Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.7 – Two Can Play That Game

I’m afraid the previous three episodes were really uneven, but Randall & Hopkirk went out on a high note written by Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson as a very cute tribute to The Avengers. It’s “Death at Bargain Prices” crossed with “The House That Jack Built” as Jeff and Jeannie are trapped in an escape-proof department store full of lethal traps. And just to add to the tips of the bowler, they brought along some mannequins that evoke the Autons from Doctor Who and dressed one of them like Steed.

Weirdly, in both the previous season ender, “A Man of Substance,” and this, Marty becomes incredibly petulant and selfish. This time, he has such a ridiculous and petty argument with Jeff that Limbo actually recalls him and dumps him in a seaside town where the very creepy ghosts of others who have fallen out with their chosen ones reside. Eleanor Bron and Roy Hudd play two of these sinister weirdies, who had our son even more riveted than the department store plot. I enjoyed both threads a lot, even if the twist to what’s going on in the shop will be obvious to anybody older than our kid.

My favorite moment of the experience, though, was the kid asking me to pause it to tell him where he’s seen Roy Hudd before. As it happens, I’ve double-checked and he’s never seen the actor in anything. I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen him twice myself. What I think happened is that early in the story, Jeff and Marty are watching a repeat of an old kids’ show with Hudd and an uncredited actor who plays his eventual chosen one, and our son didn’t quite make the connection that “Dicky Klein” is both the man in the silly popcorn slapstick while alive and the ghost stuck in the end of the pier show while dead.

I haven’t read much about this show’s background, but apparently the ratings were pretty good and some people were surprised that the BBC didn’t commission a third series. But one viewer who wouldn’t have watched a third series would be Marie, who gave up on this show partway through the first, finding Reeves and Mortimer like nails on a chalkboard. What a shame; I like everything I’ve seen them in, together or solo. I really like Vic Reeves as a singer. “Dizzy” is my favorite Wonder Stuff single, and if you want to hear a real surprise, find a copy of Twentieth Century Blues: The Songs Of Noel Coward, which is jam-packed with songs by performers I absolutely love – Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, Suede, Texas, Pet Shop Boys – and Reeves has the best song on it. Then go to YouTube and search for Bob telling his story about Chris Rea on Would I Lie to You?. I was still chuckling ten minutes later.

About ten years after Vic & Bob’s Randall & Hopkirk ended, the Syfy Channel was said to be developing an American version with Jane Espenson, who was then best known for her scripts for Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, in charge of production. It never made it to the pilot stage, but ten years on from that, who knows? I think the Vic & Bob version shows that you can approach a classic with a different perspective, and a different sensibility, and occasionally come up with something really interesting.

And just to underline how strange the passing of time feels, when I was in high school, I was hunting high and low for episodes of The Avengers, a show that was then twenty years old and felt like it came from a different era. Twenty years. That’s how old the Vic & Bob Randall & Hopkirk is today. It always feels like “only yesterday” when you actually lived it, doesn’t it?

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.6 – The Glorious Butranekh

Just last night, I wrote about how we’re watching two comedies and one po-faced drama, and here Randall & Hopkirk gives us an hour that doesn’t have a gag in it, not even a smile. Well, one smile. There’s a nice callback to an installment from the original series, “The Trouble With Women,” when Marty helps Jeff cheat some criminals at poker. It’s easy to win when you have a ghost up your sleeve.

This episode was filmed in Latvia and neither my son nor I enjoyed it very much. It’s a bleak story full of unpleasant people that makes it look like there’s nothing in Latvia other than poverty, bribery, and prostitution. That’s not to say it’s poorly made, but we definitely prefer this show when it’s got fun old character actors and the stakes are a little lower and a whole lot sillier.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.5 – Marshall & Snellgrove

Sadly, this afternoon’s Randall & Hopkirk was among the few that disappointed me. The plot was breathtakingly obvious – even our son figured out that there were fewer actors than characters – and they didn’t do nearly enough with the new characters in the story. Shaun Parkes, who we saw last month in the Doctor Who two-parter “The Impossible Planet,” and Colin McFarlane, who also did a Who two-parter we haven’t got to yet, play Charley Marshall and Sebastian Snellgrove, a pair of detectives in the same building as Jeff and Jeannie. They look like they’re living large and doing very well – Snellgrove wears expensive clothes and drives a Rolls – but they’re every bit as downmarket as any other PIs. Snellgrove just calls all their expenses “tax deductions,” driving his poor partner, who’s trying to pay the bills, to despair. They all get hired on the same case by two different clients, but the only real mystery is when in the adventure Snellgrove’s going to become deceased.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.4 – Painkillers

I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this one very much. Two civil servants hire Jeff and Jeannie to infiltrate a top secret research base run by villain-of-the-week Derek Jacobi, with Dervla Kirwan as a femme fatale in charge of human resources, despite Jeff’s complete unsuitability in pretending he’s a top research chemist. There’s only so much talking-yer-way-outta-trouble that I can stand before the cringing takes over.

However, it ends beautifully. Gareth Roberts’ script is about the villain’s attempt to synthesize a very rare jungle plant that will hold back pain and even death, just so long as you keep dosing yourself with the drug. Otherwise the pain, or the death you’ve been cheating for a quarter century, is going to snap at you like a rubber band. So with that in mind, there’s a completely hilarious final fight where the dosed heroes and villains just clobber each other in an absurdly over-the-top brawl, and like that fellow in The World is Not Enough, nobody’s able to feel any pain…

…yet.

My son and I were howling and were already sore from laughing and then, a night or two later, Jeff and Jeannie try to have a serious conversation about their relationship in a nice restaurant, forgetting that they’re going to feel all those punches when the drug wears off. And it wears off. And we about died. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but wow. I’m still chuckling.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.3 – O Happy Isle

Today’s episode of Randall & Hopkirk is a delightfully silly tribute to The Wicker Man, with George Baker in the Christopher Lee role and a whole lot less sex. Literally, that’s the point of the story. It’s a fun inversion of the original story, where everything happens in service to the island’s ancient laws about fertility, because everything happens in this episode to try to stop all that wretched and ghastly fertility.

I wrote a lot for the blog earlier, so here I’ll just add that Reeves and Mortimer’s years on stage sharpened their timing so perfectly that they pulled off one of the funniest gags I’ve seen in ages. It’s a bit where Vic gets Bob to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment and it builds and builds as flawlessly as “duck season / rabbit season / duck season.” If I ever had the chance to see them do that live, they probably would have had to call an ambulance for me. Also, Jeff wins a scrap with two – two! – opponents. Admittedly, these poor fellows were hobbled by the local brew messing with their chemical levels, but somewhere in heaven, Mike Pratt must be pleased that his successor managed that. Jeannie takes one out as well. If Jeff wasn’t there, of course, she’d have clobbered all three.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.2 – Revenge of the Bog People

I smiled brightly when the guest stars were named in this episode. Matt Lucas, who had been the “big baby” George Daws in Reeves and Mortimer’s hilarious Shooting Stars, is in this one as another ghost called Nesbitt. Plus there’s a great pre-credits scene: Jeff starts the episode dreaming that he’s awakened when he’s still sleeping, and waking again to find that he’s still asleep. This has happened to me a few times so memorably that the way they did it here looked like they were deliberately targeting me. And midway through the episode, thanks to Marty and Nesbitt, Jeff has a hysterically funny nightmare that’s executed flatly unlike any dream I’ve ever seen in any movie or TV show. It’s completely insane and had my son and I roaring with laughter.

And yet none of these have anything to do with why I loved watching this one unfold. Look, we all agree that the original Randall and Hopkirk is in a class by itself, but stone me if “Revenge of the Bog People” isn’t my favorite episode of either production (so far). This is completely amazing and I loved it to pieces and I didn’t see where it was going at least three times.

Anna Wilson-Jones plays an old flame of Jeff’s who asks him to take one more look into her father’s decade-old disappearance. Jeff couldn’t clear his name then, and things at the museum where he worked are no different, except his former boss has resigned in disgrace and poverty, and there’s something going on with a family buried together in a peat bog thousands of years ago and a very small entity running around the exhibits going bump in the night and frightening the poor security guards.

This was so darn good that I couldn’t wait for it to finish so that I could go back and rewatch a scene because I realized there was a clue in it that I completely missed. I frequently miss things like this because I’m not trying to build a case or out-think the writer; I just want to be swept along. I love the feeling of watching a splendid production come together and all the pieces find their right place, even if some people need a few encouraging words from a ghost to get where they need to be.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.1 – Whatever Possessed You

And now back to the fall of 2001, and the second series of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). I was looking forward to this evening’s show so much that I got Vic Reeves’ performance of “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington” stuck in my head earlier today, and the episode didn’t disappoint. “Whatever Possessed You,” co-written by Charlie Higson and Gareth Roberts, has Jeff and Jeannie hired to see whether there’s any connection between several mysterious deaths at a remote hotel. It’s been several months since Marty made such an idiot out of himself that he had to wipe Jeff’s memory of him. But with his connection to the living world getting weaker as a result, Marty has to restore Jeff’s memory and hope it’s been long enough that Jeff will forgive him. Must’ve been; Jeff never mentions it.

The strange deaths at the hotel have also attracted some ghosthunters and a tabloid hack looking for a last great story, and there are at least two known spirits at work around room 318. They seem to have murder in mind… but what do they really want, and why have they been refusing to cross over for half a century? Unfortunately, one of the spirits is more than a match for Marty. All he’s learned to do in the last several months is learn how to shrink shoes. Don’t knock it; it comes in handy.

Our son absolutely loved this. He guffawed almost all the way through it, particularly when the shoes were mentioned, or Marty’s equally daft idea for an anti-barnacle paint. Jeannie gets possessed by the creepy faceless woman ghost and seduces Jeff as part of her plan, and the kid was having such a ball that he didn’t even complain about the smooching.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.6 – A Man of Substance

Well… I liked the first forty minutes of that quite a lot, anyway.

In the last episode of the first series, Randall’s hired to find a missing person who was supposedly last seen in a very, very remote village called Hadell Wroxted. It’s a really timelost place, with some very deliberate echoes of The Wicker Man, and nobody can quite get away from it. This little town’s very big secret is that somehow, everybody can see and hear Marty, and Marty can taste, smell, and feel again.

Naturally, Marty takes this opportunity to drink his weight in bitter – poured by no less than Gareth Thomas, who learned a thing or two about remote villages nobody can quite get away from when he starred in Children of the Stones twenty-three years before this – and take an attractive woman to bed. He’s so pleased to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh again that he doesn’t pause to ask how she has the same supernatural undress-yer-partner-from-across-the-room powers that he has.

Part of the joy of Randall & Hopkirk is that Marty is selfish. In the sixties, Kenneth Cope played that angle beautifully, with petulant and unreasonable jealousy. In the remake, Vic Reeves plays Marty as very resentful, and this selfishness comes out in a remarkably ugly way. I think that the writer, Charlie Higson, really misjudged the ending. Marty doesn’t find some bravery or heroism to get him to do the right thing in the end. He only does it because the attractive lady he was hoping to spend immortality with was just a magical mask worn by the much older Elizabeth Spriggs. So the writer painted himself into a corner, with no way that Jeff would ever, ever trust Marty again without a reset button. Five and three-quarters’ good episodes of six is a fine batting average, but it was a shame the series ended so poorly.

And with that, we’ll take a break and return Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) to the shelf for a while to keep things fresh. But stay tuned, because I believe we will watch the second series in January!

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.5 – Blast from the Past

For a show that’s more about Limbo and the afterlife than we’ve ever seen in either series before, “Blast from the Past” is a lot more down to earth than the lunacy in the previous story. Paul Whitehouse, another compatriot of Reeves, Mortimer, and Higson from The Fast Show and their various sketch comedies, plays the ghost of a criminal who had died on the run from Marty’s policeman father in 1970. The ghost then began haunting his brother, but since the brother took a bullet himself a few years later, the ghost has been locked in Limbo unable to make a connection with the mortal world.

But despite the fantasy storyline and focus on the rules of the spirit world, this one’s played completely straight. The only real giggle the adults got was a tiny little use of some archive footage of Mike Pratt to wink at the original series, although there were some silly special effects that had our son chuckling. But that’s not a bad thing, because it’s a fine dramatic story with an interesting mystery in the real world. Familiar face Dudley Sutton has a tiny part in it. He maybe the first actor that I’ve noticed to have appeared in both the original series and the remake.

The very last shot of the episode – it’s the second and last one directed by Rachel Talalay – is a pretty gruesome image that hints at what fates the afterlife may have in store for people who don’t deserve a cloud and a harp. It’s a terrific little surprise that left our favorite eight year-old viewer wincing with his eyes wide. That image might just linger in his brain a little longer than any of the goofy afterlife animation gags.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.4 – Paranoia

Well, that was about as perfect an hour for eight year-olds as can be imagined. There are fart jokes. A heck of a lot of fart jokes. We thought our kid was going to stop breathing at a couple of points. And then there’s the farce around several assassination attempts, which all of us enjoyed, not just the kid.

In “Paranoia,” a former government employee is ready to publish a book blowing the lid off several worldwide conspiracies. He’s targeted by five different players, including his former mistress, and his wife, who schemes with the publisher to get rich off the sales figures if his paranoid nightmares come true and he’s assassinated at a top-security conference. Some of the movers and shakers who decide this man has to go are a little less competent than each other. Charlie Higson’s Fast Show co-star Arabella Weir plays the wife; Simon Pegg and Buffy‘s Alexis Denisof also have solid roles.

As for the fart jokes… Marty is trying to learn how to levitate things, but he only succeeds in moving paper when he breaks wind. The byproduct is an unholy room-clearing smell. This becomes useful when he needs to get everybody out of a room with a bomb and Jeff is, literally, tied up elsewhere. It may be immature, but good grief, it’s funny.

Plus, we got to pause the show and explain what all this talk of government conspiracies was about, which meant that I got to tell him how, among other tales of hollow earths and lizard people and aliens, some people believed the Queen of England was the head of an international drug smuggling operation, and ran for president many times hawking that story. Our son gave an animated facepalm. LaRouche died earlier this year. He knew too much. Fnord.