Monday, 15 January 2018

Danger Man, Colony Three (1965)

I’m about to watch The Prisoner again and before doing so I thought the logical thing would to take another look at Colony Three.

Colony Three is a 1965 episode of Danger Man. This was the later hour-long version of the series which was known in the US as Secret Agent. The episode was written by Donald Jonson.

Colony Three is also a fascinating anticipation of The Prisoner. Many of the themes that ran through The Prisoner can already be found, albeit in a less developed form, in Colony Three. There’s also a remarkable similarity in tone and in the overall approach to the subject matter.

There’s been an extraordinary jump in the numbers of Britons defecting to the Soviet Union. They then disappear completely. British spy John Drake is assigned to take the place of a defector to find out what is going on. What he finds is very odd indeed. After a long journey in a sealed railway carriage he and two other British defectors, Randall (Glyn Owen) and Janet Wells (Katherine Woodville), find themselves in the middle of nowhere. The train is met by a London bus. An actual London double-decker bus. The bus then takes them to a small English village called Hamden. But Hamden is not in England. Hamden is in a very remote part of the Russian countryside.

Hamden is in fact a Soviet spy school. The idea is to allow Soviet spies to immerse themselves completely in English life so that when they are sent on a mission to England they will blend in perfectly.

There are two classes of people in Hamden. There are the trainee spies and then there are the residents. The residents are English communists who volunteered for the job in order to serve the Revolution. When they arrive they discover that their residence in Hamden is going to be permanent. Like the village in The Prisoner Hamden has no walls or fences and there are no armed guards in evidence but escape is impossible. Entirely impossible.

Drake, along with Randall and Janet Wells, is to be a resident.

Hamden is a pleasant enough place if you don’t mind not being able to leave, ever. Since escape is impossible the obvious thing to do is to make the most of the situation and adapt to it. Drake of course is confident that if the people he works for in the British intelligence service could get him into Hamden then they can get him out again. For the other residents there seems to be no option but to adapt. But some people cannot adapt.

This story offers some interesting insights into the psychology of British communists and their reaction when they confront the reality of Soviet communism, and it offers some observations of the nature of loyalty and betrayal. And as a straight-out spy thriller it’s excellent.

The chief interest though is the number of parallels with The Prisoner. There are so many such parallels that it is absolutely certain that Colony Three was one of the major inspirations for The Prisoner. There are striking similarities of theme, and of tone.

It doesn’t have the overt surrealism and the visual inventiveness of The Prisoner but it does have some moments of very subtle surrealism. And a London bus trundling across the Russian steppe is a pretty memorable image.

There is a battle of wits between John Drake and Soviet spy John Richardson (Peter Arne) that will to some extent remind fans of the similar struggles between Number 6 and Number 2 in The Prisoner. In fact Peter Arne would have made a splendid Number 2! Interestingly enough though in Colony Three it’s Randall rather than Drake who proves to be the openly rebellious one.

This is one of several episodes of Danger Man in which Drake clashes with his superiors in London. This adds weight to the theory favoured by some fans of The Prisoner that Number 6 is actually John Drake. Certainly Drake is a man who could plausibly decide to resign on what he saw as a matter of principle, he does display signs of rebelliousness in a couple of episodes and he does have the same sort of perverse stubbornness as Number 6.

Colony Three is clearly of enormous interest to fans of The Prisoner. It’s also one of the best Danger Man episodes and it’s superb television in its own right. It really is a must-see.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season 3 (1966) - part 1

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea debuted on the American ANC network in September 1964. The first season remains one of the finest moments in the history of American television science fiction (although to be strictly accurate this first season was as much an espionage series as a science fiction series). The network wanted a lighter tone for the second season and thus began the slow tragic decline of a once-great series. The second season is actually still pretty good though. The decline really started to become apparent with the third season in 1966.

Apart from a move towards even more monster-of-the-week stories the third season also suffered from budget cuts, the perennial curse of American TV sci-fi in this period. There just seemed to be no way to convince the American TV networks that sci-fi just cannot be done both cheaply and well.

The third season is by no means a complete washout. The overall trajectory was downhill but there were still very good episodes.

The season opener, Monster from the Inferno, should have been a disaster. It’s pretty much a catalogue of sci-fi clichés. A rock found on the sea floor turns out to be not a rock but an alien brain. Naturally the evil alien brain wants to take over the Seaview and naturally it feeds on nuclear energy. Naturally it sets out to accomplish its aim by taking control firstly of the unfortunate scientist responsible for bringing it aboard, and then Captain Crane. Against the odds it actually works. Director Harry Harris approaches directs this episode with a great deal of gusto. There are some fine underwater miniatures sequences. The special effects work. Most of all it’s fast-paced and exciting and you don’t have time to worry about plot holes.

The Werewolf sounds like it’s going to be a particularly goofy episode, and it is. The Seaview has to prevent a radioactive volcano from destroying the world. Naturally where you have lots of radioactivity you’re going to have werewolves, and so the island on which the volcano is located is home to a werewolf. Things get really worrying when a member of the crew is bitten and turns into a werewolf and worse still Admiral Nelson is bitten as well. Somehow a vaccine must be found in order to save the admiral. Definitely goofy but kind of fun if you’re in the mood.

There are lots of very good ideas in The Day the World Ended. An ambitious Senator is aboard the Seaview to inspect Admiral Nelson’s latest invention, the X4, a device that can track every nuclear submarine in the world. Strange things then start happening. Kowalski shoots a fellow crewman, thinking he’s a monster. The Seaview loses all contact with the outside world. The X4 tells them that every nuclear submarine in existence has suddenly disappeared. Nelson sets off for Washington in the Flying Sub, to find the city completely deserted. There doesn’t seem to be anybody left on the entire planet outside the Seaview.

All excellent ideas, and the good news is that the execution is perfect. William Welch’s script is subtle and clever, Jerry Hopper’s direction is taut, the pacing is good and the atmosphere of confusion and paranoia builds very nicely. Scott Homeier is terrific as the smooth and arrogant Senator. The regular cast members are all in top form. The best news of all is that some real money was spent on this one. There’s effective location shooting and there’s some superb footage of the Flying Sub. Even the monster that Kowalski sees works once you understand what is really going on. A very tense very exciting story. Not just one of the best of season three but one of the best-ever Voyage episodes.

Night of Terror on the other hand is a good example of just how poor the third season could be. Admiral Nelson and two companions are marooned on an island. There’s a strange fog that seems to produce hallucinations. There’s a very lame monster and some silliness about pirate treasure. We know from the start that most of this stuff is just hallucinations so there’s no sense of mystery or unease.

In keeping with the overall tone of the third season there’s a good deal of silliness in The Terrible Toys, with not just an alien spaceship but malevolent clockwork toys. It is at least reasonably well-executed silliness and some of the toys (especially the little guy with the axe) do manage to be at least moderately menacing.

Deadly Waters is a kind of throwback to the first season. There are none of the monsters and general silliness that usually characterise the third season. It’s just a tense and exciting story of survival and it’s a very good one. The Seaview has to rescue a diver trapped on a sunken submarine. The diver turns out to be Kowalski’s brother but the shock of his narrow escape from death has had an unfortunate effect on him. He’s lost his nerve completely. It doesn’t help that due to an extraordinary sequence of bad luck the Seaview itself sinks. Now they’re trapped on the bottom of the sea, they’re below their crush depth so the Seaview is slowly breaking up, and their air is running out. And those are just their initial problems. Things just keep going from bad to worse. In fact every single thing that could go wrong does go wrong.

The script is an endless catalogue of disasters and mishaps but it adds up to a terrifically exciting episode.

Thing from Inner Space is a straight by-the-numbers monster story. A television scientist believes he has discovered a sea-monster and persuades Admiral Nelson to help him to capture a specimen. The monster turns out to be real nasty, but luckily Admiral Nelson is a lot smarter than most sea-monsters. This episode really has very little going for it.

In Deadly Invasion what appeared to be a meteor storm turns out to be something very different. These aren’t meteors, they’re tiny spaceships! Tiny, but very dangerous. This is a full-scale invasion. You might expect the tiny spaceships to contain tiny aliens but they don’t. They do contain aliens, of a sort, and like most television sci-fi aliens they want to get their hands on nuclear energy. Lots of it. This episode is a mix of good ideas and bad ideas and doesn’t quite come off but it’s still kind of fun.

The Death Watch is a controversial episode among fans. It’s a pretty decent idea but there are a lot of plot holes. Admiral Nelson boards the Seaview to find it empty. There’s no-one else on board. The Admiral seems to be behaving a little oddly. You could understand that he might be puzzled and annoyed to find that the entire crew has disappeared but he appears suspicious and paranoid, and his paranoia seems to be centred on Captain Crane. He thinks Crane is going to try to kill him. We soon discover that there is someone else on board - Captain Crane. He seems utterly obsessed with the idea of killing the admiral, because if he doesn’t the admiral will kill him. And there’s a third person aboard, Chief Sharkey, but whose side is he on?

And while Nelson and Crane are hunting each other who is controlling the ship? Someone or something certainly is. And where does the sexy female voice come from, that keeps issuing puzzling warnings?

This script definitely needed a bit more work done on it On the other hand the execution can’t be faulted. Leonard Horn directed and he did a splendid job. He keeps the action and the tension ratcheted up and makes great use of the Seaview as an arena for a fight to the death. Special mention should be made of David Hedison’s effectively chilling performance. Despite its flaws this is an exciting episode and it’s a third season story with no silly monsters!

The Plant Man is exactly the sort of episode that gave the later seasons a bad name. Twin brother scientists create giant walking mutant plants. The evil twin dreams of taking over the world with an army of plant men. It’s a guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster of the week episode with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

The Lost Bomb by contrast has no monsters, but it has a great deal of suspense and excitement. A bomb powerful enough to destroy half the world ends up on the sea floor after the plane carrying it is shot down. The Seaview has to find the bomb and disarm it but they’re being stalked by a hostile submarine. The bad guys (and they’re nicely villainous bad guys) really seem to be on top in this episode and time is running out for the Seaview and for the world. A terrific episode, almost up to season one standards.

The Haunted Submarine was obviously a budget-saving episode. In fact it’s so cheap they didn’t even need to pay a guest star - they just got Richard Basehart to play a dual role. The Seaview encounters a square-rigged sailing ship which tries to sink them. It’s skippered by a long-dead ancestor of the Admiral who has a bargain, possibly an evil bargain, to offer. This one isn’t just cheap, it looks cheap. It’s not much of a story but with a bit of imagination to provide a suitably eerie atmosphere and a bit of a swashbuckling feel it might have worked. Sadly there’s no imagination at all in evidence and it all falls flat.

So the first half of season three is very mixed indeed. A few excellent episodes, a few more that are silly but fun and a few duds. Disappointing after the first two seasons but the good episodes are very good and they’re enough reason to keep watching.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Star Trek: TOS Spock’s Brain (1968)

I’ve been slowly (very slowly) making my way through the original Star Trek series on Blu-Ray. I’ve approached the third season with some trepidation. It doesn’t have the best of reputations, and the season opener, Spock’s Brain, is widely regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, Star Trek episode ever.

It originally went to air in the US in September 1968.

We get straight into the action in this one. A beautiful mysterious humanoid female, who looks human enough, transports herself onto the bridge of the Enterprise. The bridge crew are temporarily disabled. After a short interval the woman disappears. No damage appears to have been done, until Dr McCoy gives Captain Kirk the horrible news. Spock’s brain has been stolen!

The mystery female is obviously the brain thief but no-one on board the Enterprise has the slightest idea who she is, where she came from, where she’s gone, or why she wanted Spock’s brain. Kirk however is undaunted. He is going to get Spock’s brain back!

With surprisingly little trouble they find the planet to which Spock’s brain has been taken, and discover that the inhabitants have found a very good use for it. In fact the people of this planet need Spock’s brain as much as Spock does. Restoring the brain poses some real moral dilemmas which are, disappointingly, simply glossed over.

Those who enjoy mocking Star Trek will have a field day with this episode. It has everything that makes mocking Star Trek so much fun.

It also has all the weaknesses we associate with this series (although these very weaknesses are what make the series oddly appealing). We have a highly advanced planet with a monoculture and that seems to have a total population of a few dozen people. We have clichés like a helmet that can impart the sum total of technological knowledge to anyone who wears it. We have remote control devices that can be used to inflict pain. We have a civilisation entirely dependent on a kind of super-computer, although the super-computer is an actual brain. We have a civilisation that was immensely advanced but has degenerated to primitive levels. All pretty standard sci-fi tropes used many times in Star Trek and Lee Cronin’s script really doesn’t do anything interesting with any of them.

On the other hand it isn’t boring. The dialogue is excruciating but wonderfully entertaining. William Shatner and DeForest Kelley get lots of opportunities for outrageous over-acting, which they grab with both hands. Spock gets to be incredibly Spock-like. The aliens are pretty young women in short skirts.

Admirers of this episode (and it has quite a few) see it as a kind of homage to 1950s sci-fi B-movies and there is something to that. It doesn’t take itself at all seriously but it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be too jokey. It has a certain innocence and even exuberance.

The Star Trek episodes that I have problems with tend to be the ones that take themselves too seriously and that try to beat a message into us with a sledge hammer. Spock’s Brain cannot be accused of those faults. It’s very very silly but it’s fun and I found it impossible to dislike it. It’s certainly not a good episode but it’s enjoyable.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

TV viewing highlights of of 2017

Instead of doing a list of the best television I watched in 2017 I’m going to focus instead on the most exciting discoveries I made and on the series that provided the most pleasant surprises.

First up has to be The Plane Makers. This British ATV series ran for three seasons from 1963 to 1965. It’s concerned with the behind-the-scenes dramas at an aircraft factory about to launch a new small jetliner. It’s tale of boardroom plots, political manoeuvring, industrial tensions and personal dramas. It’s much more entertaining than it sounds, superbly written and with a fine cast.

Somewhat similar in style is Mogul (which was renamed The Troubleshooters after the first season). This long-running adventure/drama series about an oil company began in 1965.

I was definitely pleasantly surprised that the second season of Banacek lives up to the promise of the first season. George Peppard stars as a dashing insurance investigator with a taste for expensive art, and expensive women. Each episode is an impossible crime mystery.

The 1967 French historical action/adventure series The Flashing Blade was also quite good fun and it’s certainly a handsome production.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Columbo season 4 (part one)

The Columbo formula worked right from the very first episode and the producers wisely stuck to it. Season four is more of the same, which is no problem at all as far as I’m concerned.

An Exercise in Fatality is the season opener. Milo Janus runs a string of health clubs. He sells franchises but once they’ve signed up and paid the franchisees discover that Milo is cheating them.  It’s difficult to prove but one franchisee, Gene Stafford, is getting very close to finding the evidence for fraud. Not surprisingly Mr Stafford meets with a fatal accident. At least it looks like an accident, but Columbo is worried about a few things, especially the scuff marks on the newly waxed floor.

Proving murder in this case isn’t easy since if it was murder it was very well planned. The trouble with well-planned murders is that they’re complicated and those complications are the things that bring the killers undone. There’s the usual battle of wits with Robert Conrad being wonderfully combative as Milo.

The clues are cleverly arranged and as so often it’s Columbo’s knack for noticing tiny details that proves to be crucial. A very good episode.

In Negative Reaction a photographer has finally had enough of being controlled by his wife. His plan to get rid of her is exceptionally ingenious and well thought out. Since he’s a photographer it’s not surprising that photography plays a role in his plan. And it’s also not surprising that photographic evidence plays a crucial (and extremely clever) part in Lieutenant Columbo’s solution of the case. This episode is delightfully well plotted.

There’s plenty of humour here as well, with the scene in the homeless men’s shelter being particularly good. Larry Storch contributes a wonderful comedic turn as a very nervous and uptight driving examiner whose evidence may be vital.

Dick van Dyke is (to me at least) an oddly colourless villain but that’s the only weakness in this otherwise excellent episode. And he’s by no means bad, just not quite lively enough.

By Dawn's Early Light marks the first of Patrick McGoohan’s four guest-starring appearances in the series and what a bravura performance he gives. He plays Colonel Rumford, the commandant of the Haynes Military Academy. Rumford’s problem is that the latest member of the Haynes family to control the purse-strings, William Haynes, hates him and hates the military academy. William wants to turn the place into a co-ed junior college. Girls running loose in the sacred precincts of the academy! It’s too awful even to contemplate. And of course if the Haynes Military Academy goes then America is doomed to communist takeover. William Haynes has to be stopped and Rumford comes up with one of the more spectacular murder methods you’re likely to see in order to accomplish this.

Rumford’s plan was ingenious. The one flaw in the plan was something he could not foresee.

Everyone at the academy, including the staff, is terrified of Rumford. He’s not just a martinet. He’s clearly fighting a constant battle to maintain some degree of mental stability and he has a Captain Queeg-like obsession with small details. He’s a very unsympathetic character on the whole but perversely this makes him slightly sympathetic to the viewer. As much as we are appalled by him we can’t help feeling sorry for a man fighting a one-man war against the modern world.

It’s a good episode and worth seeing for McGoohan’s scenery-chewing.

Troubled Waters takes Columbo onto the high seas. He’s on vacation but you won’t be surprised to hear that within a day of leaving port he’s investigating a murder. Used car mogul Hayden Danziger (Robert Vaughn) has to dispose of an inconvenient mistress and he has a plan to frame loser musician Lloyd Harrington (Dean Stockwell) for her murder. The evidence against Harrington seems overwhelming but there’s one tiny clue left behind by the killer that puts Columbo on the right track.

Robert Vaughn is a splendidly smooth villain, just the type of murderer with whom Columbo can engage in the kind of battle of wits that always delighted fans of the series. Jane Greer is excellent as his wife Sylvia, a woman who is unlikely to forgive a straying husband. Dean Stockwell is as creepy as usual. A major highlight for cult TV fans is Patrick Macnee as the ship’s captain, a slightly stiff no-nonsense chap who is not at all happy about murders taking place on his ship. Upsets the passengers you know.

The murder method has a few interesting touches and there’s a fairly clever alibi involved.

Columbo is on the cruise with his wife but of course we never actually see her. Other characters do however see her so at least we know she really does exist!

Add in good performances from the entire cast and you have fine entertainment.

All in all the first half of season four is pretty impressive.

Friday, 15 December 2017

three Twilight Zones from 1961

Three episodes of The Twilight Zone for this post, all written by Rod Serling, all from the second season and originally aired in 1961.

While I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone and while I have definite reservations about Serling’s writing I have to admit that when Serling got it right he could hit it right out of the ball park. The Silence, from season two, is one of his best episodes.

It’s a very unusual episode in that there are no supernatural or science fictional elements whatsoever. There’s no overt horror. In fact it’s a character-driven drama. The one thing that qualifies it as a Twilight Zone episode is the offbeat nature of the central plot device.

Serling later admitted that he had unconsciously borrowed some of the key plot elements from an Anton Chekhov story.

The setting is a gentleman’s club. Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan) is the club bore. He talks incessantly and his conversation consists mostly of empty braggadocio which usually leads up to attempts to borrow money. Tennyson is a young man who has spent all his inheritance and he’s always looking for ways to make easy money. He has a lovely young wife with whom he is madly in love but she has very expensive tastes.

Colonel Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) offers Tennyson a very easy way to make a great del of money. All he has to do is to shut up. If he can remain absolutely silent for a year Taylor will pay him half a million dollars. It’s not quite so easy as it sounds - Tennyson will be confined in a glassed-in room in the club basement and the room is filled with microphones. If he does speak, even a single word, it will be heard and he will lose the wager.

We get hints early on of where the story is heading but while Serling could on occasions be obvious in this tale he keeps some effective surprises up his sleeve.

Franchot Tone had had a glittering career in the golden age of Hollywood but this is actually one of his best moments as an actor. Liam Sullivan is excellent as well. The third major character in the story is Taylor’s lawyer Alfred, played totally straight but very effectively by Jonathan Harris (a far cry from his famous role as Dr Smith in Lost in Space).

Boris Sagal was a very fine television director and although there’s no action and really only two sets he keeps things interesting and he builds the tension rather nicely. He is also prepared to let the actors get on with the job, a wise move since it’s the characters and the relationship between them that is the strength of this story.

Mention must be made of the splendid glassed-in room set which adds a slight touch of Twilight Zone-style paranoid atmosphere.

This is a superb episode in which everything comes together perfectly.

Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? is also a slightly unusual episode. In some ways it’s more what you expected from The Outer Limits. A UFO has crashed into a lake and a couple of state troopers have arrived to investigate. They find tracks leading from the lake to a nearby diner. In the diner are a group of people, passengers on a bus, who are temporarily stranded due to heavy snow. The problem is that six passengers got onto the bus but now there are seven of them. The state troopers conclude, reasonably enough, that one of them is really an alien from the crashed flying saucer. But which one?

This is a pure science fiction story but it’s done in a light-hearted whimsical style. Serling was not renowned for his ability to write comedy but he does a pretty decent job with this script.

A fine cast of talented character actors certainly helps.

There’s some fairly effective tension as well. The story might be essentially comedic but one of these people is not just a Martian but in all probability a dangerous and malevolent one so we can’t be quite sure whether it’s suddenly going to take a turn into much grimmer territory. A very good episode.

Twenty Two is a good solid supernatural horror story, written by Serling and based on a very famous  E.F. Benson ghost story. Liz Powell is a stripper who has been hospitalised as a result of overwork. All she needs is rest. She has a recurring nightmare in which she ends up in the hospital morgue. Liz has convinced herself that her nightmare is no mere nightmare - that it is real. Her doctor (played by Jonathan Harris) tries to convince her that it really is just a dream but she becomes more and certain that it’s real.

This one establishes the right mood from the start. We know something is very wrong. It’s nothing startling or ground-breaking and the ending isn’t a huge surprise but Serling delivers an effective script nonetheless. The atmosphere of terror is more important than the actual plot. The one fly in the ointment here is that it was made during the period when CBS had insisted on cost-cutting measures and was therefore shot on videotape. This is most unfortunate since the story needs as much help as it can get from the visuals. The hospital sets are good and director Jack Smight knows what he is doing but it doesn’t have quite the creepiness that could have been achieved on film. Barbara Nichols does well as the stripper, making her amusing but genuinely sympathetic - we like her and we don’t want anything terrible to happen to her.

Twenty Two delivers the goods in a fairly impressive fashion.

So three good Rod Serling episodes and they all have one important thing in common. Serling has resisted his natural and all too pervasive urge to us and to bludgeon us with heavy-handed messages, concentrating instead in these three stories on producing well-crafted tales that provide chills and entertainment. The Silence is outstanding but all three are very much worth watching, or (if you’ve seen them before) watching again.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Hazell, season 2 (1979)

The second season of Hazell is very much in the style of the first but with a few personnel changes. Hazell has come to a parting of the ways with lesbian Dot Wilmington and her detective agency. When he finds his feet again he acquires a sort of assistant in the person of the slightly sleazy Graham Morris (Peter Bourke), a young artist specialising in insects. Mostly Graham just helps to pay the rent on the office and answers the phone but he helps on some cases. It’s not exactly a warm friendship between Hazell and Graham. At best they tolerate each other.

Fortunately the other two regular cast members are still there - Roddy McMillan as Inspector ‘Choc’ Minty and Desmond McNamara as Hazell’s cousin Tel. Hazell’s relationship with Minty is somewhat tense although there are moments of grudging mutual respect, and plenty of opportunities for acidic dialogue exchanges. They might not like each other very much but they are useful to each other. Cousin Tel provides the comic relief, and does so very successfully.

Hazell follows a formula that is very very close to that of The Rockford Files. Both deal with down-market private eyes who have uneasy relationships with the police, both feature heroes with unhappy pasts (Rockford was in prison, Hazell had a drinking problem), both take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the private eye genre, both series are stylish and witty, and both are heavily influenced by the American hardboiled and film noir traditions. Of course there is one very major difference - The Rockford Files is very American (in fact very Californian) and Hazell is very English (in fact very London).

Hazell and the Baker Street Sleuth kicks off season 2. Hazell finds himself working for the very down-market Fitch Bureau of Investigations. Fitch has a reputation for not paying his investigators but Hazell needs the work. Getting paid will be one challenge but there is also a moral dilemma - he has to investigate an unfaithful husband who really doesn’t seem to be unfaithful at all but clients want results and Fitch likes to give them results.

Hazell and the Deptford Virgin is a very amusing and very clever riff on The Maltese Falcon with an assortment of rogues after a statue containing a fabulous treasure in jewels. Charles Gray is in magnificent form as the chief villain, although he’s not quite a conventional villain. He’s ruthless and amoral but he’s more of a loveable rogue. This is a truly splendid episode with Hazell having to outsmart some very clever and very unscrupulous people. Luckily he’s equal to the challenge.

In Hazell Bangs the Drum Hazell is hired by a Dr Patel to investigate what appears to be a case of blackmail. Hazell suspects that an illegal immigration racket may be behind it, but it’s just a theory and really he’s not sure what he’s stumbled upon. He has to take crash course in rock’n’roll drumming to solve this case but he finds some surprising compensations in a laundrette.

Hazell Gets the Boot sees Hazell, much against his better judgment, working for a notorious gangster. The job seems harmless enough. Someone has stolen the gangster’s Bentley and he wants it back. Of course the job isn’t harmless at all. This excellent episode features a delightfully twisted plot.

Hazell is hired by a very attractive young lady in Hazell Gets the Bird. Someone is trying to put this lady out of business. Her business is exotic pets but mostly she deals in taxidermy. Hazell finds himself with a personal stake in this case when he starts sleeping with the lady in question. He’s getting well paid, he’s getting to bed an attractive woman and he’s getting to play the knight rescuing a damsel in distress. So far it’s all good. Except for the birds. The birds are a worry. Hazell discovers that sleeping with clients isn’t always a wise idea, although of course that’s not going to stop him from doing it again. A nicely plotted story and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s always a tongue-in-cheek element to Hazell. The combination of this with plenty of homages to  the hardboiled style of 1940s private eye movies is a key part of the charm of the series. Hazell and the Big Sleep isn’t so much tongue-in-cheek as pure farce and for me it doesn’t quite work - even though it deals with Chicago gangsters it lacks the essential hardboiled flavour. Hazell is having cash flow problems and an offer of a job helping an old police colleague to catch a hotel thief seems like a lucky break. It’s more like an unlucky break. Everything goes wrong and Hazell is in trouble with just about everybody.

Hazell finds himself in the heart of the countryside in Hazell and the Suffolk Ghost. His client has inherited a cottage but he has no idea why it should have been left to him, plus there have some slightly spooky incidents. Ghosts and witchcraft are not normally in Hazell’s line and dealing with surly villagers who dislike strangers makes things a bit uncomfortable. There are compensations however. The client is overseas but his wife is staying at the cottage and she’s very young, very attractive and has a rather affectionate disposition. In fact she’s very affectionate indeed to Hazell. Bedding a client’s wife might not be strictly ethical but it doesn’t do to get too hung up on ethics.

Hazell and Hyde starts out as a very routine case. Hazell has to find a missing girl who probably doesn’t really want to be found. In fact it’s the beginning of a nightmare for Hazell. Someone is stalking him and it has something to do with the missing girl. A pretty good episode with a few genuinely scary moments.

Hazell and the Happy Couple has our dauntless enquiry agent dealing with marital problems. Other people’s marital problems, always a messy business especially when the client has been rather less than honest with him.

Hazell Gets the Part introduces Hazell to the glamorous world of the movie business, which turns out to be rather sordid. He’s looking for a stolen necklace but finds other kinds of villainy afoot. There's also plenty of fun to be had in this story.

The less said about Hazell and the Greasy Gunners the better. A clumsy political message episode.

The series gets back on track with the excellent Hazell and the Public Enemy. Hazell is hired by an old childhood friend. The friend has just broken out of prison but he’s actually in big trouble and he wants to hire Hazell to help him. That’s going to make Hazell unpopular with the law, and with a very nasty big-time gangster. Even worse, the whole scheme has been cooked up by a girl crime reporter and Hazell is quite rightly suspicious of her motives. This is a serious episode with a very definite film noir quality.

Hazell is fine television viewing, witty and intelligent but also great fun. Highly recommended.

Both seasons are available on Region 2 DVD from Network in the UK.