Friday 27 January 2017

Exploring Television

In 2016 I discovered that the marvellous thing about being young is that there was already a lot of television before I was born. Although I felt I knew about enough of it, enough to be content with, enough that I would ever want to watch, it turned out I could not have been more wrong. It seems absurd that the Internet is enabling me to learn about so many of these pre-Internet programmes. Here are a few programmes I discovered and loved in 2016.


Callan is a reluctant employee of the Section, a government department whose remit covers: "Eliminating people, framing, extortion, death... all the jobs that are too dirty for Her Majesty's other security services to touch."

 Callan blew me away from the first episode I saw, Let's Kill Everybody. It impressed me so much I immediately ordered a box set. Armchair Theatre's Magnum for Schneider and The Good Ones Are All Dead were both fantastic and I watched them multiple times before moving on. Knowing several episodes of Callan were missing, realising just how smaller this made my box set, has made me savour every single one of these episodes. Whether I've watched three in a week or one in a fortnight, they have all felt incredibly precious and deserving of my full attention.

I love Callan himself. I love how little we know about his past, I love that he cares about the people he has to hurt, I love how every person he kills seems to hurt him personally and above all, I love the contempt he has for his employers.

I love the Cold War espionage that so many of the plots centre around. Callan's world is much closer to that of Alec Leamas and George Smiley than that of James Bond. The series takes place almost entirely in London but in fact, it could be anywhere as there are no defining landmarks or locations regularly name-checked. Spies do not all languish on famous street corners or tube stations. They stake out grotty flats from other grotty flats, they drink endless cups of tea whilst waiting in cafes, they stand around in telephone boxes. Some of the people they spy on are pleasant and others are some of the vilest humans you could ever hope not to meet.

I have found Callan thrilling, despite a limited amount of any 'action'. Instead, I spend many episodes with fingers clenched, breath held, as the tension rises. My favourite episode so far has been Heir Apparent, which saw Callan and colleague Toby Meres attempting to get a fellow agent across the East-West German border. I want to say that, being partly set abroad with more action and a larger role for Meres, it made for a different sort of episode of Callan. Yet there are numerous episodes I could say this of for one reason or another. Diversity is certainly one of the show's strengths.

I have recently reached the end of Callan's black and white episodes and have always had a slight feeling of apprehension about the colour ones. Will this wonderfully grim, spies-in-the-shadows programme work so well in colour? I hope so.

Public Eye

Frank Marker eschews the description of 'private detective', preferring 'inquiry agent'. He takes on anything from missing persons to divorce cases. He has been based in London, Birmingham and Brighton, as well as having a spell inside.

Callan and Public Eye will be forever linked in my mind because I first saw them both around the same time and after only one episode I ordered box sets of both. For Public Eye, the episode in question was My Life's My Own. I had found it gripping in a different way to Callan. Whilst Callan was all about the suspense, Public Eye was more intriguing. The plot of My Life's My Own concerns a mysterious young girl who tries to commit suicide and we uncover details at the same rate Frank does.

When I first sat down with the box set I was to discover that the earlier episodes of Public Eye were very different, with Frank trekking his way around the glummest-looking parts of London and Birmingham in search of information. I loved these early episodes too though, as we know so little about Frank and I enjoyed trying to spot any sort of insight into his character. At present, I am in Windsor with Frank. He has recently moved from Brighton where he became 'Frank' far more than 'Marker'. The series in Brighton focussed far more on Frank himself and after the previous veil of mystery, it was superb to get to know him at last.

Frank Marker began as quite a distant man, though I would never say he appeared cold. Initially, he seemed to flourish as a lone wolf but as the series has moved on he seems to have achieved a couple of friendships too. It has become apparent that Frank is a lovely man, sometimes too nice for his own good. He cares about helping people, even if it means advising them not to use his services.

Like Callan, I had worried about Public Eye's move to colour but as the tone of Public Eye changed in the Brighton episodes, it blended forward perfectly well. It has also meant the programme can deliver the full glory of early 1970s' fashions, contrasted with Frank's almost unchanging appearance of a dark shirt, light tie, grey suit and raincoat.

Public Eye may not have the high stakes of Callan but for the father who has lost a daughter or the woman who suspects her husband is having an affair, these things are world-defining. Frank Marker understands this. I am looking forward to spending even more time with him.

No Hiding Place

Detective drama.

I watched an episode called A Bird to Watch the Marbles, not knowing at all what to expect and by the end I adored it. Initially, I was unsure because there was so much time spent focussed on the guest actors that we barely saw the regulars. However, the idea of this grew on me and I found it a brilliant way of being able to build characters, even though they were only going to appear in a single episode. Far less plodding detective work gave greater room for plot and action.

This seemed like a brilliant series and as soon as the episode had finished I was keen to investigate it. But of the 236 episodes made, only 21 are known to exist (as per As far as I can tell, A Bird to Watch the Marbles is the only episode to have had any sort of commercial release. Gutting.

There is little else I can say, having only been able to see one episode so far. It has made me realise how lucky I have been so far. Both Callan and Public Eye have numerous missing episodes but they do at least have a decent number intact.

Much more to come...
The series I haven't seen much of yet.

Fireball XL5

I have managed to see a few episodes of Fireball XL5 over the past year and have been pleasantly surprised by just how much I've enjoyed this children's puppet show. Steve Zodiac is a traditional type of hero and part of the World Space Patrol. He's backed up by an old Professor, Matthew Mattic, Robert the Robot and the lovely Doctor Venus. Together they battle bad guys all over the string galaxy. It's a fun 25 minutes. There is suspense, excitement and, sometimes, a magnificent explosion or two. As Thunderbirds was the only other Gerry Anderson show I was familiar with, my enjoyment of Fireball XL5 has certainly opened me up to the idea of seeking out the other shows.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Sword fights! So many awesome sword fights! Although I was familiar with the story of Robin Hood, I don't think I had seen a version of it before. I have only seen the first episode of this 1955 series with Richard Greene but it was such a blast, such a fine run-around, that I can barely wait to be able to see the rest. Sir Robin is a fine gent and we have been set up with a superb nasty villain in the Sheriff. The band of merry men have come together and the stage is set for more leaping about sets, rescuing the downtrodden and swinging multiple swords around near fire torches.

Space: 1999

Man has been depositing nuclear waste on the moon for some years and the problems resulting from this are eventually fully realised. The crew find themselves entirely alone.

Unsure what to expect from this sci-fi, I had prepared myself to experience something a bit low budget and naff. Instead, when I watched the first episode I was presented with a fantastic, gripping drama with a wonderful ending. The characters all seem to have plenty of room for development and I was impressed by the scope of the sets, based on a fairly simplistic design. Space: 1999 is another series added to my 'box sets to buy' list as it left me so curious about what might come.

Suspense, excitement, intrigue, fun. Here's to more of it in 2017.

Friday 16 December 2016

Callan - The Good Ones Are All Dead

Remember when I looked at Callan's Armchair Theatre and said how nice it was to see a German on 1960s’ telly who didn’t turn out to be a Nazi? Well, it’s back to business as usual in The Good Ones Are All Dead. We’re told Strauss is a Nazi from the start and Callan’s task is to bring him in as the Israeli authorities are rather keen to have a few words. Quite possibly 'What would you like for your final meal?'

This is officially Series 1, Episode 1 of Callan. The events of A Magnum for Schneider are referenced but with it being broadcast five months previously they are thankfully not dwelt on. Hunter convinces Callan to work for the Section again, partly by blackmail but he also convinces Callan to take more of an interest by bringing up the fact that during the war Callan’s parents were killed by a V2 bomb. This Strauss fellow had a lot of responsibility for the launch of the V2 bombs after being involved with the concentration camps. It surprises me that this is what convinces Callan. It’s not like Strauss stood there and gunned down Callan’s parents in cold blood. The V2 bombs were launched from the other side of the Channel. Attributing blame to one guy for them seems quite a stretch. It’s hard to judge Callan’s perspective because for one we don’t know what he did in the war, if anything. His age is difficult to gauge. If we’re being generous then Callan sports a sensible short haircut. If we’re being harsh I’ll point out Edward Woodward’s receding hairline. Receding hairlines aren’t the be-all and end-all of course, as some of you may be glad to hear. Callan seems like he’s seen a lot, done a lot, knows a lot and obviously had enough. He’s been around a while but just how long is hard to say. I remain sceptical of this reasoning but I suppose it ties in with Callan becoming emotionally involved in things.

Callan takes his bookkeeping skills off to work for Strauss who is now called Stavros. His accent sounds more French than Greek to me. It doesn’t take much to work out that Stavros is shagging his secretary. Is she his secretary because they’re shagging? There are no references to a wife or children so it isn’t that bad but he is a good twenty years older than her. Callan isn’t certain that Stavros is actually Strauss so goes off to do some snooping.

He does a neat spy thing of spotting a hair laid across the handles of the doors to Stavros’s bedroom. In Dr No you see James Bond pull out a hair, lick his thumb and stick the hair across his wardrobe doors. When he comes back the hair has gone and he knows his room was searched. Stavros has used a long hair or possibly a cotton thread so it can lie across the handles. Callan picks it up and remembers to put it back when he leaves. Inside the room, he finds nothing except for a large safe hidden in the wardrobe.

Later on, Callan meets Lonely and describes the safe to him. Lonely turns out to be something of an expert on safes and knows exactly what sort it is. He’ll need a copy of the key. Callan also meets with a Jewish man, Berg, who was in a concentration camp run by Strauss and insists the man is definitely Strauss. "I must know why you're so sure," Callan says."I was his house slave for three months," Berg explains, telling Callan that he once broke a plate and Strauss broke three of his ribs. "When you fear a man, you watch him all the time." Callan is convinced.

Having copied Stavros's key using plasticine, Callan now has a key to the safe. When he gets into the safe he finds a trunk and rifles through it. An SS uniform, a Nazi party card, a gun and a bag containing gold nuggets are among the items. The SS jacket has a cyanide capsule sown underneath the lapel and when Callan checks the wardrobe he finds several other jackets that have one too. Callan is rumbled by the secretary, Jeanne, who confesses she has known Stavros/Strauss's past for a while and it was she who turned him in. When Callan calls into Hunter we learn that the gold nuggets are in fact gold fillings, a detail that sent a shiver down my spine. If you weren't aware, the Nazis extracted them from Jewish people in the concentration camps.

When Stavros/Strauss returns he finds Jeanne in the bedroom who tells him she thinks Callan is a thief as she caught him acting suspiciously. He sends Jeanne away and tells her to get on a plane to Cairo. Afterwards, Callan hears a noise and going into the corridor sees the bedroom door open. As he goes towards it Stavros appears behind him with a gun, wearing his SS jacket.

Callan informs Stavros/Strauss that he has been found out. When Stavros is told it is the Israelis who are on to him, his sheer terror is conveyed in his "Oh my god". He tries to bribe Callan - "You work for money?" - but no dice. Here follows a magnificent scene between the two of them. Callan tells him he must be handed over as it is what the Israelis want. Stavros insists "Strauss is dead!" For the past 23 years he has lived a good life and tried to be a good man. He has been racked with guilt and it was finding Jeanne that was his ultimate salvation. "You poor bastard - she turned you in!" Callan yells at Stavros, who then seems truly defeated. He tries to bite the cyanide capsule on his jacket but Callan stops him, crushing it on the floor.  I don't think I have ever felt slightly sorry for a Nazi before but Stavros seems truly repentant. He convinces me that he regrets what he did, wanting to become a better person. He appears to convince Callan too, or at least to elicit some pity, as Callan hands him one of the other jackets. As Stavros bites into the capsule, the camera stays on Callan, showing his racked expression as he turns his back on the deed.

Stavros's repeated insistence that his old self is long gone is what grabs me at the end of this episode. I also thought it was a brave move for the programme to portray an ex-Nazi so sympathetically. The war had only ended 22 years before so a proportion of the audience would have fought against the Nazis and some may well have been in concentration camps or had family that had been. This wasn't just an ordinary infantryman either; we're told he was an Obersturmbahnf├╝hrer, the SS equivalent of a Lieutenant-Colonel - a fairly high rank. Despite the pity I feel for Nicholas 'Strauss is dead' Stavros, the one gap in his story is that he held on to remnants of his Nazi past. Stavros says it is a reminder of a time when he was looked up to and held in high regard, but surely if he regrets what he did to earn him that respect then he would throw it all away?

I haven't mentioned Toby Meres, Callan's colleague, though he does appear in this episode. In Armchair Theatre he was played by Peter Bowles but from now on it's Anthony Valentine. I was initially disappointed not to see Bowles again but I actually think Valentine is much better for what's required here. He intensely dislikes Callan and comes across somewhat callous.

This is an excellent series 1, episode 1 for the show, managing to tell us what we need to without repeating Armchair Theatre too much. "What is the Section for, Callan?" asks Colonel Hunter. "Eliminating people, framing, extortion, death... all the jobs that are too dirty for her Majesty's other security services to touch," Callan replies, sounding like he's quoting a handbook.

There is also some continuity as Hunter throws Callan's own file in front of him, which Hunter had moved into a different cover at the end of A Magnum for Schneider. Callan is annoyed as he reads it: "Red cover. Most urgent, marked for death." Hunter's expression is blank as he blackmails Callan into taking on the job: "You do this for me or I'll have you destroyed." I love seeing the contempt Callan has for Hunter. He uses the word 'mate' a lot, often in the tone of someone in a pub at ten on a Friday night, asking 'D'you fancy taking this outside, mate?' Callan doesn't take Hunter's threat well. He leaves it a while before returning to the subject. "I know you can have me killed. But... [he draws a gun] don't you push me too far, right... because I might just let myself be killed... only you won't be there to see it because mate I'll get you first. And I can do it. Believe me, I can do it. You ought to know." It is interesting that Callan knows and states how good he is ("very good") but he never comes across as arrogant.

Hunter says Callan's only good at killing people but in both Armchair Theatre and The Good Ones Are All Dead we see Callan kill only one person. I think Callan does show himself to be very good, if not excellent, at what he does but what he does is more than just murder. Perhaps those other things affect Callan just as much.