Film 2019: The Plague Dogs

I bought this DVD as a curiosity, and because it was cheap (cheapness is an essential factor for curiosities). Like many of my generation, I bought ‘Watership Down’, after hearing so much about it, in my late teens. I followed Richard Adams on to ‘Shardik’, which was less impressive and which caused me to only borrow ‘The Plague Dogs’ from the library, despite it being set in my beloved Lake District, and featuring route maps of the dogs’ flight drawn by the Blessed Wainwright himself.

I took it out of the Library on a Friday afternoon and started reading it after tea. I stayed up until somewhere between 2.00 and 3.00am, determined to finish it in a single session. Not because it gripped and enthralled and I had to find out how it ended, but because I was determined to get it over and done with for good, and not have to drag myself back to it on Saturday.

I never read it again. Even with those wonderful Wainwright maps, I wouldn’t buy it. I went to see Watership Down the film twice whilst I lived in Nottingham, but I avoided The Plague Dogs film.

So why now? For that, the credit (or blame) has to go to  my fellow blogger George Kitching, of the superb Lakeland Walking Tales site, and his two part account of following the Plague Dogs’ trail.

George and I differ on the merits of the book. Of course, he has the advantage of having read it within the past forty years. At the time, I thought it grossly overwritten, and badly in need of a dictatorial editor to tell Adams to cut it down by a hundred pages, and get over yourself with this Animal Testing ranting. Let not it be thought that I’m anything but against it myself, but Adams himself admits that part of the book is a polemic, and he totally loses any perspective in his writing and grinds on about it long after his point is doubly made.

The film exists in two versions, the theatrical cut which runs for 86 minutes, and the original director’s cut, which lasts 103 minutes. Only in Australia has the full cut been commercially released and the version I have watched is the common version. I was not impressed.

The film follows the book in general. Rowf, a black labrador/retriever cross, voiced by Christopher Benjamin of all people, is a test subject at Lawson Park Research Centre near Coniston in the Lake District. He is constantly drowned and resuscitated to test the ultimate limits of stamina. Snitter, a smooth fox terrier, voiced by the great John Hurt, has just undergone a brain operation to confuse subjective/objective experiences. The two escape and go on the run, causing havoc, before they are impliedly drowned in the Irish Sea, trying to escape the Army.

That sounds like a very thin summary, but this is ultimately a very thin film. Whereas Adams can go in deep on the dogs’ reactions, and amplify the public reaction to how the dogs are, untruthfully and callously, stigmatised as carrying the Bubonic Plague, the film, by adopting a naturalistic approach that runs deeper than the same team’s adaptation of Watership Down, denies itself that asset and forces itself to go no deeper than the surface of the dogs’ own reactions and understanding.

As a result, the film becomes a chase story, as superficial as that sounds, and forfeits any chance of real structure. Rowf and Snitter encounter the odd sheepdog here or there, but the film’s only other character of substance is the Tod, a wily fox, voiced in deep Geordie by James Bolam to the point of vocal caricature.

That lack of structure is a real problem. The dogs clatter around. Time passes at odd rates without any idea of how long things are taking. There is very little sense of location, despite the fact that the film is determinedly set in the Lake District, or at any rate in a Lake District. Real names and places are mentioned, Coniston, Dunnerdale, Thirlmere, Glenridding, Ravenglass. A genuine map of Middle Eskdale is used late on. Some accurate buildings are shown – a Coop general store in Coniston, the road under the railway bridge into Ravenglass – but these only compound the film’s biggest mistake which is its over-exaggerated, over-styled, and phoney Lake District fell-country.

Of course, part of this is my personal bugbear. Anything set in the Lake District has to undergo a fine-toothed comb examination from me as to its accurate depiction of the Lakes. The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film always falls apart during the heedless sailing scenes when boats flicker to and from between Coniston Water, Windermere and Derwent Water from second to second. I am far too harsh on the subject of authenticity for any film or tv series’ good.

But the film makes this a rod for its own back. By insisting upon naturalism, in the movements of animals and humans, by including accurate buildings, it sets itself a standard that it then conspicuously abandons. The countryside is unreal. It’s exaggerated both vertically and horizontally. Fells and mountains crowd together in formations that bear no resemblance to the Lakes. One repeated long, deep, straight valley image turns up in what must be at least three different places, far apart. Occasional mountain outlines appear out of context, including two Great Gables, nowhere near either Wasdale or Gable’s surrounding fells.

It makes the film feel rootless. As well as no sense of structure, or of time, there is no genuine sense of place.

One thing that does the film credit is that it restores Adams’ original ending. In the book, Adams’ editor (amongst others) persuaded him to a deus ex machina ending where naturalist Sir Peter Scott and Snitter’s not-dead-after-all master turn up to save the dogs from the Army, aided by a complete character reversal from the book’s most unpleasant human, but writer and director Martin Rosen has them instead swimming out to sea from the beach at Ravenglass, heading for an island that is a place of dream. The dogs disappear into the mist, and it is left open as to whether they reach any island, but in the context of the film’s determined solidity, the implication is that they drown, that this is their means of escape.

So I’ve seen it, and for the first time since I began this series in the first week of January last year, I have come to a film I shall not keep, nor bother watching again. My thanks to George for inspiring this experiment, nevertheless, and I shall be interested in any comments he wishes to make.

Whatever happened to this Likely Lad?

He’s the one on the right

I remember The Likely Lads from the Sixties, at first on TV and then on the radio, in adaptations made by James Bolam himself. My memories are brief: only one exchange about the ‘three star’ system – a horribly chauvinistic but absolutely typical concept – that went completely over my head at that tender age.

I also remember Rodney Bewes’ solo vessel, the ITV sitcom, Dear Mother, Love Albert, but here I only really remember that we watched it, and nothing of what we heard or saw.

But I was sixteen in 1972, when the BBC and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais brought back Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? and it changed the face of British sitcoms in a more subtle way than Steptoe and Son had done a decade before, but no less effectively. Thirteen episodes, a sequence building one upon another, that blended very effective and very real comedy with genuine emotion. As sitcoms go, it all but eliminated the ‘sit’ whilst being so utterly ‘com’ that we all roared along.

A second series wasn’t as focused, and the film was enjoyable but well below the standard set, and then James Bolam fell out with his co-star and refused to speak to him for the rest of their lives. Bewes fell on hard time and unlike Bolam never recovered any of the glory of starring on TV.

And now he’s gone, just a week or so short of his eightieth birthday. But for his falling out with Bolam, Clement and La Fresnais had expressed the wish to return to Bob and Terry, at five year intervals, dipping into lives that were ordinary and real and which they could make funny almost at will, by being no more than reporters of the natural comedy between friends who don’t really have all that much in common.

It never happened: another reason to journey to Earth-2. But a sitcom that ended forty years ago was so good that by itself it would be enough to celebrating the life of Rodney Bewes for.

New Tricks’ Old Tricks

The old gang

In the run-up to Xmas, BBC1 dropped in a New Tricks repeat on Monday night, featuring the original cast. In view of my comments about the new tone the series has taken with its revised team, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this episode and compare the two.

“The Gentleman Vanishes” was originally broadcast in 2011 as episode 7 in series eight. I’d watched it at the time but didn’t recall anything of it until the very effective and disturbing ending. The episode was notable for being the show’s all-time most successful episode in terms of audience, pulling in 9.87m viewers on its original broadcast, It also featured the first of three guest appearances of Tim McInnerny (Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth) as Stephen Fisher, a somewhat shadowy individual in intelligence and a former crony of UCOS’s boss, Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland.

As a comparison between the old lightweight New Tricks and its somewhat more serious modern incarnation, “The Gentleman Vanishes” was a spectacularly bad choice. It was played completely straight from start to finish in a well-plotted and ultimately dark story that involved the (thankfully offscreen) physical and mental torture of a person ill-suited to resist even gentle societal pressure. The individual eccentricities of the characters were kept well in check: Sandra Pullman’s temper, Brian Lane’s voluability, Gerry Standing’s wide-boy, all were underplayed. Only Jack Halford was fully in character throughout and he was always the sane and sensible one.

The re-opened case was the disappearance in 2004 of scientist Philip McKenna, an expert in cold fusion whose disappearance ended his research project. The episode’s title was a nod to the iconic pre-War Hitchcock film, “The Lady Vanishes”, about a woman disappearing on a moving train. McKenna had been abducted in a clearly professional operation, from the London to Dover train, during a short delay resulting from someone pulling the communications cord. But someone had taken his passport and completed his journey via Ferry to Calais, and thence to Paris, where McKenna was due – at short notice brought about by a burglary that had deprived his research partner of his Passport – to present a paper.

Thus McKenna’s disappearance was not noticed until two days later and was initially thought to be in France. This meant that his actual removal from the train was not discovered until the trail had gone long cold.

The case had been brought to UCOS’s attention when McKenna’s wife, Bea (a delicate portrayal by Rebecca Front) started receiving emails suggesting the sender knew where her husband was, one of which included a document purportedly coming from a Swiss company that showed clear evidence of work developed from McKenna’s researches.

There was no new evidence as such, but UCOS made progress by identifying a currently imprisoned conman as one of the men involved in the abduction, which opened the door to further leads. Halford used a pet hacker turned internet security expert – a typically nervous, would-be jovial performance by Shaun Williamson – to trace the emails, though this resulted in a dead end of sorts: they were the work of an anonymous superhacker known only as ‘Ninetails’.

But this sparked a connection in Brian Lane’s memory to Japanese mythology, and Kitsue, portrayed as a fox with nine tails.

In the meantime, we’d been treated to a splendidly superior, faux- superficial performance by McInnerny as Fisher, ostensibly warning UCOS out of waters too deep and dangerous for them, but dropping the name of Simon Crane, who turned out to be the mastermind behind everything, and a former British Intelligence Agent with sufficient dirt on sufficient people to be, effectively, untouchable. Unless arrested for murder, that is.

As became increasingly clear the longer the episode went on, McKenna was long dead, broken by evidence of his wife’s brief affair with, naturally, Simon Crane. This set up a Police operation at Paddington, aimed at capturing Crane and his associate, Fisher having tipped off UCOS as to where and when to find Crane. Meanwhile, thanks to Lane, ‘Ninetails’ had been identified: Kitsue was a fox, or rather A. Fox, aka Alice Fox, the girlfriend of McKenna’s former research assistant, who’d briefly appeared as a person suspicious of the Police.

Alice, it transpired, had been the third part of the abduction, pulling the communication cord, but unaware of the intention to torture and murder McKenna. She’d been living in hiding ever since, avoiding being killed. But when UCOS set things up at Paddington, Alice stepped in. With the net closing, all communications, radios and CCTV failed. Crane fled, pursued by Halford. Lane went a different way, followed, in advance by Alice, in a striking floor-length leather coat. In an access corridor there was a shot, offscreen. Halford let a screaming young woman, crying there’d been a shot, go past him: he and Lane found Crane shot dead. Not that, cynically, anyone expected Crane to face a proper trial anyway.

The episode ended on a disturbing moment. The team, with Strickland, leaves UCOS’s office heading for the pub. As Lane manoeuvres his bicycle out, behind him a laptop screen comes to life. It shows CCTV footage of the concourse at Paddington. In the centre of the screen, looking into the camera, was Alice, in her leather coat. After a few seconds she raises something in her right hand, points it at the camera: the image winks out.

So: an uncharacteristic episode, played straight: comedy/drama without the comedy. Kudos to writer/director Julian Salmon. It was an excellent episode, the more so in its ending, but in terms of comparing the series now to then, all but useless. Nevertheless, a useful reminder that New Tricks’ reputation as a dull, stale show was not always deserved.

It’s only Insubstantial Airfill – but I like it.

The original cast

It’s closing in on five years since I last had a television set, and I can’t say that I miss it. Indeed, I’ve forgotten the whole experience of having 24/7 television available, channels and channels filling with airwaves at every conceivable moment. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

I haven’t given up on watching television though, it just means that what I watch is what I want to watch, given the extra lengths I have to go to even see it: iPlayers, catch-up TV, DVD boxsets and such like. Programmes such as Dr Who (roll on Saturday), Sherlock, The Killing, The Bridge. And, naturally, The Big Bang Theory.

What I watch is by choice, and not by habit, or lazy inclination, a surrendering to that vast amorphous mass of programming that, in all its disparate forms, can be lumped together as Insubstantial Airfill. You know the kind of programmes I’m referring to: games shows and reality series, pointless documentaries, uninspired sitcoms and phone-it-in dramas that amuse or mildly thrill for an hour then are gone, and all the audience does is change channels looking for something slightly different but equally anaesthetic.

But what is life without a little inconsistency? Do I contradict myself? Why then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Though I’ve never quite understood why, I do find myself happy to watch the long-running BBC1 comedy-drama series, New Tricks, series 11 of which began on Monday night. It’s a typically formulaic piece of work, mixing the inherently serious subject of police procedural work and the detection of crimes – usually murder – that have disrupted and damaged lives at the deepest levels, with the comic eccentricity of characters who are improbably set, and even more improbably highly efficient at resolving these issues and bringing about closure. All overlaid, naturally, with the soap opera aspect of these eccentrics’ ecentricities overflowing into their personal lives, week-in, week-out.

The concept of the series was built around the fictional Metropolitan Police Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases Squad (UCOS), a ‘cold-case’ unit created in the one-off pilot as a cynical publicity stunt designed to ward off complaints without ever being intended to be taken seriously. It’s first commander was DCI Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), a work-obsessed career policewoman whose high-flying career had just been derailed by a high-profile operation that had got a dog killed: UCOS was a hole in which to bury Sandra, as was evidenced by her staff. UCOS’s budget extended not to serving officers but to civilian consultants, i.e., three ex-coppers, who had left the Force under different circumstances.

The idea was that these three old coppers, with their old-fashioned approaches to detection, would be thrown up against the new-fangled technologies of DNA and the like, which they would distrust, and which they would disparage grumpily whilst producing results that derived more from old-style coppering built on newly-determined evidence.

The trio consisted of ex-Detective Superintendent Jack Halford (James Bolam), ex-Detective Inspector Brian “Memory” Lane (Alun Armstrong) and ex-Detective Sergeant Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman). Halford, who was Pullman’s former mentor and her unofficial second-in-command, had retired after his wife had been knocked down and killed. His was a more or less straight role, an old-fashioned copper with a loathing for crime, and a voice of sanity and calm. Lane was a recovering alcholic with a degree of OCD, a photographic memory for cases and criminals and a long-suffering wife: he had left the force when still drinking, after a suspect he’d brought in died in custody, an incident for which he believed he had been scapegoated. And Standing was the Jack-the-Lad, maintaining (and occasionally re-seducing) three ex-wives and a flash car, who was on chummy terms with most East End lags, the only straight copper in a unit more or less bought out by a villain, who’d ended up being forced to resign over graft allegations.

New Tricks found a modest but substantial audience to begin with but, as series followed series, it began to grow in popularity. Series 3 ended on a cliffhanger, with Halford having found out that his wife’s death was not an accident but murder, having been run down on the orders of a villain annoyed at being investigated: Halford planned to run the man down in retaliation, forcing Pullman and his two colleagues to drive into his path, causing a horrendous collision. Audiences shot up for series 4, when the aftermath was revealed, and the programme would on a number of occasions actually top the weekly viewing chart for BBC programmes.

As New Tricks gained in popularity, UCOS began to gain in respect. Supporting characters would be added to the squad for longer periods, usually younger coppers to contrast with the aged trio. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Robert Strickland (Anthony Calf) became an increasingly supportive character, ever conscious of political and public factors but allowing these to influence the team less and less. The longest running supporting character was Esther Lane, Brian’s much put-upon wife, played, ironically, by Susan Jameson, James Bolam’s wife.

I’ll be honest, little or nothing changed. Brian might suffer a relapse into drinking, but a few episodes later it would be conquered. Sandra was perennially poor at relationships, forever hopeful but doomed to betrayal and self-reliance. The cases usually involved murders, though the sources were well-varied. The team would start by summarising the old evidence for the viewer’s benefit, move on to reinterviewing witnesses, roughly 73% of whom being hostile to the death being brought back up. Stones would be turned over, and we would follow what crawled out. Usually, the script would offer up a potential villain, only for it to come out, in the last ten minutes, that somebody else was responsible, usually someone you’d disregarded early on.

It was part of the game to identify the real villain, not by the ancient and honourable tradition of deciphering clues, but by using the show’s ambience to lead you into recognising which seemingly innocent character would be unveiled as having a previously unsuspected motive for violent death.

New Tricks was never a particularly serious show, though it dealt with serious stories and when it chose to do so, it could operate on that serious level to great effect, and very movingly. It tried to incorporate a degree of cop show action, though this grew increasingly implausible given that the cast were getting visibly older all the time and that Redman, whilst still an attractive woman, had filled out since her younger days and made an implausible athlete (especially in heels). In fact, the show might have worked just as easily on Radio, had we had such a thing as a thriving radio drama audience any more: it was very dialogue heavy.

Eventually, the cast got bored. Bolam was the first to leave, saying the show had gotten ‘stale’. Jack Halford bowed out in the opening episode of series 9, distracted from the case under review, detached, and eventually disclosing only to Brian Lane, on condition of secrecy, that he had inoperable cancer, and was disappearing to a south of France village of sentimental importance, to die unbothered. Daringly, the series left it for three episodes before replacing him with ex-Detective Inspector Steve McAndrew (Denis Lawson), a Scot who assists UCOS on a case with Glasgow elements, and is invited to join the team.

But both Armstrong and Redman were now unhappy with the show and expressed their wish to leave. There was an amusing twist to the final episode of series 9, in which neither appeared (nor were credited) and which took place in Glasgow, with Gerry and Steve detached to advise the Glasgow police on setting up their own UCOS. For a moment, it looked like a radical change might be in the offing, but that wasn’t so.

Series 10 began with everyone in place, but the first four episodes were built around a running story that, despite clearing Brian Lane’s name over his dismissal from the Police, led to his sacking from UCOS. He was immediately replaced by ex-Detective Chief Inspector Dan Griffin (Nicholas Lyndhurst), a significantly younger man than the rest of the team, though a choice made on the recommendation of Brian. And Sandra, having built UCOS up to a fine, well-respected unit, which she was loath to abandon, nevertheless saw a new future for herself, moving upwards again at long last, joining an international unit dealing with crimes of greater subtance.

That left the show’s newest member, newly promoted DCI Sasha Miller (Tamzin Oughthwaite), in her first command, only two episodes to establish herself as the new team-leader.

So, series 11 continues the show with only one of its four original stars still remaining. How successful is it with such sweeping changes to its core cast?

Firstly, the newbies aren’t quite changes to the status quo. Each of the replacements has been chosen to maintain continuity of balance within the ensemble. Steve McAndrew has replaced Jack Halford: whilst he’s younger, more physically active, and capable of getting more emotionally involved than his predecessor, he’s still the straight man of the team, the least burdened with overt eccentricities. Lawson plays his character gently, and whilst he lacks the seniority, his steadiness leaves him on course to be the first lieutenant, especially as he’s no longer competing with Halford for Sandra Pullman’s opinion.

Danny Griffin has replaced Brian Lane as the team eccentric, the man most likely to know something obscure and not apparently relevant. Lyndhurst has chosen to play Griffin in contrast to Alun Armstrong’s volatile, exciteable Lane: Griffin is very internalised, unexciteable, but decidedly capable of sarkiness. I’ve not followed Lyndhurst’s career closely but this strikes me as the most mature role he’s played.

And where Brian had Esther, Danny has Holly, his CP daughter, played by CP Actress Storme Toolis, who was a scene-stealing, irresistable blast in her every scene in series 10. She’s supposed to be off to University in episode 2, and the absence of her name in the credits suggests she may have been written out, which would be appalling. Both actress and character are simply too good to ignore.

And as for Tamzin Oughthwaite, as Sasha Miller, she’s dropped into place with incredible ease, already looking like a fixture with years behind her. In part this is because her role strays the least from her predecessor: attractive blonde, strong commander, a slightly less dominant waspishness. It’s on the personal front that Sasha strays further from Sandra. Sandra was unmarried, without children, lacking judgement in men. Sasha, nearly a decade younger, begins as married, contentedly, to a fellow Senior Officer, with two children, conveniently of University age and off-scene, only to find her husband cheating on her before her first episode’s over, ending the marriage.

As yet, this has not developed very far, though the scuttlebutt about series 11 is that, for a few episodes at least, her ex-husband temporarliy replaces Strickland as being responsible for UCOS.

The opening episode was a typically New Tricks experience, though it saved its twists until the very end, with the true villain being pulled from very far out of left field, having made only a brief appearance, nowhere near the frame. It was a slightly odd choice, though beautifully conveyed by the actor, who wasn’t really a murderer as such. And there was a nice, if unrealistic twist to the outcome, which hovered on the border between sentimentality and lack of reality without quite falling.

So an almost complete transplant of the cast has been carried out in respect to New Tricks, without serious damage to its gentle straddle of comedy and drama.Feet are still maintained in both camps and there’s still the likelihood of a certain revivification by phasing out a cast too comfortable in, and defined by their roles. New options are available for exploration, and if the BBC can take advantage of this without straying too violently for the programme’s comfortable core, there’s every prospect of a season 12, this time next year.

It’s still Insubstantial Airfill, but I unaccountably like it, and am happy to continue doing so.

Goodbye To All That

If I watched it those long years ago, I’ve forgotten it completely, for there wasn’t a moment of recognition, not a single line. And I didn’t remember it in 1973, when I’d only seven years in which memory could deteriorate, when its writers took situation comedy to a new and higher level by the simple expediemt of picking up the threads of this episode and seeing where they led.

Goodbye To All That (which took its title from the Robert Graves’ classic) was the last of twenty episodes, arranged in two series of six and one of eight, of the successful Sixties sitcom, The Likely Lads, created and written by the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, then just starting out on their illutrious career as comedy scripters.

I used to watch The Likely Lads in the Sixties, and I remember it on the radio too (like many TV sitcoms, it was re-recorded for radio by the original cast, the scripts on that occasion being adapted by co-star James Bolam himself), though I don’t remember much of it. But I was one among the millions who welcomed it back, in colour, in 1973, as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, a sitcom that turned away from the silly situations and joke-telling of the British sitcom to that point, into character and situation play with a darker and more realistic underbelly, where the humour came from naturalistic, real dialogue, and the clash of people’s expectations and wishes.

The Likely Lads had been ground-breaking in its time too. It was part of the wave of working class sitcoms, of which Steptoe and Son was the first and greatest. It broke ground by getting almost as far away from London as was possible, up to the North-East, to not-quite Newcastle itself (not until the sequel at any rate), and mining its humour from the lives and interests of two young working class lads whose main interests were beer, football and sex, and who contrasted between the ever-confident, brash Terry, fully immersed in his life, and the quieter, more insecure Bob, who wanted to better himself, to move up.

What makes The Likely Lads exceptional is that it is, so far as I am aware, the only Sixties sitcom, indeed, one of a very small proportion of sitcoms, to end, with Goodbye To All That presenting a conclusion that broke up the situation.

It’s a simple enough but decidedly contemporary story. With one of their old mates home on leave after joining the Army (Catering Corps), Bob starts to take very seriously the idea of enlisting. It’s a way out for him, a way upwards, an avenue of escape from a dead-end town with nothing to do. An opportunity. Terry mocks him throughout, secure in his belief that Bob is all talk: and anyway, it’s only because Thelma Chambers has given him the push again. He’s astonished that Bob goes through with it, and clearly deeply affected by losing his best mate for three years, though completely incapable of admitting it.

So, when Bob’s absence has had time to sink in, Terry does the only obvious thing, and signs up himself. Arriving on the train with the rest of his intake, he is at first delighted to see Bob also at the station. Then aghast, because Bob is being discharged with flat feet. It isn’t Bob who’ll be away for three years, it’s Terry!

Thus ended The Likely Lads. Six years later, Clement and La Fresnais proposed a series to the BBC picking up the Likely Lads and looking at where and who they were now, what changes had been made in them by time, by the turn of the Sixties into the Seventies, by the massive changes redevelopmemt had wrought to Newcastle itself. The BBC liked it, Bolam and Bewes agreed to do it, Sheila Fearns was happy to recreate her role as Terry’s elder sister Audrey, and Brigit Forsyth, who appeared in only one episode though her character had been mentioned in art least two others, was available to turn Thelma Chambers into a full starring role.

The rest, as they say, was history, history I’ve watched many times over. I do regret though that I can’t now watch the opening episode of Whatever Happened to… for the first time with the understanding of just how much it, and the remaining episodes of that first series, drew with such sweet and loving continuity from what had gone before.

Little Ironies 1

The Likely Lads, circa 1964

Though it may spoil my reputation as a connoisseur of only the finest entertainment, I do have a soft spot for the BBC’s long-running but not very well regarded comedy drama series New Tricks. For those unfamiliar with the programme, it’s a crime series featuring Amanda Redman as DCI Sandra Pullman, in charge of UCOS (Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases Squad). The unit is staffed by three retired Detectives, each with decades of experience, investigating unsolved cases in which some form of new evidence has come up, combining experience with the new technology now available.

The show is in its tenth series and is in the process of being deserted by 75% of its long-serving cast. James Bolam (Jack Halford) left the programme at the beginning of series 9 and this week saw the final appearance of Alun Armstrong (Brian Lane), with Redman herself due to depart the squad in next week’s episode, thus leaving only Dennis Waterman (Gerry Standing) of the original cast.

With Armstrong goes veteran actress Susan Jameson, who has played throughout the character of Esther Lane, long-suffering wife of Brian. There’s always been something of an irony to Jameson playing Armstrong’s wife, given that she’s the wife of James Bolam.

What’s brought this post on is that I’ve finally got round to watching the Likely Lads DVD boxset, which includes the only surviving episodes of the original B&W mid-Sixties series (8 out of 20), in addition to the complete run of the ground-breaking sequel, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? James Bolam first came to prominence in this series, as Terry Collier, alongside his mate, Bob Ferris, played by Rodney Bewes.

The second of these preserved episodes, Double Date, is a funny and clever episode which deals with the lads picking up two attractive, unattached girls in a coffee shop and taking them out for a drink and a chinese. What’s especially clever is that creators and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais chose to play both sides of the story: the thread keeps flipping backwards and forwards from Terry and Bob, their expectations, anticipations and nervousness, to the two girls, Dierdre and Pat, and what they hope, expect and anticipate.

The two couples save themselves a bit of trouble (and a few comedy cliches) when it turns out they have the same ideas over who they prefer, with Terry copping off with the blonde Dierdre, played by Coral Atkins, and Bob taking up with the dark-haired Pat, even though it’s the fact that Terry knows Pat through her friendship with his sister, Audrey, that gets them the introduction in the first place.

But what amused me into writing this little post, given that she spent all those years in New Tricks playing someone else’s wife, was that Pat was played by Susan Jameson, and she ended up with Rodney Bewes’ character instead of Bolam’s.

Given that Bolam and Jameson also appeared together in the popular Seventies series, When the Boat Comes In, in which they were briefly engaged in the early episodes only for Bolam’s character to get someone else up the spout and have to marry her instead, they seem to have spent their career not getting together on screen!


The Beiderbecke Trilogy – Part 3

The Beiderbecke Tapes  December 1987

Before The Beiderbecke Affair even finished, everybody wanted a sequel. Alan Plater wanted it. Yorkshire TV wanted it. James Bolam and Barbara Flynn wanted it (Flynn became a conservationist herself, so impressed was she by her character’s beliefs). And the audience sure as hell wanted it. So why did it take nearly three years before The Beiderbecke Tapes was broadcast?

As a future President of the United States would put it: it’s the economy, stupid!

Plater began by plotting Beiderbecke Two as another six parter, scripting two full episodes of a plot that would apply the expected laconic approach to ever bigger issues: the dumping of nuclear waste and supposed national security. Series two would have its international aspect, with Jill and Trevor accompanying a School Trip led by Mr Wheeler to Amsterdam, and winding up even further afield, in Athens, these scenes to form the bulk of the middle two episodes. There would be roles for all the favourites from The Beiderbecke Affair.

Yorkshire TV was delighted with the scripts but the country was heading into recession (when isn’t it?) and a series involving international filming was out of the question for the foreseeable future. Instead, with Yorkshire’s consent, and justifiable enthusiasm from Methuen after the sales figures for one book, Plater signed up to deliver The Beiderbecke Tapes as a novel, appearing in mid-1986.

(Initially, Plater had intended the series to appear as The Gillespie Tapes, with a possible third series to be called The Yardbird Suite, though I recall a contemporary interview that proposed a different Jazz giant for the third title. He was persuaded by Yorkshire TV that, as he had successfully impressed the name of Beiderbecke on the audience, he should stick to the brand.)

I don’t wish to sound negative, but, for reasons I will describe below,  The Beiderbecke Tapes is the weakest of the trilogy and, given its history, it was at that moment that its fate was sealed.

The book was successful, and highly entertaining. The story is, naturally, loose, but once it gets under way, it is more central to events than its counterpart in the Affair, and, where Big Al and Little Norm appear in the unused episode one script, now they, and former Sergeant Hobson, make cameo appearances in the very late stages. I read it with great enjoyment and looked forward to its eventual onscreen version.

Things were not looking good. Everyone wanted it to appear but Yorkshire’s financial state was still a key factor. Now that the story existed in toto, they proposed to buy the rights from Methuen and commission Plater to adapt it as a single, two hour film. The writer was unhappy, the format simply not fitting the story, and requiring a truncation of the plot. The eventual deal was for two episodes, each of ninety minutes (ads included), effectively seventy-five minutes a throw.

Then, having bought the rights in full knowledge of the contents, Yorkshire refused to go to Athens:  Rotterdam (as opposed to Amsterdam), yes, but no further afield. After heated discussions, in which Yorkshire made it plain that if Plater insisted on Athens, the show would be pulled, the writer decided to compromise, substituting Edinburgh for the Greek Capital.

Out went Big Al, Little Norm and Hobson. On the other hand, in came the spineless Mr Pitt, taking over from a newly created character in the Registry Office, Dawson in the novel. The Tapes finally reached the screen in December 1987.

Two years have passed since Trevor and Jill exposed corruption in local Government and the local Police. The story begins with Trevor being notified of the intention to demolish his flat to put in a motorway, Jill confidently assuring him that she’ll get it stopped, the flat being demolished and his moving in with her.

Two things happen: Mr Wheeler, the Headmaster, discovers two members of his staff co-habiting and coerces them into accompanying him on the School Trip to Rotterdam, at which point the whole of 5C signs up, cos Miss and Sir are dead cool cos they cohabit and they’re not married (this is 1987, remember). And Jill insists Trevor put up shelves to accommodate his Jazz records and tapes.

Which naturally requires a trip to the pub, where John the Barman is playing music, not muzak: Jazz: Bix Beiderbecke, in fact. (John is an ex-hippy who got bitten by the jazz bug after this series on TV a couple of years ago). John offers to make Trevor some tapes. The problem starts when one of the tapes isn’t of music but of men talking. About nuclear waste. And dumping it. In the Yorkshire Dales.

Jill takes charge, and the tape goes into “a safe place” (actually, into the handbag of Jill’s mentor, Sylvia, The Oldest Suffragette in Town – a joyous cameo by Beryl Reid.) However, recovery of the tape becomes the aim of certain unspecified security organisations, headed by Peterson, the Man with No Name. And in the wake of Peterson’s appearance as heavy, it appears that John the Barman has succumbed to a serious case of being run down by a car.

Between preparation for the School trip, handling Peterson (who may be fearsome but is easily outflanked) and trying to confirm John’s death, episode 1 – the halfway point, remember – ends with Trevor attending a funeral in quite heavy snow, only to find that John is also in attendance, just not in the coffin.

Episode 2 ups the action. Six men in grey suits, with at least one gun between them, prevent Jill and Trevor leaving on the School Trip whilst they thoroughly, but unsuccessfully, search the house for the Tape. Peterson pursues the pair onto the North Sea Ferry, where Trevor gets plastered with a jazz hero. Peterson declares his love for Jill and a completely smashed Trevor completely smashes him down with one punch.

In Rotterdam, our pair discover that 5C (and Mr Wheeler) have already been deported. The Grey Guardians follow them from bridge to bridge down a canal boat trip and a bunch of elderly Americans smuggle the supposed honeymooners onto their touring coach to Athens. Alas, however, Athens is next week’s itinerary, and Trevor and Jill are wafted off to Edinburgh. There they are cornered by the Grey Guardians, only to be rescued by the Americans springing a bagpipe band onto the Englishmen.

All is officially resolved offscreen. Sylvia confirms the tape is a fake, actors reading from a script, and Peterson makes a final appearance to explain to Jill what she has already worked out: that the tape was disinformation, intended to get into radical hands, be exposed and officially denied, to keep attention away from the less splashy but more serious proposals.

As with the Affair, the Tapes ends in the hills, or rather the Dales, with a piece of news. In the rush to get after the school trip, and the subsequent luxury of the Honeymoon Suite at a posh Edinburgh Hotel, Jill forgot her Pills, and Trevor is going to be a Father.

Watching it again, though I still enjoyed The Beiderbecke Tapes, I have to admit to making a too-critical comparison between it and the Affair. It had a lot of potential, and I’m sure that, given the breathing room of six episodes, it would have worked very well. But the moment that the initial scripts were stopped, that prospect was lost. It’s simply too short. Worse, it’s too thin, both in plot and texture. There is just not enough of it.

Having just recited it, let’s take first the plot. Plater was reaching for something larger in scope, something in which there would be a genuine element of danger to Trevor and Jill, and I think that in a mere 150 minutes, he can’t achieve that. There isn’t enough time to develop a real sense of risk, not to Trevor and Jill, not to our favourite gentle, bickering but essentially eternal pair. The Beiderbecke Affair established an off-kilter world, a gently different reality centred upon this pair: the Tapes doesn’t have long enough to break through that.

It’s not aided by the imbalance in the plot over the two episodes. Far too little happens in episode one: Peterson forces his way into Jill’s house once, breaks in twice (once offscreen), and retrieves a George Formby tape but lately posted at a proper Post Office, but that’s all the forces of evil do in the opening seventy-five minutes, leaving the rest to be squashed into the second seventy-five minutes, practically all of which has to be devoted to the plot, with anything else we might be watching this story to enjoy having to be spread on top, like margarine.

Given Plater’s sheer professionalism at writing for television, this imbalance is surprising to say the least. And it offers nothing to distract us from a doubly dubious ending that doesn’t add up.

If this tape is supposedly so important that not only Peterson is out to retrieve it, but also a separate department that works in sixes and is prepared to snatch British citizens into confinement in foreign countries (I am remembering Athens in the book here, as well as Rotterdam), why does everything fizzle out? An Old Etonian confiscates Trevor and Jill’s passports in Edinburgh and sends them home by train and suddenly no-one’s chasing this tape at all? And Peterson’s confessing it’s all been meaningless all the time?

The logic doesn’t quite work, and there’s nothing to get us looking at the magician’s face instead of his hands.

Because that’s the other side of the problem: the texture’s too thin. The Beiderbecke Affair might have centred on Jill and Trevor, but it wasn’t only about them, both in terms of eccentric characters and what was happening to them. Dudley Sutton contributes more cynicism as Mr Carter, but is woefully underused, Keith Smith is again the dreaded Wheeler, and Robert Longden drifts in as Mr Pitt, having taken ‘lateral promotion’ at a lower salary, and then drifts out again.

Nor do the new characters add much. Peterson is the heavy and the villain, and Malcolm Storrey does all he can with him, but he isn’t meant to be funny, quite the opposite rather, and whilst there are good performances from Beryl Reid as Sylvia, Peter Martin as Charlie, the cheerful gravedigger and a short comic Dutch accent from Bill Wallis, the Americans don’t convince as American accents, and nobody plays off anybody except Jill and/or Trevor.

There’s no texture, no cross-playing between different characters, no multiplication of stories: nothing outside the moving light of Mr Chaplin and Mrs Swinburne. And far too little that doesn’t relate to the plot, the way real life insisys on doing.

That said, it’s enjoyable, and it’s certainly no Get Lost! Revisited: we are far from that, and Barbara Flynn is still a delight to behold, though the shorter hairstyle is nothing like as flattering. The relationship between her and Trevor has grown. There’s still no overt romance, she’s not sure whether she’s going to totally take to him on a 24/7 basis, or at least so she says so, but ‘probationary cohabitee’ swiftly becomes a catchphrase in Trevor’s mouth, and we know it’s alright.

He’s more relaxed than in the Affair, and he talks back more, instead of just avoiding the point with a degree of fantasy. They’ll never ever use the word love, indeed they’ll look shocked if either of them ever does, but these two are a till death us do part duo, and that takes a little of the underlying tension out of it.

It might have been different in six episodes though. Plater did want to set the couple a test, something to overcome, but Peterson’s declaration of love is too implausible to be taken even momentarily seriously, and is allowed so little time as to be negligible.

So, what next? Plater had already begun work on series 3. Things come in threes, it’s a magical creative number. Beginnings, middles and ends. Besides, what are they going to do now they’re going to have a baby?

The Beiderbecke Trilogy – Part 2

The Beiderbecke Affair  January – February 1985

Watching this again was every bit the pleasure it was seeing it for the first time, a quarter century plus ago, and no less fun for watching it with a view to analysing it soon afterwards. The Beiderbecke Affair wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a detective story being played out in the moonstruck outer limits of Leeds by a cast of characters who are, at one and the same time, down to earth and dead ordinary, and truly English eccentrics, who catch our affection immediately. The story is both silly and serious, at heart and in its execution by one of the most perfectly assembled casts I’ve ever seen, never once crosses the line into parody but creates a slightly off-kilter world in which what happens is a matter of real concern.

And it’s still bloody funny from start to finish.

I’ve already described the set-up of the plot in Part 1, and whilst it’s a motivating factor for Trevor and, to a lesser extent, Jill, it’s really a typically Hitchcockian McGuffin. Indeed, the case of the Missing Records, and the Exploding Hedgetrimmer sold to Trevor and Jill’s colleague, Mr Carter, is solved before the end of episode 2 (the explanation? Little Norm cocked up the paperwork).

This McGuffin (the vital, but essentially meaningless object that gets your characters where they have to be for the story) exposes a local network of people organising to get and do things for their friends and neighbours at cost price. This “White Economy”, actually a reinvention of the original Co-op Movement, combined with Jill’s Save the Planet politics and Conservation Candidacy, attracts attention from two directions.

The first is Sergeant Hobson, B. A. Hobson is a graduate copper with first class honours and a thesis on the grey areas at the margins of crime, from where subversive behaviour is bound to arise because people simply insist on doing things that are not normal. Hobson’s eyes are firmly fixed on Trevor, Jill and Big Al, the redundant lathe operator who has set up this White Economy: somewhere in what they’re doing, something has got to be criminal.

The second is a dirty tricks campaign by a prominent local businessman, his Councillor brother who’s on both the Planning and Police Committee, and a certain local Policeman who regards Hobson as a waste of space and is forever urging him to go out and nick some thieves instead of sitting in his office dictating notes and playing with the Police computer. This trio don’t want to see the boat rocked by people who don’t do normal things.

You may note that, although this is a comedy, an extremely likeable, lighthearted and funny comedy, replete with Yorkshire humour, that under the mockery these are very serious, and decidedly sinister objectives. Just because they’re absurd, it doesn’t mean they aren’t serious.

This being a comedy, goodness prevails, as far as it is allowed to, and the second set of bad guys are brought down by Hobson, whose fanaticism is easily directed into a different course, but whose prescient depiction of a future that we’ve reached without understanding what it all meant, gives him the standing on which to not only survive but thrive.

But the bedrock on which the Affair stands, and without which it would be a dismal failure, is the cast. Both the small ensemble of characters designed by Plater, and the splendid actors who animate everybody, with wit, a fine sense of how far to go without overplaying their part, and the immediate and captivating charm that bubbles under the whole production.

Each episode begins with a title sequence. An LP revolves on a turntable, a hand lifts the needle into place at track 1 (for our younger readers, the needle was the antideluvian equivalent of the laser, scratching its way along a complex and continual winding groove). A jaunty jazz tune springs up. The sequence emphasises the musical theme: decks, headphones, sheet music etc, intercut with domestic details like goldfish in a tank and faggots, and peas in a tray. This segues into the opening scene and an episode title that is the first line of dialogue, such as “What I don’t understand is…”

Thus begins episode one. A long dolly shot descends towards a stream of pupils streaming out of a prefab comprehensive school, slowly closing in on Mr Chaplain and Mrs Swinburne. It is Mr Chaplain who utters the opening words, stopping only at the realisation that he’s lost his little yellow van keys.

This launches into a prolonged, easily distracted conversation that very smoothly delivers enough back-story to let the tale start, whilst equally easily allowing Bolam and Flynn to impress their characters on the viewer.

Bolam, then in his early forties, and looking it, underplays his character throughout as an easygoing, mainly contented man with few ambitions. Flynn, petite, wholesome, fresh-faced and winsome, is five to ten years younger: fresher, more active, strong-willed and tolerant of her colleague. They have been connected for long enough to be content in each other’s company, are understanding enough to bicker without wounding sensitive areas – except when they rub each other up the wrong way and fight.

In short, they are instantly established as, I say again, off-kilter individuals who work together well. They’re never demonstrative or romantic, they are completely different characters, but without a single declaration, or even conventional statement of love, they will make it pretty clear to us – and even themselves – that they do rely upon, and need each other.

But the big pluspoint for the series is that, from the first moment, they are likeable. The audience settles back, interested in this pair, and willing to follow them about.

But Jill and Trevor are merely the centre of things. Dudley Sutton, Dominic Jephcott and Terence Rigby are in the credited cast, as is Special Guest Star Colin Blakely from episode 3 onwards, whilst Keith Smith, Keith Marsh, Robert Longden and Norman Schiller are fine supporters in small roles. Alison Skilbeck, playing Jill’s love-rival, Helen of Tadcaster, is a much more straight part, a foil for Trevor and Jill in the two episodes in which she appears.

Dudley Sutton plays history teacher Mr Carter, a cynical and yet almost florid member of staff (and recipient of the Exploding Hedge-Trimmer from the Dazzlingly Beautiful Platinum Blonde), who regards Trevor and Jill as his private soap opera, a daily source of drama upon which he comments with relish. In return, Jill and Trevor treat him as a harmless observer, responding to or around him with a mixture of fantasy cliches and cryptic encapsulations of what’s going on that confuse way more than they enlighten.

Dominic Jephcott excels as Hobson: conspicuously clever, well-maintained hair, blonde good looks, out of his depth whenever he’s not relying on his role as Police Officer, and a military habit of clicking his heels when addressing his superior officer that’s driving Superintendent Forrest bonkers. Hobson is every inch the graduate smartarse, superior in manner, the light of fanaticism glowing in his eyes whenever he’s not being talked down, past, over and around by Trevor and Jill, neither of whom can take him seriously enough to be concerned about his increasing attempts to fit them up. Until he becomes useful to them as a conduit for turning the tables on the McAllister Brothers, who conduct the spoiler campaign. Hobson turns on a dime, without so much as a squeak.

Terrence Rigby, once a fixture on Z-Cars and Softly Softly plays Big Al, a broad, phlegmatic and philosophic former-building-trade work who, after redundancy, has organised the White Economy around the principle of people helping each other out. He’s introduced at a Cub’s football match, along with the excitable, perennially confused Little Norm (Schiller). Described as having the texture and charm of a small Pennine Chain, Al just wants to be left alone without people poking into his business, especially Hobson. Norm is his brother, as are a great number of people during the story, Trevor included, and Janey the Blonde his sister, though it’s never clear if he has any siblings. Al is, quite simply, a cloth-capped force of nature.

As for the smaller parts, Smith is superb is his somewhat one-dimensional role as Mr Wheeler, the headmaster, brusque with his staff, obsequious with Hobson, appearing from nowhere with his hands clasped behind his back, yet still giving the impression of a man who leaves a silvery trail wherever he passes. Longden, who appears in the last two episodes, plays Town Planning Officer, Mr Pitt, a man of careful demeanour and utter spinelessness. Marsh, a familiar figure from other Yorkshire TV sitcoms, plays Harry, a pensioner who keeps turning up out of nowhere, leading a dog called Jason on a length of string, and who wants to be a supergrass, to regain his self-respect after years of unemployment.

As stated above, Alison Skilbeck plays the only straight role in the entire series. She’s brought in, offstage, in episode 3, when Trevor, in a rush of emotional honesty, confesses to having once been engaged to a woman who, completely unlike Jill, was interested in all the same things as he was, only to call the wedding off because he was boring. Her name was Helen: “of Troy?” enquires Jill, amused and determined not to take her relationship with Trevor seriously enough to admit he really means something to her: “of Tadcaster” Trevor somewhat limply replies.

Needless to say, once summoned by name, Helen appears almost immediately, back from London where she’d “met a bloke”, interested in seeing if Trevor was any less boring, and not expecting to find him in a “relationship”. The ladies get on famously with each other, to the extent of going for a posh meal in a posh restaurant where they get poshly pissed and toss a coin for Trevor. Jill, who has already, in a laconic manner, let Helen know that she’s serious about Trevor, is disturbed less by losing than by being disturbed at losing. She’s typically detached and cool about the whole thing, joking that if Trevor marries Helen, she’ll insist on his moving into the spare bedroom, but underneath it she’s unwillingly distressed at the thought.

It doesn’t matter, actually. Trevor’s repeated question about whether he gets a say in it may be said in jest, but he knows what he wants and between an independent and sassy penurious schoolteacher who hates jazz, and a jazz loving rich girl who lets her Daddy treat her as a child, and who tries to order Trevor’s lifestyle (Daddy is a McAllister Brother, you see, and at the heart of things), Helen doesn’t stand a chance.

Charm, silliness, likeability, political underpinning, belly laugh jokes, perfect casting, an upbeat jazz soundtrack and a gentle, laconic pace. The Beiderbecke Affair  is, quite simply, a gem on every level.

And it’s a joy to have found a way to discuss this show without constant comparisons to its hapless predecessor, Get Lost!, which for a while I thought for a while would be impossible. From the first moment of its symbolic credits and its jaunty music, The Beiderbecke Affair joyfully laughs at Get Lost!s failings.

Someone knew in advance that the series was going to hit, for Plater was persuaded to novelise his own script for release as a book, midway through first transmission. It was his first venture into adult prose, and it’s a worthy companion to the series. It was also so popular that it sold out in Manchester before I could get a copy. Fortunately, a friend saw a copy on sale in Wilmslow and grabbed it for me, handing it over on the Thursday night before episode 6.

I took it home and, before going to sleep, read it up to the end of episode 5, and put it away. The series was too good to spoil.

Next, I’ll be looking at The Beiderbecke Affair‘s first sequel, The Beiderbecke Tapes. But, if I may end upon a personal note, if there are any Jill Swinburnes out there, especially ones who look like Barbara Flynn did during this series, would they be so kind as to contact me, with a view to discussing an underplayed, seemingly ill-matched but underneath rather serious relationship. Saying “I love you” strictly excluded, of course.