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The Avengers 4.5 – Castle De’ath

I think that one theme that we’ll come back to in watching The Avengers is one I’ll go into in more detail later on, that the fantasy of the series isn’t merely the fantasy that comes from telling stories with robots and invisible men and a couple of monsters, it’s the fantasy of its setting. The Avengers is deliberately set in what Brian Clemens called a fantasyland, a tourist Britain that’s utterly removed from the real thing. So here we are in Scotland, ye ken, where we have bagpipes and phantoms and lairds and tartans and Robbie Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie and castles and moats and villainous ancestors called “Black” and fishing in the loch. And popular Scottish actors like Gordon Jackson and Robert Urquhart as the feuding cousins of the De’ath clan.

And we don’t have anything in Scotland other than these things.

In fact, of the two things my son enjoyed most about this story, one was the knee-high argyle socks that the men wear with their traditional formal Highland garb. “Those are some big socks!” he exclaimed. The other, happily, was the rather magnificent sword fight that Patrick Macnee and Urquhart have on the big table in the dining hall, so he’s not just watching old TV to chuckle at the silly clothes people used to wear, like a “comedian” on one of those awful Things Sure Were Different Back Then! nostalgia programs.

I don’t think it’s right to completely dismiss dramatic choices like this as merely lazy cultural stereotyping. It isn’t lazy; it’s carefully crafted in the same way that the director, James Hill, opened the story with a series of long, hand-held tracking shots through the elaborate castle set. The Avengers slowly reveals its unreality as the show progresses through the sixties, which is sometimes jarring because television viewers tend to watch every program as though it is set in “our world,” and The Avengers quite firmly isn’t. That’s not to say that it’s always a good or an admirable choice – some elements of this fantasyland Britain are crafted with the walls of exclusion – but the use of stereotype here isn’t halfhearted. In Avengerland, England can have some variety of people, places, and things, but all of Scotland is exactly like this.

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Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)

Here’s a movie that I might have read about somewhere or other, but it never really sank in until we started this blog and I did a little reading about the film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Then I realized there were more screen versions of Captain Nemo than I was aware. This one, however, could have remained adrift. It is a boring, boring movie.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City has an interesting international cast, bringing Americans Robert Ryan, as Nemo, and Chuck Connors to the UK for a production at MGM’s Borehamwood Studios. Luciana Paluzzi, best known at the time for her role in Thunderball, is also here. Thunderball is my least favorite Bond film, in part because of all the endless underwater scenes. This film has a similar problem.

The movie opens in the mid-1860s with a liner bound for Bristol sinking in a storm. Connors is playing a US senator, and he goes overboard, along with characters played by Nanette Newman, Allan Cuthberson (a claustrophobic engineer), Bill Fraser and Kenneth Connor (criminal brothers), and Christopher Hartstone (the token kid). They get rescued by divers from the Nautilus and brought along to Templemer, an underwater utopia that Nemo and his followers have constructed.

Then he refuses to let them leave. Complications, and boredom, ensue.

The problem is that this movie will end as soon as somebody gets out of there, and there is no reason to hold them, or even bring them below in the first place. The film is set during the American Civil War, when nobody on the surface had access to Nemo’s technology. As with the previous two films about Captain Nemo that we’ve watched, people are amazed by it. Nemo’s concern is that people from the warring world above will interfere with his utopia, but that’s not possible. Nobody can reach him.

A secondary problem is that we don’t even reach the character conflict of the film – the “why” nobody can leave – until its halfway point. Nemo tells them that they will remain in Templemer for the rest of their natural lives, but before there are any protests, debate, or character drama, he shows them his underwater farm for an eyeball-bruising ten minutes of scuba footage. Reefs, schools of fish, bubbles. There’s a reason why we’re never going to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for this blog, and why Thunderball puts me to sleep. Heck, I don’t even like Stingray very much.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, because the film was written by Pip and Jane Baker, who are notorious for some legendarily awful Doctor Who episodes, but directed by the reliable James Hill, who directed some very good episodes of The Avengers, The Saint, and most of Worzel Gummidge. So the movie settles into a mediocre gray area, with nothing of interest beyond some interesting sets and the acting of Bill Fraser, who was then best known as Sgt. Claude Snudge in three related BBC comedies and is very amusing here. Well, there is a neat scene where Allan Cuthberson’s bid for freedom goes terribly wrong, but not even a hundred foot mutant manta ray monster could keep my interest. Chuck Connors is lantern-jawed, gravel-voiced, and soporific in a part which, four or five years later, Doug McClure would play about once every summer.

Our son was actually more patient with this movie than I was – he got a little restless, but never seemed about to fall asleep like me – and he pronounced it “pretty cool.” The scene where Cuthberson’s escape plan goes wrong did frighten him into going behind the sofa, but he applauded early on and enjoyed the animals in the city, which include a pelican, a seal, and some penguins. The submarine chases and fights with sharks and monsters are pitched just right for kids, and perhaps if you can watch this movie in the company of one, then at least one of you will enjoy it.

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What We’re Not Watching: Worzel Gummidge

We’re not watching Worzel Gummidge for our blog, and that’s a shame. Three months ago, I wrote another entry in this occasional series, about The Space Giants, a program that’s never been available in English on home video. Worzel Gummidge has been released, but the DVDs that you can track down from Amazon UK have apparently been made from very poor condition prints. Since I’ve read so many complaints about their quality, I’ve decided against making the investment, though I hope somebody will remaster and reissue the show in the next few years.

I did see about ten episodes of the series quite some time ago, back in the VHS tape trading days. I was skeptical, as perhaps you might be. It’s a children’s series starring Jon Pertwee as a scarecrow. But holy anna, it’s so much more than that. This program is absolutely intoxicating, charming, anarchic, and completely hilarious.

Worzel Gummidge is set in a world where anything that has been built to look like a human can come to life. That includes scarecrows, mannequins, fairground aunt sallies, the statue of a busty woman on the prow of a ship, you name it. Mayhem ensues. Outright lunacy.

Two kids, played by Charlotte Coleman and Jeremy Austin, get let in on the secret: there’s a strange tramp called the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) who goes around building scarecrows and giving them life. The scarecrows have laws, rules, regulations, and different heads for different occasions. Worzel Gummidge, dirty and uneducated unless he’s wearing the correct head, dreams of the good life, a fine house, a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and the hand of the beautiful Aunt Sally. She is a scheming, double-crossing, jealous, manipulative masterpiece of TV villainy played by Una Stubbs, and she only has eyes for Worzel when it suits her.

As the show went on, a who’s who of British comedy made thunderously funny appearances, either as shocked upper-class toffs or other creatures with weird life that upend everything. Joan Sims shows up frequently in the first two series as Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, and with a name like that, you know a dirty, horrible scarecrow is going to destroy her garden fetes. Other people cruising in for craziness include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor, Bill Maynard, Connie Booth, Billy Connolly, John Le Mesurier, and Talfyrn Thomas.

One of the UK’s commercial channels, Southern TV, made 31 episodes between 1979-81. The whole show was made on 16 mm film on location in various villages in rural England, so it doesn’t have that stagey videotape feel. I think almost the entire series was directed by James Hill, who’s probably best known for directing Born Free and the 1971 Black Beauty, but also a lot of ITC dramas and some of The Avengers.

After Southern TV was closed down in a franchise change with the ITV network, the show was shelved for a while, and TVNZ then continued the program with Hill, Pertwee, and Stubbs with 22 episodes of Worzel Gummidge Down Under from 1987-89, but there was a different Crowman in New Zealand, played by Bruce Phillips. I’ve never seen any of these, but understand that they’re lacking a little of the original’s spark, possibly because they had different writers and they didn’t have the same deep bench of well-known comedy guest stars.

Anyway, my interest was reignited when I read about Stuart Manning’s The Worzel Book, published by a small specialist company in the UK called Miwk. The book had enough rave reviews for me to take the risk, and it turns out to be one of the best books about TV that I’ve ever read, dense with photographs, interviews, and background information. Click the image above to get a copy from Miwk yourself. If this book doesn’t leave you badly wanting to see this series, something may well be wrong with you.

Unfortunately, the only way to get all 53 episodes in one place is to shell out a pretty fair chunk of change (£69.95 now) for an out-of-print box set, and if my old VHS boots and the samples you can see on YouTube are any indication, the picture and sound quality is just too poor at that price, especially with cash a little tight at home right now. My fingers are crossed that somebody will remaster the program very soon, because I’d love to watch it with our son before he gets too old and jaded. Anytime between now and 2022 will do just fine. How about it, Network? Simply? Do it fer ol’ Worzel!

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