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The Champions 1.12 – The Fanatics

You know, we’ve talked about Terry Nation and the very dated, sexist aspects of his scripts once or twice before, but this one still irked me a bit. This time, Terry doesn’t have an opportunity to be condescending to any of the women in his cast, because he simply doesn’t include any.

Other than Sharron, there’s not a woman onscreen at all except for a couple of extras right at the very end. The story’s about a gang carrying out high-profile assassinations, and it’s all men killing other men. This is perhaps a little unfair of me to single out Terry Nation – there weren’t any other women in the previous episode of The Champions that we watched, either – but when you spot a trope, you just keep seeing it.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this one because it was full of exciting scenes and two great fights. Not content with beating the daylights out of two villains in the drawing room, a little later on, Richard kayos three more in the radio room. He liked the second fight better because more bad guys got clobbered.

One of the fellows on the receiving end of Richard’s fists is Gerald Harper, shown above, and Donald Pickering has a small role as well. I am not certain about the actual filming dates for The Champions, but I think that this was probably made in the spring of 1967 (the trees suggest March or April), meaning this would have been shot a few months before the abandoned Avengers episode “The Great Great Britain Crime,” which also featured both Harper and Pickering. The awesome Julian Glover’s here as well, and Richard gets to knock him senseless in both of the fights.

I gave our son a heads-up that he’ll see Donald Pickering again in one week, in the next Doctor Who story that we’ll watch. Pickering will be twenty years older, and yellow, so I’m not betting on him recognizing the guy.

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The Avengers 7.25 – Pandora

For most of the early to mid-seventies, Brian Clemens was busy writing and producing an incredibly curious anthology series for ATV called Thriller. It’s a weird format of 65-minute episodes. Some of them – not very many, but some – are tremendously good, with twists that rival anything else from The Twilight Zone to a cracking Alan Moore Future Shock, but they are all hampered a little bit by the weird running time. The show was made for quick, cheap sales to ABC, who’d give each episode very, very long “movie of the week” credits and, with twenty minutes of ads, run them in a ninety-minute late-night slot.

What happens in a typical episode of Thriller is that the plot starts immediately, before we really spend any time getting to know the characters. And then the main character, frequently a woman, frequently the lone American in the cast, is stuck in a plot that usually has them kept in the dark by some villain for freaking ever until a darn-near-the-last-minute revelation. With good enough actors, I’m willing to sit still to see the bad guy’s plan through its conclusion and, often, its backfiring. The first episode of Thriller actually stars Linda Thorson, alongside Doomwatch‘s Robert Powell and Get Smart‘s Barbara Feldon. I’d probably watch the three of them read the phone book. Once.

But Thriller doesn’t have a lot of repeat pleasure, and neither does “Pandora,” the next-to-last Avengers episode from the original run, which is practically a pilot for Thriller. I found myself thinking that this could have been so much better with a wild fantasy element. There’s a glimmer of a chance that the criminals in this story have time-traveled to the present day from 1915 to kidnap Tara, but no, it’s far more mundane than that. Also, it requires that Tara be drugged into a stupor so that she’s a completely passive player in the bad guys’ story.

Our son absolutely loathed these villains, one of whom is played by Julian Glover in his umpteenth and final Avengers appearance. “I hope she punches them in the face!” he yelled. Bizarrely, she doesn’t get the chance. Steed arrives at the end, but he doesn’t quite get to make the rescue. It’s the villains’ story, and their greed ensures their destruction.

Robert Fuest makes it look terrific and he lines up his usual fun shots with mirrors and hidden characters, but it’s a very difficult story to watch without wanting to skip to the end. Several Thriller stories are like that, too.

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts one and two)

If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.

Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.

The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!

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The Avengers 6.12 – Split!

The six episodes that followed “The Forget-Me-Knot” were originally shown in the United States with this fun and silly title sequence with a cartoon crosshairs following our heroes around an orange room. They were later removed and replaced with the second Tara King sequence, the one with the suits of armor in a field. For some reason, they missed out on “Split!”, and it has the correct opening sequence. Sadly, the closing credits are the ones with the hands doing card tricks that should only be on the ends of the 26 suits of armor episodes. One of these days, somebody will get all these right on DVD.

Incidentally, there’s a third title sequence – well, third-ish – that is even more common to American viewers. Somebody cut the fifty second suits of armor sequence down to twenty-five seconds so that the ABC network could cram in one additional commercial. When A&E was running the Tara King episodes in the early nineties, we always sat up when we got the full version. We knew instantly that we were in for a better experience. Most of A&E’s copies of the Tara King stories were grotty, beat-up old 16mm prints, but there were a few that came from a fresh 35mm source and looked comparatively glorious. I remember that “Take-Over” was one of these. They all still had between one and three minutes of edits, but while they weren’t uncut, at least the full version of the credits let us know that it was going to look great.

As for tonight’s content, Brian Clemens’ “Split!” is a very entertaining story about a supposedly dead enemy agent who still seems to be active more than four years after Steed shot him through the heart. The cast includes familiar faces like Bernard Archard, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Davenport, and Julian Glover, and the villains are so diabolical that our son got incredibly ticked off and outraged about their plans for Tara. He insists that he knows that she wasn’t in real trouble, just that these bad guys are much more cruel than he is used to seeing.

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The Avengers 5.7 – The Living Dead

It’s not much of a downside, I’ll grant you, but one downside to planning ahead a couple of weeks for this blog is that I start overthinking about certain episodes, or I get the title stuck in my head, which will often get a song with the same name stuck in my head. So I’ve had Suede’s “The Living Dead” playing in my brain for weeks. There are worse fates, I guess. Still, I’ll be glad now that we’ve moved on, and hopefully the song’s been exorcised.

Well, our son really enjoyed this one. “The Living Dead” is a Brian Clemens script from a story by Anthony Marriott. This is the second time this season that somebody who’d worked with Gerry Anderson’s team got an idea going and Clemens finished it. Marriott was at the time working on the hugely successful detective series Public Eye for the Associated British Corporation. It does have a very off-kilter climax, though. He loved the tension as Steed stoically faces a firing squad while Mrs. Peel is beating the daylights out of three different people and rushing to the rescue. Then she mows nine people down with a machine gun! You certainly didn’t see very many women on TV in the sixties doing that!

“The Living Dead” is a good story, but not one of my favorites. There’s not quite enough wit and fun in it for my liking, but the only real flaw in the production is the same one that stood out in “The Hour That Never Was”. We’re shown a photo of a man who’s been dead for five years, and it’s a photo of actor Edward Underdown. If you guess that the character isn’t actually dead, you’re right! Other famous faces in the story include Pamela Ann Davy, Julian Glover, and Howard Marion-Crawford.

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The Avengers 4.12 – Two’s a Crowd

“Two’s a Crowd” opens with a delightful scene that subverts our expectations. There’s aerial footage of London, and an obviously model airplane about to drop an obviously miniature bomb on the head of a man on a balcony. It’s shot as though this is a real plane, however, and the viewer expects that this is a real plane and a real bomb, but, television being television, the program makers just didn’t have the budget to cover it. But the joke is on us: the plane is a remote-controlled toy, and the bomb is about the size of your thumb. It splashes into a punch bowl in front of actor Warren Mitchell, and that’s about the only joke in the episode that our son understood.

I’m afraid that this whole story by Philip Levene was a bomb for him; I thought it was extremely witty and fun, but it didn’t do to simply pause the episode to explain the subtle jokes about the Soviet ambassador preferring English gin to Russian vodka, or explain what embassies are. The lovely core of “Two’s a Crowd” is that Warren Mitchell’s character, one of the very, very few in the series who will make a second appearance, just wants to put his feet up, do as little work as possible, keep his head down, and enjoy as much of British society and its pleasures as he possibly can on the Russian taxpayers’ ruble. When the mysterious masterspy Colonel Psev arrives with his four associates, our poor ambassador sees his little world crumble, and he doesn’t want to do any dangerous “cloak and dagger” work. He’s just a simple diplomat, and besides, his good friend Steed has a nice liquor cabinet!

Anyway, in the photo above, that’s Warren Mitchell as Brodny. Mitchell would later find mammoth fame as Alf Garnett in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and its sequels; Mitchell played the character for twenty-seven years, but I liked him best as that Italian cab driver in a few early episodes of The Saint. Julian Glover, of course, was in everything: Star Wars, Hammer, Doctor Who, Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, ITC stuff… the dude’s known to all fandoms!

I’m reminded that “Two’s a Crowd” was, for quite some time, one of the handful of black-and-white episodes of The Avengers that my circle of friends and traders had to share, thirty years ago. Before A&E began airing the series, and certainly before they released those nicely-designed official VHS and DVD editions, there were two sets of bootleg VHSes, usually crammed into bins at Camelot Music or Record Bar at $9.97 an episode. Sometimes you’d find them for five bucks. It was usually the color episodes, and they were sourced from ghastly 16mm prints that looked like they’d been dragged through gravel.

It is kind of funny in retrospect how, in our youth and naivete, we called bootlegs bad, but spent money on those dumb things and thought they were legit. It was the eighties, lots of properties showed up on crappy tapes, and we all assumed that somebody, somewhere must have approved them. The world of Japanese cartoons dubbed into English and dumped on thirty-minute tapes for some insane reason is incredibly weird. Thirty whole minutes a tape! Surely nobody was getting rich with those “Robo-Formers” tapes that recycled old Jim Terry dubs of Getta Robo G, were they?

We found “Two’s a Crowd,” “The Girl From Auntie,” and two other season four stories in generic yellow boxes on the shelf of a Blockbuster Video on Powers Ferry Road in Marietta. One of our friends, who lived in Chamblee, got a membership, checked out the four tapes for a week, made a half-dozen copies of them for our TV club, drove ’em back to Marietta and cancelled her membership after confirming there was nothing else there anybody needed.

That’s what we “had” to do in the eighties: visit every single video store you drove past, especially the old-looking ones, because they just might have had those scarce Embassy releases of Krofft shows, or that weird two-tape omnibus edition of Quatermass and the Pit, or “three completely uncut TV episodes of Captain Harlock,” never mind all the weird video nasties and Eurosleaze and giallos and Jess Franco movies that people were scouring shelves for. It was a weird time. Earlier this year, I bought a DVD of The Devil’s Wedding Night for four bucks that looked like it was mastered using a thirty year-old VHS copy of a fifteen year-old 16mm print. I squinted, smiled, and remembered more complicated times.

Photo credit: The Avengers Declassified

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

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