words.

Having disposed of both Josef and Wolf as options but leaving their strands dangling with no endings, Drake walks, fly-like, into the spider’s parlour, where Lesley is cooking him an evening meal. It’s a set-up you’d kill to enjoy but he’s not interested, and the episode, lacking any subtle means of convincing him the blonde is the villainess, resorts to a crude trick: a harlequin doll conveniently lies around, its head detached and a slide of the drugged darts stuffed into its neck.

We jump forward several hours, to a relaxed, almost sleepy, replete Drake, near-horizontal in an easy chair, drinking cognac, and lazily describing the evening as perfect. It’s clearly a different definition of the word than I would make, a romantic, soft-light, candle-lit evening with Susan Hampshire putting every effort into making a superb meal, all the while giving off this-is-your-lucky-night-sunshine vibes and he hasn’t even loosened his tie. This is the moment Lesley draws the dart gun on him – don’t worry, he’s already unloaded it – so that he can be shipped off to be drained of information. She even furiously denies having turned: she’s been working for them all along.

Which is where everything collapses. She can’t pull the trigger on Drake, and goes from this loyal and fervent Russian agent to helping Drake drug her contact Vladimir, stuff him into the man-sized trunk that appears out of nowhere and hands the package over to the agents to ship to Russia. Why? Don’t ask such stupid questions because the writer isn’t interested in anything except bringing the story in at the usual length, just assume she’s so helpless in the face of Drake’s baby blue eyes and can’t help betraying everything she’s stood far in the knowledge that he isn’t going to wrap her in his manly arms and kiss her till her mouth gets numb, he’s going to lead her off, sheep-like, to interrogation and whatever we did with spies in 1965.

I’m sorry, but for me this was an incoherent mess on every level except having Susan Hampshire appear in it. In the end, McGoohan would leave Danger Man, saying it had done all its best stories and, if continued, would have to rely on repetitive or silly ideas. ‘Are You Going To Be More Permanent?’ is an early indication of what he was talking about.

Preston Front: s02 e04 – Polson’s Lilo


Preston

I was going to start by going on about how I’m already nearing the end of this series and it hardly feels as if I’ve started to watch it but such trivialities paled in the face of an episode that, whilst not ignoring its comedic twists, spent most of its time dealing with the real pain of human lives.

For once, the focus of an episode was not one of our happy little gang of friends but rather their macho Geordie shortarse doom-goblin of a Corporal, Pete Polson. So far, across a series and a half, he’s been an external, a figure of fun, a caricature performed splendidly by David McReedy. Polson is ex-Army, now strutting his stuff in the TA, sneering down at everyone else because they’re playtime soldiers, not real ones like him. He’s operating on an internal rage, totally pissed off at everything around him, because it’s not Army, not the Regulars. Polson is a squaddie, a born squaddie, good on his own level but thick as mince when it comes to everything else. This week, Tim Firth stripped him down, playing with that uncertain and often dangerous line between comedy and tragedy.

I was taught at school, in some long ago English class, that tragedy is properly defined as the fall of a great person from a great place. We were studying Death of a Salesman then, Willie Loman, and how his story in the play is not classical tragedy but yet is a form of tragedy in itself, though he has no great level to fall from. That’s the case with Polson. Last week, Firth introduced his wife, Sarah, and we all thought how different she was from him. Now we had the whole thing opened out for us.

There’s a classic joke in the open. Hodge is looking for a present for Kirsty’s forthcoming birthday party. He’s taken Eric along with him, and Eric, in Eric-fashion, has brought Lloydy. The trio spot Polson playing with a toy rifle. The talk about his forthcoming two week Sergeant’s training course in the Brecon Beacons, in the middle of nowhere, remote country, rough living, mountains, the lot. Then Polson picks up an inflatable pink lilo. “And apparently not far from a paddling pool,” says Lloydy.

Then we switch to Polson and Sarah meeting friends to go to see a performance of Corialanus. There’s a subtle note there in that they pronounce her name as Sara, setting out the social class aspect, of which Polson is decidedly on the wrong level. He produces Anniversary plans, a Meditarranean holiday, in a luxury tent, which she later describes as embarrassing. It is, on account of the disparity betwee the pair’s separate wants in life, but I’m already not really laughing, because I’m not that eager to side with an obviously bright, refined, attractive blonde who treats her husband like shit because she’s ashamed of him.

So Polson goes off to Brecon. He’s in his element there, this is the life he knows and understands and is actually pretty good at, beneath the smouldering resentment. his reasons for leaving the Regulars were domestic: his wife didn’t want him in the Army. He’s making the effort to understand. She’s smart, she’s the youngest ever Area Manager the Hotel chain have ever had, the life of an Army wife, in barracks in Germany, was no good for her. But Polson, though he’d never understand the notion and wouldreact in violent resentment at the physical aspect, has been emasculated by Sarah.

And he drives all the way back to Roker Bridge on the middle Saturday to deliver a this-time-truly-inappropriate Anniversary present only to find Sarah moving out, leaving him, and it’s all his fault for coming here when he shouldn’t have and spoiling her best-for-everyone plans to leave him behind his back, just not be there when he comes home. What a bastard Polson is, putting her through having to say it to his face when she hasn’t planned what to say to him.

We have to digress. There are other things swirling in this episode. Hodge we will treat separately, but there’s Eric. Eric has moved out, taking with him a childhood that he clings to. He’s moved in with Dawn. At the housewarming party for the gang, on the terrace (lovely flat, two bedrooms, bathroom and shower and ninety square miles of moorland), Laura is a bit bemused to learn that the second bedroom is for Eric, even thi=ough they’re going out together, whilst Ally is big on personal space.

It’s all upwards for Eric. Mr Wang, eternally grateful for Eric chucking the Dragon suit into the river, gives him a job driving the Noodle Van, his new home deliveries service. He’s out on his first night. Dawn’s prepared a romantic dinner for when he gets back, only for Hodge to arrive, needing to talk to Eric. About what we’ll get back to, but this is the cue for Eric, out on the moors, happily driving the noodle van, glossing over certain failings in his actual service, when he’s suddenly confronting a car on the wrong side of the road. Eric swerves into a drystone wall, the other car goes off the road and overturns. A trepidatious Eric approaches in horror only slightlky alleviated by the discovery that the driver is Polson, and that he’s drunk.

What followed was extraordinary. Polson’s in grief. The poor sod, he still loves his wife, and he still can’t understand why what has happened has happened. He’s in pain, the horrible pain of understanding that because of what you are you are a misfit, out of place in the world, but not understanding why. He intends to react by doing what Polson does, going back to Brecon, undergoing the pain that entails, because that kind of pain he does understand and can manage. Because he’s left with nothing. Because Polson exists on hate and he has nothing and no-one to hate in all this.

It’s not totally a monolgue. Eric isn’t just there to provide an audience, he’s genuinely concerned for Polson and trying to get him to see he’s in no fit state to go anywhere, least of all Brecon, and he’s the one who ends up on the lilo, when he nearly falls off a sixty foot cliff trying to stop Polson jumping off it. This enables Polson to feel goodabut himself, to ease off, understand that men don’t have to maintain their macho air at all times. Of course, if Eric ever mentions any of this down the drillhall, he’ll kill him. But that was obvious.

At last it’s time for Hodge. Laura’s gor her dinner appointent with Greg Scarry that Hodge can see through but that she, the poor, naive airhead can only see like Dr Mid-Nite without his special lenses. Despite their enthusiastic espousal of the idea of giving each other space, Hodge is jealous, a contradiction that Dawn has to point out. But Hodge has Kirsty’s birthday party to attend, with his wigwam present, only it was actually the day before. Jeanetta gave him the wrong date, unable to face the explanations for the other mothers if just who he is, and the ever-present threat of Kirsty finding out he’s her father.

One day, yes. Hodge’s efforts to entertain and fit in, converting the wigwam into a too-heavy-to-fly kite, flying it on the beach with all of Kirsty’s helium number balloons to provide a lift, and runthe risk of losingthe lot if she gets startled and lets go of the stick, these are all well meant but ineffectual. But Jeanetta is thinking of her mother’s funeral, of her life with a woman abandoned by her husband, for whom she became an “emotional zimmer-frame”, and she’s looking at Kirsty and herself and thinking that her little girl needs the other ‘f’ word: family.

Which sends Hodge tearing off to find Eric, oblivious to the obviously romantic intentions of Dawn who, without knowing any of the facts, has worked out from Hodge’s reactions and his contradictory explanations of just who Kirsty is that she is his kid. But she’ll keep the secret for him.

And so it was, still funny, but very much about the things that cause people pain, and so not funny but serious, yet still so absolutely of the world according to these mates in Roker Bridge.

Danger Man: s03 e09 – Loyalty Always Pays


danger

Out to Africa. That’s where we and our old friend John Drake are this week. The setting is an unnamed African country, a former British colony not so long since given its Independence, but where Britain still has substantial interests, in terms of the level of Foreign Aid it is supplying. But if said country has concluded a secret treaty with the Chinese, to purchase arms, there will no longer be such support (or influence, he read between the lines, cynically). An Agent of United African Insurance, M9’s representartives out here, insists there is such a treaty, before he’s killed. The Prime Minister, good old Earl Cameron, whose innate dignity makes him perfect for such roles, insists there is not, but is allowing a British representative a free hand to investigate. Enter John Drake, aka John Hamilton, supposedly of Consolidated Minerals incorporated, seeking to negotiate mineral rights from the Minister of Defence, Mr Enugu (Errol John). If there is a treaty it’s in his very-securely protected safe. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

This is the setting for a very fine episode of intrigue. The treaty’s in the safe. Yes, the keys can be got at and duplicated. Yes, the alarm system can be disconnected, perhaps a little bit too easily. These things can be and are done. But in order to get to the Minister’s suite in the Ministry of Defence in the first place, Drake and his allies Sam Beyla (Johnny Sekka) and Miss Sefada (Dolores Mantez) must corupt someone in the Army. The last person who can be corrupted in white English Major Bert Barrington (Nigel Stock), who is a bear for extreme and unrelenting attention to duty and detail. Major Barrington is incorruptible.

Major Barrington is also something of a racist, though this is nowhere made explicit and is not represented by his actionsat any point. But it’s inherent in his ‘type’: the Englkish Army Officer who was a big man in the Colonial Army, but who has lost prestige and standing now that the country is no longer what it used to be in “the good old days”. Yet he’s loyal to those he works for, not out of respect and/or attachment to the ‘new lot’ who are in charge, but because of his own personal integrity. Barrington is loyal because it matters to him to be loyal, an admirabvle thing.

So Drake, Sam and Miss Sefada set a trap for him, a complex web of deceit and seduction, built up cleverly and at length. Barrington dreams of returning to England, a little house in the country. Drake sets up a deal to defraud his own company: rights can be purchased for £110,000., the company are happy to pay £150,000., ‘Hamilton’ can’t be seen interfering in the deal and hiswould-be partner in crime has gone down with ticker-trouble. Where can he find a willing partner to buy at the lower price, sell to Consolidated at the higher price and split the difference?

Barrington is exploited into the scheme and hustled into providing his cheque for 10% deposit, £11,000. He hasn’t got £11,000. He’s got ‘Hamilton’s cheque for £11,000., but what is that worth? When ‘Consolidated’ drop the deal he’s so far up excrement creek that they haven’t invented paddles. But he can be rescued if he will take Hamilton into the Ministry of Defence and stand by.

Let me pause for a moment and backtrack slightly to an earlier incident when Drake is attacked and captured by men working for the Chinese representative, Chin Lee, who addresses him as Drake. At the time I put that down to excellent intelligence work on their part, but… well, let’s leave it there for now.

Barrington takes Hamilton into the Ministry. The scheme works. The treaty is found and photographed. But surveillance has reported their presence to Enugu, who orders security to find them and expel them. Then orders change: arrest them. The safe is closed but the interlopers can’t get out of the suite in time. They are captured and imprisoned. For the Major it’s utter disaster, absolute ruin. But Drake is confident: after all, the Prime Minister is, he believes, an honest man and, having used one of his elaborate gadgets to fire the photos out of the windiw to Sam…

And so it plays out. Enugu goes into one cell, Drake and Barrington are released from the other. The Prime Minister tears up the treaty and is grateful to Drake. He will expel Chin Lee and sends Colonol M’bota to deliver this message. Drake halts him. Chin Lee called him Drake. Only two people in the country knew his real name. One was the Prime Minister. The other was…

Between them, Drake and Barrington stop M’Bota shooting his way out. We end with the Prime Minister congratulating Barrington on his part of this, assuring him that his service will not be forgotten. Drake’s final words are even more ironic, revealing the title to be two-edged. Drake tells the Major that loyalty always pays…

This episode was made in 1965, when Britain was in the process of divesting itself of its African colonies. This was not an uncontroversial thing, and feelings ran high amongst those who believed in the Empire, who were often vocal in their rage at independence being given to jumped-up tribesmen who did not know how to run a country. It was colonialism and paternalism writ large: they still needed the British to tell them what to do. What impressed me abut this episode was that, outside of the Major’s veiled reference to the ‘good old days’, there was not the slightest sniff of this attitude. This unnamed country was presented as a grown up nation, serious, thoughtful, obviously proud and in no way needing paternalist approaches. The episode featured an overwhelmingly black cast, although its guest star, Nigel Stock, was also white (yet he was the weak link) and there were only two other roles, both small, one nothing but a cameo, for white actors.

What was also typical of the times, and I confess that I am too young to know hether this is a criticism or not, was how Westernised everybody was, in clothing, in activities, in decor. There was an air of familiarity to this, as if I had seen that approach much more often than just in this episode, as if that was astandardised approach on British TV: if you want to make the African nation look noble, respectable and sincere, dress it in our clothes, make it look as much as possible like our country. Or were such emerging nations at first looking to ape the West in order to be taken seriously? Was this a trope, or did it have real elements to it? I have no idea, just suspicions, but if this really was a fantasy, then despite the inherent cultural insensitivity of it, then I take the episode to be with genuine good intent, so that an audience that would lmost certainly be ignorant might treat this country with respect, however paternalistic the attitude.

Sunday Watch: Open All Hours – 7 of 1 e01/s01 e01 – Full of Mysterious Promise


Open

I don’t know if you’re aware of it but in recent years there’s been this prostitution of a TV sitcom called Still Open All Hours or, as it’s better known around here, ‘David-Jason-is-so-bloody-desperate-to-be-a-srar-again-he’s-robbing-Ronnie-Barker’s-grave’. Yesterday, I paid an impromptu visit to Machester City Centre to look for something that wasn’t there, but, looking round the big Oxfam shop on Oldham Street, I saw and opted to buy the first two series of the real thing, at 99p each. And here we are.

To explain the slightly confusing header of this piece, Open All Hours debuted as the opening episode of a series called 7 of 1. This, in its turn, was a variation on the regular BBC series, Comedy Playhouse, which put out six or seven potential sitcoms, different writers and cast every week: in short, a series of pilots, though back then we hadn’t yet heard, let alone absorbed that term from American TV. What qualified 7 of 1 for an individual title was that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker.

Of course, this was the series that spawned the magnificent Porridge (which pilot, ‘Prisoner and Escort’, was the second episode), written by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, and that was the one that got the nod straightaway, for which we are all thankful. The third episode, ‘My Old Man’, was also turned into a series, albeit short-lived, on ITV, with Clive Dunn playing the lead: if it had had Ronnie Barker in the part it could have worked, by making its lead character real instead of just another Clive Dunn old bloke, but…

‘Open All Hours’ was overlooked, probably because Ronnie Barker could only do so much, but three and a half years later it was resurrected for a series of six episodes, leading to four series over the following decade, albeit with only the final series attracting massive audiences. By then, writer Roy Clarke was big at the Beeb, thanks to the ever-growing success of what would go on to be the world’s longest lasting sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine.

Changes were made. Though set in Yorkshire, the pilot episode was filmed in London, with London-based actors like Yootha Joyce putting on northern accents. The episode starred Ronnie Barker as Arkwright, the stuttering, mean, grasping owner of a small back-street general store, money-grubbing, peny-pinching and consumed with lust for buxom District Midwife Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, who lives opposite, and a still-not fully-established David Jason (a stalwart of Barker for the past three years) as his nephew Granville, product of an alleged fling between Arkwright’s late unwed sister and a Hungarian seaman, aged 25, wistful, desperate and tied to his shop pinny and shop bike, not the greatest weapons in his desire to meet and attract any girls.

Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, whose clearly amused and sceptical view of her would-be husband was an essentisal component of the show’s humour, was played in the pilot by Sheila Brennan, with a distinct throaty Weksh accent – well, what would you expect with a name like that? – but the part for the series was taken by Lynda Baron, who played a natural northern accent with Yorkshire down-to-earthedness that allowed for a plausible degree of underlying sympathy for her suitor beneath the perpetual embarrassment at his unsuble importuning.

When I first put the DVD in, I misunderstood its contents and ended up watching the first 1976 episode before going back to the pilot. This was salutory for analytical reasons – as a general rule I can recommend occasionally reading series back to front as a means of identifying more cleaely the introduction of ideas – in two respects, in terms of immediately recognising by just how much the series toned down and smoothed out some of the elements of the pilot, and by identifying some aspects of the comedy that the series substituted and which Ireally rather wish they hadn’t.

Looking at them in the right order, the pilot’s underlying theme was much harsher. The comedic ingredients are there immediately, but there’s a more realistic and indeed aggressive tone to them. Clarke’s writing hasn’t yet adopted the shape that Last of the Summer Wine had taken and which would formalise his approach to writing ever after. Arkwright has a slightly meaner edge, whilst Granville’s plight as a young(ish) man (Jason was nearly a decade older than the character and it showed) was more serious, a supposedly mid-twenties man who was trapped by poverty and a job that had him working from 6.00am to 9.00pm six days a week, effectively only for his keep.

It was also noticeable that the pilot featured a smoking scene of a kind wholly eliminated by 1976. A works bus stops outside, half a dozen labourers come in simultaneously, but cigarettes, light up, the air fills with smoke, a hideous fug that I grew up amongst and have thankfully not experienced in nearly fifty years, and everyone starts up with smokers’ cough, hacking and grinding, Granville’s put the covers over the fresh produce in readiness, and it’s all a joke along the lines that this is supposed to be a pleasurable activity. Urghh.

On the other hand, the pilot did feature a cameo by a fresh-faced young lad who I instantly recognised as a then unknown (and wish he’d stayed that way) Keith Chegwin.

When the series was commissioned, production moved to Doncaster, and the exteriors, of which there were plenty, were filmed there. Lynda Baron showed greater comedic potential as the Nurse but the greatest difference between pilot and series was in Clarke’s writing. He was now well-established, thanks to Last of the Summer Wine, and that programme’s deployment of gentle surreality to a natural and downhome Yorkshire working class reality was now his default option.

Arkwright’s still crass, but he’s tuned down to where he can be seen in sitcom terms as loveable. Granville’s wistfulness at the enforced absence of opportunities in his life is somehow pain-free: we are encouraged to only laugh at him, and ignore the underlying black reality. The underlying ‘plot’ of Arkwright’s efforts to sell tinned food without labels, biught dirt cheap at a fire sale, is purely comedic without any element of the riskiness of such a thing: the sole nod to this comes where Arkwright’s belief he can tell what’s inside just by shaking the contents is exploded when the tin of beefy cunks in gravy he’s having for his tea turns out to be pineapple chunks in juice, to which his response is that it’s a good job he opened a tin of sliced carrots before, upending custard all over them.

What shook me, and frankly is why I’ve only watched two instead of the usual three episodes, was the introduction of racist humour on the series. It’s not vicious, just the common or garden low-level stuff that was a feature of the mid-Seventies, but it shook me to hear shite like that again. Gossiping about a lady who appears to not be keeping herself to herself, which has caught Granville’s ear, Arkwright warns him that he’s seen Negroes going in there and coming out looking quite pale, whilst shortly after he reminisces about hard times in the district causing men from Bradford to go off to open a corner shop in Pakistan.

Not good. Not good at all. So the funny lines, the comic juxtapositions, rang just a bit hollow for me., and it didn’t help that, after defending the series’ decision to position Arkwright as a stutterer way back then, I’m now finding that aspect rather more offensive.

Nothing, however, can take away from the fact that this was an original creation, led by a masterful comedy actor who brought his character to fully-composed life, and any subsequent revival as a vampire sucking in the blood of the original and aping it in the most cowardly, disgusting and mishandled fashion. That it is apparently popular is one more sad indication of how decadent our entertainment has become.

Apologies for that bit of late pompousness, though I don’t withdraw it. This last bit is to let those of you who check for my thoughts and opinions every Sunday know that ‘Sunday Watch’ is going on a summer break. A few more DVD films have been spirited in to my pokey little homestead so there will be a summer season of ‘Film 2021’ of at least two months duration, before I go back to the boxsets in the autumn. A change is as good as a change, eh?

Preston Front: s02 e03 – Spock’s Leg


Preston

Preston Front is a howling delight to watch, but it can be a bugger to blog, I can tell you, especially with an episode like this, based around a clearly-defined, one-off story yet full of little threads and tangles that have nothing to do with the plot but which just happen to be taking place at the same time, three of them involving relationships headng in disparate directions.

But first, the story. It’s all about the week of Spock’s Leg. Nothing to do with one of those long, hairy things and proceed in a downwards direction from the, ahem, waist, but rather a leg of a journey. Or in this case a Foreign Exchange Student trip. You see, in that first series, the one with the longer title, when the TA were in Germany, Spock – an intellectual, placid, artistically-minded history teacher who is so far out of place in Roker Bridge as would be a twenty-foot tall orange fluorescent statue of Mao Zedong – made the acquaintance of Dieter, of the German TA. Actually, he stuck his rifle in Dieter’s ear when the latter was flat on his face in the mud, wearing camo, but it’s the thought that counts. Spock being Spock, learning that Dieter was also a history teacher, assumed he was identical of character and set up this Exchange thing for their respective schools, full of local history, art, culture.

Unfortunately, when Dieter (Kim Romer) turns up at the airport, where Spock’s gang is waiting with all manner of transport, up to and and including Lloydy’s latest Waste-of-moneymobile, he turns out to have turned into an arsehole. Dieter wears his peroxided hair in a flashy gelled-back style and goes for short-sleeves and very-cut-off shorts. Dieter is a Warrior, a hard body (with its usual concomitant, a soft mind), out for fun, i.e., pubs and rock gigs. He also has the habit of descriving things of which he approves as ‘Opposite the Hotel!’ This is a meaningless phrase that his fellow teacher has conned him into thinking is cool slang for cool. His fellow teacher is Ingrid (Angela Pearson). Ingrid is tall, with long blonde hair and considerably beautiful. He is a chain smoker, though the cigarettes she smokes turn out to be cannabis, not tobacco, a personal recreation choice that becomes much more understandable when you see how much of an arsehole Dieter is, with his insistence on going for six mile runs, to Deisel’s garage and back, wearing a bin-liner.

It also appears that Ingrid is attracted to, of all people, Spock. His intelligence, his artistic appreciation – they both love Klimt – and his ability to lay food out in an interesting fashion. Typically, Spock is slow to realise this, though thid is based not in obtuseness but the basic inability to believe that a woman as flat out gorgeous as Ingrid could want to get anywhere near him (I know, Spock, mate, I know).

Sadly, it takrs Hodge and Spock to learn from the increasingly morose Ingrid that it is not Spock himself that she is attracted to, but the person he so much reminds her of, namely the pre-German TA Dieter, who was indeed a total and utter Spock. Spock doesn’t realise this, Dieter doesn’t realise this, and ultimately it’s the poor bugger who has to brwak it to his German colleague. So Dieter gets the happy ending and Spock the familiar one. Of course it wasn’t real. It never is. That’s the other side of Tim Firth’s writing, the ability to naturally bring unforced humour out of a situation that’s tragic on a personal level without letting you escape from the real emotions.

So that was the story of Spock’s Leg but of course there’s much more to the episode than that. For all of series 1. Lieutenant Rundle found himself working under Corporal Polson in the Leisure Centre at the Hotel, and Polson exploited that with all the poisonous malice squatting in his short-arsed form. But the great day has arrived. Rundle has completed his training. Not only is he escaping from the Leisure Centre but he’s being invested as Manager of the entire Hotel. Now he’s Pete Polson’s boss in both areas of their acquaintance. Rundle’s so relieved at it that he’s being incautiously open abut the little ‘doom-goblin’ to tha Area Manager, the bright, blonde and beautiful Sarah (Beth Goddard). She loves the phrase, thinks it so perfect, but she does know Pete: after all, she got him his job after he got out of the Regulars. And he’s her husband.

Which leads to an incredibly funny sequence. Ally’s feeling bored. She’s told Dawn that she’s going to apply for a Commission. But at the local Law Society Dinner Dance, held at guess-which-Hotel, Ally’s youth makes her as much out of place as her younger brother is anywhere. She’s bored out of her skull and, spotting a familiar face behind the Reception desk, commandeers Rundle to ostensibly show her a change of rooms for her and husband Frasier, but really to get ten minutes of intelligent, interesting not-small-talk. Which leads to R|undle telling her about Sarah Polson and hysteria about why in God’s name she ever married him? Rundle speculates that it must be that Polson is a sex machine, a splutteringly funny but also mind-curdling thought that leads to Ally’s own speculations about the attraction of a diferent kind of life and their joint wondering about what happens when the spell wears off, which is followed by a long and passionate kiss, which is rather more rapidly followed by the hasty coming-to-their-senses, disengagement and separation. Ally’s left worrying about the implications of what she’s done, whilst Rundle is smiling over all parts that can smile. Hmm.

The best bit though is that this scene is intercut with Polson driving home, to this great, plush, stately Hotel where he lives with Sarah, arriving to find her curled up on the couch watching TV, silently, especially towards him. When he tries to start a conversation about the TA, she chops him off with a question about something he was supposed to bring back, which he hasn’t. Polson sits there, humbled and wanting, the sex machine theory having hopefully been exploded for once and for all.

Better things are happening between Dawn and Eric. She’s still not pressuring him to move out of home, where he’s waited on hand and foot and all is rosy except for his seriously depressed father, who’s as much a dead weight on the easy-to-anchor Eric as Old Man Steptoe. But she wants the flat, and she wants Eric to move in with her, and she needs Eric to afford the rent. And there he is, bumbling to her about all the problems at home, and how it’s not the right time, and the light is running out of Dawn’s eyes at Eric being as Eric as he posibly can, until he tells her it’s never going to be the right time and produces an envelope with his part of the deposit… Good lad.

One up, one down. We need a tie-breaker and we have it in Hodge and Laura. Both have had invitations next week. Laura’s is the infamous ‘business lunch’ with Greg Scarry, and she can’t talk about anything else. That and her professional catering business. Every time Hodge tries to speak, no matter what it’s about, Laura is cutting through the sentence like the classic knife through hot butter (I have been there too, oh have I been there too). It’s running downhill like the Rivers Esk, Irt and Mite at Ravenglass. So Hodge can’t get to tell anyone but Eric about the invitation he’s received, to Kirsty’s birthday party, complete with smiling giraffe. Eric refuses to believe it, insists Hodge must have forged it. But the envelope has been addressed by Jeanetta.

Next week is going to be fun.