What We’re Not Watching: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

We’re not watching the 1971-73 anthology series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes with our son; this is among the after-he-goes-to-bed shows that we look at two or three nights a week. Five episodes in, it’s uneven but incredibly fun. It’s based on a series of short story anthologies edited by Hugh Greene. There were four of them in the 1970s; you occasionally see them in used bookshops. Actually, I see that the title has been pilfered for all sorts of collections edited by anybody and everybody. Stick with the original, I say.

Anyway, Greene brought the spotlight on some of the mostly forgotten detectives and adventurers who caught the public’s imagination in Victorian / Edwardian days, as editors and authors looked for the next big Sherlock Holmes-level hit. Some of the works are still fondly remembered. R. Austin Freeman and the Baroness Orczy wrote popular stories with imaginative characters who have lived on. But many others fell out of print and time marched on without them. There were World Wars and Interwar-era detectives and hard-boiled gumshoes in California and so on.

Thames, one of the UK’s commercial networks, made two series of 13 episodes dramatizing many of these tales. Happily, they all still exist; so much from the era was destroyed that we’re lucky to have them. There’s a who’s who of popular character actors from the period, plus faces I know from the Doctor Who and Paul Temple stories that were made around the same time – say, there’s the guy who played Sam Seeley in “Spearhead from Space”! – and while the production values are pretty low, some of these stories are terrific fun.

Roy Dotrice’s portrayal of Simon Carne, a gentleman thief who masquerades as a private detective called Klimo, had me ordering the full collection of Carne’s stories by Guy Boothby. But tonight we watched Donald Pleasance – you know, international film star Donald Pleasance, who must have really liked the script to come down on his price for Thames – as the occult detective Thomas Carnacki, created by William Hope Hodgson. That was excellent! Somebody should have backed up a truck of money to Pleasance’s door to make a full Carnacki series in 1971. What a missed opportunity!

Granted, we didn’t enjoy Peter Vaughn as a corrupt detective called Dorrington, and will skip his second appearance, but we’ve got several great actors in lead roles coming in future stories, including Douglas Wilmer (not content with playing Holmes and Nayland Smith several times, he plays Professor Van Dusen twice in series two), Charles Gray, Derek Jacobi, and John Thaw. And I saw a clip somewhere last month with Roger Delgado in some role or other. It’s a neat show, so check it out.

What We’re Not Watching: Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk

We’re not watching the fine actor Wallace Shawn as that interdimensional pest Mr. Mxyzptlk, who makes life miserable for the Man of Steel every ninety days, because he never actually played the role. But in some parallel universe, I’m sure that he must have. For April Fool’s Day, I’m sharing a little oddball story about preconceived notions. Bear with me, if you will.

The time was 1996, and up to that point, a look at IMDB tells me that I had seen Wallace Shawn in a couple of parts that didn’t leave any impact on me. I’d seen All That Jazz a couple of times in college – it was a favorite of my film and screenwriting professor, Charles Eidsvik – but I didn’t remember Shawn. Where I did remember him was playing the recurring role of Stuart Best in the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown. The character’s name, if you know your Beatles history, is a clue. In the backstory of Murphy, Stuart Best had been one of the original anchors of the newsmagazine FYI along with Murphy, Jim, and Frank. He was dropped very early on for reasons that became obvious when we later met the character in an “anniversary” episode: Best was insecure, needy, whiny, and hopelessly wishy-washy: one more horrible irritant in Murphy Brown’s existence. He was an annoying pest, yes, but just so pathetic.

So in 1996, I was very, very active in the old Usenet, for those of you with long memories. I used the pseudonym Colonel X and got into lots of fun and/or dumb arguments about television, particularly Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which had recently begun its fourth and final season around the time of this story. Over the course of three seasons, the show was getting exponentially worse and more irritating as time went on, with its very good cast struggling with terrible scripts, unbelievable “threats,” and new producers/showrunners who didn’t know Superman’s mythology and honestly didn’t care. There’s a reason why everybody knows who General Zod is, and nobody, except the unfortunate audience of this show, ever heard of his TV counterpart, Lord Nor.

Anyway, for season four, the show had a new writer on staff, a fresh face named Tim Minear, who TV fandom may know from his later, acclaimed work on Angel, Firefly, Wonderfalls, and American Horror Story. Minear was willing to risk the pit of whining that was alt.tv.lois-n-clark and assure us that season four wasn’t going to stink like season three did. Once they got past the Lord Nor story, at least. He engaged with fans and was a great public voice for the ailing show. And season four was indeed a big improvement. Everybody was happy with Minear.

The writer told us they were working on a Mr. Mxyzptlk story for the first time, and even solicited casting suggestions. I’m sure he didn’t intend to get permission from that oh-so-critical “whining fanbaby” audience, but just sounding like somebody on the show cared what the audience thought, and knew what the heck they were doing, was amazing. People had lots of suggestions, but as soon as somebody offered up Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk, discussion ended. That was, in the eyes of that mob, the single greatest idea ever.

And I didn’t see it.

I only knew Shawn as a desperate and insecure pest. Mr. Mxyzptlk needed to be an incredibly confident, breathtakingly arrogant pest. It didn’t occur to me, because I was even more of an idiot then than now, that Shawn might have been perfectly capable of playing that prankster from the fifth dimension that way. I just couldn’t look past Stuart Best on Murphy Brown.

At any rate, we’d never know, because they cast Howie Mandel as Mr. Mxyzptlk instead. Mandel did a fine job despite a revamp of the character to fit in the lines of Lois & Clark‘s world. He was more like Q from Star Trek than the nails-on-chalkboard imp, but it was a good episode, as I recall, with Mandel reining in his trademark excesses and finding some unusual menace in the part. He was good, but a few people bemoaned what could have been.

Of course, what everybody on that newsgroup was thinking about was Shawn’s iconic character of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, which I hadn’t seen. Naturally, this is on the agenda for us to watch together, when our son’s a little older, but he actually caught a chunk of it on TV last month while visiting family in Memphis. In 1987, I was as far from being interested in the kind of fairytale airy-fairy fantasy that Bride appeared to be as you could possibly get. I didn’t even like Labyrinth very much around that age. I’ve still never seen Willow, but we’ll look at that together as well one day. Basically, that line of bright, glowy eighties fantasy movie just did not appeal to me in the slightest and I ignored it.

Over the years, people told me I needed to see The Princess Bride, and I successfully rolled my eyes for almost two decades. In 2005, though, in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks, I fell in love with someone I shouldn’t’a fallen in love with, and she made me watch the wretched thing, and it turned out to be the most expectation-defying movie I think I’ve ever watched. That film is darn near completely terrific.

And within about six seconds of Vizzini driving everybody nuts with his supreme overconfidence, a little fifth-dimensional magic happened and I saw a little purple hat materialize over Wallace Shawn’s head. Holy anna. I got it. What a missed opportunity! Wallace Shawn would have been completely amazing as Mr. Mxyzptlk. I don’t know whether the actor said no, or whether his agent laughed ABC and Warner Brothers out of the room, or whether Mandel was always in the producers’ minds and Tim Minear was just humoring us, but of all the what-ifs in Hollywood history, this just simply has to be up there.

Honesty compels me to add that shortly after the Mandel take on Mr. Mxyzptlk, the team behind the cartoon that’s laboriously called Superman: The Animated Series went all the way back to that oddball character’s original comic book look from the 1940s, and cast Gilbert Gottfried for the part. That whole cartoon series is completely great, and those two episodes with Gottfried as Mxyzptlk are high points. The villain has since shown up on Smallville and Supergirl. I haven’t seen those, and don’t care to, because, in another preconceived notion, I believe that Gilbert Gottfried owns the role and the voice of Mxyzptlk.

But boy, if Wallace Shawn had played that part, I might not be saying that.

Photo credit: the image of Mandel was taken from the Lois & Clark Wiki.

What We’re Not Watching: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

We’re not watching Disney’s 1964 mini-series The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh for our blog, because both the original television version and the feature film, called Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, are out of print. It seems to be one of the most curious omissions from Disney’s extensive library of old live-action material, a project that has only been released in limited editions and returned to the “Disney Vault” to collect dust while bootleggers profit.

Doctor Syn was the hero of a series of juvenile adventure novels written by Russell Thorndyke. Most of the books appeared in the 1930s and were still pretty popular with kids into the seventies. I remember seeing copies in the library with the same sort of design, and appeal, as Jack London’s books, or those lurid 1960s hardbacks-for-kids editions of Kidnapped and Treasure Island. The stories are set in the 1770s, where the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn appears to be a respectable English vicar in a remote coastal village, but by night, he dresses in a horrifying Scarecrow costume with a glow-in-the-dark mask and leads a band of smugglers, getting in needed material from France to avoid the crippling taxes levied by the king. With the military bent on destroying the ring, and constantly capturing one low-level smuggler or another, it’s full of daring escapes, cunning plans, last-minute rescues, that sort of thing.

There was a feature film at the height of the books’ popularity in the thirties, and then Hammer and Disney went at the source material in the early sixties. Hammer might fairly be accused of hearing a big idea coming down the pipe and rushing something into production. That version stars Peter Cushing as the renamed “Captain Clegg.” Disney’s has Patrick McGoohan as Syn, with George Cole as his ally Mipps. The three-part adaptation was shown on the ABC anthology series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1964. It also features some familiar faces from 1960s British film and television like Jill Curzon, Geoffrey Keen, and Patrick Wymark.

Like some other Disney material that we’ve seen, Scarecrow was released in a variety of formats and lengths. The 150-minute TV version was edited down to a 100-minute feature film which was shown in several countries. In the 1980s, the series started to get a small, strange, underground buzz as something worth looking out for. You’d see it mentioned here and there as a lost classic worth seeing. The delightful guidebook Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows, essential in its day, singled out McGoohan’s wild and manic performance as the Scarecrow and made it sound like something I needed to see.

It was out on VHS for a while. There was a limited release of an edit of the movie (possibly a little different from the first movie release), but in that old Disney way, it became impossible to find. A limited edition DVD came out in late 2008. You can buy a copy for a few hundred dollars on eBay. You can also get a pirated copy from any number of sellers right this minute for a whole lot less, but we don’t do that at our blog.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh has remained in the “Disney Vault” for almost a decade. There are higher profile projects for the Mouse to worry about these days, and smuggling on the Cornish coast hasn’t captured the imagination of any kids in a long time. Still, it’s been about ten years, which is, they say, the average time that the locked-away releases remain in the Vault. Maybe we might see Doctor Syn dust off his mask and scream that terrifying laugh of his again one day soon?

Photo credit: Disney Wiki, which points out that in one of Disney’s recent comic books, the Scarecrow returned to team up with Captain Jack Sparrow, which is probably a far more interesting event than anything that happened in the third, fourth, or fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

What We’re Not Watching: Moonbase 3

We’re not watching Moonbase 3 for the blog, because it is a boring, boring program. Even I couldn’t sit through it without finding something else to do, so a six year-old certainly couldn’t be expected to tackle it. But because it’s an interesting footnote in this period of Doctor Who, and because we’ll be taking a short blog break while we have family in town, I thought I’d write a small post about it.

After four years on Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to continue working together but knew that they needed to find some new projects. Working a little fiscal magic, they were able to get the first story of Who‘s next season into production at the tail end of the 1973 block. Moonbase 3 was commissioned for a six-part introductory series and was taping almost at the same time as that story. Managing a massive, resource-demanding program like Who alone was a huge undertaking; I can’t imagine doing two series at once. Unfortunately for Letts and Dicks, this series was a ratings flop. They taped it in the summer of 1973, and it was shown in September and October to general disinterest, and the BBC didn’t ask for anymore.

As an ongoing series, Moonbase 3 is full of problems, but the casting is the major one. The leads, left to right in the photo above, are played by Ralph Bates, Fiona Gaunt, Donald Houston and Barry Lowe, and Bates, whom genre fans may recall as the lead in some Hammer horror films from the early seventies, is the only one with any real charisma. They’re outshined in every episode by the guest stars. If you enjoy BBC or ITC dramas from the early seventies, you’ll see all kinds of familiar faces in Moonbase 3, including Anthony Chinn, Michael Gough, Peter Miles, and Michael Wisher. And you’ll wonder why the guest stars aren’t the leads. It’s that lopsided.

But I’m a huge fan of Peter Miles and not even he could save this program by leading it. This is a show about budgets and breakdowns. In going for realism, Letts and Dicks encouraged a format where imagination was sacrificed for the banal. There’s neither any worry nor any curiosity about the future, it’s just a bland place with bland people having arguments about money and weather satellites. Twice, science experiments are conducted by jealous physicists. At no point are any of the five moonbases threatened by Cybermen, or staffed by Gabrielle Drake in a purple wig, or invaded by the Bringers of Wonder, but the one we’re watching is going to have its budget cut in the next fiscal year to put more Eurodollars into a Venus probe. Staffing cuts! Now that’s what I want from science fiction!

So anyway, the show was a flop, losing two-thirds of its audience in a month, and then, in that 1970s BBC way, it didn’t exist anymore. As the corporation so often did, they wiped the tapes and forgot about it. The episodes were lost forever… except for a weird quirk of fate. The BBC got some co-production money from 20th Century Fox, who suggested that they might be able to sell it in America. I’ve read that they were hoping to get it on ABC, but it’s also possible that Fox was looking at PBS stations or even the same first-run syndication market where Fox was selling the Canadian videotape sci-fi show The Starlost that same September. Whatever, there’s been no indication that any station in North America purchased Moonbase 3 in the 1970s, and so it was completely forgotten.

Fast forward to 1993 and something very weird happened. When the Sci-Fi Channel launched, their most interesting program was an anthology called Sci-Fi Series Collection, which ran all sorts of quickly-cancelled flops without enough episodes for a proper Monday through Friday airing, things like Gemini Man, Otherworld, or Planet of the Apes. In many cases, they couldn’t even get all the episodes: four of the 20 installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker weren’t available to Sci-Fi because Universal offered those as a pair of sausage-link TV movies instead. And the episodes were all edited by a couple of minutes to accommodate segments of interviews with these shows’ creators or stars.

A few months into the run, Moonbase 3 joined the rotation, and it was kind of funny to see how they had the background animation for the interview segments but no actual interviews. Bates and Houston had already passed away by the time this aired, and I suppose the channel didn’t have the budget to go to the UK to interview Gaunt or Lowe… or Letts or Dicks. At the time, some people in British sci-fi teevee fandom were very interested in the Sci-Fi Channel – there were frenzied updates each month in the fanzine DWB about what it was showing – and people in the UK were incredibly surprised to see that the channel had “found” this lost show. Fox had simply never wiped its tapes. It remained available for any station to buy for twenty years – much like those unidentified thirteen episodes of Ace of Wands from DL Taffner – and the show just sat on a shelf in some vault for two decades waiting for a buyer.

Happily, new copies made their way to the BBC promptly, and the show was released on VHS in 1994, and on DVD some years later. It’s a program for completists only, but I am glad that it survives, because everything should!

Photo credit: Archive TV Musings

What We’re Not Watching: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

We’re not watching the delightful A Nero Wolfe Mystery for our blog, because our son’s six and wouldn’t get it, but the grown-ups are watching these delightful episodes for the second or third or fourth time after he’s gone to bed, and I wanted to give it a brief recommendation for any grown-ups in your own house.

The series was made for the A&E Network between 2000-2002, and was the last thing worth watching on the channel. It doubled the network’s average ratings for the hours it was on, but it was also extremely expensive and “reality” teevee was cheaper. So there was only an initial movie of the week, twelve hours in the first season, and sixteen in the second. That’s thirty fun hours set in a nebulous and whimsical post-war New York, with part of the peculiar charm of the show built around its deliberately timeless setting.

Nero Wolfe is a very wealthy and very lazy private detective who lives in Manhattan and does not leave his home on business. He’s an epicure who grows orchids and enforces a firm daily schedule. The stories are narrated by his assistant and legman, Archie Goodwin, whose main job is not actually the collection of facts and testimony, but aggravating his boss into action. The characters are played by Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. Other recurring parts are played by Saul Rubinek (reporter Lon Cohen), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), and Conrad Dunn (a field operative called Saul Panzer who’s even better at his job than Archie could be, not that Archie’s ego would allow him to admit that out loud).

Famously, the producers assembled a repertory company of about fifteen actors and employed them to fill almost all the guest roles across the series. These include the beautiful Kari Matchett, who plays the minor recurring role of Archie’s main flame Lily Rowan along with about a third of the leading guest parts for women, ex-Intellivision spokesman George Plimpton as many of the grouchy old men, and bug-eyed Boyd Banks as most of the in-over-his-head imbeciles who end up in Wolfe’s office.

Using the same faces for guest parts really heightens the unreality of the show; you expect the players to all come out and take a bow after the performance concludes before they all go rehearse next week’s show. I can’t help but feel that’s a strike against it, and the music is another. They went with a period-ish accurate big band jazz score, the sort of music played in the big ballrooms where Archie would take Lily dancing, and it’s often far too jaunty and silly for the action, accentuating the amusing dialogue and witty narration more than the drama.

But otherwise, good grief, this show is entertaining. The scripting is sublime, ignoring conventional three-act structure in favor of following the original stories’ flow, and paring down the action to fit the hour while using as much of the original dialogue and language as can be included. Chaykin is incredibly watchable as the bad-tempered Wolfe and Hutton is absolutely flawless as the sharp-dressed Archie. They make a terrific team and since the adaptations are far more faithful to the source material than any other program in the genre, the actors make the stories and the dialogue just glow. You can read Raymond Chandler and picture a dozen actors as Marlowe, even if you try very hard to stick to James Garner. But these actors are the Nero Wolfe cast. I can’t read any of Rex Stout’s novels or stories and envision anybody else in the main parts, even if I do change the music in my mind! If you enjoy classic detective fiction, this series is a must.

Oh, and if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, then you should definitely follow him – @NeroAugustWolfe – on Twitter. The great detective doesn’t post all that often, but as he reads the literary versions of his cases, he usually has some very grouchy and amusing commentary to share. He probably types the tweets very slowly, using just his index finger, on Archie’s computer.

What We’re Not Watching: Paul Temple

We’re not watching Paul Temple with our son because he’s six and wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on in it, but since this series was so closely linked around the production of Doctor Who in 1969-71, swiping its producers and sharing all sorts of talent, that I thought it would be a fun little counterpart. Unfortunately, Marie didn’t enjoy the first three available episodes, so I’ll have to find time to watch the remaining thirteen installments in Acorn’s collection some other time.

The character of Paul Temple was created in 1938 by Francis Durbridge for a BBC radio series, and he’s appeared in novels and comic strips. Mostly forgotten today, Paul Temple was a novelist who specialized in writing detective fiction who became an amateur detective himself. Accompanied by his beautiful wife Steve Trent – her real name is Louise and Steve her pen name – Temple crisscrosses Europe, always on research holidays where corpses can be found, and then he assists police with their inquiries, as Golden Age detectives did. The series is set in the present day and it’s ultra-fashionable, with ascots and go-go boots and totally glam early ’70s clothes. I honestly don’t believe the character ever had any crossover success in America, but he was really well known in Germany.

The BBC made four series of Paul Temple, each with 13 episodes, and then, in that damnable BBC way, they went and wiped all but sixteen of them. To visualize just how closely this was wrapped around the initial color years of Who, the first series of Temple began in November 1969 and finished during the transmission of “The Silurians.” Series two began just seven weeks later, while “The Ambassadors of Death” was running. The third series began alongside “Terror of the Autons,” and the last one began a couple of weeks into “The Daemons.” And if you’ve paid any attention to Who‘s end credits during this period, you’ll see a pile of familiar names working on Temple, including A.A. Englander, Ron Grainer, Dudley Simpson, Trevor Ray, Michael Ferguson, Douglas Camfield, Christopher Barry, David Whitaker, and of course the producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin.

And in front of the cameras, there’s a similar “rep company” feel. The show starred Francis Matthews – Captain Scarlet himself – as Paul Temple, with Ros Drinkwater as Steve. Their approach to crimefighting is basically to dive into any villainous plots head-first and see what happens. Their guest casts are absolutely packed with recognizable faces. Now, if you enjoy older British television, you will certainly love the really entertaining Cult TV Blog. I agree with John on lots of things, but not his position on familiar faces. For him, recognizing an actor takes him out of the experience, but I absolutely love that. We were watching the second episode available and I was racking my brain to figure who that was playing the villain under the big Jason King mustache – it was Edward de Souza – when suddenly Peter Miles, who we saw in “The Silurians” literally one week previously, came in the room. You’re also sure to recognize George Baker, Frederick Jaeger, Emrys James, Moray Watson, Catherine Schell, and George Sewell, among others.

Now, about the missing episodes situation… Paul Temple is in a really unique place because, after the first series, a West German company called Taurus Films became the co-producer with the BBC. The Beeb wiped 36 of the 52 episodes. They deleted everything from series one, and all but one episode from series two. They deleted six of the next 13, and five of the last 13. Of the eight remaining from series four, five are only in black and white. These sixteen survivors are available in a six-disk Region 2 set from Acorn Media. (Buy it from Amazon UK.)

But then last year, something surprising happened. A German company, Alive, released all 39 episodes from series two, three, and four… dubbed into German. So the visuals for these all exist, just not the original English audio. Sadly, the DVDs do not have English subtitles either, and they are numbered series one, two, and three. Then their series “three” (the British series “four”) came out with a real surprise. Not only were all the episodes in color, but there was one additional installment, “A Family Affair,” with an English dialogue option. So 39 of 52 exist in German, and 17 of these in English. (Buy this set of 13 from Amazon Germany.)

A special note for fans of Douglas Camfield: only one of the seven Temple episodes that Camfield directed is available in English, and that one in black-and-white. If you get the German sets, you can get four of the seven in color. Unfortunately, the first three that he shot were in the first series – he probably went straight from these onto the Who serial “Inferno” without a break – and seem to be lost forever.

Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the Paul Temple episodes we’ve seen and think it’s a shame Marie didn’t find it as engaging. I don’t quite enjoy it enough to fork out another $30 for that German set and just one more English-language episode, but that’s mainly because our disposable income is kind of tight right now. It is the sort of silly thing that tempts completists like me. But honestly, if you enjoy seasons seven and eight of Doctor Who in a sort of big picture “this is what the BBC was doing” way and enjoy the production as much as the fiction, then this is an absolutely super companion. For real fun, add the available episodes of Doomwatch into your rotation of all things 1970 and see just how busy some of these actors and directors really were back then!

What We’re Not Watching: Worzel Gummidge

We’re not watching Worzel Gummidge for our blog, and that’s a shame. Three months ago, I wrote another entry in this occasional series, about The Space Giants, a program that’s never been available in English on home video. Worzel Gummidge has been released, but the DVDs that you can track down from Amazon UK have apparently been made from very poor condition prints. Since I’ve read so many complaints about their quality, I’ve decided against making the investment, though I hope somebody will remaster and reissue the show in the next few years.

I did see about ten episodes of the series quite some time ago, back in the VHS tape trading days. I was skeptical, as perhaps you might be. It’s a children’s series starring Jon Pertwee as a scarecrow. But holy anna, it’s so much more than that. This program is absolutely intoxicating, charming, anarchic, and completely hilarious.

Worzel Gummidge is set in a world where anything that has been built to look like a human can come to life. That includes scarecrows, mannequins, fairground aunt sallies, the statue of a busty woman on the prow of a ship, you name it. Mayhem ensues. Outright lunacy.

Two kids, played by Charlotte Coleman and Jeremy Austin, get let in on the secret: there’s a strange tramp called the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) who goes around building scarecrows and giving them life. The scarecrows have laws, rules, regulations, and different heads for different occasions. Worzel Gummidge, dirty and uneducated unless he’s wearing the correct head, dreams of the good life, a fine house, a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and the hand of the beautiful Aunt Sally. She is a scheming, double-crossing, jealous, manipulative masterpiece of TV villainy played by Una Stubbs, and she only has eyes for Worzel when it suits her.

As the show went on, a who’s who of British comedy made thunderously funny appearances, either as shocked upper-class toffs or other creatures with weird life that upend everything. Joan Sims shows up frequently in the first two series as Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, and with a name like that, you know a dirty, horrible scarecrow is going to destroy her garden fetes. Other people cruising in for craziness include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor, Bill Maynard, Connie Booth, Billy Connolly, John Le Mesurier, and Talfyrn Thomas.

One of the UK’s commercial channels, Southern TV, made 31 episodes between 1979-81. The whole show was made on 16 mm film on location in various villages in rural England, so it doesn’t have that stagey videotape feel. I think almost the entire series was directed by James Hill, who’s probably best known for directing Born Free and the 1971 Black Beauty, but also a lot of ITC dramas and some of The Avengers.

After Southern TV was closed down in a franchise change with the ITV network, the show was shelved for a while, and TVNZ then continued the program with Hill, Pertwee, and Stubbs with 22 episodes of Worzel Gummidge Down Under from 1987-89, but there was a different Crowman in New Zealand, played by Bruce Phillips. I’ve never seen any of these, but understand that they’re lacking a little of the original’s spark, possibly because they had different writers and they didn’t have the same deep bench of well-known comedy guest stars.

Anyway, my interest was reignited when I read about Stuart Manning’s The Worzel Book, published by a small specialist company in the UK called Miwk. The book had enough rave reviews for me to take the risk, and it turns out to be one of the best books about TV that I’ve ever read, dense with photographs, interviews, and background information. Click the image above to get a copy from Miwk yourself. If this book doesn’t leave you badly wanting to see this series, something may well be wrong with you.

Unfortunately, the only way to get all 53 episodes in one place is to shell out a pretty fair chunk of change (£69.95 now) for an out-of-print box set, and if my old VHS boots and the samples you can see on YouTube are any indication, the picture and sound quality is just too poor at that price, especially with cash a little tight at home right now. My fingers are crossed that somebody will remaster the program very soon, because I’d love to watch it with our son before he gets too old and jaded. Anytime between now and 2022 will do just fine. How about it, Network? Simply? Do it fer ol’ Worzel!

What We’re Not Watching: The Space Giants

We’re not watching The Space Giants for our blog, and that’s a shame. I’m trying to set an example and watch only films and series that have been legitimately released for purchase, and, sadly, this program has never been available in English on home video. In fact – and I would welcome a correction – it really looks like the only two Japanese sci-fi shows from the sixties and seventies to ever have been released in English on DVD in North America are Ultraman and the painfully stupid Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. Quite a few others have been released legitimately with English subtitles, like Ultra Seven, Iron King, and Red Baron, but my son is still a beginning reader and cannot manage subtitles quite yet.

The Space Giants is the dubbed-in-English version of Ambassador Magma, a 52 episode series based on a fun comic by Osamu Tezuka. Unfortunately, this comic has also never been legitimately released in English! Can’t win for losing if you like these characters, but at least the reprints are not expensive and they’re amusing even if you cannot read the dialogue. In Japan, the TV version of Ambassador Magma beat Ultraman to the air by a couple of weeks, making it – I believe – the very first sci-fi monster series made in color in that country.

It was also made for a very small budget. A company called P Productions made it for the Fuji TV network, and they didn’t quite have Tsubaraya’s special effects know-how. This shows in unusual ways: many of the “laser” or “missile launching” effects were done with animation, and there aren’t as many monster costumes. Unable to afford a new monster suit and a new miniature landscape every week, the screenwriters came up with longer, detailed stories that focused on the human cast. The first 40 episodes of Magma are four-part serials, and the remainder told in two parts: ten four-parters and six two-parters. Typically the monster would first show up in the cliffhanger to part one and have a few small skirmishes with the hero over the course of each story before the final conflict at the climax, occasionally introducing a second monster in part three.

As I’ve said before, the fight between Ultraman and each week’s monster is the most dull part of the story, meaning each adventure stands or falls on how much fun the Science Patrol business is. In Magma, this is also true, but the human stuff is amazingly fun every week, the most addictive and watchable stuff I’ve ever seen from Japanese adventure TV. (Okay, so admittedly I have seen very little. Still.) In the series, an alien dictator named Goa (Rodak in the English dub) tries to conquer the planet using shape-shifting, identity-stealing, black-clad beings called Lugo Men. Our hero is an investigative journalist named Atsushi Murakami (Tom Mura in the English version), who has a son named Mamuro (Miko).

Things get really fun when an ancient wizard who has been warring with Goa gets involved. He has two robot assistants, a husband and wife called Magma and Mol (Goldar and Silvar). Mol/Silvar takes a shine to Mamuro and wishes for a son like him, and so the wizard creates a near-duplicate little boy robot, Gam. Oh, and all three robots can turn into rockets. It’s the most fun little wish-fulfillment show ever, and every kid pretended to be Mamuro/Miko after school, sneaking around imaginary abandoned factories and power plants with his robot best friend, battling the mysterious, hideous Lugo Men, who dissolve into blue applesauce when killed.

A very small company called Lakeside Television got the US rights to Ambassador Magma in the late 1960s, and retitled the show The Space Giants. The English language dub was offered to stations in 1970, but it didn’t show up in Atlanta (or many other markets for that matter) until the fall of 1978, when every UHF station in North America started looking closely in the syndication programming book for any program that had the words “star,” “space,” or “planet” in the title. Ted Turner’s WTCG-17, later TBS, picked it up around the time that WTCG programming started showing up on cable packages around the country.

As a kid, I came on board with episode three, and loved the show absolutely. It came on at maybe 3.30 in the afternoon. Around episode 14, with the planet suffering an amazing heat wave and drought, the robots transform into rockets, seed the clouds, and make rain, but the water that falls out of the sky is boiling hot. I pretended that rain was hot water for at least two years after that. It helped that WTCG kept the program in rotation for most of that time.

Unfortunately, the show has never been available for home purchase legitimately in America; Lakeside appears to believe that they got the North American rights in perpetuity (even the Japanese rights lapsed in the early 1990s and P-Productions returned them to Tezuka’s company to exploit and manage), and another party who drew half of a Space Giants funnybook that nobody ever saw appeared to believe that he had the exclusive rights to any North American merchandising from either the live-action show or Tezuka’s original comic book. My guess is that neither the small Lakeside nor the other party could realistically afford the mammoth legal bill that untangling the rights to such a limited interest program would involve, and nobody wanted to act first and get sued by the other. (For a very lengthy and eye-popping first-hand account of somebody who got in the crosshairs of this tomfoolery, give yourself half an hour and read this account of selling Magma toy kits on eBay.)

I’m going to put my boring old fuddy-duddy hat on now. I spent more than a decade swapping bootlegs of lots of shows on VHS myself, including this one, always telling myself I was acting ethically. Then I somehow raised two kids who did not see anything wrong with swapping the entire catalogs of favorite musicians on USB drives instead of buying the albums themselves. I tried to clamp down on that crap, but had to acknowledge my own failings on that front. Since legitimate copies are not available, I’m not going to skirt around the problem.

One of the parties in the Space Giants dispute is dead and the other hasn’t actually ever distributed very much television as far as I can tell. Sorry to be cold, but that’s how it looks. You can watch bootlegs of the show on YouTube if you like; DVD-Rs occasionally show up on eBay, but we will not watch this show for this blog because it is not commercially available. Tezuka Productions did release a 10-disc Blu-ray set last fall. It retailed for (good lord!) 50000 yen ($482.88!!), which is the sort of price I laugh about when people try listing out-of print Bugaloos DVDs that they evidently don’t actually want to sell. These Blu-rays do not contain an English language track. I very, very much hope that Tezuka Productions might work with Lakeside and release a domestic edition in English before we get too old to fall in love with it again. It’s a super little show that I’m sure my son would adore.

For a whole lot more about the production of Ambassador Magma and distribution of The Space Giants, please see this fabulous article by August Ragone and Bob Johnson here: http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2007/08/27/the-space-giants-series-guide/

Photo credit: Kaiju Fan Network