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The Dobermann Always Rings Twice

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

Talking Pictures TV at the Stockport Plaza

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, October 08, 2019 22:54:27
Downstairs in the stalls at the Stockport Plaza

Sunday 6th October 2019 saw the 6th Renown Pictures and Talking Pictures TV Festival of Film held at the Stockport Plaza. The Grade II* listed cinema, opened in 1932, was an appropriate venue for the Freeview TV Channel which preserves British film heritage.

Sarah Cronin-Stanley, Noel Cronin, Rita Tushingham & Robert Ross on stage

Talking Pictures TV was founded by Noel Cronin and his daughter Sarah Cronin-Stanley after Cronin met increasing resistance from the main TV channels selling the vintage films distributed by his company Renown Pictures. Interviewed onstage by hosts Robert Ross and Rita Tushingham, he recalled that one company told him no-one would watch black-and-white films after 5pm. Convinced there was an audience, he set up Talking Pictures TV to broadcast 24 hours a day, screening not just old movies, but also selected TV shows from the 1960’s and ’70’s.

Robert Ross recalled that in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Britain’s three TV channels screened a lot of old British movies, and that was how most of us came to know them. However, Talking Pictures TV has opened up a much wider range – not just ‘classic’ movies and the output of revered outfits like Ealing – but films you’ve never heard of, or films you never dreamed you’d see like Ivan Barnett’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1950) which for many years was just a half-remembered photo in Denis Gifford’s History of the Horror Movies.

Part of Talking Pictures TV’s appeal is the vast range of product you can dip into at any time of the day. Sunday’s event quickly sold out its 1000 seat limit, attracting just a fraction of the audience who regularly tune in.

I was intrigued to see how an event organised to promote a heritage TV station would differ from events run by fans of cult TV shows. It’s probably fair to say that the audience skewed older at this event – I’d guess there were more over-60’s and less under ’30s – not surprising that free issues of The Oldie were being given away here!

This event was also about the wide world of entertainment. So although we had on-stage interviews with Ray Brooks (Cathy Come Home), Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey), Stephanie Beacham (Tenko) and Jenny Hanley (Scars of Dracula) there were also two sessions on the glass-panelled Compton Organ by Paul Greenwood (rising out of the floor in true cinema style). There were also songs by Lola Lamour, who also interviewed Terry Dene – the ‘British Elvis’ – whose career was controversially cut short after being drafted into the Army. The Talking Pictures TV connection comes from his 1958 movie The Golden Disc directed by Don Sharp, which is available on DVD from Renown Pictures. Terry Dene performed his 1957 hit A White Sports Coat as well as some of his more recent compositions.

Jack MacGowran & Harry Locke in The Stable Door

A number of short films were screened during the day, including a loaded 1958 Pathe Newsreel campaigning against excise duty on cinema tickets. The event closed with The Stable Door (1966) a promotional short for the British insurance industry direct by Pat Jackson (What A Carve Up, The Prisoner). The film has been screened on Talking Pictures TV recently (and is also available on Renown’s new Crime Collection Volume 5 DVD) but it was good to see it play to a packed audience. Some of Derry Quinn’s lines, which seem wryly amusing in the privacy of your own home, suddenly generate big laughs in a proper cinema. In one of those odd coincidences, the young criminal is played by Frank Jarvis, who would go on to play Michael Caine’s sidekick in The Italian Job. Some of the briefing scenes, where Jarvis uses a slide-show to plan a burglary are very similar in tone to those in The Italian Job.

Ray Brooks (centre, yellow t-shirt) talks to fans in the merchandise room

If there was any drawback, it was probably that the event was too popular. The art deco cafeteria, where the merchandise and autograph stalls were based, was very busy at times – especially as it was the main route out of the upstairs auditorium. While there were refreshments on offer, there wasn’t really any room to eat and drink (although there were plenty of cafes five minutes walk away from the building). In addition, the very steep 1930’s layout of the cinema did seem constricting a times – although no more than the average London theatre. While I found myself wondering how the event might have played out somewhere like the Quad in Derby, the sheer size of the crowd attracted by the event would have challenged many of the modern film theatres (built to cater for today’s small audiences).

Sgt Bilko’s Emporium & Phil Silvers’ Archival Museum had a stall
From Sgt Bilko to Frank Marker

Everyone’s experience of a day like this is different – partly based on their expectations. On the whole, it seemed to go down pretty well with the audience.

Operation Capon: Richard Johnson and Murder She Wrote

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, October 05, 2019 18:40:02

As far as I know, Patrick Wymark never worked with Angela Lansbury. But, I thought it might be fun to take part in the Murder She Wrote Cookalong, organised by Silver Screen Suppers, and noticed that one of the recipes was associated with Richard Johnson.

Johnson had, of course played Andrew Aguecheek to Wymark’s Toby Belch at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and they’d also co-starred on TV (A Question About Hell 1964) and film (Operation Crossbow 1965). It also turned out that Johnson’s episode of Murder She Wrote It Runs in the Family – had co-starred John Standing from The Psychopath (1966). So it seemed all the stars were aligned – just maybe not in the right direction!

Richard Johnson as Duncan Sandys in Operation Crossbow

The recipe, Four Time Chicken , gets the most out of its ingredients – I believe Richard Johnson set up a hotel/restaurant at one time, so that might explain the utilitarianism. Having recently read Eggs or Anarchy , the biography of Lord Woolton – who ran the Ministry of Food during World War 2 – it certainly fits in with Johnson’s role as Duncan Sandys in Operation Crossbow . And Operation Capon has the appropriate Shakespearean ring – I can just imagine Richard Johnson doing a power stance in the kitchen – “A Capon – fetch me a fine Capon!”

The recipe is written in a leisurely style  (I believe by Albert Roux) and gets four meals out of one chicken. I tried to follow it over a weekend, adopting the laid-back style of the recipe but also adopting the inquiring scientific approach of Richard Johnson as Dr Markway in The Haunting. I had two aims: to get something edible out of it, and to see how achievable the recipe was.

Meal One: Chicken Casseroled with Sweetcorn and Peas: Although the recipe recommended a free range chicken, I started out with a Co-Op Medium Chicken at £4.50. I launched with what I thought was full Shakespearean gusto at 5pm on Saturday, and quickly realised that dissecting a raw chicken is more time consuming and bewildering than cutting apart a cooked chicken (serial killers take note!). I probably left more flesh on the carcass than the urbane recipe intended, and this affected the relative productivity of the following three recipes.

About an hour later (!) I was finally browning the chicken pieces in butter and olive oil. It all seemed to be going well as I got the chicken stock, onions and garlic brew together, and set the chicken simmering in a casserole. But then I had a crisis of confidence: thought I’d misread the recipe, when I hadn’t, threw in some ingredients at the wrong time and then concentrated on making the mashed potato rather than checking the pot.

If I’d lifted the lid, I’d have noticed that that the liquid was boiling dry and I’d have been able to put some water in. So for my first attempt – although the chicken was moist, there was no gravy left. If I had adopted the style of Dr Markway in ‘The Haunting’ this was the point where I let Julie Harris drive into the tree.

Whatever walks there…walks alone!”

The chicken was tasty enough – but not as expected. In the spirit of experimentation, I bought two free range, corn fed chicken breasts and four thighs from Tesco for £8.84 and tried again. This time I got the timings right and kept a careful eye on proceedings. This delivered – not just a tasty tea – but the prescribed encroachment of gravy.

These are the leftovers,….

And that’s important because the recipe says that on Sunday morning you should, “Look into the casserole. You will see that the chicken pieces you didn’t eat last night are embedded in a rich, jellified sauce. Resist eating the whole lot for breakfast!”

Meal 2: Chicken salad with sweet curried sauce. I was a bit dubious about this, as I can’t abide curry. However, I used Tesco Mild Curry Powder and followed the recipe to mix it into yoghurt etc. Together with the chopped up meat from last night’s casserole, it produced a salad that surprised me. “If you are like me you might want a long cool glass of bitter beer too,” the recipe said, so I had a bottle of Larkin’s Bitter from Bricknell’s Brewery (Larkin was, of course, a friend of Kingsley Amis, who wrote A Matter about Hell in which Wymark and Johnson played brothers – only connect).

Chicken Salad with sweet, curried sauce
Larkin’s Bitter….No he’s not, he’s just a very naughty boy!

To cut a long story short, I’d underproduced the casserole gravy on my first attempt, and probably left more on the carcass than I should. The recipe directed the meat should be cut from the leftovers, and the bones, skin and carcass be simmered in a pot with carrot, onion, celery and a stock cube. After I’d strained all this, I was left with much less broth than the “several pints” the recipe predicted, and much more meat! The recipe suggests you should use this meat and vegetable remains for pet food, but that didn’t happen here! This was really a Five Time Chicken!

Meal 3: Hearty Lentil Soup with Cheese Croutons.

I started this at 5.28PM, channelling Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than The Male. “OK, we went off-course earlier, and now we have less than a litre of  stock. So keep your head, top it up with water and then drop in the lentils”. Another surprise! The lentils became mushy sooner than scheduled! I checked the packet and it gave a shorter cooking time than in the recipe. But that was a good surprise! Not only was the soup ready early, there was enough left over for Monday lunch! Make that Six Time Chicken!

Meal 4: Chicken Soup with Baked Potatoes and Salad.

I launched this one at 5:30, Monday teatime. Due to the earlier mishaps, I had more meat and less stock than the recipe indicated, so had to top it up with a chicken cube. But, to be honest this was pretty straightforward and I spent longer waiting for the potatoes to bake. It was a pretty satisfying evening meal.

So, in the end Operation Capon was a success. It fulfilled the dramatic arc – exposition, secondary conflict, climax and resolution – and it got a hell of a use out of one chicken.

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