Tales of the Gold Monkey: e21: Mourning Becomes Matuka


And thus it ended. The only season of Tales of the Gold Monkey finished with a bit of a bang, and a hand to play for everyone in the cast, except, oddly Roddy McDowell. But for the little-used trio of John Calvin, Marta Dubois and John Fujioki, there was a full part to play in a story set entirely on Princess Koji’s island kingdom of Matuka.

The hook, not that we are told this at first, is that it is the Princess’s birthday, and she has gathered her entire organisation to pay her homage, and give her birthday presents. As representatives of the French Mandate, we have that less-than-French quartet of Jake Cutter, Corky, Sarah Stickney-White and the Reverend Willie Tenbaum (whose role as a German spy has been completely forgotten for over half a series). Not to forget Jack.

It begins with blind zen horseback archers trying to kill each other, until they simultaneously turn and fire at the Dragon Lady… no, sorry, the Princess. But we all know who she’s been. Koji is saved by Todo throwing himself in the way, but with him out of the action, a new bodyguard is needed, and it will be Jake Cutter. Any reluctance he has at playing the part disappears when it transpires that Koji not only knows, but has proof, that Sarah is an American spy. She also has General Ajani, head of Japanese Military Intelligence, on Matuka.

Jake has to play along. And he mustn’t tell anyone, not even Jack.

Nobody believes he’s doing it for the money, not even $10,000. Which he probably won’t get paid since at the present-giving party, when Koji is sat next to her Irish half-sister Shannon Smith (out of deference to a truly atrocious Irish accent, I will not name the guest actress: think Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, only Irish), a clockwork cupid musical box fires a miniature aroow into Koji’s chest barely breaking the skin, but killing her.

I am probably not going to spoil the dramatic tension if I tell you she’s not really dead, even though the Princess lies in ‘state’ for five days before a superfast cremation. Jake still can’t let on what’s going on, even though Corky tries to make out he’s nearly blind in one eye so he can’t fly Sarah and Willie out in the Goose. And Jake’s insistence on wearing his Flying Tigers jacket in front of a horde of Japanese troops and a General who lost a brother to a Tiger is hardly the height of diplomacy.

But, as I always suspected, the whole thing’s a put up designed to get the would-be assassins out into the open. One is, unsurprisingly enough, little Irish sister, who frames Jake as the killer, but it takes the ritual of Seppuku (performed with a collapsible knife) before the General is fingered as her partner. He goes to the piranhas and she goes to the Living Death, which comes over as a more extreme and considerably more creepy version of being sent to Coventry.

Jake has survived to fight another day, but not, sadly, another series. Tales of the Gold Monkey was a hit, especially in Britain, at 8.00pm on Monday nights, BBC1. We would always switch straight over after Coronation Street. But it needed to be a bigger hit to overcome the production costs of filming in the South Pacific and, unlike Lost, a quarter century later, it didn’t reach that level.

And so there was no more. Looking back on it now, I can see a host of flaws, and it really never did know what to do with either Caitlin O’Heaney or Marta Dubois – nor John Calvin for that matter – except to reduce two potentially strong roles to cliches, one insulting, one sexual. but it was still fun, and unpretentious fun as well. It knew what it wanted, it set out to provide that, and it skillfully evoked older and more simple times with its tongue not further in its cheek than it took to play along with the joke. I would have enjoyed more, most definitely then, and even now. Perhaps on Earth-2, they’ve got the second season available on their equivalent of BluRay, and all I have to do is find the exact deserted crossroads, just outside Central City. And the ability of the Flash to alter by body’s vibrational frequency.

Thank you for indulging me. For the next twenty four weeks, Thursday will cease to be Gold Monkey Day and will become ******** ****** Day. Hint: another one season series, bit nearer the present day.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e20: A Distant Shout of Thunder


It’s the penultimate episode, and one that, for me, frankly didn’t work. The ingredients were there, but they didn’t combine to make the story convincing, and there was no clear indicator as to what let things down.

The basis of this episode was that of the clash of cultures between the native Polynesians and their primitive Gods, in this case Pele (not that one), whose ‘wrath’ was awoken by a total eclipse and the presence of a scientific team studying it. Lucien, the local equivalent of a Hellfire Preacher, protests it. He’s a well-known, indeed tiresome figure, attempting to overturn French colonial rule, and it’s doubtful for most of the episode whether he genuinely believes in Pelle, or whether he’s just the opportunist Jake accuses him of being.

Unfortunately, I could not find guest actor Jose de Vega the least bit adequate for the role. He had nothing of the force the character required, nor could he conjure up the steeliness that might have sufficed in its place. Given that his role is to re-awaken the islanders’ beliefs, stir them to the edge of hysteria and persuade them to sacrifice Sarah to atone to the Gods, he was just a non-starter without which the episode never hung together.

Sarah became involved because, traumatised by old fears deriving from a childhood visit to Cambridge  with her father for an earlier total eclipse during which she got lost, she stumbles over and picks up a small statue of Pele, which marks her as the defiler, and makes her Pele’s target.

And it is at that moment that Bora Gora’s dormant volcano chooses to wake up and threaten the island.

With Lucien sitting in the centre of things calmly arrogating every incident to Pele’s wrath on one side, and Sarah’s (intentionally) unconvincing refusal to accede to superstition on the other, the episode built up to the inevitable sacrifice, with a drugged Sarah seeing molten lava as clear blue sea into which she wanted to slide.

Jake’s coming after her, alone as usual. Not at first: Corky, Louie and the Reverend Willie insist on joining him. It’s a well-played moment: they care for Sarah too, and will not be left behind, until circumstances are contrived to leave them behind.

And the episode doesn’t help itself by having the easily-misled islanders suddenly see sense and turn their backs on Lucien, who sacrifices himself, lost in his own preachings, for no adequate reason other than the plot demands it.

That’s really all, to be honest. Donald Bellisario pops up in a cameo role as a father whose curly-haired little moppet of a son (played by his actual curly-haired little moppet of a son) engages in a raspberry blowing contest with Corky. Special effects are spared by intercutting genuine film of a volcano and its attendant effects, though the glaring difference in the quality of film stocks draws too much attention to the contrivance. But on the plus side, with only an episode left, the show does at least pick up on the genuine nature of the relationship between Jake and Sarah, with lots of unashamed kissing.

I’m hoping for a better send-off next week. But, having seen the plot outline in imdb, I’m expecting another whimper.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e19: Boragora or Bust


It’s getting late. What Saturday Morning staple have we not yet had? A Treasure Mine? Let’s throw one of those in.

The ingredients are familiar: veteran prospector, been digging for decades, faithful creaking mule and eccentric methods, strikes it rich. Old Dowser’s an Aussie with a slightly variable accent and his mule is of course called Matilda, though it’s not gold that he’s struck, it’s platinum, way up in the mountains on Boragora. Forty years he’s been prospecting and on the edge of giving up, dynamiting the mine and himself inside it, and Dowser strikes it rich.

And there was Jake Cutter, who loves the old geezer like a father, complaining that his piloting career in the Maravellas is boring and lacking in excitement and recalling those old days of red hot jazz on a Friday night.

Overnight, Boragora becomes a creditable impression of a boom town, with all sorts of hopeful and ignorant would-be prospectors, and the usual gang of hangers-on, including an outfit offering ‘French’ ladies to entertain the prospectors and arousing the fighting ire of the Reverend Willie Tenbaum when they start using his ‘children’ to supply ‘blessings’.

And what you really need for a story like this is a claim-jumper, and we got one, the unruffled, immaculate smooth-as-snake-oil Mr Hastings. There’s only one problem: he’s in the right. He can take Dowser’s claim, within the law, because Dowser forfeited it thirty years ago for his complete failure to ‘improve’ it.

So, once Dowser is prevented from settling this island-style, with knives, it’s back to plan A: if Dowser can’t have the claim he’s scratched forty years to win, Hastings won’t get it either. He’ll dynamite the mine – with himself in it.

Put like that, the episode can be easily dismissed as a collection of cliches. But first of all, we’ve agreed all along that that is what Tales of the Gold Monkey is, and has always set out to be. It’s about the nostalgic fun of old and hoary adventure stories, played with just the teeniest dose of self-awareness, and tons of gusto. The knockabout fight on the beach starting when Willie dumps the tarts’ tent and ending with him hopping up and down in glee at a great brawl, and roaring in German, in a perfect specimen.

But there was more to this episode than just the fun. There were quieter moments, cameos that addressed, in brief but effective fashion, the emotional realities that lie behind the glorious nonsense. Dowser’s despair at losing what he’s worked for, his emotionalism at the fact his beloved mule won’t be shooed away and will go down with him. Sarah’s for once quiet concern about the risks Jake is taking to try and intercept Dowser, her recognition of the fact that she’s always saying goodbye like a wife, and they haven’t even… Jake’s warm and tender kiss. And in the mine, with Dowser lighting the fuse whilst holding Jake and Corky at bay with his gun, it’s the latter who walks forward, calmly refusing to believe Dowser will shoot him, to cut the fuse and extinguish it.

In the end, the mountain comes down. There’s a death-defying motorcycle leap, the insouciant whistling of a tune I have no hope of recognising, Dowser getting to look aat the face of the legal cheat who failed to rob him. And another boring Friday night in the Monkey Bar, with Jake back to bitching and off to an early bed… until Louie comes up with a stack of red-hot jazz discs, and it’s grab Sarah and let’s cut a rug.

I’m going to miss this show all over again.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e16 – Cooked Goose


Since she plays a big role this week…

Just when I was thinking that Tales of the Gold Monkey was struggling to maintain its verve, along comes an episode like that to refute that notion. There was a neat little adventure story involving Princess Koji and Todo again, not to mention a hell of a lot of Marta DuBois’s cleavage, and a twist that I suspected only a minute or two before it was revealed, and parts to play for all seven members of the cast, which was a nice change.

But most of all what impressed was a separate strand to the episode, born of the adventure saga but not properly of it, which concerned itself with an emotional point that ignored the usual Saturday Morning shallowness in favour of a very deep look into someone’s psyche, and it was brilliantly enacted by a central character usually known for playing comic relief.

The set-up is conventional enough: newlyweds Alan and Phyllis Shoemate are enjoying her fantasy of spending a honeymoon on a desert island, Petit Bijou, south of Bora Gora. She comes from a rich Hong Kong family, he’s an ex-co-pilot friend of Jake Cutter, who’s flying them in and out. Except that on their final night, they’re attacked by Malay mercenaries, who kidnap Phyllis, badly beat Alan, and leave behind a malay kris that suggests the mastermind to be everybody’s favourite Dragon Lady.

Bon Chance Louie takes a very dim view of such things going on in the French Mandate, he being the local Magistrate de Justice, and arranges to be flown to Tagatiya by Jake. The Goose needs an overhaul, which means the disgruntled Corky has to work on things overnight to make it flyable.

Instead, he gets blind drunk, falls asleep and is still out when the Goose catches fire. Jake has to pile in with the fire extinguisher to prevent it burning out, but it’s not going to Tagatiya any time soon. He’s simultaneously furious and bitterly disappointed with Corky, yet trying to give his friend the fairest treatment he can, given that his drinking has been responsible for this disaster. Sarah tries to plead for the distraught Corky, but Jake lays out the circumstances and has to admit that he can’t think otherwise.

Louie is still determined to get to Tagatiya, and demands Jake go with him, since he’s the Princess’s favourite, which means leaving Corky behind. But not to work on the Goose. This disaster has gone to Corky’s heart, and to what remains of his pride behind the clouded memories and the alcoholism. Corky has seen himself in all too clear a light, and he doesn’t like what he sees. He’s let Jake support him for many years, let him cajole and console him, build him up, cover for too many things, but this is too big and too fundamental for more of that. Corky’s self-loathing drives him to taking full responsibility for what he is and what he’s done. He cannot stand to be around people he’s let down, and he’s packing up and leaving, on the next clipper. He’s going to disappear.

It’s a wonderful performance from Jeff MacKay, demonstrating a range and depth about a thousand miles on every side from what he’s usually asked to do as the bumbling mechanic, and it changes the story by turning what is essentially a cartoon figure, whose genuine illness is usually treated as a near-joke, into a real person, whose life has been undercut by booze.

What’s doubly effective is that, at the one moment Jake wants to devote himself to his self-appointed guardianship, he’s forced away. Corky won’t budge, no-one can change his mind, yet a subdued and genuinely worried Sarah promises Jake that Corky will still be on Bora Gora when Jake returns.

Which she achieves in splendidly comic fashion, with the aid of the Reverend Tenbaum and Gushie, the wheelchair bound waiter. As last call is made for the Clipper, Sarah dramatically denounces Corky for seducing her and running away, leaving her – gasp! – with child. In comes Willie, offering the Church’s ministrations and a fast-track to the altar (whilst copping a swift feel). Corky’s fellow-passengers are looking at him askance when suddenly the generator goes out, requiring Corky to repair it, thanks to Gushie yanking something vital out: Corky’s not leaving Bora Gora yet.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, Alan’s intemperate accusations of the proud Princess on her own island get Jake, Louie and the deprived husband into hot water: literally. Koji threatens to make them pay, but a hot bath with geishas shaving their faces seems to be an unusual punishment. Until, that is, Todo turns up with a goldfish bowl full of piranhas which he starts slowly pouring into the bath…

But between Louie’s determination to make the French Mandate too hot for Koji if she allows innocents to die and the site of Jake’s bare chest, the Princess decides to take charge in her own way. However, before she leads her troops to Petit Bijou to exterminate the mercenaries who have forged her symbol, she’s just going to strip off and climb into Jake’s tub with him where, cornered at long last, he’s just going to have to submit to her fucking his brains out. Still, Pat Ryan never complained…

And so to the island, where the forces split up, and I had the first inkling that I knew exactly why things weren’t entirely kosher. Though for a moment I wavered towards the possibility of the mastermind being the red-headed Phyllis herself, out to screw her family for a cool half-billion bucks, my first suspicion was right: this was all set-up by Alan himself, out to trouser the cheque, and not for the first time either, the lothario.

Having stepped out into the open, Alan does a deal for Princess Koji’s co-operation, half the ransom in return for letting him get away, and kill all the witnesses. Unfortunately, this was where the plot slipped. I mean, it was all pull-the-wool-over-your-eyes, with Jake and Louie having their heads chopped off by Todo in one of those not-quite-in-plain-sight set-ups that’s a dead giveaway that you’re not seeing what you’re supposed to think you’re seeing leading up to a surprise attack from Jake and the cliched grapple-for-the-gun-which goes-off-and-kills-the-baddie, and all because Koji wasn’t going to jeopardise her French Mandate holdings for a measly quarter-million, but the logic was non-existent, since the moment Alan took his knife away from Phyllis’s throat, she could have had Todo stitch him up in a instant without going through this purposeless charade. Take three ticks off your homework there.

Then it’s back to Bora Gora where the still despondent Corky has worked miracles in  restoring, and repainting the Goose. Not even Jake’s pointing out that Corky has, not once but at least twice, built the Goose up from salvaged scrap to a beautiful flying machine, and that it would be wrong to even think of letting another mechanic touch her: Jake is only her pilot, but she’s Corky’s plane: no, none of this will shift him. Come the next Clipper, he’s going. He’s gad enough of being babied and will not burden his friends a moment longer than he has to.

But we all know that things will be reset, and the fact we never saw Corky get boozed up will be the key to it. And Jake now has the explanation that lets Corky off the hut: Alan put him out, with ether stolen from Louie’s medical kit. Let’s face it, there isn’t enough booze in the whole Monkey Bar to get Corky that blitzed!

It’s a decidedly dodgy joke that’s a sign that normal comic relief service is being resumed and that this will never come up again in what remains of the series, but that scene where Corky rejects any more help, and determines to be responsible for what he’s done was still performed, and will stick in the mind as a moment that showed that even the most deliberately shallow of shoes can go into deep water and can swim.

 

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.