Category Archives: what we’re not watching

What We’re Not Watching: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

We’re not watching the delightful A Nero Wolfe Mystery for our blog, because our son’s six and wouldn’t get it, but the grown-ups are watching these delightful episodes for the second or third or fourth time after he’s gone to bed, and I wanted to give it a brief recommendation for any grown-ups in your own house.

The series was made for the A&E Network between 2000-2002, and was the last thing worth watching on the channel. It doubled the network’s average ratings for the hours it was on, but it was also extremely expensive and “reality” teevee was cheaper. So there was only an initial movie of the week, twelve hours in the first season, and sixteen in the second. That’s thirty fun hours set in a nebulous and whimsical post-war New York, with part of the peculiar charm of the show built around its deliberately timeless setting.

Nero Wolfe is a very wealthy and very lazy private detective who lives in Manhattan and does not leave his home on business. He’s an epicure who grows orchids and enforces a firm daily schedule. The stories are narrated by his assistant and legman, Archie Goodwin, whose main job is not actually the collection of facts and testimony, but aggravating his boss into action. The characters are played by Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. Other recurring parts are played by Saul Rubinek (reporter Lon Cohen), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), and Conrad Dunn (a field operative called Saul Panzer who’s even better at his job than Archie could be, not that Archie’s ego would allow him to admit that out loud).

Famously, the producers assembled a repertory company of about fifteen actors and employed them to fill almost all the guest roles across the series. These include the beautiful Kari Matchett, who plays the minor recurring role of Archie’s main flame Lily Rowan along with about a third of the leading guest parts for women, ex-Intellivision spokesman George Plimpton as many of the grouchy old men, and bug-eyed Boyd Banks as most of the in-over-his-head imbeciles who end up in Wolfe’s office.

Using the same faces for guest parts really heightens the unreality of the show; you expect the players to all come out and take a bow after the performance concludes before they all go rehearse next week’s show. I can’t help but feel that’s a strike against it, and the music is another. They went with a period-ish accurate big band jazz score, the sort of music played in the big ballrooms where Archie would take Lily dancing, and it’s often far too jaunty and silly for the action, accentuating the amusing dialogue and witty narration more than the drama.

But otherwise, good grief, this show is entertaining. The scripting is sublime, ignoring conventional three-act structure in favor of following the original stories’ flow, and paring down the action to fit the hour while using as much of the original dialogue and language as can be included. Chaykin is incredibly watchable as the bad-tempered Wolfe and Hutton is absolutely flawless as the sharp-dressed Archie. They make a terrific team and since the adaptations are far more faithful to the source material than any other program in the genre, the actors make the stories and the dialogue just glow. You can read Raymond Chandler and picture a dozen actors as Marlowe, even if you try very hard to stick to James Garner. But these actors are the Nero Wolfe cast. I can’t read any of Rex Stout’s novels or stories and envision anybody else in the main parts, even if I do change the music in my mind! If you enjoy classic detective fiction, this series is a must.

Oh, and if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, then you should definitely follow him – @NeroAugustWolfe – on Twitter. The great detective doesn’t post all that often, but as he reads the literary versions of his cases, he usually has some very grouchy and amusing commentary to share. He probably types the tweets very slowly, using just his index finger, on Archie’s computer.

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What We’re Not Watching: Paul Temple

We’re not watching Paul Temple with our son because he’s six and wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on in it, but since this series was so closely linked around the production of Doctor Who in 1969-71, swiping its producers and sharing all sorts of talent, that I thought it would be a fun little counterpart. Unfortunately, Marie didn’t enjoy the first three available episodes, so I’ll have to find time to watch the remaining thirteen installments in Acorn’s collection some other time.

The character of Paul Temple was created in 1938 by Francis Durbridge for a BBC radio series, and he’s appeared in novels and comic strips. Mostly forgotten today, Paul Temple was a novelist who specialized in writing detective fiction who became an amateur detective himself. Accompanied by his beautiful wife Steve Trent – her real name is Louise and Steve her pen name – Temple crisscrosses Europe, always on research holidays where corpses can be found, and then he assists police with their inquiries, as Golden Age detectives did. The series is set in the present day and it’s ultra-fashionable, with ascots and go-go boots and totally glam early ’70s clothes. I honestly don’t believe the character ever had any crossover success in America, but he was really well known in Germany.

The BBC made four series of Paul Temple, each with 13 episodes, and then, in that damnable BBC way, they went and wiped all but sixteen of them. To visualize just how closely this was wrapped around the initial color years of Who, the first series of Temple began in November 1969 and finished during the transmission of “The Silurians.” Series two began just seven weeks later, while “The Ambassadors of Death” was running. The third series began alongside “Terror of the Autons,” and the last one began a couple of weeks into “The Daemons.” And if you’ve paid any attention to Who‘s end credits during this period, you’ll see a pile of familiar names working on Temple, including A.A. Englander, Ron Grainer, Dudley Simpson, Trevor Ray, Michael Ferguson, Douglas Camfield, Christopher Barry, David Whitaker, and of course the producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin.

And in front of the cameras, there’s a similar “rep company” feel. The show starred Francis Matthews – Captain Scarlet himself – as Paul Temple, with Ros Drinkwater as Steve. Their approach to crimefighting is basically to dive into any villainous plots head-first and see what happens. Their guest casts are absolutely packed with recognizable faces. Now, if you enjoy older British television, you will certainly love the really entertaining Cult TV Blog. I agree with John on lots of things, but not his position on familiar faces. For him, recognizing an actor takes him out of the experience, but I absolutely love that. We were watching the second episode available and I was racking my brain to figure who that was playing the villain under the big Jason King mustache – it was Edward de Souza – when suddenly Peter Miles, who we saw in “The Silurians” literally one week previously, came in the room. You’re also sure to recognize George Baker, Frederick Jaeger, Emrys James, Moray Watson, Catherine Schell, and George Sewell, among others.

Now, about the missing episodes situation… Paul Temple is in a really unique place because, after the first series, a West German company called Taurus Films became the co-producer with the BBC. The Beeb wiped 36 of the 52 episodes. They deleted everything from series one, and all but one episode from series two. They deleted six of the next 13, and five of the last 13. Of the eight remaining from series four, five are only in black and white. These sixteen survivors are available in a six-disk Region 2 set from Acorn Media. (Buy it from Amazon UK.)

But then last year, something surprising happened. A German company, Alive, released all 39 episodes from series two, three, and four… dubbed into German. So the visuals for these all exist, just not the original English audio. Sadly, the DVDs do not have English subtitles either, and they are numbered series one, two, and three. Then their series “three” (the British series “four”) came out with a real surprise. Not only were all the episodes in color, but there was one additional installment, “A Family Affair,” with an English dialogue option. So 39 of 52 exist in German, and 17 of these in English. (Buy this set of 13 from Amazon Germany.)

A special note for fans of Douglas Camfield: only one of the seven Temple episodes that Camfield directed is available in English, and that one in black-and-white. If you get the German sets, you can get four of the seven in color. Unfortunately, the first three that he shot were in the first series – he probably went straight from these onto the Who serial “Inferno” without a break – and seem to be lost forever.

Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the Paul Temple episodes we’ve seen and think it’s a shame Marie didn’t find it as engaging. I don’t quite enjoy it enough to fork out another $30 for that German set and just one more English-language episode, but that’s mainly because our disposable income is kind of tight right now. It is the sort of silly thing that tempts completists like me. But honestly, if you enjoy seasons seven and eight of Doctor Who in a sort of big picture “this is what the BBC was doing” way and enjoy the production as much as the fiction, then this is an absolutely super companion. For real fun, add the available episodes of Doomwatch into your rotation of all things 1970 and see just how busy some of these actors and directors really were back then!

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What We’re Not Watching: Worzel Gummidge

We’re not watching Worzel Gummidge for our blog, and that’s a shame. Three months ago, I wrote another entry in this occasional series, about The Space Giants, a program that’s never been available in English on home video. Worzel Gummidge has been released, but the DVDs that you can track down from Amazon UK have apparently been made from very poor condition prints. Since I’ve read so many complaints about their quality, I’ve decided against making the investment, though I hope somebody will remaster and reissue the show in the next few years.

I did see about ten episodes of the series quite some time ago, back in the VHS tape trading days. I was skeptical, as perhaps you might be. It’s a children’s series starring Jon Pertwee as a scarecrow. But holy anna, it’s so much more than that. This program is absolutely intoxicating, charming, anarchic, and completely hilarious.

Worzel Gummidge is set in a world where anything that has been built to look like a human can come to life. That includes scarecrows, mannequins, fairground aunt sallies, the statue of a busty woman on the prow of a ship, you name it. Mayhem ensues. Outright lunacy.

Two kids, played by Charlotte Coleman and Jeremy Austin, get let in on the secret: there’s a strange tramp called the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) who goes around building scarecrows and giving them life. The scarecrows have laws, rules, regulations, and different heads for different occasions. Worzel Gummidge, dirty and uneducated unless he’s wearing the correct head, dreams of the good life, a fine house, a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and the hand of the beautiful Aunt Sally. She is a scheming, double-crossing, jealous, manipulative masterpiece of TV villainy played by Una Stubbs, and she only has eyes for Worzel when it suits her.

As the show went on, a who’s who of British comedy made thunderously funny appearances, either as shocked upper-class toffs or other creatures with weird life that upend everything. Joan Sims shows up frequently in the first two series as Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, and with a name like that, you know a dirty, horrible scarecrow is going to destroy her garden fetes. Other people cruising in for craziness include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor, Bill Maynard, Connie Booth, Billy Connolly, John Le Mesurier, and Talfyrn Thomas.

One of the UK’s commercial channels, Southern TV, made 31 episodes between 1979-81. The whole show was made on 16 mm film on location in various villages in rural England, so it doesn’t have that stagey videotape feel. I think almost the entire series was directed by James Hill, who’s probably best known for directing Born Free and the 1971 Black Beauty, but also a lot of ITC dramas and some of The Avengers.

After Southern TV was closed down in a franchise change with the ITV network, the show was shelved for a while, and TVNZ then continued the program with Hill, Pertwee, and Stubbs with 22 episodes of Worzel Gummidge Down Under from 1987-89, but there was a different Crowman in New Zealand, played by Bruce Phillips. I’ve never seen any of these, but understand that they’re lacking a little of the original’s spark, possibly because they had different writers and they didn’t have the same deep bench of well-known comedy guest stars.

Anyway, my interest was reignited when I read about Stuart Manning’s The Worzel Book, published by a small specialist company in the UK called Miwk. The book had enough rave reviews for me to take the risk, and it turns out to be one of the best books about TV that I’ve ever read, dense with photographs, interviews, and background information. Click the image above to get a copy from Miwk yourself. If this book doesn’t leave you badly wanting to see this series, something may well be wrong with you.

Unfortunately, the only way to get all 53 episodes in one place is to shell out a pretty fair chunk of change (£69.95 now) for an out-of-print box set, and if my old VHS boots and the samples you can see on YouTube are any indication, the picture and sound quality is just too poor at that price, especially with cash a little tight at home right now. My fingers are crossed that somebody will remaster the program very soon, because I’d love to watch it with our son before he gets too old and jaded. Anytime between now and 2022 will do just fine. How about it, Network? Simply? Do it fer ol’ Worzel!

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What We’re Not Watching: The Space Giants

We’re not watching The Space Giants for our blog, and that’s a shame. I’m trying to set an example and watch only films and series that have been legitimately released for purchase, and, sadly, this program has never been available in English on home video. In fact – and I would welcome a correction – it really looks like the only two Japanese sci-fi shows from the sixties and seventies to ever have been released in English on DVD in North America are Ultraman and the painfully stupid Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. Quite a few others have been released legitimately with English subtitles, like Ultra Seven, Iron King, and Red Baron, but my son is still a beginning reader and cannot manage subtitles quite yet.

The Space Giants is the dubbed-in-English version of Ambassador Magma, a 52 episode series based on a fun comic by Osamu Tezuka. Unfortunately, this comic has also never been legitimately released in English! Can’t win for losing if you like these characters, but at least the reprints are not expensive and they’re amusing even if you cannot read the dialogue. In Japan, the TV version of Ambassador Magma beat Ultraman to the air by a couple of weeks, making it – I believe – the very first sci-fi monster series made in color in that country.

It was also made for a very small budget. A company called P Productions made it for the Fuji TV network, and they didn’t quite have Tsubaraya’s special effects know-how. This shows in unusual ways: many of the “laser” or “missile launching” effects were done with animation, and there aren’t as many monster costumes. Unable to afford a new monster suit and a new miniature landscape every week, the screenwriters came up with longer, detailed stories that focused on the human cast. The first 40 episodes of Magma are four-part serials, and the remainder told in two parts: ten four-parters and six two-parters. Typically the monster would first show up in the cliffhanger to part one and have a few small skirmishes with the hero over the course of each story before the final conflict at the climax, occasionally introducing a second monster in part three.

As I’ve said before, the fight between Ultraman and each week’s monster is the most dull part of the story, meaning each adventure stands or falls on how much fun the Science Patrol business is. In Magma, this is also true, but the human stuff is amazingly fun every week, the most addictive and watchable stuff I’ve ever seen from Japanese adventure TV. (Okay, so admittedly I have seen very little. Still.) In the series, an alien dictator named Goa (Rodak in the English dub) tries to conquer the planet using shape-shifting, identity-stealing, black-clad beings called Lugo Men. Our hero is an investigative journalist named Atsushi Murakami (Tom Mura in the English version), who has a son named Mamuro (Miko).

Things get really fun when an ancient wizard who has been warring with Goa gets involved. He has two robot assistants, a husband and wife called Magma and Mol (Goldar and Silvar). Mol/Silvar takes a shine to Mamuro and wishes for a son like him, and so the wizard creates a near-duplicate little boy robot, Gam. Oh, and all three robots can turn into rockets. It’s the most fun little wish-fulfillment show ever, and every kid pretended to be Mamuro/Miko after school, sneaking around imaginary abandoned factories and power plants with his robot best friend, battling the mysterious, hideous Lugo Men, who dissolve into blue applesauce when killed.

A very small company called Lakeside Television got the US rights to Ambassador Magma in the late 1960s, and retitled the show The Space Giants. The English language dub was offered to stations in 1970, but it didn’t show up in Atlanta (or many other markets for that matter) until the fall of 1978, when every UHF station in North America started looking closely in the syndication programming book for any program that had the words “star,” “space,” or “planet” in the title. Ted Turner’s WTCG-17, later TBS, picked it up around the time that WTCG programming started showing up on cable packages around the country.

As a kid, I came on board with episode three, and loved the show absolutely. It came on at maybe 3.30 in the afternoon. Around episode 14, with the planet suffering an amazing heat wave and drought, the robots transform into rockets, seed the clouds, and make rain, but the water that falls out of the sky is boiling hot. I pretended that rain was hot water for at least two years after that. It helped that WTCG kept the program in rotation for most of that time.

Unfortunately, the show has never been available for home purchase legitimately in America; Lakeside appears to believe that they got the North American rights in perpetuity (even the Japanese rights lapsed in the early 1990s and P-Productions returned them to Tezuka’s company to exploit and manage), and another party who drew half of a Space Giants funnybook that nobody ever saw appeared to believe that he had the exclusive rights to any North American merchandising from either the live-action show or Tezuka’s original comic book. My guess is that neither the small Lakeside nor the other party could realistically afford the mammoth legal bill that untangling the rights to such a limited interest program would involve, and nobody wanted to act first and get sued by the other. (For a very lengthy and eye-popping first-hand account of somebody who got in the crosshairs of this tomfoolery, give yourself half an hour and read this account of selling Magma toy kits on eBay.)

I’m going to put my boring old fuddy-duddy hat on now. I spent more than a decade swapping bootlegs of lots of shows on VHS myself, including this one, always telling myself I was acting ethically. Then I somehow raised two kids who did not see anything wrong with swapping the entire catalogs of favorite musicians on USB drives instead of buying the albums themselves. I tried to clamp down on that crap, but had to acknowledge my own failings on that front. Since legitimate copies are not available, I’m not going to skirt around the problem.

One of the parties in the Space Giants dispute is dead and the other hasn’t actually ever distributed very much television as far as I can tell. Sorry to be cold, but that’s how it looks. You can watch bootlegs of the show on YouTube if you like; DVD-Rs occasionally show up on eBay, but we will not watch this show for this blog because it is not commercially available. Tezuka Productions did release a 10-disc Blu-ray set last fall. It retailed for (good lord!) 50000 yen ($482.88!!), which is the sort of price I laugh about when people try listing out-of print Bugaloos DVDs that they evidently don’t actually want to sell. These Blu-rays do not contain an English language track. I very, very much hope that Tezuka Productions might work with Lakeside and release a domestic edition in English before we get too old to fall in love with it again. It’s a super little show that I’m sure my son would adore.

For a whole lot more about the production of Ambassador Magma and distribution of The Space Giants, please see this fabulous article by August Ragone and Bob Johnson here: http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2007/08/27/the-space-giants-series-guide/

Photo credit: Kaiju Fan Network

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