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Spectrum Is Indestructible

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, February 18, 2020 08:04:45

Originally conceived to mark the 50th anniversary of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons‘ first TV broadcast, Spectrum Is Indestructible shows the wisdom of not being held hostage to journalistic conceits like anniversaries.

Fred McNamara quickly realised that he wasn’t going to be able to squeeze, “nearly 20 years of ideas, theories and general musings” into the original timescale and his publisher Chinbeard Books wisely agreed to wait. Spectrum Is Indestructible is more than comprehensive – 200 pages of closely packed type, written with enthusiasm but written well.

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was unique among TV shows in being at the centre of a vast merchandising campaign of toys, books and comics. As it wasn’t entirely a financial success, Britain didn’t see anything like it again until Star Wars. Fred McNamara recognises that, “in this pre-digital age, it’s remarkable to witness this meticulously crafted promotional campaign.” and covers both the TV show and the comics and annuals which both heralded and succeeded it.

McNamara devotes a full chapter to each episode of the TV show, delivering insightful commentary that inspires the reader to go back to the DVD’s. Captain Black is often characterised as an unemotional zombie, for instance, but the review of Operation Time highlights the latent sadism in his pursuit of Dr Magnus, “fantastically executed in terms of pace and visuals..the three minute sequence is perfectly delivered…it’s not enough for Black to shoot Magnus…there has to be a prey to worry, petrify.”

While McNamara appreciates the highlights of each episode, he is also well aware of the series shortcomings. But while he often skewers plot holes and absurdities, he does so with a sense of affection and perspective and is more than appreciative of the series as a whole. He even comes up with ideas that might have benefitted the show: in Spectrum Strikes Back, for instance, what if the hapless Captain Indigo had been another Captain Brown. “Wouldn’t that have been a great running gag? Every time Spectrum hire a new Captain Brown, he falls prey to the Mysterons.”

You can find details of Spectrum Is Indestructible at the Chinbeard Books website

Telling Tales with Mr Jones

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, February 16, 2020 18:35:19

Somewhere around the 50 minute mark, MR JONES (2020) becomes one of the most thrilling movies I’ve seen for some time. In 1930’s Soviet Russia, Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) evades his escort and drops into the hidden Ukrainian wasteland of starving farmers.

Jones has come to Russia to answer a question: “There’s a Global Economic Collapse. Meanwhile the Soviets are having a spending spree. How? The numbers don’t add up. The Kremlin’s broke.” Within minutes he finds the answer as he’s forced by armed guards to help load grain onto trains. Stalin’s government is selling the grain to pay for the construction of new factories and power plants while in the countryside millions die of starvation. Having got himself so deep, so soon, the viewer asks how is he going to get out of this? And inevitably, the viewer asks did it really happen like this?

The answer seems to be – no, not quite. Begging the question, how many lies can you tell in a film about the truth?

This is not to deny that countless innocent people died for an ideology. Or to deny that the victims of mismanagement were scapegoated as “wreckers” because that ideology could not be seen to fail. Just to ask – when the facts are fascinating – why film-makers inevitably rearrange those facts.

Early in the film, Gareth Jones is invited to a party at the Moscow home of New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). It’s the inevitable have-your-cake-and-eat-it soft focus orgy that we are invited to enjoy and abhor (cf SCANDAL). Jones – non-smoking, non-drinking, non-fornicating – stays aloof from it all . A member of the Moscow Press Corps, explaining that reporters are forbidden from travelling outside Moscow, advises Jones he’ll understand the situation better if he reads Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Jones prefers to quote the Welsh poem ‘The Battle of the Trees.’ And that’s the best way to view this film – based on the truth, but halfway between a gothic horror and a misty Welsh quest.

‘Mr Jones’ is framed by scenes of George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) writing ‘Animal Farm‘. Orwell’s ‘narration’ comments on the action while maintaining an allegorical distance. At one point, Orwell meets Jones and helps him to resolve an ethical dilemma about what he learned in Russia. The meeting never really took place, but since the ethical dilemma is in all likelihood also fictional, the two sort of cancel each other out.

The first hour of the movie builds an ominous mood of surveillance, control and suppressed violence. It seems unlikely that – even passing himself off as a researcher for former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) – Gareth will be able to make his way into the forbidden zone of the Ukraine. When he finally does so, it seems an act of incredible foolhardiness.

But the facts suggest that Jones managed it because, for foreigners, Moscow was like something out of a Boulting Brothers * movie.  They were able to use western money to buy food and clothing from special stores unavailable to most Russians. The majority of foreigners were so hoodwinked by the myth of the ‘socialist utopia’ that they didn’t need much control and the Russians didn’t expect them to go causing trouble. Malcolm Muggeridge (who is briefly name-checked in the movie played by Michael O’Donnell) actually journeyed into the Caucasus and Ukraine just before Jones and slipped reports of the famine out to the Manchester Guardian in the British Embassy’s diplomatic bag so that they would evade Soviet censorship. Muggeridge’s reports were published anonymously, overshadowed by Jones’ subsequent press conference (this isn’t mentioned in the movie, perhaps justly since Muggeridge seemed to do little to acknowledge Jones in later years).

*starring Ian Carmichael as Gareth Jones, Terry-Thomas as Duranty, Colin Gordon as Muggeridge

In the movie, Jones seems to spend days wandering through the snowy wastes, meeting starving farmers and watching bodies being hauled away. The Soviets have tried to rationalise farming on an industrial scale. When the crops have failed, scapegoats have been found charged with sabotage. Eventually, Jones comes to a city and while interviewing a woman at a queue for bread, has a sack thrown over his head by the secret police. In a cavernous prison, he sees engineers for the Metropolitan-Vickers company who have been arrested on charges of economic sabotage. Jones is told that their fates lie in his hand. He can return to England but if he tells what he has seen in the Ukraine, they will be found guilty in a show trial and sentenced to death. As Jones later tells George Orwell, in the meeting that never took place, “I do have a story, but if I tell it six innocent men will die.” Orwell responds, “Speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.” Jones takes Orwell’s fictional advice and tells the world about the famine in the Ukraine. But the viewer ends up wondering how the MetVick engineers were treated as a result.

In fact, although the real Jones was apprehended by the secret police, they were “polite and respectful” and simply escorted him to the nearest foreign consulate. He left Russia quietly, so no ultimatum was handed to him, and he then held a press conference in Germany. The engineers really were put on trial the following month, but although convicted of “sabotage” were merely expelled.

In the movie – as in life – Jones is stitched up by the Foreign Press Corps who support the Russian government denial that there has ever been a famine in order to protect their visas and jobs. The whitewash is led by Duranty, as much to protect his reputation – the film shows him being woken by a furious call from the New York Times wanting to know why they didn’t get Jones’ story about the famine first. Duranty’s actual rebuttal was titled; ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’ and concluded that, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But despite the personal motivation of the press pack, there was also no political will in the West to recognise what had happened.

Because this is a movie – Gareth Jones does make a final act comeback. And it is based on fact. But despite this personal victory, the wider message was forgotten.

Writing in 1945, George Orwell noted that, “Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles.”

Director Agnieszka Holland has a long distinguished career in Poland, experienced the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 and also directed the ‘Moral Midgetry’ episode of The Wire (2004). Screenwriter and producer Andrea Chalupa is the granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees who escaped the events depicted onscreen. She runs Gaslit Nation “a podcast covering corruption in the Trump administration as rising autocracy around the World.” So it seems highly possible that Mr Jones is as much about what’s happening now, as what happened in 1936.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine is an essential accompaniment to Mr Jones

Mr Jones is an entertaining movie which reminds us of a long-suppressed horror. Facts behind the movie can be found in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (Penguin 2017) which advances the thesis that the famine was an act of deliberate extermination rather than homicidal incompetence. The family of Gareth Jones maintain a website at which you can read his actual reports and diaries at

The Suicide Club: the original Dark Knight

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, December 29, 2019 19:32:11
Ronald Adam as Sir Montague Malthus draws the death card

Broadcast Monday 9th February 1970 as part of the ITV Playhouse Mystery and Imagination strand, The Suicide Club stars Alan Dobie as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Florizel. At heart, it’s the gothic tale of a sinister and criminal Victorian innovation in assisted suicide. But it also sees an early manifestation of the archetype we now know as The Dark Knight.

Hildegarde Neil welcomes Prince Florizel (Alan Dobie)

The Suicide Club was published in 1878 as part of a sequence called New Arabian Nights in a precariously financed journal called The London Magazine. Funds were so thin that sometimes an entire issue would be written by Stevenson and the editor William Ernest Henley (author of the poem Invictus). According to Stevenson’s widow, the story was inspired by the writer’s cousin, Robert Alan Stevenson, who imagined, “a suicide train where persons weary of life might engage compartments. There would be no depressing preparations necessary; only the choice of a route, either quick or slow.” From this notion, the cousins elaborated the notion of a secret club “combining the excitement of a gaming-table, a duel and a Roman amphitheatre” where a game of cards decides who is to be the victim and ,“who is to be death’s high priest for the night!”.

Stevenson’s heroes are introduced to The Suicide Club by a character called the Young Man with the Cream Tarts (played by David Collings in the TV version) who was based on Stevenson’s, “romantic, erratic, engaging” cousin. The heroes themselves are Prince Florizel of Bohemia (Alan Dobie) and his Master of Horse, Colonel Geraldine (Eric Woolfe). Reputedly based on rumours about the nocturnal habits of Prince Albert Edward VII, the Czechoslovakian prince seeks diversions, “more adventurous and eccentric than those to which he was destined by birth.

Colonel Geraldine and Prince Florizel undercover

Florizel disguises himself with make-up and costume to pass undetected on the streets of London, and in a West End oyster bar, he and Colonel Geraldine first learn of the Suicide Club. In Robert Muller’s adaptation they only realise the true malevolent nature of the organisation when they have become members. Because of his position, Florizel cannot involve the police, and resolves to bring the President (Bernard Archard) to justice himself.

Coming from the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the story has enough gothic elements to justify the Mystery and Imagination title, but the show could have fitted as easily in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (allowing for the fact that Stevenson’s tale predates Sherlock Holmes). It’s also arguable that Prince Florizel is an early precursor of the Batman. The character is a wealthy aristocrat who disguises himself to walk among common men. He infiltrates a criminal organisation and determines to use his own resources to fight them. If it’s not exactly the Caped Crusader, Florizel resembles earlier characters like The Shadow and The Green Hornet who may have inspired Batman. The manner in which Florizel recruits Colonel Brackenbury Rich (Jonathan Newth) to help him is very reminiscent of The Shadow recruiting his agents in the pulp novels.

Robert Muller’s adaptation emphasised the pulp mood by inventing the character of the Woman in Black, a sinuous hostess played with malevolent allure by Hildegarde Neil. The production also ensures that what is only reported in the story is shown on TV – dramatising the murders and culminating in a protracted sword fight.

The Net (1953)

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, November 16, 2019 22:03:54

Retitled Project M7 for US release, the movie stars James Donald (Quatermass And The Pit ) as Professor Heathley, who leads a project to develop an atomic supersonic jet. Heathley sees this as the next stage before space travel. Heathley intends to pilot the test flight himself, but the project Director (Maurice Denham) insists that the jet should fly under the ground control of Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). When the Director dies under suspicious circumstances, security chief Sam Seagram (Robert Beatty) must decide if it’s an accident or enemy action.

Noel Willman and James Donald in The Net

The Net features Noel Willman (Kiss of the Vampire) as the enigmatic Bord, who has his own reasons for wanting to see the M7 fly. Directed by Anthony Asquith, the movie is based on the best-selling novel by John Pudney, whose poem For Johnny had featured prominently in Asquith’s previous film The Way To The Stars. You can read a detailed review of The Net here.

The Films of Merton Park Studios

Uncategorised Posted on Wed, November 06, 2019 23:37:31

Lights, Camera, Merton! by Clive Whichelow is one of those books I wish had been around 30 years ago. Back in the 1980’s, when The Edgar Wallace Mysteries and Scotland Yard were repeated in earnest on ITV and Channel 4’s late night schedules, it gradually became clear that there was a production line at work. But while the names of Elstree and Shepperton and even Ealing Studios were still well-known, Merton Park was a mystery.

In those pre-internet days it was possible to piece together the continuity of production by paging through film catalogues in reference libraries and picking out non-series films like Timeslip (1955) and Ghost Ship (1952) but there was no single work of reference to put it all in context.

Thankfully, Lights, Camera , Merton! is now here to tell the story of that little-known studio. As Clive Whichelow says in his introduction, “One reason people have been disparaging about Merton’s output is that they simply do not know what was produced there.” The book’s 176 pages provide a comprehensive rundown of movies produced at the studios between 1934 and 1967. After 1967, movies were occasionally made alongside TV commercials into the mid 1970’s, but details are more sparse.

The book has very brief details about the origins and ownership of Merton Park. There is very little detail about the management of the studios and production background. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting information in the individual entries for each movie. The book is divided into separate chronological sections for Scotland Yard, the Edgar Wallace films, Scales of Justice , some early Children’s Film Foundation pictures, and general movies such as Little Red Monkey and Konga.

Lights, Camera, Merton! is available for £9.99 through the Renown Films website.

Blackmail: Vacant Possession (1966)

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, November 02, 2019 21:37:39

Talking Pictures TV recently broadcast Vacant Possession, an episode of the 1960’s Rediffusion series, Blackmail. Written by Leon Griffiths (creator of Minder) the episode appears to be a lone survivor from the decimated Rediffusion archive.

Brian Murphy, Richard Gale & Elizabeth Wallace

First shown on 12 December 1966, the episode deals with what the pre-publicity calls, ‘an up-to-the-minute social trend, converting a drab property into a fashionable one. The play is set in a London street, “coming up” in tone and standing. A modish young couple (he in advertising, she in fashion designing) played by Richard Gale and Elizabeth Wallace want to buy one of the decaying “period” houses for conversion. But there is a snag. A sitting tenant. In the best room of the otherwise empty house lives Mrs Pearce (Daphne Heard) old, difficult and disgustingly dirty. Her presence and her squalor lower the tone and the value.’

Elizabeth Wallace, who had played Alan Dobie’s long-suffering secretary in the last series of The Plane Makers* , would go on to play the White Witch in Rediffusion’s 1967 adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Here she seems to be gearing up for that role with her performance of a self-conscious liberal who boasts of letting her daughters play with “working-class children…until they go off to school.” Richard Gale, as her ineffectual husband, had co-starred the year before in Leon Griffith’s adaptation of John Brunner’s Some Lapse of Time for BBC2’s Out of the Unknown.

Barr (Frederick Peisley), the current owner of the house, is desperate to sell. He offers Mrs Pearce £500 (about £10,000 in today’s money) to move, but she refuses. Barr phones an unseen fixer who arranges for two local thugs, Vic (John J. Carney) and Lew (Geoffrey Hinsliff) to make life uncomfortable for the sitting tenant. But Mrs Pearce is tougher than they think.

Griffith’s script is sharply humorous and unsentimental. While Barr has clearly neglected his responsibilities as landlord, Daphne Heard as Mrs Pearce is hardly the ideal tenant. And while Gale and Wallace’s characters are exploitative, we also see how easily they are manipulated by Brian Murphy’s outwardly affable estate agent.

Geoffrey Hinsliff, as Lew, demonstrates the manic range he would later deliver in Brass and Don Brennan’s final unhinged exit from Coronation Street (1997). Both Lew and Vic are fore-runners of the semi-criminal chancers, Terry would often see off in Minder. But it is also easy to imagine Arthur Daley being their unseen employer. Griffith’s script dances between comedy and tragedy, showing the knife-edge balance between the two. The chemistry of people can produce different reactions – explosions or transformations – based on a change in circumstances.

Talking Pictures TV will screen the episode again at 6pm on Friday 22nd November.

*To do a full ‘DrWhofan’ on it, Brian Murphy appeared in the Plane Makers episode ‘Costigans Rocket’, Geoff Hinsliff appeared as Hammy, a factory hand in The Plane Makers episode ‘Don’t Stick your Head Out’, Frederick Peisley appeared as Richard Marsham in The Plane Makers episode ‘Bancroft’s Law’ , Leon Griffiths wrote ‘You Can’t Beat the System’ for the first series of The Plane Makers and Peter Moffatt directed 3 episodes of the final series of The Power Game

Dracula meets Blacula 1973

Uncategorised Posted on Thu, October 31, 2019 18:15:10

Warner Brothers UK’s recent decision to release The Satanic Rites of Dracula on BluRay means that I can finally spend Halloween recreating the first horror double-bill I ever saw at the cinema – 1973’s Blacula and Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Blacula has been available for some time on DVD, but due to some bizarre copyright problem Satanic Rites has been legally unobtainable for years. Although the last of the Hammer Dracula films has been screened at least once on British TV, its relative scarcity has probably fuelled its reputation as not very good.

I’m probably never going to be unbiased – as I said this was the first Dracula film I actually (illegally) saw at the cinema – an exciting enough event for me to photograph the posters as soon as they went up on Sunday morning (above)! However, I would rank Satanic Rites as probably the fourth best of the Hammer Dracula’s.

For a start, it brings together Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing for only the fourth time (out of nine movies). It also gives Christopher Lee more of an active part. A lot of people don’t like this film because it’s set in the 1970’s and has Dracula acting as a hybrid Ian Fleming/Dennis Wheatley villain. But that’s one of the things I like about this movie. Scriptwriter Don Houghton (who’d worked on the Jon Pertwee Dr Who TV series) firmly updated Bram Stoker’s concepts to the 1970’s. As John Sutherland pointed out, Dracula was written as a contemporary novel with all the latest gadgets of the time. Dracula had spent years researching contemporary London so that he could infiltrate society. Satanic Rites of Dracula shows Dracula subverting the highest ranks of 1970’s Britain.

Just as Stoker has Van Helsing lead a diverse crew of professionals (a doctor, a lawyer, a Texan) against Dracula, so Houghton has Van Helsing and his grand-daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) called in by Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) to help MI-5’s William Franklin tackle Dracula’s satanic cult. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is served by faithful “gypsies”, while in the movie Dracula is attended by “hippy bikers”. When Van Helsing finally penetrates Dracula’s lair, it is in a modern office block rather than a Transylvanian castle. But just as those castle’s always seem to be run by one lone servant, the office block seems to be controlled by a single security guard.

Even Dracula’s leadership of a Satanic Cult (however bogus) is faithful to Stoker, who explained that Dracula learned the secrets of the devil at “the Scholomance” a school of black arts where he first became a vampire.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula has some flaws, but works on its own terms. If there had to be a last Hammer Dracula, this was a good one to go out on.

Blacula complements the film well. Another take on a ‘modern-day Dracula’ but this time with added Blaxploitation. William Marshall dominates the movie as Mamuwalde, an African prince who lobbies Count Dracula (Charles Macauley – the Duke of Clarence in the Vincent Price Tower of London) to help abolish the slave trade. After an argument, Dracula vampirises Mamuwalde, dubbing him “Blacula” before imprisoning him in a coffin where he will thirst for blood with no release.

Ketty Lester and Elisha Cook Junior

Marshall is released in 1970’s America, and stalks the streets in search of his reincarnated wife (Vonetta McGee). The film is slightly undermined by its self-conscious “street-wise” humour but reflects its times. During one scene, Mamuwalde is run down by Yellow Cab driver Juanita Jones (Ketty Lester). The strident Lester berates Marshall soon realises that African princes don’t react well to criticism. Later on, morgue attendant Elisha Cook Jrsays that taxi driving is no job for a woman and asks pointedly “What was she looking for?” (his inference being that it’s a cover for prostitution). When Lester’s body is thawed out from the deep freeze, Cook very quickly discovers what she’s looking for.

Marshall plays Mamuwalde in the same style as Dracula in the Marvel Tomb of Dracula comics of the same period and is supported by a solid cast of TV actors. Despite the obvious low budget, Blacula builds to an exciting climax with the forces of law and order confronting just about every vampire that Marshall has created during his short reign. The final scenes even manage to generate some sympathy for Mamuwalde, despite his inevitable demise. While AIP’s Blacula is definitely the support to the Hammer Film, the two together still make a strong double-bill.

New Terrance Dicks Interview

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, October 15, 2019 23:50:11
Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Jon Pertwee

As a tribute to the late Terrance Dicks – writer, script editor and Target Books adaptor of Doctor Who – we present this previously unpublished interview from 1985

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