Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Omega Podcast Episode 78


If you have a chance, please check out the second episode of The Omega Podcast that Charlie, Ben and myself hosted. Here is what the episode is about:

"This week Ben, Charlie, and Greg take some time to look back on Caroline John’s time on Doctor Who. Caroline John passed away on June 5th, 2012. They discuss her contribution to the series and how her character, Liz Shaw, helped to confidently push Doctor Who into the 1970s. As usual, there is news, feedback and lots of great discussion. Ben, Charlie and Greg also talk about the big upcoming convention in the Twin Cities, CONvergence."

http://podcast.theomegapodcast.org/2012/06/30/omegapodcast78.aspx

The article for All Creatures Great & Small will be posted on Sunday.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Are John Steed & Emma Peel SNOBs in The Correct Way to Kill?


Steed Changes Partners, Emma Joins the Enemy
Since writing regular articles for this blog, I have been citing such programs as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, All Creatures Great & Small and of course Doctor Who as my earliest memories of watching British television. It wasn’t until I started to think about things for this week’s article that I opened up an unused storage room in my brain and remembered something that had been long since forgotten. Let me set the stage….

In the earlier part of the 1980s I was young. I mean grade school young. All the TV channels in my area were sort of showing the same thing all the time. My parents are big TV watchers and suddenly out of nowhere they were telling me about a new TV station that they were watching out of St. Cloud MN, KXLI. Now, I just want to give a shout out to the Internet because I thought this portion of the article was going to be vague but it is in fact going to be remotely interesting. I lived in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and St. Cloud was quite a far way away. So much so that we had never received any TV transmissions before from that city. Suddenly, out of nowhere was KXLI. Well, that is because KXLI started broadcasting in 1982. On the UHF channels, it was channel 41. In fact, XLI is the roman numeral for 41 thus KXLI. Now, what does this have to do with anything? Well, we started to watch, as a family, KXLI around that time. They were showing a lot of older programs and at around 10:30 or so weeknights there would be this amazing program I got addicted to called The Avengers. In fact, after thinking about it and figuring out the chronological order of viewing in my life, I came to the realization that The Avengers is the first British television series I ever watched on a regular basis. I was between 7 and 8 when I started to watch it on KXLI. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
Perhaps what grabbed my attention to the series was Emma Peel. That probably is too easy of an observation. How about this? John Steed grabbed my attention. There is something extraordinarily debonair, gentlemanly, old school Victorian yet pulling it off to be modern. He treated ladies very well but he could be a bad ass when the occasion arose. I guess I didn’t know that I liked all things British until I saw him. From the bowler hat to the car he drove; Steed was nothing but a class-act. Watching it on KXLI was really special. I felt I watched it every night but I’m sure I missed a bunch of it. Like I said, it was on every night at 10:30pm. I was in 3rd grade. Sure, I had a black & white TV set in my bedroom, it didn’t mean I was allowed to stay up and watch it all. I had to sneak it on to watch. One that really sticks out for me was Quick-Quick Slow Death especially the end of it. I really appreciated it and for many years it was kind of difficult to get a hold of episodes. I’ll talk about that in a bit. I think I will probably be going against popular opinion about the colour era of Steed and Mrs. Peel but I am probably getting ahead of myself. Before we get started, for those of you who lived in the Twin Cities area, here is a reminder of how the station ID looked for KXLI:




The Correct Way to Kill TX: 11/03/67
This is a fairly straightforward story and I will not bore myself with too heavy of a plot description. Someone or a group of someones are killing Soviet spies. I think them being Soviets is implied as I do not believe it has ever been stated in the episode that they were Soviets. Steed and Mrs. Peel are called in to investigate. They get in contact with Nutski who is from “the other side” and it is decided the best way to find out what is going on is to have Steed team up with comrade Olga and Mrs. Peel to team up with comrade Ivan.  One reason why I love this series so much is that it is British. I mean the series wears a sash across it that says “We are proud to be British!” I say this because the Soviet agents are being killed by gentleman who wear bowler hats and carry umbrellas. Not too dissimilar from Steed. They are part of a group called SNOB (Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding, Inc.) On the outside, SNOB is what it looks like. A group that exists to train men to have manners but also have an upper-class snobbery sort of feel to them. In fact, they exist to kill agents. In an amazing twist that everybody saw coming, the man who is responsible for the entire organization is non-other than Nutski. He was having his own agents killed.

I love this series but I was pretty bored with this episode. In fact, I will be honest and say Series 5 (the colour Emma Peel series) is my least favourite series of the lot. Now, it’s not that I fell out of love with The Avengers (it’s not you, it’s me) because prior to watching The Correct Way to Kill, I took a look at Death at Bargain Prices for the first time in years and I absolutely loved it. To be honest, it is my favourite episode from probably my favourite series, the 4th Series. Maybe with Series 5 it starts to get too fantastical for my tastes. Though I think mostly is that the episode is just sort of flat. I know this is a remake of The Charmers but since I don’t off-hand remember it, that isn’t what is spoiling it for me. I am not able to make a comparison of the two episodes. It’s just the flatness of the episode. One thing I noticed about Death at Bargain Prices is how rich the photography is being filmed in black & white.
The Avengers started out as a live program, moved to being recorded on 2” video tape. When the fourth series started, it was switched to black & white 35mm film and then to colour 35mm film for Series 5 & 6. There is a huge contrast between the ways the series was filmed between Series 5 & 6. I feel both of them take advantage of either the black & white spectrum or the colour palette. The colour series seems to me to have a bright colour palette but that does not seem to be in this episode. Everything feels drab to me. Possibly my problem may not be how it was made but perhaps with its two stars.
John Steed and Emma Peel are the iconic duo for The Avengers. It is amazing that there have been some great characters that have partnered with Steed before such as Dr. Keel, Venus Smith, and of course Cathy Gale. Sorry Dr. King, you don’t register with me at all! Yet, in Series 4 the public fell in love with Mrs. Peel. Not to take anything away from Diana Rigg but if Series 2 & 3 were filmed like Series 4 and exported to the US, would Cathy Gale be as popular? It’s hard to say. I love the Steed and Mrs. Peel in Series 4. The series feels fresh and Mrs. Peel balances sexy and espionage expertly. Even when she fights that enemy it is almost playful. Now, this is my opinion, by Series 5 it doesn’t feel fresh anymore. Steed and Mrs. Peel are too familiar and it sometimes feels like they are experiencing a joke that they only know about and not letting us in. Dare I say it but it reminds me of The Tenth Doctor and Rose. It feels like the threat isn’t taken very seriously and there is a lot of tongue and cheek dialogue. I expected to find out the episode was directed by Roger Moore’s James Bond. Suffice to say, I got all excited to watch an episode of The Avengers but found it to be an OK experience instead of an amazing one. That’s too bad.

Of course some things I thought were great were the guest stars. Michael Gough played Nutski and Philip Madoc played Ivan. The list of credits to these actors is immense. It was a treat to see them be in the same scenes together. It is sad that we lost Michael Gough in 2011 and really unfortunate to lose Philip this year. We also get a chance to see the great Peter Barkworth in this episode. He has been in many series such as Doctor Who, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Colditz, Dead of Night, and Armchair Theatre. As I am researching this article, I am a little sad to see that Peter had died in 2006. I must have forgotten that, I thought he was still with us.

For me, there was a time when getting episodes of The Avengers were very difficult. When I watched this series on KXLI, I didn’t have a VCR nor ever gave the thought to recording programs. Recording programs would be silly says the man who have thousands of recordings in his collection. The series was re-ran on A&E in the late 1980s. At that point I got disenchanted with the series (a story for another time) and I didn’t record or watch it then. In the mid-1990s, my hunger to acquire more British television was ramping up. I was still a few years away from buying my PAL TV and VCRs but I knew I wanted to pick up my love affairs with The Avengers and find a way to get episodes.
At this point, I thought no TV stations were running the series or so I thought until I came home to visit my parents. I came home on a Friday evening and they were watching The Avengers episode Who’s Who??? I couldn’t believe it! I have been trying to get a hold of the series and here my parents have been watching at home the whole time plus I still lived at their home! Well, as it happens, that was the first time they watched it as they ran across it by accident. It was a part of the Encore Channels. Encore Channels were pay per view channels with each one devoted to a different genre such as Love, Action, Drama, and Mystery. My parents did not have the Encore package but what they did have was an Encore channel that each day was a different theme. Friday was Mystery and every Friday they showed an episode of The Avengers. I started to tape The Avengers every Friday, the prints looked better than I had ever seen. The problem was that it was never shown in order. One week would be a colour Emma Peel episode and the next would be an early Venus Smith episode. At least I got an off-air recording of The Frighteners from Series 1 which was pretty rare at the time. Everything was about to change in 1998.
A&E was one of the first DVD distributors to really get into releasing archive television in the US. They brought us The Avengers on DVD. Although the series was being released in the UK on VHS since the early 1990s, there had never been a release here in the US like this. Previously, there had been some bootleg VHS releases here but that was it.  I thought their strategy of releasing episode was really good. Instead of releasing the series in chronological order, they started with Series 5 which are the colour Emma Peel episodes. They released those in order and for the time, I think they looked great. At least they were being released! I snatched those up as soon as they came out. My collection of The Avengers on DVD grew really fast. There were no extras but I didn’t care as I finally was able to get a complete collection of episodes on DVD. It seemed like things started to run in reverse between the US and UK from the 1990s. Whereas in the 1990s the UK had a steady release of The Avengers on VHS with nothing being released in the US, now the US market was getting a steady stream of releases of the series on DVD but there were no DVD releases for the UK.  People in the UK were very excited when they heard about the Optimum releases.
The bootleg VHS cover for The Correct Way to Kill. Notice the badge of quality on the cover that says, "This tape recorded at Standard Speed on high grade tape, using a licensed shell". Sounds good to me!
In 2009 there was an announcement that fans of The Avengers had been waiting years to hear. Optimum in the UK was going to be releasing the episodes of the series on DVD starting with existing episodes from Series 1 along with all of Series 2. The highpoint of this announcement was that not only were they going to be re-mastered but also include extras. One problem started crop up with these releases. Almost on all the sets there was DVD authoring problems. This was a real shame especially as I know people who worked on these sets and put a lot of time to give us the best possible product they could. These should be definitive sets. I bought the boxset for Series 1 & 2 and Series 3. I had to send a disc back for the Series 1 & 2 sets but Series 3 was fine. I know a lot of people started to get turned off with these defects on the discs. I don’t know how many people stopped buying the sets because of those issues. I know I stopped buying them but it wasn’t because of the DVD authoring issues.

If you look at the screen grabs from this article, you will see these are from the A&E sets. You don’t have to look too hard to find screengrabs from the Optimum sets for the colour series. They are superb. The image is no longer zoomed and the colour levels are vibrant and blemishes removed. Obviously, these are hand over hand a massive improvement on the A&E sets, so why haven’t I bought these? It’s simple. Ever since I got a Blu Ray Player and HD set, I made a very simple rule. If it was shot on film, I want an HD version of it. The Avengers is not a series of few episodes. It is a ton of episodes. I have all the episodes on DVD already. If I am going to invest money to upgrade quality on a filmed series, I want the option to buy it in HD. I think there is no reason why they couldn’t have tested the waters and released a Blu Ray sampler set while they released the Series 1 &2 and Series 3 box. It would have given some indication of whether or not there was demand for further Blu Ray sets.
Did Optimum mock up this cover for the Blu Ray release of Series 4 that is on the Amazon.co.uk site?
Now, this is where the “fan” comes in to tell me why my suggestion is wrong. They would go on to tell me there are multiple reasons why my idea couldn’t work and I just don’t “get it.” Possibly but I spent the last 16 years working in Marketing and Advertising where if you want to sell something badly enough you can. I also work in production where I have a good idea of the costs it takes to make a Blu Ray release.  The Avengers isn’t as well-known as it used to be but the prints were re-mastered in HD. I can’t believe there was no way that Optimum (Studio Canal) couldn’t have partnered with someone else to make such a release happen. That’s what is going on with Space 1999. Studio Canal is a world-wide entity. Now, I do know that Studio Canal prefers to keep everything close to their hip so even if these ideas were do-able, they probably wouldn’t want to partner with anyone. I feel like they should have pushed Blu Ray. I do not want the filmed episodes of the series on DVD. Even if these are new transfers, it’s too much money for me to sink in when there is always the possibility of Blu Ray releases at some point. I am sick of buying everything multiple times. My collection is already gigantic.  It’s a lesson I’ve learned from collecting Doctor Who episodes. It stops becoming collecting and more of a monthly payment (like a mortgage) to Doctor Who. It never ends. Once again this is where the “fan” comes in to remind me that I am not forced to buy them. This is true. I let my wallet speak. I have not bought any of the filmed episodes of The Avengers that were released by Optimum nor have I bought any of the Doctor Who DVD releases for over a year. That being said, I have bought Series 1 & 2 and Series 3 because they were made on 405 line videotape and they look the best I have ever seen them. That being said, I hope we get a Blu Ray release of these episodes some day! I think they would sell really well.
I got information on The Correct Way to Kill from two very good sites: The Avengers Declassified and The Avengers Forever. If you have never been, please do yourself a favour and click on the links to go to those sites.

Finally: News broke this week that Actor Caroline John passed away on June 5th. This is very heart-breaking news especially as she was only 71 and had passed away from cancer. From my point of view, I knew her best as Liz Shaw from Doctor Who and recently watched her in the 1982 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I know that down the road I will be watching Inferno as a tribute to her and I hopefully will write something up about that. Ms. John will be very much missed.

Next week: Let’s take a road trip to Darrowby and drop in on James, Siegfried and Tristan as we look at All Creatures Great & Small with an episode from Series 2 Ways and Means.

Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at FTA13867@gmail.com

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Page for updates about new articles.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Great Heavenly Hemorrhoids, It's The Thin Blue Line!


It took a while but I finally warmed to The Thin Blue Line. When it first made its way over to PBS in 1995, I was expecting Rowan Atkinson to play the role of Inspector Fowler like Blackadder. I am sure I am not the only one. By this time I had seen Mr. Bean so it shouldn’t have been too strange for me to think that Atkinson could play different parts but that was more down to how I didn’t appreciate how talented Rowan Atkinson was. For some reason, I thought he was only a one-dimensional actor even though I had seen Mr. Bean and could see that he was capable of a lot of different styles. My views were ignorant at best.

When I first watched The Thin Blue Line, I was generally underwhelmed. There were some funny moments but a lot of the characters were extremely clich├ęd. Perhaps even stereotypical. It lacked any true style to the series. Even the theme music was some-what generic. The theme grated on me yet I continued to watch it. The entire series wasn’t what I expected. But was that a reason for me not to like it?
Court in the Act TX: 14/11/96

This week I look at two episodes from Series 2. Court in the Act starts off with Fowler introducing to his team proposed new police uniforms. For this, he employs Constable Goody to show off the new uniforms. It’s difficult and to be honest, everything is more difficult with Goody. He can’t even show off uniforms without messing it up. Meanwhile CID’s Grim is working with Boyle to raid Harry the Spikes house and finally get him behind bars. Harry is a bad man and deserves to go to jail. Boyle suggests to Grim that evidence can be placed in Harry’s house to be “found”.

CID gets the help of Fowler’s officers to raid Harry’s place. Of course, this is after they finally burst into the right house. While searching the flat, Boyle suggests that Goody checks behind the cooker. Goody finds the drugs.  The next day, Fowler tries to prepare Goody for the trial as Goody will need to give evidence. Fowler plays the barrister to prepare Goody but every time Fowler (as the barrister) asks Goody a question, he breaks down in tears. There is a portion of every episode of The Thin Blue Line where a good deal of time is spent on a scene between Fowler, Goody, Habib, and Gladstone. It’s mainly with Fowler trying to explain something to Goody with Goody just not getting it. In this instance, Goody is cracking under the pressure of Fowler’s barrister. Habib suggests that Fowler puts on a mop to look more like a barrister wearing a wig. She suggests all sorts of things to help Goody get “it”. Fowler responds, “I doubt Constable Goody would "get it", if it came in a large bag marked, "IT". A wonderful Ben Elton line! Especially watching this when I was younger and was (let’s be honest) basically wanting to see more Blackadder, this line almost made me homesick for that series. At any rate, by the time the scene is done, Fowler is dressed up as a barrister, Habib is the prosecution, and Gladstone is the judge. Poor Goody is the only one who is supposed to be himself in this and he is the only one who has no idea who he is supposed to be!
A couple of things happen. By the end of the scene, Goody tells Habib that he swore he checked behind the cooker before and there were no drugs. Fowler finds out that the barrister for the defense is the Mayoress. Fowler and Habib talk with Goody and realize that CID had to have planted those drugs at Harry the Spike’s place. Fowler tries to trick Grim into admitting to the drugs being placed by CID by tape recording their conversation but screws it up. Eventually Fowler is able to get the case dismissed as he tips off the Mayoress that Goody was not wearing an official Police uniform but rather a proposed one that has no official markings on it at all. Grim is furious but at the end breaks down to Fowler. He didn’t want to catch Harry the Spike illegally and was glad that matter was closed.
The underlying message to this episode is that the Police and CID can be corrupt. There has to be people internally to do whatever they can to keep these organizations within the law. For a comedy series, the episode does have a serious tone about this. We are seeing characters of the series we like doing something completely illegal. Fowler steps up and even tips of the Mayoress about something his own man did but that’s because he knows nobody on the force should be above the law. Fowler gets a lot of ribbing from CID and even with online articles I read such as saying Fowler was a poor leader. This simply isn’t true. Fowler can be a stick in the mud but he knows what is right and he knows his duty.

One area I do find very dull is Sergeant Dawkins constant jealousy of everything Fowler does. Fowler and Dawkins have been in a long term relationship for 10 years. They live together but she is very jealous and this becomes very prominent with the arrival of Mayoress Wykham in Series 2. To me, it’s not even funny. I understand it adds a different dimension to Dawkins & Fowler’s relationship and to the whole series but it bores me. Maybe because Dawkins seems to have no element of professionalism to her work ethic at all. Am I taking this all too seriously? Yeah, I thought so.
Ism Ism Ism TX: 21/11/96

The Mayoress needs to have Fowler and his team arrest an asylum seeker. During all of this, the Police, in general, are asked to look into how it treats minorities. Fowler needs to have a mini-seminar with his team about compassion for minorities and other minority groups. Meanwhile Grim is trying to become a Todger.  He has tried to get into the Masons and other secret groups that could help him move his career forward but no one wants him. Hopefully the Todgers work out better for him.
While Fowler is trying to explain why we should accept people’s differences, Fowler does an impression of an alien from another planet who would like to work at the Police station. It’s a lot of fun to watch since this is the kind of stuff that Rowan is so good at. He does multiple things with his body and his mouth all at once to be weird yet truly funny. It’s out of character in a sense for Fowler but it is what I love to see from Rowan Atkinson. During this, Grim comes in and enlightens the rooms and about “Isms” which he constantly get burned by Boyle:

Grim: What "ism" ever robbed a bank? What "ism" ever mugged anybody? What "ism" ever put a gun to somebody's head?
Boyle: Terrorism?
Grim: Yeah alright. What "ism" ever threatened the security of the state?
Boyle: Marxism?
Grim: What "ism" ever hurt anyone?
Boyle: Sadism?

It’s funny. It’s also funny how even with the best intentions (perhaps being too PC) someone could get themselves into trouble. Fowler tells everyone including Grim that he is bringing in a gay officer to talk to the officers. At that point Melvyn Hayes (who played “Gloria” Beaumont in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum) comes in the room dressed very flamboyant and clearly everyone in the room thinks he is the gay officer. Fowler of course starts stuttering making innocent comments to hide his nervousness towards him, even saying “Don’t think twice about being a homosexual.”   In fact, this is the Chief Todger who actually is at the station to look for Grim. Grim doesn’t realize it is the Chief Todger and freaks out after the Todger calls him “Little Bird”.
Regardless of all of the work the crew does to understand people’s differences better, when they arrest the asylum seeker, they arrest the black man in the room dressed in foreign clothing. They did not arrest the asylum seeker, in fact, they left him behind. They arrested the EC Commissioner for Human Rights. What about Grim, did he make it into the Todgers? Sadly no. Just as he was about to do the ceremonial initiation of kissing a turkey’s bum while wearing a dress (as one does), Fowler and Dawkins burst in through the door of the apartment. They saw silhouettes of a man beating a woman from the street but it was in fact Grim wearing a dress and going through the initiation. As the Chief Todger says, “Close the Turkey’s legs…his bottom will not be kissed tonight.”
One of my favourite parts of this episode is when Fowler and Habib are talking about men and women in terms of sexual discrimination in the workplace and Fowler goes to Dawkins to get her support on his views. Fowler talking to Dawkins:
Fowler: “Constable Habib and I are talking about sexual positions. And I want you to assure her that I know only one.”
Dawkins: “There’s no need to tell the whole world.”
Fowler: “And that is the upright one. In which men and women are interchangeable.”

For some reason which I never knew, Ism Ism Ism was not originally shown on PBS. It was left out of the syndication package. I have heard that it was because of the subject matter of the episode or it may have simply been because of some kind of mistake such as the episode of Are You Being Served? Top Hat and Tails accidentally being left off the PBS syndication package in the 1980s. Of course now it has been reinstated and I believe Ism, Ism, Ism has been too. It was said that the episode had been included on VHS when it was released. While researching this article, I did not see an NTSC video release for this episode but it was released in the UK. The R2 DVD release came out in 2000. This is what I viewed these episodes from. I do not remember if this is the first time I had seen this episode. Something tells me it is as I seem to remember thinking it was very good and a shame that it was not in syndication. Maybe some of you have better memories? What is interesting that a lot of these episodes are longer and this episode clocks in at 35 minutes.
The Thin Blue Line is the old guard vs. the new. I know that Ben Elton was a big fan of Dad’s Army and he based some of the relationships and characters from that series. Fowler was Mainering Vs. Grim who was Hodges. Goody was Pike. I can see this but I also see it as slightly different way. Fowler is the stiff old generation in the Police force.  He is needed to teach these newer officers about how the Police force works. In some ways he seems modern and other ways he seems inflexible. He talks about how his bowel movements run like clockwork. He gets annoyed when the store no longer has his chocolate frog. He thinks the youth is behind this. He is afraid that his chocolate frog will be replaced with caramel private parts or strawberry flavoured lesbian. Of course, this is where Rowan shines and this is where my youth of watching this series was way off. Like I said, I wanted Blackadder and what I got was another glimpse at how Rowan is genius. What was odd for me was that Fowler was not in control. Unlike Blackadder, he never got his way and a lot of times he was the underdog. Fowler always looked after his team. He may have yelled at them for doing something stupid but he always was loyal to them. He was a good leader.
The rest of the cast is kind of odd. David Haig as Grim is amazing. Simply put. He likes to talk tough but sounds like a complete moron: “cause you know what'll happen Raymond, don't you - it'll be your cock up - my arse!” Habib has some life to her but I feel Ben Elton was a little out of touch with the youth and she felt a little one-dimensional to me. Gladstone was very forgettable. Some of his lines were funny but even writing this paragraph, I almost forgot to write about him at all. This leaves me with Goody.

I really don’t like Goody. To me he is almost the Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island. He is someone who screws up everything. On a side note, if I were on that damn island and Gilligan kept screwing things up that cost me from getting off the island, there would soon be no more Gilligan. Ok, I am glad I got that out of my system. Goody shouldn’t have a job. He is a horrible officer. He messes everything up and is extremely juvenile. This is not a slant against James Dreyfus who played Goody. I think he is a great actor. I loved him in Absolutely Fabulous. I never watched My Hero nor will I ever watch My Hero. Just for the record, both of these episodes include the Mayoress. She was once a sort of flame to Fowler. Lucy Robinson plays her and I honestly think she does a horrible job. She plays the role so over-the-top that it just cringes on me. I can’t stand her; sorry! She is in only 3 episodes of Series 2 yet it feels like she was in all of them. This is not a compliment.

I know there is a sort of correlation between The Thin Blue Line and Dad’s Army but I think there is a closer line between this series and Dixon of Dock Green. Dixon of Dock Green was about Constable George Dixon who firmly believed in his duty to protect every citizen in his reach. It was a very romantic view of the job and I feel this is similar to Inspector Fowler. Fowler has that same romantic view. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense but more as someone to admire to take those beliefs and really stand behind them. If Dixon of Dock Green were to ever have been a comedy, this could be it. Even the openings are similar. Dixon would start (and end) every episode with him addressing the viewer and letting them know the “lesson” to be learned of the episode. Starting with Series 2 of The Thin Blue Line, the show ditches it opening title sequence and starts each episode off with Fowler addressing the audience warning us about what kind of problem will crop up in this week’s episode. After he is done, we then go into a more subdued and simpler version of the theme with title graphics taking place over the episode action. That was a real nice way to start the episodes.
Like I mentioned above, it took me a while to get into this series. It wasn’t the series fault but my own ideas of what I expected. I am really glad I stuck with it. It really is one of those gems of British comedy that gets funnier with every viewing.
Next week: From police to spies, we travel back to the 1960s where we meet up with that amazing duo John Steed and Emma Peel as we look at an episode of The Avengers. We learn The Correct Way to Kill.
Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at FTA13867@gmail.com

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Page for updates about new articles.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Where is The Disney Family Album?


This week I take a step away from British television as I look at a couple episodes of a rare program that aired on the Disney Channel back in the 1980s. As I have mentioned in the past, I am a huge fan of the early years of the Walt Disney studios and I have a great deal of respect for the people who worked for the studio to make it the success that it is today. Although I am not a huge fan of the output of Disney now, I am fascinated by the evolution of the not only the studio but of the art and process of movie making whether it is animation or live action. If you look at something like the first Mickey Mouse animated sound short, Steamboat Willie, on the surface it is crude but anyone who is keenly interested in the art form will see there is much more to it than that. One of my favorite Disney discoveries over the years is how much I enjoyed the existing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit animated shorts. They are clever, funny and where they may be crude in some areas are compensated in innovation in most other areas.
Walt had always been the front man for the studios. In most areas, he was pretty amazing but where he excelled was in finding the right talent. He was known for finding talented people to work on his productions and then pushing them in different directions from their comfort zones to be able have them excel in different areas. Where people have been animators before they suddenly get involved with working on theme parks. I think even today, the Walt Disney Company does a decent job of recognizing the people who made outstanding contributions to the organization. They call them Disney Legends and they are people who worked for the company and are recognized for their years of service. The Disney Legends program was established in 1987 to acknowledge and honor the many individuals whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic. Names include Virginia Davis, Julie Andrews, and Wayne Allwine. There have been other ways that Disney paid tribute some of its best talent. In the mid-1980s, the Disney Channel started to show a series called The Disney Family Album. Each episode took one aspect of the studio’s history and looked back at it. This week I take a look at two episodes.
Imagineers  TX: 1985

More than likely, you are going to know what Imagineers are. They are the folks who conceive and design all aspects of the Disney Theme Parks. It is taking Imagination and Engineers and they become Imagineers. It is a very Disney-fied word. He created WED Enterprises in 1952 to work on and concept Disneyland. This episode looks exclusively at Randy Bright, Bill Justice, Tim Delaney, X Atencio, and Dave Feiten.

The episode starts off with Randy Bright taking the us through Disneyland and explaining to us, the audience, what the Imagineer’s job is in creating something like Disneyland or Walt Disney World. If you are a fan of this sort of thing, there is nothing in here that is a revelation or ground breaking. What is nice is to hear the story from someone who had worked on a lot of this stuff and also worked at the park when he was young. It’s too bad as he comes across a little corporate in this wearing his suit and tie in the theme park. As doing research for this article, I was shocked to read that he was struck and killed by a car as he was riding his bike in 1990. He was only 51.
We move on to Bill Justice as the story moves on to the creation of Audio-Animatronics. You know, those robots who act like humans in all the park exhibits such as the Hall of Presidents and Abraham Lincoln. After Bill we meet X Atencio as we learn about, as mentioned above, how Walt would move people around and challenge them to do their best in other areas. X started out as an animator and moved over to being an Imagineer. His contribution to the Pirate of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion are immense.  I am not sure he liked the change at first as he recalls how difficult it was to drive by the studio every day to WED Enterprises and not see his old friends at the studio. Now here is something very interesting about the Walt Disney Company. So many of the people who worked there in its early heyday who made a significant contribution to the studio lived into their 90s. Case in point, Bill Justice and X Atencio. Bill passed away in 2011 at the age of 97 and X is still with us at the age of 92. It just goes to show you if you worked at the Disney studios in the early days, you lived a long life….unless of course you were Walt Disney.

I would love to have that scale model of EPCOT behind X Atencio. It's probably bigger than my house.
We spend a considerable amount of time with Tim Delaney as he shows us what is happening at EPCOT with the new attraction, The Living Seas. This program was shot in 1984 and at that point EPCOT was only 2 years old. There had never been anything like EPCOT before or since. Future World at EPCOT was conceived as a place for scientific enlightenment and discovery. When EPCOT first opened, the belief was that it was so different to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World that there should be no “characters” in the park. This meant that you would not see Mickey, Goofy or Donald walking around the park. The attractions in Future World was a way to get people to see what might be coming or get people to think about future technology and how it could impact our life. Watching Delaney talk about The Living Seas nearly put me to sleep. The ocean bores me and this attraction seemed too drawn out. To be fair, it seemed like once you got in the attraction a lot was going to happen but it seemed like you would be in there forever. The Living Seas as conceptualized opened in 1986 and closed 2003. As so many of the attractions in Disney Theme Parks, it had a sponsor and it was sponsored by United Technologies until 1998. Eventually the discrimination that plagued the Disney characters for years from allowing them into EPCOT had been lifted but at what cost? In 2004 The Living Seas began its transformation into The Seas with Nemo & Friends. The attraction became themed from the characters of the 2003 film Finding Nemo. I see why they did it but it is too bad. I think there can still be a right balance between the characters themselves and the educational purposes of these attractions. Yet as Bill Justice points out in this episode, he mentions how Walt himself said that what makes coming to his theme park unique were the Disney characters. You can’t go anywhere else for that.

We also check in with Dave Feiten who works on the audio-animatronics. He talks about how they were working on an audio-animatronic that would walk on its own. Dave, that would be a robot which would be scary! Actually in 2005, Imagineering did unveil the first audio-animatronic that could walk on its own, Lucky the Dinosaur.  What I have seen of him, Lucky is pretty cool!


The Sherman Brothers TX: 1985

The other episode I watched focused on the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard who wrote so many songs for the Disney studios over the years. Much of the episode has footage of Richard behind the piano with Robert to the side both discussing how they came up with some of their most famous songs such as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (incidentally, Microsoft word did not detect this as a misspelled word) A Spoonful of Sugar, Tall Paul, There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow and more. Their relationship with Walt was a close and special one which once again how much he pushed them to be excellent yet successful.
In later years, Robert moved to London while Richard stayed in California. Sadly, Richard passed away in March of 2012 but the body of work the Sherman Brothers left behind (not just Disney) is staggering and impressive. I personally think their musical numbers are better than their rock n’ roll numbers. I would rather listen to Burl Ives sing The Ugly Bug Ball any day over Hayley Mills singing Let’s Get Together.

The episodes of The Disney Family Album were produced in the 1980s. It was produced by Cardon Walker (son of one time Disney CEO E. Cardon Walker) and Michael Bonifer. It was narrated by Buddy Ebsen. In the excellent article by Wade Sampson for Mouse Planet Jim Fanning recalls why they wanted Buddy Ebsen to do this, “I thought Buddy Ebsen was an excellent choice as narrator as he had a Disney connection but not an exclusively Disney connection. I know that Mike and Cardon wanted a narrator with a lot of character in his voice and Buddy certainly had that."   

Although the series looked like a product of the 1980s in terms of being made on video, it is a lot of fun to watch. It goes into great detail about its subject and provides all sorts of archival clips. A lot of them I have seen a ton of times but I could imagine that in the mid-1980s, a lot of this would have been new and not so readily seen before. Even the behind the scenes of making the audio-animatronics would have been somewhat new apart from the behind the scenes glimpse Walt would have given us in his anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s.
If you are looking at my screen grabs for these episodes, you will notice that these have the Disney Channel logo on them. That is because this series is not on DVD. These recordings were possibly from the early 21st century but probably from the late 1990s. I am not sure of the frequency of when they were shown but these were part of the Vault Disney line up. Vault Disney programming on the Disney Channel was a way to run countless hours of vintage programs late night on the Disney Channel. Not only did it include this series bit would also feature programs like Disneyland and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. These were incredible programs that gave us a glimpse into what the Disney Studios were like in the 1950s-1960s. In fact, it showed us what the theme parks were like in a different time. The program shown would give the viewer a look at what made Disney……well Disney. Vault Disney programming stopped on the Disney Channel in 2002. Replaced by the popular programs that were running on the channel earlier that evening. Channels “evolve” for the lack of a better term. Maybe more accurately some of the viewers like me just don’t like change. I want to continue to see them run old black & white shows or programs like The Disney Family Album. May I want new (younger) viewers to be exposed to the stuff I loved. I don’t buy into the fact that black & white programs are a complete turn off to younger viewers or maybe myself and others had more of an open mind to it. I am fascinated by the past and without Walt Disney there would be no Phineas and Ferb, Wizards of Waverly Place or The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. People of my ilk would love to see a cable channel devoted to the old programs such as a Vault Disney Channel. Remember, all channels (de) evolve from their original intention. Look at Nick at Nite. The days of solid 1960s and 1970s programs are long gone. Now we are watching 1990s programs or “original” series created by the network. A Vault Disney channel may show stuff like Zorro, Disneyland or even The Disney Family Album but it would only be a matter of time before old shows for the channel are considered to be stuff like Lizzie McGuire or That’s So Raven.
I don’t think The Disney Family Album will ever get a release on DVD or at least in the original form that has been shown on the Disney Channel. I am sure if Disney wanted to do a documentary or a series of programs based on the talent that made the house of Disney, they would probably want to make it all flashier and contemporary. I can see why but hopefully everyone remembers all the precious footage that was shot for this series of people who are no longer with us. Even the voice of Buddy Ebsen makes the series almost more reassuring. Of course, I am of the mind that there is nothing wrong with the presentation the way it is. It is a historical document and I would like to see it stay this way.

Amongst a lot of fans, there is anger about how some of this output of not only early Disney Channel series but of little known or seen films are not getting a release. Because they are not mainstream titles, it looks like they may never be released. This is why groups such as Open Vault Disney came about. Launched in 2010 Open Vault Disney existence is about “Getting Disney to release DVD-on-Demand titles as well as get the "Disney Afternoon" titles re-started and the rest of the current unreleased "Walt-era" titles released.” There may be a chance for some of these titles to get released as Disney is adopting the manufactured on demand (MOD) DVDs that was started by Warner in 2009. I know a lot of people who hate this model but I think it is a great idea. Anything to get rarely seen, hard to find titles out on a high quality (non-download) format is fine by me. Maybe there is hope for The Disney Family Album to be released yet?

I just covered 2 of the episodes of this series. Disney historian Jim Korkis (written under the name of Wade Sampson) wrote the definitive excellent article for this series here. That is part one of a two part article. To learn more about Open Vault Disney, you can go to their Facebook page here.
Next Week: Back to British television where we look at the 1990s series The Thin Blue Line. I look at two episodes of the Rowan Atkinson series, Court in the Act and Ism, Ism, Ism.

Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at FTA13867@gmail.com

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Page for updates about new articles.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Love Letter to BBC Television Centre


“What we now know as British television was invented here.” -Greg Dyke
Anyone who has ever read my blog knows I have a huge amount of love and admiration for not just BBC television but the heart of where many of my favourite programs were made, BBC television Centre. I can’t think of any production complex in the world that would show up in television programs as often as BBC Television Centre. Over the years I have seen it in so many programs such as Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Goodies, Alexi Sayles Stuff and more. I learned at a very young age that this building was where all my favourite shows were being made. Seeing the building in those episodes forged my love for all British television as well as the United Kingdom itself. It doesn’t hurt that the building is very distinctive with its circular form along with TC1 just on the left of it. From most of the shots that show up on these TV shows, one doesn’t always see how big the centre really is. It has been the iconic hub for BBC’s television output for many years but sadly that kind of output has been changing. It hasn’t shot drama in its studio since the early 1990s. Even one of its greatest tenants, Blue Peter has now moved out. The saddest part of all is that the BBC is moving out of the building soon. It’s unthinkable but it is reality. As May has been devoted to final episodes, I felt it was fitting that I include a documentary that looks back when Television Centre was king.

I know I am not the only one who has waited a very long time for this documentary. In fact, I waited 28 years for this. Between 1984 and now, I have watched so much British television, researched it and met many people that worked at Television Centre. Because of the programs that were output from that building, I met other people who shared my passion and my love for these programs. I call many of these people close friends. In the US, it is almost like we speak our own language because no one else watches what we watch. The rarer the program, the happier we are. I have seen BBC Television Centre numerous times from the outside in TV programs and in photographs but I know very little about the inside or any of the stories from the people who worked inside there. Even though I knew it so well, it was still a big mystery. A documentary on BBC4 was able to help me with that.

Tales of Television Centre TX: 17/05/12
Now, I know it is strange that I have written articles for stuff made in the 21st century twice in one month. I will try and not make a habit of it. It was back in September 2011 that I saw Producer/Director Richard Marson post on the Roobarbs discussion forum that he was making a documentary of BBC Television Centre and wanted examples of where Television Centre appeared in BBC programs. I provided examples as did a lot of other people. It was pretty clear that this was going to be something special.

Tales of Television Centre is nothing more than a love letter to BBC Television Centre. From the very start, it confidently introduces the viewer to many of the contributors of the program such as Greg Dyke, Sir David Frost, Jools Holland, Susan Hampshire, Penelope Keith, Janet Fielding, Louise Jameson, Katy Manning, Peter Davison, Sir David Attenborough, Brian Blessed and more with snippets of their interviews interspersed with shots of empty corridors and studios with echoing voices of some of its past glory such as The Good Life, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers and Doctor Who. If that is not enough, it is all backed by the wonderful piano coda from Derek and the Dominos Layla.  Like I said, it is a confident start to the documentary and it became a healthy emotional treat just from the start. Not really because of what anyone is saying but how they are saying it. These people loved this place! The nostalgia from the audio snippets from older series helped too. It is a glorious start to the program and I have a feeling that Richard Marson had this opening in his head for some time.

There is actually little backstory to any history of Television Centre apart from the beginning when there is a little bit of newsreel footage showing off the model for Television Centre prior to construction. There is a couple of ways this documentary could have gone. It could have been very structured with a straightforward narrative talking about things like construction, the Television Centre by decade, etc. Richard decided to go the route of a more organic approach. Reading interviews he did on the documentary, he explained he didn’t want any narration. He wanted the personal stories of the contributors fuel the approach to the documentary. I am all about boring narrative documentaries but this approach make the Television Centre come alive which it otherwise could have been looked at as a museum piece or end up being a funeral for the building. It showed us that the building was just the conduit for the creativity that came out of there over the years.

It has been said over the years, meant in a flattering way, that Television Centre was a Television Factory. This is true but think about it. There is nowhere else in the world that had under one roof a way to complete a program in one building such as Television Centre. From concept to completion even to even airing the program it was all done in that one complex. The writing, costume design, set design and construction, shooting, editing…it was all done there. The building was huge and Tales of Television Centre did a great job of showing us how big it was.
The documentary was split up by different parts of the complex. Main reception, Dressing Rooms, Cafeteria, Studios, 6th Floor, etc. The way it was done was simple and effective yet probably in reality was not simple at all. Each segment would start with this beautiful AutoCad model of Television Centre which would raise up to expose the areas we were to look at for that section. It was gorgeous and I would love to have a Blu Ray of just the model where I could go up and down all the corridors and “walk through” Television Centre. Some areas didn’t interest me as much as other but that’s OK. It was all relayed in a way that it was still interesting.
There was a lot of naughtiness going on at Television Centre. As Katy Manning said, people were bonking each other all over the place. Perhaps a little too revealing, eh Katy? Or the stories about people who would drink a little too much inspiration at the BBC club. There were stories of smoking marijuana on site and how David Attenborough had to send out a memo to tell people not to do it so publicly. Of course, perhaps the naughtiest of all could be the infamous BBC Christmas tapes. It is said that these tapes were made between 1977 and 1997. Put together by the Engineer department, it is a culmination of all the mess ups and “bloopers” from that year. It just didn’t end there, there were dance numbers and it all eventually became very complex and big. Performers knew that these mistakes would end up on the Christmas tapes. They would say so after they messed up. “This is going on the Christmas tape!” Perhaps one Christmas I will write an article on them. They are meant in the spirit of fun and they are an important aspect of Television Centre. It was good it was included.

What I found really interesting is how some of the people interviewed spoke of how the BBC management were almost embarrassed that television was made there. Jools Holland says about BBC Television Centre, “The design of it is brilliant. I love the fact that it’s a cross between show business and a KGB interrogation centre.” Some have said that management seemed almost embarrassed that there were studios beyond the reception area. My favourite anecdote was from Biddy Baxter. For Blue Peter, they did a bit where a helicopter landed in the horseshoe carpark at the front of the complex which is meant only for the executives and higher ups. After going through all the red tape to get this helicopter landing secured and approved, she was told by one of the upper-ups at the BBC in regards to Television Centre, “You’re treating this as if it was a place for entertainment.” I love it!
Something I found extremely interesting was just shots of walking through the building using a steadicam. Wonderful shots of going down corridors or stairs. The camera wandering around the 6th floor or shots in the apparently empty East tower. This is stuff I have never seen and was so happy it was included. I hear that Television Centre is in poor condition but these shots looked great and was envious that I know I will never see the place. It was fun to see how small corridors would end up into large spaces with stairwells going on to other parts of the building.

Archive clips treated with respect as they all appeared 4:3. Yes, that is Clive Dunn playing Doctor Who in It's a Square World.
On the archive television front, there are bits from so many great series but what I felt was most intriguing was that most of the shots were studio recording shots and not always from actual finished episodes. That was a great link to remind us that not only are we talking about the programs that were made there but that these programs were made here. Plus all the archive television shots were in 4:3 aspect ratio with the either side filled in with the distinctive tile mural design that is seen all around Television Centre. They were showing us bits and pieces of what it was like to make a multi-camera production. It was nice to see many mentions of Z Cars especially as 2012 is the 50th anniversary. Both Sarah Greene and Peter Davison were able to go behind the scenes to see the show being made. We also hear Nerys (not Nervous) Hughes having her first drink with the cast of Z Cars as she did an episode of the series. Plus we had Brian Blessed in all of his glory explaining how the statue Helios in the center of Television Centre would be named Golden Bollocks. Classic Brian Blessed. Someday I will write about how Brian Blessed spit water all over my friend Roger.
I felt honoured to watch a program with so many of my favourite artist in it. Apart from the Doctor Who folks mentioned earlier, I was so happy to see people I have the greatest respect for such as Biddy Baxter and June Hudson (who both look great), David Attenborough, Harold Snoad, Waris Hussein, Graeme Harper, Robert Powell, Jonathan Powell, Greg Dyke and so, so many more. The one person I was really happy to see was Bob Richardson. I have spent many years on British television discussion boards. Back when the Doctor Who Restoration Team had their technical forum, he would post the most intelligent and interesting posts about all sorts of going on at Television Centre or the BBC in general. He now posts at The Mausoleum Club and over there, whenever I see his name attached to a thread; it is a priority for me to read. My understanding of Television Centre is richer because of you! I wish Bob, Richard and other ex-BBC employees would get together and write a book about the place. It would be a nice supplementary piece to this documentary. It would be a great book published by Kaleidoscope. Richard Marson has already done definitive books on Blue Peter and Upstairs Downstairs for them.


As the documentary winds down, we come to the inevitable reality of what is next for Television Centre. The BBC is leaving it and it is the end of an era. Yet I think we can argue that the era ended a while ago. Television production moved away from multi-camera set ups. The BBC moved away from having staff positions for all their production people and moved to a freelance model. The BBC depicted in this documentary is long-gone and no matter how long the BBC holds onto the building it will never be the same again.  Of course, I hope the building is taken care of for prosperity. It is an amazingly beautiful building. I know parts of the building are protected as being of historical interest. If I am not mistaken, that includes the “concrete donut” (I hate the phrase, why did I use it) and TC1. I am sure more is included with it. It’s the people who made the programs and it’s those people who love Television Centre.

My love for Television Production started with the BBC. I work in commercial production now. I love everything about those BBC productions from the 1960s-1990s. I love how they were made with interiors shot on videotape and exteriors shot on film. I know it made a lot of directors cringe but I adore it. I loved how productions created sets that tried to look like real interiors and how the sets were lit to give the whole thing authenticity. I loved how multiple favourite shows of mine at Television Centre were recorded at the same time and those stars would mingle either at the BBC cafeteria or BBC club. It was the hub where all the actors I loved would come together and make all my favourite shows. I am even crazy for the classic BBC fonts that adorn the studios and lettering all over Television Centre plus used as the font for all the supers in the documentary. It created my strange love for production slates (the opening of this documentary was clearly made for me) and my passion for collecting every bit of British television I could get my hands on. Thank you BBC Television Centre and thank you Richard Marson. You created a love letter to Television Centre and this is my love letter to your documentary.
I know this will probably never be able to be released on Blu Ray because of all the rights for all the programs and music featured on the documentary but I will say this. I would happily buy a Blu Ray of just the Steadicam walking through the entire building one floor at a time. I would watch that daily. I would love to see all the uncut interviews plus the people who didn’t make the cut and I would love to see more of that AutoCad model. It was beautiful.

In short, this is one of the best programs I have ever seen in my life. Thank you Richard!

Next week: After pouring my heart out about British television and BBC Television Centre, we will move away from British television for a week and look at a rare Disney program that also looks at its past.  I will be looking at The Disney Family Album. I will be watching two episodes: one about Imagineers and the other about The Sherman Brothers. I will also talk a little but why some of these cool programs from Disney 1980s output has not seen the light of day since. Articles for British television will return after that.
Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at FTA13867@gmail.com

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Page for updates about new articles.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Omega Podcast Episode 76

Today The Omega Podcast posts the first episode that is co-hosted by Ben Ellis, Charlie Paulsen and myself. The Omega Podcast has been around for a while so when they asked Ben, Charlie and myself to host the program every other episode we jumped at it. Here is the description for our first episode:
"Episode 76 of The Omega Podcast sees the introduction of Charlie, Ben and Greg taking over hosting duties (hosting alternate episodes from Liz, Wendell, and Wes) for this episode featuring news and feedback. The crew talks about some of their favorite aspects of Doctor Who plus they look back at the John Nathan-Turner era of the series. Ten years after his untimely passing, so much has changed and is it time to see if the “memory cheats” on his era? The crew comes up with some of the positives and negatives of his time as Producer of Doctor Who."
You can listen to the episode here: http://theomegapodcast.tumblr.com/
Tomorrow, I will post my article about the BBC4 documentary Tales of Television Centre.