Tag Archives: Classic Television

Harry’s Game – The Television Series

A few weeks ago I wrote about Gerald Seymour’s classic thriller Harry’s Game.Product Details

Recently we watched the television series of the book, made by Yorkshire Television in 1982 – at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still continuing.

For more about the story itself please see my previous blog.

It’s always interesting to see how a thriller is adapted for television, and Harry’s Game is more faithful to the book than most. Although some scenes were filmed around Belfast, notably in the City Centre and the Falls Road, much of the location filming was carried out near the Yorkshire TV studios in Leeds, on a housing estate scheduled for demolition.

The filming has a gritty reality. For those of us who lived through the times of the Troubles, it was uneasy seeing Saracen armoured cars on the streets again, the reconstructed riots and soldiers dashing from street corner to street corner on foot patrol.

Seymour’s book relies very much on tenseness rather than violence to make its point. The superb direction of the film series, by the admirable Lawrence Gordon Clark, provides tension by the spadeful. Even if you know the book well, the film keeps you on edge.

One reason is that it’s thankfully free of incidental music, though there is the haunting end theme by Clannad. I wish that more directors of film and television would realise the importance of silence. If you’re showing tense scenes you don’t need an intrusive studio orchestra.

Lawrence Gordon Clark made his reputation in film documentaries and this shows in the realism here.

Not having seen the series since it first aired, I was interested to see how the acting stood up over thirty years later. The film is very well cast. The late Ray Lonnen – is quite superb as Harry, giving very much a portrayal of the character in the novel. The IRA gunman Billy Downes is played by Derek Thompson, best known now for his long-running role as Charlie Fairhead in the British hospital series Casualty.

Both characters in the book are two sides of the same coin – family men as well as combatants in an miserable kind of warfare. To give this premise reality, you need two strong leads, and both Ray Lonnen and Derek Thompson are very believable.

The film series has a very strong supporting cast: Maggie Shevlin as Mrs Downes, a mother trapped in a tragic time; Gil Brailey as the woman who comes to know and understand Harry; and Tony Rohr as the IRA commander – a chilling and subtle portrait that lives in your thoughts long after the film has ended. There isn’t a poor performance in the whole series.

I seem to recall that the programme was shown over three consecutive nights on its first airing. It was later repeated as an edited down film, so if you’re buying this make sure you’re getting the original three-parter. The box set we have has a great interview with Ray Lonnen, who came across as a lovely chap.

Thirty-five years later this is British television at its best – a drama that makes you hold your breath.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip

Spoiler alert: We usually try not to give away the plots of the stories we look at, but it’s next to impossible not to with Sherlock Holmes’ short stories. I suspect most of you will have read the story. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It has a very vivid London setting and lots of those elements that plunge you back into the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson – menacing alleys, disguises, the sinister banks of the River Thames, Opium Dens etc.Twis-05.jpg

Holmes and Watson are at their best too, though I always believe the great detective is having a bit of an off day in his field of expertise, given how long it takes him to work out the only obvious solution to the puzzle – that Neville St Clair is the beggar Hugh Boone.

Who cares? Just to plunge into the murky world of Victorian London in the company of Holmes and Watson is enough for me. There is the added bonus that you get a glimpse of Watson’s home life in the company of the first Mrs Watson, though – like everyone – I’m puzzled that she calls her husband James instead of John at one point. You might like to comment your thoughts on that – whole essays have been written on what most suspect is an authorial slip.

Doyle wrote these stories for the Strand at a fair speed and such slips are not uncommon when a deadline is looming.

There is a worse slip elsewhere in the story. When Holmes and Watson visit the Kent home of Mrs St Clair, she asks that the detective tells her the worst – “I am not hysterical or given to fainting”, she says. But earlier in the tale, she has told Holmes that she fainted on  seeing blood on the window of the opium den in Upper Swandam Lane.

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of the earliest of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, first published in The Strand magazine in December 1891. It was Doyle’s sixteenth favourite of his personal top nineteen Holmes stories. Interesting too, that it doesn’t actually feature a crime, though I suspect in reality, Hugh Boone and his alias might have been prosecuted for wasting police time and probably for begging as well.

The opium den and Upper Swandam Lane are wonderfully drawn. I once spent a happy morning in London seeking the location from the geographical details given by Doyle. Of course there’s nothing resembling the place in existence now, though not far away is a set of steps set in Victorian or earlier London Brick leading down to the swirling waters of the Thames. On finding them, my imagination swirled as much as the river.

At some point, every Victorian crime novel series should feature an opium den, and Doyle’s is one of the best in literature, menacing but quite accurate. There are, going off at a tangent, a couple of other good ones in literature. Sax Rohmer gives us a glorious one in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, and Charles Dickens opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in just such a place. Opium was legal at the time – in fact the British Empire and its entrepreneurs made a fortune and fought a couple of wars out of the trade. Opium dens, which were often a front for other crimes, were perfectly lawful as well.

I like Doyle’s description of Upper Swandam Lane as a ‘vile alley’: so much atmosphere in two words. I confess to borrowing them to describe an alley in my own recent Victorian crime novel Deadly Quest. I put in an opium den for good measure as well!

Neville St Clair as Hugh Boone is not the only disguised person in the story. Holmes makes his first appearance in the Bar of Gold opium den as an addict, though he swears to Watson that he didn’t actually participate – hard though surely not to inhale in such a place.

London itself becomes almost a character in the story, the streets and alleys around the north side of the Thames vividly drawn. All the more remarkable when you recall that Doyle was a relative newcomer to the city when he penned these early Sherlock Holmes stories.

There was a silent film version of The Man with the Twisted Lip as early as 1921. More recent television versions include the BBC Douglas Wilmer version of 1964 – I almost certainly saw that as a child, as I was a fan, but I remember nothing about it.

More recently there was a very good adaptation in the Granada Television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Clive Francis (best known as Francis Poldark in the first and superior version of Poldark) as Neville St Clair/Hugh Boone.

The latter is a superb version, even if Mrs Watson was written out of the programme concept. Upper Swandam Lane is vividly depicted, as is the Bar of Gold opium den. The casting of the small parts is very well done and Alan Plater’s script gets a real feeling for the original story.

Clive Francis makes a splendid Hugh Boone, throwing out his beggar’s repartee at the police and showing the charm that made him such a successful beggar. His quotations from Shakespeare and other poets seem so integral that I’d forgotten that they’re not actually part of Boone’s repertoire in the story. I believe the idea of having Boone acquainted with literature in this way was first trialled in the Douglas Wilmer version.

The transformation of Boone into St Clair is done to great effect. The urbane and civilised St Clair in the interview with Holmes and the Bow Street police which follows, demonstrates the considerable range of Clive Francis’ acting ability – a masterful performance.

A great Sherlock Holmes story – one I never tire of reading. A masterpiece of short story writing.

 

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The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club begins on that most atmospheric of dates in Britain, Remembrance Day. The Great War casts a long shadow over the London setting, characters and much of the plot. The opening scene takes place on Armistice night when members are gathering at the Bellona Club in Piccadilly. A dinner is being given by Colonel Marchbanks for the friends of his son killed in action, among them is Lord Peter Wimsey.

As Wimsey chats at the bar to his chum, George Fentiman, it becomes apparent that George’s elderly grandfather, a fixture at the club, has died quietly in his armchair. We learn that his estranged sister also died that day in London. A fortune is at stake, dependant on which one of them died first.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club was published in 1928. The Great War had been over for a decade and some of the characters are irrevocably scarred by their experiences. George Fentiman has ‘nervous troubles,’ a euphemism for shell-shock, as well as having been gassed. Another pal is known as ‘Tin-tummy’ Challoner since the Somme, the club doctor was an army surgeon.

The Bellona’s secretary has only one sound arm and Sayers’ devotees will know how much Wimsey suffers from nightmares about his war. (Ngaio Marsh’s Chief Inspector Alleyn also had a ‘nervous breakdown’ after the Great War). Wimsey also suffers torments when he catches a murderer, thus sending someone to be hanged.

All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.

An interesting comment made by Wimsey, as it was very likely an attitude Sayers heard at the time.

The novel gives a fascinating snapshot of the Twenties. Like so many men returned from the War, George Fentiman finds it difficult to get work in a changing society.

No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days, with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.

The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her. Money – money and notoriety – that’s all she’s after. That’s what we fought the War for – and that’s what we’ve come back to!

Presumably an in-joke as Sayers was a working woman herself. She also shows us the artists of the Chelsea set with their Bohemian life-style and society ladies’ trendy fads about health, medical cures and diet.

It’s often said of Sayers’ plots, ‘when you know how, you know who.’ Her means of murder is always of great significance to the plot. You feel she enjoyed working out her devious solutions. Despite the sombre atmosphere of Remembrance and London in November, there are moments of humour in this novel and vividly believable characters.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is a delightful classic crime puzzle and a great insight into society after the First World War.

The new Hodder edition includes an interesting – if short – forward by Simon Brett.

The 1973 BBC drama of the novel is a very good adaptation by Anthony Steven, making only minor changes as scriptwriters must. Ian Carmichael, Derek Newark and Mark Eden gave ‘straight off the page’ performances as Lord Peter, Bunter and Inspector Charles Parker.

 

 

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Frank Marker – Public Eye

I have happy memories of the television series “Public Eye”, starring Alfred Burke as inquiry agent (note that, inquiry agent, not private eye) Frank Marker. Recently we bought the surviving episodes – some of the earliest have been lost – on DVD and we’ve spent many enjoyable evenings watching the programme all over again.

The series originally aired in 1965 with a London setting, being a ratings winner until 1975. In the course of the series, Marker relocates to Birmingham, Brighton, Windsor and Chertsey, and spends some time in prison after being set up.

“Public Eye” is the complete antithesis to British TV series such as “The Saint” or “The Avengers”.

It’s rooted very firmly in reality. Each episode is usually self-contained, though there are several story arcs over the years. Frank Marker deals with the kind of problems that a real-life inquiry agent might have; minor fraud, divorces, petty crime and so on. There is very little violence, and really nothing in the way of car chases etc. This is gritty reality, character driven and all the better for that.

The great joy of the piece is Alfred Burke’s portrayal of Frank Marker. Completely realistic, understated, a loner with few friends and no love life. A masterclass in acting technique which some modern students of drama would do well to observe. You get no feeling here of an actor “acting”. Alfred Burke was a fine performer and he simply seems to become Marker. It’s hard to believe the character isn’t real.

The cases too are rooted at ground-level. They are interesting not because they are high drama but because they deal with so many aspects of the human condition. The people who seek Marker’s help are in exactly the sort of messes real people get in to. It’s very easy to identify with Marker’s clients. Most of us have been there – or nearly there.

There are a few recurring characters. In the Brighton episodes, soon after Marker is released from Ford Open Prison – and they used its exterior for some scenes – Marker stays as a boarder with Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). She becomes a friend during that series and briefly reappears when Marker relocates to Windsor. The suggestion in the scripts is that they might become more than friends. Fortunately, it never happens. The lonely character of Marker would be diminished by any romantic development. Can you imagine any scriptwriter today being so restrained?

Marker has an ambivalent relationship with the police. At first they tend to be suspicious of him, but this melds into friendship and co-operation. He works well with Detective Inspector Percy Fairbank (Ray Smith) during the Windsor episodes. Marker briefly has a job in a detection agency with former copper Ron Gash (Peter Childs), though, happily, he soon departs to walk the familiar and – to the viewer welcoming – lonely road.

What is great about Marker is his sense of morality. He may occasionally make his way through the dark alleys of a grubby world, but he is never contaminated by what happens. The character has a sense of decency which is rare these days. He may walk the borderline of legality but he knows the difference between right and wrong – and all for his fee of “six pounds a day plus expenses”.

Having loved a series years ago, you do wonder how it will stand up to examination years later? In the case of “Public Eye” the answer is very well indeed. The series is as gripping as I remember. And now there is the extra layer of revisiting an England of decades ago – seeing so many reminders of my own past. “Public Eye” is not only a masterclass of good acting, but a valuable instruction in how to write television scripts.

England has changed a great deal in four decades – not much for the better. But a great many things have remained the same. A television company could air “Public Eye” at peak time now and I believe it would find a very appreciative audience. You can still relate to Marker, his associates and clients.

What is really grand is that the scenes can be presented long, allowing for real acting and character development, rather than the brief snapshots we tend to get in modern dramas. And there is a refreshing absence of annoying music when the actors are acting. Perhaps modern directors might learn from this series the dramatic tensions induced by silence. There is, however, very atmospheric jazz-inclined, theme music.

“Public Eye” is British classic television at its very best. The box set we bought online has all the surviving episodes plus an excellent paperback about the series with a very detailed episode guide by Andrew Pixley – a fascinating account of how a television series is made.

If you fancy something different to watch during the forthcoming dark evenings, give “Public Eye” a try. A wonderful reminder of just how good British television used to be.

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Patrick Macnee RIP

Patrick Macnee RIP
We were very saddened to hear of the death of the actor Patrick Macnee, star of the classic television “The Avengers” at the grand age of 93.

This quintessential English-born actor almost defined the word ‘gentleman’, in his role of John Steed in that ground-breaking series, so much a part of life to anyone who grew up in the 1960s. “The Avengers” started as a fairly traditional spy and crime programme, but then broke its own boundaries as it transformed into a series that mixed fantasy and reality with great aplomb.

It featured most of the great actors of the period, and gave us an unforgettable line-up of co-stars including originally Ian Hendry, who was actually the lead in early episodes, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel and Linda Thorson as Tara King.

But Patrick Macnee’s John Steed was never eclipsed by any of these talents. His Steed was probably the coolest character in the history of British television. A man who could emerge from a fight without a crease in his immaculately tailored suit, bowler hat still in place and umbrella to hand.

Patrick Macnee played many interesting roles over the course of a long career, including films such as “The Battle of the River Plate”, “The Howling” and “The Sea Wolves”, and was a staple in American TV programmes for many years, appearing as a guest star in a great many series. He played Dr Watson to the Sherlock Holmes of two old friends, Roger Moore and Christopher Lee. He acted in “Hamlet” with Lee when he was a pupil at Eton.

But it is as Steed that he will be remembered. An unforgettable character played by an actor who was every bit as iconic as the role he played.

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