Sunday, June 27, 2010

Who's a Silly Moo? Classic Episodes of Till Death Us Do Part

For some reason, I feel like I am some sort of archeologist trying to figure out the episodes of Till Death Us Do Part I watched last week. I took out my VHS of some of the black & white episodes given to me years ago by a friend which he included three episodes from the early years of the series. Since the series never had any on-screen titles, it wasn’t that easy for me to figure out what I was watching. I needed to find an online episode guide which had episode descriptions. This wasn’t something that was around when I first got these episodes in 2002 on VHS.
Till Death Us Do Part is a truly ground breaking series. It started in 1965, as a lot of the older well known BBC comedies, part of Comedy Playhouse. Right in the middle of the swinging sixties in London, a revolution was taking place. The generation gap was widening and in the middle of it, on TV atleast, was Alf Garnett. Alf has some extremely bigoted views but he is an extremely patriotic person. He is married to Else and together they had a daughter Rita. Rita is young and married Mike. Both Rita and Mike live with Alf and Else and like much of the youth at that time had ideas and questions no one asked before now. This generation gap in the house is mainly between Alf vs. Mike & Rita. This is especially true between Mike and Alf as they have opposing views about everything. Especially politics! The series is generally set in the Garnett’s living room where there are vibrant and sometimes violent discussions on opposing views or the pub where Alf loves to drink himself to oblivion. I know, based on my description, this doesn’t sound very interesting but it is what Alf says and does that is what makes the series funny but also thought provoking.
Johnny Speight who created the series made Alf as a bigot. Alf says a fair share of racist things in the series but when people laugh at Alf, it is not because they agree with what he says but how idiotic he is for his views and what he is saying. I think this is why Till Death Us Do Part is sometimes misunderstood. Luckily, Alf is written and portrayed as a sympathetic, if not flawed human being. He is ignorant for some of the things he says but he also has a good side to him and is hard working as he basically supports everyone in the family. This BBC series has a number of controversies surrounding it as it was doing things that were not seen on TV before. Amongst other things was using the word “bloody” multiple times per episode.
Once I finally figured out what I watched (how embarrassing), I felt like I finally had a better grasp on the series. I watched 3 episodes, A House with No Love in It, Alf’s Dilemma, and Peace and Goodwill.
A House with No Love in It is the third episode of Series 1. This episode begins with Rita and Mike waiting for Alf and Else to come down for breakfast. The purpose is that it is Alf and Else’s 25th wedding anniversary. Rita and Mike plan to take them out to a posh restaurant but there is trouble almost immediately! Alf didn’t get anything for Else who is devastated by Alf’s lack of love towards her. Lucky for Alf, Mike has something for Else and tells her it is from Alf. Even when Mike saved Alf by getting a gift for Else, Alf still complains. The one thing about this series, these characters have no problems calling each other cruel names. Upon thinking Alf forgot about their anniversary, Else calls Alf all sorts of names such as a pig. Alf is much worse and loves to call Mike a Scouse git and of course Alf always calls Else a silly moo. This is a polite way of avoiding to call her a cow. Alf calls her a silly moo about 15 times per episode.
The next episode I watched was Alf’s Dilemma. This was my favourite of the three episodes I watched. The Garnetts and everyone on their street has their bathroom in the back garden. That’s how a lot of houses were back then. The best part of the episode is the book Alf is reading. When Till Death Us Do Part went on the air, a movement was taking place in which Mary Whitehouse had started the “Clean Up TV” campaign. One of the targets of this movement was Till Death Us Do Part. Whitehouse felt that there was too much swearing and she felt the series was disrespectful to religion. Whitehouse had said about Till Death Us Do Part, "I doubt if many people would use 121 bloodies in half-an-hour", and "Bad language coarsens the whole quality of our life. It normalises harsh, often indecent language, which despoils our communication." The book Alf is reading in the episode is Mary Whitehouse’s latest book. When Mike realizes what Alf is reading, Alf responds "She's concerned for the bleedin' moral fibre of the nation!" It is truly an amazing idea to take the character Mary Whitehouse is protesting about and make him a staunch supporter of her views. The funny thing is, the view would perfectly fall in order with his character. Alf is someone who would support something only to find he would be one of the worse offenders of the cause he was supporting!
Of course, being a little unfamiliar with the earlier episodes, I had for a moment thought that I had an episode in my collection that I’ve had since 2002 but only been returned to the BBC in 2009. Part of this episode concerned Alf having stomach cramps and at the end goes to the hospital. The Episode Guide description for the recently returned episode, In Sickness and in Health was “Alf gets no sympathy when he has stomach pains, which eventually leads to an operation in hospital.” I foolishly thought for about 15 minutes that I was holding a missing episode in my collection for the past 7 years. No, I just didn’t look at all the episodes on the list. The episode really was Alf’s Dilemma which was returned to the BBC in 1997. I was about to search all my tapes for The Tenth Planet Episode 4.
It is interesting how Till Death Us Do Part has a really good rate of episode recovery. In fact, since 1997, 4 episodes have been returned to the BBC which is quite a good rate of return considering since 1997 only 2 episodes of Doctor Who had been returned. Yes, I rate all episode recoveries in comparison with Doctor Who. The last two Till Death Us Do Part episode finds were just last year.
The final episode viewed was Peace & Goodwill. This was the first episode of Series 2. I enjoyed it but not as much as some of the other episodes. It is all set in the Garnett’s living room; it didn’t hold my attention like the other 2 episodes. Basically neither Mike or Alf do anyone any favours at Christmas dinner as they continue to drink and argue over a variety of topics.
Like I mentioned earlier, the episodes I watched are for some bizarre reason not available to purchase on DVD. Two series of the colour episodes had been released but none of the early episodes bar the first are available for purchase. This is puzzling to me as this really is a groundbreaking series. Even stranger is the fact that its follow up series In Sickness and In Health is well on its way to almost being completely released on DVD. I can only hope that it means that Till Death Us Do Part is to follow along shortly. The copies I watched were from PAL VHS someone gave to me years ago. They are from film prints and they still have the film leader on the episodes apart from A House With No Love In It which is from a BBC2 repeat from the late 1990s. I transferred the episodes to DVD for easier viewing.
The funny thing is that only some of the later colour episodes are available for people to see and although they are good, they absolutely do not have the same impact as the black and white episodes have in terms of the original premise of the series. When the series returned for a fourth series in 1972, the world had moved on from how it was in the sixties and everything was different. Alf Garnett was still ranting on about everything he could possibly get his hands on but he seemed to have lost his voice when he came back in the colour episodes.

Next week: For the next 3 weeks, I will be looking at one of the all time classic BBC series two episodes per week. Next week, I begin the 1955 serial Quatermass II with the first two episodes The Bolt and The Mark.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

2001 - A DVD Marathon

I like watching a good marathon. Obviously, I don’t mean watching people run! I mean sitting down with a pile of DVDs, such as British television, and watching them on a rainy afternoon. Sometimes, I like to mix up these marathons by doing something unconventional. It’s a little something I call watching different programs based on a certain year. How does that work? Basically, I randomly pick a year, go into my database and filter by that year. What I end up with is a selection of episodes from programs I have in my collection by that year. Convoluted, yes! Anyway, the year which was chosen was 2001.
I was immediately concerned by picking that year only because I know my own collection. I am a fan of television with the majority of my collection between the years of 1960’s and 1980’s. I assumed, as the year I had chosen was in this millennium, I would have nothing to watch! I was mildly surprised. There was a decent amount of programs to chose from. I will just run through the programs and comment on what I watched and whether or not I liked it.

Absolutely Fabulous – Series 4: Parralox & Small Opening
This is the first Absolutely Fabulous made since 1996. This is the example of why I love British television. British television series can go off the air and take 3, 5 or 16 year hiatus periods. When it comes back, it’s the same series. There is no distinguisher in the title such as “New”, “Return”, “Again”, or “Now”. Clearly the BBC believes the viewing public is smart enough to figure out that this is the same series with new episodes despite the fact it has been off the air for a few years. No US show could do that. When Absolutely Fabulous starts up with Parralox, there is no fanfare to the returning cast or cheap stunts. The series just resumes like there never was a break. I like that.
When I first saw Parralox, I really enjoyed it. Looking at it now, about 9 years later, I find it not very good. The one thing Eddy could get away with is rattling off the checklist of new inventions and trends that she has joined into since we last saw her in 1996. This works because that is what the character would do. Eddy never made the trends, she just followed. What I didn’t really like about the episode was how pathetic Eddy and Patsy were. They were always losers but it felt different to me this time. In the past, they were still in the circle looking in but now they were really just sad.
Small Opening was much, much better. Saffy is basically giving herself therapy for the years of turmoil caused by her Mom and Patsy. She does this by mounting a local play that is based on her life. Her version of herself is played by a pretty young woman who fancies her, Eddy is played by a large obnoxious woman and Patsy is played by a man in drag. There are some fantastic moments in the episode where the cast of the play do a great job of imitating their “real” counterparts. The highlight for me is the scene in the living room where Eddy is demanding an answer from Saffy as to why she went ahead and did this play. Of course, the best part is always when Patsy and Saffy go at it. Joanna Lumley and Julia Sawalha are excellent. The screaming and emotion could easily be mistaken for serious drama if there wasn’t the laughter.

Family Guy – Series 3: The Kiss Seen Around the World & Mr. Saturday Knight
Forgive me if I don’t talk about these too much. I’ve had these DVDs for many, many years and have played them multiple times. The let down of the two episodes are that there is little of Stewie or Brian in it. When those two play in an episode together or are featured in one of the travelling episodes, it is always funny. Don’t get me wrong, these are great episode and they continue the development of the series as we have it today. I thought the series was really good before it went on hiatus but after it came back, it was amazing.

Futurama – Series 3: Amazon Women in the Mood & Parasites Lost
I love Futurama! It is smart, funny and multi-layered. A lot of the animation process was ahead of its time such as the ships. Plus great voiceworks from the actors. At first, I wondered if Katey Sagal was going to be the weak link to the cast line up. I was extremely wrong, she is wonderful and in these episodes it really shows that Leela is her character. Of course, the amazing Billy West is the voice for many of the characters along with Joe DiMaggio as Bender Rodriguez!
Amazon Women in the Mood is about Kif trying to ask Amy out on a date. Zapp Brannigan steps in and ruins everything including the spaceship restaurant they were eating in. That crashed into a planet where large Amazon Women rule. Bender and Fry attempt to fly to rescue them. All the men are put on trial for the crime of…..well, being men. They are sentenced to death via Snu Snu (Whoopie, if you get my drift!). The Amazon women are ruled by a Femcomputer voiced by the late Bea Arthur herself! Her (I mean the Femcomputer) and Bender hit it off to allow everyone to escape.
In Parasites Lost, Fry eats an old egg sandwich from a truck stop in space. Of course he contracts worms; a lesson to us all! The worms are intelligent and they start repairing Fry and make him smarter. They don’t seem to want to take him over or do anything malevolent to him. They just want a cosy place to live. Leela notices a positive change in Fry who is romantic, smart, and well…SMART! Fry eventually gets the worms out of his system and reverts back to his normal self.
Futurama is fun and was very fresh for its time. To me, it was the best thing on TV. The show changes its emotional output every week. For example, Amazon Women in the Mood demonstrates some great comedy moments. Anything with Zapp is funny such as when he gives Kif his book of pick up lines in case Kif runs out of things to say to Amy. Of course Kif can never stand up to Zapp. In Parasites Lost, there is a gentleness to Fry as he does many things for Leela to show her how he cares for her. That stuff is always in him but the worms help him articulate it.

Jonathan Creek – Christmas Special: Satan’s Chimney
After Maddy (Caroline Quentin) left the series, I struggled to really watch it. I saw the episodes with Julia Sawalha but never really enjoyed them. No fault of hers. This is the first time I saw Satan’s Chimney. I was bored with it. Mary Tamm makes an appearance in the episode. It took a long time to get going. Jonathan Creek finally starts to figure stuff out 3 quarters of the way through but still that was not enough. Just as I thought it was over, there was seriously another 10 to 15 minutes. I am glad I got the DVD set cheap! Though to be fair, the series is amazing and this is just one episode which wasn’t that great but it was the second episode of the evening with Julia Sawalha that had a female actor lust after her. I say actor because both women in Absolutely Fabulous and Jonathan Creek played the part of actors.

Only Fools and Horses – Christmas Special: If They Could See Us Now…..
WHY!?!?!?!? Why bring a series back which ended so successfully in 1997? In my opinion the story was over. What annoys me is not that they came back and lost all of their money that they had made by the end of the series in 1997, to me it is that the cast was not complete. Buster Merryfield, who played Uncle Albert, dies shortly after the series ended in 1997. He was a huge part of the series. Also, Kenneth McDonald who played the Nags Head Pub owner Mike passed away earlier before filming started. Don’t get me wrong, the episode had some laughs but it just kind of felt like it was trying too hard with little results. Especially the scene with Rodney and Cassandra “role-playing”. Rodney was Russell Crowe and Cassandra as the woman from The Bill. Damien, Del’s son, was also extremely annoying. This was a first of three specials to finish the series off but I ask myself, why? It was finished off perfectly well before.

The Simpsons – Season 12: Tennis the Menace & Day of the Jackanapes
It amazes me that writers keep finding storylines for The Simpsons but they do. I love the show and still watch it today although I think it lost something when it went HD. Tennis the Menace is about Homer and Marge installing a Tennis court in their backyard. Homer and Marge disagree about well Homer plays. The end result is the family joining a charity match and are replaced by pro tennis players. The Day of the Jackanapes is much better with the return of Sideshow Bob as he is released from prison only to create a plot to destroy both Krusty and Bart. Episodes with Sideshow Bob are always funny. Bob has class, charm, brains but is also an idiot. This is why he is so much fun to watch. One minute, he has an amazing plan to kill Bart and the next, he stepped on a rake which hits him in the face. Voiced by Kelsey Grammer, who was one of the earliest guest voices going all the way back to season one, which I rarely watch because I don’t like them.
The frustrating this was is that I originally decided to watch Homr and Pokey Mom for the two Simpson episodes. When I went to my Season 12 DVD set, Disc 2 vanished. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very careful about where my DVDs are stored and how I take care of them. I still haven’t found them.
I did a similar marathon last year for 1979. A lot more different types of programs and it toll me about 16 hours to get through. The 2001 marathon was interesting because I actually watched some American shows which I rarely do. Plus all the American shows I watched were animated. That’s more of a personal preference than an industry trend. What was interesting though was that all of the US programs had the standard 4:3 aspect ratio while the UK shows all were 16:9. It took us a long time to catch up. Enough. I’m tired and probably boring everyone.

Next Week: shorter viewing awaits me as I look through a few episodes of Till Death Us Do Part. These will be black & white episodes from earlier in the series. None of the episodes are available on DVD….unfortunately!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Son of Frankenstein

There was a time in US Cinema history where Universal Studios held a monopoly on films which frightened movie goers and brought us into the modern era of monster films. This period of time, in my opinion, started with Dracula in 1931 but really became something special with the release of a film in that same year that featured my favorite monster. That film was Frankenstein. It is said when Frankenstein’s monster made his first appearance in the film, people had never seen anything like it. People screamed and some even fainted. Universal knew they had something unique and unsettling. The film starts with Edward Van Sloan, who appeared as Van Helsing in Dracula, giving a warning about the content of the film before it starts. I would have loved to have been in the audience of one of the original screenings in 1931 to experience it. Unfortunately, I was born about 43 years too late.

This was followed up in 1935 with The Bride of Frankenstein. I love this film and like it a little bit more than Frankenstein. In it, we see the return of Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the Monster and James Whale returns to direct the film. The film brought us Elsa Lanchester playing two very prominent roles for the film, Mary Shelley and “The Bride” who is repulsed by the very sight of the Monster. The film ends with The Monster blowing up both The Bride and himself…….or so we thought.

Death should never be an impediment to a good monster and it was decided, rightly so, to bring back the monster again in Son of Frankenstein (1939). This time some changes were going to take place in the world of Frankenstein. This is the first of the Frankenstein films to not be directed by James Whale. He needed some persuasion to take the helm of Bride of Frankenstein. He had become disenchanted with the genre of horror and wanted to direct different types of films. He was replaced by Rowland V. Lee who also produced the film. Colin Clive had passed away in 1935 at the very young age of 37. He was a chronic alcoholic and died from complications of tuberculosis. If you ever have a chance, take a look at his entry in IMDB. He made quite a few films between 1930 and 1937. It looks like he could’ve had a very promising career before his life ending so soon. Replacing him in a similar role would be the great Basil Rathbone taking the role of Henry Frankenstein’s son Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein. Returning as the Monster for the final time is Boris Karloff. While watching the film, there is something magical about his performance that no one else playing the role has ever been able to achieve. Bela Lugosi joins the cast as the demented and manipulative Ygor who uses the Monster to carry out treacherous and murderous deeds for his benefit and gain.
Generally, when I randomly pick something to watch, it tends to focus on British television. There are other things I am interested in which I put into the mix. One of them is the Universal Monster genre. There is something so iconic about all of these monsters which set the template for everyone else to follow over the years. It’s nice to pull these films off the shelf once and a while and take a look at them. Son of Frankenstein, to me, is a really transitional film in the genre.
The film starts with Baron Wolf Frankenstein returning to his ancestral home with his family in the village of Frankenstein. Now, here is the question: is this the only time this village had been called Frankenstein? I don’t recall it being used in any of the other films. I thought the castle was called Castle Frankenstein in the first film. I think the village being named this is a nice touch. His father died around the time Wolf was born or when he was very young. The Baron is going to live in Castle Frankenstein. The Baron, being aware of what his father did, is unconvinced that all the stories about his father and his creation were true. When the Baron arrives, he is met by an unfriendly mob. Have you ever heard of a friendly mob? What makes this film interesting is that we are given a look at how this village is coping, even after so many years, with the affect Henry had on the village by creating his monster. We see that the no one wants to visit the village anymore and it is not as prosperous as it once was. Immediately, as the word of a Frankenstein’s return spreads, the village is skeptical and frightened that this Frankenstein will carry on his father’s experiments. Upon their arrival at Castle Frankenstein, we meet Inspector Krogh. Krogh is able to help the Baron understand that the tales about the destructive nature of the Monster was not overblown. Krogh has one fake arm. His original arm was ripped out by the Monster when Krogh was small child.
From the start of the film, the Baron is very sympathetic for his father’s experiments. He feels that no one understood what Henry was trying to do with his experimenting. He wasn’t trying to create a monster, he was creating a man. Wolf blames the villager’s hatred of the Monsters not on the fact the Henry did something immoral or trying to be God but the blame should be placed on the assistant who provided the wrong type of brain. It doesn’t matter to Wolf that his father gave his assistant the permission to rob graves to provide the necessary body parts for his experiment. It is this acceptance of his father’s experiment which moves the film along. As the Baron is looking at his father’s dilapidated laboratory, he meets Ygor. Ygor takes the Baron to a crypt just adjacent to the lab where Wolf sees the crypts of his father and grandfather. What surprises the Baron is that the Monster is still alive. There were rumors in the village that he still existed, as there have been some mysterious deaths in the village over the years. However, no one was able to provide evidence to back this up.
Frankenstein finds the Monster in a coma. Ygor wants Frankenstein to help treat the Monster to make him better. Ygor is smart; he knows that the Baron will do this because he admires his father’s work. The Baron thinks that not only can he treat the Monster, he can better the work started by his father. After the Monster is out of the coma, the film switches to the standard “Monster Movie” affair and there is nothing wrong with that. Ygor uses the Monster to take revenge on the remaining men who were a part of the jury which originally sentenced Ygor to be hanged. Obviously, Ygor survived this but with a broken neck and he wants revenge on the people who were on that jury. He gets the Monster to murder the final two jury members.

This causes a massive uproar in the Village. Cue angry mob. Many people suspected the Baron might be up to something and Krogh goes up to investigate. Eventually the Baron has enough of Ygor and kills him. He tells Kogh it was self-defense. Once the Monster realizes he has lost his only friend, tries to take revenge by kidnapping the Baron’s son Peter. This climaxes in the laboratory where the Baron kicks the Monster into a molten sulfur pit giving the Monster a fiery end. Then, the Frankensteins decide to leave the village and allow the village to do whatever they want with the castle and laboratory. Curiously, although Inspector Krogh knows that the Baron is responsible for not only bringing the Monster back to life in a sense but hiding this information from the Inspector or anyone else, he is allowed to go free. Even when they board the train, they do so to the sound of a lot of a cheering crowd. Or is that a happy mob? I’m so confused!

This is a really good film with strong performances. Rathbone plays the Baron as someone who admires his father’s work but is cracking under the pressure of Krogh who clearly suspects him that something is go on up at the castle. Lugosi is amazing in this film. Perhaps his is the strongest performance. Ygor is mentally unhinged and generally holds all the cards for most of the film. He is able to use secret passage ways to get around to spy on people and he has a way of making the Monster do his bidding. Often Ygor does this through playing his recorder which somehow to get the Monster to follow his orders. Lionel Atwill plays Inspector Krogh with sympathy. He is an interesting character. He was badly maimed by the Monster when he was a child but he puts his duty before anything else. He wants to make sure the Frankenstein family is safe even when the villagers want to tear them a part. He is also a gentleman who clearly as an idea of what is going on but is smart enough to hold on to his cards until he knows for sure.

Karloff returns for his third and final time playing the Monster in a Universal Monster film. The Monster will be played by other actors when the series continues, including Bela Lugosi in one of them. It is sad to see the monster take a step back from The Bride of Frankenstein. In that film, the Monster learns to form thoughts and articulate them in sentences. He evolved while everyone else stays the same. Most people don’t understand him and want to destroy him. To me, this is why it is a transitional film. The Monsters is less and less about this and more of him being used as a murderer. I think the Monster de-evolves further into just being a “monster” by the next film. I sometimes wonder if this character change in this film helped Karloff decide to no longer play the role. The films that have Karloff as the monster are so different to the ones without him. Karloff acted with many different emotions in the role. You knew how he felt without him uttering a word; he was amazing. What about the son of the son of Frankenstein? He was played by Donnie Dunagan. What is up with his accent? Is there something wrong with him? My guess is that maybe someone told him to speak with a British accent to possibly mirror Rathbone but he couldn’t manage it. It became more Louisiana Bayou. He later went on to provide the voice for the child version of Bambi in 1942. He was 5 when he played Peter Frankenstein. He is now 75.

The sets are amazing. What really jumps out at me is the use of shadows. A lot of the sets are lit so set pieces are shadowed on the wall such as stairwells and laboratory equipment. Strickfadens were also used in the film although not as much as the previous two films. What are Strickfadens? That is fan name to all of the equipment used in the laboratory scenes that had lights and electricity coming out of it created by Kenneth Strickfaden. The music is quite good too. Composed by Frank Skinner it is very similar to some of the cues in The Bride of Frankenstein composed by Franz Waxman. Was this deliberate?

I watched this film from the Legacy collection DVD released in 2004. The image looked great and there was a nice amount of grain on the picture. The blacks looked strong and it did not look like there was too much print damage. What I like about this set is that it takes all of the Frankenstein films and put them together in one nice little neat package! Of course, what I think many of us are waiting for is that these films need to be released on Blu Ray fully restored with some love and care.

This is a film that really makes a nice, loose trilogy of the Frankenstein story. After this, the message starts to get a little diluted although still always fun to watch. But for Son of Frankenstein, this is the real deal and the last of its kind.

Next week: I go back to British and American television where I have a mini marathon of programs from the year 2001. I will be watching a couple of episodes from each of the following programs: Absolutely Fabulous, Family Guy, Futurama, Jonathan Creek, Only Fools and Horses, and The Simpsons. Why am I looking at episodes from 2001 and why these series, check back next week to find out.