Thursday, July 29, 2010

These are Mulberry Days! The Mulberry Marathon

Spoiler Alert:
I normally don’t give spoiler warnings but I think this series is so unique that if you know nothing about Mulberry, I would hate to be the one that ruins it. Read further at your own risk of being spoilt!
Series 1 TX: 24/2/92 – 30/3/92
Series 2 TX: 8/4/93 – 20/5/93

This week I took the time to not watch one or two episodes of a show but the whole darn thing! Of course, as usual, it was random. What did I come up with? Well Mulberry! Mulberry is a little underrated gem of a comedy series which isn’t quite what it seems. The premise is very simple. An elderly lady named Miss Rose Farnaby lives in a manor and is very difficult to get along with especially her staff. She goes through personal assistants all the time. The latest assistant leaves and before the vacant post can be advertised, Mulberry shows up to take the job. Mulberry is a burst of energy. Full of life and someone who wants to bring the life out of everyone around him. He seems to want to make Miss Farnaby come out of her shell and start living life again. Did I mention that Mulberry is the son of Death?
Yes, I did mention that this is a comedy series and that is why I think this series is so unique. Mulberry is indeed the son of Death itself. Who knew that Death had a son but here he is. Mulberry was brought into contact with Miss Farnaby because he is learning the family business. His first person he needs to escort from our world to the next is Miss Farnaby. So the question remains as to why he is more interested in showing her the value of life than performing the job he was sent to do? There are two Series for Mulberry. The first series revolves around Mulberry taking an immediate like to Miss Farnaby and bring her out of her shell. Both characters have a mystery about them. Obviously with Mulberry, how he shows up at the manor looking for a job that hasn’t even been advertised yet is a mystery. Two characters I haven’t mention yet were Bert and Alice. They were evacuated to the manor during World War II from London. They eventually marry each other. As Bert is putting together the Help Wanted card which will announce a vacancy in the manor, Mulberry shows up even before anyone knew the job was available. As we get to see Mulberry, he really doesn’t divulge any information about himself. He won’t tell anyone if Mulberry is a first name or last name, just that his name is Mulberry. Although Miss Farnaby isn’t as mysterious as Mulberry, we don’t know much about her either right away. The layers of her background starts become more known as the stories develop. It is not known right away that she is a shut in and spinster. The series starts out as if she is someone who can be very difficult yet proper but soon we realize that everyone in the village knows she is a recluse. We even get more information about Bert and Alice as the series progresses. They were brought up from London during World War II and basically grew up with Miss Farnaby and her sisters. They all played together as children. Even to the point that Alice was Winnie the Pooh and Bert was Tigger whenthey would all play together. It seems like the 3 sisters from the manor all have never quite grown out of their childhood as this is a theme throughout the series. They are all attached to their childhood possessions. In some ways, Miss Farnaby is holding onto a memory of how life was when she was a child growing up in the manor and hasn’t let go even though she is now an old lady. The happy childhood has overshadowed her adult life. It is only through Mulberry that she is able to live a life beyond the manor.
Series One finds Mulberry helping Miss Farnaby change old habits. Episode Two there is a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire that no one in the manor wants to take part in. Mulberry is able to help Miss Farnaby see things differently and change the habit. Mulberry is able to get Miss Farnaby out of the house more by entering her into the village quiz in Episode Three and try to get her to go to Paris in Episode Four. Through out the first four episodes, a stranger in all black is trailing Mulberry and shows up in places telling Mulberry to do the job he has to do. It is almost immediately implied that Mulberry needs to dispose of Miss Farnaby. Perhaps his is a criminal? It isn’t until Episode 5 that we realize that the man in black is Death and Mulberry is his son brought in to bring Miss Farnaby into the realm beyond the Earth. Death tells Mulberry it has to happen now. Mulberry thinks if he is not around Miss Farnaby, nothing can happen to her. He is wrong as Death can easily move Mulberry back to the manor if he chooses. Mulberry talks his father, Death, into giving Miss Farnaby another 3 months to live. Mulberry returns to the manor and of course the first thing he does is talk Miss Farnaby into take a bike ride with him on a tandem bike!
Series Two literally picks up where Series One left off. The only difference is that Alice regenerated into a different actor. As Mulberry thinks he has 3 months to spend with Miss Farnaby, Death informs him that although Miss Farnaby does 3 months, Mulberry is not allowed to spend it with her. He needs to move onto other things. Mulberry is very distraught about this and as thinks he needs to leave he gets an intervention. His mother, Springtime, tells Mulberry that she spoken to his father and calmed him down, as all good mothers do. Mulberry is allowed to stay the 3 months with Miss Farnaby. This made me quite happy as I was unsure how we would handle six more episodes of Mulberry’s father nagging him about ending Miss Farnaby’s life!
Series 2 is very similar to Series 1 in many ways with the added bonus of the storyline focusing on the relationship between Miss Farnaby and Mulberry opposed to wondering what the real reason of Mulberry being around. Of course what Mulberry really is does makes Bert, Alice and Miss Farnaby a little suspicious. In an episode where Mulberry and Miss Farnaby fly a kite in honour of her late cousin Arthur, Mulberry gets a little too enthusiastic and falls of a cliff while flying the kite and dies. Though ironically, considering his line of work, he does come back to life to the astonishment of everyone else. In another episode, even his father comes to the manor as someone Miss Farnaby met at the library. Of course Mulberry thinks his father changed his mind about the 3 month extension but in fact his father wanted to experience what Mulberry thought was so great about living as a human. Death was unimpressed. Mulberry gets a taste of real human emotion as Miss Farnaby’s niece comes to visit and he finds himself with someone who really cares for him. It’s a touching episode as he starts to care for Jocelyn but knows he can do nothing about it. Miss Farnaby more and more exhibits a break with tradition and habit as she is the one who thinks Jocelyn and Mulberry would make a great couple. Her devotion to both of them is touching and sweet. Even Bert and Alice get a great episode where Alice almost leaves Bert for someone who works for the trains. Although at first Mulberry tries to stop it, his father is able to tell him that Alice’s would-be-suitor will die that night even before she can meet him. It is academic anyway as Alice changes her mind before Bert ever knows anything had or was going to happen.
The cast of Mulberry is quite good. Karl Howman plays Mulberry with energy and a glint of mischief in his eye. I found it quite interesting that his way of speaking lines reminded me quite a lot of James Bolam who became famous for The Likely Lads and who I really enjoyed in Only When I Laugh. Geraldine McEwan plays Miss Farnaby. She plays the role of an old person with a young personality just dying to get out. Even when reprimanding Mulberry, she has a hint of a smile underneath her scolding persona. I think Miss Farnaby sometime enjoyed the reputation of being strict but she was also very timid and really quite shy. On the Region 1 DVD release, there is a segment of Howman and McEwan from Pebble Mill on it. I was quite amazed how soft spoken McEwan was. She is known for a lot of wonderful productions but one that I think I am going to need to seek out is the series Mapp & Lucia. It also has some of my other favourite actors including Prunella Scales, Nigel Hawthorne and Denis Lill who I think makes any production better. Have any of you seen it? Would you recommend it?
Rounding off the cast is Tony Selby as Bert. Tony is always reliable in anything I have ever watched him in especially as Sabalom Glitz in Doctor Who. Alice was played by two different actors, Lil Roughley in Series 1 and Mary Healey in Series 2. I do prefer Roughley’s performance only because I got used to her. Roughley and Selby really played well off each other when arguing. They argued as children as if they had really grown up together and never knew how to argue as adults. It’s quite touching and plays into the theme that no one has grown up in this series.
John Bennett plays Mulberry’s father Death. He plays the character very well and a big part of that is how the idea of Death is portrayed in the series. Before we know what is really going on in Episode Five, this guy talking to Mulberry appears sinister and in return makes Mulberry look sinister. Once we know the real story, the idea of a Grim-Reaper is handled without emotion. Death explains that it is a job that they need to do. There is no emotion involved with it. It’s only Mulberry who sees it differently.
The final episode focuses on Miss Farnaby’s two sisters, Adele and Elizabeth, coming to visit the manor. We met Adele in an earlier episode from Series 1. She treats Miss Farnaby like she is incompetent and unable to handle any sort of social situation. Adele’s husband’s company is not doing well and Adele wants Miss Farnaby to sell the manor so they can split up the money amongst each other. Miss Farnaby has a difficult decision to make weighing in on all factors until Elizabeth suggest having a séance for fun. Elizabeth has apparently been practicing doing séances. It all goes well until Elizabeth gets a feeling from the séance that Mulberry is a malevolent presence which will do harm to Miss Farnaby. At this stage, Miss Farnaby gets angry and thinks this is all a plan by Adele to get her to sell the manor. Who thought Elizabeth would have been right? That was the final episode of the series. Although Mulberry was reasonably popular and had ratings to warrant a third series, it was cancelled. The BBC had new people in different departments who didn’t want to renew the series and it was finished. I personally think it would have to end with Series 3. I am not sure how they would prolong it without a similar plot device as seen in the first episode of Series 2 with a 3 month lease of life. I have read online that the series ended before reaching its “logical” conclusion. It makes me wonder if the series would have ended with Miss Farnaby passing away especially as the whole point of the series was showing how to live life to the fullest. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all, faced with Death (even when you don’t know it) you need to live life to the fullest. I personally think the series would not have ended that way but possibly allowing Mulberry to be a human being and live on Earth with his friends from the manor.
Have you seen Mulberry? Please post in the comments section how you think or would have liked to seen Mulberry end. I would be curious to know your opinion!

Next week: From the quaint English country to boldly going where no man has gone before. We leave the UK and for that matter Earth and watch the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. I am really looking forward to it as I will be watching it from the Blu Ray set for the first time.

Have a great week!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pennant Roberts Tribute

This week is my pathetic attempt to pay tribute to Pennant Roberts. Pennant Roberts passed away on June 22nd after battling cancer for over a year. He was only 69. Over the years, I have met many directors and producers who worked on programs for the BBC but unfortunately Pennant wasn’t one of them. It is unfortunate because when I watch any “Making Of” documentaries of any program he was a part of, it is clear that he was full of passion for his work. He explains very succinctly the reasons why certain things were done and in some cases why they failed. Through these glimpse of his thought process, I found myself watching someone who I would really liked to have met. He had been involved in a couple of my favourite programs which I’d like to share with you.
Sometimes, I think I take this love of British television way too seriously. When someone passes away who was connected to one of the programs I love, I have to watch at least an episode of it. It’s my way of paying tribute to the people who worked on it. These programs are getting further and further out of the consciousness of viewing public. In the US, most people have never heard of the British shows I watch. If someone asks me if I watched ABC’s Castle, I am tempted to reply, “No, instead I was watching an episode of the BBC television series Doomwatch originally broadcast in 1972.” I say this is a pathetic attempt to pay tribute to Pennant Roberts because I actually do not have much of his work in my collection but what I do have, I’ve generally enjoyed numerous times over the years. What I am writing about today is only a small portion of his over all work. Apart from what is written below, he directed episodes of The Onedin Line, Softly, Softly, Tenko, Juliet Bravo, and Howard’s Way. What I watched as tribute to him were episodes he directed of Doomwatch, Survivors, and Blake’s 7.
Doomwatch Waiting for a Knighthood TX: 26/6/72
Doomwatch is probably one of my all-time favourite television series. It started in 1970 as a program about a government scientific watchdog department keeping a look out for other scientists or agencies doing immoral or unethical processes or programs which could harm people or the Earth. The series was devised by Dr, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and The first 2 series (1970 & 1971) featured a lot more scientific plotlines including space travel, a virus which melts plastic, killer rats, and other eerily science related stories. By the time we get to Series 3 (1972), the tone of the series changes into something which is based in less scientific stories but more everyday situations. Although Series 3 isn’t quite as dynamic in terms of fantastical storylines, it is still compelling viewing taking stories from the headlines. The dialogue is of a higher level where discussions between characters often involve the debate of morality. The head of the Doomwatch team is Dr. Spencer Quist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He has never truly come to terms with his involvement in that but with the help of Dr. Anne Tarrant, who Quist would eventually become romantically involved with, his character would tone down as the series goes on. Another key character was Dr. John Ridge. By this point in the series Dr. Ridge was in a mental hospital. He was placed in there from wanting to hold the government ransom with phials of Anthrax. This all took place in the now lost episode Fire and Brimstone, the first episode of Series 3. Waiting for a Knighthood starts off as a vicar is giving a sermon. He goes off on a strange tangent which eventually becomes stranger and stranger until he passes out. Dr. Tarrant is in the congregation to see this and afterwards alerts Dr. Quist. Quist and Tarrant find out that lead poisoning is the cause of this behavior. Although Quist wants Doomwatch to look into it, The Minister, Sir George, who oversees Doomwatch keeps him away as there are already people looking into lead poisoning. Quist suddenly wonders if there is a possibility, after seeing the strange behavior of the vicar that maybe something similar could have happened to Ridge. Ultimately, the episode revolves around lead. Whether it is lead in gasoline (which was still happening at the time) or lead paint flakes on toys, the question of how poisonous was a very real fear back then. It is obviously still a fear now but much has changed since then. Most countries, such as the US & UK, no longer use lead the way they did back then which reduces the harm that could come to people who come into contact with it.
It is believed what lead Ridge trying to blackmail the government with Anthrax and also what happened to the vicar at the beginning of the episode was caused by lead poisioning. They both work with cars and different types of lead fumes caused them to become deranged. A woman, who lost her young son to lead poisoning, kidnaps a boy of the same age whose father works in the oil industry where lead is still a major ingredient. I did not get the complete connection for kidnapping their son apart from the lead. Eventually, Ridge gets released form the hospital where his sanity was in question from the events with the Anthrax. He actually finds the kidnapped child and the kidnapper hiding out in his flat.
This was Pennant Roberts first TV episode he directed. He went on to direct another episode of Doomwatch for Series 3, Enquiry. In the television program, The Cult of Doomwatch, Pennant was proud of what was accomplished in Waiting for a Knighthood,
“We were putting a case that you should have some call for unleaded petrol, now this met with huge resistance from the oil companies that we were talking purely off the top of our heads and you could never have unleaded petrol because the two work together like hand in glove and of course they then got the backing of the government who in turn tried to warn us away from this issue.” He went on to say, “It’s quite good to look back and think, well maybe we did our little bit then in establishing unleaded petrol, not only in the UK but probably around the world.” By this point in the series, Doomwatch creators, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, had become dissatisfied by the direction the series was going and also by what they perceived was interference of Producer Terence Dudley. Though, through Terence Dudley, Pennant Roberts would have another chance to work on a significant cult series.
Survivors The Fourth Horseman TX: 16/04/75
I am not going to do a full review of this episode. I have recently reviewed it for the online fanzine TellyVision and the first episode will be available shortly. Survivors is about a virus that wipes out about 90% of the population of the world. The story, at least for the first series, follows Abby Grant, Jenny Richards, and Greg Preston as they try to create a life from what is left in the aftermath of most of civilization being destroyed. The Fourth Horseman is possibly the best first episode of any series. From the time the episode starts, life is still fairly normal teetering on collapse. By the time we get to the end, there is hardly anyone left. Throughout the first part of the episode before the epidemic hits, there is an unspoken terror. As viewers, we hear almost immediately that there is a flu epidemic and people are getting sick. We know it’s not really the flu but the characters don’t know that. The tension builds as simple everyday things start to fail: the phone, the trains, the hospital and finally the infrastructure. I think of the three episodes I viewed, this is the best direction of all and stellar direction played a massive part in it. Pennant did a superb job of only showing us what he wanted us to see and revealing the rest a little bit at a time. Abby Grant gets the virus and looks like she may die but miraculously survives after days of sleeping. When she wakes up, she goes through her house, walks through her living room and when she looks in the mirror on the wall, it is only then she (and us) discovers her husband dead on the sofa. There are so many ways that scene could have been made and to me this was the best. It is simple; there is no reason to suspect anything other than her going through her house. The episode has all sorts of scenes that play out like this.
Survivors was created by Terry Nation. It is interesting as Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis created the Cybermen and Terry Nation created the Daleks. Those writers go on to write two prominent television series and Pennant is part of it. Survivors was produced by Terence Dudley who also produced Doomwatch. As good as the first episode is in direction, Terry Nation’s script for The Fourth Horseman is superb and it is the first episode of many amazing episodes offered in this series. If you have never seen this series, it is a heavy and emotional drama. It is worth the roller coaster ride!
Blake’s 7 Space Fall TX: 09/01/78
The final program I watched was the second episode of Blake’s 7 titled Space Fall. I have never been able to get into this series. I watch programs like The Cult of Blake’s 7 which show some pretty exciting clips but every time I try to get into the series, I am always a little disappointed. This episode picks up from the first episode The Way Back. Blake is on a penal ship heading to Cygnus Alpha where he is to spend the rest of his life as a prisoner. He had made some friends who are with him on the ship but to be able to escape he needs the help of another prisoner named Avon. Avon is needed because he is a computer genius. It will be Avon who gives control of the ship to Blake and the other prisoners. But as soon as Blake takes control, the ship’s crew takes it back with little regard for the prisoner’s lives. Miraculously, a mysterious ship appears out of nowhere. Two sets of crew members go over but none return. Blake, Avon, and Jenna go over, take control of the ship and escape. Of course the ship turns out to be The Liberator and soon it is on course to Cygnus Alpha to free the rest of the prisoners.
This should be the program I have the most admiration for since it was done on an even smaller budget than Doctor Who. The problem is that nothing really happens. I understand that this is the beginning of the series which is trying to get started. I know I need to sit down and really pay attention to it at some point. Pennant Robert’s direction in it doesn’t seem quite as impressive as it did in the Survivors episode. I think a couple of things are factored into this. I think the story dictates the episode to be pretty linear. The story telling is straightforward where as it was much more visually stimulating for the Survivors episode. Blake was coordinating a revolt on the spaceship while in Survivors, civilization was ending on many different levels. We had to see the breakdown of society which leant itself to more variety shots and camera movements. Doomwatch was also pretty straightforward which actually worked in Pennant’s favour. Sometimes new directors go crazy with odd shots and gimmicks which don’t lend itself to proper story telling and could be construed as counter-productive to the narrative. Pennant let the story lead the visuals in Doomwatch and it was successful.
Of course one series I did not look at from Pennant’s career is Doctor Who. This is something I will do soon with a viewing of the Season 14 story The Face of Evil. When I do, I will post my thoughts on here. As for the episodes above, it would be extremely foolish of me to say they are all part of the same genre. They are similar in many ways but also very unique and compelling viewing. Pennant easily shows that he is diverse in the style he employs in each of the episodes. Doomwatch tells a good story with very confident direction. Survivors is exceptional direction married to exceptional storytelling to truly make it special. Blake’s 7 worked within the confines of a heavy effects drama in a time when Star Wars came out and was wowing everyone. Pennant was a very good director who clearly gave a lot of thought to what he did. Although his work will live on for others to enjoy, he will be very much missed.

I just wanted to thank Scott at for his help with the Doomwatch pics, transcript for The Cult of Doomwatch and just being a great guy. If you are a fan of Doomwatch or never seen it but want to know more, his site is extremely well made and is full of a lot of awesome, detailed information pertaining to this wonderful series. Please follow this link and check it out. Be prepared to want to spend a lot of time there to soak up the vast amounts of information Scott and his contributors have provided.

Next Week: It’s a Mulberry Day! Literally! I have a mini-marathon where I will watch all 13 episodes of this gem of a BBC comedy series.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Quatermass II: An Exceptional Sequel - Part Three

As I watched the end of the fourth episode of Quatermass II, The Coming, the story was moving along swiftly. The invasion had begun; thousands of meteorites are falling out of the sky. The reporter Quatermass was telling his story to had fallen victim to the alien infection. Quatermass infiltrated himself into the synthetic food facility and saw first hand the horror of what was living in those tanks. Today, we take a look at the final two episodes of this 1955 serial. Click here to read about Quatermass II: The Bolt & The Mark
Click here to read about Quatermass II: The Food & The Coming

The Frenzy TX: 19/11/55
The Frenzy is a very appropriate name for this episode because by the time we get to the end of The Coming, things have started to reach a frenzied pitch. The workers in the pub that Quatermass and Conrad had spoken to have become very suspicious of whatever had employed them to build the food plant structure. In fact, based on Quatermass’ story, the workers have decided to charge the food plant to get some answers. It becomes violent very quickly as the Zombies in the plant confront the workers. The workers are able to get into the pump room which could be used to pump oxygen into the dome. That would be fatal to the aliens. Quatermass is able to join the workers. They are surrounded and need to come up with a plan fast or they will be destroyed.
Back at Quatermass’ Rocket centre, Paula knows her father was with Conrad and is trying to find out through the offices of Conrad’s newspaper to tell her where her father is located. She is immediately concerned that the person on the other end of the line is asking more questions about Quatermass’ whereabouts than they are giving her answers. They ask her where she is. As she puts the phone down, more calls come in from other people who are asking where Quatermass is and are trying and get information about the rocket. These people are under control of the aliens and they know Quatermass’ rocket is the only thing to stop their invasion. Paula goes out to the rocket to find Pugh. There is a real chilling scene which benefits from being done live. Paula explains all the strange phone calls she has been getting to Pugh but then stops and looks around. She says, “It’s closing in. Those woods over there, the cut out of the moonlight, the air itself. As if it were changing already.” This is a great scene because it sets get atmosphere even without us having to see anything. Just by seeing Paula’s reaction shows how serious the situation is at the moment as the invasion is going on in the background. The people in Quatermass’ Rocket centre is in real danger. Pugh and Paula are positive Quatermass is in the plant and Pugh decides to go out there and retrieve him.
Back at the plant, Quatermass is filling the dome with oxygen, lethal to the aliens. Immediately, there are constant warnings from the plant via loudspeaker announcements filling the pump room where Quatermass and the workers are located. Quatermass knows the aliens are getting desperate because the announcements have moved away from violent threats to a chance to work together and have the workers inspect the plant to see there are no alien influences in the facility. The union leader of the workers, McCloud decides to take them up on their word to meet with them despite the opposition put up by Quatermass and McCloud’s friend Paddy. Soon everyone realizes McCloud made a disastrous mistake. Oxygen was being pumped into the doom to kill the aliens who could not breathe oxygen. Now the pipe funneling in oxygen had been blocked. Blocked by the body of McCloud and a few others who went with him. It is not seen on screen but it doesn’t need to be. It is graphic enough by description. The workers respond the murder of their comrades by firing what appears to be a bazooka at the doom blowing it apart. Gases envelope the near by village. As Quatermass escapes, he finds the car that Pugh is in, passed out. They go back to Quatermass’ Rocket centre. There they are surrounded by the army lead by Captain Dillon still under the control of the aliens.
Not only does a lot take place in the episode, it also conveys an atmosphere of terror. For the first four episodes, Quatermass has been investigating what he thinks is an invasion. With The Frenzy, the invasion is happening and Quatermass is right in the middle of it. Although the food plant is destroyed at the end of the episode, it is only one of a half a dozen plants around the world. Not only does a lot of stuff happen in the episode but it is all done live which is really quite an achievement. The episode is of a high quality of storytelling that many programs made today could not duplicate and those programs have the benefit of having re-takes and not broadcast live. The scenes filmed on location at night such as the workers storming the plant to me are reminiscent of the Russian Revolution. Shots of Quatermass escaping the plant in a basically “every man for themselves” scenario is eerily lit with a lot of fog and Quatermass backlit as he tries to escape what appears to be a post apocalyptic situation. The cliffhanger itself is creepy as we see the return of Captain Dillon, as a zombie, taking over Quatermass’ rocket launch area. There is a story about someone dying during the recording of The Frenzy. Nigel Kneale recalls that during the crowd scene word came back to the studio gallery someone had dropped dead. During the course of the broadcast of the episode, this guy was taken away for treatment. Kneale never knew if the man lived or not. Hopefully he lived! Speaking of Kneale, it was his voiced used for all the loud speaker announcements in the synthetic food plant.
The Destroyers TX: 26/11/55
With Captain Dillon’s men surrounding Quatermass’ rocket base, Quatermass has no choice but to get Dillon in to talk reason with him. Quatermass needs to launch his rocket to destroy the asteroid with the aliens on it. Dillon enters with his men and gives them a signed order for allowing for the army to take over the rocket base. It’s interesting that although it is not said, it is implied that the orders are signed personally by the Prime Minister meaning that the alien influence has reached as far as Number 10 Downing Street. Perhaps the entire government of not only the UK but every government had been taken over. Quatermass is able to talk Dillon out of his orders, appealing to what is left of his human self to allow Quatermass and Pugh to take the rocket on a rendezvous with the alien asteroid. Once in space for many hours, it is clear that Pugh has been under the control of the aliens for hours. On the surface of the asteroid, Pugh with a gun, fires at Quatermass but the shooting of the gun propels him off the asteroid and to his death. With Quatermass losing his closest friend, he deposits the nuclear core on the asteroid to blow it up. After the aliens are destroyed, the people who were under its influence return to normal including Captain Dillon.
The total budget for Quatermass II was around £7600. By the time production began on The Destroyers there was about £600 left to make the final episode. One of the more ambitious episodes, money had to be use to build the inside of the rocket craft as well as the alien surface. This set was nothing more than chair stacked on top of each other with a tarp over them to create the effect of a jagged alien surface. This would have looked fine in the 1950s but even with the lower quality of the telerecordings presented on the DVD, the effect is not very convincing. Though, it is still a mammoth feat to try to pull of all of these locations on a very small budget while being done on live TV. Though not nearly as enjoyable of an episode as The Frenzy, The Destroyers bring a satisfying end to the serial.
The fun part of watching Quatermass II is looking at some of the guest artist who had shown up in this serial and recognizing them from other productions. The first notable is Hilda Barry in The Bolts as Mrs. Large. She was a wonderful character actor who also appears in Quatermass and the Pit, The Prisoner, and I even just recently saw her in an episode of The Ace of Wands. Wilfred Brambell, best known as Albert Steptoe from Steptoe and Son, appears in The Mark as a tramp. He appears in a slightly similar role in the 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just as Nigel Kneale does the alarmed and mysterious voice on the loudspeaker in The Frenzy, his voice also appears in Nineteen Eighty-Four in a similar fashion. Hugh Griffith, who played Dr. Leo Pugh had a prolific career and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1959 for Ben-Hur and again in 1963 for Tom Jones. Cyril Shaps as a Control Assistant in The Destroyers. I know him best in multiple roles he played in Doctor Who and was happy to see him here. Of course for the Doctor Who fan, one of the biggest names to appear in the serial was Roger Delgado who is usually referred to as The Master. He played the reporter Conrad who came to an unhappy end as he was trying to wire the story of the invasion to his newspaper.
Does Quatermass II hold up today? Of course I would say yes because I am a collector and fan of such programs. I can see past dodgy effects, black & White television and focus on the story. I would be interested in seeing someone of a younger generation sit down to watch this. Not all in one go but broken up in similar fashion to how I have viewed it over a period of time. These programs are not generally meant to be watched in one sitting. Would they appreciate the story and significance to television history? It would be an interesting experiment. This serial and the character Quatermass are still very much beloved fixtures to the British public. This serial was made into a Hammer Film in 1957 starring Brian Donlevy in his second outing as Professor Quatermass. There was a spoof by Comedian Bob Monkhouse which included Monica Grey who played Paula Quatermass in the original serial. Its influence runs from Doctor Who to The X-Files. Sadly, Nigel Kneale approached the BBC about doing a prequel to Quatermass reportedly titled Quatermass and the Third Reich which would have seen Quatermass in Germany in the 1930s. This was rejected by the BBC. Quatermass did return to the screen again in 2005 in a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment. By this time, Kneale was no longer the writer but was a consultant to the production. Nigel Kneale passed away in 2006 but leaves behind a wonderful legacy which includes this very unique and complicated character in the form of Professor Bernard Quatermass. Next Week: I pay tribute to Director Pennant Roberts by viewing a few of his episodes he directed for the BBC. I will look at Doomwatch: Waiting for a Knighthood, Survivors: The Fourth Horseman, Blake’s 7: Space Fall.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Quatermass II: An Exceptional Sequel - Part Two

Last week I began my viewing of the engaging serial Quatermass II. The first 2 episodes had been a very enjoyable experience and a nice diversion from the heat from a hot Minnesota summer. I watched the episodes late into the evening so the room was dark apart from the flicker of the TV which was emitting the spooky black & white images of a vintage piece of BBC history. Would the viewing of episodes 3 & 4 be as enjoyable as the first two installments? In a word, yes!

To see my article on the first 2 episodes of Quatermass II, you can go here.

The Food TX: 5/11/55
At a hearing to discuss findings on a mysterious synthetic food refinery, Quatermass suddenly points out to Broadhead that one of the members in the room has the mysterious mark on his face. Both Quatermass and Broadhead give too much information and Quatermass leaves to return to Fowler’s office as Broadhead finishes up. Quatermass and Fowler get anxious as they await Broadhead’s return. After waiting a bit longer, Quatermass and Fowler return to an otherwise empty boardroom, they find Broadhead slumped over. He had succumb to the gasses from a meteor left behind by the aliens. Soon a ghoulish group of medics arrive, also with marks, who want to attend to Broadhead. This is a chilling scene as you would expect the medics to be helpful but here they are portrayed as zombies who want to collect someone just converted to be like them. Quatermass and Fowler are fearful for their lives and are not even sure if returning to Fowler’s office will be safe. After they leave the board room, Fowler gets Quatermass in touch with Ward. Ward has actually been able to get into the facility and still has a pass. With some persuasion from Quatermass, Ward takes both him and Fowler to the plant. They are able to not be noticed by patrolling guards because there is a family who travelled out to that area for a picnic. The guards have gone out to meet the family to get them to leave since they are trespassing. Once inside the plant, Quatermass checks the medical facility to see if Dillon is in there. Dillon is no where to be found. As they start checking on other things in the factory, the workers under the influence of whatever is in control suspend all work. Ward disappears. The next time Ward appears is during one of the most iconic shots of any of the Quatermass serials. Ward is covered with a black sludge like substance which is burning him. It has completely covered him and he has moments to live.
One thing interesting about the shot of Ward covered in the sludge. Most of that scene was filmed on location about a month before the live broadcast. Then it cuts back to the live feed in studio where Derek Aylward who played Ward had to be completely covered again for only a couple more minutes until the episode ends. He must have loved that!
Back at Quatermass’ laboratory, Pugh realizes there is something approaching the Earth.
The Coming TX: 12/11/55
Ward is left behind to die. We also find out that gunshots that were helpful to Quatermass and Fowler as a diversion to get away were used on the family who were trying to have a picnic. Quatermass asks Fowler to go back to the Ministry to do some searching while Quatermass contacts a reporter who he wants to tell this story to get the word out. While Quatermass and Conrad discuss the facts of what Quatermass had seen, Fowler is attacked at the ministry by a hidden meteor in a filing cabinet that detonates its gasses. Quatermass and Conrad go to a pub in the worker’s village where people of the village are relaxing and celebrating a wedding anniversary. While Quatermass and Conrad start to annoy the group with their line of questioning, a meteor smashes through the ceiling of the pub and nearly takes someone out. Armed guards appear, with marks, and try to retrieve the meteor. Conrad touched it and has become contaminated. Eventually, Quatermass and Conrad split to different directions. Conrad returns to the pub. He is dying from what the contamination has done to him. In a very passionate phone call to someone at his paper, he tries to explain everything he learned today so a story could be done to warn humanity. He then dies. Quatermass smuggled himself back into the food facility. There in disguise, he walks freely into one of the dome units. He sees what is really happening. There are things alive in the dome. They can only breathe the atmosphere in the dome…… Due to the Kneale’s and Cartier’s controversial production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the BBC was keen to make sure viewers were warned about the themes and imagery they would see in this serial. At the beginning of The Coming there is a BBC warning: "In our opinion it is not suitable for children or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition". Both Kneale and Cartier hated this warning. Kneale was angered because he wrote an adult thriller for adults.
Last week I mentioned that atmosphere plays a very large part in the story. I felt that everything had a bleak look to it. I thought that was the same this week such as the scene when the family was at their picnic. It should be a happy setting but the scene is unsettling even before the guards show up. There is nothing relaxing or nice about the area they chose to have their picnic. Once the guards show up, it becomes tragic as it is all too clear that this scenario will turn fatal for the family. We don’t see the murders happen on screen. We only hear the gunshots which allow Quatermass and Fowler escape but it is obvious the gunshots are the family’s fate. It is only after this that we see the family’s car pulled into the food facility and a lifeless arm is hanging out the window. It is becoming obvious at this stage that this is not some random entity but an intelligent group that are focusing on putting controlled people in power, such as the people at Broadhead’s hearing, to achieve their goal of invasion. What I find interesting is the way these controlled people are portrayed on screen. If not done right, this could be a fine line between creepy and comical. Luckily it is actually quite powerful and distrubing. These “zombies” speak like they are not in control of their bodies or how they speak to others. They have blank, glossy stares on their faces. To be honest, they are frightening. Great examples of this are the scenes at the beginning of where the members of the hearing speak. It is unnerving and the same can be said of the guard in the scene in the pub during The Coming. I think what contributes to these performances is the black & white gloomy picture.
Being a fan of vintage British television plus having a keen interest television restoration, I wanted to give my thoughts on the DVD release. For many years any of the Quatermass serials were just stories I read about on this page.
I hate to sound old but people don’t know how good they have it these days. If there is some vintage television they want to see, it’s probably out on DVD or they could possibly find it via You Tube or Torrents. I heard about Quatermass for the first time over twenty years ago but only got to know more about it through the site listed above. At that point, it was mouth watering to read details about these stories and how cool they must have been to watch; especially for me Quatermass and the Pit. Over the years Quatermass and the Pit has been released as an omnibus VHS, then DVD released by Revelation.
Then in 2005 one of the greatest DVD releases came out. The Quatermass Trilogy of The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II, and Quatermass and the Pit. This was restored by the same folks who restore the Doctor Who stories. They went back to the original film negatives and did the best possible restoration based on the quality of the source material. Quatermass II looks a lot better than I thought it would. Of course like many fans, I had a bootleg PAL VHS copy of this serial. Although for a bootleg even then it looked quite good; it was obvious there was issue with the picture on the source material. There is a lot of stair-stepping with the picture and an overall murky look to it. The one thing I am really happy to see fixed on the story is the half a second of black between each camera shot done in studio. The switchers used to switch between camera shots were mechanical. When this was shot at Lime Grove studios, the switcher used was faulty. Thus putting black between the shots. It drove me crazy! I almost couldn’t watch it that way. That has been fixed and I am so happy. The viewer warning prior to The Coming also was sourced from the master version of that BBC ident so the quality is superb.
Packaging wise, it comes with a 47 page booklet on everything you wanted to know about the production of the Quatermass serials. Written by Andrew Pixley, it has all sorts of minute details that you would have thought had been long lost by the time he came around to do these viewing notes. The only thing that lets down this set is the covers. It looks like a cover for a cheesy sci-fi triple feature. It completely undermines all the hard work, restoration and research that went into making this release.
If you are an American and have been wondering about getting a region free DVD player in order to get DVDs from the UK, this DVD set would be an essential purchase.

Next week: we come to the end of Quatermass II with the final two episodes of the serial. The Frenzy and The Destroyers.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The End of Time - Part One

“For Gallifrey! For victory! For the end of Time itself!"

As series 5 just ended on BBC1, I am preparing to re-watch the whole season again starting in August. By that point more episodes will be available to watch on Blu Ray. I haven’t seen all of them in HD yet but am eager to do so. To get myself ready for it, I decided to re-examine the first part of The End of Time.
The End of Time is truly an end of an era as it is not only the final adventure of the Tenth Doctor but also the end of Russell T. Davies involvement in Doctor Who not to mention other people who were involved. This story is the last of a series of specials which started in 2008 with The Next Doctor and continued over the course of 2009 with Planet of the Dead and The Waters of Mars. The story starts out with apparently everyone on Earth having bad dreams. These bad dreams are not just confined to our planet but this must affect many species in the universe including the Ood who summoned the Doctor at the end of The Waters of Mars. The bad dreams apparently just consist of The Master laughing at them. After the Doctor finally visits the Ood, though much time has passed from when they originally summoned him, the Ood gives him a glimpse of what is happening and who the players are at the center of all this. It is not just the Master; it is also Joshua Naismith and his daughter Abigail. More troubling is Wilfred Mott who is one of the only people who remembers the dreams.
I was very eager to see this story as it not only marked the end of the Tenth Doctor era but it also seemed poised to wrap up some of the loose ends we had seen through out the last couple of years. These included who picked up the Master’s ring at the end of Last of the Timelords but it also started to give us a little more insight into what happened in the Time War. Unfortunately, in true RTD fashion, it takes us a while to get there. Not that is a bad thing but it often feels like in his 2 part stories, he has one big objective to get to in the first part (which unfolds at the end) and then the second part goes at break-neck speed only to allow the last 10 to 15 minutes as a character driven wind-down.
The Master’s ring was picked up by Miss Trefusis who works at the prison Lucy Saxon is held. The scene where Trefusis picks up the ring is satisfying because its not who anyone expected. Thankfully it was not the Rani! Apparently, there is a cult that knows and worships Harold Saxon/The Master and they want to bring him back. Doing so is very impressive and these people give their lives to resurrect him. Lucy, whose DNA is needed to help with the ritual, has her own group ready to respond. They even have some sort of anti-Master toxin. This scene is a little self-indulgent and overly wordy. Lucy’s passionate speech to her former husband is nothing more than filler. Thankfully they all blow up except the Master. Though the resurrection is not complete and makes him a ticking time-bomb.
There are some amazing guest stars in the episode. Not including the return of Catherine Tate or Bernard Cribbins there is Brian Cox, Claire Bloom, June Whitfield and of course Timothy Dalton. None of these actors are in any kind of cameo or throw away role. Each one is essential to the plot and they make the story better for it. The effects and design for the story are amazing. The shot of the surface of the Oodsphere is breathtaking and vibrant. The Ood masks with intricate facial expressions translate extremely well to high definition. The Ood are a personal favourite of mine and I am so happy they played such a major role in the Tenth Doctor era. There is also a stunning scene where the Doctor rush from the Oodsphere to the prison the Master was being resurrected. He lands the TARDIS and darts from the control room in the ship to outside the prison in one camera movement which is a combination of part of the scene shot in studio to part being shot out on location. A really exciting shot which highlights the urgency the Doctor has in trying to stop the resurrection of the Master. It’s very nicely done. What doesn’t work quite as well is the Master’s constant transformation into a skeleton. It just doesn’t look that good.
Once the story settles down a little, there is a nice scene between The Doctor and Wilf. Both are old men and are at latter part of their lives. The Doctor’s end will come much sooner. The only part of the scene which makes me wince is once the Doctor starts to break up and cry telling Wilf how things have gone wrong. The Doctor also sounds a bit too childish worrying about the possibility of regeneration. He clearly loves himself the way he is now. I’m sorry to say but I don’t personally think these types of scenes work well for Tennant. He fails to impress me in scenes like this. I know I am in a minority as the scene is a fan favourite.
Part of The End of Time revolves around President Obama’s Christmas speech where he will announce how he will end the recession. I cringe when I watch this because not only am I still waiting for the announcement from the President on how he will end the recession but the President is not the Queen. He does not give Christmas addresses like Queen Elizabeth II would on Christmas Day. To me, it highlights lazy research about how the US government operates. RTD does the same thing in The Sound of Drums from series 3.
One thing I thought RTD did really well was some misdirection of the major threat in the episode. Almost as soon as we knew Tennant was leaving, we knew that the Master would return in Tennant’s finale. I kind of figured there may have been more to it in terms of the real threat but it was still a good misdirect on the part of the production team. We also knew about Joshua Naismith since Planet of the Dead. His name, or the name Naismith, was brandished on the side of the bus that ended up on another world. The name Naismith is also a fun way of foretelling the future for the series as the metallic element Sodium has the symbol Na but also has the atomic number 11. Smith is the last name for Doctor #11. Naismith. Very cool! The finale is a double whammy…..thank goodness. It looked like for a moment, the awful cliffhanger of the Master becoming everybody on Earth would be the end of the episode. It is technically impressive but very silly especially the President Obama “look-a-like” covering his face while transforming into the Master. The real cliffhanger is the apparent return of the Timelords lead by the Lord President of Gallifrey. How they exactly will return is the real cliffhanger.

Once I get closer to re-watching Series 5, I plan on watching The End of Time Part Two. The “Next Time” trailer is very compelling as we see images of the Timelords, the Master and a brutally beaten up Doctor.

“Sometimes, I think the Timelord lives too long.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Quatermass II: An Exceptional Sequel - Part One

In 1953, the BBC broadcast the ground breaking series, The Quatermass Experiment. This six part adventure chronicles the work of Professor Bernard Quatermass as he heads the British Experimental Rocket Group. The story surrounds the mysterious crash of the Quatermass rocket ship where all the crew seems to have disappeared apart from one. The British Film Institute described this production as "one of the most influential series of the 1950s." The BBC knew fairly quickly that this serial was a success. They sold the film rights of the story to Hammer and they commissioned Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale with creating another story which would begin broadcast just as the BBC’s new competition, ITV, started broadcasting in September of 1955.
The Bolts Tx 22/10/55
Quatermass II is not only the title of the serial but the name of the second rocket that Professor Quatermass designed and was having tests done in Australia to fine tune it from his designs. These tests lead to the rocket exploding in a nuclear mushroom cloud even killing members of the team working on the project. Quatermass knows this is the end of his dream of not only the Quatermass II rocket but also his vision of how human beings will inhabit as colonies on the moon. We, as the viewers, see what this moon base concept would look like. No sooner does Quatermass come to this sad conclusion, Captain John Dillon consults Quatermass over some meteorites that his military unit have been tracking. The meteorites break up as they hit the ground but they are hollow. Something was inside. Dillon, who is also courting Quatermass’ daughter Paula, investigates further where they know the meteorites are falling. They end up at a facility that is creating synthetic food. This factory looks exactly like the base Quatermass wanted to make on the moon which is built in a special way to support life in an alien climate. Suddenly, more meteorites fall around them as Dillon is hit with something and a mark appears on his face…..
The Mark Tx 29/10/55
No sooner than Dillon is hit by something from one of the meteors, armed guards show up out of no where and take Dillon away back to the food facility plant. They do not let Quatermass go with them but he notices they all have strange marks on their faces similar to what he briefly saw on Dillon. Quatermass goes to the ministry, where he gets his funding for the British Experimental Rocket Group, hoping he can find out more about this food plant he found as well as the strange worker village he found near to the plant. There he finds Vincent Broadhead who also has been doing research in this facility. Broadhead found out that this is not the only facility but there are more like it around the world. Broadhead and Quatermass at first believe this is down to competition from other companies vying for a position in the marketplace of synthetic food. When Quatermass meets Broadhead, Broadhead is actually in a ministerial hearing about his findings on these mysterious plants. Quatermass wants to get in on the hearing as he is curious about these facilities too but also wants to find out what happened to Dillon. At the hearing, as members return the table, it is obvious that there is friction in the room. Quatermass suddenly points out to Broadhead that one of the members in the room has the mysterious mark on his face…..
As commercial television was starting up in the UK in the fall of 1955, the BBC needed to come up with programming which could rival what ITV would be offering. It was no surprise that the BBC turned to Kneale for another Quatermass serial. In fact, as a dream team, Nigel Kneale worked very well with Austrian director Rudolph Cartier. During this period, they would team up for numerous productions such as Wuthering Heights and the controversial production Nineteen Eighty-Four. The two of them together created an atmosphere for their productions which had viewers engaged in the serial week after week. For Nigel Kneale, the role of Quatermass was actor Reginald Tate. Tate was the first Quatermass in 1953 and Kneale wrote the sequel very much assuming that Tate would be able reprise his role. Tate was happy to continue on and was signed up and ready to do Quatermass II. Production on the serial was to begin in September but Tate died unexpectedly of a heart attack in August of 1955 at the age of 58. The role had to be filled quickly and John Robinson stepped in at very short notice. Even in the first episode, The Bolts, Robinson seems a little shaky as Quatermass but this changes but episode two.
Some of the production was similar to how the first Quatermass serial was made. The theme music was still the classical track Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst. Although it is the same music, the track used is a different recording. The title sequence looks similar to that of The Quatermass Experiment but actually done a completely different way. This was done with dry ice vapours through a sheet card with cut out letters for Quatermass II.
When The Quatermass Experiment was made, it was broadcast live. Work was done to try and record the episodes onto film as they were being performed live from Alexandra Palace in 1953. The first 2 episodes were recorded on primitive machines and the quality of the episodes was deemed unsatisfactory. For a long time fans of the serial thought that episodes 3-6 of The Quatermass Experiment were lost the same way as a lot of programs from that time. It is now believed that the episodes were never recorded at all due to the poor results from the quality of the film. With Quatermass II, technology moved along in the two years since The Quatermass Experiment. There were advances on how the film recorders could capture an image. This method was employed for all six episodes of Quatermass II. The reason though was not really one for prosperity sake but because the episode would be repeated two days after the “live” episode aired. Usually, if something would be repeated, the BBC would have the show performed live again and broadcasted. Unlike The Quatermass Experiment, a lot of time was given to location shooting. The episodes used a lot different locations, such as the Shell oil refinery, with interiors being done live on broadcast.
I enjoy this story but it had been a long time since I actually sat down to watch it and pay attention to it. Right from the start of Mars, The Bringer of War, I am mesmerized. There is something about black and white television which adds to the mystery of the unknown. Even though I am watching this from restored episodes, the episodes are blurred to an extant and have strange grey and dark bordering on some of the shots. I don’t mind this as it adds to the bleakness of the story and the mystery of what is going on. What I really like is that the story began before we even got there. The army has already been monitoring the situation long before we catch up with them at the start of the episode. It’s hard to believe this is live television because it is so complicated. A lot of film inserts, some special effects, and a lot of scenes on multiple sets. If major fluffs happened during the “live” broadcast, some scenes would be re-shot and edited into the episode in time for the repeat. Still, some mistakes are small enough to not warrant a re-shoot such as one of the earliest scenes of Dillon talking to his Sergeant travelling in an army jeep. As we see them in their seats, there is a window behind them which is white. While they are driving and talking, somebody walks behind the window and by doing so, they are a silhouette in the background. So much for the moving car. Ah, live television!
Next week: We continue with Quatermass II with episodes 3 & 4: The Food and The Coming. Also, before the next Quatermass article goes up, I will be doing my review for Doctor Who: The End of Time Part One from Blu Ray. Starting August, I will be doing my reviews of Series 5 and also the vanilla Blu Rays for Matt Smith’s inaugural season.