Department S 1.5 – Handicap Dead

Another remarkably ordinary crime story by Philip Broadley, and one which commits the cardinal sin of throwing an explanation from out of flippin’ nowhere at the very end. If Simon Templar had been investigating this, I probably wouldn’t be disappointed, but isn’t this program supposed to be about really weird crimes that nobody else can handle?

The family noticed that a lot of people get tied up in wine cellars in these shows. They probably needed to get Joel Fabiani untied and out of there so they could film Mike Pratt on the same set. Things were enlivened slightly when Norman Eshley and Dudley Sutton show up as thugs. I pointed out to our son that Sutton has been a villain in lots of shows we watched. “He was even one of Madame Sin‘s gang.” “Now she really was evil,” he replied.

Madame Sin (1972)

One Tuesday in January 1972, ABC showed The Night Stalker, which broke all the ratings records and launched a franchise. Four days later, ABC showed Madame Sin, which was a big flop and didn’t lead to anything. Oh, but if it did…

In the early seventies, instead of just making twenty-six episode series and hoping that American networks would bite, ITC started making some movies of the week – slash – pilots instead. There was Mister Jerico, with Patrick Macnee, and The Firechasers, with Chad Everett, and Baffled!, with Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire. That last one gets a little stick for a silly name and a silly premise, but it’s actually a pretty fun film and might have made a good series had another network not already commissioned and canceled the very similar The Sixth Sense.

And then there’s Madame Sin, which is a pretty good movie. It’s not great but it’s not bad. But you know how pilots are; they’re often rough around the edges and the resulting TV series is a lot better. Had ABC ordered twenty-six episodes of Madame Sin for September 1972, we’d still be talking about them. This could have been the greatest and most fun TV show ever.

In 1996, there was a one-hour special produced by Lee Goldberg called The Greatest Shows You Never Saw, a showcase of failed pilots, both promising and ridiculous. The clips from Madame Sin demanded further investigation. This was back in my VHS tape trading days and I put out the call immediately and had a copy within a couple of months. It starred Bette Davis as Dr. Fu Manchu, basically. Madame Sin is an impossibly wealthy supervillain who employs an army of scientists to develop the newest technology. In the pilot, she’s based on an island in the north of Scotland, and is using ultrasonics to create holograms and brainwash people. She’s been commissioned to steal a Polaris submarine, and she’s got a new accomplice in a disgraced American intelligence agent played by Robert Wagner.

Interestingly, Wagner’s face was blurred out in the clips that were used in the 1996 special, so perhaps he declined permission. When he filmed this in 1971, the actor was probably best known for the hit series It Takes a Thief and is credited as one of the producers. I think that he wouldn’t have continued on had the movie been picked up (see below), and not because he’s too busy marveling at the price of a plane ticket from London to New York in 1971. No, he wouldn’t have continued because Madame Sin would have turned the convention of a hero fighting a new villain each week on its head. Each episode would have had the supervillain match wits with a new secret agent.

I’ve occasionally let my mind wander and think about who might have shown up in this series to battle the evil Madame Sin. Her cohorts include Denholm Elliott, Dudley Sutton, Catherine Schell, Pik-Sen Lim, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Burt Kwouk, some of whom may or may not have appeared in the series, and guesting in the pilot, you’ve got Gordon Jackson and Roy Kinnear along with two of ITC’s stock Americans, Paul Maxwell and David Healy. Could you have asked for a better supporting cast for a British movie in 1971? But who could have played the various CIA and MI-6 operatives who would attempt to foil her plans each week? Or would all the guest heroes be agents of the same super-agency, an UNCLE or a Nemesis? Could you imagine Robert Vaughn one week, George Lazenby the next, and Stuart Damon the week after? This could have been more fun than Columbo!

Our kid didn’t like it very much. There’s one fight scene, but it’s very talky, with only one small explosion. He didn’t like Robert Wagner’s character having to betray his friend, and he was surprised and disappointed that the hero character actually gets killed in the end, while Madame Sin and Denholm Elliot wonder whether they can kick the royals out of Windsor Castle. I’m with you, Madame Sin. Incidentally, the movie is 86 minutes long, but it ran in a 90-minute slot on American television that Saturday night in January, suggesting it was cut down to about 75 minutes. Maybe Wagner’s death scene wasn’t shown in the US and he might have been back for a rematch in the series?

Incidentally, I’m stupidly proud of myself for a bit of prop spotting. Madame Sin’s sonic rifle, being tested by Charles Lloyd-Pack above, later turned up in a couple of Doctor Who serials, including 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” shown below. I’m not the first to have made this observation – Google tells me that Jon Preddle, who knows everything, spotted it years ago – but it tickled me all the same.

The gun later made it to a silly 1975 Tomorrow People serial which guest starred Peter Davison. I wonder where else it might have been used?

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 may be 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 and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.20 – Could You Recognise the Man Again?

I enjoy watching old TV for lots of reasons, but one of them is learning little conventions about life in the past or in other countries. It might not be all that important, but look at how this police lineup is staged, compared to the indoors / behind windows lineups that you see in modern crime and detective TV. Even more remarkable, the uniformed policeman in charge of the lineup actually calls his two witnesses by name to step outside and make their identification.

As it happens, this particular criminal’s gang already knows who the two witnesses are – they’ve sent a pair of thugs played by Dudley Sutton and Norman Eshley around to rough up Jeff, in case you spotted his black eye in the photo above – but man, is this ever a good bit of evidence why this procedure has evolved over the years. Police lineups have to keep the witnesses anonymous.

Donald James’s story is strangely down-to-earth for this show. There aren’t any treasure hunts or larger-than-life baddies or vengeful relatives bent on inheriting everything, and certainly no robots like last time. It’s about two warring protection rackets and the jargon and understated threats required me to pause the episode and explain to our son what the characters in the opening scene were talking about. I figured out where the gang had stashed one of the witnesses and enjoyed challenging our son to solve the puzzle. “Do YOU know where she is?” I asked. That got him thinking, and he was initially disappointed when he turned out to be wrong, and pleasantly surprised by the neat revelation once Jeff and Marty stumble upon the answer.

It’s a good enough story for a detective show, but the best episodes of Randall and Hopkirk have a few funny scenes. Because the last one was so absurd, they were probably due for something more mundane, and I guess it’s hard to fit some screwball comedy in something this ground-level.

The Avengers 7.3 – You’ll Catch Your Death

“You’ll Catch Your Death” is the first script for The Avengers from Jeremy Burnham, who would contribute a few more stories this season. I didn’t think this was great, but I enjoyed it more than I remembered it this time around, which gives me hope for some of Burnham’s other offerings! Notable guests this time: Sylvia Kay, Fulton Mackay, Valentine Dyall, perennial henchman and thug Dudley Sutton, and Roland Culver, who the episode tries tricking us into thinking is the villain. No, it’s not a bad story, really, with some particularly nice location filming, but when it was first screened in America in October of 1968, not many people were watching.

By the time the nineties rolled around, teevee fans had made some assumptions and set some myths in stone. There was a received wisdom about the occasional appearances of British programming on American network television, and a lot of fan myths had taken hold. Some of us were lamenting, for some oddball reason nobody can quite remember anymore, that Red Dwarf or Absolutely Fabulous couldn’t get a deal on a major American network. And we looked back, as best we could, about the history of British TV shows in the US, and we got a lot of things wrong. Like The Avengers being a hit.

The first British-made drama to get a prime-time network run seems to have been Danger Man, although a few other ITC-made shows like Ivanhoe might have made the rounds of first-run syndication before it. In the summer of 1965, CBS bought the first of the one-hour seasons of Danger Man, gave it the spiffy new title Secret Agent, and finally had something decent to program against – of all things – The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights, which had been kicking CBS’s rear.

Secret Agent wasn’t a hit, but it stood its ground, attracted younger viewers, and – this is the key – cost less than anything that might have been made domestically. I wouldn’t say that it opened the floodgates, but the following season, ABC brought over The Baron and The Avengers to fill holes in its schedule in the last five months before the network moved to full color, and there were many other examples over the next few years. NBC networked The Saint after the black and white episodes had been successful in first-run syndication, and gave The Champions a three-month run. It wasn’t just the action-adventure shows, either. Some Marty Feldman material had a network home in America as specials, a chunk of Dean Martin’s variety show was made in the UK, and there was an infamous incident in the mid-seventies where ABC bought the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and ran the episodes in a late-night slot so severely edited that the Pythons went to court over it and won.

None of these examples came from American network executives wanting to run something prestigious or artistic for the love of brilliant television. They came from American network executives wanting to save a few bucks. In many cases, these runs came about when they looked at the schedule and saw something that they did believe in and wished would thrive getting thrashed by another network. None of these British shows were hits, not even The Avengers. It never ranked in the top 30 shows and it performed worse with every passing season.

The first American batch ran in the dead zone of Monday night at 10. It certainly got some buzz, and a strong cult audience of teens and twentysomethings, enough to justify making a second order as a midseason replacement for the following year. This run – the first 16 color Mrs. Peel stories – ran Friday nights, and placed a distant second or third to the top 20 CBS Friday Night Movies. The third order got completely creamed by The Virginian and, in any other universe, would have been the end of the road for this series, but then something downright weird happened.

CBS’s Gunsmoke had been a big hit for more than a decade. In early 1968, NBC threw a goofy midseason comedy-variety show at it and watched the Nielsen numbers start to skyrocket. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In became the most talked-about show on TV, the “water cooler” program of its day, and by the end of its three-month run, it was in the top ten as well. This almost never happened in American television. If a show’s in the top ten, then its time slot competition isn’t. It’s extraordinarily rare for competing shows to end up in the top ten together. Laugh-In came back in the fall to huge, anxious audiences and the numbers didn’t slump for years. It finished the 1968-69 season the highest-rated show on TV, and Gunsmoke ranked sixth.

When something like this happens, of course, that means that whatever’s on the other channels opposite these juggernauts is about as far from the top ten as a program can get. ABC’s options against the Scylla of Gunsmoke and the Charybdis of Laugh-In were to either air the least expensive program they could find or go dark and give the time back to its affiliates. And that is the only reason why they ordered 26 more episodes of The Avengers: because buying it from London was a lot cheaper than making 26 episodes of something else in Hollywood.

To the producers’ credit, they never gave up. The show was only being made at all because ABC was paying most of the production cost, but they kept working on delivering a quality product for all the other territories that were buying it. As I’m sure we’ll see, this last year certainly will have some fumbles, but also a few examples of stretching the format, trying new things, and getting away from the regular situation of oddball deaths at the hands of diabolical masterminds. Of course, that’s really all that this particular episode is, but there are some very off-kilter stories ahead.

Postscript: As I was writing this, after watching an episode about lethal common cold germs, our son had such a sneezing fit that his security blanket had to go straight into the wash. First I ever heard of catching a cold from watching a TV show about catching a cold.