Man in a Suitcase 1.10 – Day of Execution

I initially selected “Day of Execution” a couple of months ago because of its superb guest cast, including Donald Sutherland and Rosemary Nicols as two of McGill’s friends, Robert Urquhart as a contact at a local newspaper, and, toward the end, T.P. McKenna as somebody who keeps sending McGill death threats but calling him “Mariocki” for some reason. Last week, I double-checked the five I’d picked to show our son, and noticed that Philip Broadley wrote this one. We’ve mentioned this writer several times here at the blog, most recently two weeks ago, and I started really looking forward to this. Man in a Suitcase seems to be exactly the right series where Broadley would excel.

Boy, did he ever. This episode is terrific. I’d watched maybe eight or nine episodes from Network’s DVD set when I got it about three years ago and other things got in the way, and never realized that McGill had a real place to live in London. Or maybe just for this one installment he does. He has a nice two-story apartment with a curious little half-kitchen partway up the stairs and regular dry cleaning service.

An old college buddy is in town, and he’s been romancing an attractive girlfriend. The rules of the economy of speaking parts tells us that at least one of them is in on these mistaken identity death threats, but this story keeps the audience guessing who, how, and why for a really long time, sustaining the tension beautifully through some location filming at Heathrow Airport and a cracking nighttime car chase. Our son said that for the most part he enjoyed it, but he also felt it was a little slow to him. So maybe it didn’t sustain itself quite as well in his corner, but I thought it was excellent.

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.

Department S 1.27 – The Bones of Byrom Blain

That problem of using a recognizable actor for a “dead before the credits” moment rears its head again. We see this a lot in shows from the period, including, just last month, the Department S story “Dead Men Die Twice”. This time, it’s the great character actor John Barron, who gets skeletonized, somehow, in the back seat of a Rolls Royce.

I have to say that it’s a remarkably good hook before the credits, but even the great Tony Williamson can’t make this one work. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make the police believe that the bones are indeed that of the victim, but even in 1969, the investigators surely would not buy this, and even if they did, they’d keep digging remorselessly to find out how and where the mysterious super-weapon that killed them was introduced. The show tries using the logic that this is somehow going to make less of a ruckus than kidnapping their targets without leaving a skeleton behind. The main villain is played by John Carson, and he’s pretty awesome, at least.

The kid really enjoyed this one – the skeletons certainly helped, because he’s nine, and, like nine year-olds, thinks skeletons are cool – and I had one great big laugh. Jason apparently spends all day getting out of the room where the bad guys locked him. Annabelle asks how he did it and he tells her to read the next Mark Caine book to find out. That feels a little bit like this episode’s writer just not wanting to bother any longer, but it is nevertheless in character.

There was one other interesting moment. Briefly, Stewart flies to New York to follow up a lead, and it occurred to me that for a globetrotting adventure, this show never really went to the United States. To be fair, this isn’t something that ITC had the resources to do with a great deal of credibility – their color library film of New York City for the establishing shot is, shall we say, not very contemporary – but it might have helped them sell the show to an American network if they could boast a couple of reasonably big-name American guest stars. ITC didn’t even need to cast from their bench of Canadian or American actors (Damon, Maxwell, Healy, Bishop, Rimmer, etc.) to play the diplomat; the character doesn’t even have any lines.

Department S 1.26 – A Small War of Nerves

Apparently in 1969, a fellow could leave his car unlocked in a London parking garage for more than a week with the keys in the glove box and expect it’ll still be there. I’d like to think that I almost never comment on what we’re watching, but I think when I do it’s amusing myself at the differences in the world over time. Marie and I were watching a 1973 episode of one of the NBC Mystery Movies, The Snoop Sisters, last week, and I had to marvel at a character complaining that the decks at Rockerfeller Center charged a whole dollar an hour to park. Bet if that guy did give up on finding a street spot, he knew to lock his car.

Also in 1969, the future international movie icon Anthony Hopkins was hungry and looking for work. This episode of Department S is Hopkins’ only ITC credit. Certainly he was busy with the National Theatre throughout the sixties and only appeared on TV and in films once in a while, but it’s a real shame they couldn’t have got him back for a Saint or something. Wouldn’t Hopkins have been an amazing Number Two in The Prisoner? Frederick Jaeger’s also in this, as a very smooth and nasty villain. His plotline gets abandoned as the problem moves to another part of Britain; I’d like to think the police came back for him some other time.

Our son enjoyed this one right until the end. It’s a good missing persons story with guards and mean dogs and last minute escapes, along with some completely lovely location footage in London in and around Waterloo Station, but it ends with a psychological standoff instead of a brawl. That’s certainly the best way this episode should have gone, and it’s a great emotional payoff, but I think any nine year-olds in the audience wouldn’t be wrong for wanting a sock to the jaw instead of talking through the crisis.

Department S 1.25 – A Fish Out of Water

“That was really confusing,” our son grumbled at the end of this one. I don’t think I’d agree, but it was interesting to watch an episode where absolutely everybody was angry with each other. Our heroes are all emotional and wound too tightly around this tale of an international drug rung to work at ease with each other, and the numerous villains – other than a bellhop, just about every single speaking part in this story is given over to the bad guys or somebody connected with them – are all looking for opportunities to betray each other. At one point, Cyril Shaps, channeling Peter Lorre, blackmails the femme fatale of the adventure for some smooching. You know it’s all rushing to a tragic finale, and you sort of want it to hurry up and put everybody out of their misery.

The most interesting part of the story is that we learn Jason King is a widower. The femme fatale in question looks an awful lot like his late wife, an actress named Marion. This leaves Jason acting more rashly than usual. And to think that he was sent into the field in the first place because it was Stewart who was supposedly too emotionally involved to handle the case.

Department S 1.24 – Spencer Bodily is Sixty Years Old

It’s occasionally interesting to watch television from fifty-plus years ago and see what psychological and sociological ideas were in vogue then. This time, Department S is working against a pair of American agents, their mission kept very hush-hush, after it gets out that a suicide victim who looks about twenty was born in 1909. There’s a notion that being trapped in a body that will never age will require constant psychological counseling and post-hypnotic suggestion, because this would simply make you crack. There’s another notion that given eternal youth, mankind will just keep reproducing long past the point that the planet could possibly support the population. That’s an interesting point; I wonder whether people would keep having children if the realistic number of years during which a woman can safely carry a child were tripled, or would people have about the same number of children, spaced out more.

At any rate, these questions get a little more screen time than you might expect from a fanciful crime series. It’s not a bad episode, and it features Iain Cuthbertson and Garfield Morgan in small roles, but Wyngarde walks away with it again. At one point, he explains that he has no use for astrology because he knows exactly how he will die: exquisitely of drink and sensual indulgence, enjoying every moment of it. Our hero!

Department S 1.23 – The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine

The best thing about this episode is that Annabelle goes into the field and has a heck of a lot to do in it, and the other good thing is that Clinton Greyn is in it. Otherwise, none of us enjoyed this one very much. The problem is that the events would have unfolded with our without the protagonists. Like good TV heroes, they are several steps behind the villains and working to catch up. But they fail this time; unaware that there is a wild card in play, they are powerless to prevent things ending the way they do. I’m sure the characters felt like they had wasted their time investigating this. So did we, watching it.

Department S 1.22 – The Duplicated Man

Another very twisty spy story, again featuring Basil Dignam as the incredibly untrustworthy head of MI5. This time, the trail of a man played by guest star Robert Urquhart who bailed out of an airplane over the English Channel and started a brand new life that he set up for himself many years before turns up evidence that he’s a double agent. Department S learns he’s a double agent, the narrative shows he’s a double agent, there are three Russians looking for him, so why doesn’t MI5 believe that he’s a double agent?

Unlike Smith’s previous appearance, this is a very kid-friendly story, with nothing in the episode that’s too weird or underplayed. Plus, there’s a great little car chase where Annabelle is being followed by one of the Soviet agents through central London and loses him very imaginatively. Later on, she gets the predictable “you stay here” from Stewart, but she acquits herself really well in that scene, I thought.

Department S 1.21 – The Perfect Operation

Well, I thought this episode was just blindingly good, but if it was like this every week, we’d have shelved it because our kid would be completely lost every week. This time, the remarkably weird crime leads Department S into a very complex story about spies and double agents. The complexity comes by the way the story is told, relying on hints and feelings and understandings that sometimes governments are going to very quietly do terrible things. It trusts that the viewers will be intelligent enough to see what has happened and what is going to happen, but unfortunately the nine year-olds in the audience will be left behind this time.

Also, the story introduces Basil Dignam as Smith, the head of the British Secret Service, who will return in the next episode, an uncommon example of a recurring character in an ITC series outside of the leads. If Stewart is still as mad at Smith as he is at the end of this installment, Smith may exit the next one with a black eye.

Department S 1.20 – Death on Reflection

In this blog, I’ve occasionally been down on Philip Broadley’s scripts, because they’re not as high-flying or weird as I had expected from this series. “Death on Reflection” is, again, another fairly ordinary crime, but I really enjoyed it. Broadley does something here that many of ITC’s regular writers couldn’t manage: he found room in the narrative for Sir Curtis to join the investigation as a fourth member throughout the story, not just right at the end like we saw in “The Double Death of Charlie Crippen”. Three was the “classic” ITC number, and often that meant two active leads because three’s a crowd. But it works really well here, suggesting that they missed a trick not involving Sir Curtis more frequently.

The story’s a good one about some smuggling being used with a very respectable auction house as the front. Jennifer Hilary and Paul Whistun-Jones play conspirators who are in it up to their necks, and Peter Copley has a small role as the auctioneer. Something’s been moved around Europe in pricy baroque mirrors which are selling for many times the expected price. We got a late start tonight and our son was probably too silly to give this one all the attention he should have. He interrupted the show tonight, just once, to “complain” that the mirror in the episode wasn’t working because he could not see himself in it. In fairness, that is a pretty cute riff for a nine year-old.

Department S 1.19 – The Man from ‘X’

There have been a few episodes of this show that I’d heard of long before I saw it. The one where the village disappears. The one where everyone on the Tube train is dead. And of course this one, the one with the dead spaceman. When a show goes for these bizarre hooks, they get reputations. This one was written by Tony Williamson and deserves all the great things people say about it. It’s a good story where the clues keep coming, and even once we get part of a line on why a safecracker known to London’s gangland has suffocated in a spacesuit on a Soho street, we’re lost in what the target could possibly be. Our son and I really enjoyed this. Guest stars include Wanda Ventham, Tony Selby, and Duncan Lamont. Our son saw Lamont again just last week when he rewatched “Death to the Daleks” for some inexplicable reason, but, in keeping with tradition, the kid didn’t recognize him despite his incredibly distinctive voice.