Department S 1.2 – The Pied Piper of Hambledown

This one’s terrific. I enjoyed it a lot and it’s easily my favorite so far. It’s the one with the ghost village, where everybody has disappeared. It’s so reminiscent of a Doctor Who they did seven years later called “The Android Invasion” that I was expecting to see its writer credited. It’s actually written by Donald James, who of course was turning out lots of quality scripts for ITC in the late sixties. It’s a really entertaining mystery that kept me guessing, and I still hadn’t figured everything out by the end. About the only thing I could guess was that we’d see a couple of actors enter the story again after the script tried to tell us they weren’t important. But ITC typically didn’t hire people like Richard Vernon or Jeremy Young for single scenes.

Department S was in production at the same time as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), so I was expecting to see some locations and sets used between the two shows. This episode uses the village of Latimer and a pub called The Duke of Cumberland. The crew from Randall and Hopkirk was back here a few months later to shoot their installment “The Man From Nowhere”.

Department S 1.1 – The Man in the Elegant Room

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I imagine many of the screencaps I’ll use to illustrate Department S will feature Peter Wyngarde and a pretty guest star, in this case Juliet Harmer from Adam Adamant Lives!.

So anyway, we started a few days ago with the first episode that is typically broadcast, but “The Man in the Elegant Room,” written by Terry Nation, was the first one they produced, and it’s a somewhat better introduction to the characters. It’s not perfect on that front, because this was made in an era when TV series were made to be shown in any order whatsoever, so I still ended up pausing the episode to explain to our son that this Mark Caine dude they keep mentioning is the fictional superspy who stars in Jason King’s celebrated paperbacks.

But overall, he agreed that this was far less confusing, even though the plot is, delightfully, a real headscratcher. A real estate agent shows off one of his warehouse properties, only to find that in the five months since he last inspected it, somebody has built a full-size mockup of an elegant room inside. And trapped behind bars in this room, there’s a dead woman and a young man who is so disturbed he can barely speak anymore. Jason reasons that the room must be a replica of a room in a real home somewhere in London, and it’s been designed to plan a robbery. But they find the home and the owner, played by Stratford Johns, shows them that the only thing in his room worth stealing is a small amount of jewelry in the wall safe.

Overall, I thought this was much better than “Six Days” and should have been the first one shown. It kept us guessing for a good while and ends with a satisfactory shootout. I was amused to see Stratford Johns in this because I believe this was made in April of 1968, meaning he was at work on “Legacy of Death”, another Terry Nation script, this time for The Avengers, just a few weeks later.

Department S 1.6 – Six Days

And now back to 1968, and a show I’ve only seen a single episode of: Department S, one of the famous ITC adventure series from the day. This one was never purchased by an American network, and only aired in a few markets in first-run syndication. It’s never been released in Region 1, although weirdly the sequel series, Jason King, was. Some years back, before I got a multi-region player, Marie and I watched all of that. I said that if our son enjoys Department S, we’ll add it to our blog rotation, but I’m afraid we’re not off to a very strong start with him.

Department S is one of those special international investigation units common to the day. Joel Fabiani is the American leader of the team, Stewart Sullivan. Peter Wyngarde is, of course, the show’s star, the ideas man and novelist Jason King, and Rosemary Nicols is Annabelle Hurst, who can operate computers and break into locked rooms. They report to Interpol’s Sir Curtis Seretse, played by Dennis Alaba Peters, and none of this is made at all clear in “Six Days,” the episode chosen to start the program’s run in the UK’s ATV region. Our son was baffled; there were far too many characters in this, he wasn’t sure who the heroes were, probably because, as I read after we finished, this was actually the sixth one made. Maybe it was chosen to be shown first because it has a powerhouse guest cast more familiar to me than three of the stars, including Peter Bowles, Geraldine Moffat, the great Bernard Horsfall, and Neil Hallett.

At one point, Annabelle and Jason start talking about somebody called Mark Caine, as though he’s another member of the team. Now, Marie and I know, because we’ve seen the sequel show, that Mark Caine is the star of a successful series of adventure novels that Jason writes, and he approaches every problem as though it’s a challenge for Caine to solve. But that’s not mentioned at all in “Six Days.” We’re going to segue into the production order and start with episode one next time. Maybe they’ll introduce the characters. I guess the TV stations in April 1969 were waiting for their publicity department to do that for them or something.

The case this time involves an aircraft that everybody assumes went down with no survivors on July 11th suddenly showing up at Heathrow on the 17th, with none of the passengers or crew apparently aware they have been missing for six days. Someone’s gone to a great deal of trouble to get their hands on something or someone on the flight, and is happy to start killing their inside men. There’s lots of nice location filming at Heathrow and around London, but it’s not a particularly action-oriented story, and it left our kid behind. Hopefully the next – first – episode will smooth things over for him.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.26 – The Ghost Talks

I was explaining to our son that one reason British TV shows typically make fewer episodes per year than American shows is that American shows have crews that work lots and lots of overtime hours. Sixteen hour days are not uncommon. That usually doesn’t happen in Great Britain. It took ITC something like fourteen months to shoot 26 episodes of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and then during the production of the 25th, Mike Pratt went and broke his legs.

So to get one last episode in the can, they didn’t do a clip show, mercifully, but had Marty tell Jeff a flashback story from back when he was still alive, and worked a case with Jeannie while Jeff was in Scotland. This meant that Kenneth Cope and Annette Andre actually got to actually interact in front of the cameras for the first time in more than a year. That must be unique in television, mustn’t it? I can’t think of another case where you go to work five days a week and are actually onstage with an actor for much of that time and not actually make eye contact with each other for more than twelve months.

“The Ghost Talks” is pretty amusing. Our son grumbled that this one wouldn’t be fun without Marty being supernatural, but there were some surprises and a few moments of good humor. Marty takes a hush-hush assignment from a government type played by Alan McNaughtan who is not entirely honest about the job and things go very amusingly wrong. It may not have been the sort of “final episode” that modern TV viewers might hope for, but it pleased us.

Sadly, Lew Grade wasn’t able to sell the series to an American network. Retitled My Partner the Ghost, it appeared in a few markets in direct-to-station syndication, but it didn’t clear enough of the country to warrant resuming production. That’s a darn shame, because I’d have loved to have seen more of this.

But we WILL see more of it… sort of. Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) – now with an ampersand in the title card – returned as a remake thirty-some years later, and we’ll be looking at its first series next month. And for ITC fans in our audience, there’s another show from that great gang that we’ll watch several months from now. Look out for our take on Department S in 2020!

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.25 – Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave

Well, maybe emphasizing the comedy wasn’t necessarily the best idea that the producers of Randall and Hopkirk had, because Donald James’ “Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave” is completely ridiculous. Mike Pratt injured himself really badly after a day’s shooting had concluded, breaking both his legs in a fall. This necessitated using a pretty obvious stand-in for a few scenes, but I wonder whether this also meant that they had to rework the script and give the two comedy bad guys more to do. There’s a lot of material filmed at Knebworth House – where The Champions had shot the year before in “The Night People” – which is just pure farce, as they try and fail to deliver a ransom note. It really does go on for a long, long time.

There’s also the matter of the new Lord Mandrake’s errant son, an agoraphobic dropout who doesn’t dig the establishment and just wants to paint, man. Underneath the most over-the-top hippie ‘fro that the ITC costume department had ever built, that’s Nigel Terry of all people. Other familiar faces this time out: Patricia Haines, Michael Sheard, and Cyril Shaps. It’s a clever story, and we enjoyed trying to guess how all the disparate parts would eventually fit together, but is it ever silly.

Actually, the biggest double-bluff that the show pulls is having the new Lord Mandrake help a freshly-trounced Jeff to his feet, take him back to his estate, make him an extremely curious job offer… and it not be part of the criminal scheme that the show has let us glimpse. It’s all set up to be really suspicious, but Lord Mandrake’s being perfectly honest. He stumbled across a detective and figured that maybe he could help him out with his rotten kid. Crazy, man.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.24 – Murder Ain’t What it Used to Be!

Folks, this just wasn’t fair. There have only been a couple of installments of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) that I didn’t enjoy very much. Otherwise, this has just been an incredibly entertaining and fun program. But right toward the end of its production run, they managed a hat trick of three absolute treasures right in a row. This was a show that had found the perfect balance of amusing action and comedy and was getting better all the time. If an American network had bought the program, they would have made some more. I hate to use that hoary old defense of fans who want to stick up for a cancelled-too-soon series, but a second season of Randall and Hopkirk could have been the greatest thing ever.

Tony Williamson’s “Murder Ain’t What it Used to Be!” finally brings another ghost into the actual plot of the story, rather than the handful that we’ve seen on the fringes. 35 years previously – say 1934 – a Chicago gangster named Bugsy, played by one of ITC’s stock American actors, David Healy, was double-crossed by his partner in a bootleg whiskey heist. The incident’s actually presented in a terrific black and white flashback as Bugsy pulls Marty back through time to witness it! Bugsy has been trying without success to kill his partner in accidents as his powers and control over the material world has grown far past Marty’s abilities. The partner can occasionally see Bugsy, just as Jeff can see Marty, so he’s always on alert for crashing chandeliers and swerving cars. But while the ghosts can interact, neither living man can see the other’s ghost.

So the partner is now in England to conduct some syndicate business, and Bugsy now has somebody to help him exact revenge. Bugsy tells Marty that Jeff must murder the partner or else Bugsy will arrange an accident for Jean. This leads to one of the series’ all-time greatest lines: “Well, I can’t do anything, can I? If I start telling Jeannie that her late husband is being blackmailed by the ghost of a Prohibition gangster, she’ll go spare!”

Our son was instantly charmed by the arrival of the new ghost character, and with the exception of one pretty poor bit of wire work with some visible-from-space strings that demanded his raspberries, he chuckled all the way through this one. Marty finally pushes back against the more powerful Bugsy in a bizarre fight at the end – a fight that leaves Jeff able to see just one player – that has vases flying across the room and comedy sound effects as the ghosts stomp on each other’s feet. “That was GREAT,” our son said while hopping up and down nursing his own pretend-stomped-upon foot. I didn’t join him in slapstick, but agreed completely.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.23 – The Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo

I’m always happy to spot a familiar face or five when I’m watching an old show, but Tony Williamson’s “Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo” might be my favorite episode of the whole series because its guest cast is just so darned terrific. The story itself is a riot. Marty’s wacky old aunt hires Jeff to act as her bodyguard – surely he could have recommended somebody more physically capable of such a job? – as she takes her foolproof system to Monte Carlo to win £100,000 over three nights.

She attracts the attention of two rival gangs of crooks, as well as the casino’s security team, who are determined to discreetly keep their customer, and her little red book, safe. Joining our heroes for the shenanigans: an absolute powerhouse cast that includes BRIAN BLESSED, Veronica Carlson, Nicholas Courtney, Roger Delgado, and John Sharp. And astonishingly, Jeff doesn’t have to scrap with any of them. Most of them are too busy scrapping with each other to worry about the old aunt’s bodyguard.

The story’s an absolute treat because Jeff is kept completely in the dark about all the shenanigans. Marty knows what’s going on, but he can’t make Jeff believe him for more than half the story. And as the villains start double-dealing and Veronica Carlson’s character proves she shouldn’t be trusted by anybody, the old lady keeps racking up the winnings. Finally, Nicholas Courtney, playing a pretty sleazy lady’s man, pulls a gun on Jean and leads her discreetly onto the terrace. Of course Marty’s going to save the day – it’s in the title, after all – but the way this story resolves was a very pleasant and ridiculous surprise, and we all enjoyed it tremendously.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.22 – A Disturbing Case

I thought that this episode might prove to be memorable, because the DVD comes with two separate audio commentaries. I was right. I had an initial giggle when one of ITC’s resident American-born actors, David Bauer, got called upon to play a psychiatrist with a German accent. Gerald Flood, who also did three or four of these shows, also has a small role in this one.

Then I stopped giggling and we all started roaring. Jeff gets hypnotized, in the TV way of hypnotizing that isn’t terribly realistic, and the only way that Marty can communicate with him is by speaking in Bauer’s accent. Making matters sillier, Jeff can’t do anything whatsoever without express direction from Marty. He can, however, win fights pretty handily, because he’s been conditioned to do whatever the German-accented voice tells him to.

“A Disturbing Case” is hilarious. Mike Pratt co-wrote the goofball adventure with Ian Wilson, and I thought for a moment or two that he was giving himself a break, because Jeff spends several minutes of screen time laid up in a private nursing home while Marty does all the actual work. When things pick up, we were all incredibly amused. Marie felt compelled to tell our son that hypnotism really, really doesn’t work this way – and she also wondered just how many psychiatrists were running around hypnotizing patients in the London of this world – and I’m pretty sure that he knows that, but I’m also pretty sure that he might soon be seen jauntily hopping down a hallway with a silly “hypnotized” grin on his face like Jeff.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.21 – The House on Haunted Hill

Our son managed to lock the guest bedroom door, as kids are known to do. He showed his mother a safety pin. “I tried opening the door with this, but it’s much harder than it looks on television.” I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

Anyway, Tony Williamson’s “The House on Haunted Hill” doesn’t break the mold too much. It’s a pretty funny story that explains that even though he’s a ghost, he’s still afraid of haunted houses. Other ghosts might not be as agreeable as him. There could be something out of Macbeth creeping around in an old property that Jeff’s been commissioned to investigate. Naturally, the law of television conservation means that this case has something major to do with another case, where Garfield Morgan is playing an uptight corporation dude. Peter Jones is also in it, briefly, and while there actually isn’t anything out of Macbeth in the old house, there is a goon dressed like a Scooby-Doo villain, just in case anybody gets too nosy.

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.