Wednesday 16 November 2016

Armchair Theatre - A Magnum for Schneider

What I liked when I watched the episode of Callan in Network's ITV 60 box set was that it seemed so different from the similar adventure series I had seen from that period. I have only seen a handful of the early Danger Man episodes and though there are similarities, in that both Callan and John Drake are doing the messy jobs that no one else wants to do, Callan’s character intrigues me more because he’s a reluctant participant. John Drake’s world is, if not necessarily glamorous, then at least exotic. The Saint takes similar excursions to foreign climes, even if the cast rarely stepped outside the grounds of Elstree Studios. Callan lacks that escapism and in comparison, it’s a very dingy world. The Saint and The Avengers are both fun and bright even when they start off in black and white. The Prisoner is weird, psychological and taunting. The colourful and relentlessly upbeat nature of the Village is increasingly creepy once you discover what is actually going on. But nonetheless, I would hesitate to describe The Prisoner as ‘dark’ and yet that’s the first word that springs to mind for Callan. Classing it as an ‘adventure’ series is probably pushing it. Everything seems to happen in the shadows and the main character has a big problem with the morality of what he does. I’ve also never heard the word ‘bastard’ in any of the other series. And tension. Tension! So much tension. The music is used sparingly. Sometimes it racks things up but other times the complete utter silence is nerve-wracking. I get the feeling that if anyone in the studio had coughed they would have been instantly fired. Everything seems planned to give it as much realism as possible.

As I sat down to the first disc of my Callan – The Monochrome Years box set, I selected ‘Play All’ and was intrigued to see a caption for Armchair Theatre appear. Armchair Theatre were one-off plays but this one eventually spawned Callan it would appear. The title of the play is A Magnum for Schneider. A chocolate lolly? Champagne? Probably not.

We have a wonderful opening scene where we learn quite a lot quite quickly. We meet Colonel Hunter (Ronald Radd), a rather cold and dislikeable middle-aged man. We gather that Callan used to work for him, for ‘them’, but he felt things too much and it turns out this isn’t a particularly desirable characteristic when your job is killing people. It seems to have been a mutual agreement that he left the job but now they want him back. As he’s utterly bored stiff in his current job he decides to reluctantly take up the offer to kill one more man. I’m sure plenty of people know how he feels. Just because he can, Callan fires four bullets at a target and considers himself a touch off form as one misses.

Callan’s victim-to-be, Schneider, has the office across the hall. He’s played by Joseph Fürst, an actor whom I’ve only ever seen portraying bad guys. Nothing in the world can stop him in Doctor Who (in fact on Saturday 4th February 1967 you could have watched him go to a watery grave in The Underwater Menace on BBC1 then later turn over to see him in this episode of Armchair Theatre!) and he plays a Professor working for Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever. He does over-the-top quite well. Callan bumps into him in the hall, they start talking and find they have a shared interest in model soldiers. It’s a very natural conversation and they even exchange a joke about the war, which I really liked considering Germans on TV at this time always seem to turn out to be ex-Nazis. Schneider has some soldiers set up in his office (I love that he plays with his toy soldiers whilst at work!) and invites Callan in to see them. Callan is hesitant but eventually goes in. He’s already been told that he gets too emotionally involved in cases and here he is going to play soldiers with the bloke he’s meant to be bumping off! No wonder he’s been struggling if this is what he usually does.

Heading back to work, his boss (Ivor Dean) reprimands him for being a few minutes late. There are only a couple of scenes between Callan and his boss in this episode but they’re good. They’re well written, showing us Callan’s contempt for his job and his boss. He takes the piss and the way he speaks to his superior is inappropriate at best. At worst it’s downright rude. I think Callan is supposed to have been there about six months and frankly I’m astounded he has kept the job that long. As a man with no track record or references we’ve been told that ‘they’ helped get him the job. I wonder if they purposefully chose him such a horrid job.

We get a scene in a pub. It’s small and grotty and so are some of the customers. Callan has come to meet one in particular. Lonely is so nicknamed because no one dare goes near him due to some serious body odour issues that Callan can’t resist repeatedly remarking on. Callan wants a gun and not-so-subtly passes Lonely an envelope containing £100. Quite where a bookkeeper has managed to quickly get £100 from, the equivalent of well over £1000 in 2016, is never explained. He must have savings from his days as an assassin because when we see Callan’s bedsit it’s clear that if he does have any sort of money he certainly is not spending much of it.

Callan isn’t at all sure about his assignment. He sleuths his way into Schneider’s office and later his flat, eventually finding some documents that prove Schneider has been selling guns to Indonesia. My knowledge of foreign affairs in that region is pretty slim. At a push, I could probably find Indonesia on a map. But helpfully this year I did see a BBC documentary from 1964 that followed the British Army in Borneo, which borders Indonesia. The army was in the jungle on the border defending Borneo against Indonesia, who were attempting to invade. I got the impression that the Indonesians they were fighting were more guerrillas than an officially organised army. The British government would understandably then have been none too keen on having someone in their country who was selling guns for people to shoot at its army. After seeing the documents, Callan’s mood changes and he agrees Schneider must die. This is a shame of course because Schneider, apart from illegally buying and selling lethal weapons, is rather a nice guy.

Colonel Hunter has been having Toby Meres (Peter Bowles) follow Callan. After Callan records a to-be-discovered-later tape stating that Colonel Hunter is behind the murder, he opens the door to Peter Bowles who whacks him over the head. When Callan wakes to a phone call from Hunter, he is told that the tape and a note left on his desk have been destroyed. Hunter tells Callan he was foolish but I disagree somewhat. Leaving evidence behind to cover his back if he was caught was a good idea. Not expecting Hunter to have someone keep an eye on him was the foolish part.

Schneider has invited Callan to come round to play toy soldiers for the evening. Hunter has instructed Callan to kill Schneider just before 11 o’clock. But Callan doesn’t. They are having far too much fun re-enacting historical battles. At 11 the doorbell goes and Schneider goes to have a chat with some policemen. His wife goes to bed only to find Toby in there, who coshes her one. Callan comes to see what all the fuss is about and is a tad peeved to see Toby. Between him and the rozzers on the doorstep, Callan is feeling the pressure a bit as Toby urges him to hurry up and shoot Schneider. With the coppers shooed away Schneider returns, finds Toby and is onto Callan too. He takes Toby’s gun and is suspicious that Callan doesn’t have one.

But of course, he does – it’s down his sock. He retrieves the gun, waits until Schneider is about to shoot Toby, then at the last moment quickly brings it out and pulls the trigger. It’s all very sudden and a fantastic moment. Though it is slightly spoilt by Fürst's over the top, highly unrealistic death. Once shot, he manages to toss his gun in the air and dramatically launch himself at a lamp.

After berating Callan for taking his time, Toby asks, “Are you alright?” “Yes,” Callan replies, wearily. But we’re not entirely sure he is.

When Callan asks Toby if it was he who hit him over the head before Toby laughs, apologises and admits it was. Callan isn’t laughing though and whacks him one back. With Toby out cold, Callan wipes his own prints from the gun and leaves it in Toby’s hand.

From a phonebox, Callan calls Hunter. He’s worked out Hunter sent the policemen around, expecting Callan to be caught with a smoking gun. He tells Hunter that Toby is still at the flat. “Oh well it's not important. You could get him out I suppose.” But Callan won't be going to fetch Toby. Callan feels used. “I don’t think I want to work for you, Hunter. It may sound very naive and all that but I did like Schneider. I hate you.”

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Space Pirates - Episode 1

The Space Pirates is the penultimate story in season six of Doctor Who. It is also the penultimate story for the second Doctor, who happens to be my favourite Doctor. It is the only one of his stories I have never watched. Until now.

When Doctor Who returned to BBC1 in 2005 I consumed as much of it as I could. One such way was through the photonovels on the BBC's Doctor Who website. They are a sort of online book, made primarily from telesnaps and text depicting what is going on and what is being said. They were created for stories that have episodes missing. They either do not exist or only partly exist. I passed over the first Doctor's stories and instead worked my way through all the second Doctor ones. I came to adore this Doctor and Jamie before I had even seen a single episode of theirs. But The Space Pirates is the only one of the second Doctor's missing/partly missing stories that has no telesnaps and therefore has no photonovel.

Some years ago I began a 'Whoathon', watching all of Doctor Who's episodes from the start. This eventually took me through any second Doctor stories I had missed. I reached The Space Pirates... and skipped it to watch The War Games instead! I was dreading it and the knowledge that it was 5/6 telesnaps completely put me off. That knowledge is the only concrete information I actually have of the story. What I've heard is that it's terrible, not worth anyone's time and should be brushed under the carpet to be forgotten about.

It's time though. If I am to ever go on to reach the fun times of U.N.I.T., Bessie and Section Leader Shaw (not forgetting - colour!), I need to get my final telesnap story over with. One last time, let's run.

Episode 1

Pirates doing some pirating, but in space

It isn't terrible. I can say that at least. It is not a terrible episode. However the majority of it is rather dull. It takes fifteen minutes - FIFTEEN MINUTES - for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to show up. These fifteen minutes stretch. The Space Pirates is a great title for a story. It sounds thrilling and exciting. You imagine the 26th century version of Captain Hook perhaps, mowing down Space Corps personnel with a blaster gun or swiping at them with a laser sword, his neon eye patch secretly scanning for valuable cargo. This is not what we are given. Instead it's a couple of blokes in dodgy headgear blowing up satellites in order to steal the 'argonite' they are built from. The reconstruction I watched has a lot of scenes with spaceships moving slowly in space and men in spacesuits floating as they mess with the satellites. There is also a lot of time at a Space Corps' ship's bridge where the crew watch blobs on screens and the captain makes the odd announcement over his PA system.

The future doesn't let women on the bridge to look at blobs on the screens

The arrival of the TARDIS crew is a welcome respite from all of this. They arrive on an unmanned satellite that has recently been manned and shortly afterwards gets attacked by pirates. The crew themselves get shot at but in the end find themselves trapped somewhere, ensuring they never have to exchange a single word of dialogue with any of this week's guest actors. I can't believe our three lead actors have been given so little to do in an episode as boring as this one. I'm very much hoping none of them need to go on holiday in this story as it's going to need all the help it can get to keep it going. Six episodes already feels far too long.

If only I could say that for this episode
There have been few sets so far as it has primarily been 'space' and 'the bridge'. The scenes on the satellite, Alpha 4, feel very claustrophobic though. The two pirates make reference to others with them but it's no surprise they aren't seen on screen as you couldn't have fit them in the room. As Alpha 4 looks to have been blown up at the end of the episode I'm hoping the action (although this definitely seems the wrong choice of word) moves to bigger or at least better sets.