Sunday, December 28, 2014

The BBC's 1977 Adaptation of A Christmas Carol

If you have been reading articles on this site for a while, you are probably aware of how I pick programs to write about for people to read. Not counting the reviews I write which are based on materials given to me by studios to review, the main purpose of this site is to write about randomly chosen episodes of British television series. I use the highly technical process of placing all of the series titles I have in an envelope and choosing the one to watch. One of the items that is in the envelope is a piece of paper that simply says, “Greg’s Choice”. This means that I actually choose what I watch for that week.

It is important to point out that there are a lot of great programs I want to include on this site but have yet to do so because I haven’t yet chosen it from the envelope. So, when this comes up where I can choose the program, it is kind of an honour. Seeing that it is Christmas, I needed to pick something that was in the season and I wanted to have this actually feature the holiday in it, unlike the Lovejoy episode that was chosen last week. There was 3 programs I was interested in looking at for this article. I first thought about watching and writing about The Box of Delights. This would have been the version starring Patrick Troughton from 1984. This would have been fun to do but at this point I was already so far into December, there wouldn’t have been time to watch it all let alone to write proper articles about it. It is six episodes long. The second one isn’t British but The Star Wars Holiday Special. I immediately decided not to do this as I don’t hate myself that much. Christmas shouldn’t be a time for torture. Finally there as something I wanted to write about fir a while and it was perfect for this time of the year. I was going to write about the 1977 BBC adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Michael Hordern as Ebenezer Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol TX: 24/12/77

I’m not going to waste everyone’s time with a synopsis of the plot for A Christmas Carol. This is one of the most known stories of all time. It is a story of a man’s redemption but it is also a ghost story. I love a good ghost story and when these stories are mixed with Christmas, it seems to be a wonderful combination. The idea of a Christmas ghost story is foreign in the US.
In the US, Christmas is pretty much about the happiness of the season. It’s about doing good deeds and also receiving gifts. It seems less and less about any religion attached to it.  In the UK, the idea of Christmas incorporating ghost stories in its lore had been around for a long time. Some had thought that Charles Dickens was the first to create the tradition of a Christmas Eve ghost story but this tradition pre-dates the Victorian era. On a site that I looked at called Gothic Horror Stories, they have a passage from Washington Irving that speaks of a Christmas Ghost story on Christmas Eve and he wrote that passage in 1819.

One author who was very successful of the Christmas Ghost story is M.R. James. He started to write ghost stories in 1904. The first hardback collected edition appeared in 1931. Many of the tales were written as Christmas Eve entertainments and read aloud to friends. The BBC started to adapt the stories for television in the late 1960s and went into the mid-1970s. These adaptations have been released by the BFI on DVD. I have the DVD boxset and watched a couple but unfortunately for me, it has yet to fully grab my attention. Perhaps I like something that blatantly has a Christmas feel such as A Christmas Carol?
The idea of Christmas traditions going away was a real threat by the time Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. Although the phrase “Merry Christmas” was around in the British vernacular prior to the publication of the novella, the story made the phrase popular which of course is still being said today. What Dickens did add was the phrase bah humbug and the name Scrooge to the English language. Scrooge is almost now less of a name and more of a word to describe someone who is stingy especially around the holiday season. The novella was published on December 19, 1943 and has never been out of print. It has been in continual publication.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted possibly more than any other story. There has been some unique takes on it such as Blackadder’s Christmas Carol which is the opposite of the story as Ebenezer Blackadder starts off good and transforms into evil by the end of it. As an aside note, I was reading on some forums about how some fans of Blackadder loathe this episode. To me, this is perhaps my favourite episode of all time and it’s what got me into that series!
The 1977 version of A Christmas Carol is very much a standard BBC entry for this story. It is exactly what I would expect from a television production from the BBC in 1977. It actually comes across more like a theatrical play than a dramatization. The whole production is studio bound. There is no exterior filming at all. As with a lot of productions of the time, a lot of use is made of CSO. This stands for Colour Separation Overlay. It’s what we would now call Green Screen, everyone else back in the day would call Chroma key. It is the process of placing actors against a blue screen (sometimes yellow, now usually green) where they can be superimposed over something else to give the impression of being somewhere else. This is used to an odd effect in this production. It is mainly used when Scrooge is being led by the ghosts going back to his roots or going to some other location. This is fine except that the images used to show where Scrooge is going are illustrations that look like from a book. I am sure this is an artistic decision but I am not sure if I like it. It gives a very surreal effect. This is used to great effect in Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1973 but that use of it seems to make sense to me.

Radio Times Listing
I think the fact that the entire production is studio bound (including Victorian streets) works in its favour to create the proper atmosphere. The whole production, even shots “outdoors” are dark. Shot in studio, the team has complete control over the environment. There are points throughout the production that are not only bleak but depressing. When Scrooge is being led by the Ghost of Christmas Future and is in Scrooge’s room looking at his dead body, there is an amazing feeling to that room that is hallow, lifeless. It is lit but it is also dead. Basically every room that Scrooge is in is lifeless like that. The downside to this is that the production has such low light that in many of the scenes, the video is noisy. This means that there is almost a grain over the picture instead of the video being crisp. A great mainstream example of what this is occurs on the Doctor Who DVD The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Parts of the original DVD exhibited it because the lighting was so low and this was even after the episodes had been restored. The most recent release and restoration of the story is much better. This DVD of A Christmas Carol has had no restoration or work applied to it at all and it shows. It doesn’t make it unwatchable but the quality is a production of its time.
Michael Hordern does a nice job of being Scrooge. The way he plays it seems, to me at least, he was ready to turn over a new leaf in life even after Marley’s ghost left him. He was convinced from the start that he needed to change his life. The thing about Scrooge is that I don’t think he was ever a bad man. He got caught up in his own goals and was selfish about himself. I would assume the powers that wanted to redeem him knew this about him and that was why he was given a chance to change.

Radio Time 1977
John Le Mesurier plays Jacob Marley. The production starts off very atmospherically with Jacob Marley lying in wake. Seven years passes when his specter pays a visit to Scrooge. The two actors, Hordern and Le Mesurier, never actually act together so to speak. For all the scenes that Le Mesurier appears in as the ghost, he is superimposed in shot so he can be transparent the entire time. It just about works. Le Mesurier as a ghost looks really in rough shape. Of course, we know Le Mesurier as Sgt. Wilson in Dad’s Army. Most of the roles I have seen him play, he is wonderfully aloof. If you have a chance to track down the DVD set to George and the Dragon, please do so. Produced in the 1960s, this series stars Peggy Mount, Sid James and John Le Mesurier. It is fantastic and wonderfully funny. I am a big fan of LeMesurier and even a bigger fan of Sid James!
The role of Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Patricia Quinn. She probably is best known to people for playing Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ll let you in on a secret. I have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show in my entire life and for those reading thinking I should go, I have no interest in ever seeing this film. I know her best as either Livilla in I, Claudius or Belazs in the Doctor Who story Dragonfire. Now if I had gone ahead and watched The Box of Delights, I would have seen her in that also as Sylvia. The Ghost of Christmas Present was played by none other than Bernard Lee. For probably all of us, he is best known as the original M in the James Bond films playing the role from Dr. No to Moonraker. To me he is the quintessential actor to play that part. It is almost hard for me to get my head around the fact that he would be able to play any other part than M. In an article I wrote in 2011 that I have yet to publish of an episode of Against the Crowd called Murrain, Bernard Lee plays a country farmer that is prejudiced towards a witch and you cannot get further away from the part of M than that! Here he does a good job as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It’s interesting because that ghost only exists in the “present” moment. When we first see the ghost, he has brown beard and hair. By the time he returns Scrooge to his home, his hair is completely white and his existence is almost finished.

The production was designed by Barry Newberry and costumes by Barbara Kidd. This was produced by Jonathan Powell. I point this out because although this isn’t a bad production, it doesn’t have a lot of life to it. The actors are fine but a lot of it feels like they are just reciting lines. Perhaps the production is a touch too technically complex and more time is given to that than to the performances? Out of all the choices out there for A Christmas Carol, probably not a lot of people would pull this off the shelf to watch with the exception of people like me who go crazy over this sort of BBC era archive television production. Jonathan Powell would go on to produce a lot of wonderful things such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People, and Old Men at the Zoo to name a few.
Now what if you wanted to buy this production to see for yourself? How would you go about and do it? Right now, not very easily. In fact, I only found out about it when I was browsing through Amazon UK and noticed it. What I also noticed was that it was a Dutch import. There is no UK release for this production. It seems kind of odd but this is by no means rare.

There is no rule set in stone that a British television series needs to be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK first but it when it isn’t, it does cause some problems. Let’s take the BBC for a start. BBC Home Entertainment that releases titles in the US doesn’t have to release what the BBC in the UK are releasing or vice a versa. There were a few of examples of Doctor Who titles being released in the US first such as the Key to Time season or even a Blu-ray to An Adventure in Space and Time. There has even been instances where BBC Home Entertainment had commissioned BBC Post Production to restore and make HD masters of The House of Cards series for release on Blu-ray in the US. This was a great opportunity to take advantage of the PR from the Netflix series that was premiering at that time. All of the examples above had been rectified for British consumers by eventually getting a release in the UK, but is that always the case?
In the US alone, I can think of a number of titles off the top of my head that have been released in the US and not in the UK yet. Such titles like Alice Through the Looking Glass from 1973 or Alice in Wonderland from 1986 which a lot of British fans would love to own but has been released only in the US. There are also the existing Douglas Wilmer episodes of Sherlock Holmes in 2010. I personally held off buying this because I was sure there would soon be a PAL release but that never came. I eventually caved in and bought it. And I live in the US! I just prefer my British television in PAL wherever possible. It is a purchasing decision I never looked back on because the episodes are so good. There is talk about this title getting a release in the UK sometime in 2015 from BFI. This would include some of the partial episodes and soundtracks that were not included in the R1 release.

Of course stuff like Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo ‘Allo! was released in the US prior to the UK because BBC Home Entertainment knew these were big hitters because of their successful run on PBS stations. This worked in the US favour in the sense that the episodes on the R1 Are You Being Served? set are uncut while the ones in the UK are cut for various reasons. The release of ‘Allo ‘Allo! in the US has extras and the sets released in the UK by Universal Playback are barebones. Now a days, things will be different because generally one master is made for the discs at the same place for the US and UK just being converted to the country’s broadcast standard. Where this hurt is the original boxset for Blackadder was released in the US in 2001 before the UK. To keep this on topic, it included Blackadder’s Christmas Carol uncut. When the re-mastered set was released in 2009, they included a cut version of the episode where one line “They nailed up the dog.” was cut. This cut version has always beenused on the UK releases. Because these masters are made at the same place and the same time, the US now has the cut version too. This way of created the disc applies only to the BBC discs.
Speaking of Are You Being Served? the follow up series was first released in the US on DVD. Grace & Favour was released in the US in 2004 using the US title on the cover Are You Being Served? Again! Yet , luckily, the episodes themselves have the correct opening titles. In the US, when the series was broadcast, the opening title sequence actually were re-made to say Are You Being Served? Again! I finally decided to buy this set this year when I found out it was released in Australia. It’s not in PAL, in fact it uses the same NTSC masters and DVD menu from the R1 set. Why did I opt for this one? Because it has the proper title of the series with the actually logo saying Grace & Favour on the cover! That is how sad I am. If it comes out in the UK uncut, I will probably buy it again.

Speaking of Australia, Madman released the Tom Baker Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s a wonderful piece of archive television that should have been released years ago. Now it is but only in Australia. Maybe Australians should not worry about releasing that but focus on releasing the Benny Hill in Australia special and the Australian version of Are You Being Served?
The back cover to the DVD of A Christmas Carol in Dutch.
There is a potential backlash when a title is released in another country and not the UK or at least no time frame is given as to when these titles would get a release. Because we have a choice to buy something virtually from every corner of the world, we can get very impatient and buy from somewhere else. I think the Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes is a great example of this. At its best, it is niche television. It can be argued that the people who really wanted it in the UK are a.) savvy enough to know how to buy it in the US and b.) have bought. I would plan to buy this twice but would others? It will soon be 5 years since the original release. Is that enough to time? Someone like myself who is passionately into archive British television seeing this released by someone like the BFI wants to see the range blossom so more can be released but I know that everyone is on a tight budget and cannot afford or want to buy the same title multiple times.

It leads to the recent release of the beautiful Blu-ray of set 1 of the Joan Hickson Miss Marple. This lovingly restored set of episodes from the negatives is what so many people want, yet it is released only here in the US. I have received so many questions after my review if the set is a region-free Blu-ray. There is no word on a release in the UK at the time of writing. My guess is that it will be released in the UK once the new BBC version of Miss Marple gets closer to air. Yet, archive television enthusiasts like myself want to see this stuff and it sucks when it is not released to a wider group. Of course I am on the right side of this conflict but even the people who are ordering this from the UK will want this in its proper frame rate too. I don’t even want to get started on how we have had a lot of Blu-ray releases of British series that have only been released in the UK as DVDs. Such series like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Agatha Christie’s Marple or Prime Suspect with no sign of a UK Blu-ray release. The Granada Sherlock Holmes series was only up until recently available in Spain on Blu-ray. A few of Gerry Anderson production were only available in Japan on Blu-ray and finally Series 5 of The Avengers was only released in the US on Blu-ray in November this year while the rest of the world will need to wait. I am told that it will come out eventually in the UK which those are the sets I will be buying. That will make my tirade here obsolete.
This brings us back to A Christmas Carol. It’s only available in one place. Would anyone notice or care? For the archive television fan, the answer is a resounding yes! I just wish some of this stuff was easier to get a hold of and available to the people who really want it. Bah humbug!

Next week: It will be a Kate O’Mara double feature as we finish up our holiday season with two great episodes of Absolutely Fabulous. Both holiday themed, Happy New Year and Cold Turkey. I will explain why I think Cold Turkey would have been a great way to completely end the series.

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

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Not Very Christmassy Lovejoy Christmas Special

As we move on with more Christmas episodes of our favourite series, you will probably notice a distinct lack of any Christmas at all in today’s article. This is one of those moments when a series has time allotted on the schedule during the Christmas season for a “special” episode but this time it has nothing to do with Christmas. I suspect this would not happen now-a-days. Look at all the Doctor Who Christmas specials since 2005. Every one of them has a connection with Christmas in some way. I can see how this can work in either direction but I suppose the thought now is if there is time for a program to be shown at Christmas, it had better damn well have Christmas material in it! Perhaps back in 1995 things were different.

There was a time in my life that I looked forward to Mondays. Let’s be honest, very few people look forward to Mondays and so I will be more precise, I looked forward to Monday evenings. In the early 1990s I was in high school and we had cable television. There was this cable station known as A&E. Back then it stood for Arts & Entertainment. I have no idea what it stands for these days; I don’t really care. To me, there was something really special about A&E and what was really unfortunate about it was that generally I took it for granted. I’ve written about it before, stations “evolving”. Back in the day, when a station ran a certain type of program, no one ever thought it would change. Why would it?
Monday nights were great. As odd as it sounds, I would finish my homework in time to watch Murphy Brown, I used to love that show. Most of the time, during working on homework, I would watch Biography on A&E. They were really well done. By 9pm, everything was set to watch one of my favourite series, Lovejoy. Lovejoy, to me, encapsulated what I thought British television should be: it was set out somewhere rural, was kind of high class (for me at the time) because it dealt in the (sometime seedy) world of art and had a set of characters that were funny but the situations weren’t always funny. Sometimes they could even be deadly serious.

Recently, I wrote a review about Series 3 of Lovejoy in which one of the blurbs from PR stuff I get with the discs called Lovejoy the “James Bond of the art world”. That sentence turned me off right away. The reason I had so much problem with it is that firstly, Lovejoy is nothing like James Bond and I still fail to see why the comparison was made. Secondly, I don’t think anyone can just label Lovejoy so easily. It is a wonderfully unique series that should never be summed up by calling it James Bond. So what is it?
Lovejoy was a series of novels written by Jonathan Gash (pen name) starting in 1977. Lovejoy (which is his last name) is not only an antiques dealer but at times a forgerer. What was most amazing about Lovejoy was the fact that he was a divvy. A divvy is someone who can sense when an antique is real and more importantly when it is worth something. It’s just an unreal feeling they get. This underground world of antique dealings is portrayed in a much more sinister light than what we see in the TV series. In fact so is Lovejoy.

We never know Lovejoy’s first name. He just prefers to go by Lovejoy and it fits. Lovejoy is actually a very loveable rogue. By the time we meet him in the series, he has mostly gotten out of the shady dealings. He would still dip back into it once and a while but he had mainly cleaned up his act and was surrounded by a good group of friends.
I loved watching this series because it was basically a drama with a lot of light humour brought into it. The locations were beautiful and the writing was sharp. Every week, we would be introduced to some antique treasure which had some amazing significance that we would learn about. Of course, these treasures (and their back stories)  weren’t real but they certainly fooled me. I had a ritual every Monday night and that included by the time Lovejoy would start, I would make myself a plate of chips and cheese, also known as nachos, and I would just enjoy the latest installment of the series. It was always so much fun because I would watch Lovejoy on TV from 9-10pm and the watch whatever British comedy series was running on my local PBS station KTCA from 10-11. Probably either Are You Being Served? or Keeping Up Appearances. This was a really fun and enjoyable time of my life.

By the time I got to 1993 things changed quite a bit for me. I graduated from high school and was about to start my first go round in college. I also ended up picking up a few jobs and most Monday nights I would be working. The feasting on Lovejoy would have to wait as I was too busy to keep up with it. When I did watch it, I noticed one of my least favourite things about a TV series that had gone on too long, cast changes. I will get to that in a bit. From what I had seen, it was becoming a show that I was losing interest in. Therefore, I had stopped watching from around Series 5. To this day, there are a few episodes I had not yet seen. In fact, this was the first time I had seen the episode we are looking at today.
The Lost Colony TX: 27/12/93

This non-Yuletide episode of Lovejoy starts with an estate sale. Lord Wakering needs to sell his Manor Home as well as many of its belongings. This is where Lovejoy comes in. He is helping Charlotte Cavendish with the sale. This is where my interaction with this series dwindled over time. I seemed to have fallen out of love with the series perhaps around the right time.
At the end of Universal Films in the 1930s, the screen would say “A good cast is worth repeating.” My take is that I think a good cast is impossible to replace. By the time we get into Series 5, we soon lose two great characters that I thought really made Lovejoy special. We lose Lady Jane who has been a close friend to Lovejoy and sometimes closer than just frends. She really was his rock. She helped him emotionally and financially. Then, there was Eric Catchpole played by Chris Jury. We meet Eric in the first episode, The Firefly Cage, as his father kind of pawns him off on Lovejoy to try and teach Eric in the ways of antiques dealings. Eric was a loveable buffoon. He was able to play off with well with Lovejoy and Tinker but the dynamics were different between the two. He was a great double act with Tinker and I think they could have easily made a spin-off between the two. With Eric leaving created a crater sized hole in the series. In fact, to be honest, it prejudices me when I watch any post-Eric Lovejoy. To put it in terms of antiques, it’s like finding a wonderful-old piece only to be ultra-cleaned by non-professionals removing all of its charm.

Back to the episode at hand, Lovejoy meets a woman who is into antiques of the period and is from America, in fact the South. Not only is she from America but she is also a Lovejoy. Her name is Mary-John Lovejoy and there are apparently a whole lot of Lovejoy’s living in North Carolina. They are also really well to do. While she is still in town, there is a robbery of some historically important pieces from Wakering’s house. These items have to do with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Lost Colony. The Lost Colony is an area off of North Carolina that Sir Walter Raleigh found that eventually lost. He called it the lost colony which it is Roanoke Island.
The one aspect of Lovejoy I have always loved was how we are exposed different pieces of antiques and the unique stories behind each piece. Not that many of these were real pieces or had real stories, the history of these mythical pieces were always fun and made the character of Lovejoy and Tinker very believable because they were such experts. These stories really sold the episodes.

Yet there is some truth to this story. Although this is not a physical piece, The Lost Colony was a real thing. The Queen granted Sir Water Raleigh a charter to colonize North America in 1583. Raleigh lands on what becomes Roanoke Island. The final group of colonists disappeared during the Anglo-Spanish War, three years after the last shipment of supplies from England. Their disappearance gave rise to the nickname "The Lost Colony". To this day there has been no conclusive evidence as to what happened to the colonists. Theories range from Native-Americans attacking and killing them to the colonists just moving somewhere else. In this episode, I got the impression that they are referring to the “lost colony” as a physical place. Like maybe they were looking for an island.
With the items stolen, Lovejoy feels a personal responsibility to get them back. He immediately knows who took them based on being at the house ate the time of the robbery. He recognized the unique perfume of Mary-John.  Lovejoy hops onto a plane a travels to North America to track down Mary-John. Let’s set the record straight. I hate it when British television series have episodes set in America. I hate it. Cue the stereotypical Americans and our lack of understanding anything that is not US. Don’t think for a moment I don’t think that as a culture the US can be very dim but I hate watching it because it generalize. Plus because it takes place in the South, we must have banjo music and the magazine the cop is reading is Guns & Ammo. I also hate US series that go over to the UK. Cue the stereotypical Britons. The only exception is The Beverly Hillbillies episode where the Clampetts go to the UK and Phil Silvers cons them into thinking that they are buying some amazing British treasures such as Buckingham Palace. In this episode we have the dim-witted southern cops, the Southerns with a ridiculous drawl and people commenting to Lovejoy that he sounds funny. Hilarity ensues.

It turns out that in North Carolina, there have been a long run of Lovejoys and they have built up a business. By the time it is all said and done, Lovejoy gets the historical pieces back. I give the impression that I didn’t like the episode. I didn’t mind it. It’s not that bad but if I started to watch Lovejoy with this episode, or any around this period of time, I wouldn’t have bothered with any more episodes. This episode is an example of how the series loses its energy and is just average. Lovejoy is not an average series.
When the series starts out, Lovejoy himself is a bit of a rogue. He cleans himself up a bit but always has some of the criminal charm. Lovejoy falls into the Mickey Mouse syndrome a little bit. Mickey Mouse starts out as a not so great character. He pulls on other animal tails, he nearly takes advantage of Minnie Mouse in a couple of those early shorts. Yet, as time goes on, he mellows and the characters that are around him take the center stage for being more colorful. As Mickey becomes more established, he is written to be more wholesome.

Can the same scenario be applied to Lovejoy? Maybe not the same extreme but as the series went on, he became more of an antique dealer expert instead of the rogue who needed to do the dodgy deals for the greater good. That was alright though because of such great characters as Eric and Tinker. Tinker needed Eric otherwise he becomes more of the odd man out. The characters in this installment don’t do much for me at all. There is Beth who takes on the role of Eric. She is learning the business but is not given much to do, at least in this episode. She is kind of a wasted character. There is Charlotte Cavendish who for all intents and purposes is the new Lady Jane. She is fine but it is hard to let go of the old favourites. Then, I breathed a sigh of relief.
In walks in Charlie Gimbert. Played beautifully by the late Malcolm Tierney, he is the Sheriff of Nottingham to Lovejoy’s Robin Hood. He is wonderfully villain in this series. He does nasty stuff to annoy and alienate Lovejoy but he is immensely loveable. I forgot he was still in the series by this point but even as brief as his appearance was, it still harked back memories to the good ol’ days!

What I am not a fan with this episode is that we see that there are more Lovejoys. There is a whole clan of them back in the states. I liked it when we didn’t know so much about Lovejoy. He is not necessarily a mysterious character, it’s just that there is some mystery to him. I don’t think the series should be about him in terms of his family. This is not a major aspect of it but one that is still unnecessary, perhaps getting too familiar. I am a fan of the paranormal aspect to this story. In Wakering’s house, there is a ghost that goes back a long way. She makes things very difficult for a lot of people, especially the new residents of the house. So much so that they move out and sell the house back to Wakering. The way it is done in the episode is a little far-fetched but then again, it’s not meant to scare the viewer.
Some interesting people took part in this episode that should be noted. First of all, Sir John Gielgud played Lord Wakering, Arthur Cox who also I also enjoyed as Cully in the Doctor Who story The Dominators. On the American side, there is Barbara Barrie who I found interesting. I have seen her in other things such as playing Barney’s wife Elizabeth on Barney Miller. She also played Elizabeth Potter in the Reggie which is the US version of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. That was made in 1983. I have always wanted to write an article about US comedies that originated from the UK. Once I get a copy of Beane’s of Boston, I’ll be able to do that.

Behind the scenes, the film was directed by Geoffrey Sax. He did a lot of things. I remember his episodes of The New Statesman and he was also the director to the 1996 TV Movie of Doctor Who starring Paul McGann. There are some really great shots in The Lost Colony such as near the beginning as we see Miss Lillian walking across the street into a cemetery and what appears to be a normal shot elevates as it becomes a really tall and ambitious crane shot. Some of that stuff is the highlight of the film. It is interesting to note that Jo Wright is Producer of Lovejoy by this point. She served as Executive Producer for the BBC on the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie and is currently an Executive Producer on Midsomer Murders. Clearly, she likes the same TV series I do.
If you want to start somewhere to watch Lovejoy, don’t start here. Start at the beginning and watch a very funny and unique show. This episode isn’t quite it.

Next week: What do M, Sergeant Wilson, and Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show have in common? Find out when we look at the 1977 BBC production of A Christmas Carol. Not so much of the article will be about the plot but we will look at the practice of releasing good BBC productions other places than the UK!
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

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Thin Blue Line Christmas

This could be my favorite time of the year, not only because of Christmas but because whatever I pick to watch for my blog this time of year is Christmas related. There are a ton of series through the course of the history of British television that took the time to make a special Christmas episode of their series. This falls into a number of variations. The Christmas episode could have the same kind of narrative as the other episodes of that series but has a bit of Christmas cheer to it, it could be a special episode of a series that airs outside of its normal run of episodes. It could be a heavily themed Christmas romp or maybe no mention of Christmas at all but the episode could be on a grander scale than normally seen in the series. Whatever the situation, they are usually fun to watch. Sometimes stiff characters let down their hair a little and get into the spirit of things. It’s fun to see how these series celebrate Christmas.

To start off this season of Yuletide fun, we turn to the 1990s comedy series The Thin Blue Line. I’ve written rather extensively about why I had underestimated this series in an article I wrote here. It’s actually very interesting because as I viewed these episodes for today’s article, I feel like I have a better understanding of my own stance on this series which I will get to later. When I watch anything that I put into an article, I tend to watch either a couple of episodes or at least something that takes 45 minutes to an hour. So I watched two episodes of The Thin Blue Line. Because there is only one episode that is Christmas themed, I started with the penultimate episode of Series 1.
Kid’s Today TX: 18/12/95

To the police, the youth is becoming an ever increasing problem. If it is not minor theft or graffiti, it something else. In this episode, when the subject of graffiti comes up, Fowler decries it as garbage and Habib calls it a new form of urban art. This is 1995 and I wonder if people were seeing it like that back then. I thought it was interesting and forward thinking. To be honest, I didn’t expect that here. As the threat for what these kids are doing grows more and more, Inspector Fowler only can think of one thing to do for combatting this problem. Take these children on a camping trip. Grim of CID has a different idea. Round them up, put them in jail and throw away the key! DC Kray also has a unique idea, put maternity hospitals into the prisons so once a mother gives birth, the children could be locked upright away. Perhaps a tad bit of an overreaction?
Grim sets up Kray and DC Crockett as kids to infiltrate a rave at a house. They get to the rave and knock on the door to get in. The kid that opens up the door takes one look at them and says, “Piss off coppers!” and slams the door. Prior to the two officers getting to the rave, a young woman arrives at the house and lets the same kid know that she did what he wanted her to do; she was very distressed about this.

Meanwhile at the station, a group of rowdy young people are brought in and taken downstairs to the lock up. The biggest kid doesn’t go into the cell when he is told to by Habib. The kid responds with a racial slur to her. Remember, Habib is Indian. Constable Goody doesn’t think twice, because he is in love with Habib, and punches the kid out. The kid is about 6’3” but he was in handcuffs and although he was being a racist pig, he was not threatening immediate harm to them. He also was 15.  The next day, Fowler has to charge Goody with assault as the mother of the kid is pressing charges. It’s actually a very serious matter. So serious that they handle the situation with…….a camping trip.
Remember earlier, I mentioned that Fowler was bringing this rambunctious youth camping. Here is the thing I find very interesting and maybe things were done differently back then. It seems to me, while Goody is charged with assault and having even a loose investigation going on, why is he (first of all) still on duty but also why is he allowed to be around other kids. Even by the end of it, Goody is clear of the charges because the kid’s mom also slaps the boy around and Fowler makes that an opportunity to get her to drop the charges against Goody. I would think there would be more classes Goody would need to take to make sure he never does it again. Once again, I take a comedy series a little too seriously. Moving on….

The camping trip is with renowned Brigadier Blaster Sump (damn you!) played to perfection by Stephen Fry. Blaster Sump (damn your eyes!) is written very much in the same vein of General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth. He uses lots of lofty big sentences that make no sense and generally frightens people.
“Here's your gear. You'll find everything you could possibly need from lavatory paper to sand paper. Don't confuse the two! I did myself once. Not a wholly unpleasant experience, but then I went to Charterhouse.”

He is only in it for one scene. He wears a kilt and apparently no underwear based on the reaction from everyone in the room when he puts his leg up. I remember when I heard that Fry was going to be in an episode back when I first seen the series. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier and in my last article. I was having a hard time watching something that was made by and starred people who was in my favourite series Black Adder yet it was so much more generic. I couldn’t wait to see Fry and Rowan Atkinson back together for this episodes. I remember being a little disappointed that it was only for one scene.
Once again, Grim is on the move. He gets his team to raid the house where the teens were having the rave earlier in the episode. They get to the house to bust their way in (after ringing the doorbell first) only to be told by the neighbour next door that some other police officers came by earlier to take the kids on a camping trip.

Meanwhile at the camping trip, we see the boy and girl from earlier.  The girl was upset about something she had to do. That was giving up her baby. Her boyfriend is just mean to her about it around the campfire. He is mean about the child and cruel about her. Fowler loses his temper and nearly hits the boy. What is with these people! Anyway, things settle down and they all got to bed. Of course the next morning, Fowler and his team wake up to find these troubled teens stole the tents they were all sleeping in and took off. Incidentally, the baby that those kids had was fine and was put into hospital by Habib.
Yuletide Spirit TX: 26/25/95

This episode displays one of my favourite kinds of comedy, comedy of errors. It is such a simple and hilarious form of comedy if done correctly and I think it is here. The Gasforth Amateur Drama Society is putting on their yearly production of Peter Pan. Every year Fowler tries out for the role of Captain Hook but always comes home playing the part of the alligator who swallowed the clock.
As it is Christmas, it is a time for gifts and Constable Goody is in the gift giving spirit. He decides to give Fowler a tire puncture repair kit for his bike but he has taken the more saucy decision to get some sexy lingerie for Habib. Keep in mind, these two are not dating. In fact, once again I question how Goody is on the force or for that matter, why he has no brain. In the last episode he punches a kid out and here what he is doing pretty much amounts to sexual harassment to Habib at the workplace with what he is implying with the underwear. I hope they show highlights of Goody to young cadets in the police force to show them what not to do.

Grim get wind of Fowler trying out for Captain Hook and ridicules him for trying to do it. To Grim, it’s just a lot of “fannying” about! Fowler is pretty confident that this year he will get the role. We cut to Fowler going back to his and Dawkins’ apartment with a great big rubber alligator costume. Who got the part of Captain Hook? Grim of course! Of course now that he has the part, Grim is much more interested in that than what he really needs to focus on which is a group of carolers who are going house to house singing in the front while someone breaks into the back of the house and steals things.
Fowler: You'd be bored watching Olivier play Hamlet.
Grim: Well, I don't like football, especially foreign teams.

Goody gives his gifts out. You don’t need to be a comedy genius to know what happens next. Goody, as with everything else in his life, messes it up. He gives the puncture repair kit to Habib and the sexy lingerie to…….
Fowler calls Goody into his office. He is very worried and uncomfortable with what he needs to talk with Goody about. He starts out, “Constable Goody, do you find me……attractive?” Goody’s facial reactions are quite good in this scene. Over exaggerated and shocked! Fowler goes on asking when Goody started to “crave” seeing Fowler naked. It’s pretty funny and probably the funniest thing I’ve seen over the course of these two episodes. Once Goody says it’s a bicycle puncture repair kit, Fowler then thought that Goody wanted Fowler to where that lingerie when he needed to repair his tire!

After it is all sorted out, Fowler and Goody leave the room but Dawkins enter and sees the underwear. She assumes it is for her. She confronts Fowler later, telling him how much it turns her on. It’s funny because Serena Evans who plays Dawkins really gets into character when she tells him how much it turns her on. She plays it like such a desperate woman that I am unsure if I am meant to feel funny or sad for the character. Anyway, she wants that underwear not realizing that it is actually meant for Habib.
Unfortunately, by the time Fowler and Dawkins talk, Goody already made arrangements for the gift to be put into Habib’s locker. Fowler now has the awkward task of going to Habib to ask for her underwear. The reason why Fowler can’t go out and get underwear of his own is because it is already Christmas Eve. Habib doesn’t realise that Fowler wants the underwear for Dawkins but think he wants it for himself. She calls it male menopause.

Grim takes his team to round up the nasty carolers who are stealing. The carolers, all young menacing men, hear the sirens of the police approaching and take off. The police cars show up and take away a bunch of real, elderly carolers and brings them back to the station. Of course this group of people include the police commissioner and a bishop. It sounds like a beginning to a joke.
The Police Commissioner is pissed at Grim since it was his operation. The Commissioner wants to see Grim in his office on Boxing Day evening. That’s the night of Peter Pan so Grim needs to miss the play and give the part of Captain Hook to his understudy……Inspector Fowler. Habib finally sees the underwear from Goody and immediately gives it back to him and tells him off. Goody leaves it on the counter, and Fowler discreetly takes it with him to give to Dawkins later. For once a good day for Fowler.

There was also a sub-plot about two homeless people, a couple, who take up residence at the police station. The woman is pregnant and is about to give birth. Obviously this is an metaphor to the birth of Jesus. In fact, at the end Fowler points out the metaphor and similarities to the famous baby. Of course Goody asks about the famous baby, “Who’s that then?” to which Fowler turns around and says, “Jesus Christ Goody!” Goody takes objection to Fowler swearing at him since he didn’t know! I feel like this whole sub-plot existed just for this joke. The homeless guy is played by Ben Elton who created the series and wrote the episode. Yuletide Spirit is the final episode to have DC Kray and DC Crockett in the series. When Series 2 returns, Kray is replaced by DC Boyle. The end credits also feature a nice lighter Christmassy version of the theme.
The last time I wrote about this series, I note in great detail how little credit I gave to the series when I first watched it on PBS 1995. I wanted to see Rowan Atkinson play more Black Adder and was really surprised how much of a wet blanket Inspector Fowler was. The one thing I didn’t understand at the younger age was how endearing that aspect of Fowler was as a character. He is not overly dynamic or exciting but overall he is a good person who passionately believes in the “right” of what the Metropolitan Police are doing and what his role in Gasforth is to make sure the law is upheld. Fowler really has a romantic view of the Metropolitan Police. It is a wonder how a relationship such as Fowler and Dawkins’ really work since Dawkins wants a lot of excitement and passion yet Fowler would much prefer a nice cup of tea and work on his model airplane as we see in Kid’s Today. I can appreciate that!

The thing that strikes me about these episodes and the article I wrote about this series in 2012 is that even though I was hard on the series when I first saw it in 1995, Series 1 is actually not great. A lot of the criticisms I had at the time still hold up. Obviously the stuff with Grim and Fowler are always funny but this is really a case of a series that is finding its footing. Ben Elton is hugely talented but I think a lot of this was new territory for him too.
When Series 2 returns, it is slightly re-tooled and it makes a huge difference. I feel like Elton and maybe Atkinson looked at the characters and decided what needed to happen. For one, Fowler is expanded to make more use of Atkinson’s unique talents. The lectures between Fowler and his team are expanded and are actually funny. A lot of the humour in Series 1 has a lot of same type of gags such as when Fowler will come up to Habib and ask for something from her and she mistakes the request for something that Fowler needs help with because he is older such as mistaking the request for her underwear in Yuletide Spirit because he is going through a mid-life crisis. Fowler would make statements in the episodes that sound slightly sexual where Habib would start to chuckle like a little girl at which point Fowler would ask her what is so funny. Which, in fact, to this viewer isn’t funny after the 14th time.

Series 2 has more complex and better designed humour. I don’t think Series 1 is bad, in fact, I think there are some great moments in it. It just needed to find its feet. Series 2 comes along and it is overall a stronger series. Most of the characters become more well-defined and we learn more about them. It’s too bad, as I think if there was a Series 3, it would have been pretty awesome. I don’t think this could ever have been a super long running series but I think 3 series would have been just right. Just in the way Yuletide Spirit was just right in setting the tone for my holiday viewing.
Next week: We look at an example of a series that has a Christmas “special” episode which has nothing to do with Christmas! We look at the Lovejoy episode The Lost Colony which has a great deal of the story taking place in the US. Is it a star-spangled catastrophe?

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

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Cartier's Lee Oswald: Assassin

On November 22, 1963 the world took a shift. Obviously the fact that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated was a massive event but it also opened up the world to one of the most interesting aspects of the assassination, conspiracy. Almost immediately, there were theories on what happened and the hunt was on for the killer. A suspect was found, Lee Harvey Oswald. He was charged for the murder of the President as well as Officer JD Tippit. Please know that as much as I find the conspiracy of the assassination of JFK interesting, I am by no means an expert. I paid attention to a lot of it when the Oliver Stone film JFK came out. I know that this wasn’t an entirely accurate film but it certainly piqued my interest. I love a good conspiracy even though I don’t believe in most of them. It has been more than 20 years since that film had been released, so who knows how much new evidence has been acquired between then and now. I am sure I am way out of date with theories on what happened that day. That being said, if you want an accurate and thorough understanding of the events what transpired in the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, I suggest you do not watch the 1966 installment of Play of the Month: Lee Oswald: Assassin

Play of the Month started in 1965 and ran until 1983. It is pretty much what it says it is. Play of the Month is an anthology series that would take plays and adapt them for television. It’s interesting with the progression of television as so much of the early output of the BBC in the 1940s and 1950s were basically plays.
Lee Oswald: Assassin TX: 15/3/66

For some reason renowned BBC director Rudolph Cartier and Reed De Rouen wanted to adapt this play for the ongoing Play of the Month series. The play it was based from was called Dallas November 22 and was written by Felix L├╝tzkendorf and debut in Munich in 1965. It was clear from just doing a simple search that this was not a very good play. It was called, “not a work of art” from a 1965 article from the Associated Press. In the book, The Drama is Coming Now: The Theater Criticism of Richard Gilman: 1961-1991, pg. 151 it says:

“Felix L├╝tzkendorf, who Dallas November 22, a melodramatization of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, received the worst reviews in recent German stage annuals.”

Yet, it was still decided that this would be a play to adapt to television. The entirety of the plot is a look at from the perspective of the Warren Commission findings. This was a group put together on November 29th 1963 to investigate the assassination of JFK. On September 24th 1964 the findings were made public in an 889 page report that found Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunmen in the assassination of JFK.
It is not clear to me when this commission started to be criticized by the public or conspiracy theorists about the information and evidence that they left out. To be honest, I am not even sure what all that might be. Seeing that the Warren Commission report was so new by the time the play was being written that, I would think, no one knew, especially in Germany, to even think about questioning the contents. That being said, I would have to guess that any sort of idea of conspiracy in the whole matter had to be considered very early on especially after Oswald was assassinated by Jack Ruby two days after JFK was killed and was never even given a chance to go to trial.

I am not sure what got Cartier to decide to adapt this play into a television production. Without being alive at the time, it is hard for me to gauge what the feeling of these events were like at the time, especially in the UK. We are now past the findings of the Warren Commission by 1966 so it is interesting to see how many people in the British public were curious about the outcome. I have seen this play described as a docu-drama and I guess that seems accurate to me. I think docu-dramas can work a couple of different ways. I think something recent for example like An Adventure in Space and Time works relatively well taking true events and weaving a story out of it where sometimes multiple people are combined to one character or the events are perhaps a little more fantastical for dramatic effect.
In the case of Lee Oswald: Assassin, it plays more like a limp and sterile educational film warning about the effects of Communism. I know the savvy of this group reading this article will point out that Oswald claimed to be a Marxist but I think the message still stands. In that regard, it makes it interesting because that makes it a product of its time; it is something that people could really relate to in the 1960s. Especially with the whole Bay of Pigs a few years earlier, I am sure not many people at the time knew of how Oswald admired Cuba and tried to get there so he can get back to Russia.

The play starts with characters who attend the Warren Commission hearings to provide evidence of their interactions with Oswald. Once they start to tell their “story”, we go to that event they are recalling. Such moments are when Oswald did a horrible job while in the Marines and was not getting along with the rest of his platoon, he is immediately at odds with everyone because they see him as a Communist. Not only that but he is not taking his responsibilities seriously which has the rest of the platoon getting punished with him. We later move along to Russia at the US Embassy where Oswald wants to renounce is US citizenship. He is expecting paperwork to come from the Russian government to allow him to become a citizen. At the US Embassy, Oswald shoots off his mouth how he will never need to go back to the US again. He tells them to keep his passport. He doesn’t have the paperwork yet from Russia and the US cannot renounce his citizenship until other paperwork is made available. Oswald leaves in a huff. Once he is back to his apartment, he is visited by someone in the Russian government to inform him that he will not be allowed to become a citizen. This depresses Oswald enough to attempt suicide. His girlfriend intercedes just in time to save him but just imagine if she didn’t and he died. The world would have been a different place.
Oswald finds a wife in Russia and impregnates her. They need to go back to the US. Once arriving in NY, there is a bunch of press waiting for someone for them to interview. Oswald thinks the press is there for him and he is angry when he finds out the press doesn’t want to talk with him. He believes he is the real story. He is also annoyed that he is told there are certain things he must do now that he is back in the US. This is just government red tape sort of things. Oswald clearly feels he is a special case and deserves better treatment than anyone else.

Oswald finally moves to Dallas where his wife Marina has a very unhappy existence. She is raising a child and by the time we catch back up with them, she is very aware of his political beliefs and how his beliefs are actually hurting the family. We meet up with them again as Oswald loses a job but when he gets back to his house, he has a rifle. His wife does not respect him and she openly bad mouths him in front of other people such as their neighbours. She has had enough of her life with him.
Later, Oswald tries to assassinate US Major General Edwin Walker. He shoots at him from the gates of Walker’s house. He just misses Walker and runs for it. Oswald returns to his house and tries to hide the gun only to be found by a neighbour friend of Marina. The neighbours are Russian and they are the only thing in Marina’s life that she enjoys. Soon after, Oswald travels to New Orleans, which we don’t see cover in the play, and then we pick it back up in Mexico. There, Oswald wants to get a transit visa that would allow him to visit Cuba before going to Russia. He tells the woman at the Embassy how impressed he is with what is happening in Cuba and how proud she should be about that. She lets him know that she is Mexican and just works at Embassy. Oswald is denied the visa at the Cuban embassy.  Oswald loses his temper and is told to leave. What is not covered in the play because it probably was not known at the time is after Oswald returns to Dallas in September 1963, Cuba does grant permission for him to get his visa in October. To me it is not clear whether he knew gave up wanting to go to Russia or didn’t even know. 11 days before JFK’s assassination he the Soviet Embassy in DC, “Had I been able to reach the Soviet Embassy in Havana, as planned, the embassy there would have had time to complete our business."[

We literally cut to the next shot of Oswald at the book repository in Dallas on November 22 about to assassinate JFK. There isn’t a lot of buildup, we just see him shoot out of the window. I like that, it actually feels real time because it happens so fast. After that, we see him kill Officer Tippit and then gets caught. He is taken into custody. Oswald never admits to either of the killings but he is never given a chance. Jack Ruby assassinates Oswald the next day while Oswald is being transported out of the jail he was being held.
I don’t go into much detail of the play because it is basically well-known history, at least as far as the Warren Commission is concerned. The play itself is really pedestrian. There is no energy or life to this production. It really goes through the motions of the findings of the Warren Commission. It is all very linear and clinical.  This play was directed by Rudolph Cartier. He was one of the best BBC directors of the time. Many fans will know him from his direction of the 1950s Quatermass Serials, the groundbreaking 1954 production of Nineteen Eighty-Four and so much more. There is a held belief among many of the British television fans that I see online that Cartier can do no wrong when it comes to directing these productions. I think this proves otherwise. Everyone has a duff production eventually. There is literally no life to this production. We jump around and get little vignettes of the story. Not enough to make any real decisions about any characters. For most of the play, Oswald comes across as a harmless fanatic and nothing else. It’s not until his attempt on General Walker does it seem plausible that this guy is unhinged. I think the worse part of the play is that we jump to Oswald getting ready to shoot JFK but there isn’t a point where he has a reason. It comes across as completely random. That is where the problem lies with adapting this German play. The play nor the Warren Commission have a real reason for why Oswald did it. There is not a moment in this play that Marina explains that she heard Oswald talk about assassinating the President. It could very well be that he woke up that morning to find out that JFK was going to be in Dallas that day and decided at the last minute to shoot the President only because Oswald realised that the motorcade was travelling right by where he worked. Everything that happened to Oswald could be down to pure unfortunate coincidence.

The problem is that this story, if not being a straight documentary, may not work because it is so dry and adhering so closely to the Warren Commission report. There are some things I liked. Once Oswald is captured, the scenes at the police station where all pandemonium was breaking out with the press was really well executed. These are some obvious clues that this is a Cartier production. Crowd scenes that is filmed in a way of holding up a mirror to us. It shows how crazy we are when we are a crowd/mob. These shots of the press trying to get a word from Oswald is shot from the perspective of the police looking at this crazy crowd. It is really well-done. I also loved the police cars they used. It looks like something from Texas and not the car from Z Cars.
Tony Bill played Lee Harvey Oswald. He looks the part and plays it well. Rudolph Cartier wanted to make sure that Oswald was played by an American. Tony Bill later produced the film The Sting. We get Donald Sutherland in here as Charles Givens. He is the guy who talked with Oswald on the sixth floor of the book repository prior to Oswald shooting the President. There are some interesting appearance from people we’ve seen elsewhere. There is Warren Mitchell playing a Traveler’s Aide Rep in New York. He would soon be playing the role of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part. Carol Cleveland plays Barbara Davies who is one of the women that need to identify Oswald in a police lineup. Finally, we get a couple of Supermarionation voice actors with Shane Rimmer as a Marine Sergeant and David Graham who plays the shoe store manager who tips off the police about Oswald’s whereabouts.

NY Times Article from 1966 about Lee Oswald: Assassin
I have to admit, I didn’t have high hopes for the play. That being said, it’s an interesting curiosity. It’s interesting to see a UK perspective on such a defining moment in US history. It’s a shame that the play comes across as lackluster but not all the blame can be laid on Carter or De Rouen, the play seems to be where the problem really lies. The Oliver Stone film JFK may not be accurate but at least it’s entertaining.
Next Week: We begin our look at some Christmas episodes of our favourite shows during the month of December. We start off with the Rowan Atkinson series The Thin Blue Line with their only holiday episode Yuletide Spirit.

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

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