Saturday, 24 September 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1979 BBC adaptation (made in association with Paramount) of John le Carré’s celebrated 1974 spy novel of the same name. Alec Guinness stars as the masterspy George Smiley.

Things are not going well for the Circus. The Circus (so-called because it has its headquarters in Cambridge Circus) is le Carré’s fictionalised version of Britain Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes known as MI6. An operation in Czechoslovakia went horribly wrong with a British spy ending up with to bullets in his back. Eighteen months later another disaster followed with the defection of two high-ranking KGB officers ending in another fiasco. The Circus officer involved, Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), spent six months on the run but now he’s surfaced in London and he has a disturbing tale to tell. Tarr’s story makes it clear that there is a Soviet mole (code-named Gerald) in the Circus. Worse than that, the mole must be one of the five top-ranking men in the Circus. That means that an internal investigation would be completely pointless. The investigation will have to be carried out by someone who is both an insider and an outsider. Someone like George Smiley, formerly the number two man at the Circus and now retired.

The former chief of the Circus (known only as Control) had had strong suspicions and Smiley had shared those suspicions. Control had narrowed the field down to five suspects. The first is Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), a man whose skills at political manoeuvring are vastly more impressive than his skills as an intelligence officer. For the purposes of his ow investigation Control has given Alleline the code name Tinker. The second is the brilliant and urbane Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson); Control has dubbed him Tailor. The third suspect is the boisterous and somewhat unstable Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); he has been given the code name Soldier. Number four is the ambitious Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) - he is Poor Man. Control’s final suspect is George Smiley - Beggarman.

Control is now dead and the new chief is Alleline. George Smiley is no longer a possible suspect - he was forced into retirement and it is clear that the mole is still in the top echelons of the Circus. 

Smiley’s investigation is official but it has to be undertaken without the knowledge of any of the four remaining suspects or anyone else in the Circus who might alert the mole.

Smiley’s greatest assets are his patience and his thoroughness, and most of all his remarkable memory. His memories are crucial since his investigation is in fact a journey into the past. At times the distant past. The mole might well have been working for the KGB for decades. Smiley’s memories of Karla may be important as well, Karla (Patrick Stewart) being the KGB spymaster who recruited Gerald. Smiley had encountered Karla twenty years earlier - in fact he’d tried (with a striking lack of success) to recruit Karla as a double agent.

Memory is also important in the sense that the Circus is in a sense living in the past, trying to recapture the glory days of the Second World when Britain was a great power. Those glory days are long gone. To many in the Circus this seems like a kind of betrayal. They started their careers with high hopes and high ideals but now they are simply a rather unsuccessful intelligence agency of a third-rate power.

Betrayal is of course the other major theme. The original novel was obviously partly inspired by the spectacular real-life act of betrayal by Kim Philby, the senior MI6 officer who was a Soviet spy for the whole of his lengthy career. In fact one of the many MI6 operatives whose cover was blown by Philby was John le Carré, who worked as a real-life spy for MI5 and later MI6 until the early 1960s. Betrayal was something le Carré experienced at first hand and this doubtless goes a long way to explain George Smiley’s relentless pursuit of the mole in the novel. 

The book deals with betrayals on multiple levels - not just actual treason but betrayals of hopes and ideals and also personal betrayals. The TV adaptation is surprisingly successful in translating these complex interlocking themes to the small screen. This is a very cerebral spy drama with very little action. The lack of action could have been a problem in a seven-part TV serial but the psychological tension and the suspense are sufficient compensation and on the whole it works very well. The one criticism that could be made is that the final episode, much of which is a kind of epilogue, drags a little. This doesn’t matter so much in the novel but for TV I think it should have been tightened up a little. On the other hand it does offer the opportunity to make Gerald’s motivations much clearer.

The adaptation is remarkably faithful to the novel, both in terms of plot and characterisation. 

I was not entirely convinced by Terence Rigby’s slightly caricatured performance as Roy Bland and I thought that Bernard Hepton made Toby Esterhase much too English (he’s supposed to be Hungarian). On the whole though the acting is fine. Alec Guinness is physically not quite right as Smiley but he captures Smiley’s quirks of character so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Michael Aldridge (who was so delightful in the 60s spy series The Man in Room 17) is perfect as the rather oily Percy Alleline. Ian Richardson plays Haydon with an admirable sense of style and self-assurance. Anthony Bate is excellent as the Circus’s political master Sir Oliver Lacon, a typical politician  whose main concern is to limit the political damage to the government.

The co-production deal with Paramount meant that the BBC had plenty of money to throw around on location shooting and the result is a very handsome production.

The only real weaknesses are in fact reflections of weaknesses in the source novel - the identity of the mole is a little too obvious and the emphasis on Smiley’s train wreck of a private life is such that there is at times a danger that the viewer will start to regard with contempt rather than sympathy.

The DVD includes a fine documentary on John le Carré in which the author takes at length about his own experiences as a spy. The documentary also includes some fascinating comments from a former very senior KGB officer and also from the former head of the East German secret police (who spent his leisure hours in the 1960s reading John le Carré spy novels).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is engrossing television. Highly recommended.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Alfred Hitchcock Presents - And So Died Riabouchinska (1956)

And So Died Riabouchinska was broadcast in 1956 as the twentieth episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s based on a Ray Bradbury story and boasts an interesting cast headlined by Claude Rains and a young Charles Bronson.

I’m particularly fond of horror and mystery stories featuring ventriloquists’ dummies -they always make for lots of creepiness.

Claude Rains plays Fabian, a vaudeville performer at a time when vaudeville was not exactly booming. A man is found murdered in the theatre where he is appearing. The man had apparently been trying to get to see Fabian, for some important but unknown purpose.  Detective Krovitch (Charles Bronson) is the investigating officer and he finds that interviewing Fabian is a slightly odd process since Fabian’s doll Riabouchinska insists on being part of the conversation. Krovitch is doubtful as to whether Fabian is being entirely truthful but he suspects that the doll is telling the truth.

The doll was modeled after a real woman, a young and very beautiful woman with whom Fabian was acquainted. Possible quite well acquainted although this was more than twenty years earlier so what connection could it have with the murder of the stranger in the theatre?

Mel Dinelli adapted Bradbury’s story for the small screen. Dinelli was not a prolific screen writer but he did have a few rather impressive credits including the suspense classic The Spiral Staircase. As for Bradbury I’ve always had mixed feelings about him as a writer although I do admit that at his best he could be very atmospheric and very subtle. 

And So Died Riabouchinska is the kind of story that Bradbury did very well and the television adaptation works pretty effectively. It’s typical Bradbury in that it suggests something supernatural but it remains only a suggestion.

Claude Rains gives a very fine performance, managing to be quite disturbing without being too excessive about it. Charles Bronson hadn’t yet found his feet as an actor although there are signs of his later minimalist acting style. In this TV play he’s at his best when he tones his performance right down.

There are better television and movie ventriloquists’ dummy stories but And So Died Riabouchinska is still a worthy example of an odd little sub-genre. It’s certainly worth seeing for the terrific and surprisingly restrained performance by Claude Rains. Highly recommended.

The first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is of course easily obtainable on DVD in all markets.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Sandbaggers, season two (1980)

The Sandbaggers, made by Britain’s Yorkshire Television, ran for three seasons from 1978 to 1980. This series took the gritty realistic and cynical spy drama further than it had ever been taken before, and in fact it took that approach about as far as it could be taken.

Ian Mackintosh created the series and wrote all of the episodes of the first two seasons and some season three episodes before his tragic death at the age of 39 in 1979. Mackintosh had earlier created the successful Warship series while still serving in the Royal Navy. There have been persistent rumours that Mackintosh had actually been a serving member of the Secret Intelligence Service or had at least been seconded to the SIS at some point during his naval career. The accuracy of his knowledge of the inner workings of the intelligence community has fueled these rumours although it’s also possible that he simply did his research very very thoroughly. Mackintosh himself was non-committal on the subject.

Either way the series presents a remarkably accurate picture of how real-life spies actually operate and how the intelligence community interacts, sometimes catastrophically, with government. Of course some liberties were taken for dramatic effect - even a hyper-realistic spy series has to have a bit more action than a real-life spy would normally encounter.

Mackintosh wanted the series to be accurate but with the focus largely on the internal politics of the SIS and its interactions with its political masters and with the CIA.

The result is a series that is fascinating but also unremittingly bleak and horrifyingly cynical. I watched the first season a while back and at times I found it to be just a little too nihilistic and despairing. You really have to be in the mood to watch this series. If you do happen to be in the mood it can be riveting television.

The Sandbaggers are a very small and specialised team department of the SIS. They handle the really dirty and dangerous jobs. There are never more than three Sandbaggers, working under Neil Burnside (Roy Marden). Burnside had been a Sandbagger and is now  the SIS Director of Operations, responsible for all operations involving field agents. His relations with his superiors are uneasy.

Season two opens with At All Costs. A year after a disastrous operation in Berlin the SIS receives an offer that is almost too good to be true. The head of the Bulgarian secret service has offered to provide the SIS with extraordinarily valuable information. The offer is so good that it surely has to be a set-up. And yet it could be real, and if it is real it’s an offer that cannot be passed up. The Bulgarian secret service chief will only had the information over to Sandbagger Two. This in itself is suspicious, but then again there could be a valid reason. Burnside is full of misgivings but “C” (the head of the SIS, played by the wonderful Richard Vernon) is keen. The SIS is about to have its already meagre budget slashed and they need a major success. The operation goes ahead. 

This episode encapsulates most of the major themes of the series - the impossibility of knowing whether you’re going to be double-crossed or not, the necessity to go ahead with insanely high-risk operations for political reasons, and most of all the all-pervasive sense of fear when operating alone in a hostile country knowing you may be walking straight into a trap. 

In Enough of Ghosts the Sandbaggers have to deal with terrorism and they find out that not all the fanatics are on the terrorists’ side.

In Decision by Committee an aircraft is hijacked. Two very senior British military men are aboard and they are the principal targets of the terrorists. What the terrorists don’t know is that there are two other notable passengers - a Sandbagger and a CIA operative. The British government in the manner one would expect from a government - they do a great deal of discussing but are desperate to avoid making any actual decision. Neil Burnside however is determined to do something. It is an unwritten law in the Secret Intelligence Service that if a Sandbagger is in trouble some attempt must be made to get him out of it. This puts Burnside at odds with his superiors. A very tense episode and a very good one.

A Question of Loyalty presents Burnside with multiple problems - a failed operation in Warsaw and a possible double agent in Stockholm. It’s a complex web of deceptions in which, as so often in this series, the biggest problems are posed by friends and allies rather than enemies. 

It Couldn't Happen Here is an exceptionally provocative episode. A Cabinet Minister is involved in a car accident in Germany. A woman is killed and she happens to have been a Secret Intelligence Service officer. The Cabinet Minister’s behaviour after the accident was questionable to say the least and Burnside decides to do some digging. The results are alarming. MI5 and the CIA have been digging into the Minister’s past as well, with equally alarming results. While this is happening the American Secret Service has borrowed both Sandbaggers to protect an American senator. Neil finds out that his old friend at the CIA, Jeff Ross, has some rather colourful conspiracy theories about political assassinations. Of course such things could never happen in Britain, except that maybe they could if the circumstances were extraordinary enough. And those extraordinary circumstances may have already arisen.

Lots of fascinating and breathtakingly cynical political machinations in this excellent episode. 

Operation Kingmaker has something you definitely don’t expect in an episode of The Sandbaggers - humour. Low-key understated cynical humour but moments of humour nonetheless. Neil Burnside is playing a dangerous internal political game for very high stakes.

I’m not sure whether the second season was actually better than the first or whether I’m just a bit more in tune with the intentions behind it but I did enjoy season two. It’s still pretty bleak although the good guys do sometimes win. That of course is assuming we’re meant to see the SIS as the good guys. In fact we really don’t see much of the KGB at all. They’re more like a constant background noise but there’s very little focus on actual active KGB operations.

The acting is a major strength. Roy Marsden is terrific as Neil Burnside, a man for who we feel some sympathy and some admiration while at the same time his personal flaws, his recklessness, his cold-blooded cynicism and his often poor judgment appall us. He’s a very flawed hero indeed. He combines ruthless ambition with an extraordinary ability to sabotage his own career.

Richard Vernon (who happens to be one of my favourite English actors of this era) is superb as “C” - a bit crusty and pompous but shrewd and flexible and very confident.

Ray Lonnen has one of the more sympathetic roles this series has to offer as Sandbagger One Willie Caine. Willie is a complex man who detests violence but has spent six years in the Special Operations Section in which violence is all part of the job. He’s also the closest thing to a friend that Neil Burnside has.

Bob Sherman is the CIA’s station chief in London, a cheerful slightly amoral character who has established a very close and amicable working relationship with Burnside.

Each episode is basically a standalone drama although there is certainly some degree of character development (Burnside for example becomes steadily more obsessive and his judgment becomes increasingly erratic). While there are no real multi-episode story arcs actions do have consequences for the characters and those consequences are evident in later episodes.

The Sandbaggers is not exactly light entertainment. It’s an ambitious and very cerebral spy drama with the focus on motivations and political consequences rather than action. Highly recommended.

The Sandbaggers is available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Out of This World - Little Lost Robot (1962)

Out of This World is a science fiction anthology series made by Britain’s ABC Television in 1962, hosted by Boris Karloff. The series began with a one-off episode produced by the renowned Sydney Newman as part of the Armchair Theatre series. The series proper was produced by Leonard White with Irene Shubik as story editor. Irene Shubik went on to produce the rather similar BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown. Sadly only one episode of Out of This World has survived, Little Lost Robot, with a screenplay by Leo Lehmann based on an Isaac Asimov short story.

Perhaps unfortunately Little Lost Robot is a very atypical episode of the series, according to Leonard White, differing markedly in both tone and style from the other episodes.

Little Lost Robot deals with Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics. The First Law of Robotics is that a robot cannot harm a human being, or allow any harm to come to a human being. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, the commanders of a space station in the vicinity have decided to alter the First Law slightly. They have modified several Nestor robots. These robots are still forbidden to do active harm to a human but they can allow a human to be harmed. Even more unfortunately one of the modified robots has become lost. The chief engineer, in a moment of irritation, rather unwisely lost his temper and told the robot to get lost. The robot, being very literal-minded and being compelled by one of the other Laws of Robotics to obey any order given by a human, proceeded to get lost.

The missing robot has not been found but it has been located. A shipment of twenty (unmodified) Nestors has just arrived from Earth but there are now twenty-one robots in the group rather than twenty. The lost robot has concealed itself among the other twenty. And there is absolutely no way of telling which of these robots is the modified version.

The top robot psychologist in the solar system, Dr Susan Calvin (Maxine Audley), has been sent from Earth to sort out the problem and identify the rogue robot. She devises a series of clever tests to fool the modified robot into revealing itself but the robot seems to be able to stay one jump ahead of her.

The situation is increasingly critical. The modified Nestor has been communicating with the twenty unmodified robots and there is a danger that all twenty may adopt the same changed version of the First Law. The end result may be a robot mutiny, or even a robot rebellion.

These are robots that are quite unlike anything we would think of today as robots. They are not mere machines. They have personalities and they have emotions. They are perhaps more like mechanical slaves (and indeed the slave analogy is made explicit at one point in the story).

If you are prepared to accept the idea of robots with feelings than can be hurt then the story is reasonably engaging and clever.

Maxine Audley as Dr Calvin and Clifford Evans as the space station commander Major-General Kallner both give fairly good performances. Gerald Flood plays the chief engineer and he’s the villain of the piece. He detests robots. Flood plays him as a sort of wicked slave-owner who both fears and hates his slaves.

The robots themselves are what you would expect from early 1960s television - they’re crude mechanical men and look much too obviously like guys in tin suits. A bigger problem is that it’s difficult to accept that these painfully slow-moving tin men could be potentially dangerous. The robots are as bad as anything you will find in 1960s Doctor Who.

Even worse the script really doesn’t do anything to make us feel any sense of potential menace. There are rare moments when we might feel some anxiety for the safety of one of the characters but these moments fall flat. 

Luckily things finally come together with the very effective ending.

Several Out of This World episodes were remade for the BBC’s Out of the Unknown series, the bad news being that most episodes of that series have been lost as well. 

The BFI have done an admirable job with their DVD release. The highlight is the audio commentary which features producer Leonard White. White makes some interesting and provocative points, noting that television drama as a distinctive format that took advantage of the unique characteristics of the medium (such as the fact that early 1960s television was done more or less live) is something that sadly no longer exists. The liner notes include a couple of essays on the production history of the series. Image quality is pretty good. The DVD also includes audio-only versions of two of the lost episodes.

Little Lost Robot has enormous historical interest and despite its flaws it’s worth a look.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Father Brown (1974)

G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories are unusual not just in having a Roman Catholic priest as the crime-solver but also in looking at crime from a religious, moral and spiritual vantage point. That’s not to say that you have to be a Catholic to enjoy them, but the Catholic perspective is there. Crime is more than just a mere puzzle in these tales - the problem of evil takes centre stage and it’s Father Brown’s understanding of the nature of evil that often leads him to the solution.

They might sound like the sorts of stories that won’t lend themselves readily to television adaptation but it fact ATV’s 1974 Father Brown series did a remarkably fine job. The success of the series is due in large part to Kenneth More’s performance in the title role. He adroitly avoids the trap of making the priest detective sanctimonious or intellectually arrogant and his inherent likeability carries the show effortlessly.

These are definitely unconventional detective stories, dealing with cults (The Eye of Apollo), satanism (The Dagger with Wings), spies (The Mirror of the Magistrate), archaeology (The Curse of the Golden Cross) and alcoholism, suicide and redemption (The Three Tools of Death). 

While they might deal with serious subjects don’t get the idea that this series is grim and humourless. The genius of Chesterton was to be able to deal with such themes while still writing stories that were enormous fun and the TV series is just as enjoyable.

Great detectives usually have a sidekick. In Father Brown’s case this role is filled by suave French private detective (and ex-criminal) Hercule Flambeau.

The first of the thirteen episodes, The Hammer of God, sets the tone. Colonel Bohun (Graham Crowden) is an arrogant, vicious, cruel and capricious man and a notorious womaniser. No-one is greatly surprised when he comes to a violent end but the crime seems to be quite impossible. There are suspects but they could not have committed the crime. It’s not a question of alibis but of simple physical strength. No-one could have murdered Bohun in the way he was murdered but he was murdered just the same. Father Brown is as puzzled as anyone until a chance remark sets him on the right track. Great supporting performances by Graham Crowden and William Russell (as the Colonel’s meek clergyman brother Wilfred) are a highlight. 

Father Brown solves the puzzle but merely solving puzzles is not enough for him. He is less concerned with helping the police make an arrest than he is with the spiritual fates of those involved.

The Mirror of the Magistrate presents Father Brown with the problem of the murder of a distinguished judge. The circumstances of the murder seem clear enough but the little priest has his doubts. He has even graver doubts about the most promising suspects. When he forms the opinion that a particular man is incapable of murder he sticks to his view and more often than not the facts will prove him to be correct. This might seem like an excessive reliance on mere intuition but a good priest knows a thing or two about psychology. 

As I mentioned earlier Chesterton’s detective stories had a definite Catholic slant so perhaps Father Brown can tell a man’s innocence not by looking into his mind but by looking into his soul. That’s not to suggest that he solves mysteries purely by such methods - he also uses a good deal of logical deduction.

The Quick One is a more straightforward tale of detection, although in this case the victim does get murdered twice. Father Brown solves this one mainly through careful observation of apparently trivial things aided by logic. 

The Dagger with Wings presents Father Brown with a truly formidably adversary - the Devil himself. Well, perhaps not the Devil in person but certainly one of his faithful minions. A tale of black magic which Father Brown solves by the application of logic.

Theatrical mysteries happen to be one of my passions and The Actor and the Alibi is a very good one. It neatly combines a locked-room mystery with an unbreakable alibi.

The Eye of Apollo is especially interesting. Flambeau has just moved into his new office. There are as yet only two other tenants, a secretarial agency and a religious cult leader. The secretarial agency is run by two sisters. Their aunt (a truly appalling woman) has settled most of her fortune on the older sister Pauline who is as head-headed (and hard-hearted) as her aunt. Although perhaps not entirely hard-headed as she has become a true believer in the Cult of Apollo run by the obviously shady Kalon. Kalon believes that if you have enough faith you can stare directly into the noonday sun without any ill effects. 

The crime that naturally follows is certainly very close to being the perfect crime. Like Father Brown the viewer is sure of the identity of the criminal, the difficulty being how on earth he could possibly have committed the crime.

The Head of Caesar is a tale of blackmail but with some clever twists. A wealthy young woman has, rather foolishly and impulsively, stolen an extremely valuable Roman coin to give to her lover. She is prompted to this act of romantic folly by the coincidence that The head of Caesar Augustus on the coin bears a striking resemblance to her lover. The coin happens to belong to her brother. Now she finds herself the victim of blackmail but it seems impossible that anyone could have known of her theft.

The murder in The Secret Garden is an impossible crime story. The head of the Paris police, Aristide Valentin (Ferdy Mayne), is hosting a dinner party at his home in Paris. His home is built like a fortress and the garden can only be reached through the house - it is surrounded by a high wall (without any gate) topped with spikes. Nevertheless one man, now dead, has managed to find his way into the garden and another man has found his way out. Since the house has only one door which was locked and bolted this was simply impossible.

The Curse of the Golden Cross involves no less than three curses and mysterious death threats against an American professor. Professor Smaill had caused something of a sensation with his discovery an unusual Byzantine gold cross a few years earlier. At the time of his discovery, as he explains to Father Brown on the voyage to England, he was threatened with death. The threat was made by a person he could not see and he has no idea of the person’s identity. The reason the professor is on his way to England is to investigate a report that an identical cross has been found beneath an English country church. Along with the cross is a mummified body, mummified in a manner previously quite unknown outside Egypt. The body and the cross are guarded by three terrifying curses.

The professor is convinced that one of the passengers on the ship is his would-be assassin so he is more than a little alarmed when all the passengers suddenly turn up in the village in which the new find has been made. Tragedy will strike, not once but twice. The solution, delightfully and brilliantly, hinges on a proper understanding of mediaeval civilisation.

The Man with Two Beards illustrates Father Brown’s methods quite well. He first finds the answer to the mystery through his knowledge of the human heart. He then proceeds to prove his case through logic. A once-notorious but now reformed burglar known as Michael Moonshine has apparently become active once again but this time he has added murder to his repertoire. It all seems straightforward if tragic, apart from the puzzle of the two beards.

The Oracle of the Dog is a classic country house mystery with all the expected elements - there’s the rich landowner who has just changed his will, providing a possible motive. There’s a small group of possible suspects and plenty of possible other motives among them. There’s an impossible murder. And then there’s the dog. Father Brown has no patience with the idea of a dog as a witness to murder but on the other hand the dog may provide an important clue.

The Three Tools of Death is a case of too many murder weapons. A wealthy philanthropist and temperance campaigner is murdered. In the room where the murder took place were a gun, a knife and a rope. But none of these weapons caused the man’s death. This story is a salutary warning of the harm that excessive cheerfulness can do. Father Brown also learns that being a confessor and a detective don’t mix.

The Arrow of Heaven is most notable for the truly outlandish setting - and the outlandish characters. Millionaire Brander Merton lives in a bizarre concrete tower that is more like a high-tech fortification than a home. There is only one window and that’s in Merton’s room at the top of the tower. There is only one entrance and the tower is guarded by dogs and armed guards. Merton has recently purchased, for an enormous sum, a relic known as the Coptic Cup - and a curse associated with the cup is reputed to have caused the deaths of the two previous owners.

Brander Merton has surrounded himself with an odd household. There’s his brother Colonel Merton, an old Indian fighter who claims to have fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn. There’s the colonel’s vivacious aviatrix daughter. There’s Brander Merton’s rather superior secretary, and then there’s the decidedly disreputable former crime journalist and purported art critic Norman Drage. The bizarre setting seems to have inspired the cast to deliver wildly exaggerated larger-than-life performances. There’s also an apparently impossible crime. It’s a heady brew but it works and it’s a lot of fun.

Kenneth More is without doubt the definitive Father Brown. He’s kindly without being overly sentimental, he regards the world with the right mixture of amusement and compassion and he’s brilliant in a very self-effacing way. There’s real strength to the character. Despite being an apparently insignificant little man he’s quite fearless and while his religious faith is very obvious he doesn’t bludgeon people over the head with it. More’s performance is good-humoured and has a wonderful lightness of touch. He also seems physically right for the part - Chesterton continually refers to his hero as the little priest and More fits the description. He also carries that umbrella as if it’s part of him.

Most episodes stick quite closely to Chesterton’s original stories with any divergences being minor. An extra sub-plot is for example added to The Curse of the Golden Cross but that seems to be mostly because of the need to expand a short story to make it fit a one-hour television timeslot. The changes do not alter any of the essential plot elements nor do they detract from the Chestertonian feel. Occasionally they even improve things - there is an element of social observation in The Man with Two Beards that is made both more subtle and more interesting in the TV version.

This is a very fine series indeed. It’s a little offbeat but never excessively so, it makes its points without preaching, it looks good, the scripts are excellent and most of all there is Kenneth More’s delightful interpretation of the role. Immensely entertaining and very highly recommended.

The series has been released on DVD just about everywhere so availability should be no problem at all.

You might also be interested in my review of the 1914 Chesterton collection The Wisdom of Father Brown, and of the 1954 Father Brown movie adaptation.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Francis Durbridge Presents - The Doll (1975)

Francis Durbridge (1912-1998) had a very successful career as a novelist and playwright but achieved his greatest fame as a writer of mysteries for radio and television. His best-known creation was amateur sleuth Paul Temple who featured in several novels, four movies, numerous radio plays and the very successful 1969-71 BBC television series Paul Temple.

Between 1952 and 1980 Durbridge wrote no less than seventeen television serials for the BBC. These were aired under the umbrella title A Francis Durbridge Serial until 1959 and thereafter under the title Francis Durbridge Presents. The early serials from the 1950s are now lost but happily those produced between 1963 and 1980 survive. Their availability on DVD is patchy to say the least. One of the later serials, The Doll, is however available on a German DVD and the good news is that this release includes the original English soundtrack version.

Francis Durbridge was one of those English mystery writers, like Edgar Wallace, who was at least as popular in Europe as he was in his own country. 

The Doll, comprising three one-hour episodes, was originally broadcast in 1975.

Publisher Peter Matty (John Fraser) has had a series of rather disturbing experiences. On a flight from Geneva to London he met a rather charming woman, Phyllis Du Salle (Anouska Hempel). Her husband had died six months earlier in slightly mysterious circumstances. Peter is pretty thoroughly smitten with Phyllis and he has reason to think she is somewhat interested in him. He is understandably upset when she disappears. Then she telephones him, and then she vanishes again.

Helped by his brother Claude (Geoffrey Whitehead) he sets out to discover what exactly is going on. And the whole situation just becomes more and more puzzling. He finds a photograph of her, only to be told that it is a photograph of a dead woman, the daughter of Sir Arnold Wyatt (Cyril Luckham). Phyllis had claimed to be acquainted with Sir Arnold but Sir Arnold assures Peter he has never heard of her. Phyllis’s behaviour before her disappearance was certainly odd. 

Peter is becoming so confused he almost feels he is going mad. Obviously one or more people involved in this saga are lying and covering something up but there seems to be no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who is lying.

The plot has an abundance of twists and turns and every time Peter thinks he’s finally figured things out something else happens to make him realise he’s been on entirely the wrong track. What really happened to Phyllis’s husband? Why did the photographer switch the photos? What is his journalist friend Max (Derek Fowlds) up to and why is he so jumpy? Why did Claude fly to Rome when he was supposed to be heading for Scotland? What is the message that Sir Arnold’s housekeeper has for him? Who is the mysterious Osborne (William Russell) and where does he fit into the picture? What is the significance of the doll floating face down in Peter’s bathtub? Can Peter trust any of these people? Can he trust his own mind?

There’s a considerable use of flashbacks which is probably unavoidable given the number of times that events turn out not to have been what they seemed to be.

Peter Matty is a sympathetic if sometimes hapless hero. John Fraser gives a fine performance, without ever overdoing things, as a man on the edge. Anouska Hempel’s career was not terribly distinguished but she was actually quite a competent actress (as she proved in the underrated and very quirky 1974 crime series Zodiac). She does a pretty reasonable job as the glamorous but enigmatic Phyllis.

Derek Fowlds is excellent as the likeable but slippery Max. William Russell, despite a rather outrageous hairstyle, is able to make Osborne suitably mysterious.

David Askey was a reliable television director and while there’s nothing spectacularly inspired about his work here he gets the job done and maintains the tension quite effectively.

It’s Francis Durbridge’s writing that is the main attraction here and he delivers the goods. With all the plot twists the story remains plausible and intriguing.

The German DVD (under the title Die Puppe) offers a reasonably good transfer with both German and English soundtracks. Although the menus are in German selecting the English-language version presents no real difficulties.

The Doll is quality television, a thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted mystery thriller. Highly recommended.

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - The Missing Witness Sensation

Having recently re-read, with great enjoyment, some of Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados short stories it seemed worthwhile to also re-watch the adaptation of The Missing Witness Sensation from the superb 1971 TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

Max Carrados is a rather unusual fictional detective, being quite blind. His blindness proves to be only the mildest of inconveniences in his work as a detective. Max’s other senses have become abnormally sensitive and he has trained himself to do many things purely by touch or by sound. In fact some of Max’s abilities do perhaps stretch credibility just a little. Nonetheless he’s an intriguingly unusual detective and the stories are generally excellent.

The television version of The Missing Witness Sensation stars Robert Stephens as Carrados. For my tastes his performance is just a little too mannered and he plays Max as just a bit too much of an Oscar Wilde-style exquisite. On the other hand the point of the story is that Max is almost undone by his own vanity so perhaps that influenced the actor’s performance.

A member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood is on trial for his part in a post office robbery. During the robbery a woman was shot and it is feared that she may die - if she does die the charge will no longer be robbery with violence but willful murder. The prosecution had what they thought was a very strong case until the defence produced a surprise witness who provided the accused with an apparently watertight alibi. By pure chance Max Carrados is in a position to break that alibi and the Irish Republican Brotherhood is determined to prevent him from doing that. Max is kidnapped, mostly as a result of his overweening vanity - he loves to show off his ability to do things that no-one would expect a blind man to be able to do.

You might think that a blind man would have little chance of escaping from captivity but Max is undismayed. An entertaining battle of wits follows. This episode is more of a suspense story than a mystery and it’s executed with considerable skill. We have already seen evidence of Max’s resourcefulness and determination but his position seems hopeless, and yet he remains sublimely confident.

This series was made at a time when British television was still shot mostly in the studio on videotape although there is some location shooting in this episode. Thames TV did a fine job with the costumes and sets for this series and by TV standards it looks fairly sumptuous.

My review of the Max Carrados short stories can be at my Vintage Pop Fictions blog.

My reviews of a couple of other episodes of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, The Case of the Mirror of Portugal and The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds, might also be of some interest.

I have to confess that The Missing Witness Sensation is not one of my absolute favourite episodes from this series but it’s still worth seeing.