The Ray Bradbury Theater 2.11 – There Was an Old Woman

Tonight, another of the Granada-made Ray Bradbury Theater installments, and unlike the last one, this was incredibly entertaining and creepy. Well, our son’s been in the phase where nothing gets under his skin anymore, but at least he agreed that it was entertaining. This was just a fine, fine half hour of television. Like the previous installment, it assembled a very good cast, led and dominated by Mary Morris, who passed away a few months after this aired, but also featuring Ronald Lacey and Roy Kinnear. Oddly enough, this was not the first time that Kinnear played a funeral director. He played one in The Avengers as well, twenty years previously!

So this one looks like it’s going to head down a pretty obvious path: an old lady who doesn’t want to die unwittingly allowing Death into her house. I wondered how in the world they were going to sustain that for half an hour – The Twilight Zone got away with it, but that was a long, long time before this – and the answer is simple: they don’t. Death and his minions leave, and take her body with her. Now she has to get it back.

Incidentally, I can’t think of a finer illustration of how small Mary Morris was in her final year than to show you how Ronald Lacey loomed over her.

I let my love of horror lie for such a long time but have been rediscovering some of the classics and some long-forgotten gems recently. The problem, for me, is that something went badly, badly wrong with horror somewhere between Halloween and Friday the 13th, and the genre became dominated by slasher movies where the audience roots for the protagonists to die. I certainly enjoy a macabre murder or ten, but at the end of the movie, I want as many people to survive Count Dracula as possible. I really like the thrill of something incredibly creepy and unpredictable happening. I don’t need gore or dismemberments, so the vast majority of horror made in the last forty years doesn’t really appeal. Morris’s not-dead phantom threatening all the staff of the funeral home with some chilling revenge if she isn’t reunited with her body? That is right in my wheelhouse. Shame the kid didn’t find it as creepy as I did, but I’m glad that he enjoyed it all the same.

Jason King 1.25 – An Author in Search of Two Characters

When this one ends, you can’t help but boo. “It was all a dream” endings stink, we expect much, much better of writer Dennis Spooner than that, and the stakes were low enough that it seems incredibly unnecessary. “It was all a dream” should be reserved for Cloudbase getting blown out of the sky by the Mysterons or something awful like that, right? But this actually works, if you’re willing to do a little work. The villains’ big scheme is to intercept a bunch of under-the-table tax-free money that Jason is accepting for rewrites on an action-adventure series being filmed at Elstree Studios. You know why Jason dreamed this whole adventure? Guilt. Guilt for being a big dirty tax cheat. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

And why am I willing to give Spooner the benefit of the doubt when I’d give it to… um, pretty much nobody else? Because the episode is a loopy joy, absolutely full of familiar and much-loved performers from the period. There’s Ivor Dean, Liz Fraser, Dudley Foster, Roy Kinnear, Sue Lloyd, and Neil McCarthy, all of whom appeared at least once during the filmed years of The Avengers. There’s also Aldenham Grange, which was in “The Hidden Tiger” and the Aldenham Park Bridge, from the Tara King “suits of armor” title sequence and about five other episodes, so the whole shebang’s like they made this episode specifically for Avengers fans to watch with big dumb grins on their faces. Plus Elstree Studios actually appears as Elstree Studios, and not the back of every warehouse in Europe.

The kid mostly enjoyed it, particularly a subplot in which – wait for it – Jason gets to impersonate an Irish actor who is trying to impersonate Jason and steal the money. And this isn’t even the last time we’ll have somebody dressed up as Jason. Tune in Saturday for the thrilling conclusion!

The Avengers 7.26 – Bizarre

The final episode of The Avengers has more holes in its plot than there are getaway doors in Mr. Happychap’s cemetery, but our son didn’t mind a bit. He chuckled almost all the way through this, shouting “This IS bizarre” with the opening shot of a barefoot woman in a nightdress collapsing in a snowy field and cheering on the final fight at the end, but mostly laughing over Roy Kinnear’s great performance as Mr. Bagpipes Happychap.

Poor Mr. Happychap’s services are being misused by the show’s last diabolical mastermind, Fulton Mackay, who keeps sending Happychap the supposed corpses of rich financiers and then spiriting them away to his underground pleasure palace, stuffed with fruit, wine, and cute girls. Brian Clemens basically rewrote his Adam Adamant Lives! adventure “The Terribly Happy Embalmers” as farce, and had the bad guys actually playing fair with their clients. I’ve honestly never enjoyed this story much at all before this afternoon, but my son’s right. Kinnear really is hilarious. I had a good time watching this with him.

The most bizarre moment, however, actually comes at the end, when Mother breaks the fourth wall and makes the quite indefensible statement to the viewers at home that Steed and Tara would be back. “You can depend on it.” Back in August, shortly after we started watching this final run, I explained the strange circumstances behind ABC’s order of these last 26 episodes. The Avengers spent the 1968-69 season in the bottom five of the Nielsens, mainly because of its competition, but also because by the spring of 1969, the spy craze was dead. It’s why George Lazenby declined to make any more James Bond films after his first one. People often mock Lazenby for that “mistake,” but look around at 1969. Can you blame him? Dean Martin’s entertaining series of Matt Helm movies had ended, as had The Man from UNCLE and Secret Agent, and NBC had even cancelled Get Smart. Like all the other secret agent stuff of the sixties, this show was yesterday’s news. There’s no way ABC would have ordered more, and the show’s producers had to have known that.

Without ABC’s money, The Avengers couldn’t have continued at the same budget. But it’s just as well it ended when it did. The series was running on fumes and goodwill by the end, and everyone involved needed a nice long break. Seven years would pass before Patrick Macnee would don his bowler hat again for the thunderously good first series of The New Avengers.

We won’t make our readers wait quite seven years to see what would happen next, but we are going to keep The New Avengers on the shelf for a few months while we look at some other things. I think we’ll meet Purdey and Gambit in the summer. Stay tuned!

The Avengers 5.4 – The See-Through Man

This morning’s episode of The Avengers was brilliantly timed. Last night, after watching the second half of the super-frightening Doctor Who story “Pyramids of Mars,” our son grumbled to his mother as he was getting ready for bed “I hope Doctor Who gets less scary and more funny again.” So he definitely needed another dose of light, and happily Warren Mitchell is back as the hapless and barely competent Ambassador Brodny in Philip Levene’s “The See-Through Man.”

I reminded our son that Brodny had originally appeared in season four’s “Two’s a Crowd,” a story that he didn’t enjoy very much because he couldn’t understand a lot of it. But “The See-Through Man” is a much simpler story to follow. It’s about agents from “the other side” buying an invisibility formula from a screwball British scientist played by Roy Kinnear. It would have been an amusing enough episode without Warren Mitchell. With him, it’s hilariously entertaining. I believe that Mitchell had recently finished making the first series of the BBC comedy Till Death Us Do Part before this was filmed. It’s a shame the character didn’t make a third appearance. I bet he would have been terrific fun opposite Linda Thorson.

The Avengers 4.9 – The Hour That Never Was

I don’t know whether modern TV audiences would have the patience for “The Hour That Never Was.” Half the episode is just the two leads wandering around a deserted airbase on the day before its formal closure trying to figure out where all the people are. And it’s amazing. It’s Roger Marshall’s first story for the film years of The Avengers – he’d written seven episodes during the videotape days – and I love it. It’s an exercise in atmosphere, contrasting the bizarre mystery of where everyone has gone with the leads’ wonderful chemistry and very witty banter. It doesn’t even matter that the villainous plot is a little far-fetched, even for The Avengers. Getting to the climax is just so fun that it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of atmosphere, our son really found this story and its mystery compelling. He said this was “weird and creepy” early on, and repeated that at the end, concluding that this was great, and his favorite episode of the show. That might possibly be because the plot was a little easier for him to follow, without the undercover disguises and loads of extra characters, but we’ll take the win.

Notable guest stars this time out include Roy Kinnear as an ill-fated tramp who lives on the airbase, and Gerald Harper as the squadron leader. I love how we’re introduced to the missing squadron leader by way of a photograph of Gerald Harper, as opposed to some anonymous model or member of the production team, unwittingly confirming to anybody in the audience who might recognize the actor that the squadron leader is alive and we’ll be meeting him soon! I was reminded of a color episode of The Saint, where there’s a painting of a recently deceased family member, and it’s clearly actor Francis De Wolff, which sort of spoiled the revelation that the guy wasn’t really dead.

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Today was a really special day for our family. It was Daniel’s first trip to a movie theater. All the TV and movie watching we’ve done as a group has been, in small part, getting him ready for enjoying a movie with a group and not being a distraction or anything to the other viewers.

Now, I’d actually hoped that his first big screen experience would have been Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because a Star Wars movie is a great one to claim as your first, but as regular readers know, our son is very gentle and frightens pretty easily, and the overwhelming spectacle of, not the movie, but all those maximum volume trailers of every PG-13 blockbuster – they’re all really just one film called Everything Explodes Again, starring either Vin Diesel or The Rock – would have been too much for him, I know, so we waited until he was a little older and wondered what would be a good, appropriate experience that we would want to enjoy with him, instead of giving up with something brain-dead about cartoon animals with Jimmy Fallon and Whoopi Goldberg’s voices. So a HUGE thanks to the great people at Fathom Events for programming Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth.

He had a great time and was extremely well behaved. He wasn’t completely flawless; he forgot the rules and did speak about three sentences, but the potentially frightening bits – the boat ride and the ceiling fan – didn’t shock him too greatly. He loved the whole weird, wild experience, especially that bizarre car that belches soda foam all over its riders.

I read that Roald Dahl was really unhappy with how the film evolved outside of his hands, especially the way that Gene Wilder just takes over the picture as the emphasis completely shifts to Wonka instead of Charlie and Grandpa Joe. You know, I think he just might have been right. Don’t get me wrong, Wilder is perfectly entertaining (and I do mean perfect), but Peter Ostrum and Jack Albertson have such an incredibly fun chemistry in the first half of the film, and the change in focus means the characters become supporting players in what had been, up to then, their movie. But that’s possibly an opinion many won’t share because Wilder is just so astonishingly fun. The only real flaw in this movie about which we’ll probably all agree is that, as mentioned the last time we watched a movie together, it all comes to a crashing halt during the deadly dull song “Cheer Up Charlie.”

Other standouts, on the other hand: Nora Denney is hilarious as Mike Teevee’s mother (did you notice that Mike signs his name T.V., by the way?), Tim Brooke-Taylor had me giggling in an uncredited part as a computer operator, Roy Kinnear and Julie Dawn Cole are just perfect together as the unfortunate Salts, and I really like Aubrey Woods as the guy who runs the candy shop. Several months after this was filmed, Woods did a four-part Doctor Who and was really theatrical, like a bad stage ham, and yet he’s very natural and believable here, so I wonder what the heck happened. And of all the giggle-inducing lines that Wilder delivers, there’s an exchange between he and an Oompa Loompa once Mike has been transmitted across the room and shrunk that had me laughing for a minute straight. It’s a really, really good film.

If you’ve never seen a Fathom Events / Turner Classic Movies presentation before, these monthly screenings of old movies are really worth your time. They’re a little costly – seats are going to range from $13 to $20 depending on your market – but the prints are in very, very good shape, the previews are exclusively for other Fathom Events instead of dumb new movies like Everything Explodes Again, and they’re topped and tailed with commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. Marie and I saw The Maltese Falcon a few months ago, which is how we learned about this month’s presentation of Willy Wonka. They don’t have any other family movies coming up in the next six months, but they do have Dr. Strangelove, one of my favorite movies, coming in September, and The Shining in October. I’ve seen Strangelove on a big screen at least six times, but I honestly don’t know whether I’ve ever seen The Shining projected. It’s been at least twenty years if I have. I hope we can get a babysitter for those!