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The Champions 1.6 – Operation Deep-Freeze

Alexandra Bastedo is barely in this episode of The Champions, but a pile of recognizable character actors from the period are. Robert Urquhart is one of the good guys, and Patrick Wymark, Walter Gotell, and George Pastell all represent an enemy nation that’s testing small-yield atomic weapons in Antarctica. There’s also an amazing amount of stock footage. At one point, Gotell and his criminal associate have to shoot four men who are pursuing them, because that’s how many men are in the library footage.

“Operation Deep-Freeze” was one of fourteen episodes of The Champions that I taped off-air way back in 1987 from an Atlanta UHF station, channel 69. Launched as WVEU, and known today as Atlanta’s CW affiliate station WUPA, it began broadcasting in 1982 playing nothing but music videos. This was an odd little programming strategy that several metro areas saw at the time. In those days, a city would have a dozen or two dozen different cable companies, and many of them were really slow to pick up MTV, hence that station’s iconic “I Want My MTV” ad campaign. So investors would set up shop on a UHF channel and play all these wacky videos that Kids These Days wanted to watch.

By late 1985, however, just about everybody in America could see MTV, and these UHF channels were what you’d call surplus to requirements. WVEU scrambled for new, cheap, programming, and, in addition to the pollution-obsessed Japanese superhero show Spectreman, they started running several ITC programs from the late sixties and early seventies, including The Persuaders!, UFO, and, at 6 am Monday through Friday for at least a year, The Champions.

I remember that it was 6, because whatever it was that came next would start at 7 am on the dot. And you’re not going to believe this next part. WVEU didn’t employ the brightest bulbs in the television broadcasting universe. The Champions began their programming day, and I think Mr. Cletus Coaxial didn’t make it in to the station on time about six times a month. The Champions would sometimes start at 6:02 or 6:04, and if it was still running at 7:00, the broadcast would just end in the middle of a scene and at the 7:00 program would begin on time.

I was taping the show on any morning that I could shower and dress and make it into the den at six. I was sixteen years old and recording on SLP speed, using a block of super-fancy high-end Sony VHS tapes that my uncle had gifted me and which probably cost $10 apiece when I was usually buying blank JVCs for $5 each. Pausing to live-edit out the commercials, you could fit seven episodes on each tape. But because Mr. Cletus Coaxial would sometimes start the show late, I’d occasionally end up dragging myself out of bed, rush like mad to get ready for school, get the tape cued up, and have to abandon the recording because 6:03 would roll around and The Champions hadn’t started, and I knew WVEU would end the broadcast and start their 7 am show on time.

Eventually, I had fourteen episodes on two tapes, and over the course of the next five years, I think I copied two of those episodes in one swap. But videotape trading was a fun little hobby and sometimes you just needed to sit on things for a while. Over time, my trade list made its way to many other traders. And what I didn’t know was that The Champions was extraordinarily rare among many of the good traders. I also didn’t know that one of its three lead actors, Stuart Damon, had a large fan base in this country. In the late seventies, Damon found work in the UK drying up and he went back to California and landed the role of Dr. Allan Quartermaine on the daily soap opera General Hospital. He played Quartermaine for almost thirty years and when my trade list ended up in the hands of a VHS trader who collected Stuart Damon’s old shows, my old Sonys started getting quite a workout.

I was very clear to anybody who asked that the quality of the film prints that WVEU had used was pretty poor. These were beat-up, washed-out, color-faded 16mm prints. Worse, I’d recorded them on the dreaded SLP/EP speed because I was a dumb teen, but because I’d used those great high-end blanks my uncle Ronnie had gifted me, the copies were actually far better than they had any right to be. And I copied the hell out of them. I got trade lists in at least once a month inquiring about The Champions. Often, I couldn’t find anything on their lists I wanted, so I’d do a blanks-and-postage swap for TDK E-HGs, which was latterly my VHS tape of choice. I eventually added a limit to those, because one day I got a box on the doorstep with fourteen TDK E-HGs. To be honest, in the 1993-94 TV season, I was taping four shows off-air, so I needed the blanks, but doing seven tapes in a week was a real headache!

I didn’t keep track, but by the time I called it quits on tape trading in the late nineties, I bet I’d copied some of my Champions in at least thirty trades. They netted me all kinds of great treasures, everything from Frankie Howerd comedies to episodes of The New Avengers that didn’t come from The CBS Late Movie and have five minutes hacked out of each hour. I remember, with no great fondness, some of the pests that you’d run into on the VHS tape trading circuit, the bad traders, the snobs, the ones with the crazy rules, the people who didn’t know what they were doing and would send you garbage you didn’t want on BASF T-160s on the wrong speed. None of those memories are attached to anybody I traded The Champions with, because Stuart Damon’s fans are all better than that.

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)

I have to admit that every once in a while, I pick a complete flop with our son. He didn’t like Disney’s The Moon-Spinners at all. I thought it was a perfectly fine adventure film for kids, especially American kids in that early sixties sweet spot right before the Beatles exploded into pop culture.

I’ve often felt that Hayley Mills was absolutely in the right place at the right time. She had a legion of young girl fans and she was perfectly cast, often by Disney, as the engaging lead in fun movies like The Parent Trap and In Search of the Castaways, and of course she usually had dreamy boys with English accents around. You know how many of those girls who showed up to scream at the Beatles when they arrived in New York were Hayley Mills devotees? All of them.

But I guess that fifty-four years later, there’s not quite as much in a movie like this to thrill a six year-old boy. It sounded promising enough. There’s danger, intrigue, stolen jewels, and Eli Wallach and Paul Stassino as dangerous criminals. Plus there’s a terrific set of stunts when Hayley gets locked in a windmill by the baddies and everybody climbs out down the sails and blades. Honestly though, the part he liked the best was when Wallach got chased out of some ruins by feral cats.

For slightly older viewers, the story concerns Mills’ character, Nicky, and her aunt, played by Joan Greenwood, visiting a small village in Crete at the same time that a young man arrives in the hopes of finding some emeralds, stolen while under his care in London some months previously. So the young people get to have an adventure while an impressive cast of character actors, including Sheila Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Andre Morell, and George Pastell, provide support.

The lack of any of Disney’s trademark comic slapstick was perhaps one small failure in our son’s eyes, but this is a much more straightforward adventure movie than their seventies output, without a lot of levity. There is one deliciously funny moment where Mills breathlessly recounts her escapades to a millionaire played by Pola Negri, who definitely needs a drink before the recap is finished, but that’s more for the grown-ups in the crowd. I think somebody our son’s age would probably read that scene as played straight, because yes, that’s an accurate recap of the story so far. And viewers his age probably wouldn’t see the small hints to the audience in the way adult characters play certain scenes. We instantly knew that John Le Mesurier’s character wasn’t being completely honest in his explanations, but the reality of what he’s actually up to still eluded our son. And Sheila Hancock brings surprising tension to a scene in which her character gets drunk and talks too much, but all of these adult conversations just seemed like noise to him because it’s more subtle than the Hulk knocking over buildings.

So perhaps six was a little young or perhaps the movie is just a dated piece that’s going to appeal more to older viewers anyway, especially the older viewers who enjoy seeing all these great actors. Maybe we should have waited a couple of years, but I’m certainly glad of the experience and enjoyed the movie very much.

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The Avengers 4.26 – Honey For the Prince

Tonight’s little bit of confusing old technology: a steam bath cabinet, like the one that James Bond locks the fellow inside in Thunderball. The villain in Brian Clemens’ “Honey For the Prince” is played by George Pastell, who we all remember as the doomed wannabe super-baddie Eric Klieg in the Doctor Who adventure “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” This was not Pastell’s most rigorous and challenging acting assignment. He spends more than half his time onscreen being pampered and massaged by Carmen Dene.

Since this was made in those halcyon days when we hadn’t figured out that steam cabinets really aren’t as conducive to weight loss as we’d like, we briefly see Pastell’s head sticking out of the cabinet, and it was the strangest thing our son has seen in days. “Wha?! What is he in?!” he yelped. Part of me thinks he must have seen a steam cabinet somewhere before, maybe in season one of Batman?, but if he ever starts looking at 1960s TV and movies for any length of time on his own, he’ll definitely find others. Lucille Ball probably got locked in one or two.

We also caught a little bonus episode, a little three minute minisode, as it might be called these days, alerting viewers that when The Avengers would be seen next, it would be in color. Some dingbat in the dark days of fandom once claimed that “The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse” was twenty minutes long, when it’s really three minutes and ten seconds. It’s not clear when or where it was ever actually shown, though. It’s possible that it might have run alongside the last of the American ABC run in the late summer of 1966 before the show went on hiatus until January 1967.

I’ll tell you this for free: a lot of people wasted a lot of time trying to source a twenty minute version of this episode.

And speaking of hiatuses, that’s all from The Avengers for now, but stay tuned! Steed and Mrs. Peel will be back in March!

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