Jason King 1.14 – Uneasy Lies the Head

Watch closely, unlike our son, or you’ll miss a thing or two, just like he did. So Jason is laid up in Paris with a broken leg, and somebody who claims to be him shows up in Istanbul. He’s been summoned by the local police to assist with their inquiries. The real Jason has already turned down this assignment after the slimy Rowland tried to get him to help. But we’ve seen this guy before, haven’t we? Well, if we just blank out on faces like our kid does, we haven’t, but those of us who pay a little attention have seen him. He drove Jason to the airport in London*, and he posed as a telephone repairman in Paris, and he actually arranged for Jason’s accident. So who is this guy?

Unfortunately, the kid was lost, but I thought this was terrific. I was starting to question it a little in the middle. We’ve seen a few cases where Ronald Lacey’s character whines and prods and tries to get Jason to help, but this episode appeared to be all prodding until the big switcheroo in Istanbul. The story’s by Donald James, and it won me over completely once things got moving. Lance Percival plays the fake Jason, and Juliet Harmer seems to be in on the scam as well. I like a story that keeps you guessing.

*After this sequence, I wound back and watched it again, pausing a couple of times and tried pointing out a little of how TV is made to the kid. The Heathrow sequence was a good opportunity to show how one film crew would film Percival and Peter Wyngarde in a mocked-up cab with the familiar brown brickwork of the Elstree Studios behind them, and mixed it in with footage of a black cab arriving at Heathrow. There’s not much of it, but there’s a little bit here of interest to people curious how Heathrow’s terminals looked in the late 1960s or whenever it was originally shot, with the old names of the Oceanic and Europa Terminals on the buildings.

Jason King 1.8 – A Red Red Rose For Ever

A few nights ago, I introduced our son to the legendary story of “The Party” at Hyperbole and a Half. If you’ve not read it and don’t feel like clicking the link, it’s the story of someone who really wants to attend a party just a couple of hours after being put under for major dental surgery. We laughed like hyenas of course, and it must have stuck with our son, because in tonight’s episode, Isla Blair’s character has had far too many glasses of cognac and stumbles across the room to answer the door. Our son quietly riffed “Parp, parp,” understanding this much of the episode perfectly.

The rest of it was a bit too dense for him. I think it’s an absolutely fine script by Donald James, but I think it juggled a few too many things for him to really understand, including a secret Nazi document, mistaken identities, Swiss bank security, stroke victims, assassins, and Ronald Lacey’s weasel of a character pushing King into another ugly situation.

And what a freaking cast! The good guys include Isla Blair, Christopher Benjamin, and Derek Newark. The baddies are Alan McNaughtan and Barbara Murray, who have hired a top assassin played by Mike Pratt, who is sporting some unbelievable sideburns, to kill her husband, who seems strangely in on the deal and very, very willing to stand in place long enough to get shot. Hard to believe that with all that going on, the kid takes away a drunk scene, but these things happen.

Jason King 1.4 – A Deadly Line in Digits

Tonight’s episode was a very good one written by Tony Williamson. He’d written a few adventure shows prior to this – “Killer” for The Avengers comes to mind – that suggest he was very interested in the possibilities of computers. Fifty years on, and Williamson’s ideas seem really quaint, but that’s just because technology has marched on so much. Ronald Lacey’s weasely character of Ryland is back, getting Jason King involved in a crime that Whitehall can’t solve. Some criminal organization seems to be tapping in to Scotland Yard’s room of mammoth reel-to-reel computers and diverting police away from crime scenes. Joanna Jones guest stars as one of the computer operators.

Our son smirked, as you’d expect a nine year-old to smirk, when I pointed out that this was made fifty years ago, and to imagine how much more power is in his little tablet than all the computers in the room. But then I asked him to imagine what the technology fifty years in the future will look like. What will his children – or grandchildren – be using to play their edition of Plants vs. Zombies when he is fifty-nine? The mind boggles. My mind boggled when about six minutes of screen time passed with Jason undercover, hunched over, with big-frames glasses and a beard, before he realized who it was. Good disguise, I suppose.

Jason King 1.2 – A Page Before Dying

Before we got started with tonight’s episode, I cued up an early episode of MacGyver that we’d watched a few years ago to give our kid a little context. They were, then, in the habit of using a heck of a lot of library footage to beef up their stories, and in “Deathlock”, they built a scene around footage culled from the film of Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. This gave me the opportunity to remind our son of what we’d discussed before about spy series often dealing with people trying to get out of the Eastern sector, and also who Len Deighton was.

So this episode, written by Tony Williamson, is an absolute gem. Suddenly, to get somebody out of East Berlin, every spy in Europe wants to know exactly how Jason King did it in his novel A Page Before Dying, and whether it will work in the real world. Soon, all eyes are on him, because he gets smuggled into East Berlin against his will, and doesn’t have any choice but to work the scheme while the other side’s intelligence agents are watching him like a hawk. It’s already a hugely entertaining story with lots of wit and putdowns and surprises, and ends with a delightful twist. Our son enjoyed it a lot, I’m glad to say. It’s among the character’s very best outings.

This is the first of a few appearances by Ronald Lacey as a “Whitehall worm” called Ryland who whines and manipulates our hero, and it also features small roles for familiar faces Olaf Pooley, Michael Sheard, and Philip Madoc. Plus, it’s the first appearance of an unbelievable “action” costume for Jason that I’ll have to show you some other time: skintight motorcycle leathers and an ascot. Have to say I prefer his jackets and neckties.

Department S 1.28 – The Soup of the Day

Given the nature of television production at the time, I don’t know that Department S “bowed out” so much as it just wrapped. They had their 28 installments, and now it was up to Lew Grade and the sales team to try and land it on an American network. The last episode they filmed concerns a deeply bizarre theft. Somebody went to all the trouble of sending four well-dressed young dandies – among them Ronald Lacey and Patrick Mower – to break in to a Liverpool customs warehouse through the back wall to steal 144 cans of fish soup from a company in Lisbon, and then dump it all in the back of the parking lot.

Other than the remarkably trendy fashions on display by these criminals and a pair of girlfriends – there’s even a Peter Max-ish print of Paul McCartney on the wall of a boutique – this one didn’t thrill any of us. David Healy shows up as the ostensibly Portuguese owner of the soup company and Pamela Ann Davy has a small part as Melissa, who is Jason King’s European publisher and needs him to get back to work on his latest book. Davy was perhaps unavailable when King got his own series a couple of years later, but the producers liked the idea of having a woman around to tell him how important his next book was and how he needs to be working on that instead of solving weird crimes, getting into fights, and romancing pretty girls. Anne Sharp has a recurring role in Jason King as Nicola Harvester, who serves that function.

And proving that there’s no corner that ITC wouldn’t cut, that interesting location sequence from “A Cellar Full of Silence” of Joel Fabiani getting out of a taxi on Portobello Road is reused in full in this episode, only this time Stewart’s hunting for soup thieves and not going to beat up Paul Whitsun-Jones.

Grade failed to sell Department S to an American network, though it did appear in a few markets, syndicated to individual stations here and there. Incredibly, it was sold as both the standard package of 28 hours as well as a package of 28 half-hours. I don’t mean fourteen of the stories cut into two-parters; I mean they just pruned half of each adventure out and trimmed the title sequence down. There’s an example on Network’s DVD set, the half-hour version of “The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine”, and it’s practically incoherent.

I think Department S was made a little too late to sell to America. By September 1969, the American networks had already cancelled I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers, so there was definitely a feeling this sort of program had run its course. It sold well enough in other countries, but Lew Grade decided that when it came time to write the budget for Jason King, there was no way in the world America would buy it and so they would make it on 16mm instead of 35mm and save a little money that way. So it seems pretty bizarre to me that Jason King was released here on Region 1 DVD when I don’t think the series was ever sold here, but you need a multi-region player to order Department S, which was.

A couple of years before we started this blog, and before we bought a multi-region player, Marie and I watched the Region 1 King and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The standard line is that Department S is said to be the superior show, and that Wyngarde works best as part of a team, and now that I’ve seen them both, I don’t agree at all. I would not say that Department S is bad, although there were five or six underwhelming installments, and there were certainly ten or eleven that I really enjoyed a lot.

A big part of the problem is that I never got a handle on who Stewart and Annabelle were. With Jason, it doesn’t matter because he’s meant to be larger than life and ridiculous, but the other two are ciphers, barely even caricatures, although the actors who played them were certainly likable. The show never told us who Stewart Sullivan was, or how he became such a super-cop that Interpol wanted him to head Department S. He’s just “the action man” and Annabelle is just “the computer operator.” I wish they’d have spent more time with their characters and let them tell us about their pasts and who they are, off-duty. But Jason got all the character development time, and there wasn’t enough left for them. We’ll watch Jason King for the blog in 2021; Stewart and Annabelle won’t be missed.

The New Avengers 1.4 – The Midas Touch

Our son has entered that phase of a young boy’s life where skeletons are incredibly cool. It took me years to get out of that phase. Hopefully he won’t do anything so silly as buy a Tarot deck because there are skeletons on some of the cards. Anyway, the first few episodes of The New Avengers have a title sequence made from exciting scenes from the first few stories, including the bit shown above where a villain at a costume party, dressed in a skull mask and red robe, puts his infected hands in a bowl of punch. When he first saw that he shouted “Aw, that looks cool!” and while the reality of the situation did disappoint him a little – no, the Avengers did not get to fight a living skeleton this week – he did enjoy every tire-squealing moment of this story.

There are lots of reasons I’ve always liked this story. Earlier, I had said that one strike against The New Avengers for a lot of people is that it’s really tied to one time and place instead of in a nebulous, fantasy Avengerland. With that in mind, director Robert Fuest is back on the show after so many imaginatively-photographed stories in the original show’s last year, and he really nails this down to 1976 by staging an incredibly seventies car chase through many of the same streets and locations that every other British action show of the time used.

Almost inevitably, Purdey and Gambit end up in the iconic abandoned warehouses of the Southall Gas Works, where The Sweeney and Doctor Who had both filmed in the previous three years. I’ve always enjoyed how the script subverts the expectations of the car chase by having Purdey and Gambit discuss whether it was Walter or John Huston who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while bystanders drop crates of fruit on the windshield of their speeding car.

I was a little less keen on them casting Ronald Lacey as an allegedly Chinese character, “number one son” accent and all, especially when the character is called “Hong Kong Harry” and he might as well have been a Brit abroad instead of a silly stereotype. John Carson is also here, as a disgraced former agent who stumbles on a secret plot and, by the law of this sort of show, signs his own death warrant.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.1 – My Late Lamented Friend and Partner

Disaster struck this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to finally digging into ITC’s famous Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) for ages and ages. I sent the kid upstairs while I put the disk in to make sure nothing in the menus or anything gave away the surprise that not only is the Hopkirk of the title deceased, he’s also a ghost. That’s right, our son may well be the first viewer in TV history that didn’t know that Marty Hopkirk is a ghost.

And I gingerly popped the DVD out of its spindle and the blasted disk snapped with a crack.

So since this is a show where the setup is a big part of the fun, we watched a copy on YouTube, and then – assuming disk two doesn’t snap (and here I pause to check… whew) – we’ll skip ahead to episode five next and circle back to the others once I get a replacement set! The YouTube copy was pretty crummy – it reminded me of what I could have expected from a third or fourth gen copy had I got this in a tape trade in the early nineties – but it did the trick. I’ve been wanting to watch this forever and it was worth the wait. This was such fun!

Assuming that the second, third, and possibly fourth viewers in TV history who didn’t know about Marty Hopkirk’s afterlife are reading this blog, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is a detective show where Jeff Randall, played by Mike Pratt, is a private eye and his partner Marty, played by Kenneth Cope, is murdered. As a ghost, Marty comes back to help his partner solve the murder and make sure that his beloved wife Jeannie, played by Annette Andre, is provided for. Marty stays out of his grave too long and gets on the receiving end of a century-long curse for ghosts who don’t follow the rules. This show was made in the spring of 1968, so Marty has another 49 years stuck here with us before he can return to the afterlife.

Speaking of the spring of 1968, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) was made by many of the same talents and crew who had made The Champions the previous year, and who were making Department S at the same time as this. It was created by Dennis Spooner and produced by Monty Berman, and we’ll see lots of the same writers, directors, locations, and guest actors, including Frank Windsor and Ronald Lacey in this one. The script for this first episode was by Ralph Smart.

And it’s huge fun. I really enjoyed watching this with our son. He was admittedly a little restless at first, watching what appeared to be an ordinary detective show. I confess to having fun with the program’s name. He asked a few days ago why it had this name and I reminded him of Miles Archer’s death in The Maltese Falcon, and how Sam Spade might have chosen to rename his business Space and Archer (Deceased). He didn’t make the mental leap to “ghost,” of course, but he probably grumbled inside that this was going to be another moody program for grownups who’d have to explain everything to him.

He came around in a big way once Marty started figuring out his powers, and we all got a huge laugh when Ronald Lacey’s character tries to surprise Jeff, not knowing that our hero has a pretty amazing early warning system. Our son was in such good spirits (ha!) and enjoyed it so much that he was cracking jokes over the end credits, asking why they got a guy named Innocent – Harold Innocent – to play an assassin. If the rest of the show’s just half as entertaining as the first episode, I’ll be very pleased. Does it live up to the legend? So far, absolutely!

Photo credit: Stuff Limited

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The calendar tells me that I must have been nine when the mother of my school friend Sean phoned my mother and asked whether I wanted to go see a movie with her boy that afternoon. I’d never heard a single word about Raiders of the Lost Ark, or seen a TV ad, and spent the next couple of hours ready to see my buddy but very skeptical about the film. I’d half-convinced myself it was going to be an old documentary about Noah’s Ark shown at Sean’s church. That ended up being possibly the best movie-going experience that anybody’s ever had.

I almost pulled off the same blind spoiler for our son last night. I was slightly foiled by Lucas’s decision to quasi-rename the movie on the DVD menu – mercifully not on the print of the film itself – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. So since we’ve been watching Young Indy (we’re halfway through and will pick back up in a couple of weeks), he knows who the character is and I did tell him some time back that at some point we’d meet the adult Indiana Jones.

Of course, as entertaining as Young Indy often is, there’s little in that show to prepare anybody for what a mad, wonderful rollercoaster this movie is.

It would be about accurate to say that Raiders blew our kid’s mind. He jibbered and jabbered when it finished, after having spent giant chunks of the previous two hours with his jaw on the floor, and couldn’t decide what his favorite part was. He eventually settled on the fight at the airplane – that scene does, of course, feature explosions – but I think he loved practically every minute of it. Even after having watched this movie something on the order of forty or fifty times, I remain so impressed by the pacing. Not one of the exposition scenes – call ’em “talky scenes” when you’re looking at them through a kid’s eyes – goes on too long for a typical child’s attention span. There are spiders and snakes and truck chases and blood and skeletons and one delicious fight after another.

I confess that the “overly concerned parent” gene came out toward the end. I suddenly worried whether that climax was finally going to be the scene that was far too gory and shocking for our kid. Was I, at last, being a downright irresponsible dad letting this poor innocent baby see Ronald Lacey melt into a puddle of candle wax and red nail polish? I dismissed the thought, but it took a minute. Then when those angels turn into eighties ILM skeletons, I diverted my eyes from the screen and watched him. Ronald Lacey wasn’t the only one who melted. I use the phrase “jaw on the floor” a lot. I’m not kidding this time. I also think the word “melt” is remarkably appropriate. His eyes were open wider than I’ve ever seen them, his mouth open wide in shock, and when it ended with Paul Freeman exploding, the kid turned into liquid and slid off the sofa and onto the floor, absolutely stunned. There was a gasp and a “Wh – WHOA!” and he stood up, shaking his head, mind as blown as mine was, yours was, everybody in 1981’s was.

It was a sight to see.

Anyway, this silly blog wouldn’t be this silly blog if I didn’t praise some actors and point out an odd coincidence or two. One of the most curious things about the casting of Raiders is that among the Nazis, you’ve got Ronald Lacey as the black-suited Toht and Tutte Lemkow as the fellow with the eye patch. They also play two of the obsessed treasure hunters in the Avengers episode we watched last weekend, “Legacy of Death.” The actors do not share any screen time in either story. And because George Lucas enjoys working with the same actors, we have seen Paul Freeman, who plays Belloq, twice in Young Indy in the role of big game hunter Frederick Selous. And we’ll see John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, and Karen Allen again in some of the other movies.

Incidentally, the rumor was that had Young Indy continued as far as our hero starting his university career in 1922, we were supposed to meet the young Belloq as a recurring foe. That’s an awful missed opportunity. But we’ll look at a few more adventures of the younger Indy before we get to the next film a few months from now.

The Avengers 7.7 – Legacy of Death

Earlier today, we showed our son The Maltese Falcon and watched in sympathy as he squirmed and struggled to make sense of it. Tonight, we showed him Terry Nation’s “Legacy of Death” and he got it. It took him a minute, but when two of the delightfully absurd number of villains introduce themselves as Sydney Street and Humbert Green, he shouted “Wait a minute! Like Greenstreet!” I was pleased as it all fell into place.

So back in late 1967, during John Bryce’s aborted turn producing a few episodes of The Avengers, he’d reached out to Terry Nation to contribute “Invasion of the Earthmen”. Nation was a hot property then; he’d written so many great episodes of The Saint that, decades later, Roger Moore was still singing Nation’s praises on the commentary tracks he did for the DVDs. So Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, once they got back in charge, put Nation on the payroll as the script editor for the batch they were making. Nation wrote five additional episodes while wearing this hat. “Legacy of Death” was the second of these five, and they all suggest that while Nation was perfectly content to edit stories in the Avengers template about baffling murders committed by diabolical masterminds, he wasn’t interested in actually writing any of them himself. (“Noon Doomsday,” the next episode [in the order these were first shown in the UK], was the first of Nation’s five 1968 scripts to be filmed, and we’ll look at it Thursday night.)

I find “Legacy of Death” only mildly frustrating for what Nation didn’t do. The story is completely delightful despite my one reservation. Steed accepts a bizarre bequest of a curious dagger, only to have an endless stream of desperate, gun-toting fortune hunters start pestering him for it. And there lies the story’s only flaw. There isn’t a femme fatale among them. Now, Stratford Johns and Ronald Lacey are absolutely hilarious in their broad caricatures of Greenstreet and Lorre, and anybody who doesn’t lose a lung laughing when the Baron von Orlak and Winkler introduce themselves must have a problem with their funny bone. But the episode would be even better if some gorgeous woman kickstarted the adventure in the Mary Astor part. It wasn’t like England wasn’t swimming in beautiful actresses in 1968. They had Valerie Leon on set a couple of episodes previously behind a surgical mask – that’s right, the nincompoops hid Valerie Leon behind a mask – and somebody should have asked her to come back to knock on Steed’s door instead of bringing in Tutte Lemkow as Old Gorky.

Oh, and speaking of the episode where you could barely see Valerie Leon, that one – “Poor George / XR40” – featured Stratford Johns’ co-star from Softly Softly, Frank Windsor, as one of the villains. I wonder whether the press people in the UK thought to point this out, that both of the stars of the country’s top cop show were appearing in The Avengers in the same month. Anyway, joining Johns and Ronald Lacey, there’s the usual gang of great and recognizable faces, including Richard Hurndall, John Hollis, and the awesome Ferdy Mayne as the Baron von Orlak.

The end result, well, it would be even better with a treacherous woman somewhere in it, but it remains my favorite episode of this series because it’s so ridiculously fun and over the top. Not the best episode by any means, but my favorite by miles. I can’t watch the disheveled and bedraggled Stratford Johns sweating buckets as he recites his giant paragraphs of dialogue without guffawing, and I completely lose it every time that “inferior sort of assassin” tries to leap at Steed and Tara and faceplants on the cement instead. Most comedies just don’t have this kind of staying power and repeat value, but “Legacy of Death” is absolute, unadulterated fun from start to finish.

The Avengers 5.15 – The Joker

“The Joker” is the third of the color Mrs. Peel adventures to be a rewrite of a Cathy Gale story. The original was really among my least favorite from those days, but the rewrite is an amazing change of pace. It’s a dark, grim, and very frightening Hitchcock-style thriller with Mrs. Peel being stalked in a creepy old house by an unpleasant face from her past. But who’s playing the baddie, Ronald Lacey or Peter Jeffrey? I think it’s brilliant, and Diana Rigg is on fire, but I’m glad the show was able to dip in and out of whimsy and not be as intense as this every week!

Our son didn’t enjoy it very much. We asked whether he liked it or if it was too weird. “A hundred thousand and eighty-eight percent too weird,” he said.

I did spot an odd little bit of synchronicity, though. By chance, I watched something else earlier this afternoon that was written by Brian Clemens, an episode of Thriller with John Carson and Joanna Dunham. Both stories have racks of knives hanging in the kitchens of the home where they’re set, and in both stories, dangerous people slowly walk past the knives and run their hands across them.

Catweazle 2.4 – The Sign of the Crab

Me and my weird coincidence-creatin’ mouth. In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the Avengers parody of The Maltese Falcon, which I anticipate we’ll see a little later this year. And in tonight’s episode of Catweazle, there’s a guest appearance by Ronald Lacey, who played the Peter Lorre role in that very parody.

While not anywhere as madcap and ridiculous as the previous episode, this is still pretty funny. Lacey plays a burglar who uses a tramp disguise, Tearful Ted, to case potential homes for robbery. There’s mistaken identities and a late night chase with three policemen, lots of police whistles, Moray Watson running around with a knobkierie to boff somebody on the head, and Elspet Gray wishing all these silly men would go home so she can go back to bed. Our son had some big laughs over the slapstick.