Thursday 30 August 2018

Callan - Wet Job

Bringing back a popular show can be enormously tempting. It worked once, so why wouldn't it work well again? I wasn’t keen on the idea of a revival and reviews from others set my expectations low, then lower again, so I had put off watching this for some time.

Wet Job does start reasonably well and the set up with the Section manipulating Callan is good. How he came to retire is left rather murky, allowing us to plough on with the present. The idea of an old job coming back to haunt him seems the best way to drag Callan back into the espionage world. The new Hunter fits in well. He's just as upper class and slightly removed as the others, and I think Hugh Walters does a reasonably decent job in the part. If Wet Job was a way of testing the waters for another series, I would have been pleased to see Walters again.

Callan's current occupation, running a military memorabilia shop, fits well as Callan was always depicted as having a great deal of knowledge as well as passion for the subject. The Nazi items on display seem a tad out of his area but perhaps he’s just decided to go with what sells well, as opposed to making friends with his local NF branch.

The scenes between Lonely and Callan are undoubtedly the best in the production. They both effortlessly slide back into their old roles and the two are wonderful together. I love how proud Lonely is at finally going straight and I only wish we could have got a look at the photo of his beloved. Gawd knows how he got her. It seems losing Mr Callan from his life has benefitted Lonely in the long run, which makes it all the greater shame that he honestly believes their meeting again is pure coincidence. While they do recreate much of their old on-screen rapport, I think scripturally their relationship is more reflective of the literary Callan, where James Mitchell depicts them as better friends. Callan treats Lonely much nicer here than he normally did in the TV series and Lonely himself has developed the confidence to stand up to Mr Callan a little. It’s lovely seeing Russell Hunter and Woodward so comfortable together.

In fact, I think Woodward is fantastic throughout. Despite those massive, ageing, we’re-definitely-in-the-1980s glasses, his old ‘Callan’ expressions shine through and there are intonations in his voice that immediately bring the character back into the room. Considering how physically different Woodward looks compared to Callan's last outing seven years earlier, I think easily establishing the character this well is important for the audience. This is probably the main thing that makes Wet Job slightly bearable because, well…

There is so much bad stuff. So, so, very much and so, so, very bad.

The script is a mess. After a promising start, it all goes to pot. Meres’ replacement, Thorne, is pointless and seems to be there to plug a gap that doesn’t need to be filled. Apart from tailing Callan and giving him a lift to Oxfordshire, he is utterly useless. He blags his way into Lucy Smith’s conspiratorial flat and learns precisely bugger all. It was undoubtedly an enormous mistake to believe that Anthony Valentine's wonderfully cold Toby Meres could be so easily replaced.

George Sewell could have been a marvellous villain but partway through his character decides to chuck out the whole plot so far, abandon his plan to kill Callan, and murder a Czech dissident with the KGB instead.

The KGB bloke. You need a high-profile enemy of the people to disappear in a foreign country on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Apparently you send a short fellow with a ‘tache who can barely use a gun.

There is also an awful lot of padding to bring this up to length as a TV movie. It's 80 minutes long, running in a 90-minute slot when broadcast, which seems like something today's advert-drenched prime time can only dream of. It needs to shave a good 20 minutes off though. Instead, things really start to drag, and we have too many minor characters like the KGB man and Lucy's communist friends that fail to make an impression. I was stunned to learn from Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood's The Callan File (an impressive and enthusiastically recommended tomb) that the Wet Job we got had already had 20 minutes cut. What did they cut for us to still end up with this monstrosity?

Who knows what was going on at ATV because the picture quality is noticeably worse than that of the Thames series a decade earlier. Everything in the studio seems to have a dark hue and I found myself squinting to make out details that should definitely be there. Yet outside on location everything is far too bright and sunny. Apart from the contrast between the two being terrible on the eyes, the brightness doesn’t suit the traditional dark colour palette of Callan at all. Bring back the grey and brown.

I've held back on what I believe is the worst aspect of the production and I only wish he had because the composer's incidental music on Wet Job is enough to make you want to cut off your ears, put them through a shredder and boil them in acid. Callan never really needed incidental music and the damning silence in scenes often spoke louder than a hundred of these electronic noise machines ever could. It sounds cheap, poor, and none of it, not one single note, is appropriate for the tone of the programme. If this wasn't enough, he, that ruinous bastard Cyril Ornadel, never lets up. There is not a moment of silence that he won't fill. It's infuriating. I just wanted it to end.

Wet Job is a poor revival for Callan. Cut the music, tighten the script and make it on film instead of whatever videotape atrocity ATV are utilising and I think it could have been great. It has nothing to do with the passage of time - indeed, Woodward makes a considerably better older Callan than I would have expected - and everything to do with what's gone on offscreen. Wet Job is frustrating because it feels like such a waste and it's a shame that Callan's final television outing is so far off the series' high standards.

Monday 6 August 2018

A is for Armchair Theatre

Armchair Theatre was one of several anthology series on television during the 1960s and 1970s. Others include The Wednesday PlayPlay for TodayTheatre 625ITV Playhouse and Thirty-Minute Theatre. Upon first hearing about these, I was rather bemused because there is little resembling an anthology series on television today. Also, they are referred to as 'plays', which made me imagine them to be rather low-budget and cheap-looking filmed stage performances. It gave me flashbacks to the educational programmes we occasionally had to sit through at school.

I often forget that I've seen an episode of Armchair Theatre before - A Magnum for Schneider, which was the 1967 pilot for Callan. The sets may have been few but it certainly didn't look 'stagey' at all. It's wonderfully written with excellent performances. But as it was written partly with a future series in mind, I wasn't sure how much the regular episodes of Armchair Theatre would differ.

'Say Goodnight to Your Grandma' is from the Armchair Theatre: Volume 1 DVD and was broadcast in 1970. Tony (Colin Welland) and Jean (Susan Jameson) live in London now but head back up north to introduce their baby daughter, Chrissie, to her grandmothers. Tony's mother, Mrs Weston (Madge Ryan), and Jean's, Mrs Clarke (Mona Bruce), take every chance to pick at one another and there are snide remarks aplenty. It's amusing and catty with Jean desperate to keep the peace while Tony is more laid back about it. Eventually, arguments among the women reach a peak when the lack of a christening is brought up. The religious Mrs Clarke has taken it particularly badly. "Come on now, love, Tony'll pour you a nice cup of tea. We musn't quarrel," Mrs Weston says. "No thank you, I'm too upset," replies Mrs Clarke, marking the start of civilisation coming crashing down around them. Mrs Weston is a great character and you can see a smirk when Mrs Clarke decides to leave.

Tony gets a phone call from an old pal asking him to come down the club for a drink. Jean is not thrilled but Tony goes anyway. Later, he and the boys all pile in and the reason for a barrel of beer we saw Mrs Weston hiding earlier becomes apparent. It's clear she planned this all along. She's delighted to start making sandwiches for them all, talking about the fantastic old times they used to have with her boys, who loved visiting. We start to get a sense of time for the party, as the lounge becomes increasingly filled with smoke from their cigarettes.

Jean has had enough though and reappears with her hair down, wearing one of Tony's old rugby jerseys. She drinks and dances with the lads, getting close to several of them. Tony is quietly annoyed while Mrs Weston is deeply upset by Jean's behaviour, which initially confused me. Mrs Weston says Jean is embarrassing them up and all the boys will think "she's a right common little piece." It turns out she is quite right though, with remarks including, "My god, Ken. That shirt's never seen better days." One of the boys is even ready to take Jean up on her offer of sex in his car before Jean laughs it off.

I really love the shots during the party scenes, directed by Jim Goddard, who is on much more sedate turf, having recently directed episodes of Callan, Public Eye and Special Branch, as well as other episodes of Armchair Theatre. The camera often doesn't cut, instead, it moves between each of the room's conversations, where the men barely turn to glance at one another as their eyes are glued out of shot, to Jean's dancing.

I found this a powerful drama and enjoyed all the conflict, from the two grandparents to the couple's old life impacting on their new, marked completely by the ending when their daughter is woken by the party and Jean brings her downstairs in among everyone. Earlier, Mrs Weston has asked to be called 'Nana' as "Granny make me feel elderly," so Jean telling the baby, "Say goodnight to your Grandma" is a nasty, cruel stab. Jean is telling her: I've won - your family is mine now.

Like 'A Magnum for Schneider', there are very few sets; the lounge, the kitchen and the hall, with the majority taking place in the lounge. There is also a location scene in the Weston's car, which rather impressed me as I hadn't expected a play to have any location filming. The limited sets do help here, giving the family a sense of claustrophobia. They are bound together, even if none of them is entirely happy about it.

While 'Say Goodnight to Your Grandma' does go for the stereotype of a man stuck between his wife and mother, this is a much more interesting look at it. Both implore him to stop the other; Jean when Mrs Weston is bringing up every uncomfortable subject and Mrs Weston when Jean is dancing provocatively in the lounge. Both women are also called a "bitch", though not to their faces and it's Tony who uses the word about Jean. In both instances, Tony refuses to do anything, pleasing no one.

It's a depressing ending. Jean is a modern social climber but Tony could move back up north to his old friends tomorrow, even if he does admit nothing is quite the same. In voiceovers of their respective thoughts, Jean muses on Mrs Weston's scheming ways and her snide comments, while Tony longs for the old days as he's now stuck down Earl's Court with "no mates, a howling kid and lousy ale".

By the end, I find myself siding with no one. Jean shouldn't rise to the two grandmothers' complaints as they are exactly what she had expected. Was it really that bad for Tony to spend one night with his old pals? Her response exposes her snobbishness. Yet Tony has to let the past go. It becomes clear they have all grown up by how many of his mates know how to prepare a bottle. His thoughts make his priorities clear and show his immaturity.

I previously looked at a 1967 interview with Philip Mackie, a writer and producer, who argued that 'too much of television is stuck in a rut of sameness and tameness and mediocrity'. Television plays would appear to be the saviour of this as regular series are by their nature constrained somewhat. One-off dramas are the equivalent today and I do think we have had some marvellous ones in recent years, like A Passionate WomanNational Treasure and A Very English Scandal, though most consist of more than one episode, including all of those examples. Television anthology series do exist now in the form of Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror, with both having a loose theme, which isn't new. Armchair Theatre had the genre-specific offshoot of Armchair Thriller (1978-80) and there was also Espionage (1963).

Of the two Armchair Theatres I've seen now, I felt both had great writing and casting. As well as starring in it, Colin Welland also wrote this episode. He would go on to win BAFTAs for his anthology series scripts and top it all with an Oscar for Chariots of Fire. Meanwhile, I spent ages trying to place Susan Jameson. Both her name and face seemed familiar as she played Esther Lane in New Tricks.