Department S 1.9 – Black Out

Easily the best of the four episodes written by Philip Broadley that we have seen so far, “Black Out” had our kid completely thrilled. At one point, there’s a fast cut between Stewart getting his gun ready and the baddies’ henchman doing the same and he said “wow!” During the countdown at the end, he was about ready to pop like a cork.

It has a great opening hook, too. A man is found in a Mexican desert with no memory of how he got there. He tells the local policeman, played by Paul Stassino, that he’s a chef and food critic and that the last thing he remembers was going to see an opera in Covent Garden three days ago. Some villains are using a memory-wiping drug, but why the heck do they target this guy and drop him on the other side of the planet? Stassino’s only in this one for a small scene, but Neil Hallett and Sue Lloyd play the villains, with Stuart Damon doing some uncredited voiceover work as an American broadcaster reporting from Cape Kennedy.

Interestingly, Stewart is walking with a limp in this episode and is using a cane in most of his scenes. Evidently Joel Fabiani injured himself, but there aren’t any deep-dive Department S blogs out there packed full of production minutiae, like the indispensable Randall and Hopkirk (Declassified), to satisfy my curiosity as to what happened!

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.

The Avengers 6.13 – Get-A-Way!

I was mentioning last time out how we got used to some pretty beat-up prints of the Tara King episodes, and were always glad when the A&E network showed one that was an upgrade. With that in mind, “Get-A-Way!” looks particularly sublime compared to the old print that they used. Since the story is actually kind of repetitive, it’s one that I shrugged about and didn’t revisit very much. It’s nice to see it with fresh eyes, and looking so excellent.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and was full of ideas about how the three prisoners, enemy agents being detained by the most incompetent guards in Britain, were vanishing. I was underwhelmed by Philip Levene using the hoary old plot of two of Steed’s oldest friends being targeted, but I enjoyed seeing the guest stars Peter Bowles, Neil Hallett, and Andrew Keir.

The Avengers 5.6 – The Winged Avenger

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Batman show had a huge impact on popular media. It wasn’t just the rush of television series about superheroes, most of which were doomed to fail pretty quickly as the craze faded, but the influence of a bigger-than-life and often deliberate, camp, approach to action and adventure. American shows like Lost in Space, The Man From UNCLE, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made the move from black and white to color pretty smoothly, but within a year, they were all getting really ridiculous, with unbelievable villains, deathtraps, monsters, and outrageous acting.

The Avengers navigated the bombastic change with a lot more grace than the show’s American counterparts, but they still took the time during this larger-than-life period to parody Batman with this very silly and very fun story by writer Richard Harris about a comic book character – “superhero” doesn’t seem quite right – who has come to life. The Winged Avenger looks like Hawkman wearing a Captain Harlock costume and, while his creators squabble over whether it’s the writer or the artist who is the real genius, their creation stalks the night murdering ruthless businessmen.

“Comic books” like we know them in America didn’t really exist in the UK at the time. Frank Bellamy, who provided the Winged Avenger illustrations, was at the time best known for painting the Thunderbirds strip in TV Century 21, but he’d worked on other large-format anthology “papers” like the Eagle and Look and Learn for more than a decade. There’s a clue in how the script refers to the character as the star of a “picture strip,” which was the typical term in the UK at the time, but the prop comics shown in the episode are American-style, with the Winged Avenger the star of his own 32-page book instead of appearing weekly as a two-page story. Also, the studio setup, with the creators hiring costumed models to pose for the art, is a lot more like what Frank Hampson pioneered for Dan Dare in the Eagle than any shoestring-budget American funnybook company in the sixties.

(For what it’s worth, at this time the actual Batman comic was most commonly seen in the UK by way of hardback annuals that reprinted American issues, while the popular 1960s daily newspaper strip was reformatted and appeared weekly on two pages of Smash! throughout 1967-68.)

And all this silliness ends with a very fun pop art climax that sees Steed walloping the Winged Avenger with great big panel boards that read POW! SPLAT! and BAM! Our son enjoyed this episode, and was repeating the costumed menace’s trademark line “Eee-URP!” whenever possible, but in the same way he somehow didn’t connect Wallace and Gromit’s launch sequence as a parody of Thunderbirds, he took this at face value and didn’t see it as a wink at Batman at all, just a great fight scene on its own accord. It’s so fascinating how he processes these things.

Anyway, here’s Nigel Green with a falcon and a gun. It turns out to not be really relevant to the story, but he looks fantastic with them, doesn’t he? Other familiar faces in the episode include Neil Hallett, Colin Jeavons, and Donald Pickering. Part of the episode was filmed at the absolutely beautiful Stanmore Hall near Birmingham. Some exteriors for “From Venus With Love” were shot here as well. It’s a mammoth, majestic building with incredible stone work, and then the studio interiors are so flimsy that the fake staircase that the actors climb wobbles like it’s made of cardboard!