I can also, as a rather lovely coincidence, avoid the banality and sham that is The Diamond Jubilee Concert on BBC1... (or so I thought!)
1: Doctor Who - 'The Web Planet' (BBC-1, TX: 13/02/1965)
"Dragged down? To what?"
This story follows The Romans, a four-part comic serial that I remember being one of the most delightful things in Doctor Who's fifty-year treasure trove. Let's see whether this story reflects a dragging down of the programme's fortunes... It is good to start with Doctor Who, the programme which, along with Moondial, made me interested in old British telly. Of course, my education - in school, my own reading of books and web forums - led me further, towards Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, The Prisoner, Edge of Darkness, Play for Today... But this is where it started. Not with this episode, but with this show, a venerable, silly and sublime presence on British television for nearly fifty years (give or take longer or shorter hiatuses).
Vicki states, looking out via the scanner: "That looks a bit grim. Where are we?" They are on a notably otherworldly planet; rather lunar and Ian mistakes it for our moon initially. While it looks good - artful studio sets rather than the show's later quarry fetish - there is little suspense or atmosphere established, though, as a Zarbi is shown straight in the open. No incandescent plunger revelations, as with the Daleks. Then, a strangely Dougal-esque creature sweeps into view. This is certainly odd, unprecedented stuff; if presented in a strangely matter of fact manner.
"Honestly Doctor, what a mess! One of these days I'm going to have a jolly good spring clean around here..." Barbara is as formidable, forceful and genial as ever.
The Doctor and Ian plan to leave the ship to explore, but the Doctor ensures they have on their respiratory 'compensators'; oddly lacking in so many other stories where they peruse potentially dangerous planet surfaces. Hartnell is in his element, tinkering with dials, gleefully chuckling as he trots out of the TARDIS; a hocus-pocus magician of an eccentric scientist.
Barbara and Vicki discuss education methods; when the History teacher says "We worked upwards from the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic", Vicki rather arrogantly retorts: "Oh, it was a nursery school..." to be met with Barbara's imperious cry of "IT WAS NOT!" Swoon.
Barbara is bemused at how advanced Vicki's education seems to have been: "What did you do in your time? Live in the classroom?" Vicki replies: "Live in the - what?" Hill plays it humorously here with indignation and curiosity; Barbara deals deftly with the precocious Vicki being irreverent about our trusted 1960s education system with her future perspective.
'ECHOES, DEAR BOY!!' Hartnell is truly in hooting, jubilant mode here. "Can't see any spooks or anything. Not particularly, no!"
A weird twenty-five minutes gets odder with Barbara's right arm moving of its own accord, and the Doctor and Ian spying a surreal pyramid. Ian seems deadly certain: "That was built." The Doctor delights in its antiquity: "Old. So old! Look at the state it's in!"
As disquieting music meanders in, their pallid silhouettes are superimposed at the bottom of the grey pyramid. Something odd and indistinct can seen at the top, though not truly discerned. Ian states with curious certainty: "Well it isn't Nelson" Then the Doctor's eccentric, rather wondrous reply: "No. No pigeons..." The subtitles actually read "No, pity", which, if anything, would be just as odd.
"Yes, it's curious, yes". Certainly is. I wonder whether the story will resolve this pregnant mystery... The scenes on the planet are filtered as through a gauze, creating an alien quality.
Then some of that science, the show's educational remit being observed: with the Doctor cautioning Ian against touching the 'water' in a rock pool. "I hope my pants stay up". "Well, that's your affair not mine". He's chortling away again as Chesterton's Coal Hill school tie is burned away by the acid in the pool after his experiment. Ian is nonplussed. As one might expect of a proud science teacher and man with clearly very few ties.
A Zarbi hides... then the distinctive and genuinely grating beeping sound of the Zarbi, which has Miss Wright haunted in the TARDIS. Who knows what is going on here, but Jacqueline Hill carries it off superbly as ever. She is led out of the TARDIS and the doors close of their own accord. The TARDIS console is even set a spinning, due to the unspecified "interference" the Doctor keeps alluding to.
Ian is assailed by webbing of some sort; a zombiefied Barbara is treading the planet, without the Doctor and Ian's fancy space suit.
"My ship... My TARDIS..." The Doctor is left wistfully staring into the abyss, as Vicki has inadvertently got it to dematerialise, and leave the webbed planet.
Overall, this good fun - if perhaps more so for the initiated and Hartnell fans in particular. It's all very enjoyable with unexplained oddities happening all over the place. The regulars are seasoned and well versed in this sort of baffling hokum. While the rest of the story has a shocking reputation - much to do with the realisation of the bumblebee people - this is an engaging opener.
2: Shelley 4.1 - 'Unkindest Cuts' (Thames, TX: 18/02/1982)
From the BBC to Thames, and seventeen years on. Circa mine own conception. I can but assume that I emerged into the world with this ITV company's glorious ident bathing everything in warmth and openness.
Shelley is something of a serial sitcom, with a developing plot. 'The Guardian reading layabout' James Shelley - as he was described in the same paper - doesn't, as conventional wisdom would have it, simply return to his jobless state at the start of each episode. Though he is clearly prone to joblessness. In series 2-3 he works, unhappily but lucratively, for an advertising company. "Thank God I start a job next week" - I assume JS is referring to his job with the foreign office, gained in episode 4 of the previous series but not commenced in that run. That series ended with Emma Shelley born - and her father telling her: "You're not here to enjoy yourself", trying to get across to the newborn that "life's a bit ropey at the moment".
"I won't be a layabout again - ever!"
Mr Jones and Mr Aziz at the Labour Exchange return from previous episodes. Shelley has been signing on "going on seven years", as he himself confirms. Jones is aghast, in time-honoured fashion: "A man with your education sponging off the state!" Shelley replies: "There's a lot of highly educated people on the dole these days. Still, the government's going to taking decisive action to stop all that." "Are they?" "Yes, they're going to stop educating people".
Never more relevant, thirty years on.
"Workshy, sponging off the state!" Jones's anger as he leaves the scene figures for mainstream attitudes today. Saint or Scrounger?
Fran enters the house, muddied, with a hair-net, clearly been gardening; to Shelley's open question she retorts"What do you think I've been doing, auditioning for The Archers?" He appreciates the joke but she shows irritation: "It's the kind of witless, automatic, smart-alec remark you can't go fifteen seconds without making. That's all. It's just a catching habit."
"The coffers are empty!" "Mother Hubbard time!" The fruity voiced Mr Fairbrass (Geoffrey Chater) outlines the Thatcherite austerity to his caller as Shelley arrives in the foreign office to clarify arrangements for his new job.
|"It's all been cut, squire! It's called monetarism. Means we haven't got any."|
"If the foreign office had to pay for every mistake they made, the country'd be bankrupt!"
"These brief islands of employment" - Tilbury makes virtually every character either angry or wryly mocking regarding Shelley's lack of work. This sitcom makes the point that things are often very much beyond the control of the individual. Shelley at this stage wants work but cannot gain it. The only silver lining is that he can be classed as 'redundant', thus not falling foul of the labour exchange's rules.
Shelley and Fran had by this point moved into their own house; Shelley gets the idea of selling up and moving back to Mrs H's. However, even this retrograde step is not possible. Negative equity.
It is one of the bleaker episodes, with even the archetypal safe 'job for life' type Mr Fairbrass revealed to have also been made redundant in the show's final gag.
"If feeble jokes were pound notes, we could pay everyone's rate demand..."
3: Shadows 2.1 - 'The Dark Knights of Kimball Green' (Thames, TX: 28/07/1976)
Just as I put the disc in, I am 'subject' to an awfully hammy Robbie Williams committing the worst ever mauling of 'Mack the Knife', name-checking Princess Beatrice and Eugenie... Best to step back into Thames television time.
A crow against the sky; which is replaced by bleak, monochromatic tower blocks and city litter that could be lifted from an early Human League album cover. A little girl, sullen and with skipping rope.
"Come on, y' little brat!" Amid a shopping precinct as low-rent and Go Kart Mozart as it gets.
Kimball's Green Library sign. Then into a naturalistic supermarket with her mum. She is an orphanage kid - and she enters the library. "What good does reading do you!?" Reading as a scornful pejorative. Workaday ketchup contrasted with perusing the shelves in a library. Implied disapproval for the foster-mother Mrs Vaughan's materialistic consumerism.
"Just like words! For me it's better than reading a story!"
Kimball's Green is referred to as an ancient settlement. The present contains well-meaning folk like the 70s spectacle-wearing Librarian (Karen Archer) and the Social Worker (Joan Scott), who cannot really make any meaningful difference.
The latter says, impotently: "It's so difficult finding good homes for the children".
"Nosy parker" is the idiom. Off down the bingo, is our Mrs Vaughan. Neglectful of her foster child, or actually enabling her in a roundabout way to escape via the freedom to do her own thing?
Mr Campbell (Alex McCrindle) is the sort of eccentric, scruffy old man immediately to be trusted by children of 1970s children's literature and television.
Picture book images fill the screen as she reads from Campbell's history-book. The modern-day urban setting is shown whilst he talks more about its rustic past.
"Words and music" on paper last. Which Mrs Vaughan (Barbara Keogh) would not appreciate. But Joan Aiken clearly does, in her carefully didactic script. As do Saint Etienne with their new album with its gloriously cosmopolitan London map cover.
Joan Aiken was noted for her trilogy of counter-factual 19th-century historicals which included the London-set Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), with its narrative of an assassination attempt on the hypothetical King James III. She was known as a writer of short-stories, which the producer of Shadows Ruth Boswell described as 'poetic', as recalled in Christopher Griffin-Beale's report on the new series for The Guardian (29/07/1976). Indeed, this episode emerged from her 'The Dark Streets of Kimball's Green' (1972), 'about a girl who uses fantasy to meet and transcend an intolerable situation'. Aiken had written plays for the Unicorn, a leading children's theatre in Southwark, London, but this was her first work for television. After the death of her husband, she had had to take on wider literary editing jobs and projects such as this.
Threatening kids run around, unleashed, amok. 'QPR' is scrolled on a red phone box. As is 'SAVE THE WHALE'. The situation is evocatively mundane, as in the Doctor Who story 'Survival', set in Perivale. This effect comes from the quality of video, where so often television now mimics film rather than trust in its own peculiar aesthetic. At the time, Aiken had a black and white set, so the colours may have been lost on her, and she was said to be surprised that it was shot in colour.
Mrs Vaughan is one of those caricatures you find in Roald Dahl's fiction for children; a malignant representative of the adult world the sensitive child protagonist finds immediately repugnant. Orphan Emmeline (Hannah Isaacson) is by now obsessed with the story of King Cunobel, which oddly mirrors unfortunate current-day events in her life.
Weird scenes of the mythical Queen Bellavaun (Keogh), leaping through the park fields. Bagpipes. The young lads forming an imperceptibly threatening gang, chanting "ee ay addio" and chasing a cat.
Campbell's off to the Palace Cinema, 'to earn some money'. Ironically, the cinema was just a year shy of its Star Wars-fuelled revival. Which was part of the reason this sort of genteel but socially aware children's television was supplanted. Entertainment had to become flashier, less homespun. This was possibly a choice that was made, though the BBC and ITV continued making this distinctively low-key, thoughtful kids' TV for fifteen years or so - though by my time the BBC was intent on the never more middle-class world of adapting novels with a period setting.
Romans and Druids. A gang of brutalist young lads and a defenceless old eccentric. This is akin to magic realism, with fantasy and reality bleeding into each other. Emmeline sees the present in terms of a mythic past, with a stark division of good and evil. The cultured beggar and the scrawny cat versus the non-individuated ruffian kids and the harridan foster mother. Libraries v. supermarkets.
The show was not reviewed at the time, but Griffin-Beale's report of the same day commented that 'it certainly digs below the surface of inner-city locations in Hackney, reaching deeper, enduring emotions and reverberating in the mind more than most television - for children or adults'. I have watched series 3 of Shadows recently - which vacillates between the tiresome and the profoundly elegiac. Oddly, because I usually watch such programmes in order - I had only seen one early and rather haunting episode with Jenny Agutter in a railway station. This was my first viewing from series 2; any good?
It does possess a blunt power, but isn't for me quite as compelling as Dave Martin and Bob Baker's King of the Castle which touches on the same concerns: imagination, inner-city living and an out of control youth. Then there is social class - the finally rather snooty Emmeline rejecting the common, vulgar Mrs Vaughan. And houses being pulled down - Mrs Vaughan's is threatened with demolition. Also, there is the sense of lost worlds intruding on the present, as in Alan Garner and other 1970s fantasy writing for young adults. A forlorn flute plays us out - and it's certainly not cosy or comforting. Which is as it should be with children's television.
"He didn't win! He lost!"
4: Wessex Tales 1 - 'The Withered Arm' (BBC-2, TX: 07/11/1973)
Back to the BBC; well, BBC2 in 1973 not BBC1 in 2012 with a bloated Elton bellowing 'Crocodile Rock' to a crowd of day-trippers, royals and their sedated, fawning 'subjects'...
Okay, this is the first I've seen of this series. An adaptation of six Hardy short-stories, following author Joan Aiken's specially written episode of Shadows. I don't know this short story or indeed any of Hardy's, unless I've been taught one at school long ago and forgotten. The schedule above shows just how impressive television could be: from 9.30-10pm on the main channels there was a choice of Steptoe and Son, Wessex Tales and The World at War. Beat that, multi-channel TV!
The opening titles are stately, playing it safe - no feathers would be ruffled. Rhys Adrian is the dramatist - who wrote for Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play, Play for Today and the ITV and BBC2 Playhouses.
"Some say she's a witch."
"Her ways be quite a woman's". West country dialects - promising some of the Bronte - Hardy - DH Lawrence - Raymond Williams - Dennis Potter interest in language, culture and place.
An effortlessly pretty lady combs her hair ("as comely as a live doll"). And then a witchly grinning apparition of this same woman appearing to the scared lad's mother, Rhoda (Billie Whitelaw), in bed; she is smiling and clawing hands - entirely sinister.
The next day after Rhoda's 'nightmare' she spies a distant figure in the fields. In broad daylight. Undoubtedly eerier than nightly apparitions, if handled well. The later series West Country Tales manages this daytime dread rather well on the whole. This turns out to be Mrs Gertrude Lodge (Yvonne Antrobus), an exceptionally anguished lady.
"Though it does get a bit lonely sometimes, with my husband away so much"
"I have never felt so well before" - Mrs Lodge has a sound grasp of irony. This seemingly tortured woman rather resembles a slightly shorter Julia Davis in a bonnet. Red blotches on her arm. "It's too horrible to see".
This production contains plenty of location work, of a notably more rural nature than Shadows. Moody clouds and rain act as pathetic fallacy, stressing the tension between the married couple.
"I will not have people of that sort attending upon my wife [...] You are to keep away from Rhoda Brook" - this repeated instruction asserts the theme of social class within this piece. This afflicted lady is told by her husband Farmer Lodge not to associate with the poorer country folk. But to stick to recognized doctors.
|Nancy Banks-Smith: 'They live like pigs, or die like cattle'|
"Then it is just superstition". The theme of science v. superstition seems to be emerging; a key concern within our culture in innumerable texts across times.
Tingling harp music (Joseph Horovitz) follows a silent stretch where the two women have a terse parting after Mrs Lodge has seen Trendle (Esmond Knight). Gertrude's marriage is clearly suffering, her husband barely ever spending time with her. The blotches on her arm are ever-dominant.
"You must come to a private arrangement with a man called Davies..."
"So much destruction of property in the district lately" - they need to make examples. As in the Dead of Night episode, 'The Exorcism' (BBC, 05/11/1972), an anthology horror series episode by Don Taylor with striking Marxist undertones - that I saw in July 2011 at the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle as part of the Alien Nation conference.
Antrobus gives an excellent performance, wraith-like, a beguilingly ghostly presence as the bedevilled woman, moving towards a gruesome compact. Whitelaw is utterly convincing as a hard-bitten, downtrodden country woman about as different as possible from the last role I have watched her play: Bertha in Private Schulz.
Nancy Banks-Smith, perennial 1970s TV reviewer for The Guardian along with Peter Fiddick, approvingly described it as 'a wonderful piece of painting. All the chiaroscuro of sunlight on a heath, firelight in a hovel. Even a bright new wife and a dark, discarded mistress.' (08/11/1973) She admired the 'swept and empty' Dorset landscape, commenting on the director Desmond Davis's cinematic experience and that the characterisation complemented his visual acuity: 'Davis made a landscape painting of them for they were part of the landscape.'
As a mildly eerie rustic drama of social relations it works, and is in the lineage of David Rudkin's Leap in the Dark: 'The Living Grave' (BBC, TX: 09/09/1980) or Alan Plater's 'The Intercessor' for Shades of Darkness (Granada, TX: 03/06/1983), if not really as haunting as either. Evelyn Hardy, a biographer of TH praised its veracity to Hardy's Dorset in a letter to The Guardian of 18th November.
In its Hardy inspired preoccupation with country ways and desperate remedies, it is not, as Banks-Smith wryly said: 'a tale to bring a smirk to the face of the BMA.'
5: The Edwardians 3 - 'E. Nesbit' (BBC-2, TX: 05/12/1972)
I have previously seen one episode of this series, 'The Reluctant Juggler' (TX: 26/12/1972), Alan Plater's typically good-humoured, humanist instalment regarding the Music Hall Strike of 1907 with the likes of Gus Elen, Vesta Victoria, George Formby Sr. and Marie Lloyd evocatively brought to life. The series also featured episodes on significant figures such as Lloyd George (played by Anthony Hopkins, most prominent on the DVD cover), Horatio Bottomley, Robert Baden-Powell, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
But the programme did give due weight to prominent women: Plater's episode, Daisy and this one - Ken Taylor's episode 'E. Nesbit', with Judy Parfitt as the eponymous author. Parfitt is stunning, an imperious, imposing television actress known from many literary adaptations and superior hokum such as The Avengers and a creepy 1971 episode of Shadows of Fear, where she plays a woman in peril with the confidence and hairdo of an Edwardian.
Taylor is best known for his TV adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown, but also wrote for The Borgias, the suffragettes chronicle Shoulder to Shoulder, Wessex Tales ('The Melancholy Hussar') and contributed the very final episode of the mammoth 26-episode Churchill's People. The episode is ushered in by Herbert Chappell's theme, itself reminiscent of music-hall. The director is James Cellan-Jones, who directed the Henry James adaptation The Golden Bowl - also on the BBC earlier in 1972.
The episode begins with the death of the old king in 1910, with the older Edith smoking and musing sadly as a self-described "fat old middle-aged woman". There is a subtle focus on children just believing while adults want proof.
"It's not so splendid, not growing up."
The episode explores how it was to live within a notably progressive section of middle-class society in London in the late-Victorian/Edwardian era; of her son, Edith comments: "We called him Fabian, because we are". It may help in viewing this to have an understanding and perhaps even a sympathy for the idealistic politics that Nesbit - or Edith Bland as she actually was - espoused. We see the delight she takes in helping the poor children, with a particular present reserved for the one whose 'daddy' is currently on strike.
We get a distinct sense of the tensions between harsh realities and the distinctly twee trappings of the household, with the persistent use of pet names of 'cat' and 'mouse'. Edith utters a veritable smorgasbord of dainty, archaic lexis: "golly", "jolly", "ripping" and, my favourite, "billyo". Like Kenneth Grahame, there is a sense that Edith retains and revels in the matters of childhood to guard against the scarier terrain of adulthood. The episode explores, with candour, what it must have been like to have lived an "open marriage" in the Edwardian era. I take issue with the critic over at DVD Talk; Edith and Hubert (James Villiers) are not unsympathetic - they are only so if you view their past from a blinkered, current-day perspective. Hubert's casual, almost self-admiring attitude to his adultery may strike us as not on, as anti-feminist today, but then doesn't it capture some truth in how many men think and feel, even today? To castigate Hubert is to deny some unpleasant facts.
They make the marriage work, just about, though this TV-play doesn't shy away from showing the hurt that comes with rejecting monogamy - and you do feel the intense anguish of the situation surrounding Fabian's death and Edith's subsequent, tortuous fireside chat with Rosamund. It is ironic for Edith that it takes a child to puncture the charade, the 'sham' that her situation is. There's more human emotion in that scene than in a decade's worth of Holby City.
James Villiers is an expert period actor and possessed an evocative CV: The Strange World of Gurney Slade, Fortunes of War, Hancock, The Avengers, Rumpole of the Bailey, The Ruling Class, Repulsion and Losey's These are the Damned and the underrated social comedy Nothing but the Best (1964). Around this time he starred in TV versions of Wilde and Shaw and impressive horrors such as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb and Asylum. Villiers featured in much notable children's film and television: The Amazing Mr Blunden, Brendon Chase and Richard Carpenter's Dick Turpin. He is splendid here, as the wilful Hubert Bland, making the Edwardian language sound entirely natural. Could any actor quite manage this today?
The doomed Fabian is played by Simon Turner who turned up in an evocative range of 1970s programmes: Tom's Midnight Garden, Softly Softly: Task Force, Churchill's People, Wings and, indeed, Shadows - he plays Prince Milton in the feeble, hackneyed 'The Silver Apple' (TX: 25/10/1978) from near the end of that show's run. His roles dried up by the end of the decade, but I don't think he went on to become 'Simon Fisher Turner'.
The programme briefly conveys Edith's success as the writer 'E. Nesbit' - I have read the charming The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), a stridently good-hearted world-view with an acute appreciation of the complexities of childhood. The magical never-never of Edith's Fabianism - as conveyed in works like Mary Poppins - stands as all the more admirable besides today's conventional Thatcherite 'realism', which is actually just as fanciful in its assumption of mean-spiritedness. The programme alludes to her love for ghost stories and her later delving into poetry - and the melancholy distance she began to feel towards her earlier work. I would have liked slightly more focus on her work at times.
The openness of a progressive woman - who is pro-trade unionism and women's suffrage and gets her children to dress unusually at school - is such that she cannot tell a lie. She conceals by a particular way of language and avoidance of the difficult things. She is idolised by 'Mouse', the maid Alice Hoatson (Jane Lapotaire, subdued, brilliant, northern), but only to a point once things get complicated with their respective children by Hubert.
She realises there is a limit to her idealistic idea that "the love you give comes back to you" and that "it's magic and it really works" - the magic being the charade, perhaps even the illusion that radical political change can come about through genteel people being nice and unconventional.
The climactic scene is moving - the older Edith and Hubert, "the two grand old shams" musing on their idealism ("If ideas could change the world..."), their basic, underlying failures and yet managing to justify their lives.
"But we were beautiful... and we showed them didn't we?"
Overall, an excellent programme, which complements the Plater episode admirably. Banks-Smith approved of this 'bizarre life story' in The Guardian, raising an eyebrow at the Edwardian 'prattle' but basically approved of this 'bizarre life story': 'Like all "The Edwardian" episodes, this life story was made with the most loving and minute care. A most superior series.' It is curious that this interesting Acorn DVD release did not find more favour and comment, in this era of Upstairs, Downstairs revival. It suffers from some spectacularly ill-informed 'reviews' on Amazon, with some fool seemingly decrying it because the majority of episodes were in black and white - and another would-be critic bizarrely saying they chose not to watch the full episode.
Perhaps it is for the better that The Edwardians has not been subject to a 'KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON' reading that whitewashes the complexity of the past with its quaint, reductionist Toryism. With Taylor and Plater's episodes at least, we receive a more open-minded, socialist corrective to all that heritage tat (and the Baden-Powell one sounds interesting; was apparently rather controversial in some quarters!). This exercise in exploring the archive has clearly formed a corrective to the nauseating Jubilee 'festivities'.
An Islington children's theatre contributes some inevitably and unavoidably poignant singing. The same theatre's alumni seems to include about half of the East Enders cast... I wonder if any contributed to this episode? 1980s East Enders certainly shared some of the socially conscious, radical London spirit of Nesbit, though was just a tad grittier than her works. Just a tad.
"Thinking will make it better. Thinking always makes it better..."