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Dramarama 2.7 – Mr. Stabs

The last little piece of Ace of Wands apocrypha is, no exaggeration, one of the strangest things I have ever watched. Dramarama was a 1980s anthology for younger viewers, full of one-off science fiction and supernatural stories, sort of the spiritual descendant of Shadows. It ran for seven years, and before I tell you about this weird thing, I’ll tell you why my heart sank a couple of weeks ago.

In 1986, a writer-director by the name of Peter Grimwade found himself no longer in the good graces of the producer of Doctor Who, where he’d been employed for about four years. He took out his frustrations with that producer in a Dramarama segment called “The Comeuppance of Captain Katt,” which is a zero-budget bore about the shenanigans surrounding a popular TV sci-fi show. I watched a bootleg of this a few weeks ago and thought it was the most tedious experience ever, and it didn’t bode well for what Dramarama could do with one last Mr. Stabs adventure, even with the character’s writer and producer, Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale, back in charge.

But there’s a new actor in the role of Mr. Stabs. Instead of Russell Hunter, this surprisingly features David Jason as the villain. By 1984, Jason was starring in two mammothly successful comedies, Open All Hours and Only Fools and Horses, and was the voice of both Danger Mouse and his occasional nemesis Count Duckula. I have a notion that David Jason really enjoyed children’s television, because he’s a pretty big catch for a pretty small show. American audiences might know Jason best as the star of the ’90s detective show A Touch of Frost. Weirdly, another “prestige 1990s detective,” Patrick Malahide from The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, which aired alongside Frost in the US on A&E, is also in this, along with Lorna Heilbron, David Rappaport, and John Woodnutt under some extremely good makeup. This is a prequel to the two Mr. Stabs adventures with Russell Hunter. It’s set in a magical world called the City of Shadows, with Mr. Stabs making his way to the land of “mere mortals.”

So what makes this so weird? Well, turn your mind back to the very early 1980s, before MTV was a concern, but when all these British bands were making cheapo music videos on tape. Not film, tape. If you don’t remember, open up YouTube in another tab and check out Duran Duran doing “Planet Earth” or Spandau Ballet doing “To Cut A Long Story Short” or Kate Bush doing anything from her first three albums, “Army Dreamers” will do. I’d recommend Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon,” but apparently Ozzy’s so embarrassed by that one that it’s been completely scrubbed from sight. “Bark at the Moon” isn’t actually a song I’ve thought about in more than thirty years, but I’m not kidding, this made me say “Holy crap, this is the ‘Bark at the Moon’ video, just twenty-five minutes long.”

It’s more than just the omnipresent candles, strange costumes, videotape, composite special effects, and black, black sets. This whole thing is staged like a video from that period. When Mr. Stabs and his nemesis, Lorna Heilbron’s character, enter a chamber to be judged by three men in dark red robes, I was honestly expecting them to settle their differences with a dance-off. Later, there’s a gigantic staircase behind a huge set of doors. The special effect didn’t allow for the camera to pan up it, which is just as well, because the only thing at the top would probably have been Gary Numan and a couple of synthesizers.

So no, this wasn’t particularly good, but our son did find it pretty amazingly creepy, and I think that if that was the program’s sole remit – to give seven year-olds a few mild shocks – then it probably succeeded. Would it have made a good show had it been considered as a series? I dunno. It would certainly have been an incredibly weird one. Then again, David Jason was probably far too busy in 1984-85 to have made any more of these. As a piece of apocrypha, it was an amusing half-hour… but I’d still have rather had another series of Ace of Wands!

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Wombling Free (1977)

In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.

So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.

The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.

I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.

For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.

Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.

I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!

But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.

In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.

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