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King of the Castle 1.6 and 1.7

“Do we have to watch both parts tonight?” our son asked.

“Best to get it over with,” I replied.

Honestly, for all that’s visually interesting about King of the Castle from a technical standpoint, this really wasn’t very good. Talfryn Thomas was fun to watch, and while my heart sank as the usually reliable Fulton Mackay and Milton Johns’ characters reentered the story, at least Johns’ Frankenstein character “speaks” with a bizarre electronic howl.

But the main problem is that the hero of the story is such an unsympathetic drip. He gets pronounced “snivelling, whimpering” at one point in part seven and I said “yes.” He finally, and not at all surprisingly, exercises some self-confidence and control when he returns to the real world at the end. Then one of the ways they illustrate his newfound grownupness is by having him bin a big stack of Hotspur comics and a Howard the Duck # 5. The heathen.

Our son enjoyed parts three and four, kind of enjoyed part five, and pretty much hated the last two. Roland becomes the King of the Castle at the end of part five, spends part six demanding everybody conform to his rules and makes enemies of them all, and spends most of part seven in some oddball courtroom drama that plays like experimental theater before going home. He tried to avoid admitting that he was just plain bored by calling it “creepy,” but he really had nothing at all to say about it and is glad that it was over.

So no, that certainly wasn’t the best serial that HTV made in the seventies. I wish that The Georgian House existed in full. I bet that one was great!

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King of the Castle 1.5

I’ve teased HTV’s later serial Into the Labyrinth for redressing the same set every week, but at its core, that’s an imaginative and clever use of their very limited resources. King of the Castle is doing the same trick with a two-story set with a large central area and a mezzanine above and around it. It’s done service as the Frankenstein lab, the love witch’s lair, the kitchen, and now the central foyer of a medieval castle. We’ll look at the last two episodes later in the week, and I’m curious what they’ll do next.

Our son was pretty impatient with this one at first, but once it moves into that set for a pretty impressive swordfight, he really started to get into it. He doesn’t like it as much as he likes Labyrinth, but it’s got a few fun surprises.

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King of the Castle 1.3 and 1.4

Marie gave up on this serial after the unbelievable awfulness of episode two, so she’s not going to believe this, but this has become a much, much more interesting production without Fulton Mackay’s overacting. In episode three, young Roland deals with a beautiful witch who schemes to shrink him and add him to a collection of captive children, and in episode four, he is trapped in a steamy scullery with several disheveled children under the thumb of a guard who screams “work makes you free!” at them and forces them to do repetitive, meaningless chores.

It’s not quite as visually bizarre as the second part, which makes it less interesting for me, but the special effects crew pulled off an impressive-for-the-1977-tech trick of shrinking the kid, trapping him under a crystal ball, and then having him walk the globe off a table. After the Frankenstein horrors and the bullying of the first two parts, this has become a more conventional adventure story, and, much like Into the Labyrinth, it’s pitched just right at eight year-olds. Our kid really got into Roland’s escape from the love witch, and hissed “yes!” as he got to a safe spot in the wall.

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King of the Castle 1.1 and 1.2

Back now to 1977, for a seven-part serial made by HTV which our son calls “absolutely scary” and his mother calls “actively painful.” King of the Castle was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had made the fantastic Sky for HTV two years previously and, like Sky, it really should have made it to Nickelodeon’s Third Eye anthology. It’s a freaky, supernatural and very weird story. I don’t agree with either my wife or my son about it so far. I think it’s very peculiar and odd, and even though it’s lining up to climax with a “gasp! it was all… a dream!” ending, I’m curious to see where it’s going before it gets there.

At least it starts out well enough. King of the Castle stars Philip Da Costa as the son of a saxophone player who’s got a scholarship to a local, exclusive school, although he’d rather read comics – the props department mocked up a Mummy’s Tomb cover and pasted it atop a seventies Marvel UK title but didn’t bother to dress the back of the magazine and its ads for other Marvel comics – and keep a low profile. His family’s moved to the top floor of a ten-story apartment building and the elevator’s out of order and a tough teen called Ripper has his gang of bullies ready to cause trouble on the staircases. Providing support are some generally very reliable character actors, including Milton Johns, Fulton Mackay, and Talfryn Thomas.

Interestingly, episode one is almost entirely filmed on location on 16mm film. It’s only right at the end when our young hero backs into the out-of-order elevator and it plummets to lower levels that the videotape starts. Up to this point, our son had watched with a mix of sympathy and frustration – our kid has always hated bullies on TV and movies – and the instant the world changed into a creepy dungeon with cobwebs, bizarre sound effects, and overlay on top of overlay on top of overlay as the guy running the video mixer loses his mind, he got incredibly scared and hid.

No pictures will convey how weird this looks. I imagine most of our readers are familiar enough with the sort of image-atop-image visuals of seventies videotape, whether you can picture the blue-screen worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft or, most precisely, the alien ship/environment in Doctor Who‘s “Claws of Axos,” which was also written by Baker and Martin. Now take that look and go nuts. In part two, Da Costa and Talfryn Thomas, now playing a different character with a similar set of keys, navigate through cramped environments with lots of curtains or obstacles to block a clear shot, like an amusement park haunted house, but then other elements are chromakeyed on top of those, and other visuals on top of those. By the time we get to the Frankenstein castle where Mackay’s otherworld character lives, they’re keying lava lamp blobs on top of erlenmeyer flasks full of green food coloring and then keying firecracker sparks on top of those.

But I’ll grant my wife one point: it’s one thing to suffer through a bad performance from an otherwise unknown actor – take Mordred in “Battlefield,” please – but seeing a really good actor like Fulton Mackay go so over the top in this wretched performance really is painful. At least he’s doing it on a downright weird set and there’s lots of other things to look at. Like Milton Johns’ Frankenstein monster in a Ronald McDonald wig. Really.

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The Champions 1.21 – The Body Snatchers

This afternoon, it occurred to me that Terry Nation was apparently writing episodes of The Champions about a year before he took the job of story editing for the Tara King days of The Avengers. Anyway, this is a story that deals with one of the regular obsessions of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, cryogenics. It’s such a regular obsession that we’ll be seeing it again very, very soon, aggravatingly enough. Nation’s first Avengers script, as a freelancer before he joined the production team, was “Invasion of the Earthmen.” I’ve described that story before as a mishmash of all of Nation’s tropes and traits, and darned if it wasn’t the second script he wrote in 1967 around cryogenics.

Our son protested that the title, “The Body Snatchers,” wasn’t a very appropriate one, and he’s right. Only one body gets snatched. The villain, played by Bernard Lee, has stolen the body of a recently deceased American general who knows where all the missiles are and taken the corpse to a research establishment in northern Wales. In that fanciful way of teevee that glosses over how any of this could medically work, he plans to store the corpse on ice and to sell it to the highest bidder. But if you ignore Dr. Science’s objections, this is a fine action hour with great brawls and stunts, and Bernard Lee is a terrific, bloodthirsty villain. That’s Philip Locke in the photo above as one of the scientists pressganged into helping Lee and his thugs.

Talking of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, it was the law that anything set in Wales during those decades, even if it was filmed in Elstree, needed to find a part for Talfryn Thomas, no matter how small, and here he is, in just about the smallest part in the thing. As soon as somebody on TV mentions a place like Porthgerwyn or Llanfairfach, you just wait for him to show up.

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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.10 – The Doomsday Plan

Surprisingly, just as soon as I mentioned it, the “conked on the head” flashback doesn’t appear in this morning’s episode, which was written by Richard Harris, but another recurring motif does. Adam Adamant has a complete blind spot to the possibility that any woman would be mixed up in the schemes of his enemies. I really hope the next time he wakes up in a cell with Georgie, who’s been in the cell for hours already, she hisses at him “WHEN will you learn to stop trusting women?!”

But speaking of enemies, today’s episode has a great one. It’s the wonderful actor Peter Vaughan as a doomsayer-type preacher who is organizing a fake nuclear attack to cause a mass panic while his men heist banks and jewelry stores. Our son really hated this guy. He got so irritated with him that he had to break out his trusty finger-pistols to start shooting at the screen. He also got so worried about Georgie investigating the enemy headquarters that he hid under his blanket, peeked out just long enough to see that she was getting away, and then gasped in total shock when the camera revealed Vaughan, showing that she wasn’t so lucky! Isobel Black plays the villain’s daughter, and Talfryn Thomas has a tiny walk-on part.

Thomas is only on screen during one of the filmed segments, and these are, again, completely beautiful. I’m always impressed by the restoration of black and white BBC material, but while the studio stuff looks very good – many of the same team worked on restoring Doctor Who – the film material looks like it was shot yesterday, with incredibly crisp blacks and resolution so fine you can marvel at the stonework on the old buildings in the London streets. There’s also a terrific scene shot at night where a man is surrounded by the doomsayer’s henchmen, each of whom is wearing one of those “The end is nigh!” sandwich-boards. There are probably people who saw this episode in 1966 and are certain it actually happened in an episode of The Avengers!

But two little elements just can’t help but remind you that you’re watching television and not the real world. One problem is that the studio set doesn’t match the exterior of the villain’s Mission Hall. The window that Georgie peeks through is on the opposite side of the front door when they cut from film to the studio. And the other problem is that Georgie’s fab scooter – is it a Vespa? – lies parked outside the hall for something like two days and nobody makes off with it!

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (parts two and three)

Getting to the halfway point of this favorite of mine, I picked these two episodes to watch in one evening because if almost all the six-part Doctor Who stories could be edited to five without much incident, a lot of part two of this one could certainly be culled. It’s one of the flaws of the story: the Doctor tries to break into Global Chemicals to steal some cutting equipment that they won’t give freely and fails, and that’s all about six minutes of story that doesn’t go anywhere.

I also think that the Brigadier goes about the confrontation with Stevens in part three entirely the wrong way, wasting more time. He should have warned Stevens that there is something in those mines that could be threatening Global Chemicals. Instead, he makes an enemy of him far too soon. The whole premise of “we might have to close your refinery until we get to the bottom of this” is absolutely guaranteed not to work. Of course, the Brigadier may have remembered how he once tried to convince Peter Miles that they needed to investigate threats to his power station in Wenley Moor and got nothing but grief for it, but Miles’ character was an unhinged nut, and Jerome Willis’s Stevens seems so very reasonable.

And we learn this time that Stevens has a boss, called BOSS, with the silky and sinister voice of John Dearth. Great little double-act, those two.

Last month, we watched a Six Million Dollar Man adventure that was made a couple of years after “The Green Death” and I noticed a fun little similarity. In “Fires of Hell,” there’s a similar situation where a big corporate pollution machine becomes the economic engine driving a remote town and there’s a small group of ecology-minded hippies opposing them. I think it’s interesting that in both stories, the corporation is the villain and our heroes ally themselves with the hippies. There are certainly differences in the two stories – a crooked cop is helping the corporation in Six while there are apparently no police within a hundred miles of Llanfairfach, and it’s not really the corporation in Six but one greedy dude – but it struck a chord of amusement.

I really enjoy the hippies of Wholeweal. I think the writers did a great job making a believable little community from two speaking parts and some busy extras. I love how the Brigadier mostly relaxes and enjoys a supper of toadstool steaks and local wine while the Doctor entertains the dinner party with anecdotes of Venusian shanghorns and perigosto sticks. And of course I love how Jo falls completely in love with Cliff Jones and makes it look so believable and real. Later Doctor Who romances would be far, far less believable than this. Of course, Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan were actually a couple at the time, which probably helped.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the maggots. Because a Christmastime repeat of this story, edited into a two-hour TV movie, got one of the highest ratings that Doctor Who ever received in the UK, something like one in every five people in the country spent the next few decades asking “Man, you remember that Doctor Who with the giant maggots?” They’re not quite as amazing as the somewhat similar Drashigs, because using yellow-screen chromakey to move the puppets across the floor of the Wholeweal studio set isn’t completely successful, but they’re terrific, gross monsters, and has our son, who has memorized every word in his book Everything You Need to Know About Bugs feverishly wondering what this maggots will develop into before the end of the story.

This is a long post, but one last thing to mention: the sets in this story are downright amazing. Many people have written about how great the coal mine tunnels are, and they’re certainly right, but that room on the surface with the elevators and the huge spinning wheel is really something. I was impressed when Jon Pertwee rams a crowbar into the spinning thing to slow it, releasing a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke. When you remember the “taped as live” nature of BBC television in that decade, it’s even more remarkable. If Pertwee wasn’t holding on tight, that bar could have been thrown into Talfryn Thomas’s head! I can’t imagine the health and safety representatives allowing the star of a television series to do anything like that in the eighties.

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