Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.5 – You Can Always Find a Fall Guy

Deeply weird coincidence alert: I broke disk 1 of this set the other night, and so we started the second disk tonight. That means that this morning and this evening we happened to watch two separate programs that were filmed on the grounds of Grim’s Dyke Hotel. It appears in several episodes of The Champions, including “The Mission,” and was also the villain’s stately manor in the Avengers episode “Game.” I kept thinking to myself “Man, this big house looks familiar.” Well, that’s because you just saw it ten hours ago, Holmes.

I deliberately don’t know a great deal about Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but I’ve read many times that Jeff Randall gets clobbered more than your average TV hero. In Donald James’s “You Can Always Find a Fall Guy,” he gets one heck of a beatdown, not a simple club on the back of the head like Simon Templar often received. Amusingly, Jeremy Young plays a character who owns the houseboat where Randall gets the daylights thrashed out of him, but he’s an effete dandy who cowers against the wall when the real bad guy storms in to do the business. Since we’ve seen Young cast as a villain and give a good account of himself in so many other programs, usually with a sword in hand, I found that funny.

Joining Young this week are several other familiar faces, including Patrick Barr, Juliet Harmer, Garfield Morgan, and Tony Steedman. None of these actors took me out of the experience nearly as much as a throwaway sign on a grocery store window. The episode is packed with lovely location filming on the streets of London, and in one scene, finished back in the studio with rear-screen projection, Mike Pratt and Garfield Morgan are having a conversation in a parked car. There’s a sticker on the grocers’ window for Findus. I don’t know that Findus products were ever sold in North America; I only know them as the purveyors of fish fingers with a crumb-crisp coating. Takes me right out of the action when I’m replaying Orson Welles commercials in my head. At least I didn’t subject my family to my poor Welles impression.

It’s a great story with some really amusing ghost business. Our son really enjoyed the scene where Marty puts the frighteners on a pair of guard dogs, but I most loved the moment where Marty visits several hospitals in London looking for just the right surgical situation. I think this would be a fine little show even if one of the detectives wasn’t a ghost, but since he is, the writers are finding a lot of humor in the situation.

Numbering note: Not that I imagine anybody’s all that bothered, but we’re watching The Champions in broadcast order and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in production order because I have no idea what The Champions’ production order is, and there’s a downright terrific R&H site that you should visit and bookmark that confirms the Network DVDs have the episodes in the sequence that they were made.

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The Champions 1.19 – The Mission

Two of our heroes are sporting remarkable makeup in this morning’s episode of The Champions. Written by Donald James, “The Mission” has a former Nazi doctor working as part of an underground network to provide criminals new identities through plastic surgery. Patricia Haines and Anthony Bate are the villains, and Craig and Sharron get to pose as a New York gangster and his dame. Harry Towb has a small role as well. He played “the guy who gets killed by the villains first thing” at least two other times I can remember. If you needed somebody to get shot or stabbed or eaten by an inflatable chair before the opening credits in the sixties and seventies, Towb was your man.

It’s called “The Mission” because the criminals run a charitable mission for drunks and down-and-outs in order to keep a supply of spare parts going. While Craig and Sharron get to dress nicely and pretend like they’ve got two million bucks in syndicate money to spend, Richard infiltrates the other end of the chain and befriends an Irish alcoholic. At the end of the episode, the trio gift their boss a bottle of the Irishman’s special 180 proof blend, which Tremayne spits out after one sip, much to our son’s delight. He enjoyed the episode much more than the previous one, with the closing gag providing a good laugh at the end, even if he wasn’t entirely certain why Tremayne spit out his drink.

“It’s because that was basically moonshine,” Marie said.

“Ahhhh,” our son replied.

“Do you know what moonshine is?” I asked.

“Well, all I know is that it’s some kind of beer,” he said.

My dad had a source for “white whiskey” once. I think I probably did a spit take like Tremayne when I had a sip, too.

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Into the Labyrinth 1.3 – Robin / 1.4 – Masrur

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.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.1 – My Late Lamented Friend and Partner

Disaster struck this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to finally digging into ITC’s famous Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) for ages and ages. I sent the kid upstairs while I put the disk in to make sure nothing in the menus or anything gave away the surprise that not only is the Hopkirk of the title deceased, he’s also a ghost. That’s right, our son may well be the first viewer in TV history that didn’t know that Marty Hopkirk is a ghost.

And I gingerly popped the DVD out of its spindle and the blasted disk snapped with a crack.

So since this is a show where the setup is a big part of the fun, we watched a copy on YouTube, and then – assuming disk two doesn’t snap (and here I pause to check… whew) – we’ll skip ahead to episode five next and circle back to the others once I get a replacement set! The YouTube copy was pretty crummy – it reminded me of what I could have expected from a third or fourth gen copy had I got this in a tape trade in the early nineties – but it did the trick. I’ve been wanting to watch this forever and it was worth the wait. This was such fun!

Assuming that the second, third, and possibly fourth viewers in TV history who didn’t know about Marty Hopkirk’s afterlife are reading this blog, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is a detective show where Jeff Randall, played by Mike Pratt, is a private eye and his partner Marty, played by Kenneth Cope, is murdered. As a ghost, Marty comes back to help his partner solve the murder and make sure that his beloved wife Jeannie, played by Annette Andre, is provided for. Marty stays out of his grave too long and gets on the receiving end of a century-long curse for ghosts who don’t follow the rules. This show was made in the spring of 1968, so Marty has another 49 years stuck here with us before he can return to the afterlife.

Speaking of the spring of 1968, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) was made by many of the same talents and crew who had made The Champions the previous year, and who were making Department S at the same time as this. It was created by Dennis Spooner and produced by Monty Berman, and we’ll see lots of the same writers, directors, locations, and guest actors, including Frank Windsor and Ronald Lacey in this one. The script for this first episode was by Ralph Smart.

And it’s huge fun. I really enjoyed watching this with our son. He was admittedly a little restless at first, watching what appeared to be an ordinary detective show. I confess to having fun with the program’s name. He asked a few days ago why it had this name and I reminded him of Miles Archer’s death in The Maltese Falcon, and how Sam Spade might have chosen to rename his business Space and Archer (Deceased). He didn’t make the mental leap to “ghost,” of course, but he probably grumbled inside that this was going to be another moody program for grownups who’d have to explain everything to him.

He came around in a big way once Marty started figuring out his powers, and we all got a huge laugh when Ronald Lacey’s character tries to surprise Jeff, not knowing that our hero has a pretty amazing early warning system. Our son was in such good spirits (ha!) and enjoyed it so much that he was cracking jokes over the end credits, asking why they got a guy named Innocent – Harold Innocent – to play an assassin. If the rest of the show’s just half as entertaining as the first episode, I’ll be very pleased. Does it live up to the legend? So far, absolutely!

Photo credit: Stuff Limited

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The Champions 1.18 – The Interrogation

Well, this was not the best episode to watch when we were running very, very late and didn’t even press play until after our favorite eight year-old critic’s usual weekend bedtime. He didn’t like this at all; it’s the only episode of The Champions that he hasn’t enjoyed.

Dennis Spooner’s “The Interrogation” is a season cheapie. It’s almost entirely Stuart Damon engaged in a sweaty battle of wits with an unnamed interrogator, played by Colin Blakely, who wants details on his latest case. The interrogator has pumped our hero full of drugs, so in the way of old TV, Craig can hallucinate a few minutes’ worth of clips from other episodes.

Ha. I say “old TV,” but wouldn’t it be funny if they still did that? For future generations, I’m writing this post a couple of nights before the final episode of Game of Thrones. I don’t know what happened on that show last week, but people have been pissed off about it for five days now. Imagine how much angrier they’d be if they’d wheeled out a clip show instead.

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Into the Labyrinth 1.1 – Rothgo / 1.2 – The Circle

Into the Labyrinth was a popular adventure series for children that ran for three series in 1981 and 1982. It was made for the HTV network and produced by Patrick Dromgoole, who had worked behind the scenes on a few other neat programs that we’ve watched for the blog: Children of the Stones, The Clifton House Mystery, and Sky. We’ve got another one of his HTV kid shows on the agenda for later in the summer, but sadly one that I really wanted to see, The Georgian House, is only partially available. Four of its seven episodes are missing.

So what’s this one about? Well, in the present day, three kids find a weakened old wizard trapped in a cave. His name is Rothgo and he explains that another wizard has separated him from his source of power, an object called the Nidus. Rothgo conjures up a labyrinth that will send the children to various points in history to try and find the Nidus, but the other wizard, who is a woman named Balor, is already at work in each time zone to, all together now, deny them the Nidus.

I first read about this series in Roger Fulton’s Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction and thought it sounded interesting, particularly as several notable writers, including Bob Baker, worked on it. He did the pilot, and Andrew Payne wrote the second part. Later I learned that these first seven episodes made their way to America and were shown in rotation with Children of the Stones and three other serials on Nickelodeon’s The Third Eye, about which more another time. Later still, I learned that even among low budget shows, Into the Labyrinth has a reputation for being made for no freaking money whatsoever. What budget there was must have gone to pay for the actors playing the wizards, Ron Moody and Pamela Salem. There’s cheap, and there’s Sid and Marty Krofft are making four shows for three networks cheap, and then there’s Into the Labyrinth, which uses precisely one large redressed set across two episodes, and doesn’t even find room for any other speaking parts in the first.

I tease, but so far, this hasn’t really thrilled me. It’s early hours, and I suspect there’s better to come, but Ron Moody is incredibly unsympathetic for the supposed good guy of the piece, those kids should have bolted for the hills and not looked back, and defeating the challenge of the druid episode was too easy. Our kid liked it a little more than I did, but he wasn’t thrilled either. The visuals had him sighing “That looks fake” early on, and he pronounced “Well, I guess this is the cliffhanger” with about the same enthusiasm as reaching the halfway point on a very long car trip. Happily, episode two fared better. He liked a magical duel between the wizards on an “astral plane,” and the surprising magical comeuppance of their druid foe had him guffawing.

I had compared this show’s format, and how we’ll watch it, to The Feathered Serpent, as it is three serials that we’ll watch with several weeks break between each one. An hour or so later, I asked what he thought and he said “I like it a lot better than The Feathered Serpent!” I don’t even begin to agree, but he’s the target audience and we’ll take his word for it. More from the past in a few days.

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Lois & Clark 4.11 – Twas the Night Before Mxymas

We’ve come full circle. Last year, I felt like sharing the silly story about how some fans suggested the actor Wallace Shawn for the role of Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark, and for our final selection from the series, that’s the episode we’re watching: the one that didn’t feature Shawn.

I did caution our son ahead of time that this program’s Mr. Mxyzptlk was not, perhaps sadly, a little guy with a purple fedora wandering around Metropolis bellowing “McGurk!” He’s a malevolent fellow with the dress sense of a dandy and the ethics of Q, the nigh-omnipotent recurring baddie in Star Trek. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend with an even weirder name! (Ms. Gzptlsnz.)

So this really shouldn’t have worked. Lois & Clark had a reputation of stunt-casting comedy stars as comic book villains and, I guess responding to a folk memory of the ’60s Batman, the directors had them yuk it up. This didn’t work because the first season of Lois & Clark established a world where the drama often had a light touch, but the stakes were high and the actors playing villains took things seriously. And so here we have a character called Mr. Mxyzptlk who doesn’t look or act like his comic book antecedent, and he was played by comedian Howie Mandel. And yet it’s great!

In Tim Minear’s “Twas the Night Before Mxymas,” Mxyzptlk’s big stunt is to trap the planet in a time loop that only Clark can detect, and when the loop resets after four hours, everything gets a hair worse as everyone’s despair grows. Some of the logic jumps necessary to make this work can be best chalked up to the baddie’s fifth-dimensional magic, but it’s a neat idea and our heroes’ clever solutions to the problem are really innovative.

There’s a justly celebrated scene in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s amazing comic All-Star Superman where the Man of Steel saves a young girl named Regan from killing herself, because he knows what has happened and is able to offer her a few words of compassion. That scene’s antecedent is here in this episode. Since the time loop has showed Superman how one fellow becomes desperate enough to rob a bank, he’s able to get ahead of him and find him another path and some badly needed hope. I love this scene.

And our kid was very pleased with the story, pronouncing it by far his favorite of the five we watched. There are some cute comedy moments and good one-liners and people talking at once and Perry White dressing as Santa Claus, and the poor schlub that the time loop has turned into the office drunk gets a face full of eggnog. But he loved Mr. Mxyzptlk’s tricks and stunts, and the inevitable scene where our heroes trick the imp into saying his name backward had him roaring. This version of the fifth-dimensional pest may not wear purple, but he’s all right with our kid.

Speaking of folk memory, as I did above, I think that Lois & Clark is remembered as a show that went downhill and crashed because they got married. I think that’s wrong. I think it went downhill and crashed and then they got married and the show improved. Most of season four was very watchable. There were some duds, and some episodes were better than others, and occasionally two writer cats who were nominally in charge of the production, executively, would script Lois as weak, sobbing, and unable to cope with anything. (I remember the beginning moments of episode 15 as probably the character’s lowest point.)

(Bizarrely, there were six or seven women in fandom who actually seemed to approve of Weak Lois. They were watching for the goo-goo eyes, believed Lois was incomplete without Clark, and they got so insufferable that I used a blank card in our game of Illuminati to mock them. That showed ’em.)

But overall, the show got a lot better, with more original villains, much better casting, and far more interesting stories. Even the episode which reeked the most of network promotional nonsense, featuring guest stars Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney taking a break from their popular sitcom, was full of surprises, and Kinney was excellent as the ghost of a murdered woman.

The improvements didn’t matter. The damage by the end of season three and all that amnesia nonsense done, the show’s ratings dropped like a rock. Murder, She Wrote had finally concluded after twelve years, but CBS had a new ratings powerhouse for the slot: Touched by an Angel. Lois & Clark was preempted for weeks at a time, kept off the air during sweeps months, moved an hour earlier, and finally dumped on Saturdays for the end of its run, where the last episodes were seen by fewer than five million viewers.

ABC had actually ordered a fifth season many months earlier, but reconsidered and paid Warners a hefty kill fee. For those of us who were ratings nerds in 1996-97, this was a wild surprise. All those Wednesdays looking over the Nielsens chart in USA Today and shrugging that the sinking viewers didn’t matter because the show had already been renewed… ah, well.

Lois & Clark was certainly a very, very flawed show, and more of it was bad than was good. But its first season was wonderful and its fourth was frequently very entertaining. I liked these samples better than our favorite eight year-old critic did, but I’m glad that the show’s on the DC Universe service for new fans to discover. Maybe you out there in TV Land will like it even more than I did.

Love,
Superman’s Pal,
Colonel X.

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Lois & Clark 4.5 – Brutal Youth

Last time, I mentioned that the first fourteen episodes of Lois & Clark‘s third season were mostly terrible. They were I, Claudius compared to the unbelievable crap that followed. In February of 1996, the show indulged in a series of interlocking arcs that had Clark marry a clone of Lois, while the real heroine got amnesia and fell in love with her psychiatrist, and then General Zod showed up, only they called him Lord Nor instead and he took over that strategic epicenter of world trade, Smallville.

This went on for months. Fandom had long been split by some loudmouths who were tuning in to see Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher make goo-goo eyes at each other and some other loudmouths who were tuning in to see the Man of Steel do something super. The show wasn’t satisfying anybody. The romance fans were getting plots that wouldn’t pass on a bad parody of daytime soaps, and the superhero fans were getting… well, they were getting Lord Nor. By the time Lois and Clark finally got married in season four’s third episode – featuring sodding Delta Burke as the villain – the show had hemorrhaged a full third of its audience.

Why I stuck out – why anybody stuck out – was simple: Lois & Clark had started out wonderful and we badly wanted it to get good again. And then, when all hope was just about lost, we tuned in to see an unfamiliar name get the writing credit for “Brutal Youth” and marveled, because Tim Minear gave us the best installment – the only even remotely good installment – since the Baron Sunday adventure.

“Brutal Youth” didn’t just get the balance between Lois & Clark‘s three key plot strands (relationship drama, newspaper investigation, superhero stuff) in perfect sync for the first time in ages, it gave us a genuinely original and interesting roadblock in their happier-ever-after story: while investigating the strange case of a friend of Jimmy Olsen’s who has aged seventy years in just a few days, our heroes’ contact at STAR Labs mentions to Lois that Superman’s metabolism is so unlike that of Earthlings that he will still be in his prime long after everybody on Earth today is dead. Lois understandably is in a daze after that.

Their investigation brings them to this week’s villain, a discredited researcher played by Caroline McWilliams, but unfortunately, Jimmy got to her first and has been given the aging whammy himself. The older Jimmy is played by Jack Larson, who had been television’s original Jimmy on the syndicated Adventures of Superman in the 1950s. About the only complaint I can muster against “Brutal Youth” is that we don’t get a scene where we get to watch the aged Jimmy putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for his friends to find, but that’s just me wishing for a bigger part for Larson. As written, the construction of the sequence is actually superb, and I love the way that the audience follows Lois and Clark as they see the evidence that Jimmy left them, and then get shocked as they discover their friend, exhausted and older and collapsed under the conference room table.

But that’s my lone complaint. Our favorite eight year-old critic had all kinds of complaints about this story, mainly that it was far too kissy and too smoochy. I had forgotten that the episode opens the morning after our heroes’ long-delayed wedding night – not wishing to offend anybody in the audience, Lois and Clark had waited until their wedding to spend the night together – and they wake up on the ceiling in post-coital bliss and ready for more.

I introduced a distraction as soon as the camera started panning up from their vacant bed. “They’re SMOOCHING ON THE CEILING! Can you BELIEVE this?!” The kid promptly hid his face in his security blanket with an “ugggggh” and didn’t peek again until the story picked up two weeks later, and, back from their honeymoon, Lois and Clark are in the elevator up to the Planet’s newsroom and THEN THEY STARTED SMOOCHING AGAIN. Grownups! They’re so icky!

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