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.
Peter Bowles guest stars as the headmaster of a school with a very strange secret and a growing body count in tonight’s episode. So Jeff and Jeannie go undercover, but Jeff is so breathtakingly ill-equipped to teach history that it became so cringe-inducing that Marie left the room entirely. Humor built around embarrassment makes her incredibly uncomfortable.
She also wasn’t really thrilled with the interview scene, where Marty makes short work of the other three candidates for the teaching position, although my son and I were howling with laughter. The third guy gets sassy with Jeff about his chances, so Marty uses his newfound power of possession to completely ruin the interview. Possessed, the guy starts babbling about big walnuts and shouting incoherently.
Our son has, of course, been reading Captain Underpants, and he’s discovered the cartoon series on Netflix. This scene reminded me of the shenanigans that George and Harold inflict on Mr. Krupp. It must have struck a chord with him as well, because I thought he was about to stop breathing.
Our son asked “Hey, is that one of the Doctors?” and the world smiled, or at least we did. Good to see him recognizing a favorite. Tom Baker starts a recurring role in this episode. He plays Wyvern, a “spirit guide” in Limbo who helps Marty get accustomed to the afterlife and learn his trade.
Baker’s part of a powerhouse cast this week. Hugh Laurie plays the villain, and in smaller parts, there’s Martin Clunes, Richard Todd, and Wanda Ventham. I should probably know these three from other roles than in eighties Who, but I’m like that. Another Who connection: it’s one of two episodes from this series to be directed by Rachel Talalay, who would later direct seven episodes in the Peter Capaldi years. Earlier, she’d directed the Tank Girl movie and she’s more recently been calling the shots on several of the CW’s superhero series.
“Mental Apparition Disorder” is a loose rewrite of a celebrated episode from the original run, “A Disturbing Case,” and that episode’s co-writers, Mike Pratt and Ian Wilson, get a credit at the end. They don’t spend nearly as much screen time on Marty impersonating the criminal hypnotist-psychiatrist in this version as in the original, and it isn’t as funny, but it involves a lot more hypnotized patients, so it has its own charm. Our son made the very disturbing observation that he even liked it better than the original, but in fairness, this one does include a lot more shouting. That said, an earlier scene where Marty tries to get the hypnotized Jeff’s attention by bellowing in his ear really is funny.
“I bet that’ll be good,” I said, twenty years ago when I heard they were making this. I hadn’t seen much of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s comedy, but I had landed about eight episodes of their demented and hilarious game show Shooting Stars a few years earlier, toward the end of my VHS tape trading days, and laughed myself stupid. If, like most people in the US, you’ve never seen Shooting Stars, you’re missing out. Any time I see the name “Daws” anywhere, I don’t think “Butler,” I think Vic and Bob screaming bloody murder at Matt Lucas, dressed like a baby called George Daws and ignoring them.
So anyway, I had heard that the two comedians were doing a remake of the classic Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and traditionalists cringed and wept. There are probably still eight or nine people on rec.arts.tv.uk bashing their keyboards in horror. Charlie Higson, who’d been writing for as well as performing small parts in Reeves and Mortimer’s various programs throughout the nineties, produced and co-wrote most of the episodes. The BBC commissioned two short series made by Working Title which aired in 2000 and 2001, and our heroes, who are played sort-of straight with a few gags, are joined by Emilia Fox as Jeannie and by a host of recognizable faces. The first episode alone has Charles Dance, David Tennant, and Mark Gatiss, and I understand we’ll be meeting a very interesting recurring character pretty soon.
I thought it was good, if not groundbreaking. This Randall and Hopkirk are typical late nineties lads. They’ve got a PlayStation in the office, and nobody should find that surprising. This Jeannie is far more resourceful than the original, and she and Marty hadn’t tied the knot yet. In this version, Marty is killed the night before their wedding.
So while the first episode didn’t rise anywhere near the original at its best, our son adored it and had some great laughs, and I found a lot to enjoy as well. I think Higson must have had a ball writing the script and filling it with moments where the audience gets to ask “Is THIS it? Is this where Marty dies?” only to fake us out about four times. Anybody who doesn’t smile when Vic raises his arms in imitation of Kenneth Cope, only to not get run over, has a heart three sizes too small.
I was explaining to our son that one reason British TV shows typically make fewer episodes per year than American shows is that American shows have crews that work lots and lots of overtime hours. Sixteen hour days are not uncommon. That usually doesn’t happen in Great Britain. It took ITC something like fourteen months to shoot 26 episodes of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and then during the production of the 25th, Mike Pratt went and broke his legs.
So to get one last episode in the can, they didn’t do a clip show, mercifully, but had Marty tell Jeff a flashback story from back when he was still alive, and worked a case with Jeannie while Jeff was in Scotland. This meant that Kenneth Cope and Annette Andre actually got to actually interact in front of the cameras for the first time in more than a year. That must be unique in television, mustn’t it? I can’t think of another case where you go to work five days a week and are actually onstage with an actor for much of that time and not actually make eye contact with each other for more than twelve months.
“The Ghost Talks” is pretty amusing. Our son grumbled that this one wouldn’t be fun without Marty being supernatural, but there were some surprises and a few moments of good humor. Marty takes a hush-hush assignment from a government type played by Alan McNaughtan who is not entirely honest about the job and things go very amusingly wrong. It may not have been the sort of “final episode” that modern TV viewers might hope for, but it pleased us.
Sadly, Lew Grade wasn’t able to sell the series to an American network. Retitled My Partner the Ghost, it appeared in a few markets in direct-to-station syndication, but it didn’t clear enough of the country to warrant resuming production. That’s a darn shame, because I’d have loved to have seen more of this.
But we WILL see more of it… sort of. Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) – now with an ampersand in the title card – returned as a remake thirty-some years later, and we’ll be looking at its first series next month. And for ITC fans in our audience, there’s another show from that great gang that we’ll watch several months from now. Look out for our take on Department S in 2020!
Well, maybe emphasizing the comedy wasn’t necessarily the best idea that the producers of Randall and Hopkirk had, because Donald James’ “Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave” is completely ridiculous. Mike Pratt injured himself really badly after a day’s shooting had concluded, breaking both his legs in a fall. This necessitated using a pretty obvious stand-in for a few scenes, but I wonder whether this also meant that they had to rework the script and give the two comedy bad guys more to do. There’s a lot of material filmed at Knebworth House – where The Champions had shot the year before in “The Night People” – which is just pure farce, as they try and fail to deliver a ransom note. It really does go on for a long, long time.
There’s also the matter of the new Lord Mandrake’s errant son, an agoraphobic dropout who doesn’t dig the establishment and just wants to paint, man. Underneath the most over-the-top hippie ‘fro that the ITC costume department had ever built, that’s Nigel Terry of all people. Other familiar faces this time out: Patricia Haines, Michael Sheard, and Cyril Shaps. It’s a clever story, and we enjoyed trying to guess how all the disparate parts would eventually fit together, but is it ever silly.
Actually, the biggest double-bluff that the show pulls is having the new Lord Mandrake help a freshly-trounced Jeff to his feet, take him back to his estate, make him an extremely curious job offer… and it not be part of the criminal scheme that the show has let us glimpse. It’s all set up to be really suspicious, but Lord Mandrake’s being perfectly honest. He stumbled across a detective and figured that maybe he could help him out with his rotten kid. Crazy, man.
Folks, this just wasn’t fair. There have only been a couple of installments of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) that I didn’t enjoy very much. Otherwise, this has just been an incredibly entertaining and fun program. But right toward the end of its production run, they managed a hat trick of three absolute treasures right in a row. This was a show that had found the perfect balance of amusing action and comedy and was getting better all the time. If an American network had bought the program, they would have made some more. I hate to use that hoary old defense of fans who want to stick up for a cancelled-too-soon series, but a second season of Randall and Hopkirk could have been the greatest thing ever.
Tony Williamson’s “Murder Ain’t What it Used to Be!” finally brings another ghost into the actual plot of the story, rather than the handful that we’ve seen on the fringes. 35 years previously – say 1934 – a Chicago gangster named Bugsy, played by one of ITC’s stock American actors, David Healy, was double-crossed by his partner in a bootleg whiskey heist. The incident’s actually presented in a terrific black and white flashback as Bugsy pulls Marty back through time to witness it! Bugsy has been trying without success to kill his partner in accidents as his powers and control over the material world has grown far past Marty’s abilities. The partner can occasionally see Bugsy, just as Jeff can see Marty, so he’s always on alert for crashing chandeliers and swerving cars. But while the ghosts can interact, neither living man can see the other’s ghost.
So the partner is now in England to conduct some syndicate business, and Bugsy now has somebody to help him exact revenge. Bugsy tells Marty that Jeff must murder the partner or else Bugsy will arrange an accident for Jean. This leads to one of the series’ all-time greatest lines: “Well, I can’t do anything, can I? If I start telling Jeannie that her late husband is being blackmailed by the ghost of a Prohibition gangster, she’ll go spare!”
Our son was instantly charmed by the arrival of the new ghost character, and with the exception of one pretty poor bit of wire work with some visible-from-space strings that demanded his raspberries, he chuckled all the way through this one. Marty finally pushes back against the more powerful Bugsy in a bizarre fight at the end – a fight that leaves Jeff able to see just one player – that has vases flying across the room and comedy sound effects as the ghosts stomp on each other’s feet. “That was GREAT,” our son said while hopping up and down nursing his own pretend-stomped-upon foot. I didn’t join him in slapstick, but agreed completely.
I’m always happy to spot a familiar face or five when I’m watching an old show, but Tony Williamson’s “Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo” might be my favorite episode of the whole series because its guest cast is just so darned terrific. The story itself is a riot. Marty’s wacky old aunt hires Jeff to act as her bodyguard – surely he could have recommended somebody more physically capable of such a job? – as she takes her foolproof system to Monte Carlo to win £100,000 over three nights.
She attracts the attention of two rival gangs of crooks, as well as the casino’s security team, who are determined to discreetly keep their customer, and her little red book, safe. Joining our heroes for the shenanigans: an absolute powerhouse cast that includes BRIAN BLESSED, Veronica Carlson, Nicholas Courtney, Roger Delgado, and John Sharp. And astonishingly, Jeff doesn’t have to scrap with any of them. Most of them are too busy scrapping with each other to worry about the old aunt’s bodyguard.
The story’s an absolute treat because Jeff is kept completely in the dark about all the shenanigans. Marty knows what’s going on, but he can’t make Jeff believe him for more than half the story. And as the villains start double-dealing and Veronica Carlson’s character proves she shouldn’t be trusted by anybody, the old lady keeps racking up the winnings. Finally, Nicholas Courtney, playing a pretty sleazy lady’s man, pulls a gun on Jean and leads her discreetly onto the terrace. Of course Marty’s going to save the day – it’s in the title, after all – but the way this story resolves was a very pleasant and ridiculous surprise, and we all enjoyed it tremendously.
I thought that this episode might prove to be memorable, because the DVD comes with two separate audio commentaries. I was right. I had an initial giggle when one of ITC’s resident American-born actors, David Bauer, got called upon to play a psychiatrist with a German accent. Gerald Flood, who also did three or four of these shows, also has a small role in this one.
Then I stopped giggling and we all started roaring. Jeff gets hypnotized, in the TV way of hypnotizing that isn’t terribly realistic, and the only way that Marty can communicate with him is by speaking in Bauer’s accent. Making matters sillier, Jeff can’t do anything whatsoever without express direction from Marty. He can, however, win fights pretty handily, because he’s been conditioned to do whatever the German-accented voice tells him to.
“A Disturbing Case” is hilarious. Mike Pratt co-wrote the goofball adventure with Ian Wilson, and I thought for a moment or two that he was giving himself a break, because Jeff spends several minutes of screen time laid up in a private nursing home while Marty does all the actual work. When things pick up, we were all incredibly amused. Marie felt compelled to tell our son that hypnotism really, really doesn’t work this way – and she also wondered just how many psychiatrists were running around hypnotizing patients in the London of this world – and I’m pretty sure that he knows that, but I’m also pretty sure that he might soon be seen jauntily hopping down a hallway with a silly “hypnotized” grin on his face like Jeff.