Saturday 30 May 2020

The Goodies - Cecily


First broadcast: 13th December 1970 on BBC-1

The Goodies are struggling to find work and one does wonder whether 'anything any time' is just too vague for the general public. McCall's newspaper advert in The Equalizer is similarly brief but at least he narrowed it down to helping people that had a problem with the odds against them. I think the Goodies may need some simple marketing support that conveys that they can do anything for YOU, any time that suits YOU.

However, I admire their persistence and the 'anything, any time' remit does feel like it's started to stretch - I certainly hadn't imagined them taking on babysitting duties. Of the threesome's new roles, I particularly enjoyed Tim's role as Nanny - it was the voice more than anything; it isn't just high-pitched, but he's got a crackly tone that ages it.

Part of me keeps expecting to have a fairly normal episode of a sitcom. The openings do give that impression to a degree when they set up the plot for each episode. We could easily just progress onto standard sitcom events, so I tend to experience a "What?!" moment midway through.

With so little set at their headquarters compared to the previous episodes I'd seen, I like how The Goodies feel part of the real world, despite the fantastical elements of it. While I disliked Tower of London's long, silent sequence, since then I've begun to love these sections of the episodes. I am still getting to know the limits of The Goodies' world so tigers in suburban gardens and plants moving of their own accord all take me by surprise. I enjoyed Graeme's battle with the garden as well as the separate mayhem in the kitchen, and I liked how it came together when the garden began trying to invade indoors. This was a nice way of linking the location and studio scenes, helping them feel one and the same.

While all this is going on, we are still waiting to meet Cecily and are unsure what to expect after her aunt and uncle have made us trepidatious. She has a decent-sized role in the episode, despite so much happening before we actually see her. I liked the double twist that we first feel sorry for this lovely little girl, only for it to be flipped back later on.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Blake's 7 - Rumours of Death

Rumours of Death

Rumours of Death feels like a rare privilege to learn more about Avon's emotional past, and I daren't look away in case we never get such access again. It's another strong character piece from Chris Boucher, whose scripts have been my favourites in Series C so far.

The opening scene had me gripped from the start as we moved up an unknown body, only for it to roll over and show us a haggard-looking Avon. This was such an atypical start to a Blake's 7 episode and I liked the directing immediately.

Unsure how Avon could have ended up in that cell, I presumed we must be watching something that had happened long ago. Right up until he got out of there, that seemed the most logical conclusion because this didn't seem like the Avon we know; he looked so bloody terrible and appeared a little nervous, even afraid. I was worried for him so was relieved at how swiftly he regained his usual self-assuredness once back on board the Liberator.
Do I have the right?
Avon's desire for revenge is totally understandable and receives little protest from the others, with only Cally questioning it. As Avon's about to take Shrinker off to kill him, I'm glad she does because it made me stop and think whether I was comfortable with our heroes committing cold-blooded murder. They have killed plenty of people but it has always been for something. Avon's mission has a plethora of unnecessary risks and won't result in anything quantifiable when it's finished - he's not planning to stick Shrinker's head on a pike near a Federation base, so although it's understandable, that doesn't necessarily make it justifiable.

I was concerned Avon would be too trigger-happy without Blake around but he's actually been sensible and this is the most illogical thing he has ever done. I am glad Cally called Avon out - we should ponder the implications of such actions. But I don't agree with her on this occasion because killing someone like Shrinker would be doing the world a favour. As Avon pointedly says: "All executions are in cold-blood," and in the Blake's 7 universe, where the myriad outcomes in the Federation's favour have filled me with despondency, I think this kind of vigilante justice is sometimes justifiable.

The Liberator crew have always blurred the line between heroes and anti-heroes - Avon arguably most of all - yet it's interesting that Chris Boucher provides a get-out clause for Avon. There is still no reason to leave Shrinker alive, but in an episode showing a more human side to Avon, it's right that we don't watch him execute Shrinker. In fact, I think Avon's choice to leave him with a choice of starvation or suicide is much more delightfully cruel.

Inside Avon
Avon has always been guarded and therefore fairly impenetrable. I was pleased at the end of Countdown when he didn't reveal anything about Anna to Blake, but so much of the effectiveness of Rumours of Death is because we see a hitherto hidden side to Avon. It's enlightening that even when we experience his memory of being in bed with Anna, he is still someone who struggles to express his emotions. She asks, "Why do I never know what you're thinking, Avon?" and he replies, "I could never say it."

If he couldn't share these thoughts with her then, he certainly isn't going to suddenly open up to the rest of the crew. I found the insights into Avon's thoughts a fantastic way of showing us more and liked the director's choices for these.

Shooting them from Avon's point of view provides us with a closeness for his most intimate of memories. I liked that this removed a common problem with shooting flashbacks: characters inevitably look just as old as in the present. As we don't see Avon, we remain uncertain just how long ago he knew Anna.

I like the way the cuts to the memories are edited when Avon is with Shrinker in the caves; we hear Anna before we see her, giving the sense that these memories are intruding on Avon's thoughts. It's also done the other way around, with Shrinker's voice being heard while Avon's mind's eye is still on Anna. Director Fiona Cummings also makes great use of a fisheye lens when Avon is imagining Anna alone in a cell. The distorted effects these techniques produce suit them as buried memories now pushing their way to the surface, and a vague picture of something that may or may not have happened.

The real Anna Grant
I did not really make the Anna Grant/Sula connection and I've pondered if we are supposed to; I struggle to remember faces, so wonder if I got a vast reveal later on compared to the rest of the audience. When we saw Anna in bed in Avon's memory, I was distracted by a thought process of, "Oh, this is a flashback, and it's a bedroom memory - she's naked on Blake's 7! - why can't we see Avon? Ah, that's clever... Blimey." When Avon was thinking about her in the cell, I thought they could be the same person but I wasn't sure and after that, I got too caught up in the adventure to consider it.

In the cellar, with Servalan there too, there was a lot going on for me to process and I felt slow on the uptake - certainly a few seconds behind Avon's dawning realisation about who Anna really had been.

I knew Blake's 7 was never going to give us a happily-ever-after moment, but this seemed so cruel. When Avon finally meets Anna/Bartholomew in the cellar, it felt unfair that he should be forced to experience that publicly. Paul Darrow's performance in this episode is smashing, but the foundations laid in Countdown add a lot. I love the way Avon speaks about Anna - not what he says, but his tone and expressions. The closest we get is when he's holding her in his arms and tells her lifeless body, "You never let go." He may as well add, "And neither did I." I was a little bit moved.

Shrinker and Servalan
Shrinker had not been what I was expecting. I had envisioned a strong young man in the mould of Anna's brother or Travis. Shrinker's sudden transformation from formidable torturer to whimpering prisoner was also surprising. Rumours of Death proved satisfying for its fulfilment of the proverb, 'All bullies are cowards' as first Shrinker and later Servalan became husks of their former selves as soon as their power was torn from them. I had expected more stubbornness from both characters yet I still enjoyed seeing such cruel sadists have the tables turned on them.

I predicted the rebel's attempt to take over the President's residence would fail, so watching them succeed was increasingly exciting. When they walked into Servalan's office and slapped her I was stunned. It was odd that we didn't see the slap; I know it was a big one but I'm curious because the only reason I can fathom is that it's because she's a woman and it's early evening telly. Yet we had the delicious delight of seeing her slap Travis last series so I felt a tad cheated that we missed her turn.

It's as though that moment knocked something out of Servalan because when we next saw her, I was astounded at how pathetic she was. I thought she would be holding her head high, issuing vicious threats of what would happen when her inevitable rescuers arrived. It was strange watching her reduced down. She's a sideline to events in this story too; I'm so interested where her story will go next as I don't think she needed to be in this episode. Avon heads there because it's Servalan who can tell him where to find Bartholomew, yet the story could have used any important Federation leader. Why is she there then? Why have they chosen to depict her like that? What are we being set up for?

She wasn't really even in a position to gloat over Avon's pain. While I was egging him on to shoot her when he first walked in, in the end, I didn't mind that he let her live because this wasn't the Servalan I've wanted to see our heroes defeat.

She bounces back wonderfully once she's sure that help is on its way - it's only when she has that safety behind her. Left alone with Avon, the episode provides us one more moment to hold our breath through. That Avon doesn't care, that the loss of Anna - in more ways than one - has battered him that much, made it sad rather than just the usual anxiety.

I loved watching Servalan caress a dispirited Avon with a gun, enjoying herself as she tells him, "I'm going to send your friends a corpse." After a few episodes of seeing softer emotions in Servalan, it's nice to return to exactly the kind of sadistic evil I like from her. We haven't often seen her pointing guns herself and she only misses out on killing Avon because she casually turns to shoot someone else.

Servalan's plan to send Avon's body back to the Liberator is a wonderful touch; if Avon's grim treatment of Shrinker invited moral questions about our heroes, this moment is there to reassure us who the real villains are.
Location, location, location
For a sci-fi series set in the future with a spaceship that can go to any planet, you could forgive any members of the audience who were fed up of seeing planets that resemble Earth. Blake's 7's counterpoint to this is that they are generally visiting planets that have been colonised by humans and therefore it makes sense that they should support Earth-like conditions.

This is, I think, only the third time Blake's 7 has visited the actual Earth and, rather than attempt to create something futuristic on a budget best suited to blowing up models in wide shot, using a country house as a historical building is ideal. Tyrants and dictators always want a grand residence and one with history attached to it is even better, as a home from which to hammer their own mark on the records.

There is a sense of time passing properly as the day progresses and it turns to dusk. One aspect I appreciated in these location elements was that the later scenes do look like they were shot at dusk, as opposed to day-for-night shooting, which I had noticed in last series' Hostage. On reflection, it may be that the production was lucky and had an overcast day with no sun to provide shadows in these scenes. I accept day-for-night filming as something that had to happen, but it drags me into reality as it rarely passes and I hate that.

I'm uncertain whether all the outdoor scenes were filmed near the house, or if the exterior and interior are even from the same ones - it hardly matters as it was shot well enough that I didn't notice. I enjoyed the fight between the guards and the Liberator crew on the patio that then turned to tension as they crept indoors. I loved the contrast between the traditional aspects of the house and the cast. Having something from well before 1980 helps too as I never felt suddenly pulled out of the fiction. One of my favourite shots for this mixture was as the camera panned to follow the crew as they withdraw their guns, with Avon covering against the wall with his gun raised in front of an oil painting in an ornate frame.

I hesitate to use the word, yet Rumours of Death is a pretty perfect Blake's 7 episode for me. It is bookended by wonderful opening and closing scenes and in that final one, Avon's implication that a part of him has died is the closest he ever gets to sharing his feelings with the crew.

I could go on and on - I haven't even mentioned how lovely the lighting in the caves is or the great writing for the two security guards. It's a superb script that stretches Paul Darrow in particular and I think it's at its strongest when the dialogue is between just two people: Avon with Shrinker or Anna, and, quite differently, the CCTV security guards, where two new characters are established swiftly and substantially, even though they aren't pivotal to the plot. As a result, while I like that it has some action, the greatest joy this episode provides is in simply watching its characters together.

Both of Chris Boucher's scripts in Series C have been marvellous character pieces, done in different styles. Not quite to the same extent, we also had a larger focus on Cally for Children of Auron. Avon and Cally's episodes have shown us their pasts, while Vila's City at the Edge ofthe World was focussed on the present. I'm hoping we are treated to something similar for both Dayna and Tarrant. I would especially like to learn more about Tarrant's past as it remains mysteriously dodgy.

Friday 15 May 2020

The Goodies - Gender Education

Gender Education

My next episode of The Goodies moves us swiftly further along to series 2, episode 11. At the Goodies' headquarters, a well-turned-out, mature woman with glasses sneaks up on Tim and Graeme. She's instantly recognisable as a faux-Mary Whitehouse and I must admit I was surprised that I saw this so quickly, yet she really did have a distinctive look. It's confirmed that she is a Mary Whitehouse figure when we learn Mrs Desiree Carthorse represents the Keep Filth Off Television Campaign - similar to Whitehouse's well-known Clean Up TV Campaign.

It's an extreme caricature, with her horrified at anything not perfectly prim and proper, particularly anything to do with sex - to the point that she won't even spell it out and just mimes writing the 'x' in the air. That the Goodies all take this up as well is great.

Mrs pretend-Whitehouse has sought out the Goodies because she wants them to make a 'clean' sex education film. We get to see the results of this and there are some marvellous touches. A naked man and woman are covered with white sheets, and after reference to "the birds and the bees", we cut to shots of tiny white cloths covering hovering pairs of birds and bees.

I was fond of Bill as a television mogul, who heads off to make things with lots of violence because he knows it's what the people want. I loved how power-mad he had gone. The comedy is maximised by using Bill as the shortest chap with an absurdly massive cigar, like all good moguls should have.

We again get plenty of time on location when Tim and Graeme take Mrs Carthorse to Bill's latest shoot. It feels like real evidence of their enthusiasm for filming out of a studio because this is exactly the sort of thing they could have more easily done in a studio! Yet it means we are perfectly placed for the manic fun that follows. Unlike Tower of London's lengthiest location sequence, I adored the extravaganza on Bill's set here. It has another lengthy run-around but there was more variety watching both the Goodies pelting around the set as well as some of the supporting cast.

I had been impressed by The Goodies' music previously but enjoyed it even more on this episode and by the time I had finished Gender Education, I was in love with the style.

Friday 8 May 2020

Blake's 7 - Children of Auron

Children of Auron

I find it fascinating when programmes reflect contemporary events or appear prescient of future ones, either by intent or sheer coincidence, but I haven't had that with Blake's 7 - at least I haven't noticed it. One attractive element of the series is that its setting makes it somewhat timeless. 40 years on, film-making techniques and technology in the series may stand out, but the plots still seem valid.

Children of Auron was the first time I felt a connection with the present. If I'd watched this six months ago, the similarities to the current COVID-19 pandemic would have meant nothing, and perhaps in five years' time they will mean something different. I was watching a world suddenly overcome by a swiftly-spreading virus, with a scramble to find a solution. It was acknowledged that there were certain people, like the Liberator crew, who could have it and spread it, without immediately showing symptoms. It was strange experiencing something that felt weirdly close to home.

The fall of Auron
I can't remember if we had any details about Cally being exiled from Auron when we first met her in Time Squad, but I didn't think so. There has clearly been some thought and planning before this episode as Cally's exchange with Tarrant and Dayna in Dawn of the Gods hinted that there was more to why she left Auron. We were cryptically left with the line, "Perhaps I'll tell you about it one day." Before then, it wasn't something I had given much thought because I was under the impression that Cally had left voluntarily.

Despite how she ended up with the Liberator, it's a tad odd to think of Cally as a rebel, but I'm enjoying seeing her personality become more fully formed - it's well overdue and I like learning about this defiant, determined side of Cally.

I feel sorry for the Aurons as their policy of isolationism seemed wise considering everything else going on in the universe; it's dreadful luck that Servalan became interested in them. I was caught out by Michael Troughton as the pilot who brings the plague - this is the earliest part of his I've seen and I'm used to seeing him in larger roles, so certainly wasn't expecting him to get killed off so soon!

The older male Auron can be blamed for much of what goes appallingly wrong. His stubbornness prevents Cally's help being considered as a real option and his rushed decision making immediately allows the other ship to dock. Once Servalan is in, that's it. He's - justifiably - panicked, but as a senior leader he should be experienced enough to keep a cool head in stressful situations and make calm, considered choices.

It's a desolate ending - related: see footnote. We've watched numerous people hit by the virus, the senior leaders taken out to be shot, and, with the reproduction unit blown, apart Auron's future looks grim - raising those 5,000 kids surely won't be fun. The death of Cally's twin is simply the icing on top because while there are attempts to show an emotional connection between them, it's minimal. Cally has never mentioned Zelda when Auron has come up, there is no gushing delight at the prospect of seeing one another, and with Zelda herself hidden behind a mask most of the time, we see little of any expressions that would give a hint in the other direction. Their hands meeting through the glass is the only moment that tells us anything. I would have liked a little bit more shown there.

Location, location, location
Like several other stories, this is one where imagination is required as we never see the vast swathes of Aurons dropping down with the virus. We see little of Auron itself either and it's difficult to guess what sort of landscape the planet has.

However, I was again impressed with the location filming for this series, despite its briefness in Children of Auron. The scenes as the crew make their way to the cloning unit look fantastic. Having been informed these were filmed at a dam in North Yorkshire, I've discovered it was Thruscross Reservoir Dam. The value of location filming for giving Blake's 7 real scale is demonstrated as, watching Avon, Tarrant, Cally and Franton all clamber across the dam, they look tiny against this mass of concrete.

Andrew Morgan's directing deserves credit here: after searching for images of the dam, I discovered that the bridge they cross is in reality further from the dam compared to how it looks on screen, where the choice of shot and angle is effective in making it appear much closer. With the awesome size of the dam in the background, watching everyone run along that bridge with an explosion right behind them was superb.

Thruscross Dam's footbridge can be seen on the far right

Team Blake

Blake hasn't been mentioned for a while. I had initially thought Series C would be about the search for Blake but this was the first episode in which he seemed to have been forgotten. Before the episode's events took over, Avon announced plans to head to Earth to take revenge on Shrinker, the man who murdered Anna Grant, who we heard about in Countdown. So what's happened about finding Blake? Have they given up on searching for him? It's odd that this plotline has apparently been quietly dropped. I did little but slag off Blake when he was around but I would like to see him again.

Team Avon
Avon must have been mulling on avenging Anna for some time. Perhaps he had suppressed his grief but meeting her brother last series stirred something. It's been hinted to me that there is another episode connected to Anna so I remain intrigued. Since Countdown, I have been wondering whether she is still alive...

While events derail the trip to Earth, it isn't Avon's choice as the others take a vote, with the change of course for Auron winning the majority. I was astounded and delighted - actual democracy on the Liberator! Blake irritated me immensely for being blinded by his determination but Avon accepted this vote and did not attempt to deceptively alter the course back to Earth, as Blake may have done.

Although the Liberator is Avon's ship now, it seldom feels like he's a leader in the same way Blake was - the decision-making on board is collective. Previously, I considered the Liberator to belong to all of them; after all, they had found it together. But they were always following Blake's mission - his cause, his movement, his tactics - so he quickly became their natural leader and it was only Avon who was a reluctant follower, keener that they should lead a different life. It seems right that the Liberator should firmly belong to one or more of the original crew now that we have Dayna and Tarrant, who joined through invitation.

A personal touch
Another difference is emerging. Blake's mission was never particularly personal. Despite his history with Travis, the targets he aimed for were much bigger than just one man. Along with Blake's admirable 'know your enemy' strategy, attempting to get rid of Travis and Servalan would have required considerable effort and risk, which could have more impact elsewhere - their hunters would only have been replaced by another set anyway. They represented the Federation but Servalan was distant and the majority of the Federation remained anonymous. Even as we saw more of Travis, it did not seem to change Blake's relationship with him, and he only finally took a shot at him when his life was seriously threatened. Blake was facing down a whole system - not individuals.

Yet there is no strategy to bring down the Federation anymore - they run away from the Federation and not towards it. The crew no longer appear to be fighting one great mass and this seems reflected so far in Series C as we are getting much more familiar with the enemies. Travis's absence has resulted in a variety of Federation officers having larger roles. With Deral and Ginka, Children of Auron has impressed me most because they were developed characters: there's a relationship and a history between the two of them, they have distinct personalities and are not the simple obedient guards or clones that have previously shared scenes with Servalan. I enjoyed trying to work out Ginka, suspecting he may have lied to Servalan about the clones, and knowing he would be a goner if she found out.

Significantly, we are seeing different sides of Servalan, and they are much more intimate parts. I may have disliked how her relationship with Jarvik was portrayed, but it was nonetheless intriguing to see how she behaved. At first in this episode, I thought she just liked the idea of cloning herself - a host of tiny evil Servalans being brought up to rule the universe. But as we discovered she has maternal instincts, it felt like we had seen below another layer of her. Seeing her anguish when her babies were destroyed was amazing.

It's fascinating unravelling more of Servalan and I remain particularly interested to see where her relationship with Avon goes. Blake was a nuisance and a moral crusader, yet I think Servalan would happily have Avon at her side and would keep him for as long as he proved useful - just like any other Federation officer. When they have met in this series, there is a familiarity written in now that, combined with the subtleties of both actors' performances, adds considerably to those scenes. Basically: more please.

Avon's planned personal vendetta should deliver this personable element elsewhere. It's left me immensely curious about what other types of stories the series might pursue. It's interesting that I came to see Blake as this incredibly passionate man, yet it is now Avon, the man mocked for being machine-like, who now shows far more care for an individual than Blake ever did. With Avon, I often find myself thinking back to Duel: “I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care. Or indeed why it should be necessary to prove it at all.” In Children of Auron, he has a faraway look and speaks unusually quietly when he explains that Shrinker killed Anna, simply stating, "She was important to me." Avon's is just a different sort of passion.

Footnote: Children of Auron loses major points for ending with the crew laughing. The repeat of this bizarre, cringe-inducing way of finishing episodes started as simply being baffling but is also now like nails on a chalkboard with me desolately screaming, "WHY?". It should have a place in any Blake's 7 drinking game - please down your glasses of crème de menthe or adrenalin and soma.