Tales of the Gold Monkey: e11- The Sultan of Swat

Jake and Zita

It was a Boy’s Club edition this week on Tales of the Gold Monkey, with Sarah on another island for the week, and the only female role that of the young Zita Henriques, a sweet, fresh-faced, bare-legged native girl going around draping garlands round the neck of blokes like Jake Cutter, and the visiting Gamble Rogers (guest star John DiSanti) as a fairly blatant signal that she wants a damned good blessing from them.

Unfortunately, all young Zita (Nia Peeples) is there to do is to be raped and murdered to set off the story. It’s done with rather less lingering than we’d get in these modern times, but it’s the age old story: the woman has nothing to do but be the victim.

Those with even a passing knowledge of Baseball history will know that the Sultan of Swat was the legendary batter Babe Ruth. “Home-run” Gamble is an obvious take-off: 43, retired, big, boisterous, boozing, womanising and on a goodwill tour of Japan and its possessions. Gamble is Jake’s hero and he’s everything the legend says he is.

So when Zita is discovered in his bedroom, naked, raped and strangled with the light cord, he’s the obvious suspect. To everyone, that is, but Jake, who can’t believe his hero has that kind of feet of clay, no matter how strong the evidence (all of which is merely collateral).

There is one witness to the crime but he got kicked in the head, is concussed, and is barking funny, or should I say, howling? There are no straight answers out of Jack this week, not until nearly the end, when it doesn’t matter, though one has to sympathise with the American Secret Service agent who’s trying to keep Gamble out of scrapes, when he suggests that the testimony might not stand up in Court.

Jake’s determined to prove his hero is innocent, a task made more urgent by the fact that Zita’s father has made his mind up as to his daughter’s killer, and is determined on making him pay without benefit of trial.

Given its era and its underlying theme, this is not going to be an episode where Jake’s faith is shown to be misplaced. The real rapist/murderer is Gamble’s manager, another and less famous ex-player named Harvey Bean. Heends up shooting, and catching a bullet from Jake, which spares the island a trial, and also spares the writer a motive, since Bean dies without saying why he’s tried to frame Gamble – who he’s handed over to Henriques.

So Jake and Corky take to a motorbike and sidecar and interrupt the lynching, with the impassioned Henriques repenting immediately his nearly having executed an innocent man.

Cue closer where, in an impromptu exhibition, Jake is pitching to Gamble. He strikes out once! He strikes out twice! Corky as catcher signals a play. Jake overrules him. And “Home-run” Gamble swats the third pitch into the ocean!

All in all, a bit predictable, a bit perfunctory, a bit too boys only. There were the usual nice touches along the way, the sign of a show comfortable in its own skin, but this was a worryingly slight story to reach halfway.

I’m hoping for better next week, with Caitlin O’Heaney back in the action.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e10 – The Late Sarah White

…deep plunging neckline

A change of scene this week, as the Monkey gang move 3,000 miles west (3,251, to be precise) to the Philippines, where it’s raining, and where General MacArthur is negotiating with the Moro guerillas. Why are we here? As the title suggests, our favourite red-headed spy is on a mission in the Philippines, to determine who’s leaking information to the (never defined) other side, and a telegram to Bora Gora has announced that she is dead, of hepatitis.

You’d think that an episode abut Sarah would be full of her, but Caitlin O’Heaney doesn’t have much to do at all this week. She’s in the undergrowth, taking photos of a MacArthur meeting with the Moros, for no easily discernible reason if she’s supposed to be finding the leaker that’s trying to ruin such negotiations, when the meeting is shelled and she’s last seen about to scream, with a machete at her throat.

And that’s it until the final scene, when Jake, Corky, Jack and Johnny Kimble (remember him from episode 4?) are captured trying to warn the Moros that a fake MacArthur with a truck of fake US troops is about to arrive and slaughter them. And who pops up, dressed in a sleeveless top with the Moro red bandanna around her forehead? Our favourite spy, of course, who has never been dead at all.

In between, it’s once again Jake’s show. Like everyone else on Bora Gora, he’s devastated by the wire announcing Sarah’s death, with the crucial difference being that, of course, he doesn’t believe it. In any other circumstances, this would be a clear case of wishful thinking, but of course heroes are always right about such things, and it’s Philippines ho!

It’s not a good time for Americans in the Philippines right now. They’re responsible for the islands’ security, though by this point MacArthur had resigned from the US Army, and was responsible to the Philippines government as a civilian advisor to the Army he’d organised. Jake and Corky are fobbed off by the Assistant American Attache, Horace Simmons (the bad guy), attacked in both street and bar, set to running and pulled aside by Kimble, who explains what is going on and what Sarah was doing.

Immediately prior to this, there’s an odd and utterly irrelevant cameo from Marta DuBois as Princess Koji, who may be a cast member but who usually only appears in the credits. Koji happens to own the bar where Sarah had been singing whilst under cover, which enables her to haul Jake and Corky out of the kind of brawl that, at home, sends Jake’s debt to Bonne Chane Louie soaring. But she provides no useful information, and does little more than unsuccessfully throw herself at Jake, with her deep plunge neck-line and her wraparound skirt unwrapping itself all the way to her thighs: the woman in seriously gagging for it. But you really do have to question why Miss DuBois is on board as cast when it’s obvious no-one has any idea what to do with her?

It’s finally proven that Jake’s gut feelings are right when Kimble helps disinter the coffin which has got a body in it alright, but it’s not Sarah’s, but that of a bloke who’s been shot (and who, despite having been in the ground for nearly a week, in the tropics, is astonishingly undecomposed).

So it’s down to the race against time that is naturally successful, and here’s Dougie!, i.e., the ‘real’ MacArthur, to continue negotiations with guerillas grateful for having been saved by friendly Americanos. Oh yes.

I’ve barely mentioned Jack so far. There’s a running gag all episode, with a distinctly risque twist, that he’s suffering from an allergy, and Leo the Dog is called upon to perform his new party-piece of sneezing at will over and over, to various choruses of ‘Bless you!’ and ‘Salut!’. Turns out it’s not an allergy but rather a sign that Jack needs a bit of doggie-style nookie. And despite Koji’s state of undress, and Sarah’s fetching close-fitting top, that’s the nearest you’re getting to sex this week.


Tales of the Gold Monkey: e09 – The Lady and the Tiger

Just because she was in it this week.

The title suggested that this episode was going to be about Princess Koji, but although Marta DuBois appeared for the first time in half a dozen episodes, this weeks Tales of the Gold Monkey was about a lady of a completely different stripe, oh, and an actual tiger.

You may already be about to point out that tigers are not indigenous to the South Pacific, but if you haven’t already realised that such nit-picking is irrelevant, Jake Cutter does raise the question for you and gets as good an answer as any: the Japanese imported it. Sorted.

‘The Lady and the Tiger’ prefigured Harrison Ford’s film, Witness, by three years in marooning Jake in an Amish colony. This time it’s accidental: both engines blow out on the Goose when Jake buys contaminated petrol and he crash-lands on an island just inside the Japanese mandate, where the military are trying to lever out an Amish colony who have been licenced in perpetuity by the Emperor.

The slightly banged-about Jake is taken in, and provided with Amish clothes by, Martha (Anne Lockhart), mother of ten year old Paul (Jerry Supiran), an attractive young woman aged around thirty. Paul is an angelic little boy with a blond pudding bowl haircut and a penchant for sneaking off into the woods with his father’s shotgun to kill the tiger. After all, it killed his father.

So we know what to expect there, all of which duly follows: Paul adopts Jake as a father-figure, Martha starts falling for him, and actually gets close enough that he admits to her that he never knew his father and that his parents weren’t married, and there is in due course a snog.

But there’s never any intimation that Jake is going to stay even if we didn’t know we were watching a series. Since Paul has managed to shoot the Goose’s radio, Jake has to allow himself to be goaded into first a game of checkers and then a duel with the local Japanese Army blowhard, who’s so fixated on American B-picture westerns he’s even named after Buck Jones, just to get a radio message out for help and a pair of magnetos.

The rest of the cast are back on Bora Gora, doing their thing. Corky’s torturing himself over the fact that he can just about remember every leg of Jake’s flight plan except the crucial last one on which the Goose has been lost. Sarah’s alternating between contempt for the wacky enthusiasm the Monkey Bar patrons have for fights, concern for Jake and a jealous hissy fit at Princess Koji, because she has to get Corky into the Japanese Mandate to rescue Jake, and a hard bargain she drives of it. Still, the cost of her concession will just be added to Jake’s bill by Louie: it’s only a million francs…

So we drive towards the big climax. Jake faces ‘Buck Jones’ as Jake Cutter, Flying Tiger, rather than Martha’s brother Ezekiel, Paul, sent to the Goose to await assistance, faces the Tiger. Both shoot, simultaneously. The episode teases us with the possibility, which we don’t believe for a second, that one or both might have missed, but of course they’ve killed their respective opponents. Corky’s arrived, offstage, with the magnetos, the Goose is fixed and despite both of them aching for Jake to stay, Martha and Paul recognise that Jake’s going home to his real life (though not without a most un-Amish snog first).

Paul does bravely promises his mother that Jake will be back, but a quick glance at imdb confirms that that must have been in the never-commissioned season 2.

And what could they have done with a follow-up? ‘The Lady and the Tiger’ pretty much mined all the cliches about the Amish and the clash of cultures and left no new territory on which to build a return visit. Witness was better and had more depth, but it was also twice as long and didn’t have to turn up next Tuesday night at 8.30pm with another episode.

To be honest, this one felt like a bit of a stretch for once. By sending Jake off on a solo adventure, the show lost the energy of the usual interactions and the imposition of a caricature Japenese cowboy who didn’t even achieve the cliche of a life, it’s main protagonist never began to be plausible. A miss, then.

Still, it came out of it with a neat zinger. In the cockpit in the air, going back out among the English, Corky gets Jake to tell him what was the last leg. It’s a great relief, and Corky immediately starts punishing himself again over why he couldn’t remember. That’s because I didn’t tell you, says Jake…

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e08 – Honor thy Brother

I remember Tales of the Gold Monkey more for its set-up and atmosphere rather than its specific stories, but ‘Honor thy Brother’ is one of only a couple of exceptions (the one in which Bonne Chance Louie is put on trial for something I don’t recall is the other).

I recognised it immediately from the open, and its foreshadowing scenes, and confirmed my recollection from the opening scene, another flashback to Jake’s (bogus) time in the Flying Tigers. This was a dogfight scene: Jake, cigar firmly clenched in teeth, was stooging around on patrol when he was ambushed by two ‘Zekes’, Japanese Zeros (another deliberate error: these were never used against the AVG). The planes are piloted by two brothers, the younger on his first mission. Jake shoots both planes down though, unknowingly, the elder brother survives, and, by rite of hontu nagiri (sp?) determines to kill Jake in revenge.

Back at the base, everyone’s playing it cool around Jake, until Gandy Dancer (a welcome if brief return for  William Lucking) starts a celebration that mainly consists of pouring beer over Jake’s head. His two Zekes take him to five ‘kills’ and he joins Gandy as an ‘Ace’.

Cut to a year later, in the Maravellas, and Jake’s seeing a Japanese bomber that the Tigers nick-name a ‘Betty’ for the third time, only he’s the only one who sees it and no-one believes him, not even Jack. This leads us into an oddly disjointed story that doesn’t feel as if it hangs together, and yet was still perfectly enjoyable.

A bunch of German sailors are getting drunk in the bar and planning to put to shame Mapuhe’s exceedingly pretty daughter (not that she seems to be objecting). Mapuhe, a Polynesian patriarch and an obvious wheeler-dealer, explains to Corky that he needs 100 francs to mend his net: no net, no fish, no food. A horribly embarrassed Corky lends him the money to spare the poor child the ordeal (yeah, right), incurring the ire of the boorish, square-headed Kraut. There’s just one complication: the sailor has got Jack’s eye.

Jake’s entirely reasonable attempts to peacably negotiate for the purchase of the eye lead to the inevitable: a massive brawl that demolishes the bar, and for which Louie blames him, even though Jake didn’t start it. Sarah’s prepared to believe he was responsible, even as she applies the iodine, and to get very stroppy until she hears about the ‘Betty’ – until Jake explains he’s talking about bombers, whereupon the spy in Sarah rises to the fore.

Meanwhile, Jake has stolen back his eye which Jake refuses to fit until it’s been sterilised, putting the dog into an even bigger huff than usual.

Meanwhile, someone’s setting traps to kill Jake – a cobra in his bedroom, a crossbow in the woods – except that they’re gimmicked to fail whilst demonstrating how easily they could have succeeded.

Meanwhile, again (you can see what I mean about disjointed), Corky has discovered that his 100 francs loan to Mapuhe has been accepted in payment for Mapuhe’s daughter’s hand (and all the rest of her) in marriage. Only it’s not the pretty one, it’s the eldest daughter, and wouldn’t you know it? She’s the fat one, who’s constantly eating, constantly giggling and constantly wailing every second that Corky expresses less than perfect enthusiasm for giving her lots and lots of babies (mind you, she’s got child-bearing hips).

Last week, I discussed the show’s flaws, and this is another one. It’s a demeaning cultural stereotype, both of the Polynesian primitives and the the fat girl no-one in their right mind would want to marry, let alone, you know, well, yeuch. There’s no justifying it, even if it is characteristic of the Saturday Morning Cinema experience.

So Jake, whilst being pursued to his death, has to get Corky out of a hole again (you know, you have a filthy mind at times). By a curious coincidence, Mapuhe’s island of Keneroo happens to be practically next door to the Japanese island of Torihado, where there’s a secret airbase of fighter planes, everybody knows that. Sarah’s along for the ride, having reported everything to Washington (except Jake’s name…).

And then everything comes awkwardly together as Mapuhe happily accepts Tafara back, except there’s a guy in a Japanese pilot’s uniform waiting, with a white headband decorated with the Rising Sun on his forehead, and guys with machetes up around Corky and Sarah’s necks, because Kenji, who has been pursuing honju nagiri, has arranged all this, including Corky’s ‘marriage’ to draw Jake to the island (see how it all fits together now?). They must duel to the death.

Jake has choice of weapons. Thinking he’s clever, he selects fighter planes. Kenji however is clever. He knew what Jake would choose and has already familiarised himself with how to slip past the Torihado security and steal two Zekes…

Despite the overall silliness, and the unconvincing way this has been built up, it’s all been good fun so far, but I remember the dogfight being perfunctory and Jake winning far too quickly and far too easily, and so it was. Kenji crash dives into the ocean, Jake bales out with parachute but no lifejacket. Of course, a rescue could be made, if only Mapuhe had something of value to make it worth the risk. And who’s eye is an emerald…?

So we’re back to square one (no notion of exactly how Jake and co managed to get away from there without any consequences for stealing and destroying two Imperial Japanese Airforce fighter planes with nobody suffering any loss of face). Jack has got his patch back on, Mapuhe’s rowed off, Washington is very pleased with their Agent Sarah Stickney White and still ignorant of the name of Jake Cutter. And they’d still like pictures…

It’s an interesting example of how a show made up of pieces that don’t fit alongside each other, and in one case are extremely insulting, can nevertheless be enjoyable, though the brevity of the ending after all that build up is disappointing. Nostalgia to some extent, and the show’s unselfconscious commitment to delivering a fun experience disarms a lot of the valid criticism, but I would like something a bit stronger next week.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e07 – Once a Tiger…

These two only appear in the credits again

When you wake up tired on a Thursday morning, a good, bracing episode of Tales of the Gold Monkey is ideal medicine.

This week’s episode, which gives us a little more insight into Jake and Corky’s background, as well as a rather more serious storyline overall, is the perfect point to bring up a couple of criticisms of the series. So far, I’ve been reveling in the innocent fun of it all, and the way the show steers well clear of showing contempt for its unpretentious origins whilst gently acknowledging their lack of sophistication (ritual invocation of the Sixties Batman TV show as an exemplar of the opposite).

But it must be acknowledged that whilst Gold Monkey does everything it can to immerse itself in the (deliberately) cliched feel of 1938, it is still a thing of its time, 1982, and is flawed to the extent of that era’s underlying presumptions.

‘Once a Tiger…’ starts with two pilots, Randall McGraw and Kramer (guests Lance LeGault and W.K. Stratton respectively) flying an aircraft across the South Pacific during an electrical storm. One engine fails. Kramer broadcasts a mayday signal before baling out, McGraw lands the plane in jungle.

I’d noticed last week, for the first time, that Jake’s flying cap has a prominent hole in its peak, suggesting something ripped out. Our flyers have the same caps, but with badges there, and on their jackets, indicating that they’re Flying Tigers. Jake was a Flying Tiger…

The problem with this is, and I’ve alluded to this before, is that the Flying Tigers, or American Volunteer Group, didn’t fly in China until December 1941. Jake’s backstory is an anachronism, and given Donald Bellisario’s military background, obviously a deliberate one.

Because of the kind of show it is, being pure entertainment without feeling the need to be any more, I’ve accepted this. It provides Jake with a perfect background to his being where, and who, he is, as well as being a source of stories when, as with Gandy Dancer, figures from his past can drop in.

But I know I ought to be objecting to this deliberate distortion of history which, in a more realistic story, I would be excoriating. An episode like ‘Once a Tiger…’, which couldn’t exist in any shape without the Tigers to call on, only emphasizes this confusion.

Anyway, the shape of this story is that, several days later, whilst Jake and Corky queue for a visit from the Island Dentist (extractions on the beach with the use of a cycle-powered generator), Kramer’s badly-sunburned, weak and strained body is brought to Bora Gora. Jake immediately identifies him as a Flying Tiger, albeit a recent recruit, and once Kramer recovers, and identifies McGraw as his co-pilot, both are determined to help a fellow Tiger – even such a son of a… blue-faced booby as McGraw.

In her capacity as the in-house spy, Sarah has already tried her most seductive routine to get Jake to fly her out there. Jake’s enjoying the attention until he realises he’s being played (‘why do I always fall for this?’) but Sarah is miffed to find that whilst she can’t vamp Jake into doing what she wants, the prospect of rescuing a Tiger, not to mention the cargo of experimental gunsights bound for the AVG, which will make their job less dangerous, has Jake signing up instantly.

I’ll be coming to my second point in a moment, but to stay with the chronology, we next get some of Jake’s background, from one of Stephen Collins’ sparely-placed monologues. Why did Jake leave the Tigers? Why is he knocking around the Maravellas? It turns out Jake was badly wounded (at the end, we learn that he was saving McGraw’s ass, not that the son of a blue-faced booby will ever acknowledhe it) and nearly lost his leg.

Even so, General Chennault confirmed it would take a year for Jake to recover combat fitness, and sent him back to America to recuperate, only for Jake to get stuck in the French Maravellas…

Kramer, determined to go on the rescue mission despite his weakness, takes one look at Sarah and decides he knows why, though we know from the Pilot that Jake and Corky were plying their trade with the Goose before our favourite red-headed spy headed this way (lust for adventure, obviously: no true Saturday morning cinema hero would ever go back and convalesce when he could have rip-snorting adventures instead).

Which brings us back to the fair Sarah. She’s an American spy of some reasonable seniority having regard to her age. She’s treated with respect by her superiors and those American forces with whom she liaises. But this is American TV, in 1982, only a dozen years from the beginning of ‘Women’s Lib’ and despite setting her up as a strong, independent woman, the show can’t treat her with respect, because she’s a woman.

Sarah is undercut at every turn, in little things. Her seductress performance, convincing though it is, stands out against the usual relationship between her and Jake so that we already know she’s out to get something by the most cliched route (woman = sex). On the island, it is Sarah, not any of the men, whose foot goes through the weakened floor of the plane, Sarah, not Jake or Corky, who nearly screams when the natives appear, and Sarah who reacts most hysterically when the gang are pinned down by cross-fire.

It’s a terrible shame, because Caitlin O’Heaney is more than equal to playing the role Sarah’s supposed to be, and of suggesting that the ‘just a woman (rolls eyes)’ aspect is a performance that reinforces her cover, just as the traditional Bruce Wayne portrayal maintains an implausibility distance to Batman.

Yet there’s still some good things to Sarah’s portrayal here. The weakened Kramer has been installed in Jake’s bedroom, so he’s going off to sleep in the Goose. Sarah is disappointed for him, and comes very close to offering him the comfort of her bed for the night. There’s a clear distinction between the ploy and her genuine attraction to/feelings for Jake, but he is gentleman enough to allow her to think things through, and her clearly reluctant withdrawal strongly roots the story in its 1938 setting, whilst maintaining the traditional ‘will they/won’t they’ dichotomy (actually, I was more along the lines of ‘you mean they haven’t yet?’ even back in 1982).

Fortunately for all, McGraw has managed to land the plane on an island in international waters, so the Goose can’t officially be shot down, but even so, everyone’s got to sneak in under cover of dark because the Imperial Japanese Navy is searching for those gunsights, and the Army is on the island and not too far behind Jake’s gang.

Which leads to another somewhat dodgy territory the show occupies. The plane has been found by the primitive natives, who have stripped it of ‘gifts from the god’, the god in question being the wounded McGraw. Jake references the ‘cargo cult’ tradition without any patronising creeping in, but the series as a whole does trade in the condescending atmosphere of primitive, simple-hearted natives, who don’t understand the marvels of us so-advanced Caucasians.

The tribe has the gunsights and McGraw. He’s still a miserable, dry, lacomic, cutting son of a blue-faced booby who’s pretty shitty towards Corky (Sarah admirably takes against him instantly because she’s protective of her friends), and Lance LeGault gets a lot out of a short and calmly under-performed role. But the natives have failed to strip the plane of its smoke-markers, and these magic-like things frighten the crowd, letting everyone escape.

Kramer? We’ve already discovered that he’s working for the Japanese, broadcasting the Mayday at the top of the show on their frequency, not the International Distress frequency. With poetic justice in operation, his failed attempt to stop the gang fleeing is ended by the Japanese troops shooting him and his falling into a lagoon occupied by something underwater that looks like two exceedingly long lianas. Exit traitor, and good riddance.

All that remains is a brief coda where Corky ends up with his tooth extracted and McGraw promising to give Jake credit to General Chennault for ‘helping’ him get the gunsights through.

So. I can see these things in Tales of the Gold Monkey, yet although I know I ought to be slating them it remains that the level the show is pitching for, and the fact that it is still such boisterous fun thirty-five years later without having to rely on twitching my nostalgia-glands still has me happily-disposed towards it. I can’t get angry towards it as some would say I should. I can certainly get exasperated towards the silly attitude towards Sarah, and I would be much more scathing towards anything showing these attitudes in 2017. But Tales of the Gold Monkey is over and done and unchangeable, and they’ll never make anything like this again, and I have always been able to separate good from bad in my mind, and where the balance lies.

See you next Thursday, Monkey maniacs!

Tales of the Gold Monkey: s05 – Escape from Death Island

If you think from the title that this week’s episode of Tales of the Gold Monkey is going to be a riff on Devil’s Island and a (probably soft) take on the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman film, Papillon, you’re bang on the money. I’ve never seen Papillon, though a mate of mine who did was wildly enthusiastic about it, but the influence is obvious.

The set-up is ingenious. Jake, Corky and Jack are flying middle-aged Englishman Arthur Fromby and his seriously dodgy accent to Lagoda Island, better known as Death Island, a French penal colony, with Fromby’s son, Eric (a non-speaking role for a younger Xander Berkeley, of 24 fame) is a prisoner. Eric has been banged up for murder: he’s told his father it was Justifiable Homicide, but as Bonne Chance Louie describes it, it’s more of a crime passionelle (caught his wife in bed with her lover, shot ’em both).

The authorities on Death Island, Colonel Vilgay and Sergeant Roget, are reluctant to even let them land, despite Fromby having all the requisite permissions. Unfortunately, just two weeks earlier (as seen in the open), Eric has led an unsuccessful escape attempt, and is being punished by incarceraion in the Oven, a box in the sun. It is killing him.

The conditions, the maltreatment, the lack of resources, the sadism, infuriate Jake, who allows Fromby to try to smuggle his son out to get medical attention, but they’re all captured, dressed in pink-striped prison pajamas, leg-shackled and set to ‘work’. Eric goes back in the Oven. Jack goes into hiding with Roget determined to shoot him.

Back on Bora Gora, Sara gets infuriated at Louie’s seeming acceptance of their friends’ plight, but is of course completely ineffectual (this is not Caitlin O’Heaney’s week, nor is the ongoing portrait of her as being mainly fury and ineffectiveness particularly edifying). Louie flies out to Death Island and negotiates the trio’s sentence down to a week, not that they appreciate him for it.

But matters come to a head when Corky gets bitten by a water-snake. He’s feverish, desperately in need of medical supplies which won’t be available until the supply ship gets here in several days time. He pleads with Vilgay to be allowed to fly Corky to Bora Gora for treatment, but the Colonel is callous to the last.

So Jake has to escape, which as we’ve seen is not easy, with a middle-aged bloke and a feverish mechanic. On the way, in a twist I hadn’t seen coming but which was gently foreshadowed before the Goose even landed on Lagoda Island, he learns that Vilgay and Roget are imposters: prisoners who have murdered and replaced the real Colonel and Sergeant, and who plan to escape on the supply ship.

In the flight to escape, Jake rescues Jack from a trap-noose, shoots down Roget and gets the Goose into the air with the re-use of some footage from the Pilot, and all’s well that ends well. Vilgay has been captured, the Director of Prisons is flying out from Paris to reform Lagoda, Corky survives. Eric, sadly enough, has died, his only words a message telling his Dad he loves him, scratched out in the dirt of the Oven, but Jake consoles Fromby by telling him that, if Eric hadn’t tried to escape, they would have not seen below the surface of Lagoda and Vilgay and Roget would have gotten away with it: a lot of people are alive because Eric did what he did. It’s not a bad message to remember your dead son by, especially as no-one tells Fromby the true circumstances of Eric’s ‘Justifiable Homicide’.

And there’s a cute sting to freeze-frame upon at the death. Corky’s snake-bite has the unexpected side-effect of clearing his befuddled brain and he starts remembering everything under the sun, down to his High School locker combination. Now, restored to rudish health, when Sara brings this bonus up, Corky looks up in innocent puzzlement: “I don’t remember that,” he says.

To be honest, I doubt there’s going to be anything more that’s new or original that I’ll have to say about Tales of the Gold Monkey. Sara gets short-changed this week, and the German/Japanese Axis are again absent from everything but the credits, but it’s still great fun, with no other intentions. It’s what it says on the tin. And I still enjoy it, thirty-five years on from its first broadcast, and another forty-five years on from its inspiration.


Tales of the Gold Monkey: e03 – Black Pearl

Another week of rumbustuous fun as Sarah shows that she’s not to be taken too seriously as an American spy (after all, she’s only a woman) and Jake goes undercover in the grand tradition of complete unpreparedness as we shift from a private adventure to grand Nazi treachery.

It’s a minor thing but I really do not like how Tales of the Gold Monkey opens each episode with a mini-highlights reel of stuff from the episode. It’s a relic of adventure series, especially American, where the viewer has to be dragged in upfront by a promise of what’s to come, capturing the eyeballs before they can change the channel to something else.

It’s an archaic practice that has died out now but in these days when I take great pains to avoid spoilers ahead of episodes, it’s frustrating to be treated to an inbuilt one. Then again, what can I do about a thirty-five year old series? Just because it did enough to remove most of the element of surprise from the story?

The episode started with some spectacular storm scenes, torrential rain, forked lightning, a gigantic cartoon bomb plastered with swastikas and lacking only the burning fuse being hauled into an underground cavern by native slaves overlooked by arrogant Germans. And the Goose carrying Dr Johnnie Kimball (a forebear of Richard?) to Bora Gora.

Kimball’s the perfect, slightly sleazy American, his face a sheen of sweat (everybody except Sarah and Bonne Chance Louie wears one, under the South Pacific sun), complete with powder blue light suit and panama hat. He looks like a baddie to begin with, precisely because he doesn’t look line anything but the kind of guy traveling the islands, out for himself.

Meanwhile, a quartet of natives have escaped from the slave island, a volcanic lagoon, taking with them one of those shining silver canisters that we instinctively recognise as containing a radioactive isotope, which they have lifted from a safe. The poor primitives think it is God, but if it is God then it is Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. Once the canister is unscrewed, an unearthly blue glow dominates the screen.

We are foreshadowing history here. The German experiment is in trying to build a master bomb, pre-atomic, big enough to destroy an island when detonated. Kimball is a traitor, defecting to the Germans to help them. Sarah has her orders, transmitted by radio from an American destroyer, relaying them from Manilla.

Everything comes together quickly. Jake sees the outrigger in the ocean, lands the Goose (in shark-infested waters!), rescues the last surviving native, the one clutching the cylinder, and with the help of Corky and Kimball, gets him to Bora Gora, but not in time to save him. There’s a ridiculous but amusing little sequence as the cylinder passes from hand to hand: Corky picks it up absent-mindedly, Kimball gets him ‘snottered’ and nicks it, Sarah vamps him back to her room where she promptly Mickey Finn’s him and retrieves it, only for our resident idiot German spy, the Reverend Willie to pilfer it our of the window and return it to the visiting Germans when they come to collect the defecting Dr Kimball (he’s got to be at least an Uncle…)

This is where things shift rapidly. Manilla spills the beans to Sarah that Kimball is actually a double agent, not a real defector. That puts our favourite redhead on the spot. You see, because she’s a woman and therefore not trusted to be efficient, like a man, she’s over-Mickeyed Kimball, giving him not the prescribed thimbleful but a whole jigger’s worth, and now he’s dead to the world. And guess which freelance, unshaven, plane-flying guy has to impersonate Kimball, despite not having any of the skills or knowledge Kimball has to offer (hell, nobody, not even the show, knows what Kimball’s actually there to do)?

So Jake heads off in a power launch, with Corky flying the Goose to track him, and Sarah relaying info to the destroyer, until Jake’s transferred to a U-Boat. Meanwhile, Willie’s spotted that the guy in the powder-blue suit joshing with the Germans is someone he knows and is agonising over whether to dob Jake in, given that our man Cutter will be executed on the spot, and Willie likes Jake (so does Princess Koji, but she’s not in this one). Unfortunately, Louie tips Willie’s hand towards his duty, not knowing what his advice is being sought for.

This information arrives just when Jake is about to be exposed anyway. Our fanatical German scientist is a keen duellist and Kimball only happens to be a former American fencing champion, which Jake is not (I love the way in which Jake is being played as a genuine and imperfect amateur, and not a multi-talented prodigy). Instead of running Jake through, Herr Doktor will leave him on the island, with the natives: the bomb will go off in about forty minutes…

But forty minutes is ample time for a) Corky’s dodgy memory, prodded by Jack’s bark – two barks definitely is ‘yes’ – to backtrack yesterday’s course to find the island, and b) Jake to come up with a plan, prodded by Corky’s chance remark. They can’t defuse the bomb, they can’t evacuate everybody in the Goose, but they can use the plane to haul the Black Pearl far enough out into the bottomless lagoon to spill it into the water. Ninety seconds of tumbling downwards into the depths and the only effect of the bomb is to displace a lot of water skywards, from where it descends to drench everyone. “Oh well,” says Corky, “I needed a bath anyway.”

And that’s it apart from a clearly worried Jake ironically foreshadowing like mad, asking the now-awake Kimball if a bomb of that size really is possible? No, assures Kimball, but we don’t need our knowledge of 1945 to tell us that he isn’t being completely honest…

It’s as I said. It’s a compilation of cliches, given the odd little twist here and there, but it’s a fond and affectionate recreation that gets the balance right of the level of modern irony and too-clever-for-this. Bellisario is no Lorenzo Semple Jr, whose Batman and then-recent Flash Gordon nakedly revealed his contempt for the stupidity of those who loved the original material: we are invited to recognise the flaws and the deliberately ignored logic because these are the fundaments of the form and the aim is recognition and delight.

There are some aspects of the show that have not worn well in the intervening years, and I’ve already alluded to the way Sarah’s being played as ‘a mere woman’, but I’m not going to get into those here, but rather later in the series. It’s enough to recognise that Tales of the Gold Monkey perfectly fits those words of John O’Neil, writing for The Undertones:

Sit down, relax and cancel all other engagements

It’s never too late to enjoy dumb entertainment

See you next Thursday/Saturday morning.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e02 – Shanghaied

You can never assess a new series from the Pilot. It’s had all the resources thrown at it, and months of preparation, and it’s usually an extended episode as wall, so the proof of the pudding doesn’t begin until the series proper starts, the regular shape of the episode is first established, and you get to see how cast, crew and writers cope with producing episodes on a weekly basis.

In that light, ‘Shanghaied’ got Tales of the Gold Monkey off to a bright start, with a fast-paced adventure, with plenty of twists, that allowed the three principals to showcase what they’re going to bring to the series.

Did I say three principals? Make that four, although Jack the one-eyed dog played less of a leading role this week.

The show made a bold move by laying its Saturday Morning Cinema Action Hero, Jake Cutter, low with a recurring bout of malaria right from the start, and keeping him weak throughout. This enabled the plot by first isolating Corky so that he could be shanghaied, requiring the struggling Jake to find and rescue him, and then by facilitating Sara Stickney White’s determination to join the chase by undermining Jake’s refusal to take her with him.

The plot was simple: a mysterious sea captain, with a supposedly English accent and a hook for a right hand, plies Corky with drink, his true weakness, knocks him out and shanghais him into the islands with the aid of a crew of Malay cannibals. Abel – or Sean Phillips as his real name is belatedly revealed to be – is in the slave trade but his ship, up a river on Matuka island, is paid up due to engine failure. Corky may be an aircraft mechanic – and former Chief Mechanic for Pan American as we discover, in those distant days before his alcoholism became the problem it is – but he’s the nearest and best option.

We’re reminded of Corky’s problem in an opening fever dream, a ‘memory’ of Jake fighting in China with the Flying Tigers (as I said before, a gross anachronism, Gold Monkey being set three years before they ever formed). Jake has Jack and Corky with him in the cockpit of his fighter plane, the latter constantly guzzling beer, hemmed in by so many bottles that, when they are shot down, and Jake parachutes out, cradling Jack, Corky can’t move and opts for another bottle, as the plane smashes into a hillside…

It’s both premonition and a reminder of how Jake feels responsible for his pal, and how he’s trying to control Corky’s drinking, to eventually get him off the sauce.

So Jake goes in pursuit, with the concerned and jealous Sara as his co-pilot. This is enforced by Bonne Chance Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar and local magistrate. Sincce the pilot, Ron Moody has given way to Roddie MacDowell, slimmer, slicker and a bit more natural in his overt Frenchness. We learn that Louie has been imprisoned on the notorious Devil’s Island, that he likes to seduce women of a certain age, and that he is the nearest to Authority on Bora Gora.

We also learn that Bora Gora is within the French Mandate, but Matuka is in the Japanese Mandate, and that to enter into Japanese airspace without permission is to invite being shot down as a spy. “But Jake,” Sarah reminds him, ” I am a spy.”

One thing this show doesn’t short its audience on is flight scenes. The thrill and edginess of flying a beaten up flying boat with dubious engines, improvised turn and bank indicators and being shot at by Japanese Zeros, or Zekes as Jake and Corky automatically call them, is an intrinsic part of the show, and the seat-of-the-pants era.

Meanwhile, Corky arrives at the imobilised Pandora and learns his task. Jeff Mackay is brilliant in his role as a character who is simultaneously a figure of (unfair) fun, with his dodgy memory and his anxiety, a pathetic and helpless near-drunk, the cliched sidekick who can’t match up to the hero, and yet someone with his own degree of principles, and Mackay manages the task of balancing these elements extremely  well.

Getting him out from Jake’s shadow was a brilliant move. Corky is trapped, reliant on his pal’s rescue, but his immediate response on learning that the Pandora is a slaveship is utter disgust and a refusal to cooperate, though his resistance is quickly overturned when Sean threatens to have a girl slave crushed to death in front of him.

Having evaded being shot down whilst passed out, with Sara taking the controls and being assisted by God, Jake lands on Princess Koji’s island. Willie is there, in the other wooden hot tub, and the two have already drunk a toast to the ‘dead’ Jake and celebrated his ‘resurrection’. Strange behaviour by enemies, especially as Willie is convinced Jake is an American spy, but sobeit for now. Koji’s response is easily explained by her amused wish to shag Jake’s brains out: she rises naked from her tub in front of his eyes, to the shock and disgust of the jealous Sara.

But Koji can identify Ahab/Sean, and find his whereabouts, arrange for Jake’s legitimate  flying permit in the Japanese mandate, and accompany him to the rescue, convincing the local Mud People to join the raid. So Jake buzzes the ship several times to create a distraction, the Mud People swarm over the sides, Corky is nearly squeezed to death but the salves rescue him, and in a slightly perfunctory ending, the moment Jake comes face to face with Sean, he shoots him (in  self-defence, naturally) and kills him. So the last minute sting, that Sean was Koji’s half-brother, falls flat.

Our final moment is with Corky. He has his Mud People attractive young former slavegirl all over him, contentedly smearing mud gently across his face to cool him down and generally giving all indications of that pleasurable kind of fascination that promises a near future meeting of bodies – and all Corky has eyes for is the bullet-holes in the tail of the Goose, and how Jake’s been so irresponsible as to let her get shot at!

It’s a good start. The third test is how well the series is sustained, how strong the theme is, and can the standard be maintained? It’s as inconsequential as all get out, but the object is purely entertainment, and excitement on a child-like level, and that’s not always a bad thing, as The Undertones once reminded us.

More next week.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: s01 e01 – Pilot

Cutter’s gang

You just don’t get this kind of thing any more.

Back in the days when television was decidedly the movies’ low-rent younger brother, every big film would inevitably gather a shoal of television hangers-on within the next twelve months, series that inevitably and with markedly little shame set out to capture, if not the precise film itself, then the audience that lapped it up.

If you hadn’t seen the film, it didn’t matter: I was too young for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid but I lapped up it’s TV knock-off, Alias Smith and Jones (Monday night, BBC2, 8.00pm). I had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I was well aware of what Tales of the Gold Monkeywas trying to do, but I didn’t mind, because it was great, goofy fun, and thirty years later, the double-length pilot film is still exactly that.

I’ve already described the central cast and set-up, but let’s go over things again as set out for us. The film actually starts relatively obliquely, in an island jungle, at a hidden pool beneath a high waterfall. A big monkey eats a fruit. It’s obviously a man in a monkey costume, but its a well-made costume, definitely not cheap, and decently convincing. Enter two unimportant characters, hacking their way through the jungle. They are German officers, as demonstrated by the slightly hackneyed but not overdone accents and the use of terms such as Herr Leutnant. Being of the Master Race, they are contemptuous of mere monkeys and shoot it, bringing down the wrath of an entire tribe of monkeys, who descend and kill them.

We cut to Jake Cutter, playing poker. Stephen Collins looks the part immediately: flying cap, leather jacket, jodhpurs and boots, smoking a cigar, five o’clock shadow on his shiny, sweat-slick face. Among the other players is an unnamed German officer in black naval uniform, complete with monocle, Hitler moustache and, as we will later see, Hitler-haircut. He, played by John Hillerman, better known for Magnum, P.I., will turn out to be a Gestapo agent, as if we couldn’t tell from just one look at him.

Yes, this is already a compendium of cliches, Saturday morning adventure, but completely self-aware and assembled with honest delight.

But creator Belisario (who would go on to things like Quantum Leap and N.C.I.S.) is ready to throw a spanner into the cliche works, by introducing Jake’s partner, Jack, a Jack Russell terrier. Jake consults Jack on his hand and on the next raising of the stakes, by which he means to gamble, not for the first time, with Jack’s artificial eye: an opal with a sapphire centre.

The system is simple: one bark for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’. Jack barks once, Jake fits an eye-patch over Jack’s socket and reveals his hand: three Queens.

He loses. And Jack holds it against him for the rest of the episode, as everyone including the dog squabbles over whether it’s one bark for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’ or vice versa.

The whole idea sounds stupid and there’s grounds for wondering how long the notion can be kept up without becoming intensely irritating, but for the moment it’s simply gloriously silly, with Stephen Collins, to his credit, playing his heart out acting against the dog, who is a superb actor in his own right.

Next we introduce Sara Stickney White, a singer touring the Maravellas (the island chain in the South Pacific where all this is happening). Sara’s having problems with the wanderings hands of Sam, her manager, leading the chivalrous Jake to intervene. Jake, in one of a carefully regulated occasional voiceovers, is a bit of a Knight Errant. On the other hand, in a cheerful undermining of the hero, he’s not the best of scrappers, though he’s gaining the upper hand when Sara chooses to end the fight by smashing a bottle of champagne over, unexpectedly, her rescuer’s head.

Sara, who talks with a British accent despite being, we learn, an American spy, is an independent and resourceful young woman (as well as being a redhead). Her cover is that of a slightly ditzy woman, and it’s not entirely a cover. This is not that encouraging and is definitely of its time: you can’t have a fully independent woman in a boy’s Sarturday matinee story, but Sara is a lot further along the line than she could have been in those days, so chalk this up as positive on balance.

Sam is also an agent, and is shortly after killed by the Monocled man, but by then he’s already abandoned Sara in a huff and Jake is giving her a lift to Bora Gora, where Sam will arrive next. This bit of the story is a touch weak in logic: it’s perfectly in keeping with the cover story but implausible for the pair’s real status as spies working together.

Nevertheless, this is the lead to our full introduction to ‘Cutter’s Goose’, Jake’s charter plane, a beaten-up and patched-up Grumman Goose flying boat. Enter the world of hair-raising flight, though the failure of the port engine en route and the near crash is down to sabotage, not the Goose’s unreliable framework.

The cast of heroes is completed by the bumbling, eager but forgetful Corky, Jake’s mechanic and other best friend, a hopeful but befuddled guy with serious memory problems. The word has rapidly spread that Jake has lost Jack’s eye again, and public opinion sides with the dog, who knows how to best exploit it. Even Jake’s landlord and closest thing to an employer, Bonne Chance Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar – more indelible cliches – takes up with the dog. Louie was played with carefully measured Frenchness by Ron Moody in this pilot, but the role was taken over by Roddy MacDowell for the rest of the series.

We’re nearly there now, only the recurring villains to introduce, though in fact they’ve already appeared onscreen by this point. These are the Reverend Willie Tennbaum, a Wehrmacht officer posing as a Clergymen seeking to convert the native unspoilt islanders and regularly conferring ‘blessings’ on the beauteous Tiki. We’re in cliche-land again, and this is frankly rather embarrassingly patronising, though Tiki appears to be even more eager to be ‘blessed’ than the somewhat fatuous Willie.

But Willie is in partnership with the local Dragon Lady, Princess Koji, played by decidedly caucasian actress Marta DuBois, with her fanatically loyal bushido-master servant Todo (John Fujioka). These are obviously set up to be the recurring villains, and as such were credited weekly as cast, though they were strangely underused.

Willie is excitedly tracking down the legend of an island on which there is a 100 feet tall Gold statue of a Gold Monkey (and there you were, wondering what that scene all the way back at the beginning was about). It’s not the gold his Fuhrer is after, rather that it’s actually an alloy of gold and some other element(s) that is incredibly heat resistant, making it vital for Der Fuhrer’s rocket programme…

To cut a long story short, the island in question is Baku, where, in order to avoid crashing, Jake and Sara dumped most of their cargo. Louie wants his Pom Peron 27 champagne, Willie his bibles, Sara to foil the villains, the villains the gold monkey and Jake to find out why everybody’s lying. So everyone converges on Baku, the dormant volcano,just as it decides not to be dormant any longer.

The episode cheerfully throws its brains out of the window and goes for pure, unadulterated danger and excitement, with guns, snakes, deadly Germans, giant monkey guards, tied-up damsels in distress who get soaked, and a last-minute escape with a three foot tall monkey statuette that, when cleaned up and looking glowingly aureate, turns out to be made of brass (the series was originally going to be called Tales of the Brass Monkey, this latter phrase having a somewhat different meaning over there, but was changed for legal reasons).

So a satisfyingly drama-holing ending and a set-up for an ongoing series. And a final scene for the viewer only, revealing that, on the now-live volcanic island of Baku, the monkeys continue to guard something from which the vegetation and debris of ages has been stripped, and which looks uncommonly like a 100 foot tall gold statue of… a monkey.

This was and, with due allowance for its age, still is a good fun 90 minutes, without any pretention save to be a fun way of spending 90 minutes, at which, as far as I am concerned, it succeeds. But we have all seen multiple instances of a self-contained, extended pilot, with a budget to be impressive, proving to be less sustainable on a reduced budget and a weekly filming schedule.

That’s the true test, and that, for the next twenty weeks, is what I’ll be exploring. Thursdays is Tales of the Gold Monkey day.

Tales of the Gold Monkey – a Blast from the Past

Do you remember this?

One of the problems with having fairly idiosyncratic tastes – not that I would have it any other way – is the sheer number of times I have found myself avidly enjoying a new television series, only for it to be canceled because only about half a dozen other people are watching it.

That wasn’t quite the case back in 1982, with Donald Bellasario’s Tales of the Gold Monkey, a rip-roaring 1938-set drama with somewhat blatant influences. The show, which starred Stephen Collins, Jeff MacKay, Caitlin O’Heaney and Jack, went down well both in America and, especially, the UK, where it was shown by the BBC, but not well enough for it to be renewed, given its high production costs stemming from so much of it being shot on location.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed it immensely all those years ago, and my memories of it are nothing but fond. But, like all TV in those far off days, it came and it went: the BBC has always been accused of too many repeats but nobody repeated American TV series.

It’s not like that now, where so many shows are available for you to watch whenever you choose. About eighteen months ago, I downloaded the complete Tales of the Gold Monkey (one pilot film, twenty episodes), though I never had the time to watch more than that pilot film. Now the summer’s here, the TV schedule is done, or at least drastically diminished, and so, just as Tuesday is Deep Space Nine day, Thursday is Gold Monkey day, and I’ll be watching and blogging every week.

For those unfamiliar with the show, a few basics: Tales of the Gold Monkey is set on the fictional South Pacific island of Bora Gora in 1938. Collins stars as Jake Cutter, ex-Flying Tiger (anachronistic error: the Flying Tigers weren’t about until 1941) plying his transport trade in the islands in a Grumman Goose flying boat. MacKay is his memory-troubled ex-alcoholic mechanic Corky and O’Heaney plays singer Sarah Stickney White, who is actually a US spy, watching for subversive Japanese and German activities: there is a war coming.

Jack? Oh, I think I’ll keep him up my sleeve  a moment longer.

There is, indeed, a lot of stuff going on, and Jake keeps getting into the middle of it. It’s all good fun, Saturday morning serial stuff, with a certain tongue-in-cheek element that my memory says was neatly balanced by the simple enjoyment of what was simple material. Because, at the heart of it, Tales of the Gold Monkey was a pretty blatant rip-off of which massive 1981 movie, starring Harrison Ford? Yes, you’re right, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Not a rip-off in any direct sense, save in the time-period. But the idea is openly to feed off that atmosphere of fast-paced, deliberately knowing, immediately pre-WW2 action. Clean cut heroes, double-dyed villains, thrills, spills and sexual tension. It wasn’t the only TV series to try to capture that Thirties era: ITV had Bring ‘Em Back Alive, about a Big Game hunter, which hoes the same row, though I never saw any of that.

So, here’s to some wallowing nostalgia passed through the filter of my usual interest in seeing how well or otherwise such things have survived.

And Jack? Jack was a Jack Russell terrier with an eye-patch, covering the fact that he only had one eye, the other being artificial, and having been lost by Jake in a poker game, for which Jack was not prepared to forgive him. When it came to star turns, Stephen Collins never stood a chance…