In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising that they waited this long to do a King Arthur story. When you’ve got a witch and wizard who are timejumping around into other people’s bodies, what better hosts are there than Morgaine Le Fay and Merlin? Regular guest star Ewen Solon is back in this one as Arthur, with Barry Jackson as Bedivere.
This is going to sound really, really nebulous and reaching, but something must’ve been in the water in the early eighties. King Arthur stuff has always been popular, but it feels like there was more Avalon than usual in all sorts of media – comics, records, movies – between 1981-83. This episode fits right in somehow, and while Into the Labyrinth‘s low-budget low-tech world has often seemed like an out-of-time throwback to the mid-seventies, this last half-hour just felt sort of perfectly in time with the rest of the early eighties media landscape.
At any rate, my son and I were glad that he got the crash course in Excalibur stuff before we watched the Doctor Who story “Battlefield” a couple of months ago, because this wouldn’t have made very much sense to him otherwise. He particularly enjoyed Merlin getting entombed in a stone and having itching powder dumped in his beard, and of course seeing Belor finally vanquished for good.
They didn’t make any more Into the Labyrinth beyond this. I think it had really run its course and they were doing the same thing every installment anyway. But while it had only limited charm for this grownup, our son enjoyed it a heck of a lot, so I’m very glad that I picked it up.
“Xanadu” features some of the most novel use of dressings to mask the cave set that the show has come up with. This story is set in the palace of Mighty Kublai Khan – another immortal wizard, like Belor and Rothgo – and it features Peter Copley, his voice unmistakable despite the long hair and beard. “Phantom,” on the other hand, revels in the cave set. It’s a Phantom of the Opera story, with the caves doubling for the sewers underneath the opera house.
I don’t know much of anything about pantomime theater, but I think Chris Harris was very well cast as Lazlo. Each episode lets him get into costume and play to the rafters in silly accents, much in the way I imagine that pantomimes are. In “Phantom,” Lazlo jumps into the body of a French ratcatcher, and in “Xanadu,” he’s Marco Polo. Happily, the British actors in the Chinese adventure don’t speak with fortune cookie accents, but Harris gets to talk in comedy Italian. (Or Venetian, if we desire accuracy.)
I guess it must be a generational thing, because I heard Harris using the same broad and silly stereotype voice that I’d later associate with Nintendo’s “Mario.” I asked my son about it and he raised an eyebrow and replied “No, that didn’t sound like Mario at all.” I guess he doesn’t have the decades of comedy gangsters and that’s-a-spicy-meatball commercials upon which the Mario voice was built. To him, Mario is just Mario and Marco Polo is just Marco Polo.
Evidently I got a detail wrong when we were last in the world of Into the Labyrinth. I thought that “Delta Time” was the world of fiction, but these two installments are back in our own history, with John Abineri guest starring as a Spanish conquistador invading Machu Picchu in episode three, and Frank Windsor as the Lord Mayor, scheming during the Great Fire of London. Seems like the Lord Mayor is planning to profit from the city’s devastation by sending in contractors he knows and who will make him filthy rich as the city gets rebuilt after the conflagration. Some things never change. Meanwhile, people have swordfights and get turned into rats and turned into shadows.
Our son liked both episodes, but he got the biggest kick out of the second one. In another incredibly weird coincidence, the last time we watched some TV set in 1666, he already knew about the Great Fire of London from a Beryl the Peril comic. His bedroom is a disaster, as is often the case with eight year-olds, and as I helped him clean it Sunday, I unearthed that very comic and he read it again that night, so the details remained weirdly fresh in his mind!
Now it’s back to 1982, and never mind the low budget, in the eyes of a kid, Into the Labyrinth is “a crazy show where anything can happen.” This time out, people get turned into dogs, shrunk, and zapped in the rear with magical bolts. There are swordfights and Victorian-age floozies and all the usual mayhem. Bob Baker wrote the first episode and Robert Holmes wrote the second. This time, the music is full of womp-womps and cues that say “comedy.” Honestly, they should have gone the whole hog. I started pretending there was a laugh track and enjoyed it more.
The plot this time is that one of the kids – HTV wisely figured there was really no need to pay for three leads when one would do – gets pulled into a parallel time track called Delta Time which runs through our world’s fiction. There, he meets a fast-talking time traveller and small fry magic user called Lazlo, and he’s got another macguffin that the evil witch Belor covets. So in episode one, they battle with Long John Silver and in episode two, Lazlo becomes Dr. Jekyll and Belor takes over his alter ego’s gang as “Fanny Hyde.”
I was surprised by that turn of events, actually. Lazlo is played by an actor named Chris Harris, who was very well known for his stage work in the UK, both highfalutin’ and pantomime. The second sentence of his Wikipedia entry says that he was a pantomime dame, so when I saw the title of the second installment, I expected him to don drag as Mrs. Hyde. So while our kid enjoyed the two episodes enormously, and was both thrilled and amused, the only surprise that they had for me was that they didn’t stick Harris in a dress.
The final episode of Into the Labyrinth‘s second storyline had a couple of frights that left our son with a couple of worried expressions. Belor transforms two of the kids into birds and zaps Phil into a stone statue. It all works out just fine, thanks to a power of love ending, unfortunately, and, once again, a memory wipe. I’m glad the kid enjoys it, anyway.
There’s a third series of Into the Labyrinth, but we’ll return this to the shelf for a little while to keep it fresh and have a look at it around the last week of August. Stay tuned!
Mostly, Into the Labyrinth charms our son a whole lot more than it does me, but “Shadrach” is completely wonderful. Robert Holmes wrote it – that’s right, so sit up straight – and it introduces Belor’s best idea yet. She magically alters the features of the first fellow she comes across so he will look like Rothgo and the kids, once they turn up, will waste valuable time trying to convince a complete stranger that he’s an immortal time-jumping wizard.
Then she plans to drug the unfortunate bystander so they’ll waste even more time waking him up. The bystander in question is a detective called T.J. Shadrach, and he’s been hot on the trail of two villains from India who have plans to steal the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from the Tower of London. So Ron Moody and Pamela Salem get to have a pair of hilarious exchanges while she dons a pair of disguises herself to get him to drink her knockout micky.
Shadrach used to be a miner, and his lack of formal education causes him to make a few slips of grammar and word choice, plus, like Parker in Thunderbirds, he alternately adds and drops haitches. Once he’s finally roused, the kids comment on how he dresses like Sherlock Holmes and poor Shadrach becomes infuriated because that blasted Holmes stole his dress sense and style and, in the end, all his thunder and glory. Even when he does get to meet Her Majesty after wrapping up the case, it’s not really her, it’s Belor again. Poor guy. He never gets to learn what actually happened. I’m not sure what the third series of this show will be like, but I bet it won’t be a tenth as entertaining as a seven-part T.J. Shadrach series would have been.
Episode six is more of the same. This one’s a Crusades story written by John Lucarotti and featuring Ewen Solon, back again in a new guest star part. I don’t know much about the Crusades myself, but I could give my son a really brief explanation of what was going on with all these French knights in Malta holding out against the massive forces outside their fort’s walls. Episode five won our son’s affections with a played-for-laughs fight scene, while episode six has a… erm… not so great swordfight. Pamela Salem’s male stunt double showed his face to the camera two or three times more than he should have. The kid didn’t notice, but I had a chuckle or two.
Well, that was utterly bugnuts. And here I was all set to grumble about them casting very British character actors like Cyril Shaps to play Indian mystics, but then Ron Moody gets to battle various demons and magical beasts that jump out of paintings. It is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a while. The episode ends with a brief, climactic struggle over a pit engulfing sulfuric smoke. I think everybody inhaled too much of it this week, because “Cave of Diamonds” is just crazy. The kid had a blast with it, even applauding some of the heroes’ wins. And he really liked Rothgo turning his enemies into statues of monkeys and pigs.
Episode three wasn’t quite as successful for him, and it was awfully painful for the grownups. It’s not just that “Alamo,” written by John Lucarotti, finds a place for every possible word of teevee cowboy slang – vittles, chow, yonder – in some of the most tortuous dialogue ever written, but Ron Moody gets to play a “Red Indian” in redface and we get all the hows and heap bigs and the like that I seem to remember dying out in our own entertainment by 1981. Jack Watson’s in this one as Davy Crockett, and he’s not bad. There’s even an actual scorpion and a couple of real snakes in these two episodes, instead of putting a rubber party favor on the screen like they did with that bat last time.
The blog was feeling a little ITC-heavy, but while adults can certainly see the difference between those filmed series and HTV’s cramped videotape show from the early eighties, our son is every bit as thrilled and excited by Into the Labyrinth as anything else we watch. This time out, the immortal wizard Rothgo recalls his three young friends for more trips in time because the witch Balor has created a counter to his powerful magical Macguffin. Episode one ends with the Nidus conveniently split into five segments so they can pick up one apiece in episodes two through six.
As we discussed previously, the first series of Into the Labyrinth was shown in the United States on Nickelodeon’s The Third Eye anthology. Series two and three were never purchased by the US. Did it air in Canada, I wonder? Well, kids missed out, because this is full of fights and fisticuffs and magical powers and villains turning into bats. While the grownups cringed at what must surely be the fakest fake bat in the long and storied history of fake bats, our favorite eight year-old critic had no problem at all with it.
Episode one is twenty-five minutes of hit-the-ground-running mayhem set in Asgard. Episode two was a bit long-winded for him – in 1606, Rothgo is incarnated as Guy Fawkes, and his long, long, long secret discussion with the king did not make a lick of sense to him and went on forever – but it had some special effects and surprises eventually. Actually, the nicest surprise was the first installment opening with some location work around some stone circle or other. Unfortunately everything else is in that redressed cave set, but for a couple of minutes, it looked pleasingly different.
I’ve got to hand it to this show. Whatever its limitations, it really succeeded in capturing our son’s imagination. Before we got started with the final part of the first serial, he had lots of questions about the time bomb that was used in part six. He remembered it much more clearly than I did; my focus had been on how the production team had redressed their cave set, and on the guest star John Abineri, growling with that sad-eyed expression of his. But our son had spent the last several days fascinated by how a character had used a small candle on the minute hand of a clock to start a fuse. I was trying to hurriedly finish my breakfast to start the story and could hardly eat for all the questions about clocks and gunpowder and when I thought the first time bomb was made.
The final part of the story was written by Anthony Read, and as the title suggests, it’s set in the original labyrinth of Knossos. A few years earlier, Read had written a pair of Doctor Who serials, “Underworld” and “The Horns of Nimon,” that also got to reflect his interest in classical myths. This minotaur was an amusing surprise. Instead of the usual half-man, half-bull, it’s an altar of a huge, blue, bull’s head that houses the Nidus between its eyes and is protected by a force field. I don’t think that the Greek myths will capture his imagination in the same way as that clock bomb – he’s more of a STEM kid than a humanities kid – but overall this story kept him thinking and guessing and ready for the next serial, later this summer.
Into the Labyrinth was shown in North America along with four other programs on Nickelodeon as part of an anthology series called The Third Eye. We’ve watched one of the others already – the remarkable Children of the Stones – but sadly, it looks like we won’t get a chance to watch the other three serials. Under the Mountain was an eight-part serial made by TVNZ. It was released on DVD, but it’s out of print and I haven’t found a copy yet. If I do run into one in the next couple of years, we’ll certainly blog about it.
Unfortunately, the master tapes of The Haunting of Cassie Palmer and The Witches and the Grinnygog were destroyed after the network that produced them, TVS, was sold in the late eighties. You can watch a very ropey bootleg of Palmer on YouTube, and that’s possibly as good as we’re going to get it. One alternative is that maybe in some warehouse somewhere, Nickelodeon kept their own masters of The Third Eye. If so, I hope that someone at Nick would drop a line to the good people at Kaleidoscope. They would probably love to help repatriate and restore these two shows.
As for Labyrinth, with each new time zone, and each new reason to run around in a cave, our son starts each episode a little confused and honestly bored, but he comes around with enthusiasm and laughter as the action starts, and he does love the magic and the explosions.
Episode five is set in England in the 1640s and episode six in rural France during the reign of terror. I had wondered whether we’d start bumping into any recognizable character actors in this show, and suddenly we found two: Ewen Solon as a roundhead colonel and John Abineri as one of Robespierre’s thugs. Ron Moody and Pamela Salem get to dress up in new costumes in each new time period; the poor kids are stuck in their monk robes every week.
I’ve often said that lots of children’s entertainment really requires the eyes of a child to appreciate. Show a grownup Far Out Space Nuts for the first time without a kid adding to the laugh track and they may question your sanity. I’m incredibly glad I waited for Into the Labyrinth and didn’t swap for this years ago. This needs a child’s eye or nostalgia to understand. Mind you, it’s pretty tedious and repetitive even with the kid, but he is having a blast, and he doesn’t mind the really woeful visual effects, in much the same way I dismiss the woeful visuals of Space Nuts and the like.
There was one part in episode four where the children, summoned to the astral plane for another one of Rothgo and Belor’s magic duels in front of a blue screen, where he got a genuine laugh, but he confused me for a second. In her present-day incarnation, Pamela Salem has got a real 1980 Kate Bush look going on. I’ll have to get a picture of her next time. Anyway, I talked about the video/film divide of the 1980s a few months ago, and how music videos were one place you could see the change, as the videotape that was expected of most British media in the 1970s started losing favor. And so suddenly you’ve got Pamela Salem dressed all in black and using all the hairspray, waving her hands and looking melodramatic on a blue screen set, with flat photos of caves keyed into the picture behind her, and suddenly the children in their monk robes dance around her, and it looks exactly like one of Kate Bush’s dire videos from Lionheart or The Dreaming, before EMI started spending money on her promotional clips and hiring Donald Sutherland.
So I snorted because it looked ridiculous, but the kid burst a lung laughing because it was genuinely hilarious to him. Now, fair’s fair, he did snort in part three when Belor conjures a magical beast for about two seconds and it’s a small wood carving of a Chinese dragon like you’d find in a tatty gift shop, but otherwise, he’s completely caught up in this and enjoying it enormously. It’s TV made for eight year-olds and it succeeds amazingly well.
Anyway, episode three was written by Anthony Read and it’s a Robin Hood story that actually uses two other sets. Episode four, sadly, was back to the cave sets because it’s an Ali Baba and the One Thief adventure. The budget required that the other thirty-nine lost hope and went home.